Harold B. Lee: A Polished Shaft in the Lord’s Quiver


Harold B. Lee

In the first talk he gave after being sustained as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Harold B. Lee recalled an idea expressed by Joseph Smith: “At times it seemed as though I too was like a rough stone rolling down from a high mountainside, being buffeted and polished, I suppose, by experiences, that I too might overcome and become a polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.

“Maybe it was necessary that I too must learn obedience by the things that I have suffered—to give me experiences that were for my good, to see if I could pass some of the various tests of mortality.”

The polishing began early. He was born 28 March 1899 to a poor farm family in Clifton, Idaho, where, he said, “we had everything money could not buy.” His parents, Samuel Marion Lee, Jr., and Louisa Bingham Lee, did not have much of the world’s goods, but they taught their six children the importance of hard work and the truths of the gospel. Farm work began before sunrise and lasted each day until dark for the entire family.

Heeding the Spirit

Harold learned early to know and heed the prompting of the Spirit. One evening when he was just a toddler, the family sat near the open doorway watching a thunderstorm. Young Harold was “playing back and forth in the doorway when suddenly and without warning, my mother gave me a vigorous push that sent me sprawling backwards out of the doorway. In an instant, a bolt of lightning came down the chimney of the kitchen stove, out through the kitchen’s open doorway, and split a huge gash from top to bottom in a large tree immediately in front of the house.” Had it not been for his mother’s quick, intuitive action, he would have been killed. On other occasions, his mother was blessed with similar inspiration that saved his life.

An early experience of his own with spiritual guidance set Harold’s feet firmly on the path of obedience: “I was probably about eight years of age, or younger, when I was taken by my father to a farm some distance away. While he worked I tried to busy myself with things that a young boy would. … Over the fence there was a broken-down shed that looked very interesting to me. In my mind I thought of this broken-down shed as a castle that I would like to explore, so I went to the fence and started to climb through to go over to that shed. There came a voice to me that said this very significant thing, ‘Harold, don’t go over there.’ I looked about to see who was speaking my name. My father was way up at the other end of the field. He could not see what I was doing. There was no speaker in sight. Then I realized that someone that I could not see was warning me not to go over there. What was over there, I shall never know, but I learned early that there are those beyond our sight that could talk to us.”

A Promising Career

Harold was an exceptionally bright boy. He was allowed to start school a year early because he could already read and write. He made his way quickly through the school system, participating in basketball, band, debate, and other activities. By the time he was seventeen he had, through much hard work and study, passed the required tests to become a school teacher and acquired his first appointment as principal and teacher of the little one-room school at Silver Star, Idaho, ten miles from his home. The following year he became principal of a larger school. At the age of twenty-one, with four years of teaching experience behind him, he was called to serve in the Western States Mission. As he left, his father—who was also his bishop—charged him, “Harold, my boy, your father and mother are looking for big things from you.”

The city of Denver must have been an exciting change to the young man from a small Idaho farm, but he quickly applied the same philosophy to missionary work that he had learned at home: “I must be working always if God is to accomplish anything through me.” He was an exceptional missionary and was given much responsibility during his two years of service. After his release, he moved to Salt Lake City—to another teaching appointment, and to court a young lady he had admired from afar in the mission, the bright and beautiful Fern Lucinda Tanner. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple about a year later.

A summer job, selling a library service to supplement his income as a teacher, soon led to full-time employment as a regional manager for Foundation Press. Two daughters were born to the Lees, Maurine and Helen. Harold was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Salt Lake City commission, and there began to be talk of a promising political career. The little family seemed on their way to success and prosperity. His daughter recalls that he never lost the habit of working hard and quickly so that he seemed to be able to accomplish much more than an ordinary person.

A Loving Leader and Father

Harold was called, at the age of thirty-one, as the president of the Pioneer Stake, just as the Great Depression struck. More than half the members of his stake were unemployed. Seeking inspiration from the Lord, and with the help of his counselors and bishops, President Lee formulated a plan to help his stake members. A warehouse was donated, and surplus goods were gathered to it; contracts were made with farmers to provide labor to help harvest their crops in return for payment in kind; and the Relief Society sisters established canning kitchens to preserve the food. These supplies were then distributed to those in need. A gymnasium was constructed by the unemployed men, using donated materials.

Although Harold B. Lee was a master of seeing the big picture and coming up with creative and far-reaching solutions, he never lost sight of individuals. On Christmas day during his first year as stake president, he became distressed when his daughter went across the street to show her new doll to her friend and came back crying because the other little girl had received no gifts for Christmas, her daddy being out of work. He recalled, “For me it was a very difficult Christmas. I did not enjoy the dinner that I sat down to that day, because I, as stake president, had not become acquainted with the people in my stake.

“The next Christmas we made preparations. We made a survey, and we found that we had more than a thousand people who needed help during these difficult times. So we made ready by gathering toys and taking them to the old storehouse. Then the fathers and mothers came and helped fix the toys, putting them together, dressing dolls, and sewing things.

“We had oranges and apples. There was roast beef with all the trimmings for Christmas dinner. The bishops arranged to have it delivered to all the needy families, and then called to let me know that all had been visited.

“That year when I sat down to my Christmas dinner I felt I could enjoy it, because, as far as I knew, every family in my stake was having a good Christmas.”

This concern for individuals certainly extended to his family. His daughters remember him as a loving, attentive father, always available to drive them to their music lessons or pick them up from parties or church activities. He was a most tender and loving husband. He lived the principle he would later teach to the Church: “Do you realize that the most important part of the Lord’s work that you will do is the work that you do within the walls of your own home?”

One example of this attitude occurred when Elder Lee was a grandfather and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. His daughter, Helen, had planned to attend a Relief Society meeting and asked her mother to tend her two little boys. Her mother became ill, so Helen decided to stay at home. In mid-morning her father called from his office and said, “Dear, you plan to go to your meeting, and I will come tend the boys.” Helen protested that she couldn’t take him from his important work to tend babies. He replied, “Why, my dear, who is to say which is the most important work of the Lord—to stay at my desk at the Church Office Building, or to tend two choice little grandsons while their mother goes to her Relief Society meeting?” She attended her meeting.

On 20 April 1935, after five years as stake president, Brother Lee was called to the office of the First Presidency and was asked to take charge of a new Church welfare plan. He felt very humble and inadequate in this huge assignment. So, as was his pattern, he went to the Lord in prayer.

“As I kneeled down, my petition was, ‘What kind of organization should be set up in order to accomplish what the Presidency has assigned?’ And there came to me 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.’”

He resigned from the city commission and began a life of full-time service to the kingdom of God, never wavering in his assurance that God would guide him and that within the priesthood organization were the answers to all the challenges that lay ahead of the growing church.

A Young Apostle

At the age of forty-two, on 6 April 1941, Harold B. Lee was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He was twenty years younger than the next youngest quorum member. That morning in general conference, he said: “Since nine o’clock last night I have lived an entire lifetime in retrospect and in prospect. … Throughout the night, as I thought of this most appalling and soul-stirring assignment, there kept coming to me the words of the Apostle Paul, ‘Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’ … Therefore I shall take the word of Apostle Paul. I shall come boldly unto the throne of grace and ask for mercy and his grace to help me in my time of need. With that help I cannot fail. Without it I cannot succeed.”

For the next thirty years he served in many ways: inspiring the servicemen of World War II; speaking to the youth of the Church; serving on many priesthood committees; dividing stakes; calling and setting apart stake presidents, bishops, and missionaries; continuing to supervise the welfare program; serving as adviser to the Primary; and traveling to Latin America, the South Pacific, South Africa, Europe, and the Holy Land.

When he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve by President Heber J. Grant, most of the 600,000 members of the Church lived in the western United States. As the Church grew to more than three million members under Presidents Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, and David O. McKay, Elder Lee participated in creating the first stake in the southern United States and the first in Great Britain and in the dedication of three temples: Idaho Falls, Switzerland, and London. These years of service served to further polish him as he learned to be patient, to work in spite of poor health, and to give compassion and comfort to the Saints all over the world.

Great Faith in the Lord

Two of the most difficult experiences of his life occurred in the early 1960s. In 1962 his wife, Fern, became very ill and passed away. Just four years later, his oldest daughter, Maurine, died suddenly while he was in Hawaii attending a conference. She left behind four young children. These experiences plunged him into deep grief. Only his great faith in the Lord gave him the strength to carry on.

Later, when speaking at a memorial service honoring Latter-day Saints who had lost their lives in the Vietnam conflict, he comforted the mourners: “Having gone through some similar experiences in losing loved ones to death, I speak from personal experience when I say to you who mourn, do not try to live too many days ahead. The all-important thing is not that tragedies and sorrows come into our lives, but what we do with them. Death of a loved one is the most severe test that you will ever face, and if you can rise above your griefs and if you will trust in God, then you will be able to surmount any other difficulty with which you may be faced. … Faith can lift you beyond the sordid trials of the day and point you to the glorious tomorrow that can be yours.”

He later married Freda Joan Jensen, an educator and administrator. She joined him in the many travels and challenges of the next ten years, and he marveled at her ability to meet and charm people, especially children.

Under the administration of President David O. McKay, the Church Correlation Committee was established. Elder Lee, as chairman, was called on to study all the auxiliaries of the Church, their manuals and methods, and make suggestions for simplifying them and for putting the priesthood at the center of the Church organization.

With the death of President McKay in January of 1970, Joseph Fielding Smith became the tenth President of the Church. Harold B. Lee and Nathan Eldon Tanner became his Counselors. President Lee was also President of the Quorum of the Twelve. As a member of the First Presidency, he continued his work in correlating Church programs and making them more efficient. The Church Public Communications Department was established, and new Church magazines took the place of several older publications. He also participated in the first area conference of the Church—held in Great Britain. This innovation of taking the General Authorities to conferences outside the United States—conferences that were similar to the regular semi-annual general conferences in Salt Lake City—strengthened the Saints and provided them with the rare experience of meeting the Brethren in person. Two new temples were dedicated in Utah: Ogden and Provo.

A Vigorous Presidency

On 2 July 1972 President Joseph Fielding Smith passed quietly away, and Harold B. Lee became President of the Church. Now came the culmination of all those polishing and buffeting experiences that had prepared him for this moment. He often remarked that the head of the Church was Jesus Christ and that he was a servant of the Lord. He did not take credit for the innovations and changes he instituted but always ascribed them to revelation from on high.

Harold B. Lee served as President of the Church for only eighteen months. But the vigor and activity of that time were characteristic of his entire life. He still seemed to run and move quickly in order to get everything done. He held area conferences in Mexico City and in Munich, Germany. He visited the Holy Land, the first President of the Church to walk there since Peter. The idea of small temples throughout the earth was introduced, and research began on building such a temple in Brazil.

President Lee made it a point to get out and mingle with the Saints frequently. He was particularly concerned about the youth of the Church, and he took every opportunity to meet with groups of them. He also tried to strengthen their families by emphasizing family home evenings. He reorganized the youth programs under the priesthood, challenging their leaders to “provide programs that will prepare this generation to meet the Savior when he comes.”

While many, both within and outside the Church, knew of and admired his abilities as an administrator and leader, only those who were in tune with the Spirit could appreciate his uncommon spirituality. From a lifetime of experiences, he had come to know and expect that there were those on the other side who were close to him. Many who heard him pray testified that it was like an intimate conversation with a close and trusted friend.

President Harold B. Lee died very suddenly on 26 December 1973 at the age of seventy-four, much to the dismay of the members of the Church, who had expected him to be President for many more years. Early in his life, he had expressed his formula for success: “Study the circumstances, search out the solution, apply all one’s energy to its accomplishment, and through it all trust continuously and everlastingly in a loving Heavenly Father for guidance and direction.”

Through a life of hard work, faith in the Lord, and diligence in service, President Harold B. Lee surely became the polished shaft in the Lord’s quiver that he had desired to be.

Harold B. Lee Highlights, 1899–1973

Year

Age

Event

1899

28 March: Is born in Clifton, Idaho.

1916

17

Teaches school at Silver Star, Idaho.

1920–22

21–23

Serves as a missionary in western United States.

1923–28

24–29

Serves as a school principal in Salt Lake City.

1923

24

14 November: Marries Fern Lucinda Tanner.

1930

31

Is called as president of Salt Lake Pioneer Stake.

1932

32

Is appointed as a member of the Salt Lake City commission.

1937

38

Becomes managing director of the Church Security Program (Welfare Program).

1941

42

10 April: Is called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

1954

55

Tours the Orient.

1959

60

Tours missions of Central and South America.

1961

62

As chairman of general priesthood committee, helps develop the correlation program.

1962

63

24 September: Wife, Fern, dies.

1963

64

17 June: Marries Freda Joan Jensen.

1970

71

23 January: Becomes President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and First Counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith.

1972

73

Speaks at first area conference of the Church (in England). Participates in dedication of Ogden and Provo Temples.

7 July: Ordained President of the Church.

6 October: Sustained President of the Church.

Presides at Mexico area conference.

MIA program is placed under direct priesthood leadership.

1973

74

Presides at Germany area conference.

December 26: Dies in Salt Lake City.

Sources

  1. 1.

    Leonard J. Arrington, “Harold B. Lee,” in The Presidents of the Church, edited by Leonard J. Arrington, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1986.

  2. 2.

    L. Brent Goates, Harold B. Lee, Prophet & Seer, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1985.

  3. 3.

    “Harold B. Lee,” in My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth: Readings in Church History, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980, pp. 129–36.

  4. 4.

    Gordon B. Hinckley, “President Harold B. Lee,” Ensign, November 1972.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann