This article was first published in the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox weekly.

The new biography of President Dallin H. Oaks provides numerous insights into the unfolding history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One of those insights comes directly from President Russell M. Nelson, who very specifically explains why he selected President Oaks as his first counselor.

The decision was inspired in part by President Nelson’s own sense and knowledge of history.

On Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018, the church’s 13 apostles — President Thomas S. Monson and Elder Robert D. Hales recently had died — organized a new First Presidency with President Nelson as the 17th president of the church.

Readers of “In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin Oaks” will learn that it was President Oaks who ordained and set apart President Nelson, with the other 11 apostles also laying their hands on the new prophet’s head.

While it is generally part of the pattern of succession in church leadership for the next-most senior apostle to ordain and set apart the most-senior apostle as the new church president, what President Nelson did next was not.

Biographer Richard E. Turley Jr. tells the story, just one example of the way he employed his access to the church’s leaders and President Oaks’ personal papers to add to the historic record.

Immediately after his ordination, President Nelson excused himself from the room to pray, President Henry B. Eyring told Turley. Then President Nelson told the apostles he wanted to meet with each privately.

“I want to have your best thinking on my counselors and the two empty chairs in the Quorum of the Twelve,” President Nelson told them.

While this was unprecedented in the history of succession in the church presidency, it was deeply familiar to each apostle, who follow the same pattern as they travel around the world to select new presidents for the church’s 3,400 stakes.

“Through the course of those interviews,” President Nelson told Turley, “it became very clear to me, as I prayed about it, that Dallin should be first counselor because, upon my demise, he’s the next president of the church.

“That’s the kindest thing I could do to the church and for him … to give that exposure.”

Years earlier, the church’s 12th prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball, had shared with President Nelson his own lack of exposure to the work of the First Presidency before he became church president.

President Nelson experienced the same path from the quorum directly to the presidency of the church.

“I remember when President Kimball was called to be the president of the church. I was his surgeon. He confided in me a lot. He said, ‘Brother Nelson, I don’t know anything about the work of the presidency of the church.’ He’d only been in the Quorum of the Twelve. … Members of the Quorum of the Twelve do their work well and know their work well, but it does not include any apprenticeship for the items that are only done by the First Presidency. So, I thought, for the good of the church, Dallin should be in the First Presidency.”

Turley illustrates the new responsibilities President Oaks has been exposed to as first counselor in the First Presidency. For the first time, for example, he has extended calls and transfers to general authorities of the church. He also has called mission and temple presidents. He spends two days a week “reviewing recommendations to have repentant persons readmitted to church membership or their blessings restored.”

After one of the new First Presidency’s first meetings in January 2018, President Oaks made an observation in his journal that portended the vigorous pace of the new Nelson administration.

“President Nelson strong in inspiration and courageous in tackling long-delayed and difficult issues,” he wrote in a bit of shorthand, according to the biography. “Counselors supportive and harmonious. This service is joyful.”

You can read more about the extraordinary access given to President Oaks’ biographer and the unique insights the book provides about the man behind the general conference talks in this Q&A with Turley

“The Life of Dallin Oaks” is available at

My recent stories

New biography of President Dallin H. Oaks uses his journals, letters to show man behind the talks (March 3, 2021)

Committee report: BYU must root out racism without delay, proposes 26 recommendations (Feb. 26, 2021)

Latter-day Saint Charities donates $20 million to global COVID-19 vaccine campaign (Feb. 26, 2021)

What I’m reading ...

If you watched, are watching or will watch “Murder Among the Mormons,” which Netflix released today, I suggest you also read President Oaks’ talk on the subject at BYU in 1987. It’s illuminating. Here’s a primer on the Mark Hofmann murders.

Latter-day Saint leaders joined other faith groups to support an LGBTQ rights bill in Congress called the Fairness for All Act.

Crazy numbers: More than 1 million people, obliterating the record attendance, participated in RootsTech Connect event sponsored by the church’s FamilySearch organization.

One of feature writers I look up to is Deseret News colleague Doug Robinson. He has a new piece on a returned missionary at BYU who is one of the best distance runners in the world.

An elite baseball pitching prospect just returned from a mission to continue his college career at Vanderbilt, one of the top college pitching pipelines to the pros.

A legendary NBA writer at ESPN took on the race controversy that exploded around the Utah Jazz last week. He brought up church history. I was impressed that he at least noted the “Be One” celebration the church hosted in 2018 and at which President Nelson and President Oaks spoke.