For more than five years, President Russell M. Nelson’s leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has seemed a whirlwind of activity with a spate of changes, adjustments, announcements, rescissions and reforms.
Now, it appears, age is catching up with the global faith’s longest-living prophet-president.
He will not be attending in person this weekend’s General Conference at the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
“This weekend…I will be watching General Conference through technology just as most of you will,” Nelson said in a news release Thursday. “Three weeks ago, I fell and injured the muscles in my lower back. This episode has reminded me of the reality that things sometimes change quickly in our lives. [A] photo of my counselors and me was taken at the celebration of my 99th birthday. Two days later, I fell.”
Thankfully, the church’s 17th president said, his “healing is progressing.”
But as his physician has told him, they “don’t have much data on how 99-year-olds recover from an injury like this one, so I am prescribing a slow, careful approach to healing so that you achieve a full recovery.”
Having prescribed “just such a course of action for many of my own patients years ago,” Nelson, a former heart surgeon, said, “I feel duty-bound to follow doctor’s orders.”
The nonagenarian, as are all members of the current governing First Presidency, is “not able to sit in a chair for long periods of time,” he said, but is “hoping to record my General Conference message and look forward to participating in this marvelous October 2023 General Conference through technology.”
Oaks to preside in person
Likely due to his fall, Nelson did not join his two counselors in the First Presidency at a meeting earlier this week with Hungary’s president. Rather, 91-year-old Dallin H. Oaks, his top counselor and next in line to assume the faith’s helm, presided over the visit and presumably will do the same, at least in person, at this weekend’s sessions.
Nelson, turned 99 on Sept 9. A day later, he fell.
The day before his birthday, according to a previous news release, he did participate in meetings and attended to other duties in the Church Administration Building.
Until recently, Nelson had shown few public signs of slowing down. He has had to make some prior 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.
Health issues of his predecessors
Since 1994, two of Nelson’s most recent predecessors — Presidents Gordon B. Hinckley and Howard W. Hunter — all had attended at least one session of General Conference and given one talk during each conference during their tenures of presiding.
Members became aware of Monson’s health issues in 2015, when he bypassed a meeting with a visiting President Barack Obama and then cut his speaking load by half at April’s conference.
Two years later, the church announced that then-89-year-old Monson no longer goes to his office or attends meetings regularly “because of limitations incident to his age,” but rather “communicates and confers with his counselors on matters as needed.”
During the faith’s spring General Conference that year, the church’s 16th president delivered two short sermons (announcing plans to build a handful of temples, including one in Saratoga Springs, which recently opened), but did not attend either the Saturday or Sunday afternoon conference sessions.
Monson did not attend any session of the fall 2017 conference. He died Jan. 2, 2018 at age 90.
Hinckley, who led the church as its 15th president from 1995 until January 2008, never suffered any major mental or physical decline and continued to speak at the church’s conferences to the end. He died in 2008 at age 97.
Howard Hunter, who was frail when he stepped into the presidency in June 1994, and served only nine months at the church’s 14th president, dying on March 3, 1995. He was 87.
Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th president, died in May 1994 at age 94 but had been incapacitated for his last five years in office, unable to address the faithful at conference or even be seen in public.
The 12th president, Spencer W. Kimball, took the helm of the global faith in 1973. By 1982, was rarely well enough to appear in public, according to the biography written by his son, Edward Kimball. However, Kimball still attended at least one session of each twice-yearly General Conference until his death in 1985 at age 90.
Jeffrey Holland update
Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, recovering from a lengthy hospital stay, also will participate in this weekend’s conference by watching sessions at home. He did not attend the spring conference in person either.
In April, the 82-year old Holland was temporarily excused from his duties as an apostle as he underwent kidney dialysis, and he and his wife, Pat, suffered from the effects of COVID-19. In June, he announced that he had begun slowly returning to work. In July, Pat Holland died. In August, her husband entered the hospital.
Thursday’s release said his health was “improving.”
— Editor David Noyce contributed to this story.