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.


About the author

Jana Riess

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


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  • Again you ask this stupid question because you fail to understand the concept of a prophet. Delve into the prophets of the Old Testament so you don’t keep embarrasing yourself with this ignorant question again and again.

  • We all know that the LDS Church is a church, one of many Christian churches, although on the fringes with its history and theological claims. I’m not convinced there is any such thing as one true church. Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his name that he would be there. He didn’t qualify the statement in any way as to who the two or more had to be.

  • Jana, the explanation under the photo mistates who Pres. Nelson is. He is no longer Pres of the Quorum of the Twelve.

  • Thank you for pointing that out. I used one of the Newsroom photos for media, because no photos were allowed at stake conference, but I didn’t think to edit the caption. It should be fixed now.

  • I think it would be much more rewarding, and revealing, to know the LDS church definition.

    Of course, since the LDS church keeps revising its theology and history and so on, that might not necessarly mean much…..

  • My son is currently serving a Chinese-speaking mission in Oakland/San Francisco and was honored to provide the translation services from the back of the room to those Chinese members in attendance. He is certain the prophet has no idea this was happening but the chance to translate for his prophet, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience! It won’t soon be forgotten.

  • Depends on your definition of “church,” I’ve seen three, all valid depending on context. There’s the actual church organization, authorized to act in God’s name. There’s all those that accept Jesus Christ as their savior, believing that he is the Son of God that died for their sins and rose again on the third day. And there’s all those that seek as best they can to do God’s will, whether they believe in His Son or not.

  • This has been my experience with the visits from leaders of the Church. They are genuine men and women who try to convey love and support. And there has been a great opportunity in Cincinnati to have quite a few visit for meetings. As for “We Thank Thee O God For a Prophet”, its funny that of all the hymns in the LDS Hymnbook that speak of prophets, we like to sing the one that talks about prophets the least. Other then the line that gives the hymn its title, the song is a praise of God, and doesn’t even mention prophets again.

  • I really liked this blogpost, however, it is missing Sister Nelson’s contributions to the conference. In particular, she mentioned giving up Scrabble on her iPad, which was very human to me and, I think, relatable to a lot of people both old and young.

  • You are so right Dick! Joseph Smith was the man and a true prophet of God. He saw Jesus and God and actually talked with God numerous times. I’m sure President Nelson also talks with God daily but for some reason doesn’t talk about it much. Maybe modesty? I don’t know but I do know he’s also a prophet of God just like Joseph Smith.

  • I was there because that is my mom’s stake and just a day before we had the funeral service for my dad who lost his battle of cancer days before. That day was a day that Heavenly Father sent physical comfort to our family. It was a very special day that gave strength to my family and me with His prophet in front of us. I know this is the true church and that man is the true prophet of God. ?

  • So the fortune teller is California. No doubt he is pushing some business venture for said business cult fronting as a religion. Onward mighty tithes !!!

  • For a Latter-day Saint definition, see

    Noted Anglican writer, the late Revd John R. W. Stott used a similar definition:

    Spokesmen of God. In the primary sense in which the Bible uses the word, a prophet was a person who “stood in the council of God”, who heard and even “saw” his word, and who in consequence “spoke from the mouth of the Lord” and spoke his word “faithfully”.

    All are welcome to listen to the broadcast of the April 2018 General Conference of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to see and hear what this means. See

  • Jana alluded To this,even though she said it did not happen here. One of the great turnoff for me is the hero worship that goes on in the church. I bet no one stood after the meeting until Nelson stood. They will brush by the primary teacher as if she does not exist to shake ha ds with the prophet. It goes against what Christ taught.

  • Thank you. I read most of it.

    This is the typical….”stuff” put out by the LDS church.

    To cite the most obvious problem with the stuff put out by the LDS church, how do we know that in fact the leaders of the church receive revelations from god? How do we know that they are not simply their own ideas, attributed to god?

    For example, ttbomk, Ezra Taft Benson was suffering from dementia in his final years. Gee, why do you suppose god would let him suffer like that? Do you suppose everything he thought and said came from god? We know, for example, that some folks suffering from certain psychoses think they hear god commanding them to do this or that–and then go out and shoot others.

  • Jana, thanks for the article. one point of clarification…. handkerchief waiving and the Hosanna Shout are events which happen at the dedication of a new Temple. They are not acts of veneration for the prophet.

  • You wrote “All are welcome to listen to the broadcast…”

    Are all welcome to read history of the LDS church written by non-Mormons?

  • Members of the LDS Church are free to read whatever they wish. There isn’t a gestapo to run into their homes and remove verboten materials!

  • How do we know that any leaders of the Church after the time of Jesus ministry were lead by God. It’s all a matter of faith. Folks believed Sts Peter and Paul, LDS folks believe Joseph Smith and Russell Nelson. Others believe Pope Francis.

  • I guess it’s true that the LDS “church” has not yet figured out a reliable way to monitor what members read and think, tho of course, we know that the LDS church has *officially* discouraged members from reading material that, tho true, might damage faith. Gee, how could reading something true damage your faith?….

    Here’s a link, in case you have forgotten:

  • Isn’t it peculiar that your all-powerful god gives his messages only to the leaders of the church? Why doesn’t he simultaneously give the message to everyone? Wouldn’t that eliminate all doubt?

    For that matter, how can we have any confidence that the LDS leaders aren’t making up these “revelations” for their own purposes, to advance the church?

    No wonder the church discourages people from raising questions publicly! Imagine the chaos that could result if peokple started doing that, and started thinking about those questions!

    Imagine how it might erode the power the church exercises over the lives of its members…..

  • President Nelson is well-known for his charm, so I’m not surprised that he charmed Sister Jana, but what struck me about this article was the celebration of the latent antipathy expressed by the divorced woman whose husband was dismissed as “abusive and self-medicating.”

    Quite frankly the reporting of her comments alone were horrifying in what they reveal about modern LDS women’s attitudes about their husbands. It is as if she were expressing anger that her car had broken down. She “expected” things from her husband and he didn’t deliver.

    I wasn’t there, but holy Hannah, it sounds so dehumanizing.

    I’ve seen several instances of broken marriage where mental illness, unresolved trauma and attendant drug abuse where factors, and while divorce was often necessary for survival of the spouse and children, it was always a matter of sorrow, regret and compassion.

  • God uses a prophet because that is one of his methods for conveying truth. Don’t you read the scriptures? It’s important God’s message be correctly conveyed to the masses so they are practicing correlated doctrine. Thus, God provided clear unchanging instruction to the prophets on the necessity of polygamy to attain the highest kingdom, the denial of the priesthood to people of African descent, a book from scrolls written by Abraham’s own hand(!!!), a revealed temple endowment practiced now exactly as it was originally…oh…wait….

  • How do you “know” this? Be honest, You don’t. You believe strongly. There is a difference. As Hitchens once said, extraordinary claims must be supported by extraordinary proof. I see little proof. Some correlation. Nothing suggesting causation.

  • Isn’t she the one who preached a person can pray the gay away? Such nonsense greatly diminishes the value to me of anything she might say.

  • I know the leaders receive revelation from God because I receive my own revelations from God. Either that or I’m psychotic. *I* don’t think I’m psychotic, but do psychotic people ever believe that they are psychotic?

  • Re: Howard Kay
    I’m always amused when non-LDS take it upon themselves to dictate how the LDS church should be run or what we should be doing or not doing. That does not upset me, however. I’m always game for some innocent entertainment from them, even when it’s not the truth – which is 99% of the time. I do have to admit that the entertainment value of non-LDS posts goes up a few notches when they make up things about the church.

  • Eh? I took your initial response to be…ironic? (Not sure of the precise word I want.) Doubtful about “revelations from god”? Pointing out that “revelations fro mgod” should be taken very skeptically?

  • To clarify, he spoke at a stake conference in Oakland, California on Sunday morning, March 4, 2018? He also spoke at a regional conference at 10 AM that morning in Rexburg, Idaho. Does he just get around?

  • Oh. OK.

    The problem, obviously, is, how does one verify that a “revelation” is from god? My POV is that there is no evidence for the existence of god, but lots of evidence that people construct religion, and the idea of god, for various reasons, some good, some bad.

    But even if one assumes there is a god, the problem of verification still remains. And there is lots of evidence supporting the idea that even if a non-psychotic individual sincerely believes that his/her “revelation” is real, so often, that “revelation” is in agreement with what the individual wants to know, or wants to happen.

    (Funny, how there are so few revelations telling an individual that racism or hatred is wrong….)

    I assume you agree with most of what I wrote.

  • What’s funny is that I can find no mention of this in the local Rexburg newspaper. You might think that it would be a big deal with all the other LDS news the paper covers.

    Do you have a link to support this assertion?

  • I agree on the nature of the problem. To me, the problem of verifying revelation is similar to and tied up with verifying the objective reality of anything (seeing as how ‘anything’ includes God). My study of quantum physics has suggested to me that there is no such thing as objective reality, so I admit that I continue to remain at a loss as to how to unequivocally distinguish between what goes on inside my head and what goes on independently of me. For now, you might say that I am operating in a holding pattern in which I assume that my subjective reality is the same as objective reality (which may not actually exist). Mostly, I am entirely at a loss as to what the appropriate course of action would be if I abandoned that assumption.

  • I was acting on somewhat unclear information. I’m a student at BYU-Idaho, and was supposed to attend, but couldn’t. I asked for information from a friend, and all he said was that President Nelson spoke. After I commented, I discovered that it was only a broadcast.

  • Of course Hithchens would say it…Mr. Empirical evidence. Will it ultimately take him having such an experience himself for many to stop believing things he says just because he says them. Stop listening to people like him. Listen to someone who really matters…God.

  • OMG that is so funny! Do you realize what you just said? Ignore facts, just believe. If I wish really hard, will it turn a nonfact into a fact? To answer your question literally, yes, I suppose Christopher would have appreciated more evidence. A personal experience no doubt would have helped. But I doubt the kind of thing most people refer to as “religious experiences” (warm heart, happiness, peace, tears–such things can be replicated for nonmagical reasons) would have sufficed.

    So if I go with Christianity, I’m to believe that after roughly 200,000 years of human existence (according to the fossil record, sorry about relying on a fact), most of it filled with hunger, pestilence, brutality, death at childbirth commonly occurring, etc., God finally decides to do something.

    What does he do? Teach people to wash their hands and boil their water? No, he impregnates a young girl without her explicit consent (abusing his position of power), thereby exposing her to execution according to the customs of her tribe, so that she can deliver a son who God allows to be sacrificed at the request of that same desert hill tribe.

    Further, I’m to revere a man named Abraham who heard a voice, acted on that voice, mutilated his own genitals and then made all the males in his household mutilate their genitals, and attempted to murder his adult son. Today, he would be guilty of attempted murder, and rightly so. But if I’m Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, I’m supposed to venerate this man.

    Sorry, my brain just rebels at this. If there really is a God, I don’t claim to know, I seriously doubt he’s too put out by my nonbelief. And if he condemns me to hell for my nonbelief, well, I already think he’s a narcisisistic bipolar child-abusing dick for all the crap he’s pulled in the Bible, so I wouldn’t be surprised.

  • I must admit that normally I try and ignore Jana’s articles as I find her Mormon-view and my Mormon-view are not too closely aligned. However, I was willing to endure her snarky-Mormon position in order to read more about President Nelson. What truly entertained me and lifted my spirits was that Jana joined in the song after the closing prayer. Maybe there’s hope for her yet.

  • @howard_kay:disqus Interesting you put this out. As a former bishop, I do have to say that that mantle was a remarkable thing to have. I sort of feel for Christ when he was speaking with Nicodemus as he was describing things of the Spirit, and Nicodemus was puzzled. He finished by saying “We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; …”. Without an understanding of the Spirit, and by the Spirit, I have seen many puzzled. I have chosen to remember my experience as bishop, and those memories of having those experiences by the Spirit.

    As far as members, I can’t say how many know as I do, but a lot do. There’s no (or not much of an) outward sign. Having met with President Nelson and spent time with him at a recent stake conference, he’s quite a remarkable fellow, and the overwhelming impression I had of him was that he was someone who was dedicating his life to having the Spirit with him, always, and serving the Lord. This has not been unlike other visiting authorities. I think he’s not troubled by the things that you are, but, then again, he has that mantle, and understands it.

  • My understanding of the “mantle” statement is that a “simple” studying of LDS history–comparable to a history of, say, Spanish politics, or the Catholic church–without *friendly* consideration of the religious aspects, has strong potential to erode the faith of Mormons.

    Certainly it’s useful and helpful to include the religious context–what the religion (Catholicism, Mormonism, etc) teaches.

    But I have the strong impression that Packer is concerned that a simple recitation of the facts, even including religious teachings–*especially* including religious teachings– will be upsetting to Mormons and will drive some to question their own faith and the behavior of leaders.

    I think he’s correct; and in fact, any history of any religion or denomination that references teachings will open the eyes of the reader. A thoughtful reader will ask herself “wait a minute–how could this happen? How could they have so brazenly ignored teachings? And what about NOW?–shouldn’t someone apologize?”

  • ADDENDUM: A good overall defense of the LDS church and Packer’s view would be a reasonably comprehensive history of racism in the church, published in an official LDS publication–covering, say, the racism of Petersen, J. Reuben Clark, Ezra Taft Benson, et al.

    Are you able to cite anything that even approaches this kind of history?

  • Generally it is my experience that in person prophets and apostles speak very differently than they do in General Conference. The truths they speak are the same, but they are much more relaxed and informal at stake meetings. Elder Bednar, for example, is a very humorous speaker in person, but always seems a little stiff at General conference. I think it has to do with concerns over timing for broadcast purposes. The only current apostles that really speak very similarly style-wise in all settings are Elder Holland and Elder Uchtdorf. Maybe President Eyring? President Hinckley was that way as well.

  • I don’t disagree that there is a bit of a tendency towards hero-worship of leaders in the Church.
    In fact, critics often stumble with this one too. The LDS Church actually teaches its leaders are fallible – but many members do not believe it. And critics assume that every word ever spoken by a Church leader must be doctrine.
    However, whether we lean a bit towards adulation or not, there is the attempt to respect the role even if not the person – as David did with Saul in 1 Sam 24.

  • Thanks for responding to my comment.There is a well known saying in the church. It goes like this, “Catholics teach the pope is infallible but no catholic believes it. Mormons teach the prophet is not infallible. but no mormon believes it.” I like to ask fellow members the question, when has the prophet ever been wrong? 99% say never.
    Brigham Young himself once said everything he says is doctrine.
    Hero worship of our leaders is alive and well. Apostles themselves contribute to the problem with words and deeds. They expect people to stay seated until they get up in a meeting. That sounds like scribe and pharisee behavior.
    The same member who thinks he is heading to the highest realm of the celestial world will brush past the lowly primary teacher as if she did not exist to shake hands with an apostle.This attitude has created a cult like following for apostles in the church.

  • You’re kind of like a fly that buzzes and buzzes, throwing out things that you hope buzz in people’s ears, trying to be your own “prophet of the (anti-)Church, which is either your own intense, spinning mind’s creation, or a sequence of nihilisms that pop up in your playlist that you use to engage folks who stumble across your responses in the posts. Is this your only life, to troll here, laughing at those silly folks who respond to you? We are truly in awe of your stunning, razor-sharp intellect. Not.