(RNS) — Years ago, I received an unexpected package from the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was a signed copy of M. Russell Ballard’s 1993 book “Our Search for Happiness,” with a short note saying he had read an article about my conversion and wanted me to have a copy. I was honored and touched.
The book is a plea for people to try to understand the church and its teachings. He opened it by saying that while he would be pleased if everyone who read it would decide to convert to the church, it was “about comprehension and understanding, not conversion. It has more to do with building trust, appreciation, and respect than it does with increasing church membership.”
I was thinking about that this morning when I heard the news that Elder Ballard died on Sunday night (Nov. 12), at the age of 95.
The death is not surprising; Elder Ballard’s health has been failing for months. At last month’s General Conference, he managed to stand up to bear his testimony but could not read the teleprompter because of his failing eyes. Spoken from the heart, his words were sometimes faltering, always earnest. He said he had been thinking a good deal about the prophet Joseph Smith, his great-great-great uncle, who founded the church and opened the door for “all of the marvelous things … that we know” and the truths that we have, including “an understanding of the purpose of life, of who we are.”
I think many people watching, including me, realized it might be the last time we would hear Elder Ballard speak in Conference.
Yet in the last two months, rather than quietly fading away, Elder Ballard has been at the center of a national controversy. His friendship with Tim Ballard (no relation), the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, has brought scrutiny. In September, the church issued a statement distancing Elder Ballard from Tim Ballard, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. And earlier this month, a spokesman for the church and a Davis County attorney separately denied a related allegation that Elder Ballard had once provided confidential church tithing records to Tim Ballard in order to help Operation Underground Railroad target wealthy LDS donors.
I’m sure Elder Ballard would not wish to be remembered primarily for his association with someone accused of being a sexual predator, though of course investigating that relationship is important and ongoing as the probe into Tim Ballard’s conduct continues.
The bulk of Elder Ballard’s nearly half-century of full-time church service has been spent as a workhorse for the institution. I certainly haven’t agreed with everything he has taught during all that time, but I’ve always appreciated the sincerity of his dedication.
The book he sent me reflects that dedication. It’s from those pages I want to remember him and wish him well in his mission beyond the veil.
It’s frankly not a great book; it won’t join the canon of the best literature Mormonism has to offer. It’s an honest rendering of Elder Ballard’s no-nonsense approach to the gospel and what he had learned from his family, especially his grandfather, the apostle Melvin J. Ballard. While serving a mission in the Northwest, Grandfather Melvin had a terrible time and prayed constantly for help. Melvin received a visitation from Jesus, which he described as follows:
I was led into a room where I was informed I was to meet someone. As I entered the room I saw, seated on a raised platform, the most glorious being I have ever conceived of, and was taken forward to be introduced to Him. As I approached he smiled, called my name, and stretched out His hands toward me. If I live to be a million years old I shall never forget that smile.
He put His arms around me and kissed me, as He took me into His bosom, and He blessed me until my whole being was thrilled. As He finished I fell at His feet, and there saw the marks of the nails; and as I kissed them, with deep joy swelling my whole being, I felt that I was in heaven indeed.
The feeling that came to my heart then was: Oh if I could live worthy, though it would require four-score years, so that in the end when I have finished I could go into His presence and receive the feeling that I then had in His presence, I would give everything that I am and ever hope to be.
For his grandson, M. Russell Ballard, to record these words and remember them means that he found them inspiring, something to emulate. May he find “heaven indeed.”
RNS content about M. Russell Ballard:
Mormon apostle urges teachers to address controversial topics like polygamy and seer stones in class (2016)
In defense of moderate Mormon feminism — even without priesthood (2014)
Allegations against Tim Ballard, inspiration behind ‘Sound of Freedom,’ explain rebuke by LDS Church (2023)