The story of Harold B. Lee, President of the Church, can be told in a few skeletal lines: Born March 28, 1899, in Clifton, Idaho, the son of Samuel Marion and Louisa Emeline Bingham Lee, one of six children. Educated in the local school; the Oneida Academy at nearby Preston, the Albion State Normal School in Albion, Idaho, and later at the University of Utah. Began a teaching career at the age of 17, served as a school principal at 18, and later as principal of two schools in Salt Lake County, Utah. Married Fern Lucinda Tanner November 14, 1923. She passed away September 24, 1962. Married Freda Joan Jensen June 17, 1963.
Managed Foundation Press, Inc., 1928–33. Served as Salt Lake City Commissioner 1933–37, when he became managing director of the Church welfare program. Named a member of the Council of the Twelve April 6, 1941, President of the Council of the Twelve and first counselor in the First Presidency January 23, 1970, and ordained and set apart as President of the Church July 7, 1972.
Such are the beads on the thread of his life. But that life is worthy of a more lengthy telling.
As towns and cities go, Clifton is ever so small, and off the main line. But as the years pass, it will become better known as the birthplace of the eleventh President of the Church.
President Lee’s father, Samuel Marion, had come to Clifton from another country town, Panaca, in southern Nevada. Samuel’s mother (President Lee’s grandmother) had died when he was eight days old, and the premature baby was so small that a finger ring could be slipped over his hand and onto his arm. He had to be fed with an eye dropper. His mother’s sister lived in Clifton, and at the age of 18, the boy moved north to live with her family.
There he met dark-haired, dark-eyed Louisa Bingham. They were married in the Logan Temple. The home they established and to which their six children came was “out on the string, about three miles north of the store.” The store, incidentally, was the one commercial institution of the town. The string was the dirt road—dusty in summer, snow-clogged in winter, and miry muddy in the spring and fall. The nearest hospital was many miles away, and so was the nearest doctor. “Aunt Susan” Henderson served as midwife.
Here, barefoot, overall-clad Harold grew, a boy among country boys. There was swimming in Dudley’s Pond, but not on Sunday. The father was in the bishopric, the mother in the YWMIA—and Sunday was sacred. It was in a similar pond, on Bybees’ farm, that Harold B. Lee was baptized.
Money was dreadfully scarce in those days. The farm produced generously but grain and potatoes brought little. The father augmented the family income by contracting for custom grain cutting, drilling wells, and building irrigation canals. But the Lee children did not know they were poor. The home and the Church provided entertainment opportunities. The jewel of the house was the piano. A Scottish lady, who knew how to rap knuckles at the sound of a wrong note, taught him how to play.
Harold was particularly adept on the piano. It is interesting to note that a love for music, cultivated in those early days, later found expression when he served as chairman of the Church Music Committee.
On one occasion, when Harold and his brother Perry were both in bed with measles, their father brought home two shining instruments, a cornet and baritone horn—and the house and the hills rang with new sounds.
There was a band in Clifton, the Silver Cornet Band, and the Lee boys became a part of it and, with others, made a great noise at the head of the parade on such occasions as July 24. When they attended the Oneida Academy in Preston, they again played in the band, and Harold picked up expertise on the slide trombone. This led to employment with a dance orchestra that furnished the music for waltzes and fox-trots in ward recreation halls and school gymnasiums. It also brought a few much-wanted dollars.
But to return to Clifton. Water was heated on a wood-burning stove. The refrigerator was a little sod structure that spanned the creek that ran past the house. For a time water was carried, and then a cistern was built above the house to provide the first tap water to be found anywhere along the “string.” Lights, too, were a problem, and Bishop Lee, as the father had become, stirred a great local controversy when he promoted the bringing of electricity into the community.
A pony cart, usually driven by the mother, took the children the two miles to and from school. It afforded little shelter when the January wind whipped down from the north, and mud was a problem when the bottom thawed out of the road. But that was life in Clifton. As President Lee has commented, “We had everything money could not buy.” And among these were some tremendous compensations. The air was clean and clear, with something almost sweet in the taste of it. The water was like rippling glass, and it was easy to see the glistening stones at the bottom of the creek. The stars at night stood out like people and animals in the sky—and boyish minds conjectured on what they saw. Summer rains were the manna that fell in that wilderness, bringing life to the land. Spring came with vast carpets of green where the plow had touched the soil, followed by the grain drill. Thundering, smoking steam engines fed power over long belts to threshing machines that produced sack after sack of wheat, oats, and barley.
Growing boys had appetites like those threshing machines. The food was simple and satisfying. The family cow furnished the milk. The butter was churned by hand when the cream soured, and there was an old tale that it soured more quickly when the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled across those Idaho skies. The family chickens furnished the eggs, and the next crop of chickens came from the eggs on which the old Rhode Island Red hen set. Boys learned to walk with care around that hen.
In the fall, a pig was butchered. Hams and bacon were home-cured, and “head cheese” was a seasonal delicacy. Then there was always the ax, kept sharp, to chop wood. Well-nourished muscles grew hard.
When the grades of the local school were completed, the boys “left home” to attend the Oneida Academy, the Church-operated secondary school in Preston a long fifteen miles away. Harold was then 13, and here he first met Ezra Taft Benson. Then followed the Albion State Normal School, on the other side of Idaho. Here, at the age of 17, Harold B. Lee earned his teaching certificate. That was a proud day for him and for his family. The district board of education offered him a job as teacher in the little one-room Silver Star School, between Dayton and Weston, “down the string” from Clifton. The salary was sixty dollars per month. He commuted the ten miles on horseback on weekends.
This was an internship for a greater opportunity with enlarged responsibility. Next year, the board named him principal of the Oxford School with four rooms. It was a great opportunity for an 18-year-old boy. He commuted the four miles each way on horseback daily, rain or shine, fair weather or foul. With cultivated musical talent and athletic ability in basketball, he identified himself with community activities in his spare time. It was in these days, when his father was bishop, that Harold had his first glimpse of the Church welfare program, as it later came to be known. Then as now, the bishop was responsible for the care of those in need. Bishop Lee ran his own storehouse, the commodities coming from his own pantry. In the night, the family would see him take a sack of flour, they knew not where, because confidences concerning those in trouble were to be strictly observed, lest there be talk with consequent embarrassment to those who needed help.
Then as now, it was also the bishop’s prerogative and responsibility to recommend young men for missions. Harold was now 21, having been teaching for four years. A call came from President Heber J. Grant to serve in the Western States Mission.
In the locked files of the Missionary Department of the Church is a report to the First Presidency on Elder Lee. It is dated December 30, 1922, and signed by President John M. Knight. It gives the period of his service—November 11, 1920, to December 18, 1922. Then various questions are answered: “Qualifications—As a speaker, ‘Very Good.’ As a presiding officer, ‘Good.’ Has he a good knowledge of the Gospel? ‘Very good.’ Has he been energetic? ‘Very.’ Is he discreet and does he carry a good influence? ‘Yes.’ Remarks: ‘Elder Lee presided over the Denver Conference with marked distinction from August 8th 1921 to December 18th 1922. An exceptional missionary.’”
There was in that mission at the same time a young lady from Salt Lake City, Fern Lucinda Tanner. She was regarded by her associates as bright, beautiful, and as a scripturalist of unusual ability. When Elder Lee was released, he returned to Clifton only briefly and then came to Salt Lake City to find and court the girl he had admired from a distance in the mission field. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple approximately eleven months after his return.
To the marriage were born two beautiful daughters, Helen and Maurine. The Lee home was a gathering place for the young people of the area. Sister Lee’s gentle manner and adroit handling of difficult situations won the admiration of all who knew her. On one occasion she silenced two prominent men who were criticizing one of their associates, saying, “In your efforts to be just, don’t forget to be kind.”
Maurine, Mrs. Ernest J. Wilkins, passed away in 1966 while her father was in Hawaii on a Church assignment. Helen, Mrs. Brent L. Goates, has been a ward Relief Society president and today identifies herself with this organization, where as a teacher she can be close to her younger children.
The qualities that had made him principal of two schools by the time he was 18 were again recognized. Furthering his education at the University of Utah, he was named principal, first of the Whittier School and then the Woodrow Wilson School in Salt Lake County.
Summer employment included the selling of a library service, and in 1928 Foundation Press, Inc., prevailed upon him to become intermountain manager. Following the death of a Salt Lake City commissioner in 1932, he was appointed to the City Commission, and was elected for another term the following year.
He lived in Pioneer Stake following his marriage, where one Church assignment was followed by another. Then in 1929, he was named a counselor in the stake presidency. The following year he was called as stake president. He was then 31 years of age, the youngest stake president in the Church.
Depression stalked the nation and the world. Stocks tumbled like tenpins. Credit dried up. Banks closed and millions of dollars of savings were lost. Unemployment rose catastrophically. With the work of years wiped out, men committed suicide. There were soup kitchens and bread lines. There was discouragement and tragedy. In Pioneer Stake more than half of the members were unemployed.
Here was a challenge, a terrifying challenge, for the young stake president. He worried, he wept, he prayed, as he saw men, once proud and prosperous, reduced through unemployment to a point where they could not feed their families. Then came inspiration to establish a storehouse where food and commodities could be gathered and from which they could be dispersed to the needy. Work projects were undertaken, not only to improve the community, but, more importantly, to afford men an opportunity to work for what they received. An old business building was demolished and the materials were used to construct a stake gymnasium to provide social and recreational facilities for the people.
Other stakes were engaged in similar projects, and in April 1936 they were coordinated to form what President Heber J. Grant first called the Church security program, now known as the Church welfare program.
Harold B. Lee, the young leader of Pioneer Stake, was called to pilot the newly launched vessel through the troubled waters of those desperate and trying days. The problems were monumental. It was difficult enough to assemble farm properties to produce food and to create processing and storage facilities. Even worse to cope with was the attitude of people critical of what the Church was doing and who felt that welfare should be kept within the province of government.
But with prayer and persuasion, with sweat and tears, and with the blessing of him whom he regarded as prophet, he traveled up and down the stakes of Zion, and the program took shape and grew and prospered.
The vast resources of today’s welfare program—productive farms by the score, processing plants and canneries, grain elevators and mills, and other projects scattered over much of America—are the lengthened and impressive shadow of those early efforts. While government relief programs are under constant attack, the Church program continues to win the plaudits of men the world over. Taxpayers have been saved millions of dollars because of the welfare burdens assumed by the Church. Profitable employment has been found for thousands of men and women, including many of the handicapped who have been afforded opportunity to earn what they need. Those who have participated as the recipients of this program have been spared “the curse of idleness and the evils of the dole.” Their dignity and self-respect have been preserved. And those myriads of men and women who have not been direct recipients, but who have participated in the growing and processing of food and in scores of associated undertakings, bear testimony of the joy to be found in unselfish service to others.
No one witnessing this program in its vast implications and in its tremendous consequences can reasonably doubt the spirit of revelation that brought it about and that has enlarged its practical power for good. To President Harold B. Lee, its first managing director and longtime chairman of the Church Welfare Committee, must be given credit for inspired direction. In his modesty he would disclaim that, and rightly so, for he would properly give the credit to the Lord. The Lord, in magnifying his servant, has recognized his devotion and his faith.
It is interesting to note that President Lee’s second counselor, President Marion G. Romney, was his close associate in those early days of the program and succeeded him as managing director. The two had first met years earlier in an informal way. Both on the day of that initial meeting were in overalls, doing manual labor. They have since formed a great team working together.
Looking back a third of a century, one sees the hand of the Lord in shaping his servant to receive the great mantle that has recently been placed upon him. Having been tested in the fire of those trying pioneer days of the Church welfare program, Elder Lee was called to the apostleship by President Heber J. Grant and sustained a member of the Council of the Twelve on April 6, 1941.
On the occasion of that appointment Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote editorially of his new associate: “He is full of faith in the Lord; abundant in his love of his fellow men, loyal to the Church and State; self-forgetful in his devotion to the Gospel; endowed with intelligence, energy, and initiative; and gifted with eloquent power to teach the word and will of God. The Lord to whom he goes for help will make him a mighty instrument in carrying forward the eternal plan of human salvation. … He will be given strength beyond any yet known to him, as the prayers of the people ascend to the Lord in his behalf.” (Improvement Era, May 1941, p. 288.)
Honest words of recognition these, and words of prophecy.
His story of the past thirty-one years is one of fidelity to the great sacred trust of an apostle, whose particular calling it is to be a special witness “of the name of Christ in all the world.”
In pursuit of that responsibility, he has traveled under assignment of the First Presidency to many parts of the earth, lifting his voice in eloquence, in proclamation of the divinity of the Redeemer of mankind.
He frequently has quoted Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8.) There has been nothing uncertain about the message of Harold B. Lee. Without equivocation, and with that certainty which comes of a sure conviction, he has borne testimony to the high and the low of the earth in words that have been translated into almost a score of tongues. He has never blanched from his responsibility as a servant of God in bearing testimony of the truth. Missionaries have been motivated to more earnest endeavor, members of the Church have grown in resolution to live the gospel, investigators have been pricked in their hearts as he has voiced his testimony. He has not spared himself and has kept up a rigorous schedule even at the peril of his health. Those close to him have known that during a period of many months he was seldom without pain. Fortunately, that condition has been remedied, and at 73, with almost overwhelming burdens, he finds himself in robust health, but his acquaintance with illness has sharpened his sensitivity to the sufferings of others. He has been one to travel far and near to encourage and bless the Saints. There are those in many lands who with appreciation bear testimony of the miraculous power of the priesthood exercised in their behalf by this servant of the Lord.
He has likewise been sensitive to the loneliness, to the fear, to the challenges facing men in military service. During the years of World War II, the Korean War, and the war in Asia, he directed the servicemen’s program of the Church. He has constantly expressed himself to his brethren on the need to give those in military service the full program of the Church, with all of the blessings and opportunities that flow therefrom. He has traveled over land and sea to meet with members of the Church in military service. In 1955, he visited Korea when that was still largely an armed camp, dressing in fatigues, visiting our men in that sad, embattled land. Those with whom he met will never forget his kindness, his concern, or his testimony of the overruling power of God in the affairs of men. He comforted them, he reassured them, he saved many from slipping into tragic situations.
He has comforted the bereaved. From personal experience he knows the sorrow of the loss of loved ones. He was away from Salt Lake City attending a stake conference when his beloved companion hovered between life and death. Traveling through the night, rushing to her bedside, he arrived only to find her slipping away. Those close to him in the dark days that followed her passing sensed in some small measure the depths of sorrow through which he walked. That was in 1962. In 1966 his beloved daughter Maurine was taken in death while Elder Lee was in Hawaii on a Church assignment. She left four children.
These searing experiences, difficult to bear, served to increase his sensitivity to the burdens of others. Those who have sustained similar losses have found in him an understanding friend and one whose own tested faith has become a source of strength to them.
In 1963 he married Freda Joan Jensen, who has complemented his life in a remarkable manner. Educated and refined, she is at home in the best of society. She is a woman of unusual accomplishments in her own right. Trained as an educator, she taught school, then rose through various administrative responsibilities to serve as supervisor of primary education in the Jordan School District of Salt Lake County. She also served on the general board of the Primary Association. The home she has managed has been a haven of peace for her husband and a place of delightful hospitality to all who have been privileged to enter it.
President David O. McKay, recognizing Elder Lee’s thorough knowledge of the programs of the Church and his proven administrative skills, appointed him chairman of a correlation committee to coordinate the entire curriculum of the Church. Out of this came an exhaustive review of courses of instruction used over a period of many years, together with an analysis of all teaching organizations and facilities. The vast effort made under his direction has resulted in a correlated curriculum designed to impart knowledge of every phase of Church activity and doctrine and to build spirituality in the membership. The strength of his leadership has been evident in this undertaking. His hand has been firm, his objectives clearly defined. The entire Church is the beneficiary of his service.
With the death of President McKay and the succession in the presidency of Joseph Fielding Smith, Elder Lee became President of the Council of the Twelve and was chosen by President Smith to be his first counselor. While this necessitated relieving him of the chairmanships of some of his earlier activities, the same objectives were pursued under his general leadership. Programs were instituted to improve the proficiency of teachers throughout the Church. A bishop’s training program was put into operation. The worldwide missionary program was strengthened.
While he was giving impetus to these and many other undertakings, his refined skills as an administrator were recognized in other fields. He was appointed a member of the board of governors of the American Red Cross. He was asked to serve as a director of the Equitable Life Assurance Association of America, the Union Pacific Railroad, and of other business corporations. In these capacities, he has mingled with men of national prominence in government, in business, in education, and in other fields. He counts among his close friends these men who have valued his judgment and appreciated his association. The three major universities located in Utah—Brigham Young University, University of Utah, and Utah State University—have all awarded him honorary degrees. Educators in many parts of the nation have recognized in him an understanding friend. It is natural that the man who began teaching in a public school at 17 would have such understanding and appreciation.
When President Joseph Fielding Smith passed quietly from life unto death on the evening of July 2, 1972, there was no doubt in the minds of the members of the Council of the Twelve who should succeed him as President of the Church. On Friday morning, July 7, they met together in the sacred precincts of the Salt Lake Temple. In that quiet and holy place, with subdued hearts, they sought the whisperings of the Spirit. All hearts were as one in response to those whisperings. Harold Bingham Lee, chosen of the Lord, schooled from childhood in the principles of the restored gospel, refined and polished through thirty-one years of service in the apostleship, was named President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Prophet, Seer, and Revelator. The hands of all present were laid upon his head, and he was ordained as the anointed of the Lord to this high and incomparable calling.
Sustained by the faith and prayers of the Saints throughout the world, he stands as the presiding high priest in the kingdom of God on earth.