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When President Nelson Learned Chinese

Matthew Flitton Church Magazines

President Nelson made lifelong friends, shared the gospel, and strengthened the Church’s relations with China—all because he followed the prophet.

In 1979, President Russell M. Nelson was at a seminar when President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) told those who were there: “We should be of service to the Chinese. We should learn their language. We should pray for them and help them.”

And even though there were many reasons not to, that is exactly what President Nelson did.

“I did not hear him say, ‘Everyone except Brother Nelson!’” he said in the Worldwide Devotional for Youth. So he and his wife got to work studying Mandarin Chinese.

President Nelson

“Six weeks after President Kimball’s charge, I was attending the annual meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery,” President Nelson said. “It was being held in Boston, Massachusetts [USA]. That morning, I had prayed in my hotel room for the people of China, just as President Kimball had requested. I went to the first meeting of the day and sat where I always sat at these professional meetings—at the front of the room. As the meeting proceeded, however, I became increasingly uncomfortable in my chair. As the lights were turned down for a slide presentation, I slipped out of my chair and walked quietly to the back of the room—a place where I would usually never sit. When the lights came up again, I found myself sitting by a Chinese doctor. He introduced himself as Professor Wu Ying-Kai from Beijing, China!”

President Nelson started talking to him in Mandarin and invited Dr. Wu to lecture at the University of Utah Medical School. Dr. Wu accepted and, after his visit, invited President Nelson to China, where he made friends with Dr. Zhang Zheng-Xiang. President Nelson returned to China numerous times to visit and teach in Chinese medical schools.

President Nelson

It was Dr. Zhang who asked President Nelson to perform a coronary artery bypass graft surgery on a famous opera singer, Fang Rongxiang. President Nelson had just been called to be an Apostle, but the First Presidency gave permission and he returned to China to perform the surgery. It was the last surgery President Nelson ever performed and created much goodwill, giving President Nelson many opportunities to meet with government leaders on behalf of the Church. In 2015, President Nelson was named an “old friend of China” for his work to introduce open-heart surgery to the country.

Another benefit that came from President Nelson’s decision to follow the prophet was more personal. In 1990, Dr. Zhang wrote President Nelson to tell him that he was retiring to Canada. His studies and experiences had led him to believe that the LDS Church was the only one that made sense and asked if President Nelson could arrange for someone to teach him the gospel once he moved. President Nelson quickly made arrangements, and that April, President Nelson baptized his friend Dr. Zhang. Dr. Zhang then baptized his wife. A year later, President Nelson joined the Zhangs as they received their endowments and then performed the sealing ceremony for them.

Through President Nelson’s determination to follow the counsel of a prophet, he developed friendships, shared the gospel, and strengthened the Church’s relations with a country. Because of his obedience the Lord could use him to connect with others.

“It is my testimony that when we follow through with whatever the prophet of God asks us to do, the way will be opened and lives will be changed,” he said. President Nelson has given the youth of the Church a special call to action. Will you follow it?

Share your experience! What blessings or opportunities have you seen when you followed the prophet’s counsel?

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