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SALT LAKE CITY — Thirty-four years ago, President Russell M. Nelson set aside his career as a world-renowned heart surgeon for what, to him, was the higher calling of apostolic ministry.
On Tuesday, he was named 17th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to church officials.
President Dallin H. Oaks was called as the first counselor in the First Presidency and President Henry B. Eyring was called as the second counselor.
The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles convened for a press conference with local and international media following the broadcasted announcement.
President Nelson fielded the first question from a local reporter eager to know the First Presidency’s stance on LGBTQ issues going forward. The church has always been an advocate of traditional marriage and believes sexual relations should be reserved for a married man and woman.
The new prophet expressed his love for all God’s children and acknowledged the challenges for some to keep the commandments of God.
“There’s a place for everyone who wishes to do so, regardless of these challenges, to be with us in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” President Nelson said.
Media representatives from Mexico and Brazil asked the new leaders what message the church had for international members who are experiencing economic and social difficulties, and President Nelson reaffirmed the church’s initiative to provide humanitarian help to those in need.
The best way the church can help is by instilling in its members a love of service and the motivation to help their neighbor, he said. The church currently has more international members than those in the U.S.
The First Presidency also addressed the issue of gender and racial equity within the church after one reporter pointed out that the leadership of the church is still white, American men. President Nelson reminded viewers that most of the church’s leadership is made up of local members from all over the world.
Presidents Nelson, Oaks and Eyring also spoke of the importance of women’s influence in the church, something that President Nelson has focused on recently in past addresses to church members.
“The most important thing about us is that we are all children of God,” President Oaks said. “If we keep that in mind, we are better suited to relate to one another and to avoid a kind of quota system, as if God applied his blessings and extended his goodness and his love on the basis of quotas, that I think he does not recognize. So we shouldn’t.”
The youth of the church were also a focal point for the First Presidency during the conference. Recent studies show that fewer millennials identify with a certain religion than any generation before them, one reporter said. In response, President Nelson said he hopes to address this issue by reminding the youth of the wonder of life and the goodness of God.
“A lot of youth are discouraged and overwhelmed,” President Eyring said. “(President Nelson’s) optimism alone sets an example for them that will get them through all sorts of difficulties.”
One reporter asked about what some claim is a lack of transparency in early church history. Those who have left the church often cite this lack of transparency as their reason to leave, the reporter said.
Within the last few decades, the church has made early records of the church available online, President Nelson remarked. President Oaks mentioned the Joseph Smith Papers project — an effort by the church to publish all the writings of the first prophet of the LDS Church.
“Give your leaders a little leeway to make mistakes as you hope your leaders will give you,” President Nelson added.
The man, now known to LDS faithful as their prophet, often blended the spiritual with his career in medicine, recounting experiences of miraculous healing he witnessed during his time in the church and as a medical professional.
Elder Nelson was a heart surgeon before called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Photo: LDS Church, courtesy of President Russell M. Nelson
During a visit to Mexico with a group of fellow physicians in 1978, one of President Nelson’s colleagues became seriously ill, suffering severe internal bleeding in his stomach. Though all in the group were trained doctors, none had the equipment necessary to help the man; all watched, helpless as he suffered, according to a biography of President Nelson published on the church's website, LDS.org.
“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,” President Nelson said.
Eventually, the man asked for a blessing of healing, which Latter-day Saints believe is possible through faith and power from God. President Nelson administered a blessing to the ailing man and later said “the Spirit dictated that the bleeding would stop, and that the man would continue to live and return to his home and profession.”
The man soon found himself fully recovered and back with his family. President Nelson was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church six years later.
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles when President Nelson became the president in October 2015. Photo: LDS Church
The heart surgeon was 60 when he accepted a lifelong calling as an apostle — one of the men in church leadership who LDS faithful believe serve as special witnesses of Jesus Christ. President Nelson was called as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after the passing of President Boyd K. Packer in 2015.
Born in Salt Lake City in 1924, President Nelson received a Bachelor of Arts and Doctor of Medicine from the University of Utah before serving for two years in the U.S. Army on medical duty during the Korean War, according to his biography.
When he returned from the military, he completed his surgery residency rotations at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and the University of Minnesota, where he received his Ph.D.
During his schooling, President Nelson met and married Dantzel White, and the couple had 10 children together. President Nelson’s wife and children said he made it a priority to be with them, though he was often busy.
Russell and his first wife, Dantzel Nelson, in 1945. Photo: LDS Church
"Once President Harold B. Lee asked Sister (Dantzel) Nelson how it felt to be the wife of such a busy man," according to one biography. "Her reply, which President Lee quoted many times afterward, was 'When he’s home, he’s home.'"
And as a family man and busy doctor, President Nelson also made it a priority to focus on emulating Jesus Christ and his healing power.
He helped develop the first heart-lung machine, making open-heart surgery possible by maintaining blood circulation. Early in his career, he and his wife Dantzel discovered a way to better oxygenate a patient's blood during surgery.
In 1972, he operated on then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball, an LDS apostle who would later become president of the LDS Church.
Through his career, he was fascinated by what he saw as God's laws "that govern the function of the body," he told young adult members of the church in a 2017 address. As he researched, he discovered how these laws worked in connection with the heart's function.
But despite his own medical accomplishments, President Nelson maintains that true healing power comes from Jesus Christ.
“I marvel at his matchless power to heal. I testify of Jesus Christ as the master healer. It is but one of many attributes that characterize his incomparable life," President Nelson said during a 2005 address to the church.
Prior to and during his calling as an apostle, President Nelson served on several councils, which provided him with varied experiences that have served him well throughout his ministry.
Elder Russell M. Nelson speaks at a press conference regarding a change in the age requirement for missionary service. Photo: LDS Church
Under LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson, he also worked to open doors to missionaries in the Eastern European nations, visiting 31 countries in Europe in 27 trips made over 5 years.
In his most recent address to members of the LDS Church, President Nelson spoke of the Book of Mormon — a book of scripture members of the faith believe to be an account of Christ’s ministry in the Americas. He challenged members to think about their lives without the Book of Mormon, what they would not know or have.
In response to a challenge from President Monson, he said he studied the book, and typifying his meticulous nature, made lists of what the book is, affirms, fulfills, clarifies, refutes and reveals.
"When I think of the Book of Mormon, I think of the word power. The truths of the Book of Mormon have the power to heal, comfort, restore, succor, strengthen, console and cheer our souls," he said in his address.
After the death of his first wife in 2005, President Nelson married Wendy L. Watson in 2006. Watson previously worked as a marriage and family therapy professor at BYU and is often seen accompanying her husband on church assignments.
President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson; and members of their family at Roots Tech 2017. Photo: LDS Church
President Nelson is expected to serve as president of the church until his death.