The longest-living president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now a full year older and a full year closer to the century mark.
Yes, Russell M. Nelson turned 99 on Saturday.
The day before his birthday, Nelson, as per usual, participated in meetings and attended to other duties in the Church Administration Building in downtown Salt Lake City, according to a Saturday news release. He and wife Wendy then met in his office for photographs with his children and their spouses, along with his two counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring, in the governing First Presidency.
Nelson was born in 1924, the year the first Winter Olympics took place in France, the Macy’s Parade debuted in New York and Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin died.
Church membership back then stood just short of 600,000; today, it tops 17 million. There were six operating temples. Now, there are 179 dedicated temples, with another 136 in the works. Of the 315 planned or existing temples, Nelson has announced 133, or 42%, of the total, since he assumed the faith’s helm in January 2018.
Nelson, a former heart surgeon, has shown few public signs of slowing down, though he has made some concessions to his advancing age. For starters, he travels far less internationally. Nearly a year ago, he started sitting on a chair to deliver his highly anticipated and highly viewed twice-yearly General Conference addresses — an allowance, he noted, for those who “age on stage.” And, in May, he confirmed the “rumor” that he sometimes uses a walker or a wheelchair when he encounters a “small challenge” with his balance.
“Gratefully, my heart is good,” the former renowned cardiac surgeon said at the time, “my spirit is strong as are my legs, and my brain still works.”
During his five-plus-year tenure as the church’s 17th prophet-president, Nelson has launched a number of reforms, severed ties with the Boy Scouts of America, led members through a worldwide pandemic and visited every continent, save for Antarctica.
Here are other significant changes or developments under his leadership:
• In spring 2018, his first General Conference as president, he appointed the first Asian American and Latin American apostles, Gerrit W. Gong and Ulisses Soares, and announced temples to be built in Russia and India.
• The next month, Nelson met with NAACP leaders and created an ongoing partnership with the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
• In October 2018, Nelson scaled back the three-hour Sunday meeting block to two hours.
• Several months later, in December, the church announced that female missionaries could wear dress slacks when proselytizing.
• Nelson met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in March 2019, the first-ever audience between a Catholic pontiff and a Latter-day Saint prophet.
• In April 2019, the church reversed its controversial LGBTQ policy, which labeled same-sex married couples “apostates” and generally barred their children from baby blessings and baptisms.
• Barely four weeks later, leaders removed the one-year waiting period between a civil wedding and a temple “sealing” in the U.S. and Canada. Now, Latter-day Saint couples worldwide can marry civilly — inviting all their loved ones to attend — and then be joined for eternity in a temple ceremony.
• The church took another stride toward gender equity in October 2019, allowing women to be witnesses at baptisms and temple sealings.
• The Utah-based faith closed temples and suspended weekly church services in March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.
• In April 2022, he officially became the church’s oldest-ever president, surpassing Gordon B. Hinckley.
• In February 2023, for the second time under Nelson, the church unveiled changes to temple ceremonies, placing an enhanced emphasis on Jesus Christ, further boosting gender equity and providing more explanations of the promises worshippers make to God.
• In June, the proselytizing church released the second edition of “Preach My Gospel,” the main teaching tool for its tens of thousands of missionaries across the globe.
• The same month, Nelson and his two counselors in the governing First Presidency updated the U.S.-born church’s policy on political neutrality and warned members against straight-ticket balloting, labeling such polarizing partisanship a “threat to democracy.”
• Last month, he donated his medical journals, including 30 books documenting more than 7,000 surgeries, to his alma mater: the University of Utah. As a surgeon, he had gained international acclaim as part of a research team that developed the heart-lung machine, which made possible the first human open-heart surgery in 1951.
More changes and more temples may be in the offing. After all, another General Conference is a mere weeks away and Nelson, even at 99, is still very much on the job.