Getting to Know the New Mormon President: Russell M. Nelson

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Young Russel M Nelson in a sailor suit
Young Russel M. Nelson in a sailor suit, courtesy of LDS.org

Russell M. Nelson was formally called as the new president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Tuesday morning.

Russell M. Nelson previously served as an apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But before he was called as an apostle, he was a world-renowned heart surgeon and member of the team that created the first machine to perform the functions of a patient’s heart and lungs during open-heart surgery (LDS.org article, “Russell M. Nelson”). In this biography of Russell M. Nelson, read about his early years and the miracles he saw in his career as a heart surgeon.

infographic of Russel M. Nelson's life

Early Years

Having Respect for the Human Body

Before he even knew he wanted to go into the medical field, Russell had great respect for the human body. He remembers that during school, he would go home for lunch, and at least once a week his mother tried to feed him beef liver. Back then, they did not know how bad liver was for cholesterol; instead they believed it was good for you, packed with iron and vitamins.

However, Russell did not like the taste or the texture of liver. It was nasty, and he made every effort to avoid eating it. His best strategy was to wait until his mother looked away, then stuff the liver in his pocket. On his walk back to school, he would dispose of it in an empty lot. “This maneuver was a little hard on pockets, but it was, nevertheless, very successful,” he says (Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

Russell played football in high school, but often sat on the bench during games, because he did not want to damage his hands. He was very protective over his hands and feared someone might step on them with their cleats. His coach, no doubt annoyed, kept Russell on the bench. Forty years later, Russell performed surgery on his coach with those hands (Ensign article “Elder Russell M. Nelson: Applying Divine Laws”).

Joining the Church

Russell’s parents, Marion and Edna, were not active members in the Church while Russell was growing up. However, despite their inactivity, they sent him to Sunday School every week. Young Russell did not particularly enjoy Sunday School, and his attendance soon became sparse as he would often go to Hyde Park to play football with other ditchers instead.

It wasn’t until Russell turned 16 that he began to have a change of heart. Because of the encouragement of his home teacher, Russell and his other siblings were baptized. Russell also recalls the influence of his teachers at church. He began to recognize how important the gospel should be in his life and became more active and faithful in it.

Russell and his siblings expressed concern for their parents’ inactivity growing up. Russell remembers finding bottles of alcohol in the home storage room. In a fit of “righteous indignation,” he smashed the bottles to pieces on the concrete floor. Though his father was angry when he discovered what Russell had done, he did not scold him. Russell’s parents, though inactive, were very loving of their children. Many years later, they would become active in the Church once again (Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

Courtship and Marriage

First Meeting Dantzel

Russell had spent a lot of time in choirs and musicals growing up, so it was no surprise when a University of Utah professor asked him to participate in the musical “Hayfoot, Strawfoot.” But because Russell was very busy taking pre-med courses, he politely declined. However, the professor approached Russell again, pleading with him. After much persuasion, Russell reluctantly agreed to join the musical (Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

When he came to practice, Russell heard the most beautiful singing. It was the voice of the lead soprano: Dantzel White. Russell’s reluctance to participate in the musical quickly disappeared. “She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I sensed that she was the one whom I would marry” (Ensign article “Elder Russell M. Nelson: Applying Divine Laws”).

Russel M Nelson and Dantzel White
Russel M. Nelson and Dantzel White, courtesy of LDS.org

Courtship

Though Russell became even busier with the medical program at the U, he still managed to find time to spend with Dantzel. He remembers that after long mornings of anatomy lab, he would join her and their friends for lunch. He smelt strongly of formaldehyde, so she was always sure to sit upwind from him. When Dantzel graduated and moved back to Perry, Utah (a lengthy 50 miles away), Russell often made the long trip to see her by riding the Bamberger train.

It was on one of these trips to her home that Russell proposed to Dantzel. Her mother had asked that they pick some peas for dinner, and they went out to the garden to do so. It was a beautiful day, and Russell proposed to her right in the middle of the pea patch. Though not the most romantic of settings, she said “yes” (BYU fireside talk “Reflection and Resolution”Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

Russel and Dantzel
Russel and Dantzel Nelson, courtesy of LDS Living

59 Years of Marriage

On August 31, 1945, Russell and Dantzel were married in the Salt Lake Temple. Though Russell was very busy with his medical career and his church work, Dantzel always supported him while raising their nine daughters and one son (Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

On February 12, 2005, Dantzel unexpectedly passed away (Deseret News article “Elder Nelson’s wife, Dantzel, dies at age 78”). Russell M. Nelson paid tribute to her in his General Conference talk “Now Is the Time to Prepare” saying:

Dantzel was not only a loved and loving companion. She was a teacher: by her noble example, she taught faith, virtue, obedience, and mercy. She taught me how to listen and to love. Because of her, I know all the blessings that can come to a husband, father, and grandfather.

New Love

Though Russell had many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, he still felt lonely without the presence of his eternal companion. However, he would start dating again, and married Brigham Young University marriage and family professor Wendy Watson on April 6, 2006 (Deseret News article “Elder Nelson marries BYU professor”).

Russell expresses his gratitude in finding happiness in marriage again. He says, “I also know what it is to be blessed again by my Heavenly Father in marrying a second time, also to a woman of compassion and generosity of spirit, who has once again completed my family circle. Nothing, absolutely nothing, compares with the companionship between a husband and a wife” (Church News article “Elder Russell M. Nelson: The Family: The Hope for the Future of Nations”).

Russel and Wendy Nelson
Russel and Wendy Nelson, courtesy of LDS.org

The Gospel in Korea

Example of Faith in a M.A.S.H. Unit

Russell had joined the navy reserves during World War II, studying medicine and receiving tuition for his service. During the Korean War, Russell joined the military again, serving as a lieutenant in a M.A.S.H. unit.

While in Korea, Russell had an encounter with a young, LDS soldier from Idaho. The young man’s spinal cord had been severed due to a gunshot wound, making him a paraplegic.

Russell did not know what to say to comfort the young man, but the young man ended up being the one to comfort Russell. He told Russell, “Don’t worry about me, Brother Nelson, for I know why I was sent to the earth—to gain experiences and work out my salvation. I work out my salvation with my mind and not with my legs. I’ll be all right!”

Russell M. Nelson later said, “The faith of that young man has motivated me ever since. He accepted the fact that he would never walk again as a challenge which would fortify his faith even further” (Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

Russel M Nelson serving in Korea
Russel M. Nelson serving in Korea, courtesy of Church News

Sharing the Book of Mormon

Two of Russell’s medical colleagues in Korea, a husband and his wife, expressed interest in the Church. Russell explained some of the basics of the gospel and gave them a copy of the Book of Mormon to read. A week later, they returned the book and politely said, “Thanks a lot.” Here is his bold response:

What do you mean, “Thanks a lot”? That is a totally inappropriate response for one who has read this book. You didn’t read it, did you! Please take it back and read it; then I would like my book back.

The couple was embarrassed and admitted that they had only thumbed through the Book of Mormon. Three weeks later, they returned to Russell, this time with tears in their eyes. They told him they had read the Book of Mormon and that they knew it was true. They wanted to learn more. Russell would later baptize his colleagues (General Conference talk “Be Thou an Example of the Believers” ; “Russell M. Nelson”).

Russell M Nelson and a Korean boy
Russell M. Nelson and a Korean boy, courtesy of Church News

Life Lessons

Holding On To The Raft

Russell and Dantzel took their family to see the beautiful sites of the Grand Canyon by rafting along the Colorado River. The first day went well, but on the second day they hit the Horn Creek Rapids. When Russell saw the terrifying drop ahead, he put one arm around Dantzel and another around his youngest daughter in order to protect them.

Instead, it was he who was flung out of the raft by the force of the rapids. Russell struggled under the water, whenever he tried to reach the surface, he hit the bottom of the raft. Finally, he managed to swim to the surface and was pulled back  into the raft by his worried family.

Later on the trip, the Nelsons were about to go over the dangerous Lava Falls when Russell beached the raft so he could speak with his family. He told them that no matter what happened, “the rubber raft will remain on top of the water. If we cling with all our might to ropes secured to the raft, we can make it. Even if the raft should capsize, we will be all right if we hang tightly to the ropes.” He then told his youngest daughter to hold on to him while he held onto the raft’s ropes. They did so and passed through the rapids safely.

Though he nearly died in the Horn Creek Rapids, he did find a lesson in it:

As we go through life, even through very rough waters, a father’s instinctive impulse to cling tightly to his wife or to his children may not be the best way to accomplish his objective. Instead, if he will lovingly cling to the Savior and the iron rod or the gospel, his family will want to cling to him and to the Savior.

Russell recognized that it is the Savior who helps carry us through the rapids of life, so He is the one we must hold on to (General Conference talk “Set in Order Thy House”).

Russel, Dantzel, and their children
Russel, Dantzel, and their children, courtesy of LDS.org

“It Will Work Out”

Though serving as the General President of the Sunday School while being a heart surgeon was difficult, Russell managed pretty well. That is, until he accepted an invitation to attend an area conference in Manchester, England. He realized afterwards that he was supposed to present a scientific paper in Moscow, Russia, around the same time.

Russell approached President Tanner for counsel on this issue. He only told Russell that, “You will be able to do both. Don’t worry; it will work out.” But the only way Russell would be able to make it work out was if he traveled from Moscow to Manchester, then returned to Moscow. At this time, Russian visas would only allow you to enter and leave the country once. Russell would need to attain additional visas for him and Dantzel.

Russell spent a lot of time speaking with Russian officials, attempting to persuade them to give him another visa. One of the officials told him that the only way this was possible would be if Russell appealed to Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister.

Russell made the appeal and waited. A few short hours before his flight to Manchester, he received visas from Gromyko’s office that would allow him and Dantzel to re-enter Russia. President Tanner was right, everything did work out in the end (Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

Surgeon with the Spirit

Going On After Trials

A heart surgeon is not the easiest thing to be, because every patient risks death during the surgery. Russell had such an experience with a couple. They had lost their first child to heart disease before certain advances in surgery. They came to Russell with their second child who had also developed heart problems, but this child passed away too. Finally, they brought a third child with a malformed heart to Russell. But despite his best efforts and their hopes, the child did not survive.

Russell came home desolate. He told Dantzel that he would never perform a heart operation again and grieved all of that evening. However, the next morning she spoke to him saying, “Isn’t it better to keep trying than to quit now and require others to go through the same grief of learning what you already know?”

Russell M. Nelson later said that “her compassionate wisdom was not only for me but also for those whom I might serve if I could just work a little harder, learn a little more, and strive further for the perfection that was demanded for consistent success” (Ensign article “Russell M. Nelson: A Study in Obedience” ; Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

Doctor Russel M. Nelson
Doctor Russell M. Nelson, courtesy of LDS.org

A Blessing for a Calling and for Aortic Valves

Russell M. Nelson lived in an era where medical professionals were still learning new things about the heart and still struggling to be successful in heart surgeries. The high mortality rates with aortic valve replacement operations in particular were on the minds of Russell and heart surgeons everywhere.

It was at this time that Russell was called to be a stake president by Spencer W. Kimball. Kimball jokingly told Russell that “Everybody we’ve interviewed around here says you might be all right, but you don’t have the time. Do you have the time?”

Russell responded saying, “I don’t know about that, but I have the faith!” He explained to Spencer W. Kimball about why he was so busy and his worries over aortic valve surgeries. When Kimball set Russell apart for his calling, he blessed him that the mortality rates for aortic valve operations would decrease and that performing the surgery would not tire him. All that Kimball promised him came to pass, helping Russell to succeed in his calling and his career (Ensign article “Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles”).

Revelation in the Operation Room

Russell once turned down a defective tricuspid valve operation because it had never been done before, so he did not know how to perform the surgery. However, the patient returned to him pleading, saying that he would die if the operation was not completed.

In the middle of the operation, Russell received revelation on how to complete the surgery. It was clear to him where to make incisions and where to put the stitches. The operation was a success. Russell says:

That serves to illustrate there is this element of faith and this element of power. When you have people praying for you and you’re praying yourself, couple with the power of fasting, which makes you more humble and more teachable, you can learn things, even if it is given you by revelation.

Through the power of prayer and fasting, Russell received the knowledge necessary to save a man’s life (Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle).

“The Real Power To Heal”

Russell was attending a medical conference in a small fishing village in Manzanillo, Mexico when one of his colleagues became ill and inexplicably started to bleed internally. Though they were in a room of trained medical professionals, there was no equipment to work with, no hospitals nearby, and no means to transport their colleague to one.

The colleague continued to bleed and was weakening fast when he asked for a blessing. Russell gave the blessing with the assistance of his associates and promised the ill man that the bleeding would stop. The bleeding did stop and the colleague was able to return home safely. Russell M. Nelson later said that:

Men can do very little of themselves to heal sick or broken bodies. 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.

Though he was a prestigious heart surgeon in the medical field, Russell M. Nelson recognized that the Lord is the true healer and the one to be relied on (“Russell M. Nelson”).

Dr. Nelson examines a model of the human heart
Dr. Nelson examines a model of the human heart, courtesy of LDS.org.

A Future Prophet’s Surgery

One of Russell’s most famous surgeries was completed on the man who would one day become the prophet. President Spencer W. Kimball’s heart was being overworked due to an aortic valve disease. The aortic valve would need to be replaced through the completion of the same surgery Kimball had blessed Russell to have success with years before.

Before the surgery, Russell received a blessing from the First Presidency, who told Russell that “the operation would be performed without error, that all would go well, and that I need not fear for my own inadequacies, for I had been raised up by the Lord to perform this operation.”

When the first incision was made, Kimball remarkably did not bleed. The surgery went flawlessly and no error was made. Afterwards, Russell received an impression from the spirit that Spencer W. Kimball would one day become the prophet for the Church (Ensign article “Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles”).

After He Was Called An Apostle

Russell M. Nelson would continue his work as a heart surgeon while he also served as General President of the Sunday School and as a Regional Representative. On April 7, 1984, he was called as a Apostle for the Quorum of the Twelve (“Elder Russell M. Nelson”).

Current photo of Russell M. Nelson
Current photo of Russell M. Nelson, courtesy of LDS.org

Throughout his career, he has always seen God’s hand in his life and respected His creation of the human body. In the Ensign article “Elder Russell M. Nelson: Applying Divine Laws,” he says:

Working with the divinely created body for forty years, 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.

Russell M. Nelson has shown himself not only as a man of faith, but one of love through service in his career and his church work.

To learn more about Russell M. Nelson, check out his Facebook Page or visit the links below.