'Part of my own history'

While serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Ezra Taft Benson became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the cabinet of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His experience delivering an impromptu sermon at a Christian church during a state visit to the capital of the Soviet Union was the subject of Reid Neilson’s presentation March 7 at the Church History Symposium.

Brother Neilson is managing director of the Church History Department and went on a recent tour of Eastern Europe with department leaders. While in Moscow, Russia, they visited the Central Baptist Church where Elder Benson had his experience as U.S. Agriculture Secretary in October 1959.

“I was so moved by the experience and so touched by what transpired there that I thought, ‘I’m going to go home and write this up and make it part of my own history,’” Brother Neilson told the symposium audience.

Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church History Department, speaks at BYU Church History Sy
Reid L. Neilson, managing director of the Church History Department, speaks at BYU Church History Symposium session in the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City March 7. | R. Scott Lloyd

As background, he told of Elder Benson’s worldview, which developed while he presided over the European Mission following the devastation of World War II.

“He was particularly troubled by the rise of nonbelief and the demise of civil liberties in the Soviet Bloc,” Brother Neilson explained.

He was appointed to the cabinet post 10 years after his ordination as an apostle, the highest position in the U.S Government ever held by a Latter-day Saint up to then.

Writing later about his diplomatic tour of the Soviet Union, Elder Benson said, “Of all the trade trips, this one left the deepest imprint on me.”

For several days, he had requested to visit one of the Christian churches in Moscow, but his guides seemed determined to thwart the request.

Finally, Brother Neilson said, Elder Benson took matters into his own hands and learned the location of the Central Baptist Church. The guides gave in to his request and he was taken with his wife, Flora, and their two daughters traveling with them to the church.

He had not come prepared to speak, Brother Neilson said, “but he shared his testimony of the Christian gospel and a loving Heavenly Father who esteemed all of His earthly children, whether Russian or American. …

“The Mormon apostle reminisced that his words seemed to naturally flow and that his ideas seemingly reached the hearts of his listeners.”

Brother Neilson quoted the report of Grant Salisbury and Warren K. Leffler, a writer-photographer team from U.S. News and World Report who were there:

“As the Secretary returned to his seat, the congregation broke into the familiar hymn ‘God Be with You Till We Meet Again.’ They were still singing and waving their handkerchiefs as we followed Mr. Benson out of the church. All the way along the crowded aisle, hands were outstretched to shake our hands.”

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