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How President Nelson's faith forged his path for service in the LDS Church

(LDS Church)


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SALT LAKE CITY — In April 1984, when Elder Russell M. Nelson was ordained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he took to the podium and remarked how surprising the calling was for him.

He had circled that date in his calendar because it was the first time that his only son, Russell M. Nelson, Jr., would be able to attend the church’s general priesthood meeting with him, a meeting for male members 12 and older. When his name was called and he was presented to serve as an apostle, the announcement was equally surprising for his family— one daughter went into labor and gave birth after hearing the news, he said in a talk given the next day.

President Nelson was an esteemed heart surgeon by the time he was ordained an apostle, but during his first general conference talk to the members of the church, he said that he first felt “personal inadequacy” as he thought about the names of those he had replaced in the quorum.

“As I look about and see the strength of those more qualified and able than I, I truly am humbled by this calling. Fortunately, these feelings are blanketed by feelings of faith,” he said.

President Nelson's later reflections on this moment are recorded in his 2003 biography, “Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle” written by Spencer J. Condie. The day before he was officially announced as an apostle, he met with former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, who was the second counselor in the church's First Presidency at the time. President Hinckley told President Nelson he was to be sustained as an apostle during the weekend.

“In one short moment, the focus of the last 40 years in medicine and surgery was changed to devote the rest of my life in full-time service to my Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ,” he said.

He went home and told his wife Dantzel the news, which ended in “tearful expressions of mutual love and support,” according to his biography.

When President Nelson received the American Heart Association’s Gold Heart Award for his life’s work as a surgeon in 2002, he didn’t just receive praise from then-President Hinckley for his work as a doctor. President Hinckley also acknowledged his admiration of Nelson’s energy, talents, faith and humility, as noted in the biography.

“You have not spared yourself in following where a sense of duty led you,” President Hinckley said to him.

Varuzhan Poghosyan (left) translates for Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The apostle created the first stake (similar to a diocese) of the Church in Yerevan, Armenia. (Photo: LDS Church)
Varuzhan Poghosyan (left) translates for Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The apostle created the first stake (similar to a diocese) of the Church in Yerevan, Armenia. (Photo: LDS Church)

Now, some 16 years since then, President Nelson, who was announced as the 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Tuesday, adds to his lengthy list of service and leadership in the LDS Church.

With his call to serve, President Nelson, 93, also becomes the second-oldest man ever to be ordained president of the LDS Church, behind former president Joseph Fielding Smith, who was just two months older than President Nelson is now when he was ordained in 1970.

President Nelson’s parents weren’t active members of the LDS Church when he was young, though his parents sent him to Sunday School, according to the LDS Church's website. President Nelson acknowledged he would sometimes go the park instead and play football. However, a member of his LDS church congregation, Jonas Ryser, helped pave the way for President Nelson and his siblings to get baptized into the church in 1940 when he was 16 years old.

President Nelson was ordained a priest in the church the following year and then an elder in 1944, according to his biography. His parents eventually became actively involved in the church.

He was first called as a stake president (the leader of several regional congregations) of the Bonneville Stake in 1964, and served in that position until 1971 when he was called as the general president of the Sunday School, according to an LDS Church biography.

President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met with Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, Monday, February 20, 2017, as part of a series of meetings in Mexico. A translator sits in the background. (Photo: LDS Church)
President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met with Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, Monday, February 20, 2017, as part of a series of meetings in Mexico. A translator sits in the background. (Photo: LDS Church)

President Nelson served as a regional representative over members of the LDS faith living in Kearns, and as a regional representative over Brigham Young University.

He was ordained an apostle in 1984.

He served on the Temple and Family History, Priesthood, and Missionary executive councils, on the Church Educational System Board of Education as chairman, and as an advisor to the Church History Department.

In his time as an apostle, he traveled the world, visiting more than 120 countries in a 30-plus-year span. As part of his ministry, he paved the way for missionary work in Eastern European countries then under communism.

He was set apart as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by former LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson on July 15, 2015.


In one short moment, the focus of the last 40 years in medicine and surgery was changed to devote the rest of my life in full-time service to my Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.

–President Russell M. Nelson


President Nelson has a strong tie with top leadership in the LDS Church, first because he was an apostle while the previous five church presidents were serving. And, while a surgeon, he was called upon to perform open-heart surgery on former LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the time, in 1972.

President Nelson received a special blessing from President Harold B. Lee, who would later become a president of the church, the night before that surgery. The risk of the surgery was high due to President Kimball's age, (he was 77 at the time.)

“They blessed me 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,” President Nelson recalled of that blessing, as recorded by Condie.

The surgery went off without a hitch. He later likened it to a concert pianist performing without hitting a wrong note or a baseball pitcher tossing a perfect game.

President Russell M. Nelson applying mortar during the cornerstone ceremony for the Kyiv Ukraine Temple in August 2010. (Photo: LDS Church)
President Russell M. Nelson applying mortar during the cornerstone ceremony for the Kyiv Ukraine Temple in August 2010. (Photo: LDS Church)

President Kimball not only survived the operation, but was also called as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the following year. He lived another 13 years and presided over the church when President Nelson was ordained an apostle.

During his 1984 general conference address to members of the LDS faith, President Nelson looked back at his career as a doctor, noting that while he had learned much from his studies and medicine, his life was shaped more from his belief in God and following the commandments found in religious text.

“In a truer sense, I have been forged from the stern discipline of law — not the laws of men, as mastered by our brethren of the legal profession, but the eternal and unchanging laws of our Divine Creator,” he said in his talk. “Desired blessings come only by obedience to divine law, and in no other way.

"My lifetime thus far has been focused on learning those laws. Only as the laws are known, and then obeyed, can the blessings we desire be earned. To this extent, there will be little difference for me in the activities of the past and those of the future. The endless laws of the Lord are the doctrines taught by His apostles.”

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