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Though President Nelson’s actual birthday isn’t until Monday, September 9, we wanted to join in the celebration that will take place September 6, 2019 by drawing our readers’ attention to these two wonderful stories from his life.
Cover image via ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
As we celebrate the 95th birthday of our dear prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, we celebrate not only the anniversary of his birth, but the magnificent legacy of his life and what he has done as a servant of the Lord. His energy is unmatched, bringing him to visit Saints in over 20 nations and territories since he was sustained as President of the Church on January 14, 2018 and make many changes within the Church to continue the hastening of the work.
He so famously said recently, “Wait till next year, and then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get some rest. It’s going to be exciting.” The inspired changes he has enacted has given the worldwide Church a sense that each individual has a responsibility to participate in the gathering of Israel—we must repent, recommit to our covenants, attend the temple, and minister to those around us. We must press forward with faith despite the trends of the world and seek for and follow revelation.
President Nelson not only speaks with power and love, but his life embodies the principles he exhorts us all to follow. Two stories from Insights From a Prophet’s Life by Sheri Dew that are lesser known from his life illustrate the faith that has marked his ministry and his life:
The Faith To Say No
In the middle of his career as a heart surgeon in 1965, Dr. Nelson got an unexpected offer from the University of Chicago Medical School to be a professor of surgery and chairman of the Division of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery. Not only was this offer from a prestigious university, the pay check was higher and the university would pay for their children’s college education (at the time they had nine daughters). It seemed like an offer not to be missed.
Russell and his wife Dantzel were even more excited about the offer when, on their visit to Chicago to tour their prospective new home, they met and had dinner with Dallin H. Oaks and his wife, June. Dallin was a law professor at the University of Chicago, and dutifully made an effort to persuade the Nelsons that Chicago was the place for them.
Dr. Nelson was wanted not only for his excellent experience and knowledge in the medical field, but the dean also wanted his influence on the school. “One of the reasons we want you,” the dean said, “is that we know you are a good Mormon. We want you on our faculty. We need you here to bring the influence to this University that a Mormon could bring.”
All things seemed stacked in their favor, even in finding a house they could put a down payment on, and after their visit to Chicago, Russell and Dantzel decided he should take the position.
But young Dr. Nelson was also the stake president of the Bonneville Stake in Salt Lake City, and when a member of his high council, Joseph Anderson, heard about the Nelson’s decision to move to Chicago, he suggested to President Nelson that he should talk to the prophet, President David O. McKay, about the matter. “The President of the Church can’t be concerned about the occupational changes of stake presidents,” Russell said. “Oh, yes he can,” Joseph responded. So, President Nelson made an appointment with President McKay.
President McKay held fast to his walker as Russell walked in and sat down in his apartment, but with great acuity of mind, President McKay asked every question possible to President Nelson about the job offer in Chicago.
After some discussion, President McKay leaned his head back on his chair and closed his eyes for a long, almost uncomfortable period of time. At one point, Russell wondered if something had happened to the President and if, as a doctor, he should check his vital signs. Finally, President McKay opened his eyes, looked at Russell directly, and said, ‘Brother Nelson, if I were you, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to change neighborhoods. It doesn’t feel good to me. No, Brother Nelson, your place is here in Salt Lake City. People will come from all over the world to you because you are here. I don’t think you should go to Chicago.’ And then he added, with a hint of a smile, ‘You will find your fame and fortune here. You’re already famous. I know about you’ (Insights From a Prophet’s Life, 2019).
From that moment onward, President Nelson’s decision was made—he would stay in Salt Lake City. “If the prophet didn’t feel right about it, we were not going to go,” he said.
Later, Russell M. Nelson would say, “My [belief is that we should] stop putting question marks behind the prophet’s statements and put exclamation points instead.”
The Faith To Say Yes
When President Ezra Taft Benson was set apart as the prophet with Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson as counselors, they came to their first meeting in the Salt Lake Temple with the Quorum of the Twelve with new assignments for each Apostle. As they went around the circle handing out the new responsibilities, they finally came to Elder Nelson, and President Benson said, “You are to be responsible for all of the affairs of the Church in Europe and Africa, with special assignment to open up the nations in Eastern Europe that are now under the yoke of Communism for the preaching of the gospel.”
Though Elder Nelson didn’t say a word, he felt completely underqualified, looking around at other Apostles like Elder Oaks, thinking they could navigate the legal aspects of this assignments much better than he could. He was completely intimidated, knowing how important this assignment was to the building of the Kingdom.
In 1985, more of Europe lay behind the Iron Curtain than not: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Democratic Republic, and all of the USSR. President Benson’s assignment to Elder Nelson came roughly nineteen months before President Ronald Reagan would famously declare, on June 12, 1987, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ and four years before the Berlin Wall would fall on November 9, 1989. There were more countries in Europe that had not recognized the Church than had. Further, this was during the politically frigid time referred to as the Cold War. ‘If a task ever seemed impossible to me,’ Elder Nelson admitted years later, ‘that was it.’
‘I had spent much of my professional life opening hearts to perform lifesaving operations,’ he reflected, ‘but I had no experience that would lead me to believe I could open countries for the preaching of the gospel.’ And yet, a prophet had given him an assignment, and so he set out to what seemed at the outset ‘utterly impossible’ (Insights From a Prophet’s Life, 2019).
After several months of attempting any initial contact with government officials and figuring out how he should go about this “impossible” task, he began meeting with ambassadors and diplomats in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Washington D.C., trying to find the way to open the doors for the gospel.
With some connections and knowledge of the language, Elder Nelson went to Moscow, Russia with Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy and a Swiss General Authority from the European Area Presidency to see what connections they could make. Their first stop was to visit Konstantin Kharchev, the chief of the Council of Religious Affairs, who deliberately refused to meet with them. With faith and great ambition, Elders Nelson and Ringger waited outside Mr. Kharchev’s office until the end of the day when it was time for him to go home.
Mr. Kharchev walked out the door unhappy to see them sitting expectantly outside his office. Elder Nelson spoke up, despite the impatient exuding from the official, “We just want to ask you a question. What would we need to do to get the Church we represent established in Russia?”
In Communist Russia, establishing any church was unheard of, and the requirements seemed yet again like an impossible obstacle to overcome: they had to have twenty adult Russian citizens from the same political district who were willing to sign as being members of the church. No proselyting or visitor centers allowed.
“You have given us a chicken-and-egg problem,” said Elder Nelson. “You say we can’t receive recognition until we have members, but we can’t get members if we can’t have a reading room or visitors’ center.” “That sir, is your problem,” Mr. Kharchev responded curtly.
No amount of brainstorming between Elders Nelson and Ringgers could come up with a solution to this problem. They went through every possible scenario in their heads. That was when they had to step back and watch the Lord work miracles.
Some Russians were baptized in the United States, some traveled to other parts of Europe and were introduced to the gospel. One woman traveled to Helsinki for the sole purpose of buying a Bible, as Bibles were not available to buy in Communist Russia, and found a Bible in a park, only to talk to the first woman she passed about her find who was a member of the Church. The woman offered to give her another important book about Jesus Christ. One person after another found the gospel in miraculous ways, and just four years after Elder Nelson’s first visit to Moscow to make connections, the Tabernacle Choir came to Moscow to perform at a dinner at the Bolshoi Theater for Alexander Rutshkoy, the vice president of the Republic of Russia, who announced unexpectedly that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been granted full recognition in Russia.
“It was an absolutely stunning moment…Many of us did all we could to bring this about, but make no mistake about it, it was the Lord who worked the miracle,” Elder Nelson said.
Thank you, President Nelson for your exemplary life of obedience, hard work, vision and vigor. It is not just your words that inspire us, but your life’s choices, your virtue, and your character.