After a lifetime of service to God, church, family and community, President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died Sunday at the age of 95.
At the time of his death, President Ballard was the longest-tenured general authority in the church, having been called to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1976 and the Quorum of the Twelve in 1985.
In his final general conference talk, in October, delivered extemporaneously because of poor eyesight, President Ballard bore a powerful witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
“My beloved brothers and sisters, my testimony to you this morning is how abundantly blessed we are to know all that we know because we have Joseph Smith, the prophet of this last dispensation of time,” he said. “We have an understanding of the purpose of life, of who we are.”
He also spoke of the joy he had felt through nearly 50 years of service as a general authority.
“What a glorious experience that’s been — to look into your faces, be in your presence, and feel your love that you have for the Lord and for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
He closed with his witness of Jesus Christ. “I leave you my witness and testimony that I know that Jesus is the Christ. He is our Savior, our Redeemer. He is our best friend.”
Church President Russell M. Nelson said in an official statement released by the church, “President Ballard was never indecisive. He knew exactly what the Lord taught and how it could be applied in one’s personal life and bring joy and happiness.”
“We worked together closely, and I always loved his warm manner,” said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, who sat beside President Ballard in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for more than three decades. “He was a man to be trusted. And he was a man who trusted you.”
During his ministry, President Ballard stressed the importance of missionary work, often speaking of his own service in England as a turning point in his life. “I grew up spiritually in England, as I, for the first time really, had to defend the church,” he told the Church News during a trip to the British Isles in 2021.
In a general conference talk given in April 2022, he reiterated this emphasis.
“As an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I now call upon you young men — and those young women who desire to serve a mission — to begin right now to talk with your parents about serving a mission,” he said.
President Ballard’s interfaith work and missionary zeal
This dedication to outreach led him to develop lifelong friendships with leaders of other faiths, including Archbishop John C. Wester, now of the Catholic diocese in Santa Fe. They became close friends while Archbishop Wester served as the leader of Catholics in Utah. The two of them frequently played golf together.
In addition to extensive interfaith work in Utah, President Ballard was known for developing friendships with leaders of faith traditions nationally and internationally. In 2008, he and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles participated in a papal prayer service during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York City. Eleven years later, President Ballard joined President Nelson at the Vatican for a historic meeting with Pope Francis. It was the first time that a pope and Latter-day Saint apostles had met.
His missionary zeal led him to encourage church members to use the internet to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ online and other interactions.
President Ballard also stressed the need for effective church councils at all levels of church governance as a way to include many and varied voices in solving problems. He was devoted to improving the Salt Lake community. As a member of the Alliance for Unity, a consortium of business, religious, civic and political leaders created with the aim of resolving differences and promoting harmony in the community, he helped broker a compromise that allowed the church to develop the Main Street Plaza in exchange for the construction of a community center on the city’s west side.
And he advised leaders of This is the Place Heritage Park, in Salt Lake City, demonstrating his commitment to preserving the memories of pioneers who first settled the Salt Lake Valley.
Like the faith he helped lead, President Ballard’s ministry was global. In 2019, the Deseret News covered his trip to New York City, where he visited the United Nations to speak to U.N. officials and dozens of ambassadors from five continents and gave interviews to The New York Times and The Associated Press. He spoke with the ambassadors about numerous issues, including how to improve their supply chains for humanitarian aid.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing to see how the church has been recognized, particularly in the past few years, as an organization that is worldwide, that is becoming very important,” President Ballard said then. “When people seek to get something done that they’re concerned about, it was interesting how today they seek us out, where I would say 20 years ago in my ministry, you would have to knock on their door to see whether or not you can get an opportunity to visit with them.”
President Ballard’s family legacy
Prior to his call to full-time church service, President Ballard was best known as the owner of Ballard Motors, one of the most successful car dealerships in the state.
But to his family, President Ballard is remembered as a loving and devoted father, grandfather and great-grandfather, who found ways to devote time and attention to their needs despite his heavy load of church service.
President Ballard was preceded in death by his wife, the former Barbara Bowen, who died in 2018 at the age of 86. He is survived by two sons and five daughters, Clark, Holly, Meleea, Tamara, Stacey, Brynn and Craig. He also is survived by 43 grandchildren, 105 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
He was born in Salt Lake City on Oct. 8, 1928, to Melvin R. and Geraldine Smith Ballard. The family, as President Ballard put it in a conference talk, did not attend church during his youth, due to the difficult economic circumstances of the Great Depression. He credited his friends for fellowshipping him and urging him to serve a mission.
A biography on the church website said President Ballard described his father as a “brilliant” man who taught him the value of hard work. He described his mother as a “very soft, sweet, tender-hearted person. … During my growing-up years, she was probably my best friend.”
Both his grandfathers, Hyrum Mack Smith and Melvin J. Ballard, served in the Quorum of the Twelve. He was a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, who was the brother of Joseph Smith and the father of President Joseph F. Smith.
Later in life he spoke often about the closeness he felt with them.
“I’ll often sit in my office wrestling with assignments I have, thinking about how to better do things, and gain a great deal of strength looking at their countenances and realizing they’re not very far away,” he told the Ensign magazine in 1986.
While he never knew Elder Smith, who died before he was born, President Ballard was close to his grandfather Elder Ballard. He told the Ensign he remembered his grandfather taking him to see a Disney movie on his eighth birthday, as well as taking walks together in the woods near the family’s cabin. “Those are very precious memories,” he said.
President Ballard’s life of leadership
President Ballard was a natural leader from his earliest years, earning the nickname “the bishop” from his fraternity brothers at the University of Utah. A biographical sketch on the church’s website said this is because these friends knew that “whatever the situation, he would be true to his standards and uphold his faith.”
In 1948, he was called to serve in the British Mission, where he became first counselor in the mission presidency. Much later, in 2021, he returned to the British Isles, along with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Quentin L. Cook. As part of that trip, he visited the Scottish Parliament where, according to reports, he spoke about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its potential “to unify and heal” a divisive world.
He also told a congregation in Britain about his own great grandfather Henry Ballard, who “was taught the gospel of Jesus Christ by a farmhand.”
“I love those marvelous Saints, including my own family members, who found the gospel in this land and who joined the church, and miraculously — one way or another — were able to raise their families in the church,” he said.
Marriage to Barbara Bowen
After returning from his mission in 1950, he met his future wife, Barbara, at a university “Hello Day Dance.” He jokingly said that convincing her to marry him was “the greatest sales job I ever did.” They were married in the Salt Lake Temple on Aug. 28, 1951, after an 11-month courtship.
Friends described how tenderly President Ballard cared for Sister Ballard during the final years of her life, as health concerns began to mount for both of them.
After her death, President Ballard delivered a touching general conference address on the 100th anniversary of President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead.
“I testify that the vision President Joseph F. Smith received is true …,” he said. “How grateful I am to know where my precious Barbara is and that we will be together again, with our family, for all eternity.”
Family members also have described how President Ballard was a father figure not only to his own family, but to so many others.
“Family matters are very important to him,” his son, Clark, told the Ensign in 1986.
President Ballard was called into a bishopric shortly after he and Barbara married, then he was called to be the bishop. In 1974, he was called as a mission president over the Toronto Mission. He was still serving in that calling two years later when he was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy. In February of 1980, he was called to the Presidency of the Seventy. He was sustained to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on Oct. 6, 1985.
President Ballard’s teachings on councils
President Ballard was passionate about voluntary community service, ranging from his support for the arts and historical preservation to his involvement with civic and ecumenical groups, such as his membership on the Alliance for Unity.
The crowning achievement of the alliance was to find a solution to contentious issues in 2002 surrounding the church’s newly constructed plaza on what used to be Main Street north of North Temple. President Ballard helped broker a compromise in which the church agreed to give the city 2.17 acres on the city’s west side for construction of a community center, in exchange for the church gaining full access to the plaza.
But President Ballard may be remembered best by church members worldwide for his teachings about the proper role church councils as a way to involve more members, particularly women, in decision-making within the church; as well as for his urging for church members to become active defenders of the gospel and missionaries on the internet through blogs and social media.
In a general conference talk in 1994, President Ballard compared a fully functioning church council to the power of a well-tuned automobile engine. “Unfortunately, some wards in the church are hitting on only a few cylinders, including some that are trying to make do with just one,” he said. That one cylinder would be an overworked bishop.
President Ballard urged all church councils to work more effectively by using all their resources, and by allowing all men and women on the council to participate and contribute fully.
“When we support one another in church councils, we begin to understand how God can take ordinary men and women and make of them extraordinary leaders,” he said.
When working properly, a ward council could “consider such subjects as gang violence, child safety, urban blight, or community cleanup campaigns,” he said, noting, “Such broad thinking and participation in community improvement are the right things for Latter-day Saints to do.”
But he also urged the proper use of councils on the smallest levels, noting that “the basic council of the church is the family council.”
‘Join the conversation’ online
President Ballard laid out his emphasis on internet involvement by church members during a 2007 speech at Brigham Young University-Hawaii. He said conversations about the church on the internet would continue regardless of whether the church gets involved, and “we cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the church teaches.”
He urged members to “join the conversation by participating on the internet to share the gospel and to explain in simple and clear terms the message of the restoration.” This, he said, could include writing blogs, downloading and sending or posting church videos. “You can write to media sites on the internet that report on the church and voice your views as to the accuracy of the reports.”
As a result, many church members now use social media for this purpose. At the time, President Ballard was asked whether he worried about members becoming overzealous or combative in defense of the church. He responded that he had faith in good members who understood the gospel message.
But missionary work was an enduring theme of much of his service. As a member of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, he told church members in a 1980 general conference talk that, if they would commit to bring a nonmember or inactive friend into the church, he would help. “Send me the name of the person you seek to rescue, and I’ll write a letter of encouragement to him,” he said.
The response was nearly overwhelming. He ended up writing more than 600 personal letters encouraging people who were coming into the church. Many of them responded that his efforts helped change their lives.
President Ballard developed lasting friendships with leaders of other faiths. Archbishop Wester, who spent many years as bishop of the Catholic Church in Salt Lake City, said his relationship with President Ballard began at a formal event, then quickly evolved into a relaxed friendship. The two became regular golfing buddies.
Wester said the relationship became an invaluable part of community relations. “Because we knew each other, I would call Elder Ballard or he would call me. If something was going on in a public nature, we could inform each other what was happening,” he said. “People are polite, kind, gracious; but with Elder Ballard it was something very authentic, very genuine that struck me. To me, he was down to earth. He was kind, but there was also a no-nonsense aspect to him.”
President Ballard honored that relationship by asking Bishop Wester to bless the opening of the new This is Place Monument. “He wanted it to be a community event. He wanted to stress that … it was all faiths, all different people involved,” he said.
Ellis Ivory, executive director of This is the Place Heritage Park, said President Ballard came up with the idea of a “walk of pioneer faiths” as part of the park. This includes nine monuments for the various churches that came to the Salt Lake Valley in search of religious freedom.
“It was his concern that this be the park for everyone,” Ivory said. “He had a tremendous respect for the other churches.”
President Ballard never served the park in any official capacity, but he devoted many hours on his own to make sure it succeeded, Ivory said. In 2022, President Ballard dedicated a new monument at the park honoring Black Latter-day Saint pioneers.
Lessons from the business world
As a car salesman, Ballard Motors started selling Nash cars, a car manufacturer which later merged into American Motors Corporation. President Ballard was the dealership’s top salesman in the early ’50s. He left for a short while to engage in other business pursuits, but he returned and took ownership of the business in 1956.
That eventually led to an experience he called one of the biggest learning experiences of his life. In the late ’50s, he won the right to be the exclusive dealer in Salt Lake City for the new Ford Edsel model, which was being unveiled with a great amount of publicity.
While the car sold well for a while, its quick and utter failure has become a legendary part of automobile history. As was true with many Edsel dealers, President Ballard lost money. He later described this period of his life as “a devastating experience.”
But, although it took years for him to recover financially, he said he was humbled, and the experience “helped me gain an empathy and understanding for people who struggle similarly.”
He described failure as “only when you quit trying. If you keep working at a task and try to do what’s right and honest, ultimately it works out.”
Although President Ballard was an excellent salesman, he never lost sight of the importance of building lasting relationships.
One of his longtime neighbors was Nate Wade, owner of Nate Wade Subaru. Years before he died in 2019, Wade told of how he remembered President Ballard’s service as a bishop. “He really was a special man,” Wade said. “Thoughtful, considerate, understanding, forgiving, patient. He’s a unique individual.
“His personality is such that he has that knack of handling problems and dealing with people. He just quietly gets things done. He’s got this way about him of understanding and figuring it out.”
Wade said doing kind deeds was a part of President Ballard’s nature. “He was a real leader; a good example.”
President Ballard’s son, Craig, married the daughter of Elder Robert H. Garff, who was an Area Authority Seventy and chairman of the Ken Garff Automotive Group before his death in 2020.
President James E. Faust, the late first counselor in the First Presidency, once said President Ballard had inherited not only his father’s business sense, but his sense of humor. At an event honoring President Ballard in 2003, President Faust said President Ballard would inject levity into difficult council meetings by saying, “This isn’t nearly as hard as selling used cars.”
President Ballard also was devoted to high quality, uplifting entertainment. He once served as president of the Valley Music Hall in Bountiful, which put him in contact with entertainment luminaries of the day, including Art Linkletter, Danny Thomas, Bob Cummings and others who served as advisers. The music hall eventually went out of business, but President Ballard made sure investors were able to recover their money.
Above all in his long life of service, President Ballard was devoted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He anchored his life on his testimony of the divinity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I have strong convictions that those who are really anchored in their faith in the restoration and the mission of the Prophet Joseph, and in the revelations that have come to the church through him, which confirm and declare that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that the gospel is upon the earth, will be able to handle whatever life passes to them,” he said.
Contributing: Tad Walch
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship between President Ballard and Nate Wade. They were business partners.