A couple years back—not long after President Russell M. Nelson was sustained as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Elder Neil L. Anderson spoke of a project his wife undertook:
While my wife, Kathy, has known President Nelson personally for nearly three decades and has no question about his divine mantle, upon his setting apart, she began reading all his general conference talks of the past 34 years, praying for an even deeper assurance of his prophetic role.
Now, unlike Sister Anderson, I do not know President Nelson personally and, to be frank, he was never one of the apostles who had really caught my attention, so I just wasn’t too familiar with him, his teachings, etc. This was true, even though he has been in the Quorum of the Twelve longer than I’ve been alive or involved in the Church. So, I decided that it would be a good thing for me to go through and study all his general conference addresses to get to know him better. I recently finished reading all of them (well, until this weekend, anyway).
It was a good experience for me overall. I came to understand and appreciate President Nelson more fully and felt that there were some important lessons in his words that I need to follow. Now, because I’m a blogger and enjoy analysis, part of my processing the experience is going to result in a series of blog posts that will most likely go as follows:
- Introductory Thoughts
- President Nelson’s Favorite Topics and Phrases
- Examining the Sources in President Nelson’s Talks
- Potential Long-Term Impact of President Nelson’s Addresses
My goal is both to for me continue to better understand President Nelson’s teachings through the process of study and analysis, to share some of that understanding in case someone else finds it interesting, and to hopefully learn from you through discussion as we go along.
Now, with that introduction being stated, here are some preliminary observations from President Nelson’s general conference addresses:
- He has a few core topics that he brings up repeatedly over the years:
I’ll go into more detail with the post about his favorite topics and statements, but there are a few core subjects that seem particularly important to President Nelson. These included focusing our lives on Jesus the Christ, strengthening families, temples and temple work, the priesthood, and so forth. I found that there were several talks that were largely recycled from or based on previous talks and that he also does a lot of self-citation (and referring to his biography) in his footnotes. Of course, that’s to be expected after a certain point, especially when he is looking to reinforce and build upon ideas he introduced previously.
- He likes linguistics:
Whether it be breaking down the etymology of an English word to make its use more meaningful or noting the meanings of Greek or Hebrew words used for a particular word in the King James Bible, President Nelson frequently incorporates language studies in his talks and in his footnotes. An example I remember him stating a couple times was that: “The word for repentance in the Greek New Testament is metanoeo. The prefix meta- means ‘change.’ The suffix -noeo is related to Greek words that mean ‘mind,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘breath.’ Thus, when Jesus asks you and me to ‘repent,’ He is inviting us to change our mind, our knowledge, our spirit—even the way we breathe.”
- He quotes hymns and poetry frequently:
President Nelson frequently uses hymn texts for talk titles and quotes in talks, as well as using the occasional piece of non-hymn poetry. Notably, this includes two hymns that he wrote and shared during conference addresses: “Hosanna” and “Our Prayer to Thee”. The former was performed by a male chorus in the priesthood session after his remarks. The latter was performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to Joseph Parry’s SWANSEA tune (“O Home Beloved,” hymn no. 337) immediately after his general conference talk back in April 2003. A hymn-format arrangement was published in the Ensign and Liahona magazines that May. Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of “Our Prayer to Thee” was also performed in the October 2018 general conference and included on the Tabernacle Choir’s spring 2019 album “Let Us All Press On”. (I’m willing to guess that it is being deeply considered as a candidate for the forthcoming hymnbook.)
- He generally doesn’t shy away from controversial topics:
Whether it be abortion, sexuality and sexual activity, the role of women, drug use, or other topics hotly debated in society today, President Nelson probably has a general conference talk that addresses that issue head on. He has gotten more subtle and focuses on these types of issues less openly in the recent past than some of the more focused and blunt addresses on these issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but those talks do remain as part of his legacy and an indicator of his thoughts on the subjects. Also, he generally seems to come from a politically conservative worldview, so the topics that he addresses and way he addresses them is shaped by that background.
- His career as a doctor shapes his views and focuses:
He talks a lot about the human body and about dealing with death, drawing on his experiences as a doctor quite frequently. He also takes some interesting approaches to understanding the nature of the Fall of Adam and Eve through the lens of a medical professional.
As stated above, I have felt inspired and I have received some good guidance on how to improve my life and my efforts to be a disciple of Jesus Christ by studying the teachings of President Nelson.
Some potential questions for discussion:
- What has inspired you about President Nelson’s teachings?
- Do you have some interesting observations about his addresses?
- Do you have anything you’re hoping for with general conference this weekend?
 Neil L. Anderson, “The Prophet of God,” CR April 2018, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/04/the-prophet-of-god?lang=eng.
 I’ll point out that Gordon B. Hinckley openly reused an entire conference address as one of his final talks, so President Nelson isn’t alone in doing that sort of thing.
 Russell M. Nelson, “We Can Do Better and Be Better,” CR April 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/36nelson?lang=eng. See also “Repentance and Conversion,” CR April 2007 https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2007/04/repentance-and-conversion?lang=eng.