ROME — There was real weight embedded in a light moment between Presidents Russell M. Nelson and M. Russell Ballard as the Latter-day Saint leaders wrapped up a news conference in March.
As the late Sunday afternoon sun warmed the stained-glass windows in the doors of the Rome Italy Temple, the men dubbed "the two Russells" by President Ballard himself stood in front of a gaggle of reporters and cameras.
President Nelson pointed out that in 1981 the church had a grand total of 19 temples. Left unsaid was the fact that in 2018, his first year as the new prophet-leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he had announced plans for exactly 19 new temples. What he did say out loud was that church leaders would dedicate a dozen temples in 2019.
"It's going to be a busy year," he said.
That drew a wry smile from President Ballard, the 90-year-old acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
"He has to have some things for us to do," he joked. "Stay out of trouble, you know."
President Nelson, 94, instantly added his own witticism.
"Occupational therapy," he said to laughter.
The underlying thread was plain. In an extraordinarily vigorous start to his administration, which began with a vow to serve with every remaining breath of his life, President Nelson has created a staggering amount "to do" both for the church's senior leaders and its members.
Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles picked up the thread two days later while standing in almost the exact same spot in the Rome temple after another session of the building's dedication. He also smiled as he spoke:
"President Nelson has said to us many times, 'Don't you — any of you — get sick and make this not work.'"
On the day the church introduced President Nelson as its 17th prophet-leader, one observer wrote that the apostle's record over the previous 30 years suggested "he will make few changes."
The exact opposite has been true. It turned out that the record to review was his career as an innovating heart surgeon and his sweeping diplomatic ministry in obtaining official recognition for the church in countries behind the Iron Curtain.
"The Nelson administration has defined itself as one of action," said Kathleen Flake, the Richard Lyman Bushman professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia.
In the past 12 months, President Nelson and the faith's senior leadership — decisions made by the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are unanimous — have changed the way church members worship on Sundays, how they minister to one another, how priesthood quorums are organized, how missionaries begin their service and interact with their families and how the church's name should be used. They've also introduced changes that affect every auxiliary organization in the church.
As he and church members prepare for the first general conference of the second year of his prophetic role as church president, some may be trying to catch their breath.
"It's a remarkable start, and it portends a very energetic and dynamic future," said Rick Turley, the faith's former assistant church historian and recorder.
The most important changes, say many women and other Latter-day Saints, have been made inside the church's temples, what President Dallin H. Oaks told an Italian journalist last month are "our highest house(s) of worship." The First Presidency announced updated temple ordinances at the end of a year in which one of President Nelson's signature phrases was about "gathering Israel on both sides of the veil."
That's a reference first to bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world's people and then to offering gospel ordinances to those who have died, through temple work.
President Nelson undertook the most ambitious first-year travel schedule by a new president in church history, based on information published by Church Newsroom and discussions with church historians — 55,000 air miles with stops on five continents. He spoke to enormous crowds in an American professional football stadium, a professional baseball stadium, an NBA stadium and at other arenas and convention centers and meetinghouses in 16 countries. That all happened since last April 2018.
Hundreds of thousands
"In that short period of time, hundreds of thousands of people have had an opportunity to be in a meeting in the presence of the prophet," said Turley, now the managing director of the church's Public Affairs Department.
One of those people was Eunice Amuge of Uganda, who began to save money to travel to Kenya as soon she heard President Nelson would be there. She made complicated plans with minibuses called matatus for a trip that took two days and was rugged in a way most Americans can't imagine — no highways and thousands of potholes on mostly dirt roads.
Afterward she beamed.
"I shook my prophet's hand," she said.
Turley said President Nelson's message on trips has consistently centered on gathering and on encouraging church members to stay on the covenant path — remain faithful — as well as revelation, including personal revelation.
"In coming days," he said in his first general conference talk to the entire body of the church as church president, "it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting and constant influence of the Holy Ghost."
There are other messages — both implicit and explicit — observers said. One, for example, is that the church is undeniably international.
Amuge's experience also illustrates another message.
"In an increasingly digital and virtual world of experience, President Nelson's travels impress upon the church that he, as a living prophet, is real," Flake said.
In October, church members joyfully cried in the Concepción Chile Temple when President Nelson walked into a room where they sat to watch a broadcast of the temple dedication ceremony.
On that trip, he also delighted Latter-day Saints in large meetings in Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay by delivering his talks in Spanish.
"My impression of our prophet speaking to the Latin Americans in their native tongue brought tears to my eyes," said Charla McCruter, who is living in Ecuador as a nontraditional online student in international relations and an EnglishConnect teacher with BYU-Pathway Worldwide. "It completely changed the way I feel about what I am doing. I feel as though he is right here with all of us and not so distant as I had felt before. It lit a fire that has not burned out yet."
Another illustration of President Nelson's revelatory first year is temple building.
In the five years preceding his sustaining as church president, the church announced 12 new temples. Last October, he announced 12 in a single day. That list included a first temple in Cambodia, six months after he announced the first temples for Russia and India.
The construction of a temple in Bangalore, India, will ease major time and financial burdens on growing church membership in the country and surrounding nations. Today, most members must save money for months or years to travel to temples in Hong Kong or Manila, Philippines, to receive church ordinances available only in those buildings.
The adjustments to those temple ordinances implemented in January carried deep meaning for others. The ordinances, including the sealing or marriage and the endowment, are the highest sacraments in the church. Temples also allow Latter-day Saints "to perform the essential ordinances of mortality," including baptism for the benefit of those who have died, President Oaks, first counselor in the church's First Presidency, told Italy's La Stampa newspaper.
The First Presidency announcement in January stated: "Over these many centuries, details associated with temple work have been adjusted periodically, including language, methods of construction, communication and record-keeping. Prophets have taught that there will be no end to such adjustments as directed by the Lord to his servants."
Many women in the church have called those adjustments the most meaningful in a year of change as it connects them more personally to the church, the gospel and ultimately their Savior.
Restoration and revelation
President Nelson's first general conference talk to the entire body of the church in April 2018 was about the church's bedrock belief in continuing revelation.
"One of the things the Spirit has repeatedly impressed upon my mind since my new calling as president of the church is how willing the Lord is to reveal his mind and will," he said.
He said God instructed him to select his new counselors in the First Presidency, but only after he conducted interviews.
"I know good inspiration is based on good information," he said.
In two electric days around that talk came the announcement of a change to priesthood quorum organizations and the way members minister to one another away from Sunday services. He also added new diversity to senior church leadership.
President Nelson has repeatedly stated that the changes and adjustments implemented over the past year are the result of revelation and that more are to come. His wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, has described how some of that revelation comes. She said she has witnessed him receive revelation during the night since they married in 2006, but added that the revelation has come with increased frequency and intensity since he became the church president.
The breathtaking surge of changes has directly affected every one of the church's 16.1 million members and 30,500 congregations.
"The most memorable moments in life are those in which we feel the rush of revelation," Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said during the initial burst of announcements at general conference a year ago. "President Nelson, I don't know how many more rushes we can handle this weekend."
After a spring and summer of travel, the rushes returned at the next conference in October, when he announced Sunday services would be reduced to two hours to focus Latter-day Saints on a more home-centered church.
While some members say the adjustment has been jarring socially and they miss the third hour's joint study and discussion, others have rejoiced. Internationally, some members reported that the new scheduled removed obstacles and has led to increased church attendance.
Bishop Richard J. McClendon said the new home-centered curriculum that accompanied the change has increased the spiritual and doctrinal depth of the Sunday School classes in his Maple Canyon Ward in Woodland Hills, Utah County.
"In the past, few members came to class having already read the lesson," he said. "Now, not only have they read, but they have studied and searched and discussed the lesson material with their family members before coming. My observation of the gospel doctrine class since January has taught me that there really is a significant difference in the depth and testimony of the comments now being shared. We have moved from breadth to a much deeper dive."
President Nelson also reiterated a request he made in August, when he asked the church and the world to stop referring to the faith using the nicknames Mormon or LDS Church. The full name of the church plainly states that it is Jesus Christ's and that it is his restored church, he said, adding that Christ himself in Latter-day Saint scripture declared that the church should be called after his name.
Two days earlier, the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir was renamed The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Recently, the church's website changed from lds.org to ChurchofJesusChrist.org. In March, The Associated Press updated its style on references to the church, encouraging its media members to use the full name of the the church on first reference and refrain from using the terms "Mormon" or "Mormons" unless in quotes or necessary for space or clarity.
Some have mourned the loss of lifelong identity as Mormons but many say emphasizing the church's correct name is effective.
"I love the new emphasis on the name of the church," said Garrett Williams, 22, a Springville man studying business management at Utah Valley University. "I feel like I speak and think about Christ more than I ever did before."
Two weeks after the October conference, President Nelson embarked on his second major tour, to five South American countries. At the end of that trip, in Chile, he said: "If you think the church has been fully restored, you're just seeing the beginning. There's much more to come. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It's going to be exciting."
Other noteworthy adjustments have included:
• Elimination of Boy Scouts from the church's Young Men program after more than 100 years, and a complete restructuring of the church's youth programs, due to begin in 2020.
• Overhaul of the church's hymnbook, in part to better reflect the church's international membership.
• Child and youth advancement from one class or priesthood quorum to another together as age groups instead of individually on their birthdays. This affects priesthood ordinations, Young Women advancement, the Primary program, Young Women and Young Men camps, teen ministering assignments and the ages at which children may first attend the temple and participate in church dances.
• Additional guidelines for bishops' interviews with children and youths.
• Online missionary calls, expanded service missionary opportunities for young single adults unable to serve proselyting missions for health reasons or other extenuating circumstances, and an allowance for missionaries to call home as often as weekly.
His second year began with equal vigor.
In March, he gathered all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve outside the United States for the first time in church history, for the Rome Temple dedication, which he called a hinge point for the faith.
He also participated in the first meeting between a Catholic pope and a Latter-day Saint prophet, sharing a hug with Pope Francis at the Vatican at the end of a 60-year thaw in relations between the two churches.
The image of a vibrant, advancing church has been matched by President Nelson's public image of robustness, including his ability to walk off a plane in La Paz, Bolivia, where the altitude exceeds 13,000 feet, and speak at a meeting without any ill effects.
"His energy and his enthusiasm are contagious," Turley said.
"He does not look 94," Sister Nelson said in October. "I cannot get him to act his age."8 comments on this story
Latter-day Saints believe their leaders were foreordained in premortal life to become prophets.
"It is as though he's been unleashed," Sister Nelson added. "He's free to finally do what he came to Earth to do."
"Things are going to move forward at an accelerated pace," he said in Rome in early March, later adding, "The church is going to have an unprecedented future, unparalleled; we're just building up to what's ahead now."
"Stay tuned," Turley said. "It's not over."