Elder David A. Bednar:
Going Forward in the Strength of the Lord
Henry B. Eyring, “Elder David A. Bednar: Going Forward in the Strength of the Lord,” Ensign, Mar 2005, 16–20
In his first conference talk as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder David Allan Bednar taught doctrine from the scriptures and bore personal testimony of the Savior. What he said made clear the source of his quiet boldness in the Lord’s work and his remarkable capacity to lead others. He said that through the grace of the Lord, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of our sins, we can receive strength and assistance to do good works beyond our own capacities. Elder Bednar promised, “In the strength of the Lord we can do and endure and overcome all things.” 1
His faith in the power that comes from the Atonement has given him confidence that he will receive strength beyond his natural ability to do whatever the Lord calls him to do. And his faith has led him to extend that confidence to those he teaches and leads. Because of that faith in what is possible for him and for others, you feel a contagious optimism and energy in his presence.
Elder Bednar’s three sons, now grown and studying at universities, describe their father’s influence. His son Michael says: “It seems that faith has driven out fear in my dad. He is always optimistic. No matter what goes wrong, he always says, ‘Things will work out.’ When it was hard for me during my mission, he told me to work hard and success would come. And he told me when the success came to remember that God gave it and that I did not earn it.”
Eric, another son, describes his father’s example: “He has always gone to the real sources: the words of the prophets and the scriptures. He is bold but he listens. He will ask inspired questions and then listen to your answer, and then he will ask another inspired question. Once he was giving me something similar to a temple recommend interview when I was about 14. He asked me if I sustained President Ezra Taft Benson. I said that I did. And then, after a pause, he asked, ‘What have you read lately of what President Benson has said?’ ” The lessons from those inspired questions and others like them are still teaching Eric and his brothers.
Jeffrey, the youngest of the three sons, says, “Since I was little, Dad taught me to set goals and exercise faith.” Jeff also says: “I want people to know that he is an ordinary man who can do extraordinary things because of the strength of the Lord. He is a living witness of the enabling power of the Atonement.” 2
Sister Bednar says of her husband: “People who know him well would say that he’s tough but tender. He’s competent and compassionate. He’s driven yet discerning. He’s faithful and fearless. He has a great capacity to lead and the wisdom to follow.”
Like his sons, Elder Bednar was deeply influenced by his early family life. He was born on June 15, 1952, in Oakland, California. His mother, Lavina Whitney Bednar, was a descendant of pioneer stock, faithful in the Church. Elder Bednar describes her and her faith with one word: “Steady.” His father, Anthony George Bednar, was a skilled tool-and-die maker. He was not a member of the Church, although he was constant in attending church with his son, helping with Church functions, and supportive when it came time for David to go into the mission field.
Throughout his youth and even from the mission field, Elder Bednar would ask his father, “Dad, when are you going to be baptized?” The answer was, “I’ll join this Church when I know it’s the right thing to do.” Years later, after Elder Bednar’s mission and after he was married and living far away from home, his father called on a Wednesday to ask, “What are you doing Saturday? Can you be out here (in California) to baptize me?” Elder Bednar baptized, confirmed, and ordained his father. He says of that phone call and the question from his father: “I honestly believe that’s why I was born. Not to teach him, but to assist him in learning about the restored gospel.” 3
David Bednar was called to a mission in Germany. In less than a year he was called to be an assistant to the mission president. After his mission he returned to Brigham Young University and met Susan Kae Robinson, who was reared in the small town of Afton, Wyoming. She came from a family whose members were devoted to the Church and were leaders in the community. Her father was president of a bank and served as a bishop. David and Susan were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1975.
Elder Bednar said of Sister Bednar in his conference address: “My wife, Susan, is a virtuous woman and a righteous mother. You will quickly see that purity and goodness are evident in her countenance. I love her and appreciate her more than words can express.” 4
A Teacher and a Leader
Sister Bednar received her degree from BYU in 1974, and Elder Bednar graduated in 1976 with a baccalaureate degree and in 1977 with a master’s degree, both from BYU. He received a PhD from Purdue University in 1980 and joined the business faculty at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He was called as a counselor in the stake presidency in 1982 at the age of 30. He also served as a bishop, president of the Fort Smith Arkansas Stake, president of the Rogers Arkansas Stake, and then as a regional representative and later as an Area Authority Seventy.
He gave much of this service while he and Susan were raising three young sons and he was making a remarkable contribution in his work at the University of Arkansas. Doyle Z. Williams, dean of the College of Business at the University of Arkansas, describes Elder Bednar’s contributions not in terms of offices held or honors received—of which there were many—but in terms of personal influence: “David Bednar was part of our leadership team. He sharpened our vision. He always exuded enthusiasm for students and a passion to help his fellowman. To all our discussions he brought reason and compassion. He inspired his colleagues and students by his example and was held in the highest esteem.”
Dean Williams, who is not a member of the Church, saw a power to influence others that was also observed by Jerry Abram, President Bednar’s counselor in a far-flung Arkansas stake. Brother Abram describes his impressions this way: “We traveled an average of 2,000 miles [3,200 km] per month together, so I got to know him very well. He called my wife to be the stake Relief Society president, and he set my daughter apart when she departed for England to serve her mission. He spoke at her twin sister’s funeral with such power and compassion. Our daughter was 17 years old when she and two of her girlfriends died in a tragic automobile accident. The funeral was tender, but Elder Bednar helped make it bearable. He stood behind our family during our darkest hour. After the funeral I wrote in my journal that he was the most spiritual and compassionate man I had ever met.”
Brother Abram goes on to say: “The strong Latter-day Saint presence in this part of Arkansas is undoubtedly a direct result of Elder Bednar’s efforts and diligence and leadership. One of his trademarks was inviting all members of the stake to bring their scriptures to every meeting. If he noticed we did not have our scriptures, he would admonish us to do better.”
David Bednar’s own reliance on the scriptures and his teaching of their importance have been evident throughout his priesthood service. Elder Bednar remembers: “During my training before my mission, we went to the solemn assembly room in the Salt Lake Temple. President Harold B. Lee was there to answer questions from about 300 missionaries. He stood there in his white suit, holding his white scriptures. He answered every question from the scriptures, or he said, ‘I don’t know.’ I sat there and thought that I would never be able to know the scriptures the way he did, but my objective became to use the scriptures in my teaching the way that I saw President Harold B. Lee do it. That desire is the genesis of all my scripture study.”
As a leader he has tried to encourage that desire in others. He remembers a time in 1987 when he was the bishop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. “I went into Primary one Sunday,” he says. “They had invited me. I decided to wear red suspenders. I thought that I would somehow use them as an object lesson. So I got in the Primary room, took off my coat, and said, ‘Now, boys and girls, the bishop has these red suspenders. How are the scriptures like my red suspenders?’ And one little boy raised his hand and said, ‘The scriptures hold up our faith in Jesus the same way your suspenders hold up your pants.’ I said, ‘That is exactly right.’ The little boys in the ward started wearing red suspenders, and the little girls had red bows in their hair.
“My dad was a tool-and-die maker, and he would never be caught without his tools. It seemed to me that for members of the Church of Jesus Christ our tools are the scriptures and we would always have them in our meetings. When I became the stake president, we began to hold them up to remind us how they can, if we use them, hold up our faith.”
Years after Elder Bednar left Arkansas, a man walked into a priesthood interview in a rural stake in Idaho. He was carrying a well-worn set of scriptures. He noticed that the General Authority conducting the interview seemed curious about the scriptures he was holding so carefully. He smiled, held the scriptures up, and said, “When I was young, I was a soldier in the army in Arkansas. I was in President Bednar’s stake. I feel better when I have my scriptures with me.”
College President for a Time of Change
In 1997 David A. Bednar was appointed president of Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho. At that time it was the largest private junior college in the United States, with 8,500 students. In his first meeting with the faculty and staff, he said: “I’ve never been a president of a college before. I don’t know how to do this. But I do know some things about teaching, and I hope that foundation will at least provide a beginning.” 5
He began teaching as he began to lead the college, and he never stopped. He taught a class in religion every term. He and Sister Bednar invited students to come to family home evenings where they were taught from the scriptures and through inspired questions. In the years they were in Rexburg, close to 35,000 students were blessed with such evenings with the Bednars.
In June 2000 President Bednar learned that the decision had been made to transform Ricks College into a four-year institution called Brigham Young University—Idaho. Ricks College officially became BYU–Idaho on August 10, 2001. In less than three years, by the summer of 2004, the university was able to announce that it had received academic accreditation. That significant institutional achievement was accomplished despite the lack of forewarning of the change in the school’s status.
Not only did President Bednar take the lead in making the changes necessary to give four-year baccalaureate degrees, but the college became a university designed to be a unique educational experiment. It is to be a place of innovative education while building at its very heart faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The traditional academic year, in which students enter in the fall and leave in the spring, was replaced. A student would be admitted to start any semester during the year. The idea was to fill the campus to capacity throughout the year. More students could attend. The year-round schedule would make it possible for students to take internships away from campus at times other than the usual summer break.
There would be no academic rank for the faculty. That put the focus on teaching students rather than on traditional faculty status and prestige. There would be no intercollegiate athletics. They would be replaced with an activity program that allowed all the students who wished to participate and compete in social, leadership, artistic, and athletic events.
There had to be a plan created to develop new courses, to hire faculty, and to design and build the space for an expanded school. President Bednar chose to involve as many of the staff and faculty members as he could. They had to participate in making changes that would require great and sometimes difficult adjustments in their own lives.
President Bednar described the experience this way: “I can think of few things that have driven me to my knees more earnestly and frequently than the announcement by President Hinckley that Ricks College would become Brigham Young University—Idaho.
“On the evening before the announcement was to be made, one colleague asked, ‘President, are you scared?’ As best I can recall, I answered: ‘If I thought we had to execute this transition relying exclusively upon our own experience and our own judgment, then I would be terrified. But we will have help from heaven. Because we know who is in charge and that we are not alone, then no, I am not scared.’ ”
President Bednar went on to say: “I have come to know that President Hinckley’s vision concerning the future of BYU–Idaho is not really about two-year or four-year status. It is not really about academic rank or athletics. And it is not really about a name change. This announcement is about faith—faith in the future. Given all the changes that have taken place at this institution in a relatively short period of time, I testify that miracles have occurred, revelations have been received, and doors have been opened, and we have been greatly blessed as individuals and as an institution. These truly are days never to be forgotten.”
Robert Wilkes, who as student life vice president worked closely with President Bednar and who is now the interim president of BYU–Idaho, describes how President Bednar led the change: “It took courage. He faced very strong opposition from a few, but he changed some hearts and he exercised patience with those who struggled with letting go of the past.
“He instantly set out a vision of transition. He never wavered. The people knew that he was totally loyal to the prophet and to the board of trustees. But they knew he would take issues to the board with energy and commitment when it was appropriate. It was hard for others to stray when he was so clearly in line himself.
“He made it clear that he expected people to welcome change. He built support by teaching that great change comes ‘line upon line, precept upon precept.’ 6 He recognized the power of the students. One part of the vision was that students would be teaching students. He involved the students enough that in many cases they converted faculty and employees to certain elements of the transition to BYU–Idaho.
“He was quick to give credit to others in public and private ways. He always tied the transition to the larger good of the Church by showing how BYU–Idaho would be a tool for service in the kingdom. He understood and taught that the changes would allow students to come to the school who could have never had the chance. He seemed to view every experience as an opportunity for spiritual insight.”
Elder Bednar is remarkable for his willingness to include everyone and to trust that everyone will have valuable insights. One who saw that firsthand was Betty Oldham, his secretary. She says of President Bednar: “He is never afraid to let others take charge. While he clearly provides oversight and focus, he lets those with direct responsibility shine.
“He sees the whole picture, but he doesn’t try to micromanage. He has taught us that we should act as agents rather than be acted upon. And he has provided opportunities for us to exercise that agency. With him, everyone has a voice and is free to express ideas and opinions, even if those opinions are 180 degrees opposite to where everyone else is headed. No one is ever made to feel uncomfortable about what he or she has said. The concept of counseling in councils has taken on a new dimension for the whole campus. He has always made me feel that my opinion is valued.”
By such leadership, a family has been united and the Church established more firmly in Arkansas. A college has become a great university, and the people who study and serve there have been raised to new heights.
Elder Bednar’s great capacity to lift others and his courage to do whatever the Lord asks of him come from his witness of Jesus Christ. He has paid the price of prayer, scripture study, and personal testing to qualify as a special witness of the Savior. He will not need to change habits or patterns as he answers the call to the apostleship. His life gives evidence that what he said at the end of his first general conference address will be true: “I will go where the Lord and the leaders of His Church want me to go, I will do what they want me to do, I will teach what they want me to teach, and I will strive to become what I should and must become. In the strength of the Lord and through His grace, I know that you and I can be blessed to accomplish all things.” 7
[photos] Photography at BYU–Idaho by Michael Lewis
[photos] Opposite page (from top): Elder Bednar raises his scriptures, his customary invitation to learn from the word of God, in a BYU–Idaho devotional on November 16, 2004. Young David Bednar with his father. As a schoolboy.
[photos] Opposite page (from top): With his mother. With his parents; wife, Susan; and young sons Michael and Eric at his father’s baptism in 1979. As president of the Rogers Arkansas Stake. Left: On a family vacation in the Tetons. Above: The Bednar family. Below: With granddaughter Emily.
[photos] Opposite page: Helping a student in the Ricks College bookstore. Far left: President Gordon B. Hinckley shakes hands with the Bednars’ daughter-in-law Charlotte as Sister Bednar, President Bednar, and son Michael look on. Left: The Bednars at a Ricks College commencement. Above: The Bednars and the Uchtdorfs meet the press. Below: Speaking at general conference.
2. Quoted in Zach Gibson, “Elder Bednar’s Son Shares Thoughts, Memories,” Daily Universe, Oct. 26, 2004, 6.
6. See 2 Ne. 28:30.