This weekend, tens of thousands will gather in downtown Salt Lake City to hear talks from leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while millions more listen and watch online.
For the faithful — and even just the curious — General Conference can be a time of spiritual guidance and renewal. Under church President Russell M. Nelson, General Conferences have also been a time of exciting and sometimes stunning changes.
Changes are still coming, like Thursday’s reversal of the policy of not allowing children with LGBTQ parents to be baptized until age 18, or the changes to the Church of Jesus Christ’s temple ceremony, unveiled inside temples beginning in January.
Nelson wasn’t kidding when he quipped last fall: “Eat your vitamin pills. Get some rest. It’s going to be exciting.”
I haven’t known much about Nelson except that he was a heart surgeon in his professional life, had 10 children with his wife Dantzel and that his second wife, Wendy Watson Nelson, has a Ph.D., a 25-year practice as a marriage and is an accomplished author. I have learned a lot more recently abut just how remarkable he is.
Last week, I read the new book “Insights From a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson” by author Sheri Dew, a close personal friend to Nelson and his wife, Wendy.
As Russell was growing up, his family was not active in any church. He joined the Church of Jesus Christ as a 16-year-old high school senior. He graduated as valedictorian at East High in Salt Lake City in 1941. He did not serve a church mission but instead went to school at the University of Utah in a joint bachelor’s degree/medical doctor program. Astonishingly (to me, anyway), he graduated with both degrees in August of 1947. He was 22 years old.
While in his medical residency, he decided to also get a research-focused Ph.D., which he did simultaneously with the residency. He joined the research team that invented the first heart-lung machine, a machine that would allow surgery on a heart that could be stopped and then restarted. Now, we almost take for granted that hearts can be operated on, but when Nelson trained to be a surgeon, it was an absolute no-no.
In one of his textbooks for school, published in 1913, the author declared that “a surgeon who would attempt such an operation [on the heart] should lose the respect of his colleagues.”
When asked how he went from a total prohibition on touching the human heart to being a world-renowned heart surgeon, he replied simply: “I was curious.”
I was struck not only by Nelson’s brilliance — he also speaks multiple languages — but at his kindness. He became a surgeon to help people. He was kind in his operating room, when often doctors are not. As he began serving in the church, his mantra was “How can we help?” He helped open Eastern Europe through his patience and persistence — and his sincerity in wanting to help the people of those countries.
In Romania, for example, he and Elder Hans B. Ringger met the head of religious affairs after dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu was deposed in 1989. This official told him what they most needed help with was their orphans. This led to Dr. Alvin Price and his wife Barbara being called to serve in Romania, where I met them in 1991. The Prices helped organize the first Special Olympics in the country. (And, they are the parents of former state Rep. Becky Edwards. Service runs in the family.)
Nelson walked away from his career when he was called into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the April 1984 General Conference and focused on living a life devoted to a different kind of service. Nelson now leads a global church of millions and does so in love, kindness and sensitivity to others, something he has worked on perfecting his entire life. Oh, and he still skied black diamond runs into his 90s, until church security finally insisted he stop.
I took my vitamins this week. I’m ready for the weekend!
Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.