Harold B. Lee: Master Teacher


From the example of the 11th President of the Church, we learn to turn to the Lord and the scriptures for answers.

In April 1970 President Harold B. Lee watched with the rest of the world as Apollo 13, crippled by an accidental explosion, attempted to return from the moon carrying three astronauts. “The whole world, it seemed, prayed for one significant result: the safe return to earth of three brave men,” he observed, and then drew an important gospel lesson. “The safety of those three now depended … upon the implicit obedience … to every instruction from the technicians … or the [spacecraft] could have missed the earth by thousands of miles.”

A master teacher, President Lee immediately saw the parallel between this dramatic event and the importance of listening to and obeying our Heavenly Father in order to return to His presence. He said, “Only if you are willing to listen and obey, as did the astronauts on … [Apollo 13], can you and all your households be guided to ultimate safety and security in the Lord’s own way.” 1 This emphasis on following the strait and narrow path as a means to eternal life was one of President Lee’s significant themes; guiding others along that path was his life’s work.

As the 11th President of the Church, President Lee served for only 17 months—from July 1972 to December 1973—but his influence extended far beyond that short span. He supervised the initial Church general welfare program in the 1930s, served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve for 31 years, and directed a massive correlation effort in the 1960s designed to bring all Church departments, auxiliaries, and agencies under the priesthood as a means to strengthen and support the family and the home as they work toward the divine goal of eternal life. Through it all, he became renowned as a student of the scriptures and a teacher of the gospel.

The teachings of Harold B. Lee are the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum for the year 2002, the third in the series Teachings of Presidents of the Church.

Listening for the Spirit

Harold Bingham Lee was born on 28 March 1899 in Clifton, Idaho, the son of Samuel Marion and Louisa Emeline Bingham Lee. Clifton was a farming community with one store and a dirt road in a valley blessed with clean air and pure water. Perhaps the peace of this land helped the young boy attune his ear to the still, small voice that would guide him throughout his life. He tended the family garden and orchard, milked cows, and learned to play the piano. 2

Because his father was a bishop, young Harold first witnessed Church welfare at work. “Then as now, the bishop was responsible for the care of those in need,” wrote President Gordon B. Hinckley, a longtime friend. “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.” 3

Young Harold learned what it meant to listen to the voice of the Lord from an experience he had with his father. “I think maybe I was around ten or eleven years of age, … trying to spend the day busying myself until my father was ready to go home. Over the fence from our place were some tumbledown sheds that would attract a curious boy, and I was adventurous. I started to climb through the fence, and I heard a voice … calling me by name and saying, ‘Don’t go over there!’ I turned to look at my father to see if he were talking to me, but he was way up at the other end of the field. There was no person in sight. I realized then, as a child, that there were persons beyond my sight, for I had definitely heard a voice. Since then, when I hear or read stories of the Prophet Joseph Smith, I too have known what it means to hear a voice.” 4

Harold went to high school at the Oneida Stake Academy operated by the Church in Preston, Idaho, 15 miles from Clifton. Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) from nearby Whitney, who became the 13th President of the Church, was a classmate. Here Harold played the trombone in the school band. After graduation, he studied at the Albion State Normal School in Albion, Idaho, to become a schoolteacher, began teaching at age 17, and at 18 became principal of the district school in Oxford, Idaho. At 21 he served in the Western States Mission, where he presided over the Denver Conference. While laboring there, he met Fern Lucinda Tanner, a sister missionary from Salt Lake City who “was regarded by her associates as bright, beautiful, and as a scripturalist of unusual ability.” 5 Upon his return from his mission, he courted her, eventually selling his trombone to buy her an engagement ring. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple on 14 November 1923. Soon two daughters were born, Maurine and Helen.

The family made their home in Salt Lake City, where he taught school and worked odd jobs. “I sold Nash automobiles one summer,” he recalled, “and later worked for the grocery department of ZCMI, and for the Bennett Gas and Oil Company.” 6 Finally he became a salesman for the Foundation Press, a publisher of inspirational books. He resigned from school teaching to manage sales throughout the West.

In the early 1930s, Harold B. Lee served as a Salt Lake City commissioner. He gained a reputation as an efficient and economical administrator, cutting expenditures while improving public services his first year in office. 7

Working for the Saints

Called as president of the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City at the age of 31, President Lee became the youngest stake president at that time. It was 1930. A worldwide economic depression had begun, and more than 4,800 of the 7,300 members of the Pioneer Stake were on relief. President Lee spent long hours seeking the Lord’s help to know what to do. Hearkening to the voice of inspiration, he set up a stake storehouse modeled after his father’s ward storehouse in Clifton. He did more, providing the unemployed with work projects such as caring for a large stake garden and building a stake gymnasium. 8

Impressed with President Lee’s leadership and faced with economic desperation throughout the Church, the First Presidency asked him one morning in 1935 to lead a new welfare movement to, as he recalled, “help to put the Church in a position where it could take care of its own needy.”

He immediately turned to the Lord for direction. “After that morning I rode in my car … up to the head of City Creek Canyon into what was then called Rotary Park; and there, all by myself, I offered one of the most humble prayers of my life. …

“As I kneeled down, my petition was, ‘What kind of an organization should be set up in order to accomplish what the Presidency has assigned?’ And there came to me on that glorious morning one of the most heavenly realizations of the power of the priesthood of God. It was as though something were saying to me, ‘There is no new organization necessary to take care of the needs of this people. All that is necessary is to put the priesthood of God to work. There is nothing else that you need as a substitute.’” 9

Soon stake farms were established, factories and storehouses built, and needy Church members put to work under the direction of the priesthood—all a direct result of the understanding communicated by the voice of the Spirit to President Lee.

A Witness for Christ

On 6 April 1941, after five years leading the welfare program, Harold B. Lee was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Speaking of the “deep gospel sermons” he gave as an Apostle, his daughter Helen Lee Goates recalls that “he was not flowery; he was direct. Obedience and the scriptures were hallmarks. He had amazing transparency; he allowed us to look into his heart, to know what his feelings were. He shared himself. His sermons were a beautiful combination of scriptures and stories to illustrate his text. He never talked about the insignificant.” 10

In the scriptures he found the resources he needed to guide others. “All that we teach in this Church,” he taught, “ought to be couched in the scriptures. … We ought to choose our texts from the scriptures. If we want to measure truth, we should measure it by the four standard works, regardless of who writes it.” 11

For years as an Apostle, Elder Lee met with newly called missionaries in the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple to answer their questions. Thousands recall these meetings and his reliance on the scriptures. At the end of these sessions, he would say, “I want you to notice that all the answers I have given have been given from out of the scriptures. I wouldn’t dare attempt to make an answer to your questions anywhere else but from the scriptures or from the statements of a President of the Church.” 12

Leading the Family

At home Harold B. Lee lived by his own dictum of later years: “The most important of the Lord’s work you will ever do will be within the walls of your own homes.” 13 When his daughters asked him gospel questions, he responded, “Get out your scriptures, girls, and let’s see what the Lord says about it.” He would then teach them directly from the scriptures. Daughter Helen remembers, “He taught us that the scriptures were where we turn first for our answers.” 14

Of family prayers Helen remembers, “Our nightly ritual would begin with the four of us kneeling together in prayer in the living room, and then Daddy would take one of us in each of his arms and carry us to our bed so we wouldn’t have to walk across the cold floor.” 15

To a great extent the serenity of the Lee home was the result of Fern’s dedication. Daughter Helen recalls: “Father was active, a decision maker. Mother felt she should maintain peace. He was very public, so she made an oasis from all that at home. Here he found peace and rest from cares. There was a spirit of love and quietness largely due to Mother’s influence.” But there was plenty of fun too. “Father memorized piano marches. We children marched around the living room while he played ‘Midnight Fire Alarm,’ and we’d watch the piano shake as he played with great gusto.” 16

Strengthening the Priesthood

In the 1960s President David O. McKay directed Elder Lee to conduct a great “correlation” of Church programs around the simple principles of obedience to God and the sacredness of home and family. The correlation effort touched every member and prepared the Church for both explosive worldwide growth and the increasing erosion of family life—the two great challenges facing the Church in our times. “Said in a very generalized way,” Elder Lee observed, “correlation means … to place the priesthood of God where the Lord said it was to be—as the center and core of the Church and kingdom of God—and to see that the Latter-day Saint homes also have their place in the divine plan of saving souls.” 17

The correlation program led by Elder Lee produced a new priesthood home teaching program, new scripture-centered curriculum, closer supervision of youth programs by the priesthood, and new Church magazines under the editorship of general priesthood authorities. The priesthood quorums and auxiliaries of the Church were directed to focus on strengthening the individuals and families of the Church. In 1965 homes were fortified by a revitalized family home evening program, which was first established in 1915.

Learning from Trials

Elder Lee accomplished this monumental labor at a time of great personal sorrow. His own beloved family was struck by death when his wife, Fern Tanner Lee, was taken in 1962. Three years later, while he was on assignment in the Pacific, his daughter Maurine died suddenly at the age of 40. In his general conference address after the death of his daughter, he said: “As I advance in years, I begin to understand in some small measure how the Master must have felt [in Gethsemane]. In the loneliness of a distant hotel room 2,500 miles away, you, too, may one day cry out from the depths of your soul … ‘O dear God, don’t let her die! I need her; her family needs her.’” But it was not to be, and Elder Lee reflected, “God grant that you and I may learn obedience to God’s will, if necessary by the things which we suffer.” 18

These trials brought Elder Harold B. Lee a new closeness to the Lord. “Don’t be afraid of the testing and trials of life,” he taught to an area conference in Munich, Germany, years later. “Sometimes when you are going through the most severe tests, you will be nearer to God than you have any idea.” 19 His own heart was soothed when he married again, to Freda Joan Jensen.

Testifying as Church President

In 1970 Elder Harold B. Lee became First Counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith, and on 7 July 1972 he became the President of the Church. When asked what would be his message to the Church as President, he answered characteristically: “Keep the commandments of God, for therein lies the safety of the Church and the safety of the individual. … There could be nothing that I could say that would be a more powerful or important message today.” 20

President Lee took seriously and personally the goal to bring the light of the gospel to all. Marjorie Pay Hinckley, wife of President Gordon B. Hinckley, remembers what happened on one occasion when she and her husband were with President and Sister Lee in England: “It had been a full day: two sessions of a conference and a fireside at night. When we got back to the hotel about 9:30, we were bone-weary and hungry. We went into the hotel dining room to get a little something to eat. The day was over—we could relax. At least, that is what I thought. The next thing I knew, the waitress had her pencil poised to write down our order. President Lee looked up at her and said, ‘What church do you belong to?’ The day was not over for him. He had embarked on a proselyting exercise. Before the meal was over he had learned all about this young woman. She had lost her husband and was lonely and afraid. She had promised to see the missionaries and learn more. It was a beautiful thing to see the president of the Church practice what he had been preaching all that day.” 21

As President of the Church, he took his message and testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ across the continents, traveling thousands of miles in the British Isles, Europe, Mexico, and the Middle East. He presided over the first area conferences in Mexico City and in Munich, Germany. He visited Jerusalem and delighted in walking in the footsteps of the Savior. “In 1972 we walked together in the Holy Land,” recalled President Hinckley. “On that sacred occasion, when moonlight filtered through the leaves of the olive trees [at the Garden Tomb], he whom we sustained as prophet spoke in humble, quiet testimony. We felt something of heaven and I saw that night President Harold B. Lee as a man of true humility, with the faith of a child, standing in the stature of a prophet who bore witness of the living reality of the Lord Jesus Christ.” 22

After only 538 days as President of the Church, President Lee died from sudden heart failure at age 74. His passing stunned the Latter-day Saints, who had anticipated that he would enjoy a long and fruitful administration.

President Lee’s life was one constantly marked by seeking and heeding the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Lord’s prophet, he had pleaded with the Saints and all mankind to do the same, to follow the instructions of the Lord as the astronauts on the crippled Apollo 13 had followed the instructions of their flight controllers.

All Latter-day Saint families will be blessed as they ponder the principles and doctrines of the gospel as presented in the new personal study guide Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee. Using the scriptures as his standard, this prophet of God taught with power of “the wondrously conceived plan upon obedience to which the salvation of every soul depends.” 23

Learn to Talk to God

President Harold B. Lee

“The most important thing you can do is to learn to talk to God. Talk to Him as you would talk to your father, for He is your Father, and He wants you to talk to Him. He wants you to cultivate ears to listen, when He gives you the impressions of the Spirit to tell you what to do. If you learn to give heed to the sudden ideas which come to your minds, you will find those things coming through in the very hour of your need. If you will cultivate an ear to hear these promptings, you will have learned to walk by the spirit of revelation.” President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973), Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (2000), 55.

More on this topic: See Gordon B. Hinckley, “President Harold B. Lee: An Appreciation,”Ensign, Nov. 1972, 2–11; Gordon B. Hinckley, “Harold Bingham Lee: Humility, Benevolence, Loyalty,”Ensign, Feb. 1974, 88–90; Spencer W. Kimball, “A Giant of a Man,”Ensign, Feb. 1974, 86–87; “Speaking for Himself—President Lee’s Stories,”Ensign, Feb. 1974, 15–21.

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[photo] Right: President Harold B. Lee and President Spencer W. Kimball share a moment together after a Church gathering.

[photos] Young Harold B. Lee (second from right) played basketball at Oneida Stake Academy in Preston, Idaho (below; photo courtesy Kathy Griffin).

[photos] As president of Salt Lake’s Pioneer Stake from 1930 to 1935, Harold B. Lee set up a bishops’ storehouse (shown above in 1933) designed to help care for the needy. (Background photo © Photodisc; inset: photo courtesy LDS Church archives.)

[photos] Elder Harold B. Lee plays the piano at a Christmas party in the late 1940s for fellow members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: Elders Mark E. Petersen (left), Matthew Cowley, Spencer W. Kimball, and Ezra Taft Benson. Below: President Lee reading the scriptures, which he loved and used to guide his life.

Breck England is a member of the Canyon Park Ward, Bountiful Utah Central Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (2000), 2.

  2.   2.

    See L. Brent Goates, Harold B. Lee: Prophet & Seer (1985), 37, 46.

  3.   3.

    As quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xiv.

  4.   4.

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 47.

  5.   5.

    Gordon B. Hinckley, as quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church, xv.

  6.   6.

    As quoted in Goates, Harold B. Lee, 86.

  7.   7.

    See Goates, Harold B. Lee, 106–14.

  8.   8.

    See Goates, Harold B. Lee, 94, 101–2.

  9.   9.

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 165–66.

  10.   10.

    Interview with Helen Lee Goates, Salt Lake City, 9 Dec. 1998.

  11.   11.

    “Using the Scriptures in Our Church Assignments,” Improvement Era, Jan. 1969, 13.

  12.   12.

    The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 153–54.

  13.   13.

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 134.

  14.   14.

    As quoted in Goates, Harold B. Lee, 122.

  15.   15.

    As quoted in Goates, Harold B. Lee, 117.

  16.   16.

    Interview with Helen Lee Goates.

  17.   17.

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 149.

  18.   18.

    In Conference Report, Oct. 1965, 130–31.

  19.   19.

    In Conference Report, Munich Germany Area Conference, 1973, 114.

  20.   20.

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 35.

  21.   21.

    As quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 153.

  22.   22.

    As quoted in Goates, Harold B. Lee, 601.

  23.   23.

    Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 2.