Beliefs Columns Culture Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon prophet surprises California Mormons with unannounced appearance

Family Discovery Day at RootsTech, on Saturday, February 11, 2017, focused on events for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Speakers included President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson; and members of their family. ©2017 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

Family Discovery Day at RootsTech, on Saturday, February 11, 2017, focused on events for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Speakers included Russell M. Nelson, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; his wife, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson; and members of their family. ©2017 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.


Yesterday, members of the Oakland, California LDS stake got the surprise of a lifetime when the announced lineup of speakers at their stake conference underwent some last-minute changes to accommodate an unscheduled visit from the recently ordained Mormon prophet, Russell M. Nelson.

I was visiting the area to speak about Mormon Millennials last night (in the same building, weirdly), so I had fourth-row seats to hear Pres. Nelson, his wife Wendy, and an array of other speakers.

I appreciated the low-key sensibility of it all. Stake leaders apparently weren’t permitted to put the word out about Pres. Nelson’s visit until that morning, I guess because of security concerns. There was no bag check or security line before entering the building—it felt like any other stake conference in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I was surprised by how moved I was by the whole morning. I am often concerned at Mormons’ open displays of devotion to the president of our church—the handkerchief-waving hosanna shouts and endless renditions of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.”

But there was very little of that fawning on display on Sunday, and it made me love the experience more. And the first hour was all about the good folks of Oakland.

Here’s something I’ve never seen before in a Mormon stake conference: there were more female than male speakers. One was a Beehive (in Mormon parlance, that’s a 12- or 13-year-old girl) who drew from the example of St. Francis of Assisi in describing how much joy she feels on weekends when she goes with her ward to bring meals to people camped out in tents. She spoke with love and respect about Jews and Hindus who serve others. It was a beautiful talk.

Another was a young mom who compared her life to a “Pinterest Fail.” She had, she said, followed a certain script with precision: BYU, temple marriage, baby. Check, check, check.

Except that “three years ago, I packed a bag and took my daughter and ended up on my parents’ doorstep because I had nowhere else to go.” The police had come because her husband was abusive and self-medicating. “How had my life, which was on track, turned into an episode of COPS?” she asked.

Now divorced, she’s raising her daughter with the help of her parents, and her talk was about finding joy when life doesn’t turn out the way you expect. My favorite moment was when she described selling her engagement ring to buy . . . annual passes to Disneyland. She wanted to make joyful memories with her daughter, so regular trips to Disneyland were deemed more important than keeping a memento of her failed temple marriage. “Getting divorced sucks, and I don’t wish it on anybody, but I have an amazing family who love me,” she said.

I was pretty thrilled that someone said “sucks” in a stake conference in which Pres. Nelson was the main speaker. I was even more thrilled that this sister was unafraid to keep it real—to be honest and vulnerable about her life.

President Nelson was the final speaker, and he spoke without notes. He was eloquent and heartfelt, praising each previous speaker by name and discussing a little history of visiting the area for previous church business. He was particularly touched by the Primary choir. “Now, I’m not going to forget that beautiful children’s choir,” he said. “I thought, ‘there’s the future of the church, right there in that little choir.’”

This introduced the basic theme of his remarks, which were primarily directed to parents. He asked parents to pray and read scriptures with their kids, and help them know Jesus as the Christ. “Easter Sunday is four weeks from today. What’s so special about Easter? It’s just the most important message that we could ever know.”

Parents should help children understand the sacrament, he said, and made a distinction between immortality, which is a gift to all people, and eternal life, which is “conditional upon our own completion in faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, receiving the endowments and sealing ordinances of the temple, and then remaining faithful to those covenants made in the Lord’s house.”

He also snuck in a few behind-the-scenes glimpses of how his life has changed since he became the president of the LDS Church in January. When he was a surgeon, he “was used to night calls, the phone ringing when people needed me.”

As prophet, it’s much the same.

“Nearly every night, some messages come. And I write them down on a piece of paper in the dark so I don’t wake Wendy. The challenge is trying to read them in the morning! But I write enough to trigger a memory of the instruction that I had received.”

I have to say that I much prefer this President Nelson to the one I’ve seen at General Conference. Here was a man in his element, obviously gifted in interpersonal relationships, with a striking sense of humor I’ve not seen before. (At one point he made a point to the congregation about their Book of Mormon reading habits, and then said he would stop asking them about it, I guess because he sensed people’s evasive eyes!)

He also talked about a very human regret that he had – that while his Norwegian-American grandmother was still alive, he didn’t take the time to understand her history. “Not once did I ever quiz her about her life as a convert and as a pioneer. I loved her raisin-filled cookies, so every trip to Grandmother’s was one of greed, really. I wish I could do that over,” he said. “If you’ve got grandparents still alive, talk to them. Take some notes.”

And he bragged on his grandkids. One is a missionary right now in Uruguay with a terrific attitude even in adverse circumstances, and another is a sort of genius at languages, making Pres. Nelson wonder “which mission he might be sent to, being fluent in Portuguese and English.” (He was surprised when that grandson was sent to Stockholm, Sweden!)

In short, President Nelson Unplugged was the most delightful President Nelson I’ve ever seen. He stayed out of politics, focused on timeless truths, and appeared totally comfortable. He was a Mormon out with his people. He inspired me to be better, to strive more, but without the guilt or frustration I often feel after hearing from LDS leaders.

At the end, as he and Sister Nelson were headed out the door, shaking a few hands along the way, the organist quietly began to play “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” The song wasn’t in the program, and no one opened up a hymnal. But some members softly sang the words as a good-bye, ushering our leader out with love.

And I sang along.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.