Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin: Finding Happiness Serving the Lord


Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

Elder Wirthlin shortly after his call as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, October 1986. (Photo courtesy of Busath Photography.)

I’ve loved every assignment I’ve ever had in the kingdom. And in that service, every day seemed like Sunday, because it was in the service of the Lord.

Those are the words of a man for whom service has been not simply a pastime or a duty in life, but a primary objective. They are the words Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin spoke when he was sustained October 4 as the newest member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

They were not idly spoken or simply appropriate to the moment. One has only to examine Elder Wirthlin’s life to realize their deep meaning to him.

He has never hesitated to give whatever was required in Church service, in callings as a bishop, counselor in a stake presidency, counselor in the general Sunday School presidency, Assistant to the Twelve, and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He has lived outside his home country for five of the eleven years since he was called to be a General Authority in 1975, and he commuted to South America regularly during two more of those years. Whatever has been needed, he has joyfully given.

Even with that long background of work in the Church, service in the Quorum of the Twelve “is a very sobering era of my life to look forward to,” he says.

On the morning of October 3, the day before general conference was to begin, President Ezra Taft Benson’s secretary telephoned: Would Elder Wirthlin have time to meet with the President? Elder Wirthlin had returned from presiding over the Europe Area only a month and a half earlier and was still settling into his role as a member of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He might have expected the conversation to deal with a wide variety of subjects. He certainly did not expect the subject that was on President Benson’s agenda.

Just before noon that day, Elisa Wirthlin met her husband with the car so they could go to a funeral at which he was to speak. He told her about the call that had just come to him, and then neither of them spoke. They simply sat in their car for several minutes and contemplated how it would change their lives.

“I’m sure that it will refine me and bring me closer to our Heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ,” Elder Wirthlin reflects. “One thing is sure,” he says—Church leaders “will have my total support—support for our prophet and every member of the Twelve and all General Authorities.”

Nothing less would be expected from one of his heritage. He acknowledged that heritage in his conference address October 4.

“I pay tribute to my beloved earthly father, who taught me humility, diligence, honesty, trustworthiness … and reverence and honor for God’s chosen servants … to my mother … for life itself, and then for the great lessons she taught me.”

He was born 11 June 1917 in Salt Lake City, the eldest of five children of Joseph L. and Madeline Bitner Wirthlin. His father was the hard-working head of Wirthlin’s, Inc., a wholesale and retail food business. His mother was a refined woman of varied interests, including sports, who encouraged her children in pursuits ranging from the arts to athletics.

Joseph had a nice singing voice and even performed in operettas in elementary and junior high school. But he also won the Intermountain Foul-Pitching Contest during that same period, sinking nineteen out of twenty basketball free throws. His interest in athletics eventually won out over singing in school productions. He went on to become “Mr. Touchdown” as the quarterback of the East High School football team and play halfback on the University of Utah team. However, he gave up his senior year of football to accept a mission call.

His sister Judith, next oldest, recalls him as her advocate and protector among the neighborhood children, even when they were very young. They grew up good friends, and their marriages cemented the friendship; Judith married Joseph’s best friend, Thomas O. Parker, and Joseph married her best friend, Elisa Young Rogers.

“I don’t have a single memory of his ever having been unkind to me,” says his sister Gwendolyn—not even when he used her as his “victim” for practicing first aid on the way to his Eagle Scout badge or for blocking practice when he was a young football player.

He was an example to his younger brothers and sisters in many ways. He was a good student—never slipshod at anything, Gwendolyn says. And, even as a deacon, he took his Church duties very seriously.

“It was never really a question for me of whether I wanted to go on a mission; it was just a question of when and where, because Joseph had made his mission an experience the whole family shared in,” recalls his brother Richard.

Joseph served in Germany and Switzerland in the late 1930s. In 1938, his father was called as Second Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, with Bishop LeGrand Richards. Joseph L. Wirthlin was later sustained as First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric in 1946 and as Presiding Bishop in 1952, serving until 1961. Young Joseph B. Wirthlin managed the family business in place of his father when he came home from his mission in late 1939. At the same time, he continued his schooling, graduating from the University of Utah with a bachelor of arts degree in business management.

After his father’s death in 1963, Joseph B. Wirthlin, as the eldest of the children, filled the role of family patriarch. “He’s been a great resource to us in the way of counselor and supporter. He’s just been a great friend,” comments his youngest brother, David. His brothers and sisters acknowledge his leadership in getting their father’s posterity together whenever possible, as well as his kind willingness to look out for their own children whenever there is an opportunity.

“The promise made by the Savior … assures us of his presence … in our individual lives, and in the intimate circles of our families.” (Ensign, May 1976, p. 55.)

One night in 1940, Joseph B. Wirthlin went to pick up Frances Rogers, as a favor to a friend of his who was taking her out. That was when he met her younger sister, Elisa. Not long afterward, he had the opportunity to take Elisa home from a basketball game, and that was the beginning of a one-year courtship. They were married 26 May 1941 in the Salt Lake Temple by President David O. McKay, one of the many Church leaders Joseph knew through his father’s associations.

Sister Wirthlin says she was impressed with him because he was active in the Church, a good student, and had a good sense of humor. But more than that, he was “kind and gentle,” and “I liked his spirituality.”

He found her bright and beautiful, “but the most important thing was her sterling character,” Elder Wirthlin says. She was “a very strong person. She always stood up for what was right. She never compromised” on her standards.

Theirs is a relationship that has deepened in love through the years, says Katherine Cannon, the seventh of their eight children. In their home, she says, “You could tell that she loved him. She listened intently to him.” She never criticized or complained about her family responsibilities because of his busy schedule. He, in turn, would frequently point out to the children their mother’s strength and spirituality. He would never leave the home without finding her and kissing her good-bye and he would call several times a day to see how she was doing.

He was a very busy man when the children were growing up, putting in twelve- and fourteen-hour days at work, then going to meetings in the evening, in connection with his church responsibilities. He managed to handle it all through his talent for organization, the support of his wife, and judicious use of his time with his children. “We grew up with the attitude that every father was this busy. We honestly didn’t know there was any other way to live,” recalls Jane Parker, the Wirthlins’ oldest child.

One of her favorite memories, she says, is of waking “at five in the morning and hearing him at the typewriter” typing his schedule for the day. He would be at work by 6:00 A.M., would come home for lunch in the middle of the day (when he might take a brief nap), and then return to work until 7:00 P.M. He still tries to be in his office at the Church Administration Building before 7:00 A.M.

When they were very young, the Wirthlin children enjoyed lunch with Dad very much. He radiated happiness and optimism. “I remember lots of laughter in our home,” Katherine says. “He wasn’t home much, but he had a very strong presence—a strong spirit,” she adds. Even when he was away, they still felt close to him.

For five-year-old Joseph B. Wirthlin, Jr., second oldest, the lunchtime visits sometimes were not enough. He would stow away behind the front seat of the car, ride back to work with his father, then climb out and saunter into his father’s office a bit later, about the time he thought his mother might notice he was missing.

All of the children worked in the family business as they were growing up. In that way their father helped them to learn about the value of work and to earn money. If they ran out of tasks, they knew he would find more for them, and he insisted that the work be done well.

In his work, he also taught them lessons about honor and integrity. Jane remembers that her father once sent her to deliver some meat to several customers, and she told them it was a gift from him. She did not know it had come from one of the firm’s suppliers, and he was merely passing it on to them. Her father sent her back to tell the recipients the actual source.

David B. Wirthlin worked in the family business when he was growing up, while his elder brother was running it. Once, he says, a supplier had made a substantial error when weighing the merchandise. Wirthlin, Inc., might have profited from the error, but there was no question in his brother’s mind what had to be done. Joseph directed one of his employees to correct the bill, putting the right weight on it and paying the higher cost.

Busy as he was, Joseph Wirthlin took pains to build relationships with his children whenever there was an opportunity. Ann Farnsworth still cherishes the memory of the ten-minute rides home from the university with her father, who picked her up in the evening after classes. Their little talks helped build a strong relationship that has endured.

Though they have scrupulously avoided interference in their married children’s relationships, the Wirthlins have stayed close to the children, available when they are needed. Sister Wirthlin wrote faithfully every week while she and Elder Wirthlin were in Europe. Elder Wirthlin’s letters may have been less regular, but he kept in touch with occasional telephone calls.

Daughters Carol Ward and Elisabeth McConkie say their father is a loving grandparent who likes to do things with his grandchildren, now numbering more than forty. The Wirthlins don’t hesitate to get the whole group together, and they also try to attend programs and activities, whenever possible, to watch their grandchildren perform. Sister Wirthlin is especially thoughtful about never missing a birthday or wedding anniversary.

Frequently, Elder Wirthlin has seemed to know when one of his children has been in need, when only the Spirit of the Lord could have made that knowledge possible. Daughter Madeline Cole recalls a particularly stressful period in her life when she needed his counsel. He was eight thousand miles away in Germany. She remembers several times praying to the Lord for help, and the next morning—evening, by German time—her father would call, saying he had the impression that she needed a call that day. “I’m just glad he was so much in tune,” she says.

Often during Madeline’s college years, she would get up at 5:00 A.M. to study—and find him already up, reading. He is always reading some book and underlining significant passages, his children say; frequently it is the scriptures. It was a tradition at Sunday dinners as they were growing up for him to ask what they had learned in Sunday School that morning, then expand on it, often teaching from the scriptures. As they got older, he would involve visiting boyfriends or future spouses in these discussions.

Another memorable feature of family dinners was their father’s prayers. “Whenever my dad prayed,” says daughter Rebecca Gerritsen, “it always seemed as though he was talking face to face with Father in Heaven.” There was nothing rushed or rote about it.

He managed to work family vacations into his busy schedule while they were growing up—but never for a full week. They would travel to California or some other tourist destination, sing on the way, face the inevitable car problems or other difficulties, and have fun together (the Wirthlins made even getting lost in Los Angeles hilarious). But always they were home by Saturday night, so he could take care of the obligations of his callings on Sunday and family members could be in their meetings.

In private, as in public, Joseph B. Wirthlin has always lived as he has taught:

“What people think and believe and plan are all very important, but what they do is the thing that counts most.” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 69.)

Bishop Joseph B. Wirthlin was always there, as a brother, for those who needed him, Joe, Jr., remembers: “When he’d call people on the phone, it wasn’t, ‘This is Bishop Wirthlin,’ but ‘This is Brother Wirthlin.’” He was good at counseling people; as with his children, he was good at pointing out and clarifying options for them, then letting people make decisions according to correct principles they already knew. He was compassionate, and he was good at relating to people on their level—particularly the youth.

One of his Aaronic Priesthood boys in those days was young Jake Garn, now Utah’s senior United States senator. “He seemed like he was one of us without being one of us,” Brother Garn recalls. Except for his father, Brother Garn adds, Bishop Wirthlin probably exercised greater influence over him during his youth than any other man.

The bishop was extremely good at listening and at expressing his love and confidence in quiet, undeniable ways. “I don’t ever remember walking out of his office when he didn’t have his arm around me,” Brother Garn says.

Members of his ward will say that some things are still done as they were during Bishop Wirthlin’s administration. But the time came, after nearly ten years, for Bishop Wirthlin to be released. He was called to the high council.

It was while serving as a high councilor twenty-three years ago that it fell to Brother Wirthlin to supervise the activities of a young alternate high councilor, a surgeon and heart specialist, Russell M. Nelson. Their lives have been intertwined in Church service ever since.

It wasn’t long before the stake presidency was reorganized. Russell Nelson was called as president, and he chose as one of his counselors the man he recommended to be stake president—Joseph B. Wirthlin. In 1971, President Nelson was called to be Sunday School general president for the Church, and again he chose Joseph B. Wirthlin as one of his counselors. They served effectively together until 1975, when Elder Wirthlin was called as an Assistant to the Twelve (the last man called to that position). For the next four years, President Nelson reported to several different General Authorities in his Sunday School role, and one of those was his former counselor, Elder Wirthlin.

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

Elder Wirthlin speaks at the October 1975 general conference, six months after he was called as an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve.

Russell Nelson was released from his Sunday School position and called as a regional representative in 1979. His call to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1984 brought him and Elder Wirthlin, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, into close association again. In 1985, Elder Nelson was given the responsibility of overseeing Church activities in Europe. That meant Elder Wirthlin, as Area President, was under his direction once more.

Now, Elder Nelson says, they are together again in the service of the Lord—but in the same quorum and for the rest of their lives.

Among Elder Wirthlin’s strengths are his “tremendous faith and willingness to work,” Elder Nelson says. While serving as stake president, “there was hardly ever a Sunday night when I didn’t get a call from him asking if there was any more he could do for me.

“One of the strengths of Joseph B. Wirthlin is Elisa R. Wirthlin,” Elder Nelson says. Elder Nelson recalls that Sister Wirthlin served well as stake Relief Society president while her husband was in the stake presidency. She is a remarkable woman, spiritually, intellectually, and athletically active. The stake presidency once signed up for a Spanish class because they perceived a need. Sister Wirthlin took it with them, and the knowledge served her well later when her husband was assigned as Executive Administrator for the Church in Brazil, where they needed to learn Portuguese. Her children note that she often encourages her husband to play tennis or walk with her for exercise, and he enjoys it when he can find the time. Throughout their life together, they have also fed each other intellectually.

President Thomas S. Monson, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, observes that Elder Wirthlin is a man of great innate goodness. President Monson had the responsibility of overseeing the work of the Church in Europe before his call to the First Presidency in November 1985. “It has been my opportunity to work closely with Joseph B. Wirthlin for many years,” President Monson comments. “He personifies the description given by the Savior of Nathanael—‘an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.’” (John 1:47.)

Elder Wirthlin, he says, is “a worker with enthusiasm and determination.” In every assignment, “he never leaves the task until it is appropriately completed.

“He cares not for personal acclaim, desiring only to please his Heavenly Father and those who preside over the Church. In all of his activities, he is strengthened, encouraged, and sustained by his eternal companion, Elisa.

“Serving with Joseph B. Wirthlin continues to be a blessing.”

“My life really is anchored to the testimony that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ.” (Ensign, May 1975, p. 103.)

That comment, offered when he was first sustained as a General Authority, bares the root of Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s motivation in life. On another occasion, he elaborated:

“I wish I could engrave on every heart what I so keenly know and feel. I bear unwavering testimony that our Heavenly Father and His divine Son, Jesus Christ, rule and reign, and that we must all understand that the gospel is everlasting. It is forever and applicable to all, and each of us is to be held accountable.” (Ensign, May 1984, p. 41.)

It is evident that he considers this accountability to extend to individual actions in support of the kingdom. He has spoken repeatedly of the need for the Saints of God to reach out to the less active, share the gospel with others, and do their duty toward their fellow beings. Doing what our Heavenly Father expects of us has been a theme of Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin’s life and teachings. He has obligated himself to do no less.

Most recently, he reaffirmed this commitment publicly in his general conference address October 5, the day after he was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve:

“In all humility and gratitude I ask for your prayers and faith in this great and humbling and sacred assignment that has been given me. To our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and to President Ezra Taft Benson, our prophet, seer, and revelator, I pledge that I will do my best, that I will do all I can to build up the kingdom of God here on the earth.”

[photos] Far left: Elder Wirthlin’s mother, Madeline Bitner Wirthlin. Left center: The Wirthlin family in 1935 (clockwise from top left), Judith, Gwendolyn, Joseph B., Joseph L. Wirthlin, David, Madeline B. Wirthlin, and Richard. Left: Elder Wirthlin’s father, Joseph L. Wirthlin, served as Presiding Bishop from 1952–61. Right: A recent portrait of Elder Wirthlin and his wife, Sister Elisa R. Wirthlin. Far right: Joseph Wirthlin served as a missionary in Germany and Switzerland in the late 1930s.

[photos] Far left: Joseph Wirthlin (number 4, at left) played halfback on the University of Utah football team. Left: Joseph B. and Elisa Young Rogers Wirthlin on their wedding day, 26 May 1941. Right: Bishop Wirthlin served in Salt Lake’s Bonneville Ward for nearly ten years.