How President M. Russell Ballard linked the church’s humble founding to its global emergence
President Russell M. Nelson said of President Ballard, ‘We had the privilege of sitting beside a man who is the great‑great‑grandson of Hyrum Smith. And Joseph Smith was his great‑great‑uncle’
When they left their historic visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican in March 2019, President Russell M. Nelson and President M. Russell Ballard walked arm in arm down a Roman cobblestone street.
With St. Peter’s Basilica looming in the background, the leaders represented a direct link to the international emergence from humble beginnings in remote New York of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Ballard, who died Sunday at 95, was the great-great-grandson of the late Assistant President of the Church Hyrum Smith, who steadfastly stood by the side of his brother, Joseph Smith, from the church’s founding and through their martyrdom.
Now he himself had stood, as the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, by the side of President Nelson, the church’s 17th president, as a pope and Latter-day Saint apostles met for the first time. The leaders discussed their faiths’ wide-ranging, global collaborations on providing humanitarian aid, ensuring religious liberty and increasing faith in God.
“He was very kind to us,” President Ballard said of Pope Francis. “We could not have asked for a more fulfilling experience.”
The pope and President Nelson embraced at the end of their time together.
“They gave each other a hug as we left that said everything,” President Ballard said.
The next day, President Ballard, then 90, told reporters his job supporting the church’s president wasn’t done.
“I’m going to live a long time,” he said, “because we have a lot left to do.”
Four and a half years later, President Ballard leaves behind a rich legacy of international ministry and interfaith friendship created while he represented Jesus Christ and the church in ways that affected the lives of millions.
President Nelson’s video tribute to President Ballard
President Nelson issued a video tribute to his friend and fellow apostle after President Ballard’s death. He said:
“His commitment and his consecration were in his blood. Can you imagine? We had the privilege of sitting beside a man who is the great‑great‑grandson of Hyrum Smith. And Joseph Smith was his great‑great‑uncle. Every day, I feel a debt of gratitude for the privilege of associating with a direct descendant of those respected and revered leaders. He’s got that same integrity that they had.”
President Ballard’s ministry took him to dozens of countries. As acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his role — in addition to being a special witness of the atonement and divinity of Jesus Christ — was to give assignments to the other 11 apostles in the quorum, dispatching them to all corners of the earth. He continued to travel, visiting 15 nations in the nearly six years he was the acting president, from Asia to Australia, Europe and North and South America.
President Ballard became the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve in January 2018 after the death of church President Thomas S. Monson, who was succeeded by President Nelson, the most senior apostle. The next most senior apostle, President Dallin H. Oaks, became the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, but was called into the First Presidency as President Nelson’s first counselor, with President Henry B. Eyring second counselor.
As the third most senior apostle, President Ballard was then called to serve as the acting president of the quorum.
President Ballard’s great-grandfather was President Joseph F. Smith, the church’s sixth president. Both of President Ballard’s grandfathers were apostles, too — Elders Melvin J. Ballard and Hyrum M. Smith. He naturally became an ambassador of church history and Latter-day Saint pioneer history.
Building bridges to other international faiths
President Ballard worked tirelessly to build interfaith bridges in Salt Lake City and around the world.
He played a significant role in easing tensions between Latter-day Saint and Catholic leaders that today has developed into open collaboration on a global scale. President Nelson and President Ballard talked about those joint efforts with Pope Francis.
“We explained to His Holiness that we work side by side, that we have projects with Catholic Relief Services all over the world, in over 43 countries,” President Ballard said on that street in Italy. “We’ve been shoulder-to-shoulder as partners, and try to relieve suffering, trying to help people that are struggling. He was very interested in that and was very cordial, very kind to us.”
President Ballard had been working with Catholic partners for decades. Abroad, he met with Catholic Relief Services in Ethiopia during the famine in May 1985. His assignment as a member of the Presidency of the Seventy was to determine how the church should spend $6.4 million donated by members after a special fast to relieve starvation. While there, he and another general authority met with Catholic Relief Services. That was the beginning of the collaboration described 34 years later to Pope Francis.
“I’d been to other countries where people were struggling, but never where many people were living in the last moments before their death,” Elder Ballard said. “It seemed so hopeless, yet we were so grateful to be able to do what we could do. We were two men praying that somehow, some way, the Lord would help solve this terrible tragedy.”
In April 2008, he joined Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at St. Joseph’s Parish in New York City, where Pope Benedict XVI conducted a large papal prayer service with leaders of Christian faiths. Thirty months later, he was the senior church leader on a visit to the Vatican, where he met with two key Cardinals, including the head of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue.
“We’re interested in moral values,” Elder Ballard said then of the faiths’ shared interests. “We’re interested in marriage. We’re interested in the family. We’re interested in those basic fundamentals that are jointly of interest to, I think, all people of faith.”
He also said, “We don’t know all the answers … but we know this: The way the world is unraveling, all of us need each other to take a stand for religious liberty, which we believe is going to become a real issue. It is now, and we think it will become even more critical in the future. Those who care need to stand together and have their voices heard. People of faith have just simply got to speak out. They’ve got to be together. And that’s the purpose of our visits.”
Building bridges at home
At home, President Ballard became a key board member on the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, developing deep friendships. He became such good friends with Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City that they played golf together, and President Ballard flew to New Mexico to attend the ceremony when Bishop Wester became the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Sante Fe in 2015.
The Salt Lake Diocese and Bishop Oscar A. Solis released a statement Monday about President Ballard’s passing.
“He was a man of integrity and true friend of our Catholic bishops, many of our clergy and other leaders,” the statement said. It added, “We pray that the family of Elder M. Russell Ballard finds consolation in his love and faithful dedication to his calling.”
“Elder Ballard and I were very good friends,” Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald of the Salt Lake Diocese said Monday. “I could call him and he would help us out in any way he could. And he would call me and I would try to facilitate whatever it was he needed. He was very faithful at attending our Catholic Community Services annual fundraiser, and the annual bishop’s dinner for the Cathedral.”
Monsignor Fitzgerald has previously noted that those relationships bore tangible fruits. Latter-day Saint leaders helped quell opposition to a Catholic school and church center in southern Salt Lake Valley. Salt Lake Diocese leaders helped end opposition as Latter-day Saints were preparing to build the Paris France Temple.
President Ballard also helped with the creation of the Walk of Pioneer Faiths at This is the Place Heritage Park. The walk highlights contributions of members of the Catholic, Jewish, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Greek Orthodox faiths.
He also co-founded the Utah Alliance for Unity, a coalition of business, civic and religious leaders.
“President Ballard has just been a wonderful example of what it means to live in a state that has so many different faiths,” Utah homeless advocate Pamela Atkinson said two years ago in her role as an adviser to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. “This is what President Ballard has really encouraged.”
A newsmaking visit to New York City and the United Nations
In November 2019, President Ballard visited the United Nations in New York City, where he met with a parade of U.N. officials, international diplomats, charity executives, human rights officials, the leaders of various religions and major news outlets.
The discussions and requests he fielded centered on issues ranging from national security and poverty to charitable delivery systems, political discord, church growth and youth retention and the church’s support for medical marijuana.
He noticed a change in his visits.
“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. “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 met with His Excellency Jerobeam Shaanika, a Namibian diplomat then serving as the deputy chef de cabinet to the president of the U.N. General Assembly, and he stood at the pulpit in the General Assembly Hall.
“This is an important place for people of all nations, all cultures, to gather and try to resolve worldwide problems in the lives of our Heavenly Father’s children,” he said. He added, “What we hope is that everyone can come here and get together and find ways of peace, joy and happiness, and turn people’s hearts to loving one another instead of trying to figure out how to hurt each other. That’s what we need.”
After separate meetings with reporters from The Associated Press and New York Times, he said it was a natural outgrowth of his calling to speak to them about spiritual answers to worldly problems.
“That’s what apostles do,” he said. “We’re supposed to declare that Jesus is the Christ and through him are the answers to life‘s questions, and the real joy and peace that people can find inwardly has to come from the blessings of our Heavenly Father and his son.”
He also visited the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue near Central Park, where Rabbi Meir Soloveichik showed him the synagogue’s Torah scrolls. The rabbi asked President Ballard to hold two adornments for the scrolls, replicas of the Liberty Bell, which is engraved with words from Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Celebrating President M. Russell Ballard Day
Gov. Spencer Cox designated July 23, 2021, as President M. Russell Ballard Day.
The official declaration noted that President Ballard had “worked hard to preserve and to share the story of the sovereign tribal nations in Utah at This Is The Place Heritage Park with the creation of a Native American village that highlights their enduring cultures, customs, resilience, valor, and courage.”
A year later, President Ballard dedicated a new monument at the park honoring Black Latter-day Saint pioneers.
It had been his idea to create the “Walk of Pioneer Faiths” at the park that includes nine monuments for the various churches that came to the Salt Lake Valley in search of religious freedom.
President Ballard also spoke to millions in 88 talks delivered to general conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ. Links to each talk are available here. His 23 major speeches at BYU can be found here.