President Russell M. Nelson maintained a steady mix of empathy and optimism for the future as he led The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Weeping with those who mourned lost loved ones and grieving for those suffering physically, emotionally and economically, he also provided the practical leadership to spearhead the largest humanitarian effort in church history.

After the pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020, President Nelson regularly told church members to look forward with joyful anticipation to what he has called wonderful days beyond the crisis. He also encouraged them to consider 2020 an extraordinary year, seeing the struggles it has presented as opportunities to serve, turn to God and fill their own personal spiritual storehouses.

In April, President Nelson led the church in one of its most profound displays of joy, the Hosanna Shout.

President Nelson calls for healing ‘wave of gratitude’ on social media to help cure world’s ills
Even before the pandemic was declared, the global response was underway

President Nelson also has called the world to action repeatedly. He organized two global fasts and encouraged people to pray for relief from the pandemic, minister to one another and act and live in increased unity. He asked church members to spend the six months from October 2019 to April 2020 learning how to better hear God and study the restoration of Christ’s church. At the last conference, he asked them to spend the next six months studying the scriptures and listing God’s promises to covenant Israel.

That request appeared to be a harbinger for the video message on the healing power of gratitude released in November by President Nelson, who invited people to turn social media into their gratitude journal for the next seven days and to say prayers of thanksgiving. The retired surgeon said gratitude is a prescription that serves as spiritual and emotional therapy.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“Working together, we can flood social media with a wave of gratitude that reaches the four corners of the earth,” he said.

The pandemic has been difficult for people across cultures and geographies, said Clark Gilbert, president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, which has 51,500 students in 152 countries. Beyond the disease, people in many places are suffering from immense economic hardship. Some countries have required residents to remain in their homes.

“President Nelson prepared almost a million members in the Philippines, for example, well ahead of the pandemic, to minister and teach the gospel in their homes,” Gilbert said. “He’s pointed the whole church to Christ in a powerful way well ahead of the commotion that would come, from his emphasis on the church’s name to the new visual symbol of the church to inviting us to look for Christ in the Book of Mormon. He also has shared with us the confidence that we can let God prevail in our lives and that even in these perilous times, we can find peace and comfort no matter our circumstances.”

Here’s a brief look at 22 times President Nelson has addressed the pandemic since it began, illustrating the ways he has responded, lifted, comforted and counseled.

Donation to China

President Nelson’s public response to the pandemic began with empathy and aid in January 2020. He directed a donation of 67 pallets of personal protective equipment to China. “These are our dear brothers and sisters, and we feel privileged to be able to offer some small measure of help,” he said. “We pray for them and know God will bless them.”

‘Optimistic for the future’

A day after the pandemic was declared, the First Presidency suspended all in-person church meetings. President Nelson released a video message two days later. He said church leaders were praying for the sick and those who had lost loved ones. He also encouraged members to care for themselves and their families, asked them to serve and minister to others and be comforted by the promises of the Savior, whose gospel he said “provides certain hope and help to a troubled world.”

“I love you, I pray for you and I promise that you will receive comfort and peace as you continue to hear him,” he said, adding “These unique challenges will pass in time. I remain optimistic for the future.”

Call for a worldwide fast

President Nelson released a second video on March 26 to call the church to action, requesting worldwide fasting and prayer on March 29. “Let us unite our faith to plead for physical, spiritual and other healing throughout the entire world,” he said. He also requested prayer for relief from economic effects, adding, “The Lord understands the feelings you are experiencing. He loves and cares for you, as I do, too.”

‘How can we endure such trials?’

President Nelson opened the April 2020 general conference, which he promised would be memorable and unforgettable, speaking to a nearly empty auditorium. He counseled listeners to prepare for personal trials: “We can store our own reserves of food, water and savings. But equally crucial is our need to fill our personal spiritual storehouses with faith, truth and testimony.”

He said daily repentance opens Christ’s cleansing, healing and strengthening power to provide enduring peace and joy even in turbulent times: “This year will be extraordinary as we focus intently on the Savior and his restored gospel.”

Call for a second global fast on Good Friday

President Nelson used his second conference talk to call for the world to unite its faith in a second global fast on Good Friday, April 10 — “Let us put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ into action!” — saying it is natural in times of deep distress like a pandemic to petition heaven: “Let us unite in pleading for healing throughout the world. Good Friday would be the perfect day to have our Heavenly Father and his Son hear us.”

He also unveiled a new church symbol, with an image of the Christus inside an arch atop the full name of the church. He said it identified the restored gospel with the living, resurrected Christ.

‘What will help us the very most is to hear his Son’

President Nelson tied the the conference’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of the First Vision, when God told Joseph Smith to hear his Son, Jesus Christ, to the need for each person to hear God’s voice, concluding a six-month effort by Church leaders to focus members on how they each best hear him.

“Our Father knows that when we are surrounded by uncertainty and fear, what will help us the very most is to hear his Son,” he said, adding, “I renew my plea for you to do whatever it takes to increase your spiritual capacity to receive personal revelation.”

He referred to the pandemic as a plague but said believers are never left comfortless or without access to the helping power of God. He also said the pandemic had provided a way for people to do good to others, issued a bicentennial proclamation on the Restoration and then led those watching in a globally united expression of one of the most profound displays of gratitude in Latter-day Saint practice, the Hosanna Shout.

‘I bless you with peace’

President Nelson closed the April 2020 conference with an apostolic blessing related to the pandemic. “During this time of tension and uncertainty, and invoking the authority vested in me, I would like to confer upon you an apostolic blessing. I bless you with peace and increasing faith in the Lord.” He summarized the conference in two words, “Hear him,” and said, “We pray that you will begin anew truly to hear, hearken to and heed the words of the Savior. I promise that decreased fear and increased faith will follow.”

President Russell M. Nelson touches his heart while speaking during general conference on April 5, 2020. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Looking forward

A week after the Good Friday fast, on April 17, 2020, President Nelson posted a message on social media thanking those who participated around the world. He again expressed optimism in Christ’s promises. “As we look forward to a recovery from this worldwide pandemic, I pray that we will find a stronger relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “He is our Master Healer. He will heal our broken hearts. He will bestow upon us personal peace and comfort. Thanks to Jesus Christ, no condition is hopeless. Thanks to Him, brighter days are ahead, both here and hereafter.”

‘Wonderful days are ahead’

President Nelson sounded another note of optimism in a video message on May 6, when leaders under his direction announced it was possible to begin returning to church meetings based on local restrictions. He thanked people for exhibiting faith, courage and Christlike love. “Meanwhile, we rejoice in the peace that radiates from the Lord Jesus Christ,” he said. “It will continue to fill us with hope and joy. Our Heavenly Father and his Beloved Son love us, are aware of us and will bless each of us. I love you, dear brothers and sisters, and assure you that wonderful days are ahead.”

‘The Lord is watching over each of you’

In a social media post on May 28, President Nelson said he missed partaking of the sacrament with church members and expressed concern for members who could not receive it at home during the pandemic, asking local leaders to help where conditions allowed. He added, “I love you, my dear brothers and sisters, and I assure you that the Lord is watching over each of you.”

The ‘painful’ decision to close temples

President Nelson described closing the church’s temples during the pandemic as “painful” in a video interview released July 27 by the Church News.

“So how difficult was it to make a decision to close the temples? That was painful,” he said. “It was racked with worry. I found myself asking, ‘What would I say to the Prophet Joseph Smith? What would I say to Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff and the other presidents, on up to President Thomas S. Monson?’ I’m going to meet them soon. To close the temples would deny all for which all those Brethren gave everything, but we really had no other alternative.”

Great sorrow and silver linings

President Nelson said he had felt great sorrow during the pandemic in a social media post on Aug. 5. But he noted he and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, had found some silver linings, including the way he’d seen many families make their homes sanctuaries of faith. “We’ve also learned fear, isolation and loss can be mitigated by immersing oneself in caring for other people,” he wrote. He noted “the road ahead may be bumpy, but our destination is serene and secure. So, fasten your seatbelt, hang on through the bumps, and do what’s right.”

‘Together we will overcome this difficult time’

In an Aug. 16 social media post, President Nelson said the church’s pandemic relief efforts had become the largest humanitarian project in church history. (It now numbers 961 projects in 151 countries.) “One positive outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is a tremendous opportunity for service and humanitarian work,” he said, thanking those who had provided voluntary fast offerings and contributions and the many who were helping others: “Together we will overcome this difficult time. The Lord will bless you as you continue to bless others.”

A virtual embrace

President Nelson sent a virtual embrace to church members in a Sept. 20 social media post in which he said the pandemic had disrupted his pattern of holding newborn great-grandchildren in his arms at the hospital. Instead, he and Sister Nelson now greet them virtually.

President Russell M. Nelson greets a new great-grandchild in the hospital prior to the pandemic. He said the pandemic has disrupted his practice of meeting new family members in the hospital, but he took the opportunity to offer a virtual embrace to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a Facebook post in August 2020. | Facebook

“We have missed holding these babies in our arms and look forward to the day when we can do so again,” he wrote. “Gratefully, even a pandemic cannot and will not stop the Lord from embracing us. His love is constant.”

‘Feel the Lord’s perfect love’

President Nelson opened the October 2020 general conference by saying he prayed “that we as a people are using this unique time to grow spiritually.” He asked people to turn to Jesus Christ and noted all the ways the church was moving forward despite the pandemic. He grieved “with each of you who has lost a loved one during this time. And I pray for all who are currently suffering.” He added, “I pray that you may feel the Lord’s perfect love for you.”

‘Embrace the future with faith’

The women and young women of the church have the spiritual power to change the world and were doing so amid the pandemic, President Nelson said in his second October general conference talk, returning to the theme of grasping the opportunity to serve. “My dear sisters, let us not just endure this current season. Let us embrace the future with faith! Turbulent times are opportunities for us to thrive spiritually. They are times when our influence can be much more penetrating than in calmer times.”

He said he wept with and prayed for the women who had lost loved ones and praised those safeguarding others and creating safe places. He told them the way to deal with the somber and glorious prophecies of the latter days was to be prepared and that he was most concerned with their spiritual and emotional preparation. “Our ultimate security comes as we yoke ourselves to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Life without God is a life filled with fear. Life with God is a life filled with peace. This is because spiritual blessings come to the faithful. Receiving personal revelation is one of the greatest of those blessings.”

A new call to action

In his third October talk, President Nelson didn’t specifically mention the pandemic, but he referred to this time as perilous and issued a call to action for the next six months: “As you study your scriptures during the next six months, I encourage you to make a list of all that the Lord has promised he will do for covenant Israel. I think you will be astounded! Ponder these promises. Talk about them with your family and friends. Then live and watch for these promises to be fulfilled in your own life.”

President Russell M. Nelson speaks during general conference on Oct. 3, 2020. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

‘Send you forth with optimism’

“Despite the world’s commotion, the Lord would have us look forward to the future ‘with joyful anticipation,’” President Nelson said in his closing conference talk, noting that “I have wondered what I might say to conclude this conference that would send you forth with the optimism about the future that I know the Lord wants you to feel.”

He said that during the pandemic, many people have come to refer to “a new normal.” “If you really want to embrace a new normal, I invite you to turn your heart, mind and soul increasingly to our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Let that be your new normal.”

He sent the church off into the next six months with a blessing: “I bless you to be filled with the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ. His peace is beyond all mortal understanding. I bless you with an increased desire and ability to obey the laws of God. I promise that as you do, you will be showered with blessings, including greater courage, increased personal revelation, sweeter harmony in your homes and joy even amid uncertainty.”

A healing wave of gratitude

President Nelson again expressed empathy for those lost, suffering, mourning and otherwise impacted by the pandemic, and the retired pioneering heart surgeon prescribed gratitude therapy in his video on Nov. 20. “Over my nine-and-a-half decades of life, I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems,” he said. “No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.”

People around the world immediately flooded social media with messages of gratitude using the hashtag #GiveThanks.

He closed with a prayer that included this plea: “Wilt thou help us end this virus that has plagued so many of thy children.”

‘Rivet’ focus on Christ

On Dec. 6, President Nelson repeated his call for people to turn to Christ in the pandemic during the First Presidency Christmas Devotional.

“During this unprecedented year, when virtually every person in the world has suffered the effects of a global pandemic, there is nothing more important we can do this Christmas than to rivet our focus on the Savior and on the gift of what his life really means to each of us,” he said.

Proxy temple work returns

Although the first group of temples opened on a limited basis last summer, President Nelson took to social media to rejoice on Dec. 7 when the first handful of temples began again to offer ordinances by proxy.

“My friends, I am thrilled to be able to share the news that we will soon see the limited reopenings of selected temples for proxy work for our deceased ancestors,” he said.

A Christmas star and a challenging year

The winter solstice and the appearance of what astronomers called a Christmas star led President Nelson on Dec. 21 to issue a social media reminder not to forget the hope of the world.

“My dear friends, as we near the end of a challenging year, one that may feel to many as a time of uncertainty and darkness, let us never forget that the light of hope still shines brightly,” he wrote on Facebook. “Jesus Christ is the light, the life, and the hope of the world. As we turn our hearts to him, he will pour out his love for us in unmeasured ways. I wish you all a very merry and hope-filled Christmas season. #LightTheWorld

Vaccinations a ‘literal godsend’

President Nelson received his first vaccination shot on Jan. 19 along with seven other apostles. “We have prayed often for this literal godsend,” he said in a post on his Facebook and Instagram accounts.

“With approval from our physician, my wife, Wendy, and I were vaccinated today against COVID-19,” he added. “We are very grateful. This was the first week either of us was eligible to receive the vaccine. We are thankful for the countless doctors, scientists, researchers, manufacturers, government leaders and others who have performed the grueling work required to make this vaccine available.”

Sister Wendy Nelson and President Russell M. Nelson, left, talk with Presidernt Dallin H. Oaks and Sister Kristen Oaks at the Salt Lake County Health Department, where senior leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over 70 and their spouses received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 19, 2021. | Cody Bell/The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The First Presidency also released an official statement urging church members to “help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization” because “vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life.”