A new First Presidency for the LDS Church will soon be named following the death of its 16th president, Thomas S. Monson, on Jan. 2, 2018.
Succession of the presidency throughout the history of the church has fallen upon the apostle who has served the longest. This apostle holds the place as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, unless he is called as a counselor to the prophet.
“Shortly after the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley, the 14 men, apostles, who had had conferred upon them the keys of the kingdom, gathered together in the upper room of the temple in order to reorganize the First Presidency of the church,” President Boyd K. Packer said in April 2008. “There was no question about what would be done, no hesitancy. We knew that the senior apostle was the president of the church. And in that sacred meeting, Thomas Spencer Monson was sustained by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the president of the church.”
Following this precedent, President Russell M. Nelson, who was set apart as the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on July 15, 2015, by President Thomas S. Monson, will become the church’s 17th president.
President Nelson was born Sept. 9, 1924, in Salt Lake City, to Marion C. and Edna Anderson Nelson. He chose to pursue a career in medicine, though he had many talents and interests, including a love of music.
He graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in 1945; earned a medical degree, graduating with honors, in 1947 at the age of 22; pursued surgical training and his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota; and underwent other training through Harvard Medical School.
His training and education led him to serve as a medic for two years during the Korean War and to build his own heart/lung machine upon returning to Utah, which was used for Utah’s first open heart surgery. He performed several of the first open-heart surgeries in history.
President Nelson was in the midst of research for replacing aortic valves with a lower mortality rate when President Spencer W. Kimball, then an apostle, approached him with a call to be stake president. The heart surgeon explained the stress he was under, as well as the huge time commitment he was already making, when President Kimball asked if he had time for the new calling.
“I don’t know about that, but I have the faith,” President Nelson said.
President Kimball gave the new stake president a priesthood blessing promising President Nelson that mortality rates with aortic valve surgery would be reduced, and the procedure would no longer be the drain on his time and energy as it had been in the past. President Nelson said the blessing was ratified within a year.
A world-renowned heart surgeon, listed in Who’s Who lists for the world, religion and the United States, President Nelson depended on obedience to divine laws to help him in his profession.
“Men can do very little of themselves to heal sick or broken bodies. With an education they can do a little more,” President Nelson said. “The real power to heal, however, is a gift from God.”
As promised in President Kimball’s blessing, President Nelson’s aortic valve replacement boasted a significantly low mortality rate by 1968. He served as President Kimball’s personal physician and performed heart surgery on him while President Kimball was an apostle.
President Nelson worked as a research professor of surgery at the University of Utah; directed Thoracic Surgery Residency there and was chair of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at LDS Hospital. He regularly lectured nationwide before his call to be a general authority.
He served as president of the Society for Vascular Surgery, director of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, chair of the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery for the American Heart Association and president of the Utah State Medical Association. He received numerous national awards, including several from the American Heart Association.
President Nelson remained grounded in the gospel despite his work and the accolades he received.
“Danger lurks when we divide ourselves with expressions such as ‘my private life,’ ‘my professional life,’ or even ‘my best behavior,'” President Nelson said in a 2014 General Conference talk. “When we covenant to follow the Lord and obey his commandments, we accept his standards in every thought, action and deed.”
President Nelson also made his family a priority over his career. He met his first wife, Dantzel White, while they were both performing in a college play. They married in August 1945 and had ten children, 57 grandchildren and over 100 great-grandchildren.
“The greatest guardians of any and all virtues are marriage and family,” he said in a 2014 BYU Devotional.
Dantzel died in 2005, and President Nelson married Wendy L. Watson, a BYU marriage and family professor, in April 2006.
President Nelson held many callings in the church before he was set apart to be president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in July 2015.
In addition to his calling as stake president, President Nelson served as general president of the Sunday School, regional representative and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since April 1984.
He became the first apostle to travel to Kazakhstan, dedicating it in 2003, and organized Russia’s first stake in 2011.
President Nelson’s characteristic obedience facilitated church relations in China. He was in a meeting in which President Kimball encouraged those in attendance to learn Chinese. President Nelson responded and learned Mandarin. With this language, he developed relationships with medical professionals in China and was the first honorary professor of Shandong Medical College, 1985.
BYU gave President Nelson an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1970. He also dedicated the university’s Life Sciences Building in 2015.
“This university is committed to search for truth and teach the truth,” President Nelson said during the dedication of the Life Sciences Building. “All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether truth comes from a scientific laboratory or by revelation from the Lord, it is all compatible.”