Profiles in Faith: Russell M. Nelson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Elder Russell M. Nelson is the 17th president, prophet, seer and revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), sometimes known as Mormonism, although that is not the religion’s name.
An internationally renowned cardiac surgeon and pioneer in open-heart surgery who helped design the first heart-lung machine, Dr. Nelson, 97, was “sustained and set apart” as the institution’s most senior leader at age 93. The event occurred Sunday, January 14, 2018, two years before the 200th anniversary of the Church’s founding.
Before becoming head of the Salt Lake City, Utah-based LDS Church, Dr. Nelson was president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the governing body of the religion, second only to the First Presidency. The First Presidency consists of three high priests, currently Nelson and two counselors.
As the leading prophet of the LDS Church, Dr. Nelson is considered to be God’s messenger on Earth, a 21st-century successor to Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad. Listed in Who’s Who In the World, Who’s Who in America, and Who’s Who in Religion, he has played a key role in the expansion of the LDS Church into Eastern Europe. Having traveled to 133 countries during his 34 years as an apostle, Nelson is also known for his efforts to forge better relations with the citizens of the People’s Republic of China, where he has been awarded honorary professorships by three universities.
“With steely determination and velvet gloves, he spent years nurturing relationships, developing friendship and demonstrating the positive force the church would be in these countries,” wrote Boyd Matheson, opinion editor of Deseret News, a Utah-based newspaper owned by a subsidiary of the LDS Church, in a May 2019 article. “Eventually all the countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain permitted the church to organize and operate within their borders.”
Dr. Nelson has implemented a number of progressive reforms in the LDS Church. He overturned a policy that barred children of same-sex couples from being baptized, and while he left intact the prohibition against same-sex relationships, the Church and gay rights organizations helped engineer “The Utah Compromise” which creates a middle ground to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ people while protecting specific religious liberties. Nelson also appointed the first Asian-American and Latin-American members to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
He has also launched a campaign opposing the use of the term Mormon in references to the LDS Church. Dr. Nelson says the term deemphasizes and undermines the Church’s Christianity that is at the core of its mission.
On May 7, 2021, the University of Utah, the state’s flagship institution of higher learning, awarded Nelson an honorary doctorate. As a faculty member of the university’s medical school for nearly two decades, Dr. Nelson trained generations of cardiac surgeons.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“We are told in the scriptures to ‘be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect … Perfection is pending.” — Russell M. Nelson, in a February 19, 2021, article in Scroll, student newspaper of the Brigham Young University Idaho campus
“I don’t think you can separate the good things we do from the doctrine. It’s not what we do; it’s why we do it.” — Russell M. Nelson, in “The Most American Religion,” January/February 2021 article in The Atlantic Monthly by McKay Coppins
“When we remove the Lord’s name from the name of his church, we inadvertently remove him as the central focus of our worship and our lives.” — Russell M. Nelson in an April 2020 livestreamed semiannual conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
“How can we endure such trials? The Lord has told us that ‘if ye are prepared ye shall not fear.’ Of course, we can store our own reserves of food, water and savings. But equally crucial is our need to fill our personal spiritual storehouses with faith, truth and testimony.” — Russell M. Nelson in an April 2020 livestreamed semiannual conference held in Salt Lake City, Utah, highlighting the impact of COVID-19
“Any nation can only be as great as its people. That requires citizens to cultivate a moral compass that helps them distinguish between right and wrong.” — Russell M. Nelson, in a June 1, 2020,article on the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd
“If something’s true, it ought to be part of you, whether it comes from the scientific lab or from the scriptures or from God himself. You can’t say, ‘I’m gonna check my religion at the door.’ Faith gives you strength in raising your family, it gives you strength in caring for your patients and it gives you strength in reading the literature … It’s very easy for people to be self-centered and think they are really smart to the exclusion of truth that can come from heavenly messengers. It’s important for you to assimilate truth from wherever it comes and don’t exclude divine revelation.” — Russell M. Nelson, in a University of Utah School of Medicine Dean’s Roundtable, September 12, 2014
“Judgment day is coming for me pretty soon. I doubt if I’ll be judged by the number of operations I did, or the number of scientific publications I had. I doubt if I’ll even be judged by the growth of the Church during my presidency. I don’t think it’ll be a quantitative experience. I think he’ll want to know: What about your faith? What about virtue? What about your knowledge? Were you temperate? Were you kind to people? Did you have charity, humility?” — Russell M. Nelson in “The Most American Religion,” January/February 2021 article in The Atlantic Monthly
“Men can do very little of themselves to heal sick or broken bodies. With an education they can do a little more; with advanced medical degrees and training, a little more yet can be done. The real power to heal, however, is a gift from God. He has deigned that some of that power may be harnessed via the authority of his priesthood to benefit and bless mankind when all man can do for himself may not be sufficient.”— Russell M. Nelson in a 1984 issue of Ensign, an official periodical of the LDS Church
“My dear brothers and sisters, the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.” —Russell M. Nelson in an October 2016 article on the Church News website.
THE STORIES OTHERS TELL
“In the fall of 1965, Russell M. Nelson, a surgeon and Salt Lake City stake president, made several trips to Illinois to look into an attractive and generous offer to head cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at the University of Chicago.
“He and his wife, Dantzel, selected a neighborhood where they could raise their nine daughters (the Nelsons’ 10th child, a son, was born later) and contemplated the professional and research opportunities the job would afford. One evening they enjoyed dinner with a young University of Chicago law professor, Dallin H. Oaks, and his wife, June. As the couples ate dinner in the Oaks’ home and spoke about the Church in Chicago, a lasting friendship formed.
“Of course we did everything we could to persuade him to accept an offer that we knew was being extended,” recalled President Oaks, then a counselor in the Chicago stake presidency… of the Nov. 21, 1965, dinner.
“He was recruited very aggressively” by the University of Chicago, explained Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He would be made head of the department. He would have a salary through the roof. They would pay for all of his children’s education, wherever those children went on the face of the earth.
“But he turned the offer down. President McKay just said, ‘I don’t think you should go,’” explained Elder Holland. “Like that, Russell Nelson made the decision on the spot. He was not going to go.
“The experience illustrates ‘the childlike humility and simplicity of Russell Nelson’s faith.’” — January 16, 2018 article on the Church News website
“He was in Manzanillo, Mexico, in February 1978, attending medical meetings with the group of doctors he had graduated with 30 years earlier. Suddenly, one of the doctors became seriously ill, suffering from massive bleeding into his stomach. Under normal circumstances, any of the physicians in the room could have treated him. Each had been trained in the science of healing; each had refined his skills and knowledge during years of experience. But as they watched their colleague suffer, they realized they were helpless.”
“‘We were in a resort hotel in a remote fishing village,’ recalls Elder Russell M. Nelson. ‘There was no hospital; the nearest was in Guadalajara, many mountainous miles away. It was night; no planes could fly. Transfusions were out of the question because of lack of equipment. All the combined knowledge and concern there could not be converted to action to help our friend as we saw his life ebbing before our eyes. We were powerless to stop his bleeding.’
“The victim asked for a blessing. Several of the doctors who held the Melchizedek Priesthood [an order of priesthood in the LDS Church] immediately responded, and Dr. Nelson acted as voice … The man recovered and returned home.” — June 1984 article, “Elder Russell M. Nelson: Applying Divine Laws,” published in Ensign, an official periodical of the LDS Church
“Russell M. Nelson’s first 20 months at the helm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints brought a wave of adjustments that departed from what the faithful had come to expect from their aged presidents, especially not one of the oldest to ever ascend to the vaulted position:
“It could be that the prophet-president just turned 95 — though he appears to be a walking advertisement for healthy living — and the ever-ticking clock is pushing him toward speed.
“It might also reflect the man’s training and temperament. Nelson was, after all, a heart surgeon, which requires quick thinking, steady reasoning and confident life-and-death movements.”
“‘If you think the church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning,’ he said in a church video last fall. ‘There is much more to come … Wait till next year. And then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.’” — Peggy Fletcher Stack, religion reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune, in a September 30, 2019, article “LDS President Russell Nelson Has an Entire Church Trying to Keep up with a 95-Year-Old”
A LIFE IN BRIEF
Born in Utah on September 9, 1924, Nelson received his B.A. and M.D. degrees from the University of Utah (1945, 47). His honorary scholastic societies include Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Omega Alpha. He served his residency in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at the University of Minnesota, where he was awarded his Ph.D. degree in 1954.
In 1951, he was a member of the research team developing the heart-lung machine that in 1951 supported the first human open-heart surgery using cardiopulmonary bypass.
A lieutenant in the U.S. Army in the Korean War, Dr. Nelson and his fellow medics visited every M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) on the Korean Peninsula in an effort to suggest and implement improvements for the treatment of the wounded.
Dr. Nelson completed his residency in surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and at the University of Minnesota. He was research professor of surgery and director of the Thoracic Surgery Residency at the University of Utah as well as chairman of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. Author of numerous publications and portions of medical textbooks, Nelson has lectured widely and professionally visited medical schools within the U.S. and overseas.
On April 7, 1984, Elder Nelson was ordained an apostle and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “In one short moment,” he said, “the focus of the last 40 years in medicine and surgery was changed to devote the rest of my life in fulltime service to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Thirty-four years later, on January 14, 2018, Elder Nelson was sustained and set apart as the 17th president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Nelson and his late wife Dantzel White, who died shortly before their 60th wedding anniversary, parented 10 children — nine daughters and a son. Nelson remarried Wendy L. Watson in 2006. Today, the Nelson family includes 57 grandchildren and 116 great-grandchildren, a magnificent symbol of his faith’s focus on family life.
ACHIEVEMENTS WE’LL REMEMBER
• March 1951: Dr. Russell M. Nelson and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota performed the first open-heart surgery employing extracorporeal circulation.
• 1954: Dr. Russell M. Nelson was awarded a Ph.D. degree by the University of Minnesota for research in cardiac surgery.
• April 7, 1984: Elder Russell M. Nelson was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
• 2015: The University of Utah, along with the American College of Cardiology, created the Russell M. Nelson M.D., Ph.D. Visiting Professorship of Cardiothoracic Surgery.
• January 14, 2018: Elder Russell M. Nelson became the 17th president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
• May 17, 2018: Elder. Russell M. Nelson joined leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and challenged members of his Church to eradicate racism within their congregations and root out prejudice in the wider world.
• Jun 6, 2018: Utah Gov. Gary Herbert awarded Dr. Nelson the inaugural lifetime achievement governor’s medal for science and technology.
• During his 36 years as an apostle, Elder Nelson visited 133 countries and opened doors for the Church in Eastern Europe and China.
RUSSELL M. NELSON’S RELIGION
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith, the religion’s first prophet and president who was born in 1805 in Vermont.
In 1830, the Book of Mormon was published, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was officially organized on April 6, 1830, in Fayette, New York.
Receiving the call to preach to Native Americans, members of the new church began moving westward in 1831.
Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered by a mob on June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Illinois. Persecuted for their faith, thousands of Saints were forced to flee their homes. Brigham Young led the migration west over the Rocky Mountains in 1846. He was sustained as president in 1847. Under his presidency, temple construction began in Salt Lake City.
A Christian church that is neither Catholic nor Protestant, Latter-day Saints believe God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to save all mankind from death and sin. Jesus Christ is central to the lives of Church members. They seek to follow His example by being baptized (Matthew 3:13-17), praying in His holy name (Matthew 6:9-13), partaking of the sacrament (Luke 22:19-20), doing good to others (Acts 10:38) and bearing witness of Him through both word and deed (James 2:26). They believe the only way to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ and baptism. LDS members perform proxy baptisms to deceased ancestors who may choose to accept or reject what has been done in their behalf.
Church members view senior Church leaders, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the presidents of the Church who followed, as prophets of God on the order of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and the apostles in the day of Jesus Christ.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained by God and the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are known for their healthy lifestyles.
LDS missionary effort is based on the New Testament pattern of missionaries serving in pairs, teaching the gospel and baptizing believers in the name of Jesus Christ. Currently, more than 74,000 missionaries serve worldwide.
The Church functions in large measure because of the unpaid volunteer ministry of its members.
A Saint is one who follows Christ in holiness and devotion with a view fixed on eternal life.
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Neville Callam, Baptist World Alliance (August 23, 2021)
Patriarch Bartholomew Bridges East-West Christian Divide (August 12, 2021)
Wilton Cardinal Gregory: First African American Cardinal (July 21, 2021)
Hindu Guru Mata Amritanandamayi (July 8, 2021)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (July 1, 2021)
Pope Francis (June 23, 2021)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (June 16, 2021)
Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry (June 9, 2021)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Father of Engaged Buddhism (June 2, 2021)
Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Huseinni Al-Sistani (May 26, 2021)
Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury (May 19, 2021)