“I have a vision of homes alerted, of classes alive, and of pulpits aflame with the spirit of Book of Mormon messages.
“I have a vision of home teachers and visiting teachers, ward and branch officers, and stake and mission leaders counseling our people out of the most correct of any book on earth—the Book of Mormon.
“I have a vision of artists putting into film, drama, literature, music, and paintings great themes and great characters from the Book of Mormon.
“I have a vision of thousands of missionaries going into the mission field with hundreds of passages memorized from the Book of Mormon so that they might feed the needs of a spiritually famished world.
“I have a vision of the whole Church getting nearer to God by abiding by the precepts of the Book of Mormon.
“Indeed, I have a vision of flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon” (Ensign, November 1988, page 6).
“From childhood, at my mother’s knee where I first learned to pray; as a young man in my teens; as a missionary in foreign lands; as a father; as a Church leader; as a government official; I know without any question that it is possible for men and women to reach out in humility and prayer and tap that Unseen Power; to have prayers answered. … Prayer will open doors; prayer will remove barriers; prayer will ease pressures; prayer will give inner peace and comfort during times of strain and stress” (in Conference Report, October 1956, page 104).
“Faith in Jesus Christ consists of complete reliance on Him. As God, He has infinite power, intelligence, and love. There is no human problem beyond His capacity to solve. Because He descended below all things (see D&C 122:8), He knows how to help us rise above our daily difficulties. …
“Faith in Him means trusting that He has all power over all men and all nations. There is no evil which He cannot arrest. All things are in His hands. This earth is His rightful dominion. Yet He permits evil so that we can make choices between good and evil” (Ensign, November 1983, page 8).
“The Holy Ghost causes our feelings to be more tender. We feel more charitable and compassionate with each other. We are more calm in our relationships. We have a greater capacity to love each other. People want to be around us because our very countenances radiate the influence of the Spirit. We are more godly in our character. As a result, we become increasingly more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Ghost and thus able to comprehend spiritual things more clearly” (Ensign, April 1988, page 4).
“What can we do to keep the light of freedom alive? Keep the commandments of God. Walk circumspectly before Him. Pay our tithes and fast offerings. Attend our temples. Stay morally clean. Participate in local elections. … Be honest in all our dealings.
“Faithfully hold our family home evenings. Pray—pray to the God of heaven that He will intervene to preserve our precious freedoms, that His gospel may go to every nation and people” (This Nation Shall Endure, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977, pages 9–10).
“The earth was cursed for Adam’s sake. Work is our blessing, not our doom. God has a work to do, and so should we. Retirement from work has depressed many a man and hastened his death. … We should work at taking care of the spiritual, mental, social, and physical needs of ourselves and of those whom we are charged to help. In the church of Jesus Christ, there is plenty of work to do to move forward the kingdom of God” (Ensign, October 1986, page 2).
“The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of the people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature” (Ensign, November 1985, page 6).
“When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities” (Ensign, May 1988, page 4).
“Young [people], the family unit is forever, and you should do everything in your power to strengthen that unit. In your own family, encourage family home evenings and be an active participant. Encourage family prayer. …
“Your most important friendships should be with your own brothers and sisters and with your father and mother. Love your family. Be loyal to them. Have a genuine concern for your brothers and sisters. Help carry their load” (Ensign, November 1986, page 81).
“No nation rises above its homes. … The good home is the rock foundation—the cornerstone of civilization. There can be no genuine happiness separate and apart from a good home, with the old-fashioned virtues at its base. If your nation is to endure, the home must be safeguarded, strengthened, and restored to its rightful importance” (in Conference Report, April 1966, page 130).
“I invoke my blessing upon the Latter-day Saints and upon good people everywhere. …
“I bless you with increased power to do good and to resist evil. I bless you with increased understanding of the Book of Mormon. I promise you that from this moment forward, if we will daily sup from its pages and abide by its precepts, God will pour out upon each child of Zion and the Church a blessing hitherto unknown. … Of this I bear solemn witness” (Ensign, May 1986, page 78).
As President Benson approached his ninetieth year, a mild heart attack and other health problems were taking a toll on his physical strength. But his energy in his prophetic role seemed to grow even stronger. In one landmark general conference address, he urged members to overcome pride with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. “Pride is the universal sin, the great vice,” he said, “Pride is the great stumbling block to Zion.” (See Ensign, May 1989, pages 4–7.) And his vision of his role seemed to focus ever more sharply on sharing the Book of Mormon with the world. In one address, he shared his vision of a “spiritually famished world” nourished by the gospel as taught in the Book of Mormon. Then, in a moving and prophetic way, he testified, “I do not know why God has preserved my life to this age, but I do know this: That for the present hour He has revealed to me the absolute need for us to move the Book of Mormon forward now in a marvelous manner.” He then pleaded with Church members to help him with the burden and blessing of “flooding the earth with the Book of Mormon” (Ensign, November 1988, pages 4–6).
By the thousands, Church members helped bring to fruition this prophet’s vision as they studied the Book of Mormon themselves and also sent copies with their pictures and testimonies throughout the world. These books were instrumental in converting untold thousands to the Church, which by the beginning of 1990 had reached a membership of seven million.
As 1989 drew to a close, the First Presidency made an important policy change. Beginning in 1990, all Church activities and programs—including buildings—in the U.S. and Canada would be paid for totally from general Church funds; this policy was extended worldwide by mid-1991. President Benson had long looked forward to such a day, when tithes, along with fast offerings and missionary contributions, would be the main source of funding the Church. Now Church members were relieved of the financial burden of contributing to ward budgets. And quorums and auxiliaries were no longer required to raise money to support their programs.
But if the policy change itself seemed simple, its implications were far-reaching. Expensive activities were dropped in favor of simpler, more gospel-related activities. And with less time and money required for running Church programs, faithful members could use their increased resources in doing good as the Spirit might direct them.
During his presidency, President Benson witnessed another remarkable set of events involving the principles of freedom he had defended so forthrightly throughout his life. Miraculously, the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe began to part for the blessing of the people he had grown to love after World War II. In 1985 the Freiberg Temple, located in the German Democratic Republic, had been dedicated—a miracle in itself. But without missionary work in that country, the Church’s growth was limited. Then, in 1988, the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic granted permission for missionaries to serve there and also for its young citizens to serve missions elsewhere.
By 1990, winds of political change were sweeping the world. Barriers between East and West began to dissolve as the peoples of Eastern Europe and other nations fervently embraced principles of democracy and religion.
Marvel followed marvel as the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were reunited. Then, in June 1991, the Tabernacle Choir made a historic concert tour through middle Europe and Russia, singing in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and other great halls in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. During the following months, the U.S.S.R. was dissolved. Soon, in the place of an Eastern Bloc dominated by an authoritarian regime stood independent republics, most with elected leaders. President Benson lived to see a remarkable vindication of the principles he prized so highly.
President Benson had already spoken about the momentous nature of this time in the world’s history: “We have the Book of Mormon, we have the members, we have the missionaries, we have the resources, and the world has the need. The time is now!” (Ensign, November 1988, page 5).
During the final years of his life, President Benson’s once-powerful physical body steadily weakened. At first, he met with the Saints at general conferences when he could, waving to the congregation from his wheelchair. Later, his health prevented him from attending general conference. At home, in his apartment across from the Church Office Building, he still visited with General Authorities who came to express their love and also to consult with him on matters of concern. His beloved Flora passed away on 14 August 1992, after a loving companionship of sixty-six years.
President Benson’s forceful personality likewise mellowed and softened with age, observed a close associate. “Although many people grow grouchy and demanding with advanced age and infirmity, President Benson grew even sweeter and more grateful for the things others did for him.” To the end of his life, this prophet exemplified the sweet fruits of the gospel of Christ.
President Benson was a prophet of vision and courage. Perhaps he himself best explained the abundant fruitfulness of his own life and ministry:
“Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace” (First Presidency Christmas devotional, 7 December 1986).
Throughout the Cabinet years, Elder Benson maintained a calm in the face of criticism so fierce that it amazed even those who disagreed with his policies. A plaque on his desk reading “O God, give us men with a mandate higher than the ballot box” explained one reason for his equanimity: Ezra Taft Benson merely did what he thought was best, not what might have been politically expedient. He later told the other reason: “I have prayed—we have prayed as a family—that we could avoid any spirit of hatred or bitterness” (in Conference Report, April 1961, page 112).
President Benson’s family—with their musicales, home evenings, and prayers for each other—was always his refuge and support. The Washington press was astounded that Elder and Sister Benson felt no qualms about refusing social invitations when a child’s concert or a daddy-daughter scavenger hunt was at stake.
But the Bensons had always considered their children—Reed, Mark, Barbara (Mrs. Robert H. Walker), Beverly (Mrs. James M. Parker), Bonnie (Mrs. Lowell L. Madsen), and Beth (Mrs. David A. Burton)—to be far more valuable than prestige or material gain. In the early years of their marriage, Ezra and Flora Benson had met the expenses of a new baby by selling their only cow. In an increasingly materialistic age, President Benson urged parents to sacrifice their worldly pursuits to attend more carefully to the teaching and nurturing of their children.
Flora always remained Ezra Taft Benson’s sweetheart and advocate. After every talk she heard her husband deliver, Sister Benson would squeeze her “T’s” hand and say, “That’s the best you’ve ever done.” In turn, President Benson showed his wife an extraordinary deference. Together they traveled throughout the world. Though President Benson received honors and awards from many quarters, he always enjoyed most the gentler pleasures of his life with Flora—talking, harmonizing, and sharing an ice-cream cone.
Ezra Taft Benson became President of the Quorum of the Twelve on 30 December 1973. Twelve years later, on 10 November 1985, he became President of the Church. It was not a day he had anticipated. He and Sister Benson had prayed that President Kimball’s life would be prolonged. Nevertheless, he said, “Now that the Lord has spoken, we will do our best, under his guiding direction, to move the work forward in the earth” (Ensign, December 1985, page 5).
He was eighty-six when the mantle of the prophet came upon him, but he was noticeably enlivened and strengthened by the call. He traveled extensively throughout the Church, dedicating temples and speaking to the Saints.
In 1952, Elder Benson was astonished to receive a telephone call informing him that U.S. President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man he had never met, wanted to talk to him about becoming U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Farm leaders had recommended Ezra Taft Benson as the best man for the job. With Church President David O. McKay’s blessing and President Eisenhower’s assurance that he need never endorse a policy that he did not agree with, Elder Benson became Secretary Benson. The Benson family returned to Washington, D.C., for the eight years of the Eisenhower administration.
In that period, controversy was raging about how to stabilize supply and demand in an uncertain farm economy, and Ezra Taft Benson’s face appeared on the covers of national magazines as he dealt with the problem. He spoke forthrightly, without regard for how popular his opinion might be. Speaking to farmers and politicians, he dared to suggest that the solutions to economic and political problems are based on spiritual and moral principles, without which no nation can have prosperity or peace. In Washington, Elder Benson instigated the practice of opening Cabinet meetings with prayer, and the Bensons presented a family home evening program to the Eisenhowers.
Actually, for Elder Benson, the time in Washington was not really an interruption in his service to God. He was a patriot who found in the Book of Mormon answers for his country’s needs. He loved the choice land where the gospel had been restored, he revered its Constitution, and he took very seriously his responsibility to help preserve it. Twenty years later, one of the choicest assignments of President Benson’s life was to review the St. George Temple records showing ordinances performed there for the founding fathers of the United States.
On 26 July 1943, Ezra Taft Benson’s true vocation of serving in the kingdom became his full-time occupation when President Heber J. Grant called him to be the youngest member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He was set apart on October 7 of that year, the same day as Elder Spencer W. Kimball, whom he would follow as President.
Just over two years later, in December 1945, Elder Benson was assigned to preside over the European Mission in the aftermath of World War II. Specifically, his commission was to reopen missions throughout Europe and to distribute food, clothing, and bedding to the suffering Saints.
On an almost eleven-month mission of love, Elder Benson traveled more than sixty thousand miles to Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Scandinavia—often in freezing weather in unheated trains and planes. With typical optimism, he organized the “K-Ration Quartet” with his traveling companions, to sing away the tedious and uncomfortable hours.
Time and time again, when permission to enter war-torn countries or to distribute supplies seemed impossible to obtain, Elder Benson appealed to the Lord to open the way. Barrier after barrier was dissolved, and thousands of tons of Church welfare supplies were sent to the Saints in Europe. During this mission, Elder Benson also dedicated Finland for the preaching of the gospel.
Elder Benson met in bombed-out schoolhouses and meetinghouses with Saints who had lost homes, families, health—everything except their devotion to the gospel. The scenes of starvation and destruction never faded from President Benson’s memory. Nor did the faces and the faith of his beloved European brothers and sisters, of whom he often spoke throughout his life. Eighteen years later, Elder Benson again presided over the European missions, this time with headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany. He always took special joy in seeing stakes, missions, and temples established in Europe.
President Benson had an expansive spirit, a generous faith. He was always willing to extend a hand to help another back to the Master’s fold. As a young counselor in a stake presidency, he once challenged a man who had wandered from the faith to change his life and accept a calling as elders quorum president. Years later, the man saw Elder Benson on Temple Square and thanked him. “I am now a bishop,” he said. “I used to think I was happy, but I didn’t know what real happiness was.”
As a father of six, grandfather of thirty-four, and great-grandfather of sixty-seven, he often expressed the fervent hope that there would be “no empty chairs” in the Bensons’ eternal family circle. As President of the Church, he felt a similar concern for all the Lord’s children. Just after he became President, near Christmas 1985, the First Presidency sent an invitation for all those disaffected from the Church to come back. “We are confident that many have longed to return, but have felt awkward about doing so,” that message read. “We assure you that you will find open arms to receive you and willing hands to assist you” (Ensign, March 1986, page 88).
President Benson always sought to include others, to graft branches onto the Savior’s life-giving tree. In February 1986, the First Presidency extended the opportunity to receive the endowment to those whose spouses are not endowed. The theme “Come unto Christ” became a hallmark of his presidency. He felt that all of us needed to understand more fully our need for the Savior, to be changed by Him, and to strive more earnestly to help others find Him.
For the next fifteen years, his work in agriculture and his Church service increased in scope and influence. At age thirty-one, he went to Boise, Idaho, where he was agricultural economist and marketing specialist for the University of Idaho and where he founded a farmers’ cooperative council. In Boise he also served as stake MIA superintendent, counselor in a stake presidency, and stake president. At thirty-nine, he was offered a position in Washington, D.C., as executive secretary of a national organization representing more than two million farmers and 4,600 cooperative farming groups. He accepted the job only after he was assured that he would not have to lobby at cocktail parties or compromise his standards in any way. By age forty, he was serving as stake president for the second time—this time of the newly formed Washington (D.C.) Stake.
But prestige held no particular appeal for Ezra Taft Benson. He always considered his true career to be serving in whatever way the Lord needed him, his highest honor the privilege of bearing the priesthood of God. He always remembered with special fondness an early calling as Scoutmaster in the Whitney Ward, where he led his troop to win a valleywide contest for boys’ choruses. From that early experience as Scoutmaster blossomed his abiding commitment to Scouting. Later he served on the national advisory council and the executive board of Boy Scouts of America, and he received the three highest national awards in Scouting—the Silver Beaver, the Silver Antelope, and the Silver Buffalo—as well as world Scouting’s Bronze Wolf.
Returning to Whitney years after serving as Scoutmaster, he tried to locate all twenty-four of “his” Scouts. He found many serving as ward and stake leaders but could not account for two. In his later travels, he found those boys, neither of whom had married in the temple. He reestablished friendships and subsequently had the privilege of performing temple sealings for them and their families.
On his first mission, Elder Benson was called to preside over the Newcastle Conference under mission president David O. McKay. To make the Church members in one economically depressed area feel comfortable, young Elder Benson sometimes wore the clothes of a working man. For years afterward, the people of that part of England referred to him as “our Benson.”
That same genuine kindness later endeared President Benson to Church members wherever he went. His first public statement as President set the tone for his prophetic service: “My heart has been filled with an overwhelming love and compassion for all members of the Church and our Heavenly Father’s children everywhere. I love all our Father’s children of every color, creed, and political persuasion. My only desire is to serve as the Lord would have me do” (Ensign, December 1985, page 5).
After his mission, Ezra Taft returned to Whitney, purchased a farm with his brother Orval, and served on the Franklin Stake MIA board. By the time Flora returned from her mission to Hawaii, Ezra Taft had graduated from Brigham Young University and had received a scholarship to study agriculture at Iowa State College. On 10 September 1926, Flora Amussen and Ezra Taft Benson were married in the Salt Lake Temple and set off for Ames, Iowa, in a used Model-T pickup truck. There they lived on a meager income, enhancing their meals with vegetables gleaned from the college experimental garden.
Ezra Taft returned to Whitney with a master’s degree and an eagerness to help other farmers improve their crops. He was so helpful, in fact, that his neighbors drafted him as county agricultural extension agent.
Perhaps it was on that first mission in England that young Elder Benson first glimpsed the converting power of the Book of Mormon—a theme he would address for the rest of his life. Because opposition to the Church was so intense in northern England in 1922, street meetings and tracting had been discontinued in some areas. When the members in South Shields asked Elder Benson and his companion to speak in a meeting where many nonmembers would be in attendance, the missionaries fasted and prayed for inspiration.
Elder Benson prepared to speak about the Apostasy, but it was not until he sat down after delivering his talk that he realized that he had not mentioned that topic. “I had talked on the Prophet Joseph Smith and borne my witness of his divine mission and to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon,” he later recalled.
Afterward, several people came forward and said, “Tonight we received a witness that the gospel is true as you elders teach it. We are now ready for baptism” (Ensign, May 1977, page 34).
Throughout his ministry, President Benson sought to convince the Saints that they should use the Book of Mormon to answer questions about the Church and that this book could bless their lives as no other book could. “There is a power in the book which will begin to flow into your lives the minute you begin a serious study of the book,” he promised. “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, page 7). By the thousands, Primary children, young people, and adults responded to this prophetic direction, and many wrote to tell President Benson how studying the Book of Mormon had changed their lives.
In this childhood setting—one he later often called “ideal”—Ezra Taft Benson learned how to sacrifice to reap a spiritual harvest. He was just twelve when his father, George Benson, was called to serve an eighteen-month mission in the midwestern United States. There were seven children in the Benson home when their father left for the mission field, with the eighth soon to be born. And Ezra, as the oldest son, had to carry much of the responsibility for the farm. One of President Benson’s most vivid memories of his father’s absence was of gathering around the kitchen table to hear his mother read her husband’s weekly letters. “There came into that home a spirit of missionary work that never left,” recalled President Benson. All eleven Benson children later served missions.
After George Benson returned, he sang missionary songs as he milked the cows—“Ye Elders of Israel” and “Ye Who Are Called to Labor”—until his oldest son knew them by heart. Music, as well as missionary zeal, stayed in Ezra Taft Benson’s soul all his life. As a youngster, he played trombone and piano and performed vocal solos. As a prophet speaking in regional conferences around the Church, President Benson often delighted youngsters of another generation by singing all three verses of “I Am a Mormon Boy” in his clear tenor voice.
Another boyhood memory that never left him was of coming in from the fields to find his mother bent over her ironing board, pressing long white temple robes in preparation for one of many excursions by whitetop buggy to the Logan Temple. That day, she laid aside her ironing to teach her son how important and holy the ordinances of the temple are and to inspire in him the enduring desire to partake of these blessings.
Years later, President Benson taught the Saints about the remarkable blessings of the temple: “I promise you that, with increased attendance in the temples of our God, you shall receive increased personal revelation to bless your life as you bless those who have died” (Ensign, May 1987, page 85). Even while he was President, he and his wife attended an endowment session almost every Friday morning at the Jordan River Temple. During his presidency, nine new temples were dedicated, and ten more were announced.
After graduating from elementary school at fourteen and from the Oneida Stake Academy a few years later, Ezra Taft spent quarters intermittently at Utah State Agricultural College as the farm work and the family budget permitted. There he met Flora Amussen, who would share his life of service. Although Flora was said to be the most popular girl in town and the daughter of a well-to-do family, the young farmboy determined to become acquainted with her. Ezra courted Flora and studied the scriptures with her widowed mother. By the time he was called to serve his first mission in Great Britain in 1921, Flora had agreed to marry him when he returned.
The image of a well-rooted tree bearing abundant fruit is fitting for this prophet, who spent much of his life helping things to grow. He grew to manhood in a rural farming community, in a family that took daily sustenance from the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, he was literally brought into this world by the faith of his parents.
His life began on 4 August 1899 in the one-room adobe farmhouse of George T. and Sarah Dunkley Benson in Whitney, Idaho. At birth, he did not breathe, and the doctor despaired of saving him. But his parents prayed, his father gave him a blessing, and his grandmothers dipped him alternately in warm and cold water.
The child lived, the first of eleven Benson children. His grateful parents named him for an Apostle, his great-grandfather, who had set a family precedent of devotion to the gospel. The older Ezra T. Benson, who had joined the Church in Illinois, entered the Salt Lake Valley with the first company of pioneers on 24 July 1847. He built a beautiful home near the current site of Temple Square and then left it when President Brigham Young asked him to settle Cache Valley, along the Utah-Idaho border, where his great-grandson would grow up.
By age five, “T,” as that grandson was known to his family, could drive a team of horses. Even as a young boy, Ezra Taft Benson earnestly desired to serve a mission. He sought a patriarchal blessing and rejoiced when it promised him that he would be a missionary.
Growing into a hardy, good-humored young man, he spent much of his youth milking the family’s dairy herd and helping his father grow wheat and sugar beets in the sandy loam of Idaho. He learned the gratifying results of hard physical work—pumping water for the growing family, cutting and hauling trees for telephone poles. He even earned some renown among neighboring farmers by thinning an acre of beets in one long, back-breaking day. And he developed an exceptional gift for making friends. He also gained a lifelong love of horses, always preferring them over cars.
President Ezra Taft Benson, a man whose life demonstrated closeness to the Master, died of heart failure Monday, 30 May 1994, at the age of ninety-four. He passed away at 2:35 P.M. in his apartment in Salt Lake City. Family members had visited him during the days before his passing, singing hymns and favorite songs to him. His funeral was held Saturday, 4 June 1994, at 10:00 A.M. in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. He was buried in Whitney, Idaho, the small farming community where he was born.
Throughout his life, Ezra Taft Benson was a pillar of strength to his family, the communities where he lived, and the Church, serving as a General Authority for fifty years, more than half his lifetime. He wore the prophet’s mantle in a time when certitude was not popular. It was a time when values, like grains of sand, were constantly shifting—uprooting men, women, and institutions. In prophetic word and by the example of his own fruitful life, President Benson showed us sure spiritual solutions for the perplexities of our times.
To nations, his message was that we must obey God to be free and that we must value liberty more highly than comfort. To parents, it was that family life is blessed and worth the sacrifice of any worldly ambition. To the Church as a whole, it was that we had not fully understood the power of the Book of Mormon. Again and again, he challenged us to read the book, and he lifted his voice to call down divine blessings upon us as we did so.
He challenged us to steady our lives by sinking our spiritual roots deeper in gospel living, to nourish and anchor ourselves by eternal truths. And always, he testified of and pointed us to the Savior, who promised, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit” (John 15:5).