M. Russell Ballard, longtime apostle of the LDS Church, dies at 95
M. Russell Ballard, an apostle and high ranking leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has died. He was 95.
Ballard died Sunday night, Nov. 12, at his home and surrounded by family, according to a church statement Monday morning. His wife, Barbara, died in 2018. He is survived by seven children, 43 grandchildren, 105 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
Ballard had served on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the second-highest body of authority in the Salt Lake City-based faith — since 1985 and was named acting president in 2018.
“We worked together closely, and I always loved his warm manner,” President Dallin H. Oaks said in the church’s statement. “He was a man to be trusted. And he was a man who trusted you.”
A Salt Lake City native with a background in automotive, real estate and investment businesses, Ballard joined the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1976 and the Quorum of the Twelve nine years later. He was the great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, brother of the Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith.
With his passing, one chapter of Latter-day Saint history could be coming to a close.
“He represented something that is no longer such an important current in LDS history, and that is the importance of having a direct descendant of Joseph or Hyrum Smith in the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Apostles,” said Religion News Service senior columnist Jana Riess.
That could be a significant step for the church. According to religious scholars, the odds of another descendant of Smith’s being called to the Quorum are slim.
“Ballard was a good reminder that [the church’s] pioneer past isn't that far distant,” said Patrick Mason, Utah State University’s Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture. “Unless another Smith descendant gets called, which is probably unlikely, there will be something of a gap [to those founders].”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he and his wife were “deeply saddened” by the news and went on to praise Ballard’s “lifetime of service trying to make the world a better place for everyone.”
“We are forever grateful for the goodness and light he brought to this world,” he said.
Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney also offered their condolences. Lee called Ballard’s life a “testament to his devoted service to the church and its members.” Romney said he was a “great leader,” and appreciated the personal counsel Ballard offered to him and his wife, Ann.
For observers, Ballard’s legacy will be one of acceptance and evolution on social issues like race and gender.
“He spoke out against racial bigotry and discrimination,” Mason said. “He had traveled the world and I think he had great fondness for Latter-day Saints in Africa and the people there. He had become a voice of sort of bridging racial divides and other kinds of divides, both within the church and more broadly within the world.”
As Riess noted, when you’ve been in “leadership for nearly half a century,” you’ll bear witness to “massive social change during that period.”
“Elder Ballard, about 10 years ago or so, came out in favor of LDS women being a vital component of local ward councils, [and] speaking out in ward council.”
That evolution did not come without growing pains. While Ballard advocated for more women becoming involved with the church, the priesthood authority to perform most ordinances is still exclusively male.
“You could see this kind of internal battle that maybe someone of his generation were having, that we do want women to be involved, we recognize their importance, but also this is a patriarchal society and we don't want women to take over,” said Riess. “But [Ballard’s stance] does represent a change from church rhetoric from the time that he started in church leadership.”
The lasting legacy of another aspect of Ballard’s time in leadership is still uncertain.
Former Operation Underground Railroad founder Tim Ballard, no relation, was publicly denounced by the LDS Church for use of their association for “personal advantage” and faces allegations of sexual misconduct. Although Elder Ballard said their relationship ended “many months” before the allegations, the claims put his relationship with the activist under the microscope.
In a complaint filed in state court in November, one of Tim Ballard’s accusers said Elder Ballard and other church leaders supplied Latter-day Saint tithing records to OUR so the organization could better target wealthy donors. A church statement issued in response said those records are sacred and confidential.
“Leaders ensure such information is not used for personal, political, or commercial purposes,” read the statement. “President Ballard has never released tithing records to OUR or any other organization.”
As the investigation into Tim Ballard continues, Riess said more could come to light about his relationships with Elder Ballard and other church leaders.
“Speaking as a Latter-day Saint and not as someone representing Religion News Service, I hope that he is remembered for other things because he had a tremendous impact on this church and because he gave so much of himself for so long,” she said. “It would be a shame if that's the only thing that he is remembered for; one fairly serious, possibly, misstep in his personal relationships.”
Now, the church will look to fill Ballard’s seat on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and as president of that body.
Mason said the latter would happen immediately, with the next most senior member, Jeffery R. Holland, ascending to the post. When it comes to selecting a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve, that is a longer process. While Mason suspects the church could act by the end of the calendar year, Riess is confident the “church will wait until the April conference to call the new apostle.”
“If precedent serves, which it almost always does, then this church procedure will be observed, most likely,” said Riess.
Any man who has ascended to the priesthood is eligible for selection into the Quorum of the Twelve, Mason said, but the realistic pool of candidates is likely less than 100 people in church leadership positions worldwide.
“Almost without exception, new apostles are chosen from the body of existing general authorities or the senior leadership of the church,” he said. “But technically it could be any worthy male priesthood holder within the church.”