'Seek spirit' prophet's constant theme

"Seek the Spirit!" has been the single most recurring theme in the sermons and writings of President Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th president of the Church. It also has been a constant in his life. In times of personal decision, trial, responsibility or opportunity to serve the Lord, President Benson has sought the Lord in deep humility, not alone because of need but because of his earnest desire to do the will of God.

Over the many years of his service in the Church, President Benson has counseled people to strive for the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost.At a mission president's seminar at the Missionary Training Center, President Benson was specific about how to obtain the Spirit.

He said: "Pray for the Spirit, and the Spirit shall be given you by the prayer of faith. (D&C 42:14.) Live for the Spirit by keeping your life circumspect, by being faithful to all your temple covenants, and by keeping your life unspotted from the sins of the world. Search the scriptures diligently in personal study every day. Daily scripture study invites the Spirit. Cultivate a spirit of unity in your family. Contention is an enemy of the Spirit. Disharmony drives out the Spirit."

President Benson explained that it was while he was on his first mission in England in 1922 that he discovered the constant need for dependence on the Lord. He shared the following experience:

"My companion and I had been invited to travel over to South Shields and speak in the sacrament meeting. In the invitation they said, `We feel sure we can fill the little chapel. Many of the people over here do not believe the falsehoods printed about us. If you'll come, we're sure that we'll have a great meeting.' We accepted.

"We fasted and prayed sincerely and went to the sacrament meeting. My companion had planned to talk on the first principles. I had studied hard in preparation for a talk on the apostasy. There was a wonderful spirit in the meeting. The hall was filled. My companion spoke first and gave an inspirational message. I followed and talked with a freedom I had never experienced before in my life. When I sat down, I realized that I had not mentioned the apostasy. I had talked on the Prophet Joseph Smith and borne my witness of his divine mission and of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. After the meeting had ended, many people came forward, several being non-members, and said: `Tonight we received a witness that Mormonism is true. We are now ready for baptism.'

"This was an answer to our prayers, for we had prayed to say only those things which would touch the hearts of the investigators. Learn to be dependent on the Lord for your success."

President Benson's testimony of the Lord is firm and has reminded people to turn their lives over to God because He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. President Benson has testified that the Lord will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. "Each week we make a solemn covenant to be like Him, to always remember Him in everything, and to keep all of His commandments. In return, He promises to give us His Spirit." (The Joys of Christmas, 1988.)

There is an incident from his younger years that influenced President Benson's testimony about the importance of being guided by the Spirit in life.

He and his cousin George were born about the same time in the same community. They were fast friends. As young men they joined the army as part of the World War I forces, and were assigned to the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Utah State University. They were given two weeks furlough to go home and help harvest beets. They had planned to leave ROTC camp for home on Saturday.

Friday morning Ezra Taft woke up with a strong impression of the Spirit that he should go home that day and not wait until Saturday. He left, but George stayed. That day the killer flu epidemic of that period [1918T broke out in ROTC camp. George, who slept in a cot one side of young Ezra, and the man who slept on the other side both died. Ezra Taft became ill, as well, but he was home, where he received a powerful priesthood blessing of healing at the hands of his father, and loving, tender nursing care from his mother. President Benson has always felt that had he stayed back at camp with George, no doubt he, too, would have died like the others.

President Benson's impressions of the Spirit began early. One of the oft-repeated family stories was about the birth of the future prophet, whose life was spared through the power of God and the faith of his family. He was born Aug. 4, 1899, in a two-room house on the remote family farm in Whitney, Idaho. Medical help - equipment, training and experience - was extremely limited. There were life-threatening complications with the birth of the first child of George and Sarah Benson. The country doctor told George T. Benson Jr. that he believed he could save the mother's life but that there was no hope for the child. He put the unbreathing baby aside and quickly went to work on the mother.

But the grandmothers went to work on the baby. Each grandmother took a basin of water, one cold and one warm. They dipped the nearly 12-pound baby alternately into the basins in an effort to shock the infant's little system into life.

The fervent, silent prayers of the grandmothers as they cared for the baby were answered. Also ratified were the promises made through the laying on of hands of the priesthood. This special new spirit was not only to live but to flourish in high places.

From the beginning it was noted that Ezra Taft Benson was unique. When the time came for naming this precious infant, though other names were considered, the parents agreed that indeed he should be the namesake of his noble great-grandfather, Ezra T. Benson, colonizer and apostle during the time of President Brigham Young.

Part of the upbringing of Ezra Taft was the learning of all the words to the Church hymns from his father, who sang them with gusto, in the milking barn as well as in the household. The father did more than teach a young boy hymns; he taught the responsive son to pray, and President Benson remembers the reverence required before God as the family knelt together. This training carried over into Ezra Taft's entire life. To pray was much more than to list needs or recite gratitudes. It was for the purpose of seeking the Spirit and knowing God's will.

As a young man, he also learned about tithing from his parents. Many times he recounted the experience he had of overhearing his parents in a serious discussion as tithing settlement time drew near. They had only $50 to their name. That was the amount they owed for tithing, and it was also the amount they owed the bank for a note. His father had tried to earn money to cover the bank deficit by building a hay derrick but he hadn't sold it. So they considered their options and decided to pay the tithing. They took the money to their bishop and on the way home a neighbor stopped them with an offer to buy the hay derrick. He made out a check for $50 on the spot and his father paid back the bank.

As a student, as a young father, as a civic leader, as an apostle of God and as president of the Church, Ezra Taft Benson has consistently followed a pattern of seeking the Spirit, reaching for the companionship of the Lord and striving to know the will of Heavenly Father. The work ethic was innate in Brother Benson, and so faith always was coupled with hard work and application of gospel principles.

He wanted to do what the Lord wanted him to do. On a trip from Washington D.C., where he was stake president, he made a visit to Salt Lake City to seek counsel about a new job he had been offered. He was quick to respond when word reached him that Heber J. Grant, then president of the Church, wanted to visit with him. A driver took him to a cool retreat in the mountains where President Grant was staying.

President Grant, with his eyes full of tears, took the right hand of the younger man in both of his. He said, "Brother Benson, with all my heart I congratulate you and pray God's blessings to attend you. You have been chosen as the youngest member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles."

It was July 26, 1943. Ezra Taft Benson would be 44 just days later on Aug. 4. He was startled at this call. He said later that he felt his whole world cave in around him. He had been wrestling with decisions regarding his own future, and, meanwhile, someone else had been planning it for him! He was ordained an apostle Oct. 7, 1943, following the ordination of another new apostle, Elder Spencer W. Kimball.

President Benson became president of the Church on Nov. 10, 1985, following the death of President Kimball.

His journal at this sacred time in his life reflects this deep commitment to cultivating the Spirit and to gratefully accepting its influence. He recorded: "I have never felt weaker and never before have I felt the influence of the Spirit in such great strength. . . . May the good Lord sustain me as I go forward humbly. I think it can be truthfully said, I will never acknowledge the Lord's hand as I have the last few hours." (Ezra Taft Benson, A Biography, p. 481.)

Thus it wasn't surprising that when he was Secretary of Agriculture from 1953 to 1961, Elder Benson was the one to suggest that cabinet meetings be opened with prayer. President Eisenhower asked the new secretary at the first cabinet meeting to give a prayer before the members began the business of the day. After that, it was a tradition for prayer to precede the cabinet meeting - a tradition carried on during the eight years of the Eisenhower administration.

During this period of his career, Ezra Taft, the patriot-man-of-God, used his enthusiasm and clout to support the addition of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States. And that is the way it is recited at flag ceremonies to this day.

President Benson, a true patriot, was called on several occasions to travel and serve in Europe for both the Church and as Secretary of Agriculture and a representative of the president of the United States. On one trip in the fall of 1959, President Benson added a Moscow stop to his European trade tour. Something occurred there that impressed him as deeply as anything in his life.

There were 10 members of the national press along with the secretary's party. Secretary Benson was demanding in his desire to be allowed to visit a Protestant church. At last the request was granted and on a chilly day of constant rain, the party trouped into the Central Baptist Church in Moscow. The church was filled with middle- to old-aged people who attended at a certain risk to their own well-being. When they saw the Americans file down the aisle they gave up their own pews, crowded together, reached out to touch them as they passed.

One news article reported: "Every face in the old sanctuary gaped incredulously as our obviously American group was led down the aisle. . . . Their wrinkled old faces looked at us pleadingly. They reached out to touch us almost as one would reach out for the last final caress of one's most-beloved just before the casket is lowered. . . . They gripped our hands like frightened children." (Tom Anderson, reprinted in Straight Talk, Oct. 2, 1986.)

Secretary Benson was surprised when he was invited by the minister to speak. He sought the Lord silently, but with all energy of heart as he approached the podium. He faced the people, knowing full well what he had and what they were without. The Spirit was with him. People and members of the press felt something unusual about this man. He seemed more than just a leader.

Secretary Benson, an apostle, was almost overcome by his emotions as he began to speak to these spiritually starved people, deprived of the freedom of unrestricted worship. Leaning upon the Lord, Secretary Benson spoke about hope in a Savior who did indeed live and care about them. He said: "Our Heavenly Father is not far away. He is our Father. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, watches over this earth. . . . Be unafraid, keep His commandments, love one another, pray for peace, and all will be well."

People openly wept. They nodded their heads in agreement. "This life is only a span of eternity, " he continued. "We lived before we came here. . . . We will live again after we leave this life. . . ." Though he was very careful, he could not resist revealing his personal testimony. He said, "I believe very firmly in prayer. I know it is possible to reach out and tap that Unseen Power which gives us strength and [isT such an anchor in time of need. . . . I leave you; my witness as a church servant for many years that the truth will endure. Time is on the side of truth. God bless you and keep you all the days of your life."

He finished his talk with tears spilling down his cheeks. Filing out of the church, they spontaneously began singing "God Be With You 'Til We Meet Again." Even members of the press who resented having to go to church with Secretary Benson were moved and many wept. A journalist wrote: "It turned out to be one of the most moving experiences in the lifetime of many of us. One newsman, a former Marine, ranked it with the sight of `the American flag rising over the old American compound in Tientsin, China, at the end of World War II.' " (Grant Salisbury, in U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 26, 1959.)

Those who have worked most closely with Ezra Taft Benson on any of his assignments are those who have championed him most. One example is Frederick W. Babbel, who traveled with President Benson to post-war Europe: ". . . What a blessed privilege was mine in working with him. Never had I met a man of God who was so humble, so grateful for loyalty and kindness rendered, so genuinely and deeply emotional and receptive to that which is good and pure, a man who has such an all-consuming love for the children of our Father. . . . He [can doT more in less time, and that more thoroughly and effectively, than I had ever dreamed to be possible." (On Wings of Faith, p 21).

During President Benson's varied career he distinguished himself as a man of high principle, exactness and integrity with a deep and abiding spirituality. He always served unflinchingly in whatever capacity has been his lot. He has mingled with top political leaders, royalty, great thinkers and personalities of the world. Yet he has always stated that his great love is for God and all His children, with a special love for his own ancestors and descendants.

He married his college-days sweetheart, Flora Amussen, on Sept. 10, 1926, in the Salt Lake Temple. President Benson explained their lifelong love affair: "The attraction between us was evident from the first but the contrast between us was extreme. She owned her own car and was actually the most popular girl in town; I was a farm boy in the traditional blue serge Sunday suit, typically shiny in the back. But she had, and never lost, a rare graciousness that put me immediately at ease."

Over the years the Bensons had a dozen homes in almost as many cities of the world, with six children to ring the rafters. But there was peace as well as great fun in their home always. Together they prepared a home where friends of all ages, welcomed and entertained, were conscious of a special spirit therein. The Bensons were a loving team and skillfully wove their stalwart family life into the fabric of the many demands and honors thrust upon them. They were stabilized by the gospel and fortified for the stress of such visibility through family prayer and combined faith of devoted children: Reed, Mark, Barbara, Beverly, Bonnie, and Beth.

In the last years of their life together here on earth, Sister Benson was in poor health and leaned upon him heavily until her death Aug. 14, 1992. His tender care of her and his unabashed attentiveness proved him a dignified example of a loving husband.

Whether as a child growing up or as a father shepherding his own children, to President Benson the family home is sacred. Seeking the Spirit, according to President Benson, begins in infancy at home and is nurtured within the circle of one's family. Good families require spirituality in the home.

Ezra Taft Benson - a compassionate prophet, a disciple of Christ, a student of the Word - has also tirelessly and fervently encouraged people in the daily study of the Book of Mormon. He said:

"I would . . . urge you to read daily from the Book of Mormon . . . really know and love the Book of Mormon . . . ponder its pages . . . to obtain the Spirit you will have to search these scriptures daily. The more familiar you are with the scriptures, the closer you become to the mind and will of the Lord and the closer you become as husband and wife and children. You will find that by reading the scriptures the truths of eternity will rest on your minds." (Ensign, April 1988, First Presidency Message.)

The most formally educated prophet of our time, Ezra Taft Benson completed his courses at the Church Academy in Preston, Idaho, and Utah State University at Logan. Then in June of 1926 he graduated from BYU with honors and with the tag the "man most likely to succeed."

With his bride, Flora Amussen, he went to Ames, Iowa, for graduate study. In June 1927 he graduated with honors and was awarded a master of science in agricultural economics. Later he took further study at the University of California, nearly completing a doctorate in his chosen field. The list of President Benson's honorary degrees is impressive, and includes doctor of law degrees and doctor of agriculture degrees, as well as a doctor of science degree and a doctor of public services degree.

Ezra Taft Benson rose to prominence in a changing world and was prepared to take the calls to serve in stride.

Last August, he turned 94. During the past few years, he has been limited, due to his age and health, from maintaining an active schedule. He still enjoys visits with family members and goes for rides to some of his favorite sites in the Salt Lake area, and receives visits from his counselors in the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve. He listens to all the Church firesides and conference sessions by closed circuit to his residence, and listens to music, particularly the favorite tunes that he and Sister Benson used to enjoy.

In the Oct. 1, 1988, general conference, President Benson said: "I am getting older and less vigorous and am so grateful for your prayers and for the support of my younger Brethren. I thank the Lord for renewing my body from time to time so that I can still help build His kingdom.

"I do not know fully why God has preserved my life to this age, but I do know this: That for the present hour He has revealed to me the absolute need for us to move the Book of Mormon forward now in a marvelous manner. . . . Some of us may not live long enough to see the day when the Book of Mormon floods the earth and when the Lord lifts His condemnation. But, God willing, I intend to spend all my remaining days in that glorious effort."


Highlights in life of Ezra Taft Benson

Aug. 4, 1899 - Born at the family home in Whitney, Idaho, the eldest of 11 children of George T. and Sarah Dunkley Benson.

Sept. 10, 1926 - Married Flora Smith Amussen in Salt Lake Temple.

June 13, 1927 - Graduated from Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) at Ames with a master's degree in agricultural economics. A year earlier, he had received bachelor's degree from BYU in animal husbandry.

1933 - Appointed executive secretary of Idaho Cooperative Council in Boise; started campaign that made the Idaho potato famous nationwide.

April 15, 1939 - Began work in Washington D.C. as executive secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Oct. 7, 1943 - Ordained an apostle by President Heber J. Grant.

Jan. 28, 1946 - Set apart as president of the European Mission; for 10 months visited World War II-ravaged areas to coordinate relief efforts.

Jan. 20, 1953 - Took oath of office as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture, first religious leader to serve in the Cabinet in more than 100 years.

Jan. 1, 1964 - Began service for the second time as president of European Mission.

Dec. 30, 1973 - Set apart as president of the Council of the Twelve.

Feb. 18, 1979 - Organized the Church's 1,000th stake in Nauvoo, Ill.

Nov. 10, 1985 - Ordained 13th president of the Church following the death of President Spencer W. Kimball.

Dec. 22, 1985 - Issued with his counselors in the First Presidency "An Invitation to come back" statement to those who had ceased activity or become critical to "come back and feast at the table of the Lord."

Oct. 24, 1986 - Dedicated the Denver Colorado Temple.

July 24-26 - Attended events in London, commemorating 150th anniversary of the first missionary work in the British Isles.

Aug. 28, 1987 - Dedicated the Frankfurt Germany Temple.

Feb. 27, 1988 - Broke ground for the San Diego California Temple.

Aug. 19, 1989 - Presided and spoke in first three dedicatory sessions of Portland Oregon Temple.

Dec. 16, 1989 - Presided and spoke in first three dedicatory sessions of Las Vegas Nevada Temple.

May 2, 1992 - Broke ground for Bountiful Utah Temple.

About the author

Elaine A. Cannon, Young Women general president from 1978-84, has written many books and served in many community, state and national service positions. For 27 years she wrote a daily column for the Deseret News. She served as associate editor of the "Era of Youth" section for the Improvement Era beginning in 1960. In 1970, she became the first associate editor of the New Era.

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