President Nelson’s Conference Addresses, Part 1: Introductory Comments

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.[1]

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:

  1. Introductory Thoughts
  2. President Nelson’s Favorite Topics and Phrases
  3. Examining the Sources in President Nelson’s Talks
  4. 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.[2]

  • 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.”[3]

  • 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?

 

Footnotes:

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

30 comments for “President Nelson’s Conference Addresses, Part 1: Introductory Comments

  1. That sort of study might be helpful to one who has been overwhelmed by the problems in RMN’s February 2003 Ensign article (“Divine Love”), the sequence of his April 1990 and October 2018 general conference talks on use of “Mormon” (with GBH’s October 1990 talk and other Church programs intervening), his January 2016 Worldwide Devotional (“Becoming True Millennials”) and its follow-up in the September 2019 BYU Devotional (“The Love and Laws of God”), his April 2018 talk in Africa (“tithing will break the cycle of poverty”), and in his being “unleashed” to enjoy the adulation of Church members, etc. But perhaps only if one can successfully set aside those problems and see his messages without their blocking the view.
    Perhaps your blogging on his general conference addresses will help such a one see something inspiring. Maybe a small dose this weekend will help.
    Wishes for general conference:
    1. Inspiring music, even if pre-recorded
    2. Focus on Christ’s teachings with stories of contemporaries other than general authorities living them
    3. Reduction if not elimination of comments by speakers about RMN
    4. Reduction if not elimination of general authorities quoting each other (there are other sources of inspiration)
    5. Silence on subjects of same-sex marriage and religious freedom, unless the latter is directed toward religious freedom of peoples other than conservative Mormons and Evangelical Protestants
    6. Evidence of humility
    7. Powerful prayer devoid of lecturing and devoid of adulation of Church authorities.

    Hopes for general conference based on experience of the last several years:
    1. See no.1 above
    2. Some of no.6 above.

  2. Chad,

    Is there a website with a comprehensive anthology of General Authority talks?

    In your study of President Nelson, will you include public addresses, temple dedications and the talks given to CES venues—or only General Conference talks?

    This is a great idea. Nice study-along.

  3. Lastlemming, we’ll see, but I’m not sure that there will be a great place to fit that into this particular discussion. I didn’t think about the context of the time with that talk when I read it, but that’s interesting to note.

    Travis, just General Conference talks for this series. I’ll probably go through everything eventually, but haven’t gotten there yet.
    I’m not aware of a full anthology site for general authority talks. The Church’s website is probably the closest thing, but it really only goes back to 1971. For earlier than that, archive.com has a lot of resources and I think FAIR has some pages devoted to making the resources there earlier to navigate. If someone else knows of a better resources, though, I’d love to know.

  4. I would like to have the prophet clerly (no plausable deniability) condemn racism, and white supremacy, and suggest how we can help.
    He seems to accept the science on the virus as conference is still virtual. He should say so, and recommend mask wearing etc.
    I would also like a prophesy supporting climate science. The world is in danger shouldnt the Lord want something done?
    Equally a prophesy condemning discrimination against any of Gods children, including women and gays, and how the church will impliment that.

  5. I had a good friend once tell me that the only way he manages to get through GC is that he maintains @very very low expectations.””

  6. By September 2013, Wendy Watson Nelson’s newly published and abysmal lds children’s book “The Not Even Once Club” head created a firestorm. It was a story of lds kids who created a treehouse club with candy (representative of the Celestial Kingdom) and excluded kids who sinned- even once. Reviews on Amazon were scathing, the bloggernacle exploded, and a change.org petition called for DB to remove it from the shelves. Parents were appalled that this book seemed to promote virtue cliques, stoke pride, and communicated a zero-tolerance threshold for children and adults about sin and a false portrayal of the atonement. DB supported the author and neither WWN nor her best friend, Sherri Dew- DB’s CEO, made any apologies or retractions.

    A month later, RMN delivered the speech “Decisions in Eternity” at General Conference. He addressed the atonement and the necessary process of mistakes/sin as we grow and progress. He clarified the very doctrine relating to the atonement that his wife’s book had mis-portrayed. Although he never called out the book specifically, one could tell he was making a correction.

    I give him major props for that. He could have doubled down and explained his wife’s (likely good) intent. He could have hammered on purity and perfection and connected the dots that the story’s simple plot had fumbled. But he didn’t. He made a correction. I can’t imagine it was easy going home that night. If my eternal companion had gotten up in sacrament meeting and taken a stand against me as I was fighting a public onslaught, i would have gone bezerk. He did it in general conference.

    RMN gets total props for that. Granted, the book itself was never recalled or renounced, but it still took courage.

    I’m more focused on correcting false/harmful doctrine than reading into this as a patriarchal power play, although I can see how reversing gender roles here wouldn’t likely have ended so well.

  7. Replying to the OP:
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful analysis. I, too, have noticed that our prophet loves to quote hymns and poems – and write them! – and that he often ties his talk to the hymns sung before or after.
    @ just wishing,
    I think you are missing our prophet’s points, perhaps deliberately. Isn’t the Lord’s kingdom not of this world? Then it stands to reason that his prophet’s view of current events will differ from the world’s.
    Also(speaking from personal experience), you get out of General Conference what you put in. If what you are putting in is a laundry list of ‘things that should happen’, I’m afraid you’ll be sorely disappointed (except #1 on your list – the music is always wonderful, and #2 – see ‘Spiritually Defining Memories’ from last conference).
    @ Geoff-aus,
    You clearly have not been paying attention to anything that President Nelson has been saying since he was sustained as prophet, or since the coronavirus hit. Where do you go for your info? Because the official statement from church headquarters condemning racism months ago clearly wasn’t enough for you.

  8. E.C. seems to have made a number of erroneous inferences from a combination of what I wrote above and E.C.’s own assumptions about me. Maybe E.C. will share a wish list for general conference, as invited by the OP.

  9. Geoff-AUS, amen, brother. I hope that he can muster extra doses of the the gumption described in my story above to stand up against the current evils and influences, and say what needs to be said. I pray for the speakers and desperately hope they rise to this unique and challenging occasion with something more than “Webster defines adversity as …” but rationally I know they don’t perceive their role to be any different than what precedent has laid before them.

    What we should hear:
    *Wear masks- humble yourselves (you idiots) and listen to science
    *Condemn racism, white supremacy, QAnon, and the current administration as well as several other hellish regimes/dictators where saints live.
    *Condemn separating families, turning backs against refugees/immigrants and discriminating against religious groups.
    *Condemn anti-democratic behavior and speech
    *Expressly forbid the use of the church’s name and sacred symbols (including the Temples) for partisan or commercial purposes (as stated in the CHI).

    What we will hear:
    *”religious liberty” (wink wink, vote red.)
    *GAs humble-bragging about their grandkids and/or pioneer ancestors
    *COVID as a metaphor for the spreading of evil.
    *Privileged stories about the blessings of the COVID era and how much fun it is to have home church.
    *Talks that have no relevance or connection to this challenging time and could well have been shuffled into any other conference over the past 40 years.
    *RMN praise and brown-nosing
    *Heart-wrenching stories about people who have it much worse than we do under COVID, but who aren’t really affected because of their faith (so no whining or complaining!)

  10. EC, Being an Australian member the only information I get from SLC is at conference. I read a number of church blogs mostly progressive, but a couple of conservative ones to see what other members believe.
    Not sure what you are referring to that I had not paid attention to? Perhaps you might enlighten me?

    I do see members who seem to think racism and white supremacy are not a big deal, and that Trump is neither of these. He is!

    I would like it made clear at conference that members should not vote for Trump if they, and the church are to have any moral credibility. But I understand that is a problem. There will be no point sending missionaries to first world countries if Utah votes Trump again.

    We have been reading in recent BOM classes the prophets calling out wicked leaders, and peoples. This is the time for RMN to act like a propher, and call out evil, lies, racism, etc etc.

  11. I choose to believe that organizational “adjustments” come from committees and focus groups and not directly from God to a 96-year-old CEO. “Just wishing” that one of the Q15 will clarify this for us.

  12. Travis – HBE tells a story of a church committee run by Harold B. Lee and thoughtful efforts to reach consensus, which seems like a great approach.

    I’m just saying…for some of the changes implemented since the death of Pres Monson, what was their genesis and what was the involvement of Pres Nelson (and others, including lackeys at HQ)? I’m tired of the idea that Come Follow Me was specially given to us to cope during the pandemic.

  13. I’m hoping that Prez Eyring discusses the important of listening to the advice of scientific and medical professions in regards to vaccinations, evolution, global warming, masks, genetics, etc. He is the perfect GA to do it since his father was a brilliant scientist. And a science and religion message has never been so urgent.

  14. Great post, Chad. I look forward to the rest of the series.

    I can’t say the same about the comments, unfortunately, which have turned in the the semi-annual “I know better than the Lord’s anointed what the Lord wants preached from the GC pulpit” gripe-fest.

  15. Rogerdhansen:

    I agree with you, but don’t hold your breath … as a heart surgeon for years, RMN could be considered a scientist. Yet he was once interviewed, and said that in his personal view, the theory of evolution is incomprehensible. (!) DHO, on the other hand, speaking at BYU, addressed the issue of “fossil-deniers.” He cracked that since BYU was literally sitting on millions of fossils, denying their existence was pointless.But I don’t think with RMN as President, that either RMN or HBE will touch evolution. The Church leadership regards evolution, IMO, as one controversy that it does not need to engage.

  16. Taiwan, as any prof will tell you at BYU, evolution is foundational to the study of biology. And RMN has made disparaging remarks in conference about the Big Bang theory. Church magazines treat the OT as it is literal history. Anti-science beliefs in the Church membership is very high as demonstrated by anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, anti-evolutionists, global warming disbelievers, etc. These beliefs have the potential to drive away as many of the youth as Church historical and doctrinal problems. Whether the leaders want to engage or not, they are real and here.

  17. So far more than I dared hope for on my wish list has been satisfied. Too bad I’ll have to miss Sunday morning.

  18. @ just wishing,
    You are correct. I made assumptions based on your post – which is all anyone can do in an online setting without meeting face-to-face. I was certainly in an uncharitable frame of mind when I replied to you, and I do apologize for my tone. Still, I stand by my original line that having a laundry list of ‘should happens’ – whatever your political persuasions – is not the way to approach conference if one is wishing for revelation.

    @ Geoff-aus,
    You could try the official church news website, which is where I found this: https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/president-nelson-shares-social-post-encouraging-understanding-and-civility – I’m not sure he could get any clearer than that, really. There is also a 2017 statement that is easily searchable on the church website condemning white supremacy in pretty explicit terms.
    Given how all the general authorities present at the Conference Center were wearing masks unless at the pulpit, which has become standard for all meetings lately, I’d say that they believe that further stressing the point would be an unnecessary infringement on others’ agency.

    @ Mortimer,
    I’d say that so far, most of your predictions were off by a large margin.

    Goodness, though; there’s going to be a lot to ponder already. And I didn’t realize that Elder Bednar possessed a sense of humor; perhaps his jokes have slipped past me because of his solemn delivery.

  19. E.C. You may be right about laundry lists of “should happens”, but that has nothing to do with my comment. I said nothing about “should” — only about what I wished for and the few things I then had reason to hope for. If you read those as “shoulds” rather than wishes or hopes, that is again on you, not me. I make enough mistakes in both thought and diction that I really don’t need any imaginary ones. But maybe you refer to someone else who did have a “should happen” list.

  20. Geoff AUS
    It strikes me how similar Democrats/the left and Hollywood are.
    Both would like things to remain as they were and both are collapsing at a rapid rate

  21. EC Thankyou for that new Pres Nelson talk. Yet when I go to the Melinum Star (where I am banned from commenting) there are people who think the racists are those who believe there is systemic racism against coloured people in America. They seem to think the white supremacists, are the victims of racism, that RMN is referring to. So to me one thing is obvious, to right wingers the opposite.

    Jon, If you get your information on what democrats want, from right wing media inddtead of their plarform, you will get strange ideas. It is the right who want to maintain the status quo. Thats the definition of conservative.
    Racism
    Poverty
    Climate science
    Universal healthcare
    Abortion
    Covid
    Trump either has no solution to these, or doesn’t believe they are real. The democrats are offering policies to address each of them.
    Does that help you?

  22. Sorry not clear. Should have been a not in the first sentence. Not those who believe in systemic racism against coloured people.

  23. Geoff Aus
    The collapse of the left / Hollywood is happening right before our eyes. Rioting lawlessness losing control of the Southern border and countless other negatives can all be attributed to the left and to Democrats.

  24. Jon and Geoff, I’m not particularly interested in having you continue your political discussion here. It’s getting far enough off topic that I will likely start deleting further comments that come in that vein on this post.

    Just Wishing, I’d agree that my expectations were exceeded as well. It was a good conference.

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