President Nelson’s Remarkable First Year Filled with Milestones, Travel, and Promises for More

Contributed By Tad Walch, Deseret News staff writer

  • 6 April 2019

President Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during Jerusalem District Conference at the BYU Jerusalem Center in Jerusalem on Saturday, April 14, 2018.  Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • President Nelson has focused on the international Church and receiving revelation.
  • He has traveled more in his first year than any other Church President.
  • There is more revelation to come.

“One of the things the Spirit has repeatedly impressed upon my mind since my new calling as President of the Church is how willing the Lord is to reveal His mind and will.” —President Russell M. Nelson

In the past 12 months, President Russell M. Nelson and the senior leadership have changed the way Church members worship on Sundays, how they minister to one another, how priesthood quorums are organized, how missionaries begin their service and interact with their families, and how the Church’s name should be used. They’ve also introduced changes that affect every auxiliary organization in the Church.

This week the council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles announced changes to policy related to LGBT members.

As President Nelson and Church members prepare for the first general conference of the second year of his prophetic role as Church President, some may be trying to catch their breath.

“It’s a remarkable start, and it portends a very energetic and dynamic future,” said Rick Turley, former assistant Church historian and recorder.

President Nelson undertook the most ambitious first-year travel schedule by a new president in Church history, based on information published by Church Newsroom and discussions with Church historians—55,000 air miles with stops on five continents. He spoke to enormous crowds in an American professional football stadium, a professional baseball stadium, an NBA stadium, and at other arenas and convention centers and meetinghouses in 16 countries. That all happened since last April 2018.

Hundreds of thousands

“In that short period of time, hundreds of thousands of people have had an opportunity to be in a meeting in the presence of the prophet,” said Turley, now the managing director of the Church’s Public Affairs Department.

One of those people was Eunice Amuge of Uganda, who began to save money to travel to Kenya as soon she heard President Nelson would be there. She made complicated plans with minibuses called matatus for a trip that took two days and was rugged in a way most Americans can’t imagine—no highways and thousands of potholes on mostly dirt roads.

Afterward she beamed.

“I shook my prophet’s hand,” she said.

Turley said President Nelson’s message on trips has consistently centered on gathering and on encouraging Church members to stay on the covenant path as well as receiving revelation, including personal revelation.

“In coming days,” he said in his first general conference talk as Church President, “it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost” (“Revelation for Our Lives,” Apr. 2018 general conference).

President Russell M. Nelson speaks during a devotional at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, February 10, 2019. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

There are other messages—both implicit and explicit—observers said. One, for example, is that the Church is undeniably international.

In October, Church members joyfully cried in the Concepción Chile Temple when President Nelson walked into a room where they sat to watch a broadcast of the temple dedication ceremony.

On that trip, he also delighted Latter-day Saints in large meetings in Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay by delivering his talks in Spanish.

“My impression of our prophet speaking to the Latin Americans in their native tongue brought tears to my eyes,” said Charla McCruter, who is living in Ecuador as a nontraditional online student in international relations and an EnglishConnect teacher with BYU-Pathway Worldwide. “It completely changed the way I feel about what I am doing. I feel as though he is right here with all of us and not so distant as I had felt before. It lit a fire that has not burned out yet.”

President Russell M. Nelson is hugged by children after a devotional in Asunción, Paraguay, on Monday, October 22, 2018. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

The temple

Another illustration of President Nelson’s revelatory first year is temple building.

President Russell M. Nelson stands with attendee Augustine Escobar during the dedication of the Concepción Chile Temple in Concepción, Chile, on Sunday, October 28, 2018. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

In the five years preceding his sustaining as Church President, the Church announced 12 new temples. Last October, he announced 12 in a single day. That list included a first temple in Cambodia just six months after he announced the first temples for Russia and India.

The construction of a temple in Bangalore, India, will ease major time and financial burdens on growing Church membership in the country and surrounding nations. Today, most members must save money for months or years to travel to temples in Hong Kong or Manila, Philippines, to receive Church ordinances available only in those buildings.

Temples allow Latter-day Saints “to perform the essential ordinances of mortality,” including baptism for the benefit of those who have died, President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, told Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.

Restoration and revelation

President Nelson’s first general conference talk to the entire body of the Church in April 2018 was about the Church’s bedrock belief in continuing revelation.

“One of the things the Spirit has repeatedly impressed upon my mind since my new calling as president of the Church is how willing the Lord is to reveal His mind and will,” he said (“Revelation for Our Lives,” Apr. 2018 general conference).

He said God instructed him to select his new counselors in the First Presidency, but only after he conducted interviews.

“I know good inspiration is based on good information,” he said.

In two electric days around that talk came the announcement of a change to priesthood quorum organizations and the way members minister to one another away from Sunday services. He also added new diversity to senior Church leadership.

President Nelson has repeatedly stated that the changes and adjustments implemented over the past year are the result of revelation and that more are to come. His wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, has described how some of that revelation comes. She said she has witnessed him receive revelation during the night since they married in 2006 but added that the revelation has come with increased frequency and intensity since he became the Church President.

The breathtaking surge of changes has directly affected every one of the Church’s 16.1 million members and 30,500 congregations.

“The most memorable moments in life are those in which we feel the rush of revelation,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said during the initial burst of announcements at general conference a year ago. “President Nelson, I don’t know how many more ‘rushes’ we can handle this weekend” (“Be With and Strengthen Them,” Apr. 2018 general conference).

President Russell M. Nelson smiles after leaving the Government Palace after speaking with the president of Peru in Lima, Peru, on October 20, 2018. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Home-centered Church

After a spring and summer of travel, the rushes returned at the next conference in October, when he announced Sunday services would be reduced to two hours to focus Latter-day Saints on a more home-centered Church.

Bishop Richard J. McClendon said the new home-centered curriculum that accompanied the change has increased the spiritual and doctrinal depth of the Sunday School classes in his Maple Canyon Ward in the Salem Utah Stake.

“In the past, few members came to class having already read the lesson,” he said. “Now, not only have they read, but they have studied and searched and discussed the lesson material with their family members before coming. My observation of the gospel doctrine class since January has taught me that there really is a significant difference in the depth and testimony of the comments now being shared. We have moved from breadth to a much deeper dive.”

President Russell M. Nelson looks over destroyed homes with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, in Paradise, California, on Sunday, January 13, 2019, two months after the Camp Fire destroyed 1,400 homes and hundreds of businesses. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Correct name

President Nelson also reiterated a request he made in August, when he asked the Church and the world to stop referring to the Church using the nicknames Mormon or LDS Church. The full name of the Church plainly states that it is Jesus Christ’s and that it is His restored Church, he said, adding that Christ Himself in Latter-day Saint scripture declared that the Church should be called after His name.

Two days earlier, the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir was renamed The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Recently, the Church’s website changedfrom ChurchofJesusChrist.org to ChurchofJesusChrist.org. In March, The Associated Press updated its style on references to the Church, encouraging its media members to use the full name of the Church on first reference and refrain from using the terms “Mormon” or “Mormons” unless in quotes or necessary for space or clarity.

Two weeks after the October conference, President Nelson embarked on his second major tour to five South American countries. At the end of that trip, in Chile, he said: “If you think the Church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning. There’s much more to come. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”

Other adjustments have included:

His second year began with equal vigor.

Every member of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posed for an iconic photograph in the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center in Rome, Italy, on Monday, March 11, 2019. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

In March, he gathered all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles outside the United States—for the first time in Church history—for the Rome temple dedication, which he called “a hinge point” for the Church.

He also participated in the first meeting between a Catholic pope and a Latter-day Saint prophet.

President Russell M. Nelson meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome, Italy, on Saturday, March 9, 2019. Photo courtesy of The Vatican.

Looking ahead

The image of a vibrant, advancing Church has been matched by President Nelson’s public image of robustness, including his ability to walk off a plane in La Paz, Bolivia, where the altitude exceeds 13,000 feet, and speak at a meeting without any ill effects.

“His energy and his enthusiasm are contagious,” Turley said.

“He does not look 94,” Sister Nelson said in October. “I cannot get him to act his age.”

President Nelson has promised more, including more travel.

“Things are going to move forward at an accelerated pace,” he said in Rome in early March, later adding, “The Church is going to have an unprecedented future, unparalleled; we’re just building up to what’s ahead now.”

“Stay tuned,” Turley said. “It’s not over.”

President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy Watson Nelson greet Mercy Makau, her daughter Gloria Nashipai, and her son William Mbogo at the home of Makau’s aunt in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday, April 16, 2018. Photo by Ravell Call, Deseret News.

President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson, hold up Four Tanapumtonger after a devotional in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday, April 20, 2018. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

From left, Elder Gary E. Stevenson and President Russell M. Nelson meet with Peruvian president Martin Vizcarro on October 20, 2018, in Lima. The men discussed the Church’s ongoing humanitarian service in Peru. Photo courtesy of the South America Northwest Area.