Sarah Jane Weaver: What I think President Nelson meant from his invitation during general conference

I have a favorite photograph of President Russell M. Nelson.

It was taken four decades ago on a street corner in downtown Salt Lake City during the time I was just a child. President Nelson is looking into the eyes of President Spencer W. Kimball; the men’s hands are clasping the others’ arms. When I look at the picture, I usually imagine that President Kimball invited President Nelson to walk with him.

After all, it wouldn’t have been unprecedented. Their journey together was long.

In April 1972, then-Dr. Nelson performed lifesaving open heart surgery on President Kimball. Some 20 months later, upon hearing the news of the death of President Harold B. Lee, President Nelson went to the side of his friend and mentor. In 1984, President Kimball called President Nelson to the apostleship.

During President Kimball’s tenure as prophet, the Church announced plans for 31 temples and President Kimball issued a clarion call to Latter-day Saints worldwide to  “lengthen your stride” and “quicken your pace.”

President Nelson, already a busy surgeon and Sunday School general president, answered President Kimball’s call to give an extra inch or two to every step; responding to one invitation from President Kimball he even studied Mandarin Chinese.

In 1976, President Nelson and his wife, Sister Dantzel Nelson, accompanied President Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, to the Pacific. Last May as President Nelson embarked on his own ministry to the Pacific — accompanied by Elder Gerrit W. Gong and his wife, Sister Susan Gong — President Nelson spoke of his first visit to the area and of President Kimball.

Then on a rainy night in Tonga, President Nelson clasped the arms of a grieving young father who had just lost his wife and looked into his eyes. It was something I have seen President Nelson do before and since. Another photograph captured a year ago during general conference pictures President Nelson greeting Elder Gong by clasping his hands and looking directly into his eyes.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comforts Mateo Lauta and his daughter Sipinga in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, on May 23, 2019 after his wife passed away.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comforts Mateo Lauta and his daughter Sipinga in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, on May 23, 2019 after his wife passed away. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Watching these scenes always reminds me of the photograph of President Nelson and President Kimball. This season in Church history is in so many ways like the season in Church history led by President Kimball. Like President Kimball, President Nelson has — during his time as Church president — announced plans for 35 temples and has issued a clarion call to Latter-day Saints worldwide to  “eat your vitamin pills” and “get your rest.”

I thought of the photograph again a few weeks ago during the final moments of October general conference.

President Nelson spoke of next spring when the Church will commemorate 200 years since Joseph Smith experienced the First Vision.

In celebration of that sacred event, President Nelson said the year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year and that general conference next April will be different from any previous conference.

Read more: 2020 a ‘bicentennial year,’ with April conference ‘different from any previous conference’

He asked us to read Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision and to ponder life without the Book of Mormon or the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

His invitation was personal. It was prophetic. It came with a promise.

“Immerse yourself in the glorious light of the Restoration,” he said. “As you do, general conference next April will be not only memorable; it will be unforgettable.”

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson leave the Sunday afternoon session of the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Following President Nelson and his wife is President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, left, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency.
President Russell M. Nelson and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson leave the Sunday afternoon session of the 189th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Following President Nelson and his wife is President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, left, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Even though the Church, under the leadership of President Kimball, held the April 1980 general conference sesquicentennial broadcast from the Peter Whitmer farm in Fayette, N.Y., where the Church was founded in 1830, I don’t think President Nelson was forecasting announcements or predicting a change of venue for the next worldwide conference. His invitation felt spiritual.

Reminiscent of the invitations he so willingly answered from President Kimball, he was asking us to “lengthen our stride” and “quicken our pace.” 

From the Conference Center pulpit, President Nelson was clasping the arms of each member of the Church, looking us in the eyes and inviting us to walk with him.

“Be assured,” he said, “that revelation continues in the Church and will continue under the Lord’s direction until the purposes of God shall be accomplished and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”