ATLANTA — A historically Black college honored President Russell M. Nelson here on Thursday night, awarding the Latter-day Saint leader a peace prize named for three legends of nonviolence — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Morehouse College also unveiled side-by-side new portraits of President Nelson and Abraham Lincoln on a wall in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel building on campus.

“Because you, Russell Marion Nelson Sr., carry the light of truth in the great Morehouse leadership tradition, which recognizes the universal Christ and works for universal justice, we are honored to announce you as the inaugural laureate of the Morehouse College Gandhi-King-Mandela Peace Prize,” said the dean of the chapel, the Rev. Lawrence Carter.

An oil portrait of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, hangs in the International Hall of Honor with Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Ira Helfand at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.
An oil portrait of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, hangs in the International Hall of Honor with Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Ira Helfand at the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, April 13, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The prize honors a person who promotes peace and positive social transformation through nonviolent means.

The Rev. Carter said President Nelson had inspired radical inclusivity and solidarity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had remarkably linked arms with the Black community.

President Nelson watched a livestream of the event from Utah. In a prerecorded video, he said he was deeply honored by the award.

“The individuals for whom this honor is named establish its significance,” he said. “Each of these courageous individuals was a pioneer. Each championed human dignity for all men and women. Each lived up to the mission of this renowned chapel that stands as a citadel of peace.”

The awards ceremony was held 11 days after President Nelson delivered a landmark talk on peacemaking at the 193rd Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Contention is a choice,” he said then. “Peacemaking is a choice. You have your agency to choose contention or reconciliation. I urge you to choose to be a peacemaker, now and always.”

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U.S. Sen. John Ossoff, D-Georgia, a surprise addition to the program, also recognized President Nelson.

“The level of hate and division in America is untenable and cannot continue,” Ossoff added. “We cannot be a society that divides itself based on our political affiliations or our race. The level of hatred that we’ve seen rising in this country in the last 10 years is a path to our own destruction.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff speaks at the annual Worldhouse Interfaith & Interdenominational Assembly at the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.
U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff speaks at the annual Worldhouse Interfaith & Interdenominational Assembly at the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, April 13, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

President Nelson received the peace prize five years into a vigorous administration marked by the way he has linked arms — in what many have called unlikely collaborations — with the NAACP, the UNCF (United Negro College Fund) and Black pastors.

With his new friends, President Nelson both has issued joint calls for racial harmony and acted on them, announcing church donations of $6 million to help inner-city Black communities and $3 million for scholarships for Black college students in Atlanta.

“You have led your church to invest mightily in the future development of African American, servant-scholar leadership at Morehouse College and our sister institution, Spelman College,” the Rev. Carter said.

Several scholarship recipients from each school attended the ceremony.

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“Every now and again,” the Rev. Carter told President Nelson in a less-scripted moment, “people should do what you did, and that is get out of the box and surprise some folk, do something very different, what is needed to unite people, to bring harmony.”

“Thank you for being you,” he added.

President Nelson, 98, participated in the event virtually. In a prerecorded video, he said that as a heart surgeon, he literally had held the hearts of people of many races and nationalities all over the world. He said he learned they all are alike.

“In those operating rooms where life hung in the balance, I came to know that our Heavenly Father cares deeply for every one of his children,” President Nelson said. “That’s because we are his children. Differences in nationality, color and culture do not change the fact that we are truly sons and daughters of God, and as a follower and witness of Jesus Christ I have only come to understand that divine truth more deeply.”

Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., professor and founding dean of the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel, honors President Russell M. Nelson with the Gandi-King-Mandela Peace Prize at the annual Worldhouse Interfaith & Interdenominational Assembly at the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dr. Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., professor and founding dean of the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel, honors President Russell M. Nelson with the Gandi-King-Mandela Peace Prize at the annual Worldhouse Interfaith & Interdenominational Assembly at the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, April 13, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Why Morehouse College honored President Nelson

The Rev. Carter said the award committee chose President Nelson as the award’s first recipient because he has led “noble efforts to heal and reunite the broken body of Christ.”

He also said President Nelson has championed “the moral cosmopolitan worldview of the religion of Jesus that is a hallowed blueprint” for worldwide nonviolent human rights struggles and called him an example of courageous, virtuous and ethical 21st century leadership.

  • “You have inspired your church to radical inclusivity and solidarity by taking a stand for the rights of women and children and to preserve the intellectual, personal, social and religious freedoms and protection of all humankind,” the Rev. Carter said.

He presented President Nelson with a medallion bearing the profiles of Gandhi, the Rev. King and Mandela, and with a crystal obelisk representing God’s creative power and bearing three Biblical phrases:

  • “Let there be light.”
  • “And there was light.”
  • “And the light was good.” 

The Rev. Carter said President Nelson had “worked tirelessly to build bridges of understanding rather than create walls of segregation” and is a worthy successor to Joseph Smith.

“As an internationally recognized medical scientist, revered president, prophet, seer and revelator for the 17-million-member church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have continued the legacy of Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter-day Saints movement and the first nationally recognized religious leader in the United States to advocate for the freedom of enslaved Africans by affirming racial and ethnic equality and running for the American presidency on a political platform of compensation emancipation,” Carter said.

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What President Nelson said

President Nelson, who has called on Latter-day Saints to lead out in abandoning racism and prejudice, said the church honors Joseph Smith’s vision.

“I’ve stated before and repeat today, that racism, sexism and a host of other -isms are universally and tragically limiting in the way we regard and treat each other,” he said. “Any abuse or prejudice toward another because of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, culture, or any other identifiers is offensive to our maker, and defies the first and second great commandments, that we should love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.

“We firmly believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”

President Nelson repeated one of his constant themes, that all people are children of an inclusive God.

“May we as sons and daughters of God, as eternal brothers and sisters, do all within our power to build up each other, learn from each other and demonstrate respect for all of God’s children,” he said.

“We do not have to act alike or look alike to love each other,” he added. “We can disagree on a matter without being disagreeable.”

The record-setting scene at the chapel

A cloudy afternoon grew dark early as rain fell, but Latter-day Saints from all over Georgia flocked to the event, which began late to accommodate those stuck in traffic. A record 2,600 filled the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel’s auditorium and overflow seating.

“You can always count on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the Rev. Carter said to cheers and applause. Afterward he said he was grateful it also was record-setting for being the largest Caucasian audience ever to attend a Morehouse event, a goal he had for the annual WorldHouse Interfaith and Interdenominational Assembly.

The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square performed “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” in prerecorded videos.

The audience stood as a combined choir of the Morehouse and Spelman college glee clubs performed the Negro national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” That choir also sang powerful renditions of “Good Trouble” and “We Shall Overcome.”

The Rev. Carter, a longtime fan of the Tabernacle Choir, said the choir and the two glee clubs are exploring a future performance together. Tabernacle Choir president Mike Leavitt said all three parties are interested and working on details and logistics.

An imam sang an opening prayer in Arabic, followed by a chant for peace and happiness by a Buddhist and Baptist prayer.

Near the end of the evening, seven new portraits were presented. Painted by Dewayne Mitchell, they included Lincoln and President Nelson. Those two portraits were placed on wall in the chapel building side by side.

“I deliberately placed them by each other. This is really significant,” said the Rev. Carter, who previously has said Joseph Smith was two decades ahead of Lincoln on abolition.

He said the placement also symbolized his desire to use the annual interfaith assembly, what he called Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious memorial platform, to reunite the broken body of Christ.

Among the other new portraits were the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the night’s other award recipient, Nobel Prize laureate Ira Helfand, who received the 2023 Gandhi-King-Ikeda Community Builder’s Prize.

Past winners have included Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Helfand is the past president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Helfand received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, 32 years after the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, of which he is a founding partner.

Helfand warned that the danger of nuclear war is growing and asked listeners to work for peace.

“Each of us has to figure out what it is that we can do to educate our communities, to build the political movements that will be necessary so that our leaders can do the right thing and eliminate these weapons before they illuminate us,” he said.

Morehouse College President David Thomas and new Spelman College President Helene Gayle attended the ceremony. Thomas noted during a morning event that Thursday marked one week after the 55th anniversary the assassination of the Rev. King, a Morehouse alumnus.

The Rev. Carter said the prize President Nelson received does not come with a cash award. Instead, it came with a small library of books.

Among the books were:

  • “Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World: 1914-1948,” by Ramachandra Guha.
  • “The Gandhi Reader: A Sourcebook of His Life and Writings.”
  • “The Arc of Truth: The Thinking of Martin Luther King Jr.,” by Lewis Baldwin.
  • “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.”
  • “Nelson Mandela: Conversations With Myself.”
  • “Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

The event program included a page with two verses from the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:32-33 — the Rev. Carter said President Nelson told him that he and Joseph Smith had been inspired by those verses. The page also included a quote from President Nelson’s conference address, “Peacemakers Needed,” about the personal choice between contention and peacemaking.

Earlier in the day, the Rev. Carter inducted Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy, and Leavitt, the choir president, and 90 others into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers, Sponsors and Collegium of Scholars.

“It’s a humbling honor to be recognized with all these other individuals who want to carry forth the mission to truly treat all equally in the eyes of God,” Elder Gerard said. “President Nelson has set a high bar, and we all seek to aspire to that.”

Leavitt said he enjoyed learning more about the Rev. Dr. King during a day on the Morehouse campus.

“It’s a great honor,” he said. “I’m deeply appreciative.”

Other Latter-day Saints at the event included members of the church’s North America Southeast Area Presidency, Elder Vern P. Stanfill and Elder Matthew S. Holland, and Elder Peter M. Johnson, a General Authority Seventy.