Elder Russell M. Nelson: Applying Divine Laws


Elder Russell M. Nelson

Busath Photography. Used by permission.

He was in Manzanillo, Mexico, in February 1978, attending medical meetings with the group of doctors he had graduated with thirty years earlier. Suddenly, one of the doctors became seriously ill, suffering from massive bleeding into his stomach. Under normal circumstances, any of the physicians in the room could have treated him. Each had been trained in the science of healing; each had refined his skills and knowledge during years of experience. But as they watched their colleague suffer, they realized they were helpless.

“We were in a resort hotel in a remote fishing village,” recalls Elder Russell M. Nelson. “There was no hospital; the nearest was in Guadalajara, many mountainous miles away. It was night; no planes could fly. Transfusions were out of the question because of lack of equipment. All the combined knowledge and concern there could not be converted to action to help our friend as we saw his life ebbing before our eyes. We were powerless to stop his bleeding.”

The victim asked for a blessing. Several of the doctors who held the Melchizedek Priesthood immediately responded, and Dr. Nelson acted as voice. “The Spirit dictated that the bleeding would stop and that the man would continue to live and return to his home and profession.” The man recovered and returned home.

“Men can do very little of themselves to heal sick or broken bodies,” Elder Nelson says. “With an education they can do a little more; with advanced medical degrees and training, a little more yet can be done. The real power to heal, however, is a gift from God. He has deigned that some of that power may be harnessed via the authority of his priesthood to benefit and bless mankind when all man can do for himself may not be sufficient.”

As a heart surgeon, Dr. Nelson has seen the power of the priesthood at work on many occasions when man could do nothing for himself. But he has also witnessed another divine principle at work: “If you want a blessing, you obey the law upon which it is predicated.”

He tells, for example, of a time President Spencer W. Kimball asked him for a blessing before surgery. After the blessing, the Prophet said, “Now you may proceed to do the things you need to do in order to make that blessing come to pass.”

“Working with the divinely created body for forty years,” says the new General Authority, “I’ve been dealing with the laws of God 100 percent of the time. Those laws are incontrovertible, everlasting, and forevermore. And they apply to an apostolic calling, just as they apply to the work of a surgeon.”

Experiences such as these helped prepare Russell M. Nelson for his calling on 7 April 1984 to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Long before his call came, he had learned to respect and follow divine laws in his personal and professional life. He attributes much to the legacy his ancestors left him: All eight of his great-grandparents joined the Church in Europe, immigrated to Utah, and settled in the town of Ephraim. Their courage and commitment have inspired similar feelings in successive generations.

Russell was born in Salt Lake City 9 September 1924 to Marion C. and Edna Anderson Nelson. As a boy he had many interests. At ten, he ran errands for his father’s advertising company. Later he worked part-time in a bank, the post office, and a photo studio. Noted for his perfect pitch, he sang in choirs in high school and college, performed in musicals, and sang in prize-winning quartets. He played the piano and was on the debate team.

Although Russell was successful in other activities, his football coach usually kept him on the bench during games. “I think one of the reasons was that I always felt a little bit defensive about my hands,” he remembers. “I was afraid somebody might step on them with their cleated shoes.” Those hands operated on the coach nearly forty years later.

In college he decided to study medicine. He did well in his studies, was a member of several honor societies, and received his B.A. degree in June 1945. By that time, he was already well into his first year of medical school, and he completed the four-year course in three years. In August 1947, he was “a full-fledged M.D.” at age twenty-two, having graduated with highest honors.

In the meantime he had met and married Dantzel White. She was a lead soprano in a university play Russell had been persuaded to participate in. When he met her and heard her sing, he was smitten: “She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I sensed that she was the one whom I would marry.” He needed no further motivation to perform in the play, and they were married three years later, 31 August 1945, in the Salt Lake Temple. Dantzel completed her bachelor’s degree and taught school until the birth of their first child.

After his internship at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Nelson worked on a team that made medical history: After three challenging years, they developed the first machine that could perform the functions of a patient’s heart and lungs during heart surgery. In 1951, the machine performed well in the first open-heart operation on a human being.

Four years later, Dr. Nelson performed the first successful open-heart surgery using a heart-lung machine in Salt Lake City, making Utah the third state in the nation to reach this important milestone.

He attributes those history-making events to obedience to divine law: “When I started medical school, we were taught that we must not touch the human heart, or it would stop beating. Yet Doctrine and Covenants 88:36 [D&C 88:36] tells us that ‘all kingdoms have a law given.’ Therefore I knew that even the blessing of the heartbeat was predicated upon law. And I reasoned that if those laws could be understood and controlled, perhaps they could be utilized for the blessing of the sick.

“To me this meant that if we would work, study, and ask the proper questions in our scientific experiments, we could learn the laws that govern the heartbeat. Now, having learned some of those laws, we know that we can turn the heartbeat off, perform delicate repairs on damaged valves or vessels, and then let the heart beat again.”

Before returning to Salt Lake City, he enlisted to serve a two-year term of medical duty in the U.S. Army during the Korean War; he served in Korea and Japan and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Later he worked for a year at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, then returned to the University of Minnesota for a year and received his Ph.D. degree in 1954.

Back home in Utah, Dr. Nelson continued his research, teaching, and surgery. Involved in public service, he worked in a multitude of influential professional capacities—local, national, and international. The lengthy list includes such service as president of the Thoracic Surgical Directors Association, of the Society for Vascular Surgery, and of the Utah State Medical Association. He also served as a director of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. At LDS Hospital he served as chairman of the Division of Thoracic Surgery and now serves as vice-chairman of the board of governors. Among numerous honors he has received are the “Citation for International Service” from the American Heart Association, and the “Golden Plate Award” from the American Academy of Achievement.

Over the years, he literally touched the hearts of thousands of patients, including top Church and civic leaders. In 1972 he performed heart surgery on Elder Spencer W. Kimball, after which he received a witness that his patient would someday become President of the Church. (See “Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” Ensign, May 1984, p. 87. See also Lane Johnson, “Russell M. Nelson: A Study in Obedience,” Ensign, Aug. 1982, p. 18.)

What are his thoughts now as he makes the transition from medicine to full-time Church service? “I’m eagerly looking forward to this privilege of service,” he says. Then he grins: “I’ve thought how nice it will be to have people come to see me who want to see me! All these years people have been coming to my office who really would rather not be there. I expect the majority of my appointments now will be of a joyous nature.”

Characteristically, any sadness at closing one chapter in his life is eased by enthusiasm for the chapter about to begin: “I learned years ago from President N. Eldon Tanner never to look back. He taught me not to look through the ‘retrospectroscope’ and agonize over what I might have done differently. So I don’t relive the past. Each hour had its opportunity, and I either did a good job or I fumbled the ball. I walk away from the past knowing I gave it the best I had.”

Through years of Church service, Elder Nelson has consistently given his best. He didn’t have the opportunity for full-time missionary service when he was nineteen, because the United States was at war. But since then, he has found many opportunities to be a missionary. When a nurse asked him what made him different from the other surgeons, he introduced her to the Church. It wasn’t long before he baptized her; later, her son served a mission.

When two other colleagues—a husband and wife—showed interest in the Church, he explained some of the principles and loaned them a copy of the Book of Mormon. A week later they returned it with a polite thank-you.

“What do you mean, ‘Thanks a lot’?” he asked his two friends. “That is a totally inappropriate response for one who has read this book. You didn’t read it. Please take it back and read it, and then return it to me with a much more appropriate reply.”

Admitting they had only thumbed through it, they accepted his challenge. Three weeks later they returned with tears in their eyes. “We know this book is true,” they said. “How can we learn more?”

Smiling, the young doctor said, “Now I know you’ve read the book. Now we can proceed.” He eventually baptized them.

During years of rigorous medical studies and heavy professional responsibilities, Russell Nelson served faithfully in his Church assignments. He worked in the Sunday School and the priests quorum, in bishoprics and on a high council, and as a missionary on Temple Square. He served seven years as a stake president, eight years as general president of the Sunday School, and four years as a Regional Representative.

But no matter how involved Elder Nelson has been in other important activities, his top concern has always been his family. Once, a writer for a national magazine expressed interest in a photograph of the doctor’s unusual family—nine daughters and a son. Dr. Nelson explained: “We believe that our major goal in life is to strengthen our family. Service in the Church, the community, continuing education, and our occupational endeavors all are undertaken to provide development for our family.”

The writer was surprised. “But earlier in our interview you said you and your wife had always tried to obey the scripture, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God.’ (Matt. 6:33.) Now you tell me the family comes first.”

“He thought he had me. But I simply reviewed my long-established priorities and said, ‘I cannot seek the kingdom of God without loving and honoring first that family he has given to me. I cannot honor that family without loving and caring first for my wife!’” (See Ensign, March 1977, p. 65.)

He gives credit to Dantzel for supporting him in his desires for more and more schooling, for never murmuring about their poverty during those lean years, and for always being “the heart of our home.”

But Sister Nelson insists he is really the supportive one: “He makes me feel that I am most important in his life. He didn’t allow the children to be rude or talk back ever. And he always says, ‘Mother is the queen of the house. Whatever she wants, that’s the way it’s going to be.’ I’ve always had that support.”

Thursdays have been her day to do what she likes to do. Every Thursday morning she does volunteer work at the LDS Hospital. And, as a member of the Tabernacle Choir since 1967, she attends choir rehearsals on Thursday evenings. “Russell has arranged his schedule in the past so he could be home with the children that night.”

Once President Harold B. Lee asked Sister Nelson how it felt to be the wife of such a busy man. Her reply, which President Lee quoted many times afterward, was “When he’s home, he’s home.”

“At home, he devotes his whole attention to us,” she says. “Rather than watching TV, he helps with the meals and the dishes, helps the children with their homework, and reads to them before they go to bed. And the two of us regularly enjoy time alone together.”

Does she see her role changing now? “I’m sure the feeling will be different—directed fully to Church work rather than to his medical practice,” she replies. “But my role will continue to be a supportive one. I’m honored to be his companion and to share this with him.”

The children share Sister Nelson’s feelings. Over the years, they’ve never questioned their dad’s love for them, each feeling that she—or he—was the favorite child. “I never felt Dad was too busy for me,” says daughter Emily. “We spent lots of time together.”

Even with a difficult schedule, he made time to establish a lasting relationship with each one. Since he had to travel extensively, he often took one family member with him, either Sister Nelson or one of the children. Rather than considering this an extravagance, he viewed it as a wise investment.

“Those trips gave me a chance to listen to their problems and their ambitions,” he says, “and for us simply to talk to one another and share ideas and experiences with each other.”

The Nelson children could count on consistency: daily scripture reading at 6:30 A.M.; family prayer at 6:45 A.M., at every meal, and at 10:00 P.M.; and weekly home evenings. They all share their parents’ love of music and enjoy singing together as a group. For years, the sounds of piano, violin, guitar, accordian, and flute have filled the home.

Holidays and vacations are times to look forward to. In the winter, they ski. (Skiing is, in Elder Nelson’s own words, “one of my greatest loves.”) In the summertime they water ski, swim, and play tennis. On one day each year, they go horseback riding. “I cherish dearly the memory of riding the horse with each one of the young ones as they came along,” Elder Nelson says. “I’d bury my nose in the hair of that little one and wrap my arms around her or him. I’m sure each of the children thought I was hanging on to give them security while they were riding the horse. But I was clinging to a precious moment that I had alone with each loved one as that turn came. On each occasion I offered a prayer of gratitude to my Father in Heaven for the great privilege of being a father to this one, for I knew each to be such a special spirit.”

Indeed, the Nelsons consider each of their children a blessing. In 1972 they had their tenth child—their first son. Seventeen years earlier, Sister Nelson had an experience during the night—“more than just a dream”—convincing her that they would someday have a son. Over the years her assurance was strengthened on a number of occasions. In 1972, her husband also had an experience in the night in which “it was made known to me that this time Dantzel’s pregnancy was with a son, he who had been appearing to her through the years.” When Russell, Jr., was born and his dad phoned home to announce the news to the girls, screams of joy filled the air.”

There’s more room in the house these days. Marjorie, eighteen, and Russell, twelve, are the only children still at home. The other eight are married: Marsha (Mrs. Chris McKellar), Wendy (Mrs. Norman Maxfield), Gloria (Mrs. Richard Irion), Brenda (Mrs. Richard Miles), Sylvia (Mrs. David Webster), Emily (Mrs. Brad Wittwer), Laurie (Mrs. Richard Marsh), and Rosalie (Mrs. Michael Ringwood). And now there are twenty-two grandchildren.

As could be expected, the family has found ways to stay close. The Nelson News is a monthly paper that includes an article from each family member and a calendar of important family events. And each month they have dinner together and a party to celebrate all the birthdays and anniversaries during the month. A cake is decorated with the names of everyone being honored, and Elder Nelson takes pictures of it to send to those who are away so they know the family celebrated their birthday.

After several of the daughters had left home, Elder Nelson converted one of the empty bedrooms into a study. “It was my wife’s idea. She insisted that I have that indulgence.” It is stocked with photographic equipment, a computer for scientific research, a word processor, and “a wonderful library” of Church and scientific books.

He starts out each day with an hour to himself. “I get up before anybody else, and that gives me time for personal scripture reading, private prayer, and about a half-hour playing the hymns and Johann Sebastian Bach on the organ. By the time I leave home in the morning, my mind is filled with good things—the scriptures and fine music. This gets my day off to a good start better than any other way I’ve found.”

Elder Nelson’s personal preparation, his many Church and family experiences, and his profession have all enhanced his testimony. Having spent his life dealing with medical law, he looks at his faith with the eye of a scientist, as well as with that of a disciple: “I think a surgeon is in a unique position to understand one of God’s greatest creations—the human body. Every segment of the body motivates me to faith.

“Then you add the great convincing power of the Book of Mormon as another witness for Jesus Christ. There is no other explanation than that which the Prophet Joseph Smith gave.”

Elder Russell M. Nelson brings to the Quorum of the Twelve the same dedication and devotion, the same energy and enthusiasm that he gave to his work as a heart surgeon.

But his new calling has for him an added dimension: “I have a deep and abiding faith in God and in his Son, Jesus Christ. The work I’m now engaged in is the most important cause in the world. It’s all-encompassing, it’s fulfilling, and it’s challenging. And I must do my best, because I have an accountability for this stewardship.”

[photos] High-powered magnifying glasses aid the surgeon at work (above). “I believe being a physician has added a special dimension to my faith in God, our Creator,” Elder Nelson says. “Man is God’s greatest miracle.” As a child (below) “our home was always a happy one. The tenderest moments of all were those with my Mother and Daddy. Well do I remember how beautifully Mother sang to me.”

[photo] Dantzel “was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen,” he says. This picture was taken shortly after their engagement was announced in 1945.

[photo] General presidency of the Sunday School, 1971. Counselors are Joseph B. Wirthlin (left, now in the First Quorum of the Seventy), and Richard L. Warner (right).

[photos] Family portrait, 1981 (opposite page): First row, left to right: Brenda N. Miles, Gloria N. Irion, Sylvia N. Webster. Second row: Emily N. Wittwer, Dantzel W. Nelson, Russell M. Nelson, Russell, Jr., Marsha N. McKellar. Third row: Wendy N. Maxfield, Laurie N. Marsh, Marjorie, Rosalie. (Busath Photography. Used by permission.) Below: Elder and Sister Nelson today. “Ours has been a wonderful life together, and continues to be so,” says Sister Nelson.