President Benson's service as apostle began 50 years ago

"This day will ever stand out in my mind as the day of greatest significance to me, although as I write it seems like a dream."

So began an entry 50 years ago as Ezra Taft Benson wrote in his journal on July 26, 1943, a personal account of his calling to the Council of the Twelve. After spending a mostly sleepless night, he wrote further of the calling that would change the course of his life:"Retired at 11 p.m., but slept very little but prayed, wept, and did much sincere thinking regarding this great thing which has come to me, a humble, weak farmer boy. With heart full of gratitude, I pledged my all to the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth and pled with the Lord to give me strength to ever be worthy of this high and holy calling in the Church and Priesthood of God."

Elder Benson was sustained as an apostle at the next general conference of the Church, on Oct. 1, 1943. Elder Benson, then 44, wrote in his journal of that event:

"In the opening session of the 114th Semiannual Conference, I was sustained as the youngest and junior member of the Quorum of the Twelve and called upon to address the great conference of stake and ward officers of the priesthood.

"The Lord richly blessed me. Although I was almost overcome with emotion, and my heart so full of gratitude for the great and glorious honor which has come to one of His weak servants, that I found it difficult to speak. The entire session . . . was most inspiring."

In his first conference address as a General Authority, he related a few details pertaining to the issuance of his calling as an apostle:

"I must confess I had no premonition of this call, even of the shortest duration. When passing through Salt Lake and stopping over here, just between trains, en route to Colorado [from CaliforniaT on the 26th of July, President [David O.T McKay indicated that the president of the Church wanted to see me a few moments. Even then such a thought of being called to this high and holy calling never entered my mind. It was only a few minutes later that President [Heber J.T Grant took my right hand in both of his and looked into the depths of my very soul and 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 apostle of the Church.'

"The whole world seemed to sink. I could hardly believe it was true, that such a thing could happen, and it has been difficult since for me to realize that it is a reality."

Near the end of the first conference address he delivered, Elder Benson said:

"I know my own limitations, my own weaknesses, and I tremble as I contemplate the great responsibilities and obligations which this call entails. But I am grateful to know that I will be associated with the best group of men in all the world. More than anything else, besides my desire to maintain my testimony, I desire the love and confidence of the priesthood of this Church, and I pray the Lord to give me strength that I may merit that love and confidence." (Church News, Oct. 9, 1943, pp. 6, 9.)

Two days later, on Oct. 3, 1943, Elder Benson wrote in his journal:

"Tonight for the first time I know what it is to have a bruised and sore right hand from the enthusiastic and warm handshakes of the Saints."

Thus began the full-time ministry of Ezra Taft Benson, a ministry that has spanned five decades and taken him throughout the world on the Lord's errand - the past 71/2 years as His anointed prophet, seer and revelator.

During his presidency, worldwide membership of the Church has increased from 5.9 million at the end of 1985 to 8.4 million at the end of 1992. Stakes have grown from 1,582 in 1985 to 1,919 at the end of 1992. The number of full-time missionaries has grown from 29,265 in 1985 to 46,025 at the end of 1992. Missions have increased from 188 to 296, as of March 13, 1993.

Eight temples have been dedicated during President Benson's administration, bringing the total number of operating temples to 45, and eight more have been announced.

The number of nations and territories in which Church units are organized has increased from 115 at the beginning of President Benson's administration to 146 by the end of 1992.

Behind these representative facts and figures has been a man of humble spirit eager to heed the Lord's counsel. He is known as a prophet who extended compassionate pleadings on the one hand and issued stern warnings on the other. Just a little more than a month after he became Church President, he joined with his counselors, President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson, in sending out a Christmas message that was, in essence, an "invitation to come back." The message, published in the Church News Dec. 22, 1985, was directed to Church members who were less-active, who had become critical and prone to find fault or who had been excommunicated because of serious transgressions.

"To all such, we reach out in love," the statement read. "We are anxious to forgive in the spirit of Him who said: `I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.' (D&C 64:10.)"

At temple dedications, in area, regional and general conferences he has admonished members to "cleanse the inner vessel," to conquer pride, study the Book of Mormon, do missionary and temple work, pray and work for peace and freedom, and serve others.

Ill health during the past few years has prohibited President Benson from attending to the daily duties of his office. Except for occasional visits to homes of family members for dinner and on special occasions, and drives to some of his favorite places, he spends most of his time in his apartment where he is visited on a regular basis by his counselors in the First Presidency and members of the Quorum of the Twelve. As his health began to decline and as he recognized the toll of advancing years, he frequently said it was his desire that the Lord not permit him to live longer than his wife, Flora Amussen Benson, who died Aug. 19, 1992, just a few weeks before their 66th wedding anniversary. They have two sons and four daughters.

President Benson will turn 94 on Aug. 4. Although he might have a personal desire to have quickly followed his "beloved Flora," as he called her, the Lord's desire, apparently, is that he remain a while longer. As if looking ahead through the years, President Benson addressed the topic of the timetable of a prophet's calling in May 1975, when he was quoted in the New Era: "God knows all things, the end from the beginning, and no man becomes President of the Church of Jesus Christ by accident, or remains there by chance, or is called home by happenstance."

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