The Challenge of the Unfinished Task: Victor L. Brown, the Presiding Bishop of the Church


It was Gerald Brown who gave the challenge to his son to chop what seemed like way too much wood on that clear fall morning in Cardston, Alberta, Canada. Young Vic Brown would rather have been out on the Alberta prairies, running his horse through the crisp morning air, but he respected his father. He knew that he had been asked to chop more wood than a young man of his age should really be capable of chopping. But it was that special kind of father-to-son challenge—and challenge was something that Victor Lee Brown liked, something he faced head on. The wood was needed for cooking and heating in the Brown family home, and Vic knew that cutting the wood was not just a challenge, but one of those necessities for which he could share the burden of responsibility. With the smooth handle of the axe in his young hands, he began to chop. As he swung the axe, Vic could feel the warmth build inside as he worked. The thunk of the axe and the sweet smell of the newly split logs were partial payment, but the best came nearly five hours later as he split the last log and stacked it away. It was a warm and weary feeling, knowing that his task was well done. The appreciation from his father was just as warm and sincere, and it was tinged with just a bit of surprise because his young son had been able to accomplish a man-size task.

Victor L. Brown was serving as first counselor in his deacons quorum presidency at the time of the wood chopping incident, and he was a young man who accepted responsibility and loved the challenge of an unfinished task. The future would prove to hold many great challenges for the young deacon from Cardston.

Today Victor L. Brown is the Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is the leader of the Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Women of comparable age on the whole earth. He has dedicated himself to the challenge with love, understanding, organization, honesty, integrity, and a continuing desire to complete the tasks necessary to build the kingdom of God through preparing young men and women to accept their own responsibilities as members of the Church.

Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown

Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown

Bishop Brown’s call to the Presiding Bishopric came in September 1961 while the Brown family was living in Chicago, Illinois. Bishop Brown arrived home late in the afternoon of the 28th. The Office of the First Presidency in Salt Lake City had been trying to reach him for several hours, but he had been out of contact with his home and office. What did they want with him, he wondered? Perhaps with some misgivings, Victor Brown dialed the operator and was connected with Salt Lake City.

“Are you coming to conference?” asked the voice on the west end of the line. General conference was scheduled to begin the next day in Salt Lake City.

“No, I hadn’t planned to,” was the reply.

“President McKay would like to see you. Can you be in his office at 8:00 in the morning?”

Securing plane reservations on short notice was no problem. He was assistant to the director of reservations for United Air Lines in Chicago. Early the next morning Victor Brown was climbing the front steps of the Church Administration Building. While in President McKay’s office, he was called to serve as second counselor to a new Presiding Bishop—John H. Vandenberg.

Victor Brown thought of the future he had anticipated with United Air Lines. He had moved up the executive ladder over a 21-year period and had reason to believe that further promotions lay ahead. Greater financial rewards also were very likely.

He had dreamed of success in the business world ever since the days when he had waited on customers and run errands in his father’s store in Cardston. Now could he give up the career he had worked hard to build and devote his entire time to the Church? He knew there was only one answer. He could.

In the early 1930s the Brown family had left Cardston and come to Salt Lake City, where Victor Brown studied at the University of Utah. It was in 1936 in Salt Lake, downstairs in the board room in the old Granite Stake house, that he first saw Lois Kjar. Or perhaps it might be best to say that Lois saw Vic.

Sister Brown says about their first meeting, “I remember it as distinctly as can be. Our board meeting was just about to begin when a tall young man walked into the room. Since this was the first meeting of a new MIA stake board, none of us had been formally introduced, but as I watched this particular young man record the events of the evening in his capacity as secretary of the men’s board, I was much impressed by his quiet efficiency. With a feeling of guilt I turned around the engagement ring I was wearing just before I was introduced to him at the end of the meeting. Even so, it wasn’t a fairy-tale romance of ‘love at first sight,’ for it was several months before we had our first date—a prom at BYU. But his gentleness and courtesy were so genuine and natural that I found myself more deeply impressed each time we met, and happily for me, we began to meet more often than just at board meetings.”

Lois and Vic Brown enjoyed dancing and would often go to the Old Mill to dance. The Old Mill had once been a paper mill in the southeast part of Salt Lake Valley. It was a romantic spot near Big Cottonwood Creek and was surrounded by cottonwood trees. It was a great place for young people to meet and enjoy one another’s company. Lois remembers that Vic was a very good dancer, and on one occasion at the very same Old Mill, Victor L. Brown asked Lois Kjar to be Mrs. Brown—and she accepted, of course.

Bishop Brown’s relationship with his family is one of respect and love, of understood meanings, and of honest and helpful criticism. Joanne, Bishop Brown’s oldest daughter, remembers that when she went to BYU there was a lesson given in her student ward about loving your parents, and the counsel was given to the new students at BYU to write their parents and tell them of their love for them. Joanne said, “In our home we didn’t say I love you, we just loved each other.” But Joanne followed instructions and wrote her father and mother telling them how much she really did love them. When Bishop Brown received that letter he called his daughter immediately. Joanne says she will always remember how touched and grateful her father was for her expression of love to him.

Bishop Brown has 16 grandchildren, and at the Brown family parties Grandpa Brown, who is usually a little tired from the tremendous pace that he keeps, will be sitting in a comfortable chair. As the evening wears on, one of the younger grandchildren will seek him out and climb quietly onto Grandpa’s lap. It’s a quiet thing, nothing is said, but the children seem to recognize that here is the best spot. There is warmth and safety found on his lap. Sister Brown says, “He doesn’t have to say a thing to them; there is just a tenderness that tiny children recognize in him. I have a very good rapport with my grandchildren, but they will usually go to him before they will come to me.”

Bishop and Sister Brown have a wonderful family of which they are justly proud. Bishop Brown is not overly showy about his affection or overly wordy about his counsel, but his children admire him and respect and seek his counsel.

On an average working day (and none of his days are really average), Bishop Brown will rise at 5:30 or 5:45 in the morning. He has a quick breakfast and is always on his way to the office by 6:30. His appointments generally begin by 7:00 A.M., and he rarely has time in his busy day to eat lunch. Bishop Brown meets often with his counselors and weekly with the First Presidency of the Church to discuss the many matters pertaining to his stewardship.

He has responsibility for a vast and far-reaching network of temporal matters dealing with the functioning of the Church. In addition to his duties with the Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Women organizations, Bishop Brown is president of the Aaronic Priesthood on the earth and therefore responsible as the leader of all the bishops of the Church as they are the presidents of the Aaronic Priesthood in the wards of the Church. He also has charge of the Health Services program and has the very important task of guiding the Welfare Service program. Bishop Brown and his counselors are responsible to receive the tithes and offerings of the Church and meet with the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve as members of the Council on the Disposition of Tithes (as described in D&C 120). The Presiding Bishopric’s Office is also responsible for the membership records of the Church. It is to this heavy and far-reaching stewardship that Bishop Victor L. Brown puts his energies and talents each day.

One night every week Bishop Brown and his counselors, Bishop H. Burke Peterson and Bishop Vaughn J. Featherstone, meet with the Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Women organizations. On these nights Bishop Brown is at the Church Office Building until 10:30 or 11:00 at night. Bishop Brown has a genuine and abiding love for the young people of the Church and devotes hour after hour to their welfare. Bishop Featherstone says that often Bishop Brown will receive a letter from a young man or woman in the Church who has achieved or who is having problems, and halfway through the letter, Bishop Brown will stop, pull his handkerchief from his pocket, and wipe the tears from his eyes. He is so proud of the young people of this great generation, and he has tender and sensitive feelings about their successes and a deep and loving concern about their failures.

Bishop Brown’s office is neat and orderly, qualities that are reflected in the man who sits behind the walnut desk. Occasionally he looks up from his work at the things that make his office a special place. From his desk he can see a replica of a Japanese warrior’s helmet that sits on the end table next to the couch. This gift has special meaning to the bishop because it came from his son Stephen who is serving a mission in Japan. The Bishop’s furniture sits on light, earth-colored carpeting. His draperies are olive green and match the couch. The colors of the room are clean and comfortable. As Bishop Brown sits at his desk, he can see to his right a beautiful little marble sculpture of a child. He had commissioned it in Italy while he was touring Europe during the time he was responsible for translation and distribution. The sculptor-artist was almost blind and quite elderly, and Bishop Brown was not sure that he would ever receive the sculpture. However, about two years after he had commissioned the piece, a young elder, returning from Italy, entered Bishop Brown’s office with the statue in his arms. He had hand carried it all the way from Italy. It is a beautiful and delicate carving of a young child, and there is a standing joke in the Bishop’s office that in case of fire, Carolyn, his secretary, is to grab the statue first and then run for cover. On another table to the right of the Bishop’s desk is a clock that allows one to tell the time anywhere in the world. It is symbolic of the concern and interest Bishop Brown has for young people all over the world. Besides pictures of his family and the First Presidency, there is on the wall to his left a very special plaque that was lettered by his son-in-law Steven Soderborg and mounted and finished by his daughter Joanne. The plaque reads, “1 Nephi 13:41–42: ‘There is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth, and the time cometh that he shall manifest himself unto all nations.’” [1 Ne. 13:41–42]

Bishop Brown and his counselors often meet in his office to discuss the matters that concern the Presiding Bishopric of the Church. Both of the Bishop’s counselors point out that Bishop Brown has a wonderful and quick sense of humor. On a rare occasion he has surprised Bishop Peterson by bursting a balloon for his birthday, but his sense of humor is more likely to be unexpected though relevant and never silly.

But on the whole, Bishop Brown is a serious, driving, and dedicated man. Bishop Peterson, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, says of Bishop Brown, “Those of us who know him, who know what makes his heart beat, know that he has a sense of dedication like few men we have ever met. He truly feels the responsibility of the Aaronic Priesthood of the world, and he feels just as strongly about the Young Women. This isn’t something he just talks about, but it is something he loses sleep over, something he worries over, something he is always thinking about. He’s so dedicated he rarely takes time to relax.”

Bishop Featherstone says of him, “He has an understanding of his stewardship like few people in the Church. I think if the bishops in their wards understood their stewardships as presidencies of the Aaronic Priesthood in their wards as Bishop Brown understands his presidency of the Aaronic Priesthood for the whole earth, we would see a lift in Aaronic Priesthood activity and in the activity of the Young Women like never before in the history of the Church.”

Bishop Brown has many great leadership qualities and his counselors are the first to point them out. Bishop Peterson speaks highly of Bishop Brown’s ability to listen. He says, “It has always amazed me that Bishop Brown always has an open ear. In my years of business experience I have seen many great and successful men close their minds and not listen. But even though Bishop Brown is as hard-driving and purposeful a man as I have ever met, he will always take time to stop and listen.”

Bishop Brown has a quiet devotion to his family and a great love for and dedication to the young people of the Church. When people are asked what words describe the Bishop, without fail the same two words are repeated again and again—honesty and integrity.

And finally, one thing that is obvious about the Bishop is that he has a great love for horses. He now has three horses, but his favorite is Katie, a big, beautiful American saddler, that he rarely sees. But if he could, the Bishop would like to spend more time riding. He loves to ride and loves horses … but for now, his responsibilities give him little time for such pleasures.

When Bishop Brown comes home at night, usually between 6:30 and 7:00 P.M., he brings a briefcase full of work with him. He and Sister Brown will have a quiet dinner. Sister Brown says, “He is a very easy man to cook for as long as the food is well prepared. There is very little he won’t eat, but I had to train him a little in the beginning. I guess he finally learned to eat out of desperation. Now he eats everything.” After dinner the Bishop will head for the family room with his briefcase. He may glance through the paper or one of the business and news magazines on the tray at his right, and then he will begin, again, to work on those matters dealing with his stewardship. Sister Brown will be in the room reading or working on some sewing as the Bishop quietly continues his work. Occasionally she will steal a glance at the man she loves—so organized, so driving, so dedicated. He may be just a bit more organized than she is—she likes things a little more casual—but Bishop Brown never criticizes her. He accepts and loves her the way she is, and as she watches him at his work, she knows he has much to give young people.

Sister Brown says, “Some young people are afraid they have nothing to offer to others, or they are too timid to accept leadership positions and responsibilities. I believe my husband’s life and his beliefs can be a help and an inspiration.

“So often I have heard him say as he has been given a new assignment, ‘I wonder why I was chosen? I feel so inadequate for the job!’ And with that one observation, he launches into that particular job with all the enthusiasm, dedication, and constant seeking of the Lord’s help that one individual can summon.

“At that point I watch from the sidelines with both joy and sadness as I see his efforts sometimes accepted and at other times rejected by those whose judgment he feels is superior to his own. But I know that with patience and diligence, eventually the job will be accomplished—not always just as planned, but always in the way the Lord would want it done.”

Sister Brown continues, “Whether or not these two scriptures are favorites of his, I don’t know, but I do know that he lives by the principles they teach as closely as anyone I know. He believes implicitly in what Nephi says in 1 Nephi 3:7: ‘And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.’ [1 Ne. 3:7] He also knows that the Lord’s promise in Doctrine and Covenants 82:10 is a valid one: ‘I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.’ [D&C 82:10]

“These beliefs are a guiding influence and testimony to our children, and I believe they can be to other young people as well.”

And so, very often, when he is not traveling to the four corners of the world for the Church, Bishop Brown will finish the day in the family room, sitting in his green easy chair, still striving to complete the task. He may steal a few moments away to watch his favorite television show, Gunsmoke. It seems to be one time when he can really relax. Sister Brown says that she can watch the Bishop living every minute of the story as he becomes engrossed in the dialogue. It’s probably not so much Matt Dillon’s goodness, or straight shooting, or white hat that the Bishop admires; it’s probably the fact that he gets to ride his horse so much.

As the Bishop gazes out the window in the family room, the evening light glows in the northwest. And if he could see far enough, he might even see the prairies of Alberta and imagine himself astride Katie in full gallop, with dust flying in the evening breeze. But for now, Bishop Brown has a lot of wood that needs chopping.

[Timeline]

  • July 31, 1914—born in Cardston, Alberta, Canada

  • August 1, 1926—ordained to the office of deacon

  • April 9, 1928—ordained to the office of teacher

  • June 14, 1931—ordained to the office of priest

  • June 10, 1934—ordained to the office of elder

  • November 13, 1936—married to Lois Kjar in the Salt Lake Temple

  • November 9, 1937—birth of Victor L. Brown, Jr., in Salt Lake City

  • August 28, 1939—birth of Gerald E. Brown in Salt Lake City

  • 1940—started with United Air Lines

  • January 23, 1942—ordained to the office of seventy

  • 1943–47—served as United Air Lines reservation manager in Washington, D.C.

  • August 29, 1945—birth of Joanne K. Brown (Soderborg) in Washington, D.C.

  • 1948—named as chief of payload control for United Air Lines at Denver

  • June 5, 1950—birth of Patricia L. Brown (Glade) in Denver, Colorado

  • January 1953—called as bishop of the Denver Fourth Ward

  • January 17, 1953—Ordained to the office of high priest by Elder ElRay L. Christiansen

  • January 1954—called as second counselor in the Denver Colorado Stake presidency

  • April 24, 1954—birth of Stephen M. Brown in Denver, Colorado

  • 1956—called as first counselor in Denver Colorado Stake presidency

  • 1960—appointed assistant to the director of reservations for United Air Lines based in Chicago

  • October 6, 1961—set apart as second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric by Elder Hugh B. Brown

  • April 9, 1972—set apart as Presiding Bishop by President Harold B. Lee

[illustrations] Illustrated by Sherry Thompson