In the premiere episode of the Church News podcast, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver sits down with President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, to discuss his 35 years serving in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and how his testimony has grown.
Earlier this month, President Ballard, the longest serving General Authority in the Church, having served 45 years in total, celebrated his 92nd birthday.
During the interview, President Ballard said he is a great advocate of keeping it simple. “Simplicity is powerful,” he said. “Complexity is dangerous. I think Lucifer is the master of complexity and the Lord is the master of simplicity. The gospel is simple and it is simply beautiful.”
He also spoke about his mission in England seven decades ago, calling it the greatest time of growth in his life. “I still see some of those experiences in my mind’s eye when I am teaching missionaries. … They stay awake, they don’t go to sleep when I am telling them, so they must be interested.”
Transcript of the podcast
Sarah Jane Weaver: October is an important month for President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This month, he celebrates his 92nd birthday, and it also marks 35 years in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. President Ballard is the longest serving General Authority in the Church, having served in that capacity now for 45 years. We had the chance to sit down with President Ballard and talk about his birthday, his service, and his testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He reflected back on the things that had happened in his life, and what brought him to where he is today at age 92.
President M. Russell Ballard: Miracles. (laughs) I was born of goodly parents. My parents early on in my life were not necessarily active in the Church, that is, church-going. But they were believers, and they were good parents. They taught me correct principles, and for that, I’m eternally grateful, and grateful that over time, they became very engaged and very active in the Church. That was wonderful. In fact, my father spent the last 15 years of his life as a sealer in the Salt Lake Temple. I watched that transformation from less-active to when he chose to just let the Lord guide him. It was just wonderful to see that. My mother was very shy, but she was always willing to work in the Primary and do the things that she felt comfortable doing.
In all these years, I would have to attribute, when I was young, that the best, greatest blessing I had was good friends. I think that perhaps the most important thing that young people should seek for and find are good friends because good friends helped me to go to church. Good friends saw that I was active in the seminary program at East High School. I’m not sure I would have gone to seminary because that wasn’t the kind of thing we were talking about in our home. But good friends said, “Well, you’ve got to come.” So I went, and in my senior year, I was president of the seminary. That was a good learning experience. I’ve been blessed with, I think, good friends all my life. I was with a group in high school and the University of Utah — our first year at the University of Utah — where the young men, part of our program was you went on a mission. It wasn’t one of these things that you thought you might do or you pondered about. You just went. I mean, that was just part of life back then.
Many of my dearest friends, those that I knew in high school and many of them — I was a Sigma Chi at the University of Utah. I think probably 80% of that group of Sigma Chis — went on missions all over the world. We decided we were going to write a letter, a chain letter, and it’s going to go around the world. I got it twice in two and a half years because we had so many scattered all over the world that were that group that decided to go on missions.
I think associations, particularly when you’re young, I would encourage, and do encourage my grandchildren, and say if you want to stay anchored in the Church, then have good friends that are also going to seminary and who go to Church and who are doing their duty. If you do that, you’re going to find your way safely into marriage and then the temple ordinances, whether you’re married or you’re not married. You have all the blessings of heaven that Heavenly Father has in store if you stay on the covenant path. All of those things are, when I look back, things that had a big impact in my life.
Sarah Jane Weaver: President Ballard called the opportunity to serve as a missionary in the British Isles a seminal part of his life. It shaped his leadership, and much of the Church service that would follow.
President M. Russell Ballard: I was blessed as a missionary in England. President (Selvoy J.) Boyer apparently thought I could lead a little bit. I introduced the Anderson Plan as a district president of the Nottingham District. I heard about it, got a copy of it from the Northwestern States Mission and put it in effect in the Nottingham District that I was presiding over. All of a sudden, we started to baptize more. President Boyer thought that was pretty good, so he called me to be his counselor and sent me all over the British Isles, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to teach the missionaries how to use the Anderson Plan. I would say that’s now Preach My Gospel kind of planning. Those were great days. I have on my wall a picture of my two mission presidents, Selvoy J. Boyer, and President Stayner Richards, two men that made an impact in my life, like unto my own father.
When I got there, it was pretty iffy. It wasn’t organized, it wasn’t structured. We were going out handing out pamphlets, and I think to myself now, we knock on a door and talk to a lady and give her a pamphlet on the Apostasy. I can’t imagine what she thought she had. That’s what we were doing. But the Anderson Plan, he figured out a better way for door approaches and brought it down to 12 lessons. Then when Franklin D. Richards became president of the Northwestern States Mission, he reduced it to six lessons.
We were using Brother (Legrand) Richard’s Marvelous Work and a Wonder. We were thinking we had to teach everything in Marvelous Work and a Wonder — which is a marvelous work and a wonder — but by the time we get through that, everybody is asleep. It was too much. So brought it down to six lessons. I got that and copies of it and taught my missionaries as the district president how to do that. And all of a sudden, in the Nottingham district, we were baptizing. President Boyer wanted to know what we’re doing, and I showed him, and that’s when he called me to be counselor and sent me around England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales to teach them how to use the Anderson Plan.
The simplicity, the clarity of this glorious message, works every time. They’ve already put on the headstone — my kids did, where Barbara’s buried — on the back of the headstone they’ve put, “Keep it simple.” Can you imagine that? Me lying there saying “Keep it simple.” I’m a great advocate of keeping it simple, because simplicity is powerful. Complexity is dangerous. I think Lucifer is the master of complexity and the Lord is the master of simplicity. The gospel is simple, and it’s simply beautiful.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Another important time for President Ballard and his family was when he was called to preside over the Canada Toronto Mission. He served there from 1974 to 1977. It was during that service that he was sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy on April 3, 1976. And he continued his duties as both a General Authority and a mission president through much of 1976.
President M. Russell Ballard: We did pretty good. When we got there, they were baptizing about 18 to 20 people a month, and we soon had it up where we were baptizing about 90, 100 a month. But the way we did it, we took the same basic fundamental principles I’d learned in England, and brought it down into our own appropriate language for the people of Ontario, Canada, and put it into effect. The missionaries related to it because it was simple and it was doable, and simple words and simple, true doctrinal principles that people resonated to when they visited. We didn’t have anything that was complex. It was, be nice and smile and love people and tell them who you are and lay out the gospel in simple terms. That works with about anyone in my experience. If I have done anything that might have made a difference, it might be helping missionaries to keep it simple enough that people can understand, and start at their level, not at the missionary level. That’s hard sometimes for missionaries that are 18 and 19.
It used to be they memorized everything. President (Gordon B.) Hinckley didn’t like that. President Hinckley didn’t like what he called “wooden discussions.” We’ve changed that now. We asked the missionaries to understand it and to teach it by the Spirit in their own words. Those that learn how to do it and do it that way from what they have internalized and what they personally believe, and teach it with conviction, will find people that resonate with their message. Conversion always starts by what people feel in the beginning, not what they know.
My problem is that — the Twelve, I think, are tired of hearing it, but they’ll hear it until I die because I believe it so deeply. That is, why are we doing this? What is the result? How do we know we’ve been successful? Well, in missionary work, success ultimately becomes we’re finding more people, we’re teaching more people, we’re baptizing more people. It can’t be anything short of that. You have to keep missionaries focused on that because Lucifer doesn’t want us to figure that one out. He wants us to keep it complex.
In all the research we’ve ever done, the most powerful tool in missionary work is the missionary. If the missionaries themselves have internalized the gospel and know it and love it and teach it by the power of the Spirit, they find more and they teach more and they baptize more. I had missionaries that learned that. I could put them anywhere in Ontario where we hadn’t baptized anybody for many years, and they would not be there long before they would call and say, “President, we have a family. We’re going to baptize this Saturday.” It’s the connection. How do people connect?
There’s two powers going here. The Lord has His missionaries, but the devil doesn’t like them. That battle has been ongoing since the beginning of time.
I think the greatest growth time in my life was as a missionary in England, about 75 years ago. I still see some of those experiences in my mind’s eye when I’m teaching missionaries. I go back 70-some-odd years and they stay awake. They don’t go to sleep while I’m telling them, so they must be interested.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I love how for President Ballard, the gospel of Jesus Christ is simple and beautiful. Practicality, he taught all of us, is the sign of a good leader.
President M. Russell Ballard: When I started, it was a very important learning experience for me, because I had run my own businesses. Actually, when I left the University of Utah, I started my own business. When you run your own business and never really have worked for anyone, you think differently. You think about results. I probably have done fairly well in being able to see the simplicity of something and being able to get it in terms that a lot of it’s been improved.
Preach My Gospel — that’s not mine. I’m not the author of that. I think I would be given the credit of being one that perceived and conceived. We had to do it better than what we were doing before. But there were a lot of very bright people that helped write those lessons. Elder Cook and others who were Seventies at that time were engaged. We have tremendous resources, and we just need to pull them together. But keeping the bottom line, why are we doing it, in front of us all the time is, sometimes, it’s work because people can have great ideas. We’ve got a lot of people here that have great ideas, but not all great ideas are going to give great results.
I would have to say most people are weary, probably, of my saying, “Keep it simple,” so that the people understand it, so it’ll work. Don’t put a lot of bells and whistles around something that doesn’t need bells and whistles. Let’s keep it as direct and as clear as we possibly can, and you’ll always end up with a better result. That’s true whether you’re a stake president, whether you’re a bishop, whether you’re a Relief Society president, Young Women’s president, doesn’t matter. The simpler it is, the clearer it is, the easier it is, the better chance you’re going to have great success.
Sarah Jane Weaver: In 1984, severe drought plagued Africa, and the Church held a fast to raise money for Ethiopia. President Ballard, who was then in the Presidency of the Seventy, joined Elder Glenn L. Pace, who was managing director of the Church’s Welfare Department, to go to Ethiopia and determine how best to use $6 million raised by Latter-day Saints in a special fast.
President M. Russell Ballard: The first memory is, I got called into President Hinckley’s office, and he said, “Russ, I’m sending you and Glenn Pace to go to Ethiopia to decide how to use this money.”
I said, “When do you want me to go?”
He said, “Tomorrow.”
So I said, “Well, OK.”
Then we had to get shots, we got shots for everything, and off we went.
I’d have to say that that was one of the molding experiences in my ministry. I learned, I think, about compassion, love and gentleness, and appreciating anguish, anxiety and suffering on that experience, which I believe has blessed me the rest of the time that I’ve tried to serve the Lord as a General Authority. We saw situations there that were just heartbreaking. Fighting away the tears to see little kids that are holding a cup to get a little meal that they pour out of a big barrel into there. It’s kind of like a Cream of Wheat sort of thing. Those little kids just gathered around us and held our hands. We saw, we just saw things that changed me.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I asked President Ballard what it was like to return home, where we have so much, after leaving Ethiopia, where they had so little.
President M. Russell Ballard: In one way, it was great to be able to come home to a Church that has a welfare program, that has a fast offering program, that is constantly concerned, one way or another, about the poor and the needy around the world. I sit on the Budget and Appropriations Committee, and have done for many years, and every meeting we’re allocating resources to parts of the world where there’s a drought, or where people are starving, and we’re trying to do our part in doing what the Lord would want us to do in helping the suffering, the poor, the sick, the afflicted.
This Church — I don’t think most of the members have any idea how far our outreach is in doing what Jesus has commanded us to do — to take care of the sick and the afflicted, the poor, the hungry. We do that. We do it in a very big way. But we don’t usually talk an awful lot about it. But when you see what I have seen, and be where I’ve been, from the early days of Haiti, to the days in Ethiopia and other places, you realize how blessed we are, and why we should be so anxious to do what we can do to reach out and help others of our Father’s children that are suffering. That’s why fast offerings and the welfare donations are such an important thing, because those resources are used to get out there where the needs are.
Sarah Jane Weaver: This October was not only an opportunity for President Ballard to reflect on his own life and ministry, but on the influence thousands and thousands of Latter-day Saints worldwide have had on him.
President M. Russell Ballard: They bless your life everywhere you go. To be candid, they’re too nice to us. (laughs) I tell every General Authority when they are set apart, I try to get to them one way or another, either collectively or individually, and remind them that adulation is a very dangerous thing. You must not let people, or you must not think that you, because you are a General Authority, that you are above them. Keep yourself humble, and keep yourself teachable and reachable. That’s what Jesus would do, and that’s what we have to strive to try to do. And I think, to be honest with you, the General Authorities of the Church do a very good job of it. They understand that principle, I believe.
Sarah Jane Weaver: We asked President Ballard to reflect on an event that happened early in his time as a General Authority. In 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball received a historic revelation, granting all worthy men the priesthood and the opportunity for all worthy women to attend the temple. President Ballard reflected on what it was like.
President M. Russell Ballard: We were in the temple, on the fourth floor in our monthly temple meeting. That’s when the Seventy would be with the Twelve. The Twelve met every week, but all the General Authorities once a month. President Kimball — I can still see him and still hear his voice — saying we have contemplated and prayed. He said, “I’ve spent many hours here in the temple. And we feel to recommend that the priesthood should be available to all worthy men. And how do you feel about that, brethren?” Every hand flew up. He didn’t call for a vote. But all hands went up.
President Kimball, and the prophets since him, molded my ministry significantly. He was my president when I was mission president. He was President of the Church then. I have a deep affection, and I think I learned an awful lot from him. I use his 1974 talk to the regional representatives over and over again. Pure revelation poured from that mighty Prophet, explaining our day. You go read it. He was saying what our circumstances were and what they would become. He’s a mighty prophet. I’ve had the privilege of being very close to all the (Church) presidents since then.
Sarah Jane Weaver: In President Ballard’s lifetime, he’s seen a lot of change — both in the way we travel, and in the way we communicate and in the way we stay connected. During this time of pandemic, he reflected back on all that the Lord has brought forth to help the Church move forward just at the time it was needed.
President M. Russell Ballard: I think all of us have learned that the Lord was kind in giving us some technology. This technology came just at the right time. When you think about what we can do with the capacity to hold meetings by the Zoom system where we can see each other, we can communicate with each other, and it doesn’t matter where we are.
For example, I think it was two weeks ago, Elder (Patrick) Kearon and I had the responsibility of holding a priesthood leadership training meeting in Cusco, Peru. So we are sitting in Salt Lake City and we are teaching the stake presidencies and the priesthood leaders and the dear sisters in Cusco. That’s way up in the mountains, in the Andes. We are able to learn, they are able to ask us questions, and we’re able to answer those questions. We had Brother (Jorge T.) Becerra with us also on that meeting. I think technology, and the capacity, particularly the (video conferencing) capacity, where you can be 10,000 miles apart but yet in the same room, it’s remarkable.
People ask me, “Is it the same?” And I say, “Well, there is something missing.” What I miss is being able to shake hands and embrace and bless the members of the Church face to face. That is a great void for me. But the fact that I can’t do that, but now can still visit with them and teach them is a miracle.
Sarah Jane Weaver: President Ballard was quick to say the greatest blessing of his life was his family, and especially Sister Barbara Bowen Ballard, his wife. She passed away two years ago this month. During our interview, we asked President Ballard to reflect on her life and influence.
President M. Russell Ballard: I’ll try. This is a fun story. When I was in England, I was a counselor to the mission president and I was in Scotland. I was walking down the main street across from the castle where all the sweater shops were. There was this pink sweater set, a woman’s pink sweater set with a top part and then one that you’d wear over on your arms and so forth. I went out and bought it and I brought it home.
My mother said, “What in the world is this?”
I said, “I’m going to find a girl that will be just right for this sweater, and I’m going to marry her.”
So I go to the University of Utah Hello Day Dance three days after I’m home from England, and Richard Harris — he and I went through high school together. He said, “I met somebody you need to meet.” He’d been home from his mission a little longer than I was because I stayed an extra six months. He dances Barbara Bowen over and introduces me, and I danced with Barbara, maybe 30 feet, and somebody tagged me out. But I was smitten with her countenance and her smile. So I called her up and wanted to take her out on a date. I had to wait, I think, a couple of weeks, two or three weeks to get onto the schedule. She had a lot of boyfriends.
But the greatest thing probably that ever happened was finding her and marrying her. She’s been gone for two years on the first of October. People ask me how it is, and I say it’s terribly lonesome at night. I have a beautiful picture, a painting of her that an artist did for me that was taken from a picture that was taken when we were in Germany on one occasion. So I see her every morning. I can’t get in and out of my house without passing her.
I’d have to say that she is everything, really. We have seven beautiful children. We have 43 grandchildren, and now 96 or 97 great-grandchildren. When I talk about October 1st, when she passed away, that was a half of me, in a lot of ways, went with her, I think. It’s been a long two years.
But I know where she is. I hope she’s waiting for me. And she smiles upon our children. My children tell me all the time they feel her presence. The gospel takes you through these things. If you didn’t have the gospel, I don’t know how people that don’t have the gospel in their lives lose someone as cherished and as dear as Barbara is to me. We were married 67 years. That’s a long time.
I dragged that sweet little lady to every corner of the earth. I don’t think she’d ever been outside of Utah. If she had, she maybe went to California, but that’s the extent of her experience out of Utah until she married me. And then I dragged her all over the world. Very few places that she hasn’t been with me. So you can imagine when she’s not there, not with you, especially at night. But she’s waiting for me.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Even as the Church’s longest serving General Authority, President Ballard says it’s hard to have too many bragging rights at Church Headquarters. That’s probably because of President Russell M. Nelson’s fast paced ministry.
President M. Russell Ballard: Come around and we’ll talk when I’m 93, if I’m still here. People say, “Well, how are you doing?”
I say, “Well, the alarm goes off in the morning, and I reach over and say, ‘Hmm, I’m still here. I guess I better get up.’” That’s what you do when you hit 92. Except you’ve got a president that’s 96, so I can’t complain.
Sarah Jane Weaver: So as we conclude this podcast today, we’re going to let President Ballard have the final word. We asked the most important question: as a 92-year-old who has spent 45 years in full-time service to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, what do you know now?
President M. Russell Ballard: It’s the same message, I think, that I have tried to emphasize my whole ministry, and that is that we must focus our hearts and our minds on Jesus Christ. We need to come to know who He really is, and really, you come to know the Savior by serving Him and His Church. I think the more you serve, the more you reach out, the more you extend your effort to try to help others along the way, whether it be just quietly, or more publicly. Those quiet moments of service draw you closer to the Master. I never go away from private, one-on-one efforts to try to help somebody who’s been hurt in accidents, or who has been hurt emotionally, or just struggling in life — I never leave those experiences without a deeper abiding love for the Lord, that knowing that I can say to anyone, “Just trust Him. You have to trust Him. Your safety and my safety is the Lord. Please stay close to Him and then try to do the things He would want us to do.”
We’re going to be OK, regardless of what burden we may be carrying. There are some people that are really, really burdened. He’s promised if we follow Him, He’ll help us carry them. I’m a witness of that. That’s true. What is it, 45 years that I’ve been a General Authority? I’ve covered the world. There are not very many places I haven’t been. Every time I have a chance to stand and witness that He is the Christ. He’s the Son of the everliving God, who is our Father. We are His spirit sons and daughters, and Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer. That is probably the most exhilarating moment in my ministry. Because that’s what this is all about. We have all of these other things that we wish we do, but that’s all hopefully focused to bring people to that knowledge. When people really have that, you don’t need very much else, to be honest with you. He does live, and I know that, and I love Him.