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A Perspective on 40 Years With Two Special Witnesses of Christ

Former mission president shares foundational, faith-promoting personal experiences with President Russell M. Nelson and President Dallin H. Oaks

Elder Dallin H. Oaks (right) gestures to President Gordon B. Hinckley as President Hinckley passes him and Elder Russell M. Nelson while leaving the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square following the afternoon session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' 177th Annual General Conference March 31, 2007. Photo by Keith Johnson, courtesy of Church News.© Copyright 2024 Deseret News Publishing Company.

This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Terry Calton, for the Church News

Forty years ago, on April 7, 1984, Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks were sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, neither having served previously as a General Authority. Elder Nelson, 59, was a heart surgeon and Elder Oaks, 51, was a Utah Supreme Court justice. Both had served as Regional Representatives (a calling similar to Area Seventies today) and both had distinguished themselves in their respective professions in medicine and law.

Although they were ordained in the coming days and weeks as the 85th and 86th Apostles called in this dispensation, their first public comments show in whom they trust and humbly teach us much as to what would transpire over the next 40 years.

Being hired by the Church Educational System in the summer of 1984 as a full-time religious educator, their words have guided me in my career. In his first address, then-Elder Nelson declared: “[My] feelings are blanketed by feelings of faith. …I have implicit faith in the Lord and in His prophets. I have learned not to put question marks but to use exclamation points when calls are issued through inspired channels of priesthood government. … Desired blessings come only by obedience to divine law, and in no other way. My lifetime thus far has been focused on learning those laws. Only as the laws are known, and then obeyed, can the blessings we desire be earned. To this extent, there will be little difference for me in the activities of the past and those of the future. The endless laws of the Lord are the doctrines taught by His Apostles” (“Call to the Holy Apostleship”, April 1984 General Conference).

In comments given a few days after that April 1984 General Conference, then-Elder Oaks humbly shared: “I feel like a man who stands at the foot of a mountain so high he cannot see its peak but knows he must climb it. I feel inadequate in every spiritual aspect of this calling. No newly called General Authority ever had more to learn than I. … I rejoice in the opportunity to devote my full energies for the rest of my life to the service of the Lord. I will do my best” (as cited in Church News, October 13, 2015).

His first address to the Church came in the October 1984 General Conference where he suggested six reasons for our service in the kingdom in a discourse titled, “Why Do We Serve?” The Ensign magazine published individual articles about President Nelson and President Oaks before their call to the Quorum of the Twelve. The titles of these articles teach us much about their life’s focus, containing many insights into their respective characters: “Russell M. Nelson: A Study in Obedience” (Ensign, August 1982) and “Dallin H. Oaks: The Disciplined Edge” (Ensign, April 1981).

I remember reading these articles as a returning missionary and university student and being struck by a statement from each: “The Lord has a tremendous work yet to accomplish in the Church. He’s going to need every faithful soul; there won’t be one prepared, qualified Latter-day Saint who won’t have all the responsibility to shoulder that he or she can bear,” said President Nelson. “Personal revelation is part of my faith and part of my approach to life. All my adult life I’ve had responsibilities for which I’ve needed a lot of extra help, but when I’ve had the assurance of the Lord’s help, I’ve never been afraid to go ahead,” said President Oaks. I knew I wanted to be prepared and qualified to receive personal revelation.

President Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, hugs President Russell M. Nelson, as they and President Henry B. Eyring, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, begin to exit following the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, December 3, 2023. Photo by Scott G Winterton, courtesy of Church News.© Copyright 2024 Deseret News Publishing Company.

Subsequent articles about President Nelson and President Oaks also share much of their personal history and commitment to the cause of Jesus Christ: “President Russell M. Nelson: Guided, Prepared, Committed” and “President Dallin H. Oaks: Following the Lord’s Ways.” Their parallel paths include messages at every General Conference since 1984; serving as Church leaders in Europe; serving on the Church Board of Education along with other executive committees; participating in the production of both editions of “Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” along with the two proclamations (The Family and The Restoration), as well as a united apostolic testimony (The Living Christ).

An example of them serving as dual witnesses on a topic of great interest is found in President Nelson’s April 2020 message in the Liahona magazine, titled “The Future of the Church: Preparing the World for the Savior’s Second Coming” and President Oaks’ April 2004 General Conference address, titled “Preparation for the Second Coming.” Studying these two messages together can inspire individual and collective preparation for this great event.

I have gained many personal insights by studying both their written and spoken words. During a large gathering known by some as the Arizona Devotional held on February 10, 2019, both President Nelson and President Oaks addressed some 65,000 attendees and thousands of others who viewed the broadcast in their local buildings.

Their words touched my soul.

President Nelson invited each of us “to remodel your home into a sanctuary of faith — filled with learning together from the home-centered, Church-supported curriculum.” President Oaks reminded us “the changes that make a difference to our position on the covenant path are not changes in Church policies or practices, but the changes we make in our own desires and actions” (Church News, Feb. 11, 2019). I’m still remodeling my desires.

I first met President Nelson as a young missionary in 1979 when he toured our mission in Mexico as Sunday School General President. As a recent convert to the Church, his words had a profound effect on me since I was still trying to discover what missionary work was all about. Later, additional interactions centered around our “adopted” Arizona grandmother, Sister Jane S. Poole, who, as a nurse at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 1951, was impressed with Dr. Nelson’s behavior and subsequently asked to be taught and baptized by him.

Sister Poole always spoke so highly of him to us and our children until her passing in 2003. I first met President Oaks in 2004 when he provided leadership training in Lima, Peru, for area mission leaders.

I am a witness of his personal influence and kindness then, as well as his ongoing attention to individuals in private now. For many years I have used Maynard Dixon’s painting “The Forgotten Man” to encourage both ecclesiastical and educational councils that I led to notice and seek out the one. Recently, I was thrilled to learn of President Oaks’ love for this painting, as it is indicative of his interest in and attention to the individual (see “What the ‘Forgotten Man’ Painting Means to President Oaks”).

During the past forty years, my soul has delighted in the edifying expressions and inspired invitations of these two apostolic associates. From a distance and in my limited close-up experiences, I confidently and gratefully sustain Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks as prophets, seers and revelators — expressing appreciation to the Lord for preparing them for His service in our day and on our behalf. — Terry F. Calton, who served as president of the Cochabamba Bolivia Mission from 2002–2005, is a retired religious educator serving a Church-service mission and teaching the adult Sunday School class in the Inglewood Ward, Mesa Arizona Central Stake.

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