By Eric Johnson
At the October 2021 two-day general conference, previous talks given by 17th President Russell M. Nelson were cited a total of 42 times by his fellow general conference speakers while all other general authorities (presidents and apostles) were referenced 46 times. In other words, about half of all cited speakers in the conference were Nelson, which may have set a record for a single conference. (For some background, see the note at the bottom of this article.)
Based on the previous eight general conferences, Nelson appears to be more quotable by far than any other leader–living or deceased–except perhaps church founder Joseph Smith. In fact, Nelson was cited by other speakers in fully 70% of all the 36 general conference talks given in November 2021, an extremely high ratio.
Five of Nelson’s talks–four of them from previous general conference talks–were given during the past five years and were mentioned a total of 20 times. This comes out to about half of all the quotations. They were as follows:
- “Christ is Risen: Faith in Him will Move Mountains” (Liahona, May 2021, referenced 6 times).
- “Joy and Spiritual Survival” (Ensign, Nov. 2016, referenced 5 times).
- “Let God Prevail” (Ensign, Nov. 2020, referenced 3 times).
- “The Love and Laws of God” (BYU devotional given 9/17/2019, referenced 3 times).
- “We Can Do Better and Be Better” (Ensign, May 2019, referenced 3 times).
While Nelson provides orthodox LDS doctrine, there does not seem to be anything he said in these talks that hasn’t been said by many other leaders numerous times before.
A total of 21 apostles were cited in the November 2021 general conference, including Dallin H. Oaks, the First Counselor of the First Presidency (5x); Neal Maxwell (4x); D. Todd Christofferson (4x); David C. Bednar and Dale G. Renlund (3x each). Of these 21 apostles, more than half (11) are living and serve as general authorities. Meanwhile, seven of the previous 16 presidents were cited at the conference, but only Joseph Smith was quoted more than once. The previous president, Monson, was never quoted.
Several speakers in the fall conference seemed to display hero worship for their top leader. Here are just a few of their glowing quotations:
- In her talk (“Come unto Christ and Don’t Come Alone”), Bonnie H. Cordon, the Young Women General President, gushed about Nelson in a moment of awe when she was called to her office: “As I sat on the couch with my husband, our prophet pulled his chair over, almost knee to knee with us, and looked at me with his piercing blue eyes. I wasn’t sure if my heart was racing or had completely stopped as he called me to serve as the Young Women General President.”
- In his first endnote to his talk “The Love of God” that followed the first line (“Our Heavenly Father loves us profoundly and perfectly”), Apostle D. Todd Christofferson explained, “In preparing this message, I have drawn upon principles taught by President Russell M. Nelson…” (p. 18). He also mentioned Dallin H. Oaks, the First Counselor of the First Presidency. Christofferson’s talk is similar to other talks given by a multitude of other leaders and is not unique to anything Nelson has ever taught.
- Apostle M. Russell Ballard, who serves as the senior apostle and is second in line of succession, gave a talk titled “Lovest Thou Me More Than These” where he gushed, “Last October, President Russell M. Nelson taught us the importance of putting Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ first in our lives” (p. 52). Isn’t this something many general authorities have emphasized over the years?
- Henry B. Eyring, the Second Counselor of the First Presidency, stated: “It is my testimony that the rock upon which we stand is our witness that Jesus is the Christ, which He leads personally; and that President Russell M. Nelson is His living prophet today. President Nelson seeks and receives direction from the Lord. He is for me an example of seeking that direction with the determination to follow it” (“The Faith to Ask and Then to Act,” p. 76). While such a statement is common in many conferences, Eyring’s citation seems to be over the top.
- In a similar light, Apostle Quentin L. Cook decided to brag on Nelson in his talk titled “Personal Peace in Challenging Times”: “Russell M. Nelson graduated from the University of Utah Medical School first in his class at age 22. He had long desired to be a surgeon and received the best training available at major medical institutions. He faithfully fulfilled military commitments in Korea and Japan. For many years he was a pioneer in open-heart surgery and was recognized worldwide. As remarkable as this preparation was to bless people all over the world with his medical skills, President Nelson’s spiritual preparation was even more important. He is the father of a large family of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He has faithfully served his family and Church throughout his life” (p. 92).
Rasband discusses “The Things of My Soul”
The October 2021 general conference talk that most lifted Nelson on a pedestal was delivered by Apostle Ronald A. Rasband. Titled “The Things of My Soul,” Rasband seemed to go out of his way to put the 97-year-old prophet on a pedestal. For instance, on pages 39-40, the apostle stated,
President Nelson declared his devotion to God, our Eternal Father, and to His Son, Jesus Christ, when he was called to lead the Lord’s Church, saying, “I know Them, love Them, and pledge to serve Them—and you—with every remaining breath of my life.”
Listing seven points describing “the things of my soul,” Rasband made his final point under the point “follow God’s living prophet” by stating:
This may be seventh on my list of things, but it is at the top of my mind in terms of its importance today. We have a prophet of God on the earth today! Never discount what that means for you. . . . We have the voice of the Lord through His prophet to calm our fears and lift our sights, for when President Nelson speaks, he speaks for the Lord (p. 40).
Comparing Nelson to the prophet Elisha, Rasband then continued,
The most important words we can hear, ponder, and follow are those revealed through our living prophet. I bear witness that I have sat in counsel with President Nelson to discuss weighty matters of the Church and of the world, and I have seen revelation flow through him. He knows the Lord, he knows His ways, and he desires that all of God’s children will hear Him, the Lord Jesus Christ. For many years we heard from the prophet twice a year at general conference. But with the complex issues of our day, President Nelson is speaking much more often in forums, social media, devotionals, and even press briefings. I have observed him preparing and presenting profound revelatory messages that have encouraged more gratitude, promoted greater inclusion of all our brothers and sisters on earth, and increased peace, hope, joy, health, and healing in our individual lives (pp. 40-41).
To make sure he was clear, Rasband added,
President Nelson is a gifted communicator, but more important, he is a prophet of God. That is staggering when you think about it, but it is critical to realize that his clear direction will shield us all from the deceit, craftiness, and secular ways gaining momentum in the world today (p. 41).
Since 2018, similar praise about President Nelson has been offered by a variety of other speakers. Here are just a few:
Apostle Ulisses Soares: “Brothers and sisters, I want to testify to you that Russell M. Nelson is the prophet of God on earth. I have never seen anyone more kind and loving than he is. Though I felt so inadequate for this sacred call, his words and the tender look in his eyes as he extended this responsibility made me feel embraced by the Savior’s love. Thank you, President Nelson. I sustain you and I love you” (“Prophets Speak By the Power of the Holy Spirit,” Ensign (Conference Edition) May 2018, pp. 99-99.)
Seventy Bean M. Davies: “I love and sustain President Russell M. Nelson and the others who have been called as prophets, seers, and revelators. I testify that he has the gifts the Lord has bestowed upon his head, and I witness that as we solidify in our lives the practice of listening to and heeding the voice of the living prophets, our lives will be built according to the Lord’s divine pattern for us, and we reap eternal blessings. The invitation is extended to all. Come, listen to a prophet’s voice; yea, come unto Christ and live” (“Come Listen to a Prophet’s Voice,” Ensign (Conference Edition) November 2018, p. 36).
Apostle Neil L. Andersen: “Speaking this morning to the members of the Church across the world, President Nelson said, ‘My dear brothers and sisters, you are living exemplars of the fruits that come from following the teachings of Jesus Christ.’ Then he added: ‘I thank you! I love you!’ We love you, President Nelson. I am an eyewitness to the power of revelation that rests upon our dear President. He is the prophet of God. Like Lehi of old, President Russell M. Nelson beckons to us and all of God’s family to come and partake of the fruit of the tree. May we have the humility and strength to follow his counsel” (“Fruit,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2019, 119).
Apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf: “Throughout the ages, God has spoken through His servants, the prophets. This morning we have had the privilege to hear the prophet of God speak to all the world. We love you, President Nelson, and I encourage everyone everywhere to study and heed your words” (“God among us,” Liahona (Conference Edition), May 2021, p. 8).
Seventy Taniela B. Wakolo: “I remember vividly, after undergoing surgery in 2018 and upon returning to work, I was in the parking garage at Church headquarters. Suddenly, I heard the voice of President M. Nelson calling, ‘Taniela, Taniela.’ I ran toward him, and he asked how I was doing. I said, “’I am recovering very well, President Nelson.’ He gave me counsel and a hug. I truly felt the personal ministry of a prophet to the ‘one.’ President Nelson has traveled to many nations of the earth. In my mind, he is not just ministering to thousands, but he is ministering to thousands of ‘ones.’ In doing so, he shares the love God has for all His children” (“God Loves His Children,” Liahona (Conference Edition), May 2021, pp. 95-96.
It is true that the presidents of the past have been lauded at general conference–this has been happening since the days of Joseph Smith. However, those who celebrated their living leader normally seemed to show more respect for the office rather than the man himself. Speaking of Ezra Taft Benson, for instance, Joseph B. Wirthlin said, “President Ezra Taft Benson is the only one who exercises all the keys of the kingdom” (“Our Lord and Savior,” Ensign (Conference edition), November 1993, p. 5).
In the last year of Thomas S. Monson’s life, several general authorities talked about their president, including the two members of the First Presidency (at that time):
Henry B. Eyring: “Last April, President Thomas S. Monson gave a message that stirred hearts across the world, including mine. He spoke of the power of the Book of Mormon.”
Dieter F. Utchtdorf: “As we recently met with our beloved prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, he expressed to us how much he loves the Lord.”
In a talk given at the previous conference, Uchtdorf said,
I am especially grateful for the presence of our beloved prophet, Thomas S. Monson. President, we will always take to heart your words of direction, counsel, and wisdom. We love you, President Monson, and we always pray for you.
I understand that these men love their leader as they expressed their thoughts. However, I believe current general authorities–including those who spoke about Nelson as listed above–have turned Nelson into some type of demigod.
If nothing else, there has been no precedent to have 7 out of 10 speakers at the October 2021 general conference bring up at least one citation from a previous Nelson talk. In that conference, Nelson was even quoted several times from a talk he had given earlier that day! Those words had not been uttered when the general authorities’ speeches were written!
With so much praise being heaped upon him, one would think that perhaps Nelson would show some modesty by asking his fellow general authorities to lighten up on their praise and possibly not cite him as regular as they did. Yet there is no outward indication that Nelson has any humility since these types of accolades have become even more regular over the past four years since Nelson became the president in early 2018 after his predecessor, Thomas S. Monson, passed away.
To see a chart listing the different quotes in this October 2021 conference, click here.
Citations in the General Conferences between 2018-2021
To show how often Russell M. Nelson was cited, let’s consider all four years of general conferences (8 total) when he served as the president:
|Conference edition (Ensign or Liahona)||Number of times Nelson was cited||Number of times Monson was cited||Total of times other general authorities were cited||Percentage of Nelson citations (vs. other GAs)||Other General Authorities Most Cited (besides Joseph Smith)|
|May 2018||13||2||54||19%||Oaks = 5
Joseph F. Smith = 4
Packer = 4
Bednar = 4
Holland = 3
|Nov. 2018||30||1||21||58%||Oaks = 5
Packer = 3
Joseph F. Smith = 3
|May 2019||24||2||27||45%||Oaks = 4|
|May 2020||22||1||51||30%||Oaks = 4
Eyring = 4
Maxwell = 3
|Nov. 2020||23||1||26||46%||Hinckley =5
Maxwell = 3
|May 2021||30||2||37||43%||Hinckley = 4
Andersen = 3
|Nov. 2021||42||0||47||47%||Oaks = 5
Christofferson = 4
Bednar = 3
Renlund = 3
As noted in the chart, Nelson’s first conference as president resulted in only 13 references by conference speakers while all other GAs were quoted a total of 56 times. Said another way, this comes out to one in five of the citations coming from Nelson. In the next conference (October 2018), however, Nelson’s previous talks were quoted more than twice as often (30 times), or an astounding 58% when all general authorities–living or dead–are included.
The question I ask is how did one man so quickly become a quote machine while seemingly minimizing the influence of sixteen previous presidents along with dozens of apostles who preceded him?
When all eight conference sessions from 2018-2021 are combined, the citations favored living leaders over those who have passed away. Here are the men who were most cited after Nelson (who was cited a total of 215 times in these years):
Dallin H. Oaks (living) = 27 times. Oaks is the First Counselor of the First Presidency and is next in line to take over the presidency once Nelson dies.
Neal Maxwell (deceased) = 18 times. Apostle and a prolific writer.
Gordon B. Hinckley (deceased) = 16 times. Fifteenth president of the church.
Henry B. Eyring (living) = 14 times. The Second Counselor of the First Presidency.
Joseph F. Smith (deceased) = 14 times. Sixth church president.
David Bednar (living) = 13 times. Apostle.
Those who were cited by other speakers a total of 8-10 times are apostles: D. Todd Christofferson, M. Russell Ballard, Boyd K. Packer, and Jeffrey R. Holland. All but Packer are living.
What about the presidents before Nelson?
Seeing these numbers, I decided to take a closer look at the final years of the presidencies of Thomas Monson (#16), Gordon B. Hinckley (#15), and Ezra Taft Benson (#13) to see if these leaders were as highly cited in general conference. (Since 14th president Howard W. Hunter served less than a year before he passed away in 1995, I decided to skip him.) Going backwards, I started with 2017, the last year that Monson was the president before he passed away on January 2, 2018. Here are the numbers:
General conferences during the last year of Monson’s presidency (2017)
|Conference edition (Ensign)||Number of times Thomas S. Monson was cited||Number of times Russell M. Nelson was cited||Total of times other general authorities were cited||Percentage of Monson citations (vs. other GAs)|
Monson had poor health for the last couple of years of his life, so his passing was not totally unexpected. Notice that fewer than one out of five citations in those two general conferences referenced anything said by Monson. Meanwhile, Nelson–the most senior apostle–was cited more than any other leader for a total of nine times times in these two conferences.
It begs the question: If Nelson was only quote-worthy nine times for both conferences in 2017, then what changed to make his quotes so much more attractive? After all, he was cited a total of 43 times in 2018, which is almost five times more than the previous year! The next year, 2019, Nelson was quoted 55 times and, in 2021, 72 times. Should merely becoming the president make him that much more worthy to be cited?
Meanwhile, Monson was cited a total of 22 times in 2017, yet in the next four years spanning eight different conferences, he was quoted a meager 11 times. Does being buried make a person less quote- worthy? Or is it possible that those who were trying to impress the current president decided to move their efforts to the next guy?
Gordon B. Hinckley: 2007
Next, let’s revisit 2007, the final year that Hinckley (who turned 97) served as the 15th president. Hinckley may have been one of the most beloved 20th century presidents, maybe second only to David O. McKay, as he was considered a lovable grandfather-like gentleman. In fact, I one time sat in a high school LDS seminary class where the teacher gave the following journal question: “If you could meet just one president, who would it be?” Even though Hinckley served when these students were just in elementary school, more than half the class voted for Hinckley. Of course, Hinckley had wit and knew how to schmooze with the media as well, including TV personalities Larry King and Mike Wallace.
Let’s take a look at his last two general conferences and see how often Hinckley was cited:
General conferences during the last year of Hinckley’s presidency (2007)
|Conference edition (Ensign)||Number of times Gordon B. Hinckley Cited||Number of times Thomas S. Monson cited||Number of times Russell M. Nelson cited||Total of times other general authorities cited||Percentage of Hinckley citations (vs. other GAs)|
There were a total of 24 Hinckley citations over this year, but when the quotes from other general authorities are factored in, he was cited less than a third of the time. Compare this to more than 70 Nelson citations during the two conferences in 2021. This doesn’t seem to make sense because Hinckley seems to a much more popular president than Nelson is.
There was only one citation of either Monson or Benson in the two general conferences in 2007, even though these would become the next two presidents. It should be pointed out that Nelson (never cited in 2007) was cited nine time in 2017, the year before he became the president. In 2021, Dallin Oaks–the next in line to become president when Nelson passes away–had previous talks mentioned seven times, more than any other living general authority. Does this look like a trend?
President Ezra Taft Benson: 1993/94
Finally, let’s compare the final two conferences of Ezra Taft Benson, the 14th president of the LDS Church:
General conferences during the last year of Benson’s presidency (1993/94)
|Conference Ensign Magazine||Number of times Ezra Taft Benson Cited||Number of times Howard W. Hunter cited||Number of times Gordon B. Hinckley cited||Total of times other general authorities cited||Percentage of Benson citations (vs. other GAs)|
For the last couple of years of his presidency, Benson visibly struggled with his health. Gordon B. Hinckley, a member of the First Presidency at that time, tried to positively spin Benson’s disabilities when he said,
President Benson is now in his ninety-fifth year. He still wears the mantle of his sacred office. But his activities are seriously limited. He is unable to be with us this morning or to speak to us. We love him. We honor him. We pray for him. We sustain him. And we go forward (“Bring Up a Child in the Way He Should Go,” Ensign (Conference edition), November 1993, 54).
It seems that leaders who were deceased were much more likely to be cited than the living leaders. In fact, in each of the two conferences documented above, only four living general authorities were cited (for a total of five times) in the October 1993 conference: Boyd K. Packer, Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson. Four were cited a total of six times in April 1994 (M. Russell Ballard, Neil A. Maxwell, Monson, and Hinckley). In other words, only 12% of all citations in these two conferences quoted living leaders. Compare this with the October 2021 general conference when well more than half of the general authority citations quoted living leaders. This is quite a disparity.
One Final Chart
Just for fun, let’s combine the statistics for the final two conferences of these four presidents and compare the citations given general conference speakers:
|President||1st Conference||2nd conference||Total|
|Ezra Taft Benson||6 (Oct. 1993)||6 (April 1994)||12|
|Gordon B. Hinckley||14 (April 2007)||10 (Oct. 2007)||24|
|Thomas S. Monson||8 (May 2017)||14 (Oct. 2017)||22|
|Russell M. Nelson||30 (May 2021)||42 (Oct. 2021)||72|
When we look at it this way, we see that Russell M. Nelson had at least three times more of his talks cited in general conference than the the three other presidents combined!
Non-conference issues of the Liahona
Besides Nelson’s previous talks and speeches getting mentioned in general conference, it appears this trend of citing Nelson can also be found in the non-conference monthly editions of the Liahona magazine. For instance, in the “Welcome to this Issue” feature on page 3 of the December 2021 Liahona magazine, it reads, “President Russell M. Nelson has often said that gathering Israel is the most important work going on in the world today.” It then provides a citation from the October 2020 general conference.
Of the seven articles that included endnotes in the December 2021 edition of Liahona, Nelson was referenced in five, or 71%. All seven citations in the article titled “Family History, Temples, and Missionary Work” (pp. 13-15) authored by Mike Judson of the Family History Department come from seven different Nelson articles or talks. In addition, seven of the nine citations from the article “How We Gather Israel Today” (pp. 20-23) originate from two two different conference talks given by Nelson.
In the following month’s edition (January 2022), Nelson was mentioned in seven–or, more than half–of the 11 articles containing endnotes; Oaks, the next president (if he is living when Nelson dies), is mentioned in three. No other general authority, living or deceased, was cited in more than one article from this edition. The trend indeed seems to be continuing.
It appears current church leaders speaking in general conference are stepping over themselves to cite previous Russell M. Nelson talks talks, a trend that was not common in previous administrations. To have these general conference speakers cite the current prophet’s previous talks a total of 42 times in two days, or close to half of all citations given in the conference, is nothing less than overkill. And this doesn’t even account for the three different talks given by Nelson that same weekend.
While the LDS hymn “Praise to the Man” is written specifically about church founder Joseph Smith, could there be a day when additional stanzas are added to glorify a current prophet such as Russell M. Nelson? That time does not seem far off.
Note: The statistics and the conclusions I provide in this article are not scientific. In addition, this article is not making the claim that Russell M. Nelson somehow sent out a memo to let the other leaders know how important it is to cite him in their general conference talks. All I can report is what I observe.
I also want to explain how I tallied cited sources. I did this by going through the applicable conference editions and recording only those times when the speaker of any particular talk used the name of the general authority while providing an intext citation or an endnote showing where the quote originated. If the endnote said to “see” a bibliographical citation but the general authority was not directly quoted in the talk, it was not counted. In addition, I kept the citations to Joseph Smith to a minimum, as anything from LDS scripture (including Joseph Smith-History in the Pearl of Great Price) was not counted as a citation for Smith. Smith counted only when he was cited in a book like Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith or the manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball, the two sources most often used by conference speakers to cite Smith.