Episode 6: Sarah Jane Weaver interviews historian Richard E. Turley Jr. on President Nelson’s #GiveThanks invitation

President Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued a historic invitation to the world on Friday, Nov. 20. The “fast-acting, long-lasting spiritual remedy” — during this time defined by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, racism, violence, political tensions and a lack of civility — is gratitude.

On this podcast, historian Richard E. Turley Jr. reflects on this and other prophetic invitations. Most interesting to Turley is that at a time in history when a disease has brought the world to its knees, the President of the Church is a renowned medical doctor.

“What makes his invitation interesting is that he says, ‘As a medical doctor, I’m interested in what’s happening to try to resolve this pandemic. But I’m going to offer you a solution that may be a little bit counterintuitive,’” said Turley, a retired managing director of the Church’s Communications Department and former assistant Church historian and recorder. 

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Transcription of the podcast

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

On Friday, November 20, President Russell M. Nelson, leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued a historic invitation to the world, asking all of us to embrace the healing power of gratitude. It’s truly a historic invitation during a historic year. 

Today, I am joined by historian Richard E. Turley, Jr., the retired Managing Director of the Communications Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with decades of experience serving the Church as Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, overseeing Church archives, the Church History Library, and The Museum of Church History and Art. As a student of history and Latter-day Saint life, he’s well versed in the important legacy of the Church and is here today to talk with us about this special invitation. Welcome, Brother Turley.

Richard E. Turley, Jr., assistant church historian and recorder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks about the editing a series of books with Brittany Chapman that share inspiring tales of faith called "Women of Faith in the Latter Days."
Richard E. Turley, Jr., assistant church historian and recorder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks about the editing a series of books with Brittany Chapman that share inspiring tales of faith called “Women of Faith in the Latter Days.” Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News Archive

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: Thank you very much, Sarah.

Sarah Jane Weaver: So to begin with: today, we are here to talk about this historic invitation that President Nelson gave to the world. How rare is it for a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to issue an invitation to the world?

1:23  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: It’s happened a few times in the history of the Church, that is ,an invitation as something separate from a talk. But there has been no invitation quite like the one that President Nelson gave.

Sarah Jane Weaver: What made it unique or different from other past leaders?

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: There are elements of his invitation that have appeared in other presentations in the past, but the combination of what he says about the history, and also the perspective that he gives, together with the prayer at the end, are unique. And I think what’s particularly interesting, and I find quite inspirational, is that at this time in the history of the world, when a disease has the world in its grip, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a medical doctor.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yet, he’s speaking not as a medical doctor to them, even though he references his medical background, but as a world religious leader, and usually we hear leaders of our church speaking to Latter-day Saints.

2:21  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: Yes. So in this case, you have someone who has background as a medical doctor, a world-renowned medical doctor, and he’s able to look at the pandemic from that perspective. But what makes his invitation interesting is that he says, as a medical doctor, I’m interested in what’s happening to try to resolve this pandemic. But I’m going to offer you a solution that may be a little bit counterintuitive. And it’s that invitation, the invitation towards gratitude, that makes this one unusual.

Dr. Russell M. Nelson during an operation.
Dr. Russell M. Nelson during an operation. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, gratitude seems like such a simple solution. Such a simple remedy.

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: It is a simple remedy. And that’s the power of his invitation. If we’ll all do what he says, I think there’ll be a sizable uptick in the way humanity feels.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You also have a 96-year-old Prophet, who is asking the world to go on social media, and even gave them a social media hashtag to to embrace: #GiveThanks.

3:18 

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: Yes, and those of us who have spent a lot of time around President Nelson, know that he is what you call an early adopter of technology. He has stayed very much in tune with technology as it’s developed over his lifetime. So it’s not unusual to have him refer to social media, or to pull out his iPhone, or to look at apps.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now let’s look at this invitation from a historic perspective. Can you highlight other invitations from past Church presidents that may be similar?

3:47 

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: So let’s take Howard W. Hunter, for example. He was President of Quorum of the Twelve. He gave a talk, basically, it was a Church Education System fireside for college aged young adults in 1993. And President Nelson started his invitation by saying, “During my 50 years of life, I’ve seen a Great Depression, a World War, the rise of terrorism, hunger and poverty throughout the world. Elder Hunter, President Hunter said: 

President Howard W. Hunter served as President of the Church from 1994-1995.
President Howard W. Hunter served as President of the Church from 1994-1995. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

President Howard W. Hunter: In my lifetime, I’ve seen two world wars, plus Korea, plus Vietnam, and all that you are currently witnessing. I have worked my way through The Depression and managed to go to law school while starting a young family at the same time. I have seen stock markets and world economics go crazy, and I’ve seen a few despots and tyrants go crazy, all of which causes quite a bit of trouble around the world in the process. So I am frank to say tonight that I hope you won’t believe all the world difficulties have been wedged into your decay, or that things have never been worse than they are for you personally, or they will never get better. I reassure you that things have been worse and they will always get better.

5:13  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: In 1994 when he was first counselor in the First Presidency, President Gordon B. Hinckley said,

5:19  

President Gordon B. Hinckley served as President of the Church from 1995-2008.
President Gordon B. Hinckley served as President of the Church from 1995-2008. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

President Gordon B. Hinckley: We still hear much of economic depression. Some of you here tonight may be unemployed or struggling to make ends meet.Tthings could be worse. Heaven forbid that we should ever slip again into the kind of monetary quagmire through which we struggled in the 1930s. I was there then. I graduated from the University of Utah in 1932. The unemployment rate was more than 30%. Those were days of long soup lines, of suicides that came of discouragement, of a bleakness of life which few of you can understand. But somehow we survived and made it.

6:05  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: And those of us who knew President Hinckley knew what an optimist he was, and how frequently he invited us to count our blessings. So a lot of times people comment on the age of our Church leaders. One of the great advantages of having Church leaders who have long life experiences is that they’ve seen a lot, and therefore they have a perspective. And that’s one thing that President Nelson gives us in this invitation is a perspective. And calling on us to be grateful is a way of offsetting the sometimes overly negative attitudes that we adopt when bad things happen to us.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, when you think about a lot of things that compare to this pandemic, a lot of people look back and they make references to the 1918. flu. What are some similarities that we’re experiencing now that they might have experienced then?

6:53 

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: During the 1918 flu, Church meetings were canceled, postponed. People were invited to wear masks, a lot of people suffered, their family suffered as a result of that worldwide pandemic. A lot of times when we face difficulty in the world, we’re facing it at a local level or a regional level or a national level and sometimes international, a few countries involved. But it’s relatively unusual for something to occur that affects the entire world. And the 1918 flu pandemic and the current pandemic are similar in that they are truly worldwide pandemics.

Sarah Jane Weaver: A lot of people have referenced this and said this current pandemic has brought the world to its knees. This may be a time that people are looking to God.

7:37  

Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard E. Turley Jr. displays historical documents during a press conference Sept. 4, 2013, announcing the release of the latest volume in the Church's ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project in Salt Lake City,
Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard E. Turley Jr. displays historical documents during a press conference Sept. 4, 2013, announcing the release of the latest volume in the Church’s ongoing Joseph Smith Papers project in Salt Lake City, Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: Well, there’s a long-used saying that there are no atheists in a foxhole. And I think generally when things go bad, people are more inclined to turn towards God. And of course, during the 1918 flu pandemic, people were turning towards God because there was no other force to which they could turn. And the Church in 1918, the First Presidency designated a day of fasting and prayer for Church members. And they basically said as part of that, they wanted to designate it as a special time for fasting and prayer by all members of the Church for the arrest and speedy suppression by divine power of the desolating scourge that is passing over the earth. So that was a similar invitation during a similar time.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And we saw that President Nelson issued not one but two invitations for us to fast and pray last spring, as this pandemic was accelerating.

8:28  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: And then there have been lots of other invitations to gratitude over time. And one of the things that struck me about President Nelson’s invitation, and the accompanying talk, was that he references some of the challenges that he’s experienced in his own life. The loss of his wife Dantzel to something for which he had been trained, and yet he could do nothing about it. The loss of two daughters to cancer. This is a particularly poignant feeling for me right now and my family because this week, my niece lost her five-month-old child. And so we’re thinking a lot about what happens to us individually. And, of course, Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church, almost more than a century ago, he also lost children. He lost 13 children during his lifetime. And yet, he said in an article that appeared in the Juvenile Instructor in 1903, he said, “The spirit of gratitude is always pleasant and satisfying, because it carries with it a sense of helpfulness to others. It begets love and friendship and engenders divine influence. The grateful man sees so much in the world to be thankful for, and with him, the good outweighs the evil, love overpowers jealousy, and light drives darkness out of his life.” So there’s a comparable statement by a Church President over a century ago, the Church President who experienced a lot of grief personally.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and this invitation comes just a few days before all of us will be sitting down for a non-traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. How, in a non-traditional year, as we celebrate a little differently than we have before, how important is looking and thinking about gratitude going to be?

10:12  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and it’s my favorite holiday because it isn’t weighed down by a lot of commercialism. I think on a non-traditional Thanksgiving year, like this year, where we may not have the same trappings that we ordinarily have, it’s important for us to recognize the real meaning of the holiday, which is gratitude. And I think what President Nelson is doing here is focusing us on that idea of gratitude, whether we are in a country that celebrates Thanksgiving typically, or whether we’re not – all of us have great cause for gratitude. 

I’ve traveled around the world, I traveled for a time with President Nelson in earlier responsibilities. I’ve traveled to almost 100 countries, and I’ve seen people around the world in lots of circumstances, some of which by American standards would be considered deplorable. And yet I’ve seen people happy because they’re grateful.

Sarah Jane Weaver: President Nelson has also issued other invitations during the almost three years that he’s been President of the Church of Jesus Christ. Some of those include an invitation to gather Israel, he included the youth in that. He’s asked us to do a lot of things. Can you talk about some of those invitations?

11:17 

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, smile during an interview.
President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, smile during an interview. Credit: Russell M. Nelson Facebook

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: Well, one of the things that struck me about this recent invitation, he gave us his statement that he wants us to turn social media into a journal of gratitude. In the past, he’s asked us to take time off, to fast from social media. So this is interesting to me, because in the past, he’s basically said sometimes we overdo the technology. He’s an early adopter, but he recognizes that we can allow technology to consume our lives. So he’s asked us in the past to fast from technology. Now, he’s told us to take technology and turn it to a good use by making it a journal of gratitude.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And in the most recent general conference, he asked us to let God prevail in our lives.

11:53

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: And I think this current invitation is very much an echo of that plea on his part. A lot of times, we have a tendency to look at the negative things in life: something bad happens to us, we focus on that. But he points out to us that we need to count our blessings and not recount our difficulties. And I think that’s a very powerful statement.

Sarah Jane Weaver: One of the invitations President Nelson has asked us is to increase our spiritual capacity. He’s invited all of us, as well as numerous members of the Quorum of the Twelve and other leaders, to talk about how we hear Him. Can you talk about that in context with this current invitation?

12:30  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: President Nelson has asked us repeatedly to increase our spiritual capacity. And I think with this invitation, he’s given us a tool to do that, the tool of counting our blessings, and if we’ll simply follow his invitation, I believe that our spiritual capacity and our spirituality at this moment will increase.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, the two of us have been in numerous stadiums with President Nelson in recent years, as he embarked on his global ministry. Quite often in those situations, you have thousands and thousands of faithful Latter-day Saints singing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” President Nelson has obviously felt that, but there’s great gratitude in the world for President Nelson.

13:11

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: There is, and I think people who have seen him ,have listened to him, have read things that he said, recognize what a remarkable man he is. He’s not just asking us to do something here. He’s asking us to do something that he reflects in his own personal life. In my associations with him over the decades, I have found him to be an extremely upbeat and positive man who looks at the happy and wonderful things that the Lord has given to him more than he looks at the negative.

Sarah Jane Weaver: For a minute, I want you to put on your communications hat. This is an invitation that will be embraced by faithful Church members, but now will be available and hopefully heard by those not of our faith. Talk about how this will be received across communications channels.

13:56  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: I think it will be well-received. We’ve seen instances in the past in which Church leaders have made an invitation not just to members of the Church, but also to the world at large. And one of those early invitations in the 124th section of Doctrine and Covenants was to make a proclamation to the entire world. This is not called a proclamation, but it’s an invitation to the world. And right now, when so many people are turned inward and focused on the negative, I think an invitation like this to turn outward and focus on the positive will be very well-received.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, before we end today, we would like to conclude with President Nelson’s actual invitation, and we’ll play the entire thing. But I want to give you a chance to first express what you’re grateful for during this time, and then we’d like people to tell us something that they know now that they may not have known. In this case, what do you know now that you didn’t know before responding to President Nelson’s invitation to be more grateful?

14:51  

Richard E. Turley, Jr.: Well, I will say one thing for which I’m deeply grateful is life. A few years ago, I went through a cancer scare and thought that my life might be terminated. So I came to appreciate every morning, every afternoon and every evening that I now have, realizing that time was when I thought it wouldn’t have many more of them. I’m grateful for the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope that it gives to me, optimism in a time of negativity. 

What I’ve learned that I didn’t think about deeply before President Nelson’s invitation was that phrase about counting our blessings instead of recounting the negative. I’m a historian, so I like to go back and reflect on the past. And that’s got some positive aspects to it. But I think it’s very important that we not just look at the negative parts of the past, which often historians and frankly journalists do. But we need to look at the positive things that happen day to day, and the positive things that have happened in the past.

Sarah Jane Weaver: So now as we conclude this podcast, let’s hear the words of President Russell M. Nelson, issuing an invitation to the world to be more grateful.

15:49  

In a social media post on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, President Russell M. Nelson announced he will share a message with the world on Nov. 20.
In a social media post on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, President Russell M. Nelson announced he will share a message with the world on Nov. 20. Credit: Russell M. Nelson Facebook

President Russell M. Nelson: During my 96 years of life, I have seen a great depression, a world war, the rise of terrorism, hunger and poverty throughout the world. I have also witnessed the advent of space travel, the Internet, medical advancements galore and countless other discoveries that delight me.

Prior to my ministry, I was a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, and spent many hours in operating rooms. As a surgical resident, I was one of the research team that developed the first heart-lung machine to be used in a human open-heart operation.Subsequently, I had the privilege of helping to save lives of hundreds of patients; and, sadly, I watched other patients die despite my best efforts.

As a man of science, and as a man of faith, the current worldwide pandemic has been of great concern to me. As a man of science, I appreciate the critical need to prevent the spread of infection. I also honor the devoted service of healthcare professionals and grieve for the many whose lives have been upended by COVID-19.

As a man of faith, however, I view the current pandemic as only one of many ills that plague our world, including hate, civil unrest, racism, violence, dishonesty and lack of civility.

Skilled scientists and researchers are laboring diligently to develop and distribute a vaccine against the coronavirus. But there is no medication or operation that can fix the many spiritual woes and maladies that we face.

There is, however, a remedy — one that may seem surprising — because it flies in the face of our natural intuitions. Nevertheless, its effects have been validated by scientists as well as men and women of faith.

I am referring to the healing power of gratitude.

The book of Psalms is filled with admonitions to express gratitude. Here are just three of them:

“It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord.” (Psalms 92:1)

“O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good.” (Psalms 136:1)

“Come before his presence with thanksgiving.” (Psalms 95:2)

Jesus Christ frequently expressed gratitude. Before raising Lazarus from the dead, before miraculously multiplying loaves and fishes, and before passing the cup to His disciples at the Last Supper, the Savior prayed and gave thanks to God. No wonder the Apostle Paul later declared, “In everything give thanks.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

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.

Does gratitude spare us from sorrow, sadness, grief and pain? No, but it does soothe our feelings. It provides us with a greater perspective on the very purpose and joy of life.

Nearly 16 years ago, my wife Dantzel and I were sitting on the sofa holding hands while we watched television. Suddenly, she collapsed. Despite being well trained to treat the very thing that ended her life, I could not save my own wife.

Dantzel and I were blessed with nine daughters and one son. Tragically, I have lost two of those daughters to cancer. No parent is prepared to lose a child.

And yet, despite these and other difficult experiences, I am incredibly grateful, eternally, for so very many things.

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. And I thank Him for my wife Wendy, whom I met after Dantzel’s passing. Wendy now fills my life with joy.

I am grateful to God for the years I had with my two departed daughters. This father’s heart melts when I see attributes of those girls in the precious faces of their children and grandchildren.

We can all give thanks for the beauties of the earth and the majesty of the heavens that give us an inkling of the vastness of eternity.

We can give thanks for the gift of life, for our amazing bodies and minds, that allow us to grow and learn.

We can give thanks for art, literature and music that nurture our souls.

We can give thanks for the opportunity to repent, start over, make amends and build character.

We can give thanks for our families, friends and loved ones.

We can give thanks for the opportunity to help, cherish and serve one another, which makes life so much more meaningful.

We can even give thanks for our trials; from which we learn the things we would not know otherwise.

Most of all, we can give thanks unto God, the Father of our spirits, which makes us all brothers and sisters — one great global family.

No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.

As a doctor, I know the value of good therapy. So, dear friends, may I prescribe two activities to help us experience the healing power of gratitude.

First, I invite you — just for the next seven days — to turn social media into your own personal gratitude journal. Post every day about what you are grateful for, who you are grateful for and why you are grateful. 

At the end of seven days, see if you feel happier and more at peace. Use the hashtag #GiveThanks. Working together, we can flood social media with a wave of gratitude that reaches the four corners of the earth. Perhaps this will fulfill, in part, the promise God gave to Father Abraham, that through his descendants, “all families of the earth [shall] be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3)

Second, let us unite in thanking God through daily prayer. Jesus Christ taught His disciples to pray by first expressing gratitude to God, and then petitioning Him for the things we need. Prayer brings forth miracles.

In that spirit, I would now like to offer a prayer for the world and everyone in it. As I pray, I hope you will feel inspired to do the same, pouring out your heart in gratitude for the countless blessings God has given you, and petitioning Him to heal our hearts, our families, our societies and the world at large.

Our Father in Heaven, as fellow passengers on Thy planet Earth, we humbly pray unto Thee.  We thank Thee for life and all that sustains life. We thank Thee for the beauties of the earth, for order in the universe, the planets, stars, and all things of eternal significance. We thank Thee for Thy laws that protect and guide us. We thank Thee for Thy mercy and loving watch care. We thank Thee for our families and loved ones, who fill our lives with joy.

We are grateful for all who are striving to combat the COVID pandemic. Please bless them with protection and inspiration. Wilt Thou help us end this virus that has plagued so many of Thy children.

We thank Thee for the leaders of nations and others who strive to lift us. We pray for relief from political strife. Wilt Thou bless us with a healing spirit that unites us despite our differences. 

Wilt Thou also help us repent from selfishness, unkindness, pride and prejudice of any kind, so that we can better serve and love one another as brothers and sisters, and as Thy grateful children. We love Thee, our dear Father, and pray for Thy blessings upon us, in the name of Thy Beloved son, Jesus Christ, amen.

Thank you for listening. May God bless you one at all.

27:10  

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KelliAnn Halversen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel, or with other news and updates about the Church on churchnews.com.