Legacy of service: President Nelson’s 99th birthday

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President Nelson turns 99 years old on Sept. 9, 2023. President Nelson has ushered an era of change over the course of his life. (Kamree Laursen)

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints turns 99 years old on Sept. 9, 2023. Since becoming the leader of the Church in 2018, President Nelson ushered in an era of change, building upon principles espoused over the course of his life.

The importance of gospel learning in the home

According to President Nelson, he did not grow up in a gospel-centered home. All eight of his grandparents joined the Church in Europe and immigrated to the U.S. His parents taught them important life lessons, yet did not focus their home life on Jesus Christ. President Nelson sought out the Gospel of Jesus Christ on his own and was baptized when he was 16 years old.

In October 2018, President Nelson announced that the Church would be implementing “a home-centered and Church-supported plan to learn doctrine, strengthen faith and foster greater personal worship.” This effort, known as “Come, Follow Me,” would shift the focus of gospel learning into the home, allowing families to come together and focus their home lives on Jesus Christ. Sunday meetings were shortened by one hour to allow families time to teach and learn together.

The importance of being sealed for time and eternity

In 1945, while studying in medical school at the University of Utah, he married his first wife, Dantzel White, in the Salt Lake Utah Temple. During their life together, they had nine daughters and one son. While their children were sealed to President Nelson and his wife, President Nelson was not sealed to his own parents until his parents were in their 80s.

“I cannot fully express the joy that I felt that day, and each day I feel that joy of their sealing and my being sealed to them,” President Nelson said.

In May 2019, The First Presidency removed the one-year waiting period between civil marriages and temple marriages. Before the change, men and women married outside the temple were required to wait a full year before entering the temple to be sealed for time and eternity. Now, couples can be married outside the temple and sealed anytime after, allowing family members and friends without temple recommends the chance to witness the marriage.

The importance of peacemaking

During President Nelson’s surgical internship, a surgeon operating on a gangrenous leg became upset with the residents working under him. The surgeon threw a contaminated scalpel across the room in anger, injuring President Nelson. After the incident, President Nelson promised himself that his own operating theater would be different and that he would never throw sharp objects or words in anger again.

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve recalled the words of a former surgery student who studied under President Nelson. This student said while other operating rooms were “chaotic, competitive, pressure-filled and even ego-driven,” President Nelson’s operating room was “peaceful, calm and dignified.” Residents were held to high standards, but the calm environment allowed the residents to thrive under his leadership.

President Nelson has given several talks since his call to be an Apostle, counseling them to avoid contention, build tolerance and mutual respect and honor the Savior’s example to become peacemakers.

The growth of the Church

When President Nelson was born in 1924, there were less than 600,000 members of the Church. Only six dedicated temples were on the earth at that time, serving 90 stakes and 1,685 wards. In 2023, there are more than 17 million members of the Church, an increase of more than 2,700%.

Starting in April 2018, President Nelson has delegated announcements and additional responsibilities to the Quorum of the Twelve. In 2018 alone, Elder Jeffery R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve explained the new ministering program to members of the Church and Elder D. Todd Christofferson and Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve explained adjustments in the structuring of Elders Quorum meetings. In delegation, President Nelson has allowed the Quorum of the Twelve additional chances to lead out and strengthen members of the Church across the world.

Before 2018, only seven members of the Quorum of the Twelve had dedicated temples. The other temples were dedicated by members of the First Presidency. Since President Nelson became the leader of the Church, each member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve has dedicated a temple at least once.

The importance of temples

While working as a surgeon in 1972, President Nelson performed heart surgery on Elder Spencer W. Kimball. President Kimball became president of the Church in 1973, 11 years before President Nelson was called as an Apostle. President Kimball announced in 1981 the building of nine additional temples, the largest increase in temples at one time. Additional temples were announced by President Kimball, President Ezra Taft Benson and President Howard W. Hunter.

President Gordon B. Hinckley announced that the Church was on track to build 100 temples by the end of the year 2000. By the time President Thomas S. Monson, President Hinckley’s successor, passed away in January 2018, there were 159 dedicated temples and 23 announced or under construction.

President Nelson has announced plans to build 133 temples, replace two temples and renovate 12 temples. During his administration, 19 temples have been dedicated, 14 rededicated, and 10 scheduled for dedication. The St. George Utah Temple will be rededicated in December 2023. Additionally, 43 are under construction, two groundbreakings are scheduled, eight renderings have been released and 22 temple sites have been announced. There is no additional news for the remaining 47 temples, including temples in Russia and China.

The name of the Church

During his time as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, President Nelson spoke about the importance of the name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Previous Church leaders had also requested that members use the correct name of the Church.

“By divine directive, the title of the Church bears the sacred name of Jesus Christ, whose church this is,” President Nelson said. “He so decreed more than once. Nearly two thousand years ago, the Lord said, ‘Ye shall call the church in my name; … And how be it my church save it be called in my name?'”

On August 16, 2018, President Nelson issued a statement regarding the importance of using the name of the Church as given by divine inspiration. In the October session of General Conference, President Nelson again affirmed the importance of the name and the scope of the changes that would be made to be in line with the official name of the Church.

“The name of the Church is not negotiable,” President Nelson said. “When the Savior clearly states what the name of His Church should be and even precedes His declaration with, ‘Thus shall my church be called,’ He is serious. And if we allow nicknames to be used or adopt or even sponsor those nicknames ourselves, He is offended.”

Shortly after his announcement, social media accounts run by members of the Church changed their names to reflect the counsel given by President Nelson. On March 5, 2019, the First Presidency announced that LDS.org and Mormon.org would be replaced with ChurchOfJesusChrist.org and ComeUntoChrist.org, respectively. During the following months, additional changes were made to official Church social media accounts, phone and tablet apps and the Church-wide internet access.

Caring for all people

While working in the professional field, President Nelson witnessed the Civil Rights Movement impacting the lives of those around him. For the first half of his life, African American members of the Church were unable to be ordained to the Priesthood. On June 8, 1978, six years before President Nelson was ordained an apostle, President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation allowing for “all worthy male members of the Church [to be] ordained to the priesthood without regard for race or color.”

While speaking in General Conference in 2020, President Nelson urged members of the Church and the world at large to abandon “attitudes and actions of prejudice.”

“God does not love one race more than another,” President Nelson said. “His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto Him, ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female.’ I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin.”

After meeting with members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in May 2018 and working with their leadership for years, The First Presidency announced a new collaboration with the NAACP in June 2021.

“Leaders of the Church have found common ground with the NAACP as we have discussed challenges that beset some of God’s children,” President Nelson said. “The challenges are huge, and our capacities are limited. But together, we want to make a difference, even though our efforts may seem relatively small.”

The lessons that President Nelson has learned throughout his life have impacted his decisions as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As he continues to lead the Church into his 99th year, those lessons will continue to inspire him to love and serve all of God’s children in higher and holier ways.

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