President Oaks’ First Presidency ministry defined by commitment and compassion

In his first public statement as a newly called member of the First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks left no doubt that he enthusiastically sustained the Church’s 17th president — his friend and fellow apostle, President Russell M. Nelson.

“With all my heart, I pledge my loyalty and support for President Nelson’s loving and inspired leadership. … I feel privileged to be called as a counselor to President Nelson in the First Presidency,” said President Oaks during a live telecast on Jan. 16, 2018.

President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, left to right, leave the rostrum at the end of the Saturday afternoon session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.
President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, left to right, leave the rostrum at the end of the Saturday afternoon session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018. Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For Latter-day Saints across the globe, seeing President Oaks sitting at the shoulder of  President Nelson on that wintry morning almost three years ago was, at once, familiar and reassuring. The two men’s ecclesiastical association stretched back several decades when they were both called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1984. 

It’s difficult to visualize one sitting in his customary seat at the Conference Center without picturing the other at his side.

And while the past three years of President Oaks’ and President Nelson’s shared tenure in the First Presidency have witnessed historic moments of change, one thing has proved immovable: their unified voice in the advancing of the Lord’s restored Church. 

A devoted, well-trained gospel servant

President Oaks was 85 years old when he began serving in the First Presidency. He was well-prepared for that weighty call.

A distinguished professional career as a practicing attorney, educator and jurist equipped him with a broad understanding of the art and science of leadership and public administration.

Meanwhile, his apostolic ministry only deepened his commitment to following the Savior’s example to lift and love individuals.

President Dallin H. Oaks shares a laugh with President Henry B. Eyring on March 13, 2020, at the Brigham Young University Church History Symposium in the Church Office Building Auditorium in Salt Lake City.
President Dallin H. Oaks shares a laugh with President Henry B. Eyring on March 13, 2020, at the Brigham Young University Church History Symposium in the Church Office Building Auditorium in Salt Lake City. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

President Oaks’ messages over the past three years often examined many of the defining topics of the day — including racism, LGBTQ issues, mental illness and the “challenges of mortality.”  

And regardless of his audience or topic, he has challenged all who listen to follow the counsel of President Nelson and increase their faith and trust in the Savior.

Just months after the formation of the current First Presidency, President Oaks — along with President Nelson and fellow counselor President Henry B. Eyringjoined leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in pledging to explore ways to serve together to lift those in need.

Days later, President Oaks delivered an unforgettable address at the Church’s “Be One” event celebrating the 40th anniversry of the priesthood revelation.

He spoke of weeping for joy when he learned – on June 8, 1978 — that all of God’s children would be able to enjoy the blessings of the priesthood and the temple. He also defined racism as a sin that demands repentance.

“As servants of God who have the knowledge and responsibilities of His great plan of salvation, we should hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions — institutionally and personally — to abandon all personal prejudices,” he said. “As President Russell M. Nelson said following our recent meeting with the national officers of the NAACP: ‘Together we invite all people, organizations, and government[s] to work with greater civility, eliminating prejudice of all kinds’.”

President Oaks’ would again echo President Nelson’s call to “root out racism” during a widely covered Oct. 27, 2020, devotional at Brigham Young University.

“Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can unite and bring peace to people of all races and nationalities,” he said at the conclusion of the devotional. “We who believe in that gospel — whatever our origins — must unite in love of each other and of our Savior Jesus Christ.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Sister Kristen Oaks pause for a photo outside the Barranquilla Colombia Temple.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and Sister Kristen Oaks pause for a photo outside the Barranquilla Colombia Temple. Credit: Jason Swensen

President Nelson often challenges Latter-day Saints to “keep on the covenant path.” The Church president’s first counselor has often repeated that prophetic charge.

Everyone must choose “between Jesus’ way and the world’s way,”, taught President Oaks at an Aug. 24, 2018, devotional for young married couples in Los Angeles, California.

“Of course we know that we must meet the requirements of the world in many ways, including the need to earn our daily bread and pursue the education and other activities that will allow us to do so,” he said. “But we should never lose our priority on the things of eternity — the bread of life — that the Savior and His Church will provide us.”

The theology of the Lord’s Church, he added, centers on the family.

“Our relationship to God and the purpose of earth life are explained in terms of the family. We are the spirit children of Heavenly Parents. The gospel plan is implemented through earthly families, and our highest aspiration is to perpetuate those family relationships throughout eternity. The ultimate mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to help us achieve exaltation in the celestial kingdom, and that can only be achieved in a family relationship.”

A well-traveled servant

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every traditional aspect of the Church — including the frequent, worldwide travels of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.

But prior to the arrival of the coronavirus, President Oaks maintained a travel schedule harmonious with the Savior’s ancient direction to His disciples to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15).

When President Oaks presided at the Dec. 8, 2018, youth devotional in Barranquilla, Colombia, a Church News reporter covering the event marveled at the octogenarian’s youthful energy. President Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, arrived early to shake hands or offer a wave to every young person in attendance.

The Oaks’ natural rapport with Latter-day Saint youth was again evident during a Feb. 23, 2020, worldwide Face to Face event focusing on the implementation of the new Children and Youth Program.

President Oaks taught his young audience essential lessons in personal accountability.

“God will help you,” he said. “He wants you to succeed. Your leaders, your parents want you to succeed. But there’s some things that you just have to do on your own. And setting goals and accumulating the desire to do what the Lord wants you to do is something that only you can do.”

President Oaks also presided over the June 16, 2019, rededication of the Oakland California Temple. On the eve of that momentous event, he addressed thousands of Bay Area youth, reminding them of the perspectives, purposes and promises provided by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“In these days — as in many stressful times of the past — young people should go forward with optimism and prepare for a long and productive life,” he said. “Keep the commandments. Serve missions. Get an education. Have children. Have faith.”

During his ministry in the First Presidency, President Oaks has occasionally traveled with President Nelson, reinforcing the Church’s president’s call to Latter-day Saints to become full-fledged participants in the gathering of Israel.

When President Oak’s joined President Nelson at a Feb. 10, 2019, devotional for tens of thousands of Arizona Latter-day Saints gathered in State Farm Stadium in Phoenix, he urged young people to avoid defining themselves by temporary qualities.

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, smile as they talk about the beauty of the Oakland California Temple following a walk-through on Saturday, June 15, 2019.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, smile as they talk about the beauty of the Oakland California Temple following a walk-through on Saturday, June 15, 2019. Credit: Steve Griffin, Deseret News, Deseret News

“Our single best quality to characterize ourselves is that we are a son or daughter of God,” he said. “That fact overrides all other labels, including race, occupation, physical characteristics, honors or even religious affiliation.”

Perhaps President Oak’s most historic travel assignment as a member of the First Presidency occurred while joining President Nelson, President Eyring and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in March of 2019 for the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple.

“It means so much for the restored Church and its members to have a temple in Rome, which is the capital of all Christianity and a place where our predecessors as Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ gave their lives. It is a blessing of the Lord to be here and to have our spirits lifted and to receive the inspiration of the Lord to perform the tasks assigned to us as part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Pandemic-era ministering

While the ongoing pandemic has prevented President Oaks from a few traditional First Presidency duties, his service to Latter-day Saints worldwide continued uninterrupted in 2020.

He and his fellow Church leaders may not have delivered their April and October general conference messages in front of a vast live audience at the Conference Center, but their timely words still resonated during an essential moment in Church history.

President Oaks utilized general conference to teach, among other lessons, the importance of the blessings of the priesthood, following God’s command to “love thy neighbor” and finding joy amid difficult circumstances.

President Dallin H. Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, enter the Marriott Center on BYU campus prior to President Oaks offering the campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.
President Dallin H. Oaks and his wife, Sister Kristen Oaks, enter the Marriott Center on BYU campus prior to President Oaks offering the campus devotional on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Credit: BYU photo

Meanwhile, he has added his name to key First Presidency statements on home-centered, Church-supported gospel learning, pandemic-driven temple closures and subsequent reopenings and key elements of Church governance found in the General Handbook.

Now, as President Dallin H. Oaks prepares for his fourth year of First Presidency service, millions of Latter-day Saints can find continued reassurance in words he offered at the beginning of his calling:

“I rejoice in the opportunity to give my full efforts to bear witness of Jesus Christ and proclaim the truth of His restored gospel.”