While serving as a stake president during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Harold B. Lee organized efforts in his stake to relieve the destitute circumstances of many members. He later recalled: “We had been wrestling with this question of welfare. There were few government work programs; the finances of the Church were low. … And here we were with 4,800 of our 7,300 people [in the stake] who were wholly or partially dependent. We had only one place to go, and that was to apply the Lord’s program as set forth in the revelations.”
In 1935, President Lee was called into the office of the First Presidency and asked to lead an effort to help those in need throughout the Church, using the experience he had gained in his stake. President Lee said of this experience:
“It was from our humble efforts that the First Presidency, knowing that we had had some experience, called me one morning asking if I would come to their office. … They wished me now to head up the welfare movement to turn the tide from government relief, direct relief, and help to put the Church in a position where it could take care of its own needy.
“After that morning I rode in my car (spring was just breaking) 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.
“There I was, just a young man in my thirties. My experience had been limited. I was born in a little country town in Idaho. I had hardly been outside the boundaries of the states of Utah and Idaho. And now to put me in a position where I was to reach out to the entire membership of the Church, worldwide, was one of the most staggering contemplations that I could imagine. How could I do it with my limited understanding?
“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.’
“With that understanding, then, and with the simple application of the power of the priesthood, the welfare program has gone forward now by leaps and bounds, overcoming obstacles that seemed impossible, until now it stands as a monument to the power of the priesthood, the like of which I could only glimpse in those days to which I have made reference.”1
Teachings of Harold B. Lee
What are the foundation principles for the welfare work of the Church?
In the 104th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, … we have as clearly defined in a few words the Welfare Program as anything I know. Now listen to what the Lord says:
“I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. And it is my purpose to provide for my saints.”
… Did you hear what the Lord said?
“It is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine. But it must needs be done in mine own way.” …
“And behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints.”
Now, get the significance of this one statement:
“That the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.”
Now, that is the plan. … The Lord goes on to say:
“For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves. Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.” [D&C 104:14–18.]
… Now, what does he mean by this phrase? His way is, “that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.” …
“Exalt,” in the language of the dictionary, and the definition that I am sure the Lord is trying to convey means: “To lift up with pride and joy to success.” That is how we should lift the poor up, “with pride and joy to success,” and how are we to do it? By the rich being made low.
Now, do not mistake that word “rich.” That does not always mean a man who has a lot of money. That man may be poor in money, but he may be rich in skill. He may be rich in judgement. He may be rich in good example. He may be rich in splendid optimism, and in a lot of other qualities that are necessary. And when individual Priesthood quorum members unite themselves together, we usually find all those rare qualities necessary to lift up the needy and distressed with pride and joy to success in the accomplishment. There could not be a more perfect working of the Lord’s plan than that.
Now, keep in mind this further thought, that the Lord has told us time and again that the objective of all his work is spiritual. Do you remember what he said in the 29th section of the Doctrine and Covenants?
“Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal; neither any man, nor the children of men; neither Adam, your father, whom I created” (Doc. and Cov. D&C 29:34).
… Do you let everything you do be with an eye single to the glory of that individual, the ultimate triumph of his spiritual over his physical? The whole purpose of the Lord in life is to so help us and direct us that at the end of our lives we are prepared for a celestial inheritance. Is not that it? Can you give every basket of food you give, can you give every service that you render with that great objective in mind? Is this the way to do it in order to help my brother or my sister to better attain and lay hold upon his celestial inheritance? That is the objective that the Lord sets.2
The welfare program has a great significance in the Lord’s work. We must take care of [people’s] material needs and give them a taste of the kind of salvation they do not have to die to get before we can lift their thinking to a higher plane. Therein is the purpose of the Lord’s welfare program that He has had in His Church in every dispensation from the very beginning. It did not have its inception in 1936. It began when the Lord commenced to take care of His people on this earth.3
When a home is shattered because of the needs of food and shelter and clothing and fuel, … the first thing we have to do is to build a sense of security, a sense of material well-being, before we can begin to lift the family to the plane where we can instill in them faith. That is the beginning, but unless we have the objective of what we do as to the building of faith, the mere giving of material aid fails. Now, we must understand that, if we just try to build faith without first filling their stomachs and seeing that they are properly clothed and properly housed and properly warmed, perhaps we will fail in the building of faith.4
We have repeated often the statement that was given to us by President [Heber J.] Grant when this [welfare] program was launched. These were his words … :
“Our primary purpose was to set up, in so far as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help the people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.” [In Conference Report, Oct. 1936, 3.]
I traveled over the Church by request of the First Presidency with Elder Melvin J. Ballard in the early days of the welfare program to discuss with local Church leaders the details essential to its beginning. There were three favorite passages of scripture that he frequently quoted to the people. One statement that he often repeated was this: “We must take care of our own people, for the Lord has said that all this is to be done that: ‘… the church may stand independent above all other creatures beneath the celestial world.’ (D. & C. D&C 78:14.)”
… [He also quoted] from the one hundred fifteenth section of the Doctrine and Covenants: “Verily I say unto you all: Arise and shine forth, that thy light may be a standard for the nations,” [and he taught that] this is the day of demonstration of the power of the Lord in behalf of his people. [D&C 115:5.] And again quoting the one hundred fourth section:
“Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.” [D&C 104:18.]
I read these quotations to you today to remind you of the foundation stones on which the welfare work of the Church has been laid.5
What resources should be used to solve an individual welfare problem?
What are the resources that the Church has, or you might call them assets, in order to solve an individual welfare problem? How do you start to solve it? Suppose I should ask you this question at this time. Suppose that tonight a telephone call comes to the father of a family where he is at work, bringing him the distressing word that his little son has been hit with an automobile and has been rushed to the hospital, critically injured. This family is making only a very low income, just barely enough to keep the family together with food and the essentials. Now there faces the family immediately, a doctor bill, a hospital bill—how in the world are you going to handle it?
I fear if I should ask you that question and have you answer it here, most of you would say: “Well, we will call on the fast offering funds.” And that is not the way the Welfare Program begins, and that is where we make our error. In the first place, we start out with the individual himself. We do not move from that point until we have helped the individual to do all he can to help his own problem. Now, sentiment and our emotional sympathy might push us to other conclusions, but that is the first, and then we reach out to the immediate relatives of that family. We are losing the family solidarity, we are losing the strength that comes from family unity, when we fail to give opportunity and to help to direct a way by which immediate relatives of that family, so distressed, can come to the aid of their own.
Then, the next point we move to is to call on the storehouse for the immediate necessities. In a home like that I have just described, I want you to see the advantage of giving to that family the clothing, the food, bedding, fuel that they need for a couple of months in order to relieve the cash that they otherwise would spend to pay for that emergency hospital bill, rather than merely taking fast offerings and passing it out to them in money. …
Now, beyond what you can do from the storehouse, then the next thing, of course, is to recommend to the bishop the use of the fast offering fund, which, he has been schooled, is to be used first from that which he provides from his own efforts and the efforts of his leaders. To that end, we must always put the gathering of fast offerings and the increasing of the fast offerings, and teaching the law of fasting, as one of the foremost parts of the Welfare Plan. …
Now then, following from that, we come to the rehabilitation aspects of our problems. There the Relief Society, and there the Priesthood quorums play their major part. Now what is the Relief Society’s part in a rehabilitation program? Well, the first thing you do, as you visit the home of a distressed family, is to do as the bishop requires, make an analysis of the conditions of the home. …
You go there to make the analysis, find out conditions, and to make an order on the storehouse, if that be necessary, and report back to your bishop the needs of the family for his approval and withdrawal from the storehouse, or from funds that he has in his possession, if that be necessary. The second thing you do is to make certain that the home management problems of that home are studied, and that there be set in motion such direction that will help to cure the evils that are there. You must stand ready to meet home emergencies, sickness, death, and other conditions of that kind, that call upon a sisterly sympathy that ought to be expressed by the Relief Society. Then, too, you must be always morale builders in this part of the program. Yours must be the uplifting hand, yours the one to steady the family situation through the emergency.6
Now is the time for priesthood members to know their quorum group. Each quorum should know their members and their needs and seek out those heavily in debt and in a kind way suggest how they can get out of debt. There never is a time when a man needs a friend quite so much as when he is plowed under by some such circumstances. Now is the time to give them strength of vision and power to go forward. Not only should we teach men to get out of debt but we should teach them likewise to stay out of debt.7
We expect the individual to do all he can to help himself, whether it be an emergency for a single family or for a whole community, that the relatives will do all they can to help, then the Church steps in with commodities from the storehouse, with fast offerings to meet their needs that commodities from the storehouse will not supply, and finally, the Relief Society and the priesthood quorums will assist with rehabilitation.8
How can we make our households more self-reliant?
In order for an individual or a community to be self-sustaining, the following five steps must be taken:
First: There must be no idleness in the Church.
Second: We must learn the lesson of self-sacrifice.
Third: We must master the art of living and working together.
Fourth: We must practice brotherhood in our priesthood quorums.
Fifth: We must acquire the courage to meet the challenge of each day’s problems through our own initiative to the full limit of individual or local resources before requesting others to come and aid us in that solution.9
Keep in mind that the Church welfare program must begin with you personally and individually. It must begin with every member of the Church. We must be thrifty and provident. … You have to act for yourself and be a participant before the welfare program is active in your own household. …
Pursue the course … to see that food is in your homes; and counsel your neighbors and friends to do likewise, because someone had [the] vision to know that this was going to be necessary, and it will be necessary in the future, and has been the savior of our people in the past.
Now, let’s not be foolish and suppose that because the sun is shining today that there won’t be clouds tomorrow. The Lord has told us by revelation some of the things that are ahead of us, and we are living in the day when the fulfillment of those prophecies is now at hand. We are startled, and yet there is nothing happening today that the prophets didn’t foresee. …
God help us to keep our own houses in order and to keep our eyes fixed upon those who preside in this Church and to follow their direction, and we won’t be led astray.10
You show me a people who “have a mind to work,” to keep out of the bondage of indebtedness, and to work unitedly together in an unselfish service to attain a great objective, and I’ll show you a people who have achieved the greatest possible security in the world of men and material things.11
Disasters strike in every place. One of the worst of our disasters was [an earthquake] down in the San Fernando [California] Valley. We were concerned when days went by and we couldn’t get communication because the telephones were jammed, and there was no way of getting word as to how our people were faring; so we got in touch with our [priesthood leader] just outside of the earthquake area and asked if he could get us word. And the word came back, “We are all right. We have drawn on the storage of foodstuffs that we have put aside. We had water stored.” The regular water was contaminated, and people were distressed and in danger because of the contamination of the water; but the people who listened had stored water as well as foodstuffs and the other things to tide them through; and even though they didn’t all have foodstuffs and didn’t have water, those who listened and prepared didn’t fear, and they set about together in a marvelous way to help each other.12
Suggestions for Study and Discussion
As explained by President Lee, what is the Lord’s way of caring for the poor and needy? (See D&C 104:14–18.)
What are some of the resources we have that could be shared with the needy?
Why should our efforts to serve the poor and needy be directed toward helping them prepare for eternal life? How can we do this?
Why should individuals and families do all they can to help themselves? What blessings come to families who help their own in times of need? What part do the priesthood quorums and the Relief Society play in helping those in need?
What does it mean to be self-reliant? What steps must we take to become more self-reliant?
Why are the ability and willingness to work fundamentally important in becoming self-reliant? How can we teach our children to work?
What blessings come to us when we heed our leaders’ counsel to pay our debts and practice thrift in the management of our money?
In Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 123–24; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 104.
“The Place of Relief Society in the Welfare Plan,” Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1946, 814–15.
“Let Others Assist You,” address to welfare meeting, 4 Apr. 1959, Historical Library files, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 22.
“Place of Mothers in the Plan of Teaching the Gospel in the Home,” Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1965, 12.
In Conference Report, Apr. 1946, 69–70.
“The Place of Relief Society in the Welfare Plan,” 812–13.
The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1996), 315.
The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 306.
“What Is the Church Welfare Plan?” Instructor, July 1946, 316.
“Follow the Light,” address to welfare agricultural meeting, Apr. 1969, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4–5.
Decisions for Successful Living (1974), 202.
“Listen and Obey,” address to welfare agricultural meeting, 3 Apr. 1971, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4–5.