Last year, the Church released the guidelines by which a committee was evaluating hymns and songs for inclusion in the next hymnbook and children’s songbook and a list of topics they wanted to see more hymns about. What surprised me as I studied President Russell M. Nelson’s general conference talks was how frequently the list of topics the hymnbook committee wanted to see more hymn submissions focus on lined up with what seemed to be President Nelson’s favorite topics: “Praise and Worship”, “The Atonement of Jesus Christ”, “The Plan of Happiness”, “Gospel Learning and Revelation”, “The Family of God”, “Our Families”, “Priesthood Power and Authority”, “The Restoration of the Gospel”, “The Gathering of Israel”, “The Sabbath Day”, and “The Second Coming.” Perhaps it’s coincidental, perhaps it’s just the general waters of the Church’s headquarters, but given that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are officially the ones compiling the new hymnbook and songbook (with input and suggestions from the committee), the fact that the initiative was announced shortly after President Nelson’s became president of the Church, and the level of interest that President Nelson has displayed towards hymns in his talks, there is a good chance that President Nelson had some input there.
This is the second part of the second part of my analysis of President Russell M. Nelson’s General Conference addresses. In the previous post, I discussed some of the more Godhead-focused topics of interest in his talks (corresponding roughly to the topics listed above of “Praise and Worship”, “The Atonement of Jesus Christ”, “Gospel Learning and Revelation” and “The Family of God”). Today will be much more ecclesiastical in its focus (corresponding roughly to the topics of “Priesthood Power and Authority”, “The Restoration of the Gospel” and “The Gathering of Israel”, as well as the Church and its leaders). As such, this puts us here in the overall scheme of things:
- Introductory Thoughts
- President Nelson’s Favorite Topics and Phrases
- God and Power
- The Church, Priesthood, and Gathering Israel
- Plan of Salvation
- Examining the Sources in President Nelson’s Talks
- Potential Long-Term Impact of President Nelson’s Addresses
As indicated in my word cloud analysis displayed in the previous post in this series, the word “Church” is one of the most frequently used words in President Nelson’s conference addresses. He defines the Church as “the official organization of baptized believers who have taken upon themselves the name of Christ” and explained that it “is the way by which the Master accomplishes His work and bestows His glory. Its ordinances and related covenants are the crowning rewards of our membership.” In his eyes: “The long-standing objective of the Church is to assist all members to increase their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and in His Atonement, to assist them in making and keeping their covenants with God, and to strengthen and seal their families.” While he has generally been an advocate of respect towards other faiths and religious organizations, he still believes that this is the only Church with full authority from God: “While many organizations can offer fellowship and fine instruction, only His church can provide baptism, confirmation, ordination, the sacrament, patriarchal blessings, and the ordinances of the temple—all bestowed by authorized priesthood power.” In many ways, his ministry has been marked by balancing respect, understanding, and tolerance towards other faiths while still maintaining claims of exclusivity for our Church.
One aspect of his teachings about the Church is that President Nelson tends to be authoritarian in his views about obedience towards Church leaders. As stated in one talk in the early 1990s: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints . . . is neither a democracy nor a republic. His is a kingdom—the kingdom of God on earth. His is a hierarchical church, with ultimate authority at the top. The Lord directs His anointed servants. They testify to all the world that God has again spoken.” Early in his apostolic ministry he also expressed that: “I have learned not to put question marks but to use exclamation points when calls are issued through inspired channels of priesthood government,” and that “the endless laws of the Lord are the doctrines taught by His Apostles.” And, while he acknowledges the humanity of leaders of the Church, he still expect obedience to them: “Of course the authorities are human. But to them God has entrusted the keys to His divine work. And He holds us accountable for our responses to the teachings of His servants.” Many more quotes could be shared here, but suffice it to say, he has emphasized obedience to the teachings of Church leaders throughout his career.
In connection with his interest in talking about the Church, President Nelson has frequently talked about the Restoration of the Gospel. This is, perhaps, best displayed by his organizing the entire April 2020 General Conference around the topic and issuing a proclamation on the subject at that time as a monument of words. He has continued to teach the long-standing beliefs of the Church of previous dispensations of the gospel, apostasies, and restorations. He sees the Restoration of the Gospel as key to our understanding of the Church and has asked Church members to ponder what the Restoration or various aspects of it mean to them from time to time, while offering his own lists of what it means to him or should mean to us.
One aspect of the Restoration that he talks about with some regularity is the Book of Mormon. In his talks, President Nelson has generally downplayed looking at the historical aspects of the book (“the Book of Mormon … is not a novel or a history book”), choosing instead to emphasize the spiritual power of the book and its focus on Christ. For example, he noted on one occasion that he has “read much that has been written about [the Book of Mormon]. Some authors have focused upon its stories, its people, or its vignettes of history. Others have been intrigued by its language structure or its records of weapons, geography, animal life, techniques of building, or systems of weights and measures.” Yet, he went on to say, “interesting as these matters may be, study of the Book of Mormon is most rewarding when one focuses on its primary purpose—to testify of Jesus Christ. By comparison, all other issues are incidental.” His most frequent observation is that study of the book changes lives for the better. For one example: “We have observed that sincere study of the Book of Mormon transforms the spirit and engenders a testimony of Jesus Christ that heals the spiritual hearts of men and women throughout the world.” I felt like this way of emphasizing the Book of Mormon is in line with President Nelson’s general focus on drawing God’s power into our lives while also gently side-stepping issues of historicity. (I will note here, however, that the recent proclamation does still hold that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient record and President Nelson treats its contents as representing actual events (as the Book of Mormon videos put it), so I don’t think his downplaying of Book of Mormon as a history book is an indication that he doesn’t believe that it is a record of historical events in ancient America.)
The Priesthood and Priesthood Power:
Priesthood is another frequently-discussed topic for Russell M. Nelson. He has frequently followed the trend of differentiating between priesthood power and priesthood authority to emphasize the need for personal righteousness to access the power of the priesthood. As he stated a few years ago: “I fear that there are too many men who have been given the authority of the priesthood but who lack priesthood power because the flow of power has been blocked by sins such as laziness, dishonesty, pride, immorality, or preoccupation with things of the world.” He usually then follows up on comments like this with discussions of how men can better tap into the power of the priesthood in their lives through powerful prayer, fasting, righteous living, and so forth.
Along the lines of priesthood authority and power, President Nelson has joined in the recent trend to state that women, while not allowed to be ordained or called to priesthood offices, can have access to priesthood power and authority through receiving priesthood ordinances and covenants. As he stated a year ago: “Every woman and every man who makes covenants with God and keeps those covenants, and who participates worthily in priesthood ordinances, has direct access to the power of God.” He added that: “When you [sisters] are set apart to serve in a calling under the direction of one who holds priesthood keys—such as your bishop or stake president—you are given priesthood authority to function in that calling.” He also clarified that women are the presiding authority in their homes in the absence of a husband. These statements seem to be part of an effort to empower women in the Church without offering them ordination to the priesthood or the opportunity to serve in priesthood offices and quorums.
Priesthood keys are also a frequent topic of discussion for President Nelson. This includes celebrating the restoration of the priesthood and priesthood keys to Joseph Smith and his companions, discussion of lines of authority in the Church, and comparisons between priesthood keys and keys used for cars or other vehicles. For example, in one address, he spoke of the example of holding “a set of keys to an automobile.” He then remarked that: “If I give keys to you, I have certain obligations, and you have certain obligations.” The obligations on his part, as the giver of the keys, is “toward your success. Should you fail, in a measure I have failed. So I must teach and train adequately to ensure your personal safety and, at the same time, safeguard precious property you are to use.” The recipient of the keys, on the other hand, “must know applicable laws and obey them. Loyalty is expected. And you should understand the power of your instrument. Obedience, loyalty, and understanding are implicit with your acceptance of those keys.” The comparison for priesthood keys is that: “Your stake president, quorum president, and bishop hold keys of presidency. Their keys control the power of their unit of the Church. Those leaders not only may call and release, but they must train and bear sacred responsibility that the mission of the Church be accomplished.” On the other hand, “they who receive ordinations or callings have obligations of obedience, loyalty, and understanding.” Priesthood keys and the proper use of them are important to President Nelson.
The Gathering of Israel:
During his Sunday morning address at the recent general conference, President Nelson stated that: “The doctrine of the gathering of Israel has captured my attention,” noting in his footnotes that: “I have spoken of Israel in at least 378 of the more than 800 messages I have delivered during my 36 years as an Apostle.” A part of this fixation is an ongoing interest in covenants—for example, two of his talks over the years have focused extensively on the idea of covenants and specifically going into detail about the Abrahamic Covenant (with significant repetition across those two talks). And, in line with that focus, he doesn’t seem to be as interested in the idea of Church members being literal descendants of Israel (though he leaves room for that idea) so much as he is in the idea of becoming part of the covenant people through making and keeping covenants with God, creating a spiritual Israel. For example, he has stated: “Some of us are the literal seed of Abraham; others are gathered into his family by adoption. The Lord makes no distinction. Together we receive these promised blessings—if we seek the Lord and obey His commandments. But if we don’t, we lose the blessings of the covenant.” The declarations of lineage in patriarchal blessings is “not necessarily a pronouncement of his or her race, nationality, or genetic makeup. Rather, the declared lineage identifies the tribe of Israel through which that individual will receive his or her blessings.”  Hence, in his recent address on the topic, he defined gathering Israel as “gathering those who are willing to let God prevail in their lives.”
This represents part of an ongoing shift away from the more literalistic view of Church leaders in the 1800s and repurposing the language they used for activities and goals of the Church today. Earlier Church leaders focused on literally gathering converts to physical locations in the United States of America and often viewed converts as literal descendants of Israel (usually by way of co-opting the idea of British Israelism or identifying people as being descendants of groups in the Book of Mormon). In contrast, President Nelson has taught that we participate in the gathering of Israel “as we help to gather the elect of the Lord on both sides of the veil” through “missionary, temple, and family history work.” The gathering of Israel is more of a figurative term for President Nelson that ties into the Church’s core goals to proclaim the gospel, perfecting the saints, and redeem the dead in preparation for the Lord’s Second Coming.
One of the most important and frequently-discussed areas in this grouping is temple and family history work. In fact, Quentin Spencer found that President Nelson used the term “family history” in 16% of his sermons. President Nelson has repeatedly stated that all aspects of the Church’s work and the Plan of Salvation “converge on the sacred work done in temples.” Hence, he has stated that: “‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’? Yes! And you too! He also wants us as bonding blacksmiths—creating celestial welding links—to curb the curse of family fragmentation. The earth was created and temples provided so that families can be together forever. Many, if not most, of us could repent and be converted to more temple and family history work for our ancestors. Thus, our repentance is necessary and essential for their repentance.” This, of course, ties into his emphasis on strengthening families and preventing the fragmentation of families, which is a major topic in President Nelson’s addresses in its own right.
In connection with temple work and family history, President Nelson has focused on the Spirit of Elijah a number of times in his conference addresses, even offering a well-developed definition to what the Spirit of Elijah actually is. According to President Nelson, the Spirit of Elijah is “a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family.” This definition of the term “Spirit of Elijah” as being a function of the Holy Spirit is something that seems to be a new development, first articulated by President Nelson. As far as I’ve been able to find, it seems that when the Prophet Joseph Smith first articulated the idea of the spirit of Elijah, he meant spirit and power of Elijah either in the sense of taking the mantle or role of Elijah (he discussed it in contrast to the spirit or mantle of Elias as the role of a forerunner) or authority from Elijah (as in the priesthood keys Elijah restored). Subsequent Church leaders focused on the restoration of priesthood keys by Elijah and connected the growth of genealogical societies to that restoration, occasionally citing the 1844 sermon of Joseph Smith where he used the term “spirit of Elijah” in connection with those keys. By at least the mid-1980s, the term “spirit of Elijah” began to be used by Church leaders to refer to a somewhat amorphous spiritual influence affecting people that led them to do genealogical work or to experience stronger family ties. When Russell M. Nelson offered the definition of the “Spirit of Elijah” as being an aspect of the Holy Spirit in 1998, he offered no source for the definition. When subsequent Church leaders (such as Elder David A. Bednar) have used that definition since then, their citations are back to Elder Nelson’s address.
In today’s post, I’ve covered a set of topics that seem dear to President Russell M. Nelson’s heart that have to do with ecclesiology—the Church, the Restoration of the Gospel, the priesthood, and the gathering of Israel. He frequently celebrates our Church’s history and legacy while offering encouragement to strengthen our own access to the power of God and further the work of the Church through missionary work, family history work, and temple work. Next time, I’ll get into some of his focuses on strengthening and maintaining families.
Unless otherwise stated, all conference addresses cited are by Russell M. Nelson.
 “Music Submission Content Guidelines”, https://www.lds.org/bc/content/ldsorg/music/PD60008660_000%20MusicSubmission.pdf?lang=eng
 “Thus Shall My Church Be Called,” CR April 1990, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/04/thus-shall-my-church-be-called?lang=eng.
 “Opening Remarks,” CR October 2018, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/10/opening-remarks?lang=eng
 “Thus Shall My Church Be Called,” CR April 1990, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1990/04/thus-shall-my-church-be-called?lang=eng
 “Honoring the Priesthood,” CR April 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/04/honoring-the-priesthood?lang=eng
 “Call to the Holy Apostleship,” CR April 1984, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1984/04/call-to-the-holy-apostleship?lang=eng.
 “The Canker of Contention,” CR April 1989, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1989/04/the-canker-of-contention?lang=eng.
 See, for example, “Combatting Spiritual Drift—Our Global Pandemic,” September 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/combatting-spiritual-drift-our-global-pandemic?lang=eng or “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” October 2002, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2002/10/blessed-are-the-peacemakers?lang=eng
 “Hear Him,” CR April 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/45nelson?lang=eng.; “How Firm Our Foundation,” CR April 2002, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2002/04/how-firm-our-foundation?lang=eng
 “Be Thou an Example of the Believers,” CR October 2010, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2010/10/be-thou-an-example-of-the-believers?lang=eng.
 “A Testimony of the Book of Mormon, CR October 1999, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1999/10/a-testimony-of-the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng
 “Combatting Spiritual Drift—Our Global Pandemic,” September 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/10/combatting-spiritual-drift-our-global-pandemic?lang=eng
 “The Price of Priesthood Power,” CR April 2016, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2016/04/the-price-of-priesthood-power?lang=eng
 “Spiritual Treasures,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/36nelson?lang=eng
 “Spiritual Treasures,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/36nelson?lang=eng
 “Keys of the Priesthood,” CR October 1987, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1987/10/keys-of-the-priesthood?lang=eng See “Honoring the Priesthood,” CR April 1993, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1993/04/honoring-the-priesthood?lang=eng for another address focusing on priesthood keys and lines of authority.
 “Let God Prevail,” CR October 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/46nelson?lang=eng
 See “Covenants,” CR October 2011, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2011/10/covenants?lang=eng and “Children of the Covenant,” CR April 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/children-of-the-covenant?lang=eng
 “Covenants,” CR October 2011, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2011/10/covenants?lang=eng In the earlier talk about covenants, he stated that: “We are also children of the covenant. We have received, as did they of old, the holy priesthood and the everlasting gospel. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are our ancestors. We are of Israel. We have the right to receive the gospel, blessings of the priesthood, and eternal life. Nations of the earth will be blessed by our efforts and by the labors of our posterity. The literal seed of Abraham and those who are gathered into his family by adoption receive these promised blessings—predicated upon acceptance of the Lord and obedience to his commandments. (“Children of the Covenant,” CR April 1995, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1995/04/children-of-the-covenant?lang=eng, see also “Covenants,” CR October 2011).
 “Let God Prevail,” CR October 2020, fn16, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/46nelson?lang=eng
 “Let God Prevail,” CR October 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/46nelson?lang=eng
 I recommend Armand Mauss’s book All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (University of Illinois Press, 2003) for an in-depth discussion of how we approach the topic of Israel has changed.
 “The Gathering of Scattered Israel,” CR October 2006, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2006/10/the-gathering-of-scattered-israel?lang=eng and “Let God Prevail,” CR October 2020, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/10/46nelson?lang=eng
 Kathy Stephenson, “Data reveals what Latter-day Saint leaders talk about at General Conference and how it changes over time,” Salt Lake Tribune, 29 Sept 2020, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/09/29/data-reveals-what-latter/,
 “The Atonement,” CR October 1996, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1996/10/the-atonement?lang=eng See also “Spiritual Treasures,” CR October 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/36nelson?lang=eng
 “Repentance and Conversion,” CR April 2007, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2007/04/repentance-and-conversion?lang=eng
 “A New Harvest Time”, CR April 1998, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1998/04/a-new-harvest-time?lang=eng
 Wilford Woodruff recorded Joseph Smith saying that “the spirit power & calling of Elijah is that ye have power to hold the keys … of the fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” Franklin D. Richards recorded the same statement as: “The spirit of Elijah is that degree of power which holds the sealing power of the Kingdom to seal the hearts of the fathers to the children & of the children their fathers.” See Joseph Smith discourse, 10 March 1844, Wilford Woodruff diary. Cook, Lyndon W. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 5760-5774). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.
 See, for example, Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, pp. 168-169 or LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1950, 1958, 1976), 184-187.
 See, for example, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 254, where he stated in 1985 that: “When you attend the temple … certain blessings will come to you: You will receive the spirit of Elijah, which will turn your hearts to your spouse, to your children, and to your forebears. You will love your family with a deeper love than you have loved before.” Gordon B. Hinckley stated in 1994 that: “There are millions across the world who are working on family history records. Why? Why are they doing it? I believe it is because they have been touched by the spirit of this work, a thing which we call the spirit of Elijah.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Spirit of Elijah,” Liahona, November 1996, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/1996/11/the-spirit-of-elijah?lang=eng). See also Richard G. Scott, “Redemption: The Harvest of Love,” CR October 1990, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1990/10/redemption-the-harvest-of-love?lang=eng.
 See David A. Bednar, “The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn,” CR October 2011, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2011/10/the-hearts-of-the-children-shall-turn?lang=eng.
Thanks for the review and analysis.
In view of President Nelson’s emphasis on obedience to Church authorities, I have wondered what he thinks of the counsel given by Elder Oaks in 2006: “As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.” In your study, did you see any hint of his accepting the view that there are exceptions or of individually responsibility to identify applicable exceptions with the Lord’s help?
“According to President Nelson, the Spirit of Elijah is “a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family.”
Chad, This gives me much to think about. Why would President Nelson couple the Spirit of Elijah with the Holy Ghost? Is this belief or doctrine? Is there an ordinance that symbolizes this coupling?
The idea of the Spirit of Elijah being an aspect of the Holy Ghost is interesting because so little is taught about the Spirit. In Orthodox Christian and in Kabbalist tradition, the Holy Spirit is feminine. Some off-shoot traditions indentify the Holy Spirit as dual, with counterparts male and female. LDS tradition refers to the Spirit as male. A Gnostic tradition calls the “resonance” of a choir of angels the voice of Elohim—referring to the Holy Spirit as “many.” There can be a case made for the Holy Ghost being distinct from the Holy Spirit—one which is a spirit-personified, the other without personification.
For contemporary LDS context, my understanding of President Nelson’s teaching is that the Holy Ghost channels all heavenly manifestation and serves as a second witness to priesthood keys. I like that—The Holy Ghost as The One and The Many. Not rigid, not dogmatic.
Wondering, I’m trying to recall if I picked up on anything like that in President Nelson’s talks, and nothing is coming to mind. I feel like he mostly focused on just encouraging people to listen to and obey Church leaders. I also haven’t looked beyond his conference talks, so there may be something like that that he’s said in other venues.
Travis, I thought it was intriguing as well. I feel like the Spirit of Elijah was ill-defined, particularly with how the term was being used in the early 1990s (as a child at the time, I always envisioned it as the actual person Elijah going around as a ministering angel and whispering about family history in people’s ears). So, in some ways, it gives the idea better definition that focuses on God and the Holy Spirit. For what it’s worth, I like your understanding “that the Holy Ghost channels all heavenly manifestation and serves as a second witness to priesthood keys.”
As far as your question about it being doctrine or belief, I feel like it’s hard to define the boundary between what’s considered official doctrine and current Church leader’s beliefs, and this seems to be somewhere within the nebulous area that it may or may not be doctrine. Both he and David A. Bednar have said it in general conference, but I’m not sure whether the definition has gained further currency in the Church (i.e., use in manuals or other official publications of the Church). Especially now that President Nelson has become the president of the Church, it may come to be viewed as authoritative. It seems like something that could be accepted as doctrine, but hasn’t fully been solidified into the position of being doctrine yet.
In the Book of Mormon we learn that angels minister by the power of the Holy Ghost. The Spirit of Elijah is just a clearly defined angelic manifestation of this. I don’t think there’s a need for a separate spirit per se — why would there be? God the Father works through the Holy Ghost, he is one with his Son who works through the Holy Ghost and He invites us to be one like they are… through the Holy Ghost. So it stands to reason that other great prophets who have gone onto glory will share in that same potential. After all, the oath an covenant of the priesthood promises “all the Father hath” to us.
So in that same vein, maybe we could describe having a testimony of the restored gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith as the spirit of Joseph.
It’s easy when you go down these roads to see how a thousand years later you get veneration of catholic saints. pleading for intercession by them, etc.