President Harold Bingham Lee, 11th President of the Church, died at 8:58 P.M. Wednesday, December 26, 1973, of lung and cardiac failure in the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. President Lee was 74 years old and had served as President of the Church since July 7, 1972.
President Lee became a General Authority of the Church April 6, 1941. He served on the Council of the Twelve until January 23, 1970, when he was appointed first counselor in the First Presidency.
He was born March 28, 1899, in Clifton, Idaho, and grew up on his family’s farm. He was called as a missionary to the Western States Mission in 1920, and he later served as president of the Pioneer Stake before he was called to the Council of the Twelve. In 1937 President Lee was named managing director of the newly organized, Church-wide welfare program.
In addition to his Church service, President Lee had experience as an educator, civil servant, and businessman. He served as the Oxford (Idaho) School principal at 17 and later as principal of two schools in Utah. He was also a business executive and served on the Salt Lake City Commission.
In the warmth of late morning on July 7, 1972, President Harold B. Lee walked purposefully from the Salt Lake Temple toward the Church Office Building and the newsmen waiting for his first press conference as the 11th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He had just been set apart for his new calling by Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then President of the Council of the Twelve. Upon assuming the leadership of the Church, and flanked by his two newly called counselors, President N. Eldon Tanner and President Marion G. Romney, President Lee said, “The greatest message that one in this position could give to the membership of the Church is to 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.” (New Era, August 1972, p. 13.)
President Lee’s life of service to his church has been a life dedicated to the “safety of the individual.” His love for people has always been evident, and especially his desire that they should understand and keep the commandments of God in order to reach their greatest potential. President Lee embraced the Church membership and often spoke of his desire that we move together, in unity, to accomplish the Lord’s purposes here on this earth. In his address delivered at the solemn assembly session of general conference on October 6, 1972, he said, “Today, as never before, have I more fully realized the importance of that last requirement: that this presidency, in the Lord’s language, must be upheld by the confidence, the faith, and the prayers of the Church—which means, of course, the entire membership of the Church.” (Ensign, January 1973, p. 12.)
To that support gladly given President Lee reciprocated with his blessings and prayers for the individuals of the Church as demonstrated by his remarks at the closing of the second general conference over which he presided: “And so as it is my privilege to do, I give you faithful members of the Church everywhere my blessing. God bless you, take care of you, preserve you as you travel home, that there may be no accident or no untoward experience. Take to your people out in the far reaches the feeling of love that we have for all of them; and indeed, as the missionaries go out, that love extends not only to those of our Father’s children who are already members of the Church, but those who are our Father’s children to whom he would have us bring the gospel of truth; make them also to enjoy all the blessings that we now have.” (Ensign, July 1973, p. 124.)
President Lee was a master planner in the hands of the Lord for bringing the welfare program to the Church—a program that once again showed his great concern for the safety of the individual. But, again, he did not fail to acknowledge that he walked supported by the strength of the individual members of the Church: “For the strength of the Church is not in the numbers, nor in the amount of tithes and offerings paid by faithful members, nor in the magnitude of chapels and temple buildings, but because in the hearts of faithful members of the Church is the conviction that this is indeed the church and kingdom of God on earth. Without that conviction, as one of my eminent business associates remarked, ‘The welfare plan of the Church would be but a shambles.’” (Ensign, July 1973, p. 6.)
President Lee also had great love and good counsel for the youth of the Church. He encouraged them to face the problems of today and to conquer them. He said, “… I would impress upon you that despite changed conditions and the abnormal times during which you have lived and are now living, the standards of right and wrong have not changed, but are as eternal and as unchanging as the stars in the heavens. The youth of all generations have faced tests just as severe as those you are facing.” President Lee went on to say, “The harder the climb up the mountains, the greater the thrill of triumph in the achievement.” As the youth of today face their own challenges, President Lee reminds them, for their own individual safety and happiness, to keep the commandments. The standards of right and wrong do not change. (Decisions for Successful Living [Deseret Book, 1973], p. 16.)
During President Lee’s brief tenure as head of the Church, much was accomplished. Perhaps as never before it became evident to everyone that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a worldwide Church. In his opening address at the general conference of the Church on April 6, 1973, President Lee said, “No longer might this church be thought of as the ‘Utah Church,’ or as an ‘American church,’ but the membership of the Church is now distributed over the earth in 78 countries, teaching the gospel in 17 different languages at the present time.”
President Lee’s life was one of concern and love for people. He was a president and prophet who spoke of himself in relationship to those he served, the members of the Church. In his Christmas message this year, speaking of the gift of the Savior’s life, President Lee said, “Again may I repeat that priceless gift to us so that we may hear it. This is for you and me also, as He promised it to His disciples in their time of great anxiety: ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’ (John 14:27.)”