In 2015, Melchizedek priesthood and Relief Society classes throughout the Church will study teachings from President Ezra Taft Benson, the latest in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series. The following article is condensed from an address given by Sheri L Dew on Nov. 13 in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square for the Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series sponsored by the Church History Library. Executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp., Sister Dew is a former counselor in the Relief Society general presidency and the author of a biography of President Benson published in 1987.
p>President Ezra Taft Benson’s life is remarkable by any measure — and almost impossible to do justice to in a full-length biography, let alone in one article.
Studying the life of a prophet is more, much more, than simply recounting events. It is an opportunity to see the hand of the Lord in action as He prepares and tutors a man to be ready when the moment comes that He anoints him as His mouthpiece on the earth. To begin, let’s establish a brief context for reviewing President Benson’s life:
Ezra Taft Benson was a farm boy from Whitney, Idaho. Born on Aug. 4, 1899, he was blessed with a great heritage in the Church and was the namesake of his great-grandfather, Elder Ezra T. Benson, who was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by Brigham Young.
The young Ezra served a mission to England in 1921, returning home to marry the love of his life, the beautiful Flora Amussen, whom he adored. He and Flora were devoted to each other, and they would have six children — two sons, Reed and Mark, and four daughters — Barbara, Beverly, Bonnie and Beth. Ezra graduated from BYU with honors and was voted the man most likely to succeed. He and Flora then journeyed east to Iowa State, where he received a master’s degree in agricultural economics — again graduating with honors. He then returned to Idaho to pursue a career in agriculture, serving first as a county extension agent.
After distinguishing himself in the agricultural arena in Idaho, he was tapped by the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. to serve as its executive director, and he and Flora moved their young family to the nation’s capital. This experience gave him his first exposure to bureaucracy and also his first national exposure as an agricultural expert. While there, he was called to serve as the first president of the newly organized Washington D.C. Stake.
He had also served for a short time in Boise as a stake president. It was while living in Washington, D.C. that, at age 43, he was asked to meet with President Heber J. Grant, who in July 1943 called him to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Both he and Elder Spencer W. Kimball were subsequently sustained in the October 1943 general conference. While Elder Benson was serving as a member of the Twelve, he was tapped by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture. During this and subsequent years, Elder Benson became a staunch defender of freedom in all of its forms. Then, in 1985, he became President of the Church, where he became known for his love and advocacy of the Book of Mormon. With this brief thumbnail sketch of his life forming the background, let’s consider three characteristics that Ezra Taft Benson exemplified.
Ezra Taft Benson was man of deep faith.
There are countless evidences of Elder Benson’s faith, but none more fascinating than what transpired in 1946.
On Dec. 22, 1945, President George Albert Smith convened a special meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. World War II had ended in September, and many of the European Saints had not had contact with Church headquarters for years.
President Smith indicated that after prayer and contemplation, he had determined to call one of the Twelve to go to Europe for an unspecified length of time to re-establish contact with the European Saints and to facilitate the distribution of much-needed welfare supplies. When President Smith announced that he had decided to call Elder Ezra Taft Benson to go to Europe, not only was Elder Benson surprised but so were many of his colleagues as he had the largest and youngest family still at home.
With Flora’s full support, he immediately began to obtain necessary clearances; and a month later, he headed for Europe as president of the European Mission. What he found there defied description. Europe was devastated. Entire cities were in rubble. Bridges, wharfs, and roads had been bombed.
There were no phones, little food, no roads, no gas, and few cars for civilians. In most instances, he was the first civilian to travel throughout the occupied areas of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria. Just getting from place to place required faith, the ability to receive revelation, and administrative know-how.
In Paris, he tried to gain access to the occupied areas of Germany, but the U.S. colonel was incredulous: “Mr. Benson, are you crazy? Don’t you realize there has been a war here? No civilian travelers have entered these areas. All travel is restricted to the military.”
Elder Benson quietly asked if he could obtain permission to travel into those areas if he could find a car. Finally, the colonel conceded. And much to the colonel’s surprise, Elder Benson found a car. Again and again, Elder Benson was told no. No, he couldn’t get seats on a plane, but he’d get seats on that plane. No, he couldn’t proceed into certain areas, and then those in charge would relent. No, he couldn’t buy fuel, and he’d find fuel.
And everywhere he went, he found Saints who were suffering.
On one occasion he wrote Sister Benson about a group of members whom he’d seen combing the ditch banks for food: “Some take ordinary grass and weeds and cut it up to mix with a little chicken feed and water which is their meal. I noticed between [church] meetings some would take out of their pocket a little cup partly filled with chicken feed or cereal and water, which they would eat cold. … I didn’t intend to write all this sad picture. I have tried to spare you at home most of the heart-rending scenes in Europe today. But somehow I just couldn’t hold it in this morning. It’s terrible to contemplate” (Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography, p. 218). What he found in Berlin defied description.
He recorded in his journal: “I witnessed scenes that seemed almost outside this world. … I smelled the odor of decaying, human bodies. … I saw old men and women with small hatchets eagerly digging at tree stumps and roots in an effort to get scraps of fuel and then pulling them home for miles on anything that would roll. … Later I faced in a cold half-wrecked auditorium off a bombed street 480 cold half-starved but faithful Latter-day Saints. … I heard their harrowing experiences including murder, rape and starvation of their loved ones.
Yet there was no bitterness or anger but a sweet expression of faith in the gospel” (ETB, p. 211).
Repeatedly, for nearly a year, Elder Benson did the impossible — bringing food and hope to the European Saints. His mission of mercy both tested and increased his spiritual, emotional and physical strength. And it increased his faith.
Ezra Taft Benson was a man of principle.
Almost no one saw Elder Benson’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture coming. A Farm Journal reporter capsulized much of the sentiment: “Ezra Benson is going to shock Washington. He’s in the habit of deciding everything on principle” (ETB, p. 259). Though his term in office was not without controversy, and some journalists and politicians predicted he’d be the first member of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cabinet to go, he ended up staying the entire eight years of Eisenhower’s two terms.
Elder Benson brought his values, behaviors and beliefs to his government office. Everywhere he went, he taught truth and stood firm in defending principles he believed in. In short, his philosophy was summed up in two statements: First, “I feel it is good strategy to stand up for the right, even when it is unpopular. Perhaps I should say, especially when it is unpopular.” And second, “A man at times must compromise.
The test is to be found in what he is not willing to compromise, no matter how great the pressure. … [T]his nation cannot go on compromising a little bit of freedom here and a little there without eventually losing it all. It just isn’t good for government to do for people what they can and should do for themselves” (ETB, pp. 303, 270). The New York Times magazine attributed the Secretary’s eventual success to “his religion. … He acts like a man whose conscience is always clear — his testimony today will be the same next week or the week after or a year from now.
He doesn’t have to remember what he said to an opposition Senator at their last meeting. This is a built-in ulcer-saving device not always found in Washington.” In 1959, a diplomatic junket took him to the Soviet Union. His was only the second U.S. Air Force plane to land in Moscow since World War II. While there, he wanted to visit one of the two Protestant churches there.
Finally, on the last day of his trip, he visited the Central Baptist Church in the heart of Moscow. One reporter described the scene as they entered the church: “Every face in the old sanctuary gazed incredulously as our obviously American group was led down the aisle.
They grabbed for our hands as we proceeded to our pews, which were gladly vacated. … Their wrinkled old faces looked at us pleadingly. They reached out to touch us. They gripped our hands like frightened children” (ETB, p. 342). When the minister invited Elder Benson to speak, he bore his testimony of Jesus Christ and told the people to have hope and that truth would prevail.
One cynical newsman who’d complained about “going to church with Ezra” stood and wept openly.
The editor of Farm and Ranch magazine wrote: “Imagine getting your greatest spiritual experience in atheistic Russia. … This Methodist backslider stood crying unashamedly, throat lumped, and chills running from spine to toes. It was the most heart-rending and most inspiring scene I’ve ever witnessed” (ETB, p. 344).
Ezra Taft Benson was a man who deeply loved the Lord.
As President of the Church, President Benson pleaded with the Saints to immerse themselves in the Book of Mormon, promising that “there is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the moment you begin a serious study of the book.
You will find greater power to resist temptation. You will find the power to avoid deception. You will find the power to stay on the strait and narrow path” (Ensign, November 1986, p. 7). President Thomas S. Monson, his second counselor, summarized President Benson’s leadership: “President Benson has the capacity to bring men and women back to the strait and narrow pathway. He would have made a great wagon master in bringing the saints across the plains.
He wouldn’t have let them wander to the goldfields of California. And he wouldn’t have let them stop and plant for two or three seasons in the lush, rich soil of Iowa. He knows how to say, ‘Move on, wagon train.’ He would have brought them to the valleys of the mountains successfully. Spirituality will be the main contribution and theme of his administration.
That spirituality will lead to a greater study of the Book of Mormon. It will lead to more temple work. It will lead to greater Christian service, and it will lead to a holier people.”