A packed Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City came alive with the sounds of music Friday night as thousands of Latter-day Saints gathered to celebrate the 95th birthday of their president-prophet, Russell M. Nelson.
“We’re all trying to keep up with you,” quipped general authority Seventy S. Gifford Nielsen, one of the evening’s hosts, to the honored man, grinning on the front row.
Nielsen and co-host Ruth Todd, a former TV news anchor, ticked off Nelson’s breathless schedule during his first 19 months at the helm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“He has traveled over 90,000 miles, visited 28 countries, met with more than 100 world and religious leaders,” they said in alternating readings. “He has spoken to more than 1 million members and friends in audiences around the world.”
He has brought “happiness and hope to so many,” Todd added.
Nelson also is reshaping Utah’s predominant faith, overhauling prominent policies and sacred ceremonies, loosening some rules while tightening others, even changing how people refer to his religion.
His pioneer ancestors “came singing” to the Beehive State, so different from their homes in Europe.
It was a tribute to a heart-surgeon-turned-global-faith-leader who has loved music of every kind from his earliest childhood, nine decades ago.
The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performed and provided backup for popular singer Donny Osmond, GENTRI (the Gentlemen Trio) and tenor Nathan Pacheco.
Musical genres ranged from musicals (“The Sound of Music” — what else? — performed by Jenny Oaks Baker and Family Four on stringed instruments) to popular tunes (“You Raise Me Up”) to folk hymns (“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “His Voice as the Sound”) to a piece from a Puccini opera.
The bash was punctuated with standing ovations and wild applause.
The birthday boy himself — he officially turns 95 on Monday — surprised the audience by taking to the stage to play a Chopin prelude on the piano.
The gala also featured four videos on Nelson’s life, focused on his family, his career and his ministry.
“When Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks were sustained as apostles, I knew that we had just sustained future presidents of the church,” M. Russell Ballard said in the third video.
Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, accompanied Nelson to a meeting with Pope Francis.
“When they shook hands,” Ballard said, “there was an immediate sense of brotherhood.”
The Bonner Family performed “Hallelujah, the Prophet’s Medley,” especially for this occasion, followed by the entire audience singing, “Happy Birthday.”
Nelson “has more love in him than anyone I know,’ Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the governing First Presidency, said in the concluding video.
“He’s such a good listener to people, and he is good at understanding the impact of decisions on a variety of people,” said Oaks, Nelson’s first counselor. “He’s an effective decision-maker — like a surgeon.”
They agreed, “He’s a heart healer.”
The counselors offered their own, “Happy Birthday,” and added, “we hope for many more.”
Nelson, in a navy blue suit, took to the stage to express his “feelings of love and gratitude.”
He mentioned his deceased wife, Dantzel, and two daughters who have died, and said, “Maybe they got a hall pass to witness this event tonight.”
Nelson pointed to the colorful flags at the front representing the countries where members reside across the world — a world he has crisscrossed since becoming president, visiting every continent except Antarctica.
“If I have learned anything certain, it is that Jesus the Christ is the son of God, his church has been restored in latter days to prepare for the Second Coming of the Savior,” he concluded.
The choir, dressed in white and black, opened the evening with a Latter-day Saint hymn, “Press Forward, Saints,” and closed it with “Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah” and “Let Us All Press On.”