On January 11, 1983, Elder LeGrand Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles passed away. With April general conference less than three months away, members looked forward to the calling of a new apostle. The call of a man to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is the responsibility and prerogative of the president of the Church. Only he has the authority to receive revelation about whom the Lord has prepared and selected for that high and holy calling.
During the months preceding conference, President Spencer W. Kimball’s health had become increasingly frail and his memory spotty. To the disappointment of many, the April 1983 general conference came and went without a call to the Twelve announced.
As the October 1983 general conference approached, speculation again mounted that this time, surely, the vacancy in the Twelve would be filled. But again, there was disappointment. No one was called. Conference came and went for a second time with an empty seat in the quorum.
Then on January 11, 1984, a year to the day after the passing of Elder Richards, Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Twelve passed away. Now there were two vacancies in the Twelve, and, if anything, the situation was more critical. President Kimball’s health had deteriorated even further, and his mind was less dependable. To make matters worse, those privy to the situation knew President Kimball was in no condition to receive the revelation to extend such calls.
One of those persons was Dr. Nelson. The week before the April 1984 general conference, Russell’s surgical nurse, Jan Curtis, mentioned how excited she was for the upcoming conference because two new apostles would be called. Russell tried to gently tell her that it wasn’t going to happen. “I was his doctor, and I knew it wasn’t feasible, that President Kimball was not well or coherent enough to do it. I explained to her that calling an apostle is the prerogative of the president of the Church and that President Kimball was simply in no condition to do that.”
Dr. Nelson examines a model of the human heart.
For months, President Gordon B. Hinckley, the only healthy member of the First Presidency at the time (President Marion G. Romney’s health had also deteriorated), had left standing instructions with President Kimball’s caregivers that if the prophet’s mind ever cleared, they were to call him immediately, regardless of the hour. Month after month passed with no call. From time to time, President Hinckley looked in on President Kimball, but an opportunity to discuss such a spiritually sensitive topic as calls to the Twelve never presented itself.
Then, at about 2:30 a.m. on the Wednesday morning prior to the April 1984 general conference, the phone rang at President Hinckley’s home. President Kimball was alert and wanted to talk to him. President Hinckley rushed downtown to President Kimball’s suite in the Hotel Utah, where the issue of vacancies in the Twelve was raised. President Kimball said simply, “Call Nelson and Oaks to the Quorum of the Twelve, in that order.”
Two days later, on Friday morning, President Hinckley summoned Dr. Nelson from the regional representatives’ seminar that was in progress. He asked Russell just one question: “Is your life in order?” When Russell responded that it was, President Hinckley replied, “Good, because tomorrow we’re presenting your name to be sustained as one of the Twelve Apostles” (Dew, Go Forward with Faith, 402). With that, President Hinckley embraced the stunned Russell M. Nelson, and both men wept. “You have permission to go home and tell your wife,” President Hinckley said.
Reeling from the call, Russell drove straight home, anxious for the comfort of his wife. When he walked in the door, though, he was greeted by the eerie silence of an empty house—something unusual in the busy Nelson household. Dantzel was shopping. So he paced the floor and tried to sort through the questions, uncertainties, an overwhelming sense of inadequacy racing through his mind and heart.
Russell surrounded by loving family members.
This call meant the end of his life as Dr. Nelson. After decades of healing hearts by cutting into them, he would now try to heal them a different way. After daily appealing to the Lord to help him make the thousands of life-and-death decisions he’d made, Russell would now appeal to Him daily to help him be a different kind of instrument in His hands.
But there were a lot of unanswered questions: What about the operations he had already committed to do? What about a stint as a visiting professor in China he was supposed to undertake the following month? What did this mean for his family, and how would they respond? Was he spiritually ready for this? The immediate answer to that last question felt like a decided no, and yet he couldn’t deny what he had felt when President Hinckley extended the call.
Finally, when Dantzel returned home, he said simply, “Honey, you’d better sit down.” When he told her he had been called to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, her instant response brought him to the verge of tears: “I know of no one more worthy than you!”
“Of all the people who knew my imperfections,” Russell said, “she knew them better than anybody. So for her to respond as she did meant everything to me. As she had done so many times before, she calmed my heart that day.”
During the Saturday morning session of general conference, Russell Marion Nelson and Dallin Harris Oaks were sustained as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
On April 7, 1984, Russell M. Nelson was ordained an apostle and set apart as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “In one short moment,” he said, “the focus of the last 40 years in medicine and surgery was changed to devote the rest of my life in fulltime service to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Condie, Russell M. Nelson, 186).
Read more inspiring and incredible stories from President Russell M. Nelson’s life as a surgeon, husband, father, apostle, and prophet in Sheri Dew’s brand-new book, Insights from a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson. Find it at Deseret Book stores or on deseretbook.com.