SALT LAKE CITY — As he customarily sat on the edge of his front-row seat on Friday night, President Russell M. Nelson watched as a celebration of his 95th birthday marked the saved lives and saved souls of his medical career and ministry as a leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Streamed online in seven languages from the Conference Center, the event underscored the connections President Nelson made as a pioneering heart surgeon and a traveling apostle of Jesus Christ.
The man blessed with perfect pitch even displayed another talent — he was shown in a video playing Chopin’s “Prelude in C Minor” on a piano.
Meanwhile, the audience that sang “Happy birthday” was filled with family, friends, dignitaries, people whose lives President Nelson saved while serving as Dr. Nelson, and thousands who revere him as a living prophet of God.
The celebration was principally a concert with 13 musical performances by Donny Osmond, Nathan Pacheco, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Gentri and more. Those were supported by three videos about his family life, his medical career and his ministry.
- Sister Wendy Nelson leans in to kiss her husband, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on the cheek as they listen to performers during a celebration of President Nelson’s 95th birthday at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Gentri performs at a celebration of the 95th birthday of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency wave to people at the end of a celebration of President Nelson’s 95th birthday at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- Nathan Pacheco, Donny Osmond and the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Tabernacle Square perform during a celebration of the 95th birthday of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
- The audience listens during a celebration of the 95th birthday of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Days after they returned from nine days of ministry in five Central and South American countries, President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, zipped into the Conference Center with speed that challenged the professionals capturing video and still images of the occasion.
President Nelson honored his parents, his deceased wife Dantzel White Nelson, his 10 children, his wife Wendy, and his teachers, friends, church members and leaders, and others outside the church.
“I’m totally overcome with feelings of love and gratitude,” he said, addressing the crowd at the event’s end.
He used most of his time at the end of the program to honor divine influence in his life.
“Jesus the Christ is literally my Savior, my Redeemer, my exemplar and friend,” he said.
He also summarized his church presidency.
“My message to the world is simple and sincere,” he said. “I invite all of God’s children on both sides of the veil to come unto their Savior, receive the blessings of the temple, have enduring joy and qualify for eternal life.”
President Nelson performed the first open-heart operation west of the Mississippi in 1956. He held national and international positions and trained dozens of young surgeons personally and doctors around the world.
Finally, he was called out of the operating room and into the apostleship in 1984 after nearly 7,000 operations.
Videotaped tributes to President Nelson were delivered by his counselors in the First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring.
“We saw him set aside his prominence in saving hearts and reach out to all members of the church and indeed to the whole world in long-term service to the Lord in changing hearts. He’s a heart healer,” President Oaks said.
They described him as a unifier who finds common ground, alongside his decisiveness.
“Even in our schedules he moves everything rapidly,” President Eyring said. “‘Why not now? If we’re going to do it, let’s do it now.’”
The stage was flanked by 154 flags representing nations where the church operates. Soft blue light washed over the white dresses and black suit coats of the Tabernacle Choir.
But it was a private concert earlier in the day that illustrated one of the most striking connections President Nelson has made during his administration.
The principal organist of the Tabernacle Choir, Richard Elliott, performed two special hymns in the Salt Lake Tabernacle for the Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church in San Francisco.
It was the Rev. Brown who recognized the connection between the Latter-day Saint pioneer anthem, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the anthem of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Elliott played the anthems on the famous Tabernacle organ for the Rev. Brown, who said they represent the hardship, horror and terror experienced both by Latter-day Saints murdered, beaten and driven from their homes across the American plains, and by African Americans driven from their homes, enslaved, beaten, killed by disease and malevolence, and persecuted through 400 years of slavery in North America.
Played together, the two hymns have new significance, representing the remarkable connection President Nelson and the Rev. Brown have struck and the new way the church and NAACP are working together to address inner-city American problems.
The Rev. Brown attended the birthday celebration along with the Rev. Theresa Dear, another member of the NAACP’s national board.
President Nelson made another connection in Utah as the church’s leader with Sydney Cottle, 18, of West Point.
“I think it’s cool he’s in tune with the youth of the church even though he’s 95,” she said. “At the youth devotional here a year ago, he talked about the challenges we face. I took his challenge to give up social media for a week. It was tough, but I learned a lot.”
The Nelsons’ double-time pace entering the Conference Center reminded Pierne Revillo of the time she saw President Nelson, then 90, jump off the stage during a meeting in the Philippines to shake hands with youth and children.
“We wouldn’t miss this celebration for the world,” said Revillo’s husband, Charlie, who moved the family to Utah a year ago. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate his 95th birthday. We’re looking forward to his 100th birthday celebration.”