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How heeding prophets’ counsel changed President Russell M. Nelson’s life

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President Nelson is honored by the son and grandson of Fang Rongxiang, the opera star whose life he saved.
Courtesy of the Nelson family.

“Heeding the words of prophets is one of our greatest sources of security in today’s complex world.” President Nelson recounts times when following the prophet changed the course of his life. The following is from his upcoming book, Heart of the Matter: What 100 Years of Living Have Taught Me.

Heeding the words of prophets is one of our greatest sources of security in today’s complex world. You may not always understand the reason for every declaration of a living prophet. But when you know a prophet is a prophet, you can approach the Lord in humility and faith and ask for your own witness about whatever His prophet has proclaimed.

One of the things I have learned in my life is that some of the greatest sources of security, and some of the most reliable sources of unassailable truth, are prophets of God. Considering the fact that I have served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since 1984, I am sure this statement does not come as a surprise. But I learned this truth long before my call to the Twelve.

During my life, I have learned that prophets see ahead. They see the harrowing dangers the adversary has placed, or will yet place, in our path. Prophets also foresee the grand possibilities awaiting those who listen to prophetic counsel with the intent to obey. Perhaps two experiences will illustrate my point of view.

In late 1965, I received an unexpected but intriguing invitation. The University of Chicago medical school made me a too-good-to-be-true offer to join their acclaimed university as professor of surgery and chairman of the Division of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery. Dantzel and I traveled to Chicago to assess the opportunity, and the school rolled out the red carpet. The opportunity seemed like a dream come true.

A young, highly respected law professor at the university by the name of Dallin H. Oaks, with his wife June, hosted us during our stay. We loved every moment with them and were overwhelmed by the university’s generous offer.

Dantzel and I decided to accept the offer. Because I was serving as president of the Bonneville Stake in Salt Lake City, I told my high council that I would be moving. Brother Joseph Anderson—a member of our high council who was then serving as secretary to the First Presidency—pulled me aside after the meeting and suggested that I talk about this move with President David O. McKay. I couldn’t imagine that the President of the Church would concern himself with the occupational move of a stake president, but Brother Anderson insisted that I talk with the prophet.

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President of the Bonneville Stake.
Courtesy of the Nelson family.

So, on December 14, 1965, I met with President McKay and told him about the Chicago offer. President McKay listened intently and asked many questions: Why were we considering the move? How many children did we have? What would this mean for them? Was this about fame or money? What impact would it have on my career? The prophet left no stone unturned.

I will never forget what happened next. President McKay leaned his head back on his chair and closed his eyes for a prolonged period of time. Finally, he opened his eyes and said, “Brother Nelson, it doesn’t feel good to me. Your place is here in Salt Lake City. People will come from all over the world to you here. I don’t think you should go to Chicago.”

Though surprised by his counsel, we turned down the offer. Over the following years, everything President McKay said would happen did in fact occur. Our children prospered in Salt Lake City, and I did in fact have opportunities to influence the global cardiovascular surgical community.

Another interaction with a prophet of God helped spur my professional career further. In 1979, while serving as Sunday School General President, I was invited to attend a Regional Representatives’ seminar during which President Spencer W. Kimball delivered a landmark address about opening the doors of nations that were then closed to the Church, including China. He challenged everyone present to study the Mandarin language so that we could communicate with the Chinese people.

That evening I asked Dantzel if she would be willing to study Mandarin with me. She immediately agreed, and we found a tutor to help us. Of course, we didn’t learn to speak Mandarin very well, but we learned enough that, when I was invited the next year—through a series of highly unexpected events—to go to China as a visiting professor to teach open-heart surgery, I was in a position to accept the invitation.

I subsequently made many professional trips to China and made friends with many colleagues there. In fact, the year after I was called to the Quorum of the Twelve, I received an urgent request to go to China to perform open-heart surgery on a famous opera star there—a man regarded throughout China as a national treasure. I explained that my full-time ecclesiastical responsibility prevented me from fulfilling their petition, but the doctors in China pleaded with me to reconsider.

After discussing this request with my quorum president and the First Presidency, they encouraged me to make the trip. Gratefully, the operation was a success! That operation in China proved to be the last open-heart procedure I ever performed. It was in Jinan, China, on March 4, 1985.

Fast-forward thirty years later, to October 2015. Wendy and I were invited to return to the Shandong University School of Medicine in Jinan. There we were overwhelmed when I was warmly welcomed as “an old friend” of China and reunited with surgeons I had taught thirty-five years earlier, as well as their students. The highlight of that visit was meeting the son and grandson of the opera star on whom I had operated. These remarkable experiences—and many more—were possible for one reason: I had heeded the counsel of a prophet to study Mandarin.

▶ You may also like: President Russell M. Nelson—now 99 years old—reflects on the importance of the heart

Read more in “Heart of the Matter”

“The laws or truths I will share in this book are not merely ideas I have studied and examined; they are the very essence of my life’s experiences.” —President Russell M. Nelson

It is a rare opportunity to learn from the wisdom of one who has witnessed a century of life, including all of its joys, sorrows, changes, and unchanging truths. It is even rarer to have such a witness from a prophet of God. Having been first called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1984, President Russell M. Nelson has viewed much of the world’s modern history through the lens of a special witness of Christ. Living through technological innovation from radio to rocket ships, wars and resolutions, cultural shifts and progress, President Nelson has seen the workings of the Almighty in all aspects of life. In Heart of the Matter, he reflects back on his one hundred years of living and the lessons he’s learned over the past century, including the core truths he has come to know matter most for this life and the next. Available at Deseret Book and

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