President Russell M. Nelson, 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The following article appeared in The Ensign, “News of the Church, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles”, May 1984, pp. 87-88. It appeared in the magazine following the announcement of Elder Nelson’s appointment to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Following the article is a timeline of major events from the life of President Nelson.
On Thursday, the heart surgeon spent the day at the hospital. On Friday morning, he attended the Regional Representatives seminar in the Church Office Building and, for reasons unknown to him at the time, was summoned that afternoon to President Gordon B. Hinckley’s office. The next morning in general conference, 7 April 1984, he was sustained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Hours afterward, Elder Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Dantzel, paused for a few moments to reflect upon the call, their lives, and their testimonies. “We didn’t have a lot of time to anguish over the call before it was announced,” he said. But the 59-year old General Authority has spent years preparing and serving. Twenty
years earlier, he had received a call from Elder Spencer W. Kimball to serve as a stake president, after having served in bishoprics and on a high council. In
1971 he became general president of the Sunday School. Then in 1979 he was called as a Regional Representative. Each time a calling came, he reflected
upon a commitment he and his wife made when they were married in the temple–to ‘seek…first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness’ (Matt. 6:33),
confident that the Lord would bless them in their assignments, in his profession, and in their family.
“When Elder Kimball called me and set me apart as stake president in 1964, we were just starting in medicine on the challenge of replacing the aortic valve. Mortality rates were high, and the time commitment to each patient was extremely high–almost one-on-one for many, many hours, sometimes even days. When Elder Kimball called me to be the stake president, he jokingly said, ‘Everybody we’ve interviewed around here says you might be all right, but you don’t have the time. Do you have the time?’
I replied, ‘I don’t know about that, but I have the faith!'” And then I explained to him the challenges–that getting into the field of aortic valve replacement was a heavy time commitment and that our mortality rates were high. Both problems were of great concern to me. . . . “In the blessing that he pronounced upon my head that day, he specifically blessed me that our mortality rates with aortic valve surgery in particular would be reduced, and that no longer would the procedure be the
drain on my time and energy that it had been in the past. The following year, the time demands of the operation did decrease, and I’ve had the time necessary
to serve in that and other callings. In fact, our mortality rates went down to where they are today–at a very low and acceptable, tolerable range. Interestingly enough, that’s the very operation I did for President Kimball eight years later.”
Indeed, President Kimball was himself a recipient of the blessing he pronounced on the head of the new stake president. In 1972, at the age of seventy-seven, President Kimball needed to have a complex heart operation, with replacement of the aortic valve and a coronary artery bypass graft. The day before performing the operation, Dr. Nelson received another blessing, this time at the hands of President Harold B. Lee and President N. Eldon Tanner. “I was promised that the operation
would be performed without error, that all would go well, and that I need not fear for my own inadequacies, for I had been raised up by the Lord to perform this operation.”
As he was concluding a flawless operation, Dr. Nelson had an overpowering feeling: “I had a sure witness as I was standing there that the man I had just operated on would become the President of the Church!” At the time, such an impression was surprising: Joseph Fielding Smith was President of the Church, and Harold B. Lee was younger and healthier than Elder Kimball. “So that feeling was quite unexpected,”‘ said Elder Nelson, “but it was real.”
Dr. Nelson was well prepared professionally, as well as spiritually, to operate on President Kimball. He received B.A. and M.D. degrees from the University of Utah, then his Ph.D. in 1954 from the University of Minnesota. In 1970, Brigham Young University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree.
He has worked as research professor of surgery, director of the Thoracic Surgical Residency at the University of Utah, chairman of the Division of Thoracic Surgery, and member and vice-chairman of the board of governors of LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.
Numerous honors acknowledge his professional service and extensive volunteer work–among them the Distinguished Service Award, Utah State Medical Association; Citation, International Service, American Heart Association; and Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement. He has served as president of the Society for Vascular Surgery, and as chairman of the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery for the American Heart Association.
Despite the rigors and demands of heavy Church and professional assignments, the new member of the Twelve feels that his family is his most important priority. “I think the greatest challenge a father has is in his home and in his responsibilities there. The greatest challenge a woman has is with her children.” Elder Nelson and his wife, Dantzel, are the parents of ten children-nine daughters and a son. Eight daughters have been married in the temple. Marjorie, eighteen, and Russell,
twelve, still live at home. And the day Elder Nelson was sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve, their twenty-second grandchild was born. (See “Call to the Holy Apostleship,” p. 52, this issue.)
Sister Nelson attributes much of their family togetherness to music, an interest they all share. They love to perform together; they all sing and play the piano or another instrument. Elder Nelson studied keyboard harmony and was a member of the A Capella Choir at the University of Utah, and he continues his interest in both piano and organ. Sister Nelson who turned down a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music in order to marry, has been a member of the Tabernacle Choir since 1967. She sang with the Choir the morning her husband was sustained to the Twelve.
“The mother is the heart of the home in our house,” Elder Nelson said. “She has had the major responsibility for training and tutoring our ten children. You can imagine how much help she gets from a husband who is a surgeon and is active in the Church! While I was stake president for many years, she had all the responsibility for making my appointments because, with my schedule, I couldn’t have an appointment secretary. She was the only one who could have any idea about the moment-to-moment changes that came into my life as a heart surgeon. In all of our thirty-eight years together, she has been continually supportive.”
Elder Nelson’s experiences in the Church, in his profession, and in his family have contributed to the apostolic witness he now bears as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. “I have a deep and abiding faith in God,’ he said. “And I know that salvation can come only through His Son, Jesus Christ. Our irrefutable responsibility is to prepare the world for the Second Coming. This work will fill the earth, and every knee ultimately will bow and every tongue eventually will confess that Jesus is the Christ.”
“I know this is going to be a very difficult assignment. By myself, of course, I can do nothing. But I have the faith that the Lord has called me to do the work, and I’ll do it with his help. At the last day I hope to be found worthy of the approbation: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21.)
Timeline of selected highlights from the life, career, and LDS church service of President Russell M. Nelson, extracted from the Deseret News of January 17, 2018.
- September 9, 1924 — Born in Salt Lake City to Marion C. and Edna Anderson Nelson, the second of four children.
- November 30, 1940 — Baptized into the LDS Church.
- 1942 — Graduated from East High School in Salt Lake City.
- June 1945 — Received Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Utah.
- August 31, 1945 — Married Dantzel White in the Salt Lake Temple.
- 1945-1948 — Served in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
- August 1947 — Received M.D. degree from the University of Utah, graduating #1 in his class.
- September 1947 — Began post-doctorate medical education at the University of Minnesota, interning at the University of Minnesota Hospitals (1947-1948) and later as assistant resident in surgery there (1948-1951).
- 1951-1953 — Served in the U.S. Army, reaching the rank of captain. Served on the Surgical Research Team in Japan and Korea in 1951 and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
- December 16, 1951 — Sustained as second counselor in the Washington Ward bishopric. Released on March 15, 1953.
- 1953-1954 — Was first assistant resident in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
- June 1954 — Received Ph.D. from University of Minnesota, majoring in surgery and minoring in physiology.
- 1954-1955 — Performed first open-heart surgery in Utah, on a 39 year-old woman.
- April 27, 1958 — Sustained as second counselor in the Garden Park Ward bishopric, and later sustained as first counselor on January 13, 1963
- 1959 — Received State of Utah Distinguished Service Award.
- December 8, 1963 — Sustained as alternate high councilor in the Bonneville Stake.
- May 1964 — Became president of the Utah Heart Association.
- December 6, 1964 — Sustained as president of the Bonneville Stake of the LDS Church.
- February 28, 1967 — Given Distinguished Alumni Award by the University of Utah.
- 1970 — Received honorary doctorate of science from Brigham Young University.
- June 4, 1971 — Called as general superintendent of the Deseret Sunday School Union (the position’s title was changed to general president of the Sunday School in 1972).
- July 11, 1971 — Released as Bonneville Stake president.
- 1972 — Performed heart surgery (aortic valve replacement) on Elder Spencer W. Kimball.
- September 3, 1974 — Received Gold Medal Award of Merit from the Republic of Argentina’s ministry of Social Welfare in recognition of contributions to cardiovascular surgery.
- 1976-1978 — Served as the chairman of the American Heart Association’s Council on Cardiovascular Surgery.
- June 1979 — Received Golden Plate from the American Academy of Achievement.
- 1979 — Called as a regional representative, serving until 1984. His service was in the Kearns Utah and Brigham Young University regions.
- April 7, 1984 — Sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve, along with Elder Dallin H. Oaks. It was the first time in 40 years that two new apostles were named at the same time and the first time in more than two decades anyone had been called directly into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles without having first served in the ranks of the church’s general authorities.
- June 15, 1984 — Received the Gold Heart Award from the Utah Heart Association.
- 1985 — Performed his last open-heart surgery, in the People’s Republic of China.
- September 27, 1985 — Conferred with an honorary professorship from Shandong Medical University, Jinan, People’s Republic of China. Received similar honorary professorships in China the next year – from Qing Dao Medical College and Zi’an Medical College.
- January 1989 — Joined Elder Dallin H. Oaks in an eight-day visit of the People’s Republic of China, during which Chinese leaders assured the apostles that people are free to practice religious beliefs in that country.
- June 3, 1989 — Received honorary doctorate of medical science from Utah State University.
- 1990 — Along with Elder Richard G. Scott, dedicated the nations of El Salvador and Nicaragua for the preaching of the gospel.
- June 1994 — Received honorary doctorate of humane letters from Snow College.
- 1996-1999 — Served as a member of the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad.
- May 2, 1997 — Honored with a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Utah School of Medicine.
- April 13, 2002 — Received the Heart of Gold award from the American Heart Association.
- February 12, 2005 — His first wife, Dantzel White Nelson, dies at age 78, leaving a family of 10 children, 56 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren.
- April 6, 2006 — Marries Wendy Watson Nelson, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Brigham Young University, in the Salt Lake Temple.
- June 5, 2006 — Joined religious leaders in Washington, D.C. to speak in support of a constitutional amendment protecting marriage, speaking at an Alliance for Marriage press conference at the U.S. Capitol.
- November 4, 2007 — Rededicated the Nuku-alofa Tonga Temple.
- May 29, 2009 — Survived a robbery at the Mozambique Maputo Mission home in Africa.
- January-February 2010 — Made courtesy visits to Indonesia and was the first LDS apostle to visit the island of Borneo.
- September 2010 — Offered prayers of blessing on the lands and people as he visited six Balkan nations – Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
- June 5, 2011 — Organized the Moscow Russian Stake, the first LDS stake in Russia and the second stake in the former Soviet Union.
- October 25, 2011 — Follow a four-day visit to Madagascar, dedicated the country of Malawi and blessed the people there.
- May 2012 — Dedicated a new residence hall and training center at the Manila Missionary Center.
- January 31, 2013 — Presided at the announcement of the closing of the Benemerito de las Americas high school in Mexico City which was to be renovated and reopened as the Mexico City Missionary Training Center.
- June 2013 — Organized the Yerevan Armenia Stake, the first stake in Armenia.
- November 19, 2014 — Received a medal “of thanks and honor” for his service during the Korean War from the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to the United States.
- July 15, 2015 — Set apart as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by President Thomas S. Monson, due to the passing away of Elder Boyd K. Packer.
- September 15, 2015 — Dedicated the Priesthood Restoration Site in Pennsylvania’s Oakland Township, formerly know as Harmony.
- August 21, 2016 — Dedicated the Sapporo Japan Temple
- September 2016 — Led a contingent of LDS general authorities and leaders traveling to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, over the Labor Day weekend to minister to flood victims and inspect damage caused by recent record rains.
- November 4, 2016 — Honored President Donald Trump at Welfare Square, along with other LDS dignitaries.
- January 9, 2018 — As the church’s presiding apostle, signed 1,150 assignment letters sent to newly called full-time missionaries.
- January 14, 2018 — Set apart as 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by the Quorum of the Twelve.
Additional insights regarding President Nelson that were included in a Supplement to the Ensign, shortly following President Nelson’s call to serve as the 17th President of the Church:
- President Nelson has known personally, and in many instances been schooled by, ten of the previous 16 President of the Church.
- Just as he literally touched many hearts as a surgeon, President Nelson has metaphorically touched the hearts of Saints worldwide with his powerful teaching, selfless service, and unfailing love.
- He graduated from high school at age 16.
- He graduated as a medical doctor at age 22 and finished his PhD in 1954.
- In 2018, the Nelson family numbers 10 children, 57 grandchildren, and 116 great-grandchildren (with 2 more on the way).
- Before his call to the apostleship, President Nelson performed over 7,000 heart operations.
- He has studied numerous languages, including French, Portuguese, German, Russian, and Spanish so he could better communicate with and teach doctors and researchers.
- He served as a Temple Square missionary from 1955 to 1965, guiding visitors from 4:00 to 5:00 pm each Thursday.
- President Nelson has also dedicated 27 countries for the preaching of the gospel, including Bulgaria, Croatia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, French Polynesia, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Once, in the span of four days, he dedicated six separate nations. In his apostolic mission, he has now visited 133 countries.
- Elder Dallin H. Oaks made these comments about President Nelson: “Russell M. Nelson is an extremely nice person and a good friend and associate. He is unfailingly kind and compassionate. He is a marvelous role model. He is just fun to be around. In his leadership role, he is always congenial and easy to approach. He is very open, very approachable. In his decision making, he is concerned about the overall impact. He is good at thinking through the probable effect of a decision. He is a good delegator. He is very patient. He is also a unifier. He has great skill as a writer. Paramount is his commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the head of His Church.”