When Russell M. Nelson was ordained prophet-president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in January 2018, the former heart surgeon already had in mind changes he wanted to make in the nearly 17 million-member global faith.
“It is as though he’s been unleashed,” his wife, Wendy Watson Nelson, said in a 2018 official church video. “He’s free to finally do what he came to earth to do. … He’s free to follow through with things he’s been concerned about but could never do. Now that he’s president of [the church], he can do those things.”
During his first five years as the Utah-based faith’s top leader, Nelson’s priorities for reshaping the church and its members have become clear.
Here are some of the ideas and themes he has pushed:
• Gathering of Israel — In 2018, Nelson told a worldwide gathering of Latter-day Saint youths that “these surely are the latter days, and the Lord is hastening his work to gather Israel. That gathering is the most important thing taking place on earth today. Nothing else compares in magnitude, nothing else compares in importance, nothing else compares in majesty.” It has been a recurring message for the now 98-year-old leader, repeated often in speeches, sermons and conversations.
• Personal responsibility and revelation — With a “home centered-church supported” slogan and the unveiling of an individualized way to study scriptures (the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum), Nelson signaled a desire to push members toward more individual righteousness, more reliance on personal revelation, and more responsibility in mostly nuclear families.
Many Latter-day Saints have loved the reforms, but others are less enthusiastic. They mourn what they see as a loss of community, especially for single members, shortcomings in new youth programs, a dumbing down of scripture study and whiplash on women’s issues. They also lament the end of “live temple ceremonies,” the gutting of the Salt Lake Temple and the shift away from the once-heralded “Mormon” identity.
• The need for more temples — “Every time a temple is dedicated, more light comes into the world,” Nelson said in a 2022 online regional devotional “Every time we go to the temple, our lives are reinforced by that light and by the covenants we make with God.”
During his tenure, Nelson has announced 118 temples, nearly 40% of the faith’s 300 existing and planned temples.
More temples means it is not only “easier for members of the church to attend temples and learn about returning to the presence of God,” Springville resident Frank Staheli said, “but also to provide a needed proxy service for those who died without receiving these ordinances.”
• The importance of using the full name of the church, not its Mormon nickname — During the church’s October 2018 General Conference, Nelson made an unequivocal pronouncement: He directed members, media and others to use the faith’s full name: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and stop using the Mormon moniker (save for some exceptions).
The instruction was not a name change, not rebranding, not cosmetic, not a whim and not inconsequential, Nelson said. “It is a command of the Lord.
Using common nicknames such as “Mormon church,” “LDS Church” or the “Church of the Latter-day Saints,” Nelson said, “... is a major victory for Satan.”
When members “discard the savior’s name,” he said, “we are subtly disregarding all that Jesus Christ did for us — even his atonement.”
In the ensuing years, most of the faithful have tried valiantly to use the church’s full name, or Latter-day Saints when referring to members. But it remains a hard sell with scholars, politicians, journalists, even worldwide members.
Members in Russia are uncomfortable calling themselves “Saints,” and others, like retired Brigham Young University professor Wilfried Decoo in Belgium, complain that avoiding the Mormon term “disrupts easy communication with outsiders and makes it challenging for outsiders to write about the church.”
• Rooting out racism — Unlike any of his predecessors, Nelson has spoken repeatedly about the problems of racism in the country and in the church from its most prominent platform: General Conference.
In October 2020, Nelson said he grieves that “our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice.”
“Today, I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,” he added. “I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”
The Latter-day Saint leader reached out to the NAACP and put the church’s money where his mouth was, dedicating millions to programs for Blacks in this country as well as helping set up a fund to send young Black Americans to Ghana to learn about the former slave trade.
“As the mantle of leadership settled upon his shoulders, President Nelson provided a steady, responsive hand, addressing racism directly, in a way no previous church leader had,” said Darius Gray, one of the founders of Genesis, a support group for Black Latter-day Saints. “There has been no equivocation, no hesitation speaking to the scourge of racism as servants of Christ.”
Now the church’s oldest-ever president, Nelson seems determined to continue promoting these themes or unveiling new ones he has on his mind.