No living person has been a general Latter-day Saint leader longer than President M. Russell Ballard, but during 45 years in leadership and despite descending from a rich Latter-day Saint heritage, he (until now) never saw the need for a biography.
“As I see it, I’m pretty common and ordinary,” he wrote in the preface of the new book. “But in 92-plus years, this common, ordinary man has had some rather remarkable experiences through which I have learned extremely valuable and worthwhile lessons that have shaped me as a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. If I can share these experiences in such a way that readers can understand what I’ve learned and see the hand of the Lord in my life, maybe it will help them to better understand the lessons of their own lives and to see how God has been there for them as well.”
Now readers can appreciate those “extremely valuable and worthwhile lessons” in the nearly 93-year-old apostle’s new biography, “Anxiously Engaged: A Biography of M. Russell Ballard.” The book’s release date is Sept. 13.
The 416-page volume gives many accounts of President Ballard’s experiences as a young man, missionary, husband, father, business and church leader, leading up to his current calling as acting president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The book also offers readers an inside view of his deep faith.
President Ballard’s great-great-grandfather, Hyrum Smith, was martyred at Carthage Jail with Joseph Smith. Both of his grandfathers — Melvin J. Ballard and Hyrum Mack Smith — served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. President Ballard was called as a General Authority in April 1976 — Presidents Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks became general church leaders when they were called as apostles in 1984.
President Ballard served as a member of the Presidency of the Seventy from 1980 to 1985, when he, too, was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
The biography includes stories about President Ballard as a young man growing up in Salt Lake City, attending East High School and the University of Utah, his growth as a missionary in England, his family life, business career and lifetime of church service, which have taken him all over the world.
Here are five experiences from President Ballard’s new biography.
1. Prepared from a young age
Born Oct. 8, 1928, President Ballard was raised by parents who were less active in the church but who loved him, taught him how to work and how to be honest, among other core values.
He was also watched over by others. Baby Russell was blessed as an infant by his paternal grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, four days after his birth. His grandfather also confirmed him a member of the church following his baptism in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Halloween, Oct. 31, 1936.
Russell was 10 years old when his grandfather Ballard went to the hospital and was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Before he died, his grandfather pushed himself up in bed and said, as if speaking to a congregation, “Above all else, brethren, let us think straight.” The statement, “Let Us Think Straight,” became President Ballard’s personal motto. A plaque with these words sits in his office.
President Ballard’s Aaronic Priesthood adviser was G. Homer Durham, a University of Utah professor who later served as a General Authority. Durham was a friend and mentor to young Russell Ballard.
Russell was ordained a priest at age 17 in 1945 by Elder Joseph F. Merrill, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Church President George Albert Smith sat next to Russell on the stand at his mission farewell. Elder Harold B. Lee, an apostle and future church president, was also in attendance.
“I was smart enough to realize that President George Albert Smith and Elder Harold B. Lee were not there because of M. Russell Ballard. They were there because of their deep love and affection for Melvin J. Ballard, my grandfather,” President Ballard said.
2. President Ballard’s first missionary experience in London
President Ballard was one of two missionaries selected by his mission president to preach in historic Hyde Park on his first day in London. He wrote of the experience:
“We knew about street meetings. We had heard about that in the mission home. Never having participated in one and not knowing quite how a street meeting operated, we headed for Hyde Park. There were 15 missionaries ... I was standing next to President Boyer when he said, ‘We will only have time to hear from two of them.’ That gave me a great sense of confidence, recognizing that very likely I would not be one of the two. Then my name was called to be the second speaker, and I stepped up to the little stand there in Hyde Park to preach my first sermon.
“As I started for the stand, President Boyer took hold of my arm. I will never forget what he said: ‘Teach the gospel.’ That was a new thought. I knew I was a missionary, set apart, but the reality of having to teach the gospel in that kind of a circumstance was somewhat frightening. I quickly got into my mind that I would teach the principle of baptism. And I said everything I knew about baptism in about 45 seconds. My discourse was rather short and not very effective. As I came back off the stand, I thought to myself: “That will never happen to me again. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of learning to do. I have a lot of preparation to do in order to accomplish the purpose for which Heavenly Father has sent me to England.”
President Ballard’s mission prepared him to become a lifelong missionary. He went on to serve as a counselor in the British mission presidency, as president of the Canada Toronto Mission at age 45, and he was instrumental in developing the “Preach My Gospel” curriculum as chairman of the church’s Missionary Executive Council.
3. The story of the pink cashmere sweater
President Ballard was in Edinburgh, Scotland, near the end of his mission when he saw a pink cashmere sweater in a shop window. He was drawn to it and decided to buy it even though he didn’t yet know who it was for.
When he showed it to his mother at home, she asked what he was going to do with it.
“I’m going to find the girl who fits it and I’m going to marry her!” he said.
Russell and his future wife, Barbara Bowen, weren’t even dating steadily when he gave her the pink sweater for Christmas in 1950. He wasn’t surprised to see it fit her perfectly.
Barbara adored the sweater and was touched when she learned its backstory, but the couple didn’t get engaged until April 1951. President Ballard has said that meeting and marrying Barbara was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“Getting her to agree to marry me was the greatest sales job I ever did,” President Ballard said.
Sister Ballard died on Oct. 1, 2018, at the age of 86. As of March 2021, the Ballards, parents of two sons and five daughters, have 43 grandchildren and 98 great-grandchildren.
4. Why President Ballard didn’t complete his college degree
In the years after he and Barbara were married, President Ballard’s time was devoted to being an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, attending classes at the University of Utah, serving in church callings and working as a part-time car salesman. This left little time for his new bride and he felt life had become too crowded.
That’s when he decided to leave college behind and work full-time at his father’s car dealership.
“When I was taking business courses from professors at the university, I realized that I was making more money than the teachers were making. I was, I guess, a fairly good salesman. I remember thinking: ‘If I quit school and put full-time effort into sales I could really be financially secure. It seemed like a reasonable thought at the time. And so I didn’t finish my last year of college. But I’ve regretted that decision my whole life.”
President Ballard spoke about his educational decision and what he learned decades later to a group of young single adults in 2006.
“I don’t think finishing my degree would have made a huge difference in my professional career, and I’m not aware of any opportunities that were denied me as a result of not holding a bachelor’s degree. Then again, I don’t know what opportunities might have come my way during the last year of my college program. But that isn’t my point. I started school with the intention of completing a worthwhile objective, and I allowed myself to be deterred from accomplishing that worthy goal by not staying focused on what I was trying to do.”
5. President Ballard’s role in President Nelson meeting Pope Francis
President Russell M. Nelson’s 2019 meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican was years in the making.
As a friend of all faiths, President Ballard used to play golf with the Most Rev. John C. Wester, archbishop of Santa Fe and the former bishop of the Catholic diocese in Salt Lake City. When Bishop Wester became the archbishop of Santa Fe, President Ballard and businessman Ellis Ivory attended the ceremony to show their support, which Bishop Wester acknowledged and appreciated.
President Ballard and other church leaders attended the ceremony when Bishop Oscar Solis was installed as the new bishop of the Catholic diocese in Salt Lake City.
President Ballard sat on the stand when Catholic scholar Robbie George spoke at the April 2015 commencement at Brigham Young University.
President Ballard was also there when Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington D.C., received a Marriott School of Management Award in 2018.
Because of these deep friendships, Archbishop Wester was willing to help President Ballard arrange a meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state for the Vatican and the Pope’s No. 2 man, in October 2017.
“We thought we would have a 10-minute get-acquainted kind of a thing, but he sat down with us. ... We were there an hour and 10 minutes. ... We talked about everything you can talk about: concerns about the world and about the Christian faith. We talked about youth, social media, the lack of interest in religion that is creeping in, secularization. . . . It was a very warm and cordial experience for us.”
This 2017 meeting prepared the way for President Nelson to meet with Pope Francis in 2019.
President Nelson opened the meeting speaking Spanish and mentioning that President Ballard’s grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, was a pioneer of missionary work in Argentina.
“When President Nelson spoke about Argentina, the native country of Pope Francis, and told him that my grandfather actually started our work in Buenos Aires in 1925, the Pope perked right up. We talked about religious freedom, social media and its impact upon our youth, and the lack of a moral compass in society. We told him of our missionary efforts and showed him a photograph of the Rome Italy Temple. About 35 minutes later, we shook hands with him and embraced. The embrace of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Pope of the Holy Roman Apostolic Church was a wonderful moment.”
Meet the co-authors and the rest of the team
Susan Easton Black, emeritus BYU professor and historian, and former Deseret News reporter Joseph Walker are listed as the biography’s co-authors. Each is a longtime friend of President Ballard.
The project also received valuable contributions from President Ballard’s administrative assistants over the years, including Dorothy Anderson, Carolyn Hyde, Emily Merrell and Suzanne Drysdale, as well as Deseret Book’s senior editor, Emily Watts, and others.
Considering the many books Black has authored in her career, what impressed her about President Ballard was his wide circle of friends and vision to “see afar.”
“Sometimes people don’t always have the best things to say about everybody. But person for person ... they just couldn’t say enough (good) about President Ballard, the unity, the wisdom,” the historian said. “He’s a unifier. He knows how to pull people together.”
“One of the things that really comes through the book is the humanity of the man,” Walker said. “He wanted to tell the stories, not just the achievements and accomplishments, but also the things he learned painfully because he felt that’s the way people can learn the most from him, both the successes and failures and how he learned to grow from both.”