President Nelson’s Sources

What is it about our Church leaders that lends their speeches authority?  While ultimately the belief that the men we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators are in communication with God is what lends them the greatest amount of authority, I believe that there are other factors that shape how they are perceived and how much weight of authority the words of various Church leaders are given.  A number of years ago, David John Buerger noted that Elder Bruce R. McConkie stood out as one of the most influential general authorities of mid-20th century in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  He suggested that it wasn’t because of “the particular topics Elder McConkie has chosen to address in his conference speeches, nor the breadth of subject matter, nor the originality of interpretation which has earned him his reputation.”  Rather, Buerger suggested “the Apostle’s impressive influence stems … from (1) his sources of doctrinal influence, (2) his position as an Apostle, and (3) his authoritative tone.”[1]  There are similarities here to President Russell M. Nelson, though his position as president of the Church is probably foremost among the reasons for his influence.  In this discussion today, however, I want to zoom in on President Nelson’s sources of doctrinal influence, at least among his general conference talks.

In the grand scheme of this series as previously shown, this puts us here:

  1. Introductory Thoughts
  2. President Nelson’s Favorite Topics and Phrases
    1. God and Power
    2. The Church, Priesthood, and Gathering Israel
    3. Family
    4. Plan of Salvation
  3. Examining the Sources in President Nelson’s Talks
  4. Potential Long-Term Impact of President Nelson’s Addresses

As indicated by crossing out the title of Part 4, this post will likely be the last part of the series.  I had planned on analyzing how President Nelson’s talks are being cited in general conference talks and Church manuals, then offering commentary on potential things that future leaders might be interested in quoting from his talks, but I think I’d rather move on to other topics and series for now.

Scriptural Citations

Our scriptural canon is the primary source of doctrinal influence and authority to which President Nelson has turned in his general conference addresses. In particular, the scriptures given to us during the modern dispensation (the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price) are his primary sources.  In general, his frequent citation of the Book of Mormon follows the trend that has been observed by more in-depth analyses of general conference addresses.  For example, a recent analysis by data analyst Quentin Spencer found that from 1942 to the late 1980s, New Testament passages were the most cited scriptures, but since the time of Ezra Taft Benson’s presidency, the Book of Mormon has predominated scripture citations.[2]  This observation (and other similar analyses) led me to expect that the Book of Mormon would rank highly among President Nelson’s scriptural citations.  What I was surprised to find, however, was that President Nelson was just as likely to quote the Doctrine and Covenants as he was the Book of Mormon (and almost as likely to quote either as the rest of the scriptures combined).

Figure 1.  Pie chart representing the proportion of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by President Russell M. Nelson.  Total number of citations is 3548.  Data drawn from the Scripture Citation Index.[3]

 

This can be compared with other current members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, based on data compiled in BYU’s Scripture Citation Index.  Henry B. Eyring and Quentin L. Cook were the most similar in the breakdown of percentages of scriptures cited (compare Table 1 and Table 2).  Most members of these quorums favored the Book of Mormon, putting it in first or second place for all 15 men (see tables 1, 2, and 3).  Ulisses Soares, Dale G. Renlund, and David A. Bednar were the apostles who were most likely to quote from the Book of Mormon.  Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Jeffrey R. Holland were outliers for displaying a strong tendency to quote the New Testament most frequently, though several apostles were as likely to quote the New Testament as they were the Book of Mormon.  President Nelson quoted from the New Testament less frequently than the Doctrine and Covenants or Book of Mormon, though still more than the other sections of scriptures.  This matches the general pattern among the top Church leaders of largely neglecting the Old Testament (especially when judged by the amount of content available), while the Pearl of Great Price also ranked low in percentages (though this is perhaps understandable, given the size of the collection).

Table 1. Percentages of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by members of the current First Presidency.[4]

Table 2. Percentages of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by senior members of the current Quorum of the Twelve.[5]

Table 3. Percentages of general conference talk citations drawn from each section of the scriptures by junior members of the current Quorum of the Twelve.[6]

 

In addition to citing the scriptures themselves, President Nelson frequently turned to scriptural helps and appendices included in the English edition of the scriptures that the Church publishes, particularly the Joseph Smith-Translation excerpts (around 50 citations) and the Bible Dictionary (around 20 citations).  In general, President Nelson tended to leave his talks well-cited and deeply rooted in the scriptures.

Non-scriptural Citations

President Nelson turned to a number of different sources outside of the scriptures that shaped his doctrinal understanding or were used to add emphasis to a particular idea.  A glance at the top 10 sources or authors cited indicates a strong respect for presidents of the Church as well as a proclivity to quote hymns (see Table 4).  As might be guessed from his interest in the early Restoration (as indicated by his heavy use of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants discussed above), the single individual President Nelson has most frequently quoted is Joseph Smith the Prophet, with 37 different citations drawn primarily from Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith before 2008 and Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith thereafter.  The next source he turned to most frequently was the hymnbook, sitting at 30 citations (these were used more frequently as supporting quotes for his talks or familiar phrases to use as focal points to reinforce his main points).  He frequently relied on prior presidents of the Church (he has quoted every president of the Church except President John Taylor), and many of these presidents form the majority of his most-cited individuals in his talks.

 

Table 4.  Top ten authors and sources outside of the Standard Works quoted by President Russell M. Nelson in his general conference talks.

Source Citations
Joseph Smith 37
Hymnbook 30
Russell M. Nelson 29
Gordon B. Hinckley 25
Joseph Fielding Smith 13
Spencer W. Kimball 12
Thomas S. Monson 11
The Family: A Proclamation to the World 11
Bruce R. McConkie 9
Brigham Young 8

 

President Nelson has displayed a tendency to quote the current president of the Church, resulting in high counts for Presidents Spencer W. Kimball, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson.  Howard W. Hunter was also cited relatively frequently around the time of his presidency, but the short time that it lasted resulting in a lower count overall.  Ezra Taft Benson seems to have been an outlier to this general rule, with Elder Nelson offering relatively few citations of President Benson during his presidency.  The general approach of quoting the sitting Church president even applies to President Nelson’s own presidency, where he has most frequently cited his own talks (17 citations, or 30.4% of non-scriptural citations during his presidency), though he began self-citations around the year 2000 as a way of bridging talks and building on previous ideas shared.  He has continued to quote Presidents Kimball and Hinckley after their presidencies, though he has done the same less frequently with other presidents (for example, all 11 times he cites President Monson occurred during Thomas S. Monson’s time as president of the Church).  This choice in which presidents he has continued to quote follows a larger pattern among leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that has made both Thomas S. Monson and Howard W. Hunter two of the three least-cited presidents of the Church after their deaths and Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B. Hinckley two of the most-frequently cited presidents of the Church after their deaths.[7]

Other sources President Nelson turns to frequently are also closely tied to the Church.  He turned to President Joseph Fielding Smith and Elder Bruce R. McConkie with some regularity, reflecting the strong influence the two men had on Latter-day Saint thought during the mid-to-late-20th century.  Even when not citing these two directly, the influence of their ideas can be seen in President Nelson’s talks (such as the Three Pillars of Salvation that I discussed previously).  He also draws frequently on official statements and publications of the Church, such as letters of the First Presidency, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, and Church manuals.  Along those lines, he showed that (at least for a while) he kept up on reading the Ensign by citing various articles from the Church’s magazine in his talks over the years.  He also showed some tendencies to quote other apostles, particularly Boyd K. Packer and James E. Talmage.  He was far less likely to quote women leaders in the Church than men—the only woman to get more than one citation was Eliza R. Snow, and she has only been quoted three times in his talks.  Overall, the vast majority of his citations were drawn from within the Church.

For sources President Nelson turned to outside of the Church’s publications, poetry and medical publications were used most frequently.  Similar to his use of hymns in his talks, President Nelson quoted poetry and songs not in our hymn books (whether written by Shakespeare, Harry Kemp, or Donny Osmond) to sum up or emphasize a point.  He also has cited several medical publications and studies, primarily to support his statements about how obedience to the Word of Wisdom has health benefits for Latter-day Saints.  A third type of source that he turned to was dictionaries, reflecting his ongoing interest in words.  Taken together, dictionaries, medical studies, and poetry make up the bulk of his citations drawn from outside of the Church.

Conclusion

President Nelson’s talks have generally been filled with citations.  Most frequently, he has drawn on the scriptures (particularly the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon), presidents of the Church, and hymns or other songs.  Tying this to original question about authority, quoting the scriptures, past presidents of the Church, and other Church leaders and Church publications are a part of what have lent Russell M. Nelson’s talks authority, though his own positions of authority significantly bolster the importance of his talks in the Church as well.

 

Footnotes:

[1] David John Buerger, “Speaking with Authority: The Theological Influence of Elder Bruce R. McConkie,” Sunstone March 1985, https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/047-08-13.pdf.

[2] See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS General Conference data reveals who talks the most and what they talk about – grace, works, porn, drugs and more,” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 August 2020, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/08/03/lds-general-conference/.

[3] Scripture Citation Index, numbers collected on 10 November 2020, https://scriptures.byu.edu/#::f04a47267e413.

[4] Scripture Citation Index, numbers collected on 10 November 2020, https://scriptures.byu.edu/#::f04a47267e413.

[5] Scripture Citation Index, numbers collected on 10 November 2020, https://scriptures.byu.edu/#::f04a47267e413.

[6] Scripture Citation Index, numbers collected on 10 November 2020, https://scriptures.byu.edu/#::f04a47267e413.

[7] See Peggy Fletcher Stack, “LDS General Conference data reveals who talks the most and what they talk about – grace, works, porn, drugs and more,” Salt Lake Tribune, 6 August 2020, https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/08/03/lds-general-conference/.  This cites Quentin Spencer’s analysis shared at a Sunstone symposium, who noted that this is a striking indication of “how quickly Thomas Monson is fading from memory.”  The other of the three least-cited presidents after their deaths is Lorenzo Snow.

7 comments for “President Nelson’s Sources

  1. Buerger’s article was published the month before McConkie’s death. I’d prefer not to draw any more parallels with President Nelson than you’ve already suggested. :)

    Buerger concluded that while “Elder Bruce R. McConkie[‘s] … work is not original, revolutionary, sophisticated, or deep, he does offer certainty in a world which has become increasingly relative in its values. He provides simple answers in a world grown complex and chaotic. With his apostolic position and tone he guarantees the correctness of his positions for faltering Saints confused with alternatives. He invites Church members to lay down the burden of fighting the intellectual good fight: he will take up the sword against all enemies of truth (both without and within the Church) for us all. It is no wonder he resides in a position of such importance.”

    It seems Buerger didn’t weigh those three sources of McConkie’s “impressive influence” equally nor were his sources of doctrinal influence a primary factor in Buerger’s conclusion. In fact, I was amused in reading the article again after all these years to be reminded that of the non-scriptural citations in the first volume of McConkie’s NT commentary, McConkie’s most often quoted “authority” is himself. In the third volume over 71% of his non-scriptural citations are to himself. It’s nice to see a different pattern in your analysis of President Nelson’s talks.

    It has seemed to me that Buerger omitted a fourth very significant part of the source of McConkie’s doctrinal influence. That was the choice of Presidents McKay and Kimball not to be public in their criticisms of McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine” and his “Seven Deadly Heresies”, etc.

    Thanks for your review and analysis in this series.

  2. Reflecting upon the life of that spiritual giant, who had served for nearly four decades as a General Authority, Elder Nelson said, “Elder Bruce R. McConkie was a great friend. His door was always open to me, and I frequently imposed upon his graciousness, asking him questions that possibly only he could answer.” (Spencer J. Condie, Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003], 194.)

    Church News:
    President Nelson reflected on the support he received from other members of the quorum when he was called to serve among them. He spoke of Elder Bruce R. McConkie in particular. “Occasionally, I would have an idea I wanted to discuss or had a question. I would knock on his door, and he was always gracious, always warmly welcoming. When I could see this was an opportunity to learn from him, I would ask him to put his remarks on pause for a minute while I called Elder Oaks and asked him to come up so we could converse with Elder McConkie together. That was a rare privilege.
    https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/2015-09-30/president-nelson-reflects-on-being-an-apostle-of-the-lord-discusses-possible-announcement-of-3-new-apostles-31036

    Find the opposite of everything Buerger said about Elder McConkie’s teachings and you will get it right.

  3. At the risk of continuing the tangent I started on Chad’s introductory comment and his fn 1, I thank Dennis Horne for calling attention to BRM’s complex personality and style. Some found him gracious and welcoming, even inspiring. Others report experiencing, in contexts very different from those on which RMN reported, BRM’s anger, bombast, and self-assurance. It seems those others did not experience BRM’s graciousness or his reported sense of humor or his at least occasional willingness to acknowledge his own error.

    I have not come across significant criticism of his final general conference talk and testimony. That at least has been deeply appreciated even by many who did not otherwise experience the breadth of the man or appreciate him or some of his opinions.

    I take Dennis’ last sentence above to be a response to Buerger’s choices of adjectives for BRM’s work rather than the totality of Buerger’s article. Even Buerger’s summarizing adjectives do not deny BRM’s wide ranging knowledge of scripture and of teachings of leaders of the restored Church.

  4. I’ll be honest and say that I am somewhat confused by your comment, Dennis Horne. I get that you’re saying that Bruce R. McConkie was a spiritual giant and could be a warm, personable mentor, but to go opposite of everything Buerger to get it right with Elder McConkie seems incorrect to me. For example, if we take the quote I shared in the post above and turn each sentence to its opposite, it would be stating that Bruce R. McConkie wasn’t influential in the Church and that his lack of influence stemmed from (1) his poor choices in sources, (2) his position as an Apostle lacked any authority, and (3) his tone was submissive. I don’t think that the empirical evidence would agree with this opposite-of-Buerger statement–Elder McConkie relied on sources that are respected in the Church (Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith, the scriptures, etc.) which did give his writings extra weight of authority. His calling as an Apostle is a position of authority in the Church and his tone was far from submissive (in one of the more extreme cases, he is on record telling a BYU professor that: “It is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.” That definitely sounds more authoritative than submissive). Perhaps I just created a strawman and attacked it to make the point, but to me, Buerger’s assessment of McConkie isn’t mutually exclusive to stating that Elder McConkie being a spiritual giant who is worthy of respect.

    With that in mind, could you clarify what it is you find objectionable about Buerger’s article that was cited in the post?

  5. I see I wasn’t clear, though “wondering” guessed correctly. I was alluding to this statement:

    He [Buerger] suggested that it wasn’t because of “the particular topics Elder McConkie has chosen to address in his conference speeches, nor the breadth of subject matter, nor the originality of interpretation which has earned him his reputation.”

    Buerger was completely wrong. Elder McConkie’s chosen subjects to teach about in conference and elsewhere were necessary and superb–in fact he often mentioned that his subjects were given to him by the Spirit; his subject matter was more wide-ranging than most anyone has ever undertaken (see MD for a great example), and his interpretations, explanations, and commentary were inspired, astute, and incisive, such is why they were so commonly quoted in Correlation-approved church manuals. Many of the senior leaders of the Church, including Pres. Benson and Pres. Packer, extolled his doctrinal proficiency and command of the scriptures.

    Elder McConkie, along with his associates in the FP & 12 were and are those called and authorized to teach doctrine to the Church, as he said in his private letter to England, who was an unorthodox liberal that taught a lot of false doctrine (see his old Sunstone and Dialogue articles for examples, where he pushed for women to hold the priesthood and like worldly philosophies). Instead of echoing the Brethren, England and others were contradicting them in their teachings; not a wise course to take; hence the letter. England escaped excommunication unlike some others of that day.

    I think President Nelson’s comments about Elder McConkie’s knowledge speaks for itself, even when it was delivered undiplomatically. Apostles are not called to coddle, but to teach and guide and warn. Both Pres. Oaks and Elder Cook have just very recently emphatically said that in BYU devotionals, though both are more diplomatic in their presentations than Elder McConkie was.

    But the truth is that both President Nelson’s and Elder McConkie’s doctrinal influence came/comes from teaching from the scriptures by the power of the Holy Ghost, and from the keys they hold that give them an added measure of that power. God simply sustains what He tells them to teach His church.

  6. That does make more sense, Dennis. I guess I read that statement more neutrality than others do-i.e., I understood it as him saying that those aren’t the primary reasons why McConkie’s teachings were embraced by so many Church members rather than him saying that Elder McConkie’s works were lacking in breadth or originality. Thank you for clarifying.

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