What is it about our Church leaders that lends their speeches authority? While ultimately the belief that the men we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators are in communication with God is what lends them the greatest amount of authority, I believe that there are other factors that shape how they are perceived and how much weight of authority the words of various Church leaders are given. A number of years ago, David John Buerger noted that Elder Bruce R. McConkie stood out as one of the most influential general authorities of mid-20th century in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He suggested that it wasn’t because of “the particular topics Elder McConkie has chosen to address in his conference speeches, nor the breadth of subject matter, nor the originality of interpretation which has earned him his reputation.” Rather, Buerger suggested “the Apostle’s impressive influence stems … from (1) his sources of doctrinal influence, (2) his position as an Apostle, and (3) his authoritative tone.” There are similarities here to President Russell M. Nelson, though his position as president of the Church is probably foremost among the reasons for his influence. In this discussion today, however, I want to zoom in on President Nelson’s sources of doctrinal influence, at least among his general conference talks.
In the grand scheme of this series as previously shown, this puts us here:
- 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
As indicated by crossing out the title of Part 4, this post will likely be the last part of the series. I had planned on analyzing how President Nelson’s talks are being cited in general conference talks and Church manuals, then offering commentary on potential things that future leaders might be interested in quoting from his talks, but I think I’d rather move on to other topics and series for now.
Our scriptural canon is the primary source of doctrinal influence and authority to which President Nelson has turned in his general conference addresses. In particular, the scriptures given to us during the modern dispensation (the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) are his primary sources. In general, his frequent citation of the Book of Mormon follows the trend that has been observed by more in-depth analyses of general conference addresses. For example, a recent analysis by data analyst Quentin Spencer found that from 1942 to the late 1980s, New Testament passages were the most cited scriptures, but since the time of Ezra Taft Benson’s presidency, the Book of Mormon has predominated scripture citations. This observation (and other similar analyses) led me to expect that the Book of Mormon would rank highly among President Nelson’s scriptural citations. What I was surprised to find, however, was that President Nelson was just as likely to quote the Doctrine and Covenants as he was the Book of Mormon (and almost as likely to quote either as the rest of the scriptures combined).
Figure 1. Pie chart representing the proportion of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by President Russell M. Nelson. Total number of citations is 3548. Data drawn from the Scripture Citation Index.
This can be compared with other current members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, based on data compiled in BYU’s Scripture Citation Index. Henry B. Eyring and Quentin L. Cook were the most similar in the breakdown of percentages of scriptures cited (compare Table 1 and Table 2). Most members of these quorums favored the Book of Mormon, putting it in first or second place for all 15 men (see tables 1, 2, and 3). Ulisses Soares, Dale G. Renlund, and David A. Bednar were the apostles who were most likely to quote from the Book of Mormon. Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Jeffrey R. Holland were outliers for displaying a strong tendency to quote the New Testament most frequently, though several apostles were as likely to quote the New Testament as they were the Book of Mormon. President Nelson quoted from the New Testament less frequently than the Doctrine and Covenants or Book of Mormon, though still more than the other sections of scriptures. This matches the general pattern among the top Church leaders of largely neglecting the Old Testament (especially when judged by the amount of content available), while the Pearl of Great Price also ranked low in percentages (though this is perhaps understandable, given the size of the collection).
Table 1. Percentages of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by members of the current First Presidency.
Table 2. Percentages of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by senior members of the current Quorum of the Twelve.
Table 3. Percentages of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by junior members of the current Quorum of the Twelve.
In addition to citing the scriptures themselves, President Nelson frequently turned to scriptural helps and appendices included in the English edition of the scriptures that the Church publishes, particularly the Joseph Smith-Translation excerpts (around 50 citations) and the Bible Dictionary (around 20 citations). In general, President Nelson tended to leave his talks well-cited and deeply rooted in the scriptures.
President Nelson turned to a number of different sources outside of the scriptures that shaped his doctrinal understanding or were used to add emphasis to a particular idea. A glance at the top 10 sources or authors cited indicates a strong respect for presidents of the Church as well as a proclivity to quote hymns (see Table 4). As might be guessed from his interest in the early Restoration (as indicated by his heavy use of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants discussed above), the single individual President Nelson has most frequently quoted is Joseph Smith the Prophet, with 37 different citations drawn primarily from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith before 2008 and Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith thereafter. The next source he turned to most frequently was the hymnbook, sitting at 30 citations (these were used more frequently as supporting quotes for his talks or familiar phrases to use as focal points to reinforce his main points). He frequently relied on prior presidents of the Church (he has quoted every president of the Church except President John Taylor), and many of these presidents form the majority of his most-cited individuals in his talks.
Table 4. Top ten authors and sources outside of the Standard Works quoted by President Russell M. Nelson in his general conference talks.
|Russell M. Nelson||29|
|Gordon B. Hinckley||25|
|Joseph Fielding Smith||13|
|Spencer W. Kimball||12|
|Thomas S. Monson||11|
|The Family: A Proclamation to the World||11|
|Bruce R. McConkie||9|
President Nelson has displayed a tendency to quote the current president of the Church, resulting in high counts for Presidents Spencer W. Kimball, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson. Howard W. Hunter was also cited relatively frequently around the time of his presidency, but the short time that it lasted resulting in a lower count overall. Ezra Taft Benson seems to have been an outlier to this general rule, with Elder Nelson offering relatively few citations of President Benson during his presidency. The general approach of quoting the sitting Church president even applies to President Nelson’s own presidency, where he has most frequently cited his own talks (17 citations, or 30.4% of non-scriptural citations during his presidency), though he began self-citations around the year 2000 as a way of bridging talks and building on previous ideas shared. He has continued to quote Presidents Kimball and Hinckley after their presidencies, though he has done the same less frequently with other presidents (for example, all 11 times he cites President Monson occurred during Thomas S. Monson’s time as president of the Church). This choice in which presidents he has continued to quote follows a larger pattern among leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that has made both Thomas S. Monson and Howard W. Hunter two of the three least-cited presidents of the Church after their deaths and Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B. Hinckley two of the most-frequently cited presidents of the Church after their deaths.
Other sources President Nelson turns to frequently are also closely tied to the Church. He turned to President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie with some regularity, reflecting the strong influence the two men had on Latter-day Saint thought during the mid-to-late-20th century. Even when not citing these two directly, the influence of their ideas can be seen in President Nelson’s talks (such as the Three Pillars of Salvation that I discussed previously). He also draws frequently on official statements and publications of the Church, such as letters of the First Presidency, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, and Church manuals. Along those lines, he showed that (at least for a while) he kept up on reading the Ensign by citing various articles from the Church’s magazine in his talks over the years. He also showed some tendencies to quote other apostles, particularly Boyd K. Packer and James E. Talmage. He was far less likely to quote women leaders in the Church than men—the only woman to get more than one citation was Eliza R. Snow, and she has only been quoted three times in his talks. Overall, the vast majority of his citations were drawn from within the Church.
For sources President Nelson turned to outside of the Church’s publications, poetry and medical publications were used most frequently. Similar to his use of hymns in his talks, President Nelson quoted poetry and songs not in our hymn books (whether written by Shakespeare, Harry Kemp, or Donny Osmond) to sum up or emphasize a point. He also has cited several medical publications and studies, primarily to support his statements about how obedience to the Word of Wisdom has health benefits for Latter-day Saints. A third type of source that he turned to was dictionaries, reflecting his ongoing interest in words. Taken together, dictionaries, medical studies, and poetry make up the bulk of his citations drawn from outside of the Church.
President Nelson’s talks have generally been filled with citations. Most frequently, he has drawn on the scriptures (particularly the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon), presidents of the Church, and hymns or other songs. Tying this to original question about authority, quoting the scriptures, past presidents of the Church, and other Church leaders and Church publications are a part of what have lent Russell M. Nelson’s talks authority, though his own positions of authority significantly bolster the importance of his talks in the Church as well.
 David John Buerger, “Speaking with Authority: The Theological Influence of Elder Bruce R. McConkie,” Sunstone March 1985, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/047-08-13.pdf.
 See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS General Conference data reveals who talks the most and what they talk about – grace, works, porn, drugs and more,” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 August 2020, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/08/03/lds-general-conference/.
 See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS General Conference data reveals who talks the most and what they talk about – grace, works, porn, drugs and more,” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 August 2020, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/08/03/lds-general-conference/. This cites Quentin Spencer’s analysis shared at a Sunstone symposium, who noted that this is a striking indication of “how quickly Thomas Monson is fading from memory.” The other of the three least-cited presidents after their deaths is Lorenzo Snow.