By his own account, Russell M. Nelson speaks often to God, or, rather, God speaks often to him.
Nelson, the 94-year-old president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said recently that he was awakened at 2 a.m. with a distinct impression that he should go to the Dominican Republic.
Within days, the Church News reported, the energetic nonagenarian was on a plane to that Caribbean nation.
This is an “era of unprecedented revelation,” Nelson told the missionaries gathered to hear him there Sept. 1.
Indeed, in his first nearly nine months as the Utah-based faith’s top “prophet, seer and revelator," Nelson has used the term “revelation” again and again to describe his motivation for initiatives and changes.
It is not unusual for Latter-day Saint presidents to speak of being inspired by deity. After all, members believe that their movement began with founder Joseph Smith’s directions from God in a New York forest not to join any other church but to start his own. From then to now, all Mormon prophets believed their calling was to express the mind and will of God for the church and the wider world.
Few of Nelson’s modern predecessors, however, have made such strong use of the word “revelation,” at least in public or in news releases. The current Latter-day Saint leader, on the other hand, speaks boldly of his prayer life and divine mandates.
In January, the month Nelson took the faith’s reins, his wife, Wendy Watson Nelson, reported that one night she was prompted to leave her husband alone in their bedroom.
“Two hours later, he emerged from the room,” Wendy Nelson told apostle Neil L. Andersen, who reported it on Facebook. “Wendy, you won’t believe what’s been happening,” the church president told his wife, according to Andersen’s account. “The Lord has given me detailed instructions on what I am to do.”
His choice of counselors in the governing First Presidency? The Lord instructed him. New apostles? The Lord inspired him. Emphasizing the church’s full name and eschewing its long-standing “Mormon” nickname? The Lord “impressed” it on his mind.
It’s not surprising, then, that Nelson’s first major sermon to the global membership during his inaugural General Conference since taking the hierarchy’s helm was titled “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives.” No church president in recent decades has seemed so at ease with the rhetoric of his own revelation.
Evolution of revelation
Ever since their faith’s founding in 1830, Latter-day Saints have come to expect their prophet to have regular exchanges with the Almighty, who they believe is directing the church.
Smith reported a visionary experience with God and Jesus as well as the spiritual ability to “translate” ancient scripture — including the faith’s Book of Mormon — into modern English.
His adherents collected Smith’s proclaimed interactions with the heavens and published them (as well as other materials) in a volume known as the Doctrine and Covenants.
Subsequent Latter-day Saint prophets were less comfortable than Smith attaching “thus saith the Lord” to their admonitions. But they definitely felt the mantle of godly spokesman.
In the 1930s, Mormon apostle John A. Widtsoe described two kinds of revelation, said historian Matthew Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”
The first type is the one employed by Smith and his immediate successor, Brigham Young, which “pertained to the cosmos and the kingdom of God.”
The second is “more mundane, day-to-day things of the kingdom,” said Bowman, paraphrasing Widtsoe. “But those are revelations, too.”
Widtsoe was trying to help members, the historian said, grapple with the “fading of the charismatic element in the church.”
Bowman said short-lived church President Harold B. Lee believed that the faith’s welfare plan — to help members during the Great Depression and beyond — was revelatory.
As an apostle in that desperate era, Lee went into an isolated woods to pray about the issue, describing it in language much like Smith’s well-known “First Vision.”
“As I kneeled down, my petition was, ‘What kind of an organization should be set up in order to accomplish what the presidency has assigned?’” Lee recalled in a General Conference speech in 1972. “And there came to me on that glorious morning one of the most heavenly realizations of the power of the priesthood of God. It was as though something were saying to me, ‘There is no new organization necessary to take care of the needs of this people. All that is necessary is to put the priesthood of God to work.’”
Perhaps the most momentous assertion of divine revelation to a 20th-century Mormon prophet happened in 1978 to Spencer W. Kimball, who ended a centurylong ban on black men and boys being ordained to the all-male priesthood and on women and girls entering Latter-day Saint temples.
The decision to change the long-standing policy came first to Kimball after years of prayer and meditation and then to top Latter-day Saint authorities meeting in the Salt Lake Temple.
“We joined [President Kimball] in prayer in the most sacred of circumstances,” recalled Gordon B. Hinckley, who was an apostle at the time and later rose to church president. “I do not recall the exact words that he spoke. But I do recall my own feelings and the nature of the expressions of my brethren. There was a hallowed and sanctified atmosphere in the room.”
For Hinckley, “it felt as if a conduit opened between the heavenly throne and the kneeling, pleading prophet of God who was joined by his brethren,” he told members a decade after the experience. “The Spirit of God was there.”
The future president went on to say that there was not the sound of a ”’rushing mighty wind,’ there were not ‘cloven tongues like as of fire’ as there had been on the Day of Pentecost. But there was a Pentecostal spirit.”
The assembled men did not hear a “voice audible to our physical ears,” Hinckley said. “… But the voice of the [Holy] Spirit whispered with certainty into our minds and our very souls.”
As president, Hinckley did not mention God when introducing “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” or his plans to erect smaller temples — both significant theological and programmatic developments — nor even when he offered his stern 2006 admonition against the sin of racism.
One of the few changes Hinckley attached directly to God, at least in public, was the Perpetual Education Fund, which offers school loans to needy members. He described it in a 2001 General Conference sermon as “a plan which we believe is inspired by the Lord.”
That hardly means these men shied away from mentioning their revelatory experiences in private or from referring openly to their prayers and pleadings with the Lord.
“They clearly believed they were inspired by God and willingly assumed the prophetic mantle,” said Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. “But they rarely went to the ‘God spoke to me’ rhetoric.”
Modern Mormons typically say “we’ve been praying and feel inspired,” Mason said. “We teach revelation, but we inhabit inspiration as a practice.”
Most Latter-day Saint leaders are “a little gun-shy to go to the ‘R’ word,” the scholar said. “Nelson isn’t.”
Just because Nelson is a bit of a throwback to earlier times, said Mormon historian Ardis Parshall, doesn’t negate his experience.
“There is a real difference between how generally 19th-century people speak about revelation and prophecy (and speaking in tongues, and healing, and other gifts of the Spirit) and how current and recent generations do,” Parshall said. “Prophets have different gifts, different styles. Few of them express their impressions as Joseph Smith did.”
When Latter-day Saint presidents say that they felt “inspired” or received “an impression,” she wrote in an email, “they ARE saying that it is a revelation.”
For Parshall, it’s a question of style, not substance.
Nelson uses “old-style language — and is possibly unique in that style among recent leaders,” Parshall said, “but I think it’s only his language, not his claimed experiences, that are unique.”
One of God’s ‘greatest gifts’
Even before Nelson became the church’s 17th president, he was comfortable using the “R” word.
In that first sermon, the Latter-day Saint prophet reiterated that “the privilege of receiving revelation is one of the greatest gifts of God to his children.”
Before Nelson’s appointment more than 34 years ago to full-time church service as an apostle, he was a renowned heart surgeon. He said in his April speech that “in an operating room, I have stood over a patient — unsure how to perform an unprecedented procedure — and experienced the Holy Ghost diagramming the technique in my mind.”
He also mentioned that “to strengthen [his] proposal” to his wife, Wendy (his first wife, Dantzel, had died), Nelson told her, “I know about revelation and how to receive it.”
In January 2016, when Nelson was the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he described a controversial policy about gays as a revelation.
The policy, which leaked out the previous November, dictates that married same-sex couples be considered “apostates” and generally bars their children from Mormon rituals until they are 18.
In a speech from Brigham Young University-Hawaii to the faith’s millennials everywhere, Nelson explained the policy’s reasoning.
Balancing their understanding of Mormon doctrine about the “plan of salvation,” which is built on male-female eternal marriage, with compassion for children of same-sex couples, he said the apostles “considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise."
Nelson’s immediate predecessor, President Thomas S. Monson, then declared “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.”
“Each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation,” Nelson said, in the first official explanation of the hotly debated policy’s origins. “It was our privilege as apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson.”
That is how, Nelson said, revelation works.
Nelson explained that revelation from on high is a sacred process.
“The [three-member] First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel, individually and collectively,” he said. "And then, we watch the Lord move upon the president of the church to proclaim the Lord’s will.”
Such statements echoed words and phrases used by Kimball and others to describe their experience ending the racial ban in 1978.
This language is one of “authority and legitimation,” Bowman said. “It adds weight to claims [he] is making.”
The “willingness to claim revelation in public,” the historian noted, “has grown more rare over time.”
Stuart Reid, a former Utah legislator who previously worked in the church’s public affairs department, believes that Nelson’s use of the term “revelation” is no accident but rather reflects the Latter-day Saint leader’s real interactions with divinity.
“The Lord really does speak to him in the night,” Reid said on a recent episode of The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “He is a person who seeks revelation and insight … of what the Lord expects of this church.”
The elderly leader seems to have a sense of urgency, Reid said. If listeners pay attention to his language and “start connecting the dots, they will see he is laying a foundation for the church in ways we have not heard in a long, long time. … Each intermediate step [announcement] is a building block in that foundation.”
Nelson is preparing the faithful for the long-awaited Second Coming of Christ, Reid said, and relaying God’s will is a key factor in that readying.