In his first public address as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered almost five years ago, President Russell M. Nelson humbly directed attention away from himself to Jesus Christ and then characteristically looked forward.
“The Lord always has and always will instruct and inspire His prophets,” he declared. “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.”
Speaking in a live telecast from the annex of the Salt Lake Temple on Tuesday morning, Jan. 16, 2018, President Nelson spoke of beginning his tenure as President of the Church with “the end in mind.”
“The end for which each of us strives is to be endowed with a power in a house of the Lord, sealed as families — faithful to the covenants made in a temple that qualify us for the greatest gift of God, that of eternal life.”
As millions across the globe — both inside and outside of the Church — focused on President Nelson, he expressed gratitude for the Lord, for his Brethren and for the prayers of Latter-day Saints. He spoke with a humility that would in every way define his leadership.
Instead of sharing his impressive and broad resume, he invited Church members to think about “the majestic manner by which the Lord governs His Church.” Instead of quoting the educated or the famous, President Nelson quoted a 4-year-old boy who had prayed that he would “be brave and not scared.” And instead of directing the focus on Church members to a personal agenda or platform, he simply asked them to stay on or return to the covenant path.
“Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual privilege and blessing available to men, women and children everywhere.”
President Nelson, then 93, was set apart as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Jan. 14, 2018, after serving 34 years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He brought a lifetime of preparation to his new position. A world-renowned surgeon and man of perfect pitch who played the organ during quorum meetings, President Nelson had visited 133 countries — participating in the dedications of 31 of those countries and opening doors for the Church in Eastern Europe and China. At headquarters, he had served as the chairman of each of the Church’s three governing committees — the Missionary Executive Council, the Temple and Family History Executive Council and the Priesthood and Family Executive Council.
“I have seen the Lord magnify him and bless him and shape him for this hour,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a Church News interview. “He gave the Lord a wonderful package of raw material to work with, but I have seen the Lord bless him and mold him into becoming the Prophet of the Lord that we sustain him to be.”
President Nelson, the leader of almost 17 million Latter-day Saints worldwide, has traveled to 35 nations, changed Church organization, utilized technology, led the Church through a pandemic, issued historic invitations and built bridges of understanding.
Certainly his fast-paced ministry took at least some outside the Church by surprise. A Jan. 3, 2018, Wall Street Journal headline, announcing the death of President Thomas S. Monson, added, “Likely Successor Unlikely to Alter Church’s Course.”
The article could not have been more off the mark.
During his tenure as leader of the Church, President Nelson has addressed hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints — often in their own language — and called upon kings, presidents and prime ministers. He has comforted victims of crime and others who grieve, called children to him, led the Church through a global pandemic and linked arms with top leaders of the NAACP.
Through the Church’s council system and with the full support of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he has also enacted multiple policy changes within the Church.
Under his leadership, Latter-day Saint leaders replaced home and visiting teaching with ministering, adjusted the Sunday meetings schedule to accommodate home-centered, Church-supported gospel study and asked members to use the full and correct name of the Church. He changed a Church policy, allowing the children of parents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to be blessed as infants and baptized; discontinued a policy requiring couples who marry civilly to wait one year before being sealed in the temple; replaced “tithing settlement” with “tithing declaration”; and established a policy allowing women to serve as witnesses of temple sealings and women, youth and children to serve as witnesses for baptismal ordinances.
“One of the things the Spirit has repeatedly impressed upon my mind since my new calling as President of the Church is how willing the Lord is to reveal His mind and will,” said President Nelson during the Church’s April 2018 general conference.
First as pioneering heart surgeon and then as a worldwide religious leader, President Nelson has set his ministry as an example of understanding and following physical and spiritual laws. In 2020, President Nelson approached the COVID-19 pandemic as both a man of science and as a man of faith.
As the coronavirus spread across the globe, Church leaders — desiring to be responsible global citizens — immediately took action, canceling Church meetings, closing the Church’s 168 dedicated temples and returning missionaries to their home countries.
Still, under the unique and difficult circumstances, Church leaders carried on, said President M. Russell Ballard in a Church News interview. “The work continues,” said the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “The Lord has provided us with the technology for this time.”
Amid the pandemic, Church leaders looked forward with the faith that has defined President Nelson’s leadership.
Thousands of young Latter-day Saints accepted mission calls — all receiving missionary training from a home, virtual missionary training center, and many receiving temporary reassignments. The Church cautiously and carefully enacted a phased reopening of temples based on local circumstances and governmental restrictions; leaders also broke ground for 21 new temples in 2020.
Church leaders also celebrated the bicentennial of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, not with a grand celebration, but by inviting Latter-day Saints across the globe to learn to hear the voice of the Lord better and more often. And the response of Latter-day Saint Charities to the COVID-19 pandemic became the largest to-date in Church history, with aid being provided in more than 150 countries.
In a May 2020 interview with the Church News, President Nelson said, “Even through clouds of sorrow, there can be silver linings found.”
“The purpose of the Church is to bring the blessings of God to His children on both sides of the veil,” he said.
In August 2022, President Nelson traveled outside of Utah for the first time since the pandemic intensified in March 2020.
After rededicating the renovated Washington D.C. Temple, he sat down for an interview. It is wonderful to be with the people again, he said with great emphasis, “but I’ve really never left them.”
The silver lining of the pandemic, he said, was learning to engage with Latter-day Saints without getting on an airplane. In the months before the temple rededication, for example, President Nelson addressed, via technology, Latter-day Saints in Venezuela and Europe as well as California, Canada and Oklahoma. He also spoke to young adults worldwide.
‘All things are possible’
In a historic interview in Rome, Italy, in March 2019, President Nelson called the dedication of the Rome Italy Temple “a hinge point in the history of the Church.”
He added: “Things are going to move forward at an accelerated pace. The Church is going to have an unprecedented future, unparalleled. We’re just building up to what’s ahead now.”
Sister Wendy Nelson said in a press interview in Brasília, Brazil, on Aug. 30, 2019, that the older her husband gets, the more President Nelson is “enchanted with the future.” He has a continual urgency about everything he is doing, she added. “Yes, there is an urgency.”
President Nelson said in the interview that he doesn’t spend much time looking back. “There are exciting things ahead,” he explained. “This work is moving forward at an accelerated pace.”
And as the world was engulfed in the pandemic in November 2020, President Nelson offered a surprising remedy — one that “flies in the face of our natural intuitions” — for all that ails the world: gratitude.
“Over my nine and a half decades of life, I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems. No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.”
Temple blessings for the Lord’s children
In October 2021 general conference, President Nelson shared a video taped in front of the foundation of the historic Salt Lake Temple, currently being renovated.
“It is now time that we each implement extraordinary measures — perhaps measures we have never taken before — to strengthen our personal spiritual foundations,” he said. “Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.”
When an individual’s spiritual foundation is built solidly upon Jesus Christ, he or she will have no need to fear. “As you are true to your covenants made in the temple, you will be strengthened by His power.”
As leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Nelson has announced 118 new temples — bringing the total number of announced, dedicated or under-construction temples to 300.
In October 2022 general conference, he also announced plans to build “multiple temples in selected large metropolitan areas where travel time to an existing temple is a major challenge,” including four new temples in the Mexico City, Mexico, area.
“Let us never lose sight of what the Lord is doing for us now,” said President Nelson. “He is making His temples more accessible. He is accelerating the pace at which we are building temples. He is increasing our ability to help gather Israel. He is also making it easier for each of us to become spiritually refined.”
He added, “I promise that increased time in the temple will bless your life in ways nothing else can.”
It has been the message since the earliest days of his five-year historic presidency.
“Our message to the world is simple and sincere: We invite all of God’s children on both sides of the veil to come unto their Savior, receive the blessings of the holy temple, have enduring joy and qualify for eternal life,” he said.