Prophet, physician, husband and father: A look at the life of President Nelson

When President Russell M. Nelson was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on April 7, 1984, he was at the height of his career as a world-renowned and award-winning heart surgeon. Without hesitation, Dr. Nelson accepted the call and became Elder Nelson, shifting the focus of his life from medicine to full-time Church service.

“I didn’t even ask President [Gordon B.] Hinckley, ‘Are you sure?’” President Nelson told the Church News. “My faith is just that profound and simple. When the Lord speaks through His prophet, my mind puts an exclamation point behind it, not a question mark.”

His service as an Apostle and as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spanned over more than 30 years before he became the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

President Russell M. Nelson holds a new baby in his family before the COVID-19 pandemic. In a social media post on Sept. 20, he wrote that he looks forward to the day when he can do this again.
President Russell M. Nelson holds a new baby in his family before the COVID-19 pandemic. In a social media post on Sept. 20, he wrote that he looks forward to the day when he can do this again. Credit: Russell M. Nelson facebook

In his first address as President of the Church on Jan. 16, 2018, President Nelson declared, “The Lord always has and always will instruct and inspire His prophets. The Lord is at the helm! We who have been ordained to bear witness of His holy name throughout the world will continue to seek to know His will and follow it.”

What does it take to become the sort of person with the faith to immediately follow the will of the Lord? A brief look at his life might give some answer to the question.

Russell Marion Nelson was born in Salt Lake City to Marion C. and Edna Anderson Nelson on Sept. 9, 1924. The second of four children, young Russell Nelson was raised in a loving, joyful home. In his younger years, his parents weren’t active in the Church, although they did send him to Sunday School and his mother taught him how to pray. 

With the ministering efforts of home teachers and Sunday School teachers, he was baptized along with his three siblings when he was 16 years old.

Young Russell was curious and always wanted to know how the world worked, said Sheri Dew, a former member of the Relief Society general presidency who authored the book “Insights From a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson.” She recounted that when he was a 9- or 10-year-old boy, he took a streetcar to downtown Salt Lake City and made his way to Deseret Book, where he asked an employee to recommend a book about the Church and “somehow left with one,” said Sister Dew.

Russell and his first wife, Dantzel Nelson, at the University of Utah in 1942.
Russell and his first wife, Dantzel Nelson, at the University of Utah in 1942.

That same desire to know what truth is also led him to sciences like math, chemistry and physics. “Nothing is as rewarding for me as tackling a problem and finding out what the truth is,”  he told the Church News soon after his call as an Apostle.

By age 15, after taking on several other smaller jobs since the age of 10, he decided that he would study medicine. This decision was forged by two realizations, he told the Church News. “One was that was where my talents lay. I had a great desire to do research, to go into the unknown.

“The other was that I liked people. I wanted to serve them. I reasoned that the finest career that would be available to a human being would be that of a mother. Inasmuch as that was out of the question for me, I reasoned that the second best occupation would be medicine. There I could help people every day and teach them.”

He attended the University of Utah, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1945. During his first year, he met Dantzel White while participating in a musical production the two of them were involved in. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple on Aug. 31, 1945, just a few months after President Nelson had graduated.

Because of World War II, he compressed four years of premedical study into three years. He entered the University of Utah’s college of medicine in 1944, graduating top of his class in 1947. He also served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1945 to 1947.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson explains a surgical procedure to a nurse.
Dr. Russell M. Nelson explains a surgical procedure to a nurse. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Over the next eight years, he continued his medical training, serving residencies in surgery at the University of Minnesota Hospitals in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, on the U.S. Army’s surgical staff at Walter Reed Hospital and earning a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota.

In medical school, President Nelson was taught that touching a beating heart would cause it to stop beating. “And then I read in the Doctrine and Covenants that ‘unto every kingdom is given a law, and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions’ (Doctrine & Covenants 88:38).

“That passage told me that the blessings of a heartbeat is predicated upon obedience to law. So I knew that there were laws pertaining to the beat of a heart. Therefore, if we understood those laws, we might be able to approach the heart with a little more precision.” 

By learning these laws well in the 29 years between completing his residency and his call as an Apostle, President Nelson was on the leading edge of heart research and surgery. 

In his professional career, President Nelson was part of a team that pioneered the development of the heart-lung machine, and he performed the first open-heart surgery in Utah in 1955. He’s received many awards for his achievements in medical science and has shared his knowledge with surgeons throughout the world, including India, South America, China and the Soviet Union.

Of his success, he said emphatically, “I could not have succeeded without Dantzel.”

Until he finished medical school, Sister Dantzel Nelson worked two jobs to support their growing family. “We had five children before I sent the first bill for professional services,” he said. “During all that time and during the years when I was at the hospital long hours, leaving her with the family responsibilities, she never murmured. I never heard her complain.”

The Nelsons would become the parents of 10 children — nine daughters and one son. 

Church President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy Nelson, pose for photographs with family members after a press conference at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Church President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy Nelson, pose for photographs with family members after a press conference at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Credit: Spenser Heaps

Family always came first to President Nelson, Sister Dantzel Nelson told the Church News in 1984. “Even though he was gone a great deal, the children always knew that he could be reached at any time if they needed him,” she said. “And if he ever sensed that one of the children needed a little one-on-one attention, he arranged to take her with him on a short business trip. Inevitably, she was like a different person when she came back, because she’d had a little time alone with Dad.”

“The highest titles I have are husband and father,” he said.

“When he’s at work, he’s 100% at work,” said Sylvia Webster, one of President Nelson’s nine daughters. “When he’s home, he’s 100% at home. When he’s doing his Church duty, he’s 100% Church duty. I think maybe that’s how he balances things.”

His son, Russell Nelson Jr., said no matter what title his father holds, President Nelson has “always been consistent. As a father he has always been loving and always tried to make time.”

Sister Dantzel Nelson died unexpectedly in February 2005. “I am grateful to God for the nearly 60 years Dantzel and I shared together, for a lifetime of love and joy and cherished memories,” President Nelson said in a video message “The Healing Power of Gratitude,” on Nov. 20, 2020. He has also tragically lost two daughters to cancer.

After Sister Dantzel Nelson’s passing, President Nelson met Wendy L. Watson. In a Church News video published June 3, 2019, Sister Wendy W. Nelson spoke of her decision to begin a relationship with the Apostle. At first, she was quite certain that it couldn’t be right that Elder Nelson wanted to get to know her.

She sought personal revelation on the matter in a mountain retreat to fast and pray, desperate to know the will of the Lord. After communing with both nature and the Lord, Sister Nelson said she found her answer.

“I knew in three different ways that the Lord’s will was for this potential relationship with Elder Russell M. Nelson,” she stated.

They were married in June 2006 and recently celebrated 14 years of marriage.

“Wendy now fills my life with joy,” he said in “The Healing Power of Gratitude.”

In an interview in 1974, President Nelson said that he and his spouse’s main goal in life is to strengthen their family. “Service in the Church, the community, continuing education, and our occupational endeavors all are undertaken to provide development for our family,” he said in a May 1974 BYU devotional. 

He sought to follow the directive in Matthew 6:33 — “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” — by first loving and honoring the family the Lord has given him.

With all the demands on his time due to his medical career and priority on family, President Nelson fulfilled whatever calling he was given without hesitation.

In December 1964, President Nelson was called to preside over the Salt Lake Bonneville Stake. He immediately accepted the call, despite some concerns from stake leaders that he wouldn’t have the time to do so. 

As a lieutenant, Russell M. Nelson, second from left, visited every mobile army surgical hospital in Korea.
As a lieutenant, Russell M. Nelson, second from left, visited every mobile army surgical hospital in Korea. Credit: Courtesy Elder Russell M. Nelson

President James E. Faust even remarked in President Nelson’s biography, “Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle,” that there was an assumption that doctors were too busy for Church callings. “Russell Nelson changed all of that in his service … ,” he said. “He has blessed the entire Church, and we now have many fine doctors serving in the kingdom. I give Russell M. Nelson the credit for changing the stereotype that doctors are too busy to serve in the Church.”

President Nelson told the Church News in 1986, “When President Kimball — then Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the [Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] — and Elder LeGrand Richards laid their hands upon my head and blessed me that I could do the work of a stake president and also have time for my medical work, they gave me power to do and to understand and to see what I hadn’t before. My capacity increased.”

One of his most serious concerns at the time of his calling as stake president was the 20% mortality rate of patients undergoing aortic valve replacement, which meant longer hours keeping watch over these patients. Over the course of his service, his surgical mortality rate fell to less than 5%.

President Nelson served as president of the Salt Lake Bonneville Stake from 1964 to 1971, as Sunday School general president from 1971to 1979, and as a regional representative from 1979 to 1984. 

He recognized that the demands of Church service were similar to the demands on a physician.

In a 1986 Church News article, then-Elder Nelson explained that the primary duty of a doctor is to teach. “A doctor is really functioning at his highest level when he is teaching his patient what is wrong, if anything is wrong, and what can be done about it. The doctor’s duty is to discern and to teach.”

Additionally, doctors serve patients, and not according to the doctor’s preference. “Medicine is a discipline that teaches you to serve selflessly and without regard to your own comfort, whether you’re tired, hungry or whatever. You have to subvert your own personal appetites.”

This is in line to what is taught in the Church, he explained, citing 2 Nephi 9:39: “… to be carnally-minded is death, and to be spiritually-minded is life eternal.”

President Russell M. Nelson, now a great-great grandfather, poses via technology for a five-generation photograph in December 2020. President Nelson, top left, is joined by his daughter, Marsha Nelson Workman; and her son, Nathan McKellar, bottom right; and his son and grandson, Jacob and Duncan McKellar, bottom left.
President Russell M. Nelson, now a great-great grandfather, poses via technology for a five-generation photograph in December 2020. President Nelson, top left, is joined by his daughter, Marsha Nelson Workman; and her son, Nathan McKellar, bottom right; and his son and grandson, Jacob and Duncan McKellar, bottom left. Credit: Photo courtesy Nelson family

“What that means is a constant battle of mind over body, to develop spiritual power and strength to fast 24 hours if you need to, to go without sleep, to travel on assignment, to sit up all night on an airplane and be ready to go in the morning.”

Over three decades later and at the age of 96, his responsibilities as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are no less demanding. 

But ever the physician, President Nelson is the one telling Church members looking to the future of the Church, “Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”

He has no plans of slowing down now.