It was an important occasion. The president-elect of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had assembled his cabinet members for their first meeting. He greeted his new advisers warmly, smiling broadly as he chatted and shook hands.
But when everyone was seated, his smile gave way to seriousness. He turned to his Secretary of Agriculture. The incoming administration had great need for divine inspiration, the president said. Because of that, he was asking Ezra Taft Benson to open the cabinet meeting with prayer.
Even though he was taken by surprise, Ezra Taft Benson was a man used to praying, both in public and private. He offered a beautiful, sincere prayer, and it became a tradition to begin all cabinet meetings with an appeal to the Lord.
That was in January 1953. In November 1985, the same man who prayed at that cabinet meeting took another giant step in a life filled with service to God and country. Following the death of President Spencer W. Kimball, the Lord called Ezra Taft Benson to be President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Throughout his life, President Benson has set an example in both public service and his private life. He brings to his latest calling a wealth of experience and an unquestioned reputation for integrity, love of family, and knowledge of the gospel.
Ezra Taft Benson was born in Whitney, Idaho, on August 4, 1899. He was the first of 11 children of George T. Benson, Jr. and Sarah Dunkley Benson. The birth was difficult. The doctor said he would try to save the mother, but he held little hope for the baby.
President Benson tells the story, “The faith of my father, the administrations of the priesthood, and the quick action of my two grandmothers, who placed me first in a pan of cold water and then in a pan of warm water alternately, brought forth a husky yell to the joy of all” (Ensign, Oct. 1974, pp. 22–23).
The new baby was named after his great-grandfather, the first Apostle selected by Brigham Young after the death of Joseph Smith. That Ezra T. Benson served in the Nauvoo Legion and came west with the first company of pioneers.
As he grew up on the farm, Ezra, or “T” as he was nicknamed, learned the value of work. At age four he could drive a team, and he was soon herding cattle, thinning beets, milking cows, and doing general farm work. When Ezra was 12, his father was called on a mission. The family sold half the farm and shared their two-room home with the family that operated part of the remaining acres. President Benson’s mother was left to care for seven children, and the eighth was born shortly after his father arrived in the mission field.
“Never did I hear a murmur from her lips,” President Benson recalls.
In this time of hardship, the family pitched in. Ezra was known as a “tease” at school, but he worked hard. He also found time to trap muskrats to help meet expenses, and to round up cattle in the mountains. At 16, he single-handedly thinned an entire acre of sugar beets in one day. He loved sports, especially basketball and baseball, and was a friend and teammate of Harold B. Lee, who later became the 11th President of the Church.
Young Ezra also learned lessons from his father, who, after his two-year mission, served in the bishopric and the stake presidency. “Remember,” his father said, “that whatever you do or wherever you are, you are never alone. Our Heavenly Father is always near. You can reach out and receive his aid through prayer.”
As a student at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University), Ezra mustered the courage to ask Flora Amussen for a date. The youngest of the six children raised by her widowed mother, Flora was “the most popular girl in town,” a tennis star, actress, student-body vice-president, and a leader in many activities. Nevertheless, the “farm boy” continued what he described as an “inspirational and soul-satisfying courtship.”
But the romance was postponed by Elder Benson’s mission call to England. He labored in Newcastle, where he became a mission leader. He often dressed in the plain clothes of a workman while preaching to the unemployed on the streets. After two and a half years, he returned home and proposed to Flora. But she decided to serve a mission herself. When she returned from Hawaii, he had graduated from Brigham Young University. They were finally married in the Salt Lake Temple on September 10, 1926.
After further studies in Iowa and graduation with an M.S. in agricultural economics, they returned to the family farm. Ezra Benson was so helpful to other farmers that county commissioners drafted him to be the county agricultural agent.
In addition to his employment, he was an active Scoutmaster. He still loves to tell stories about how he shaved his head to fulfill a promise to his Scouts, about hiking through the mountains, and about winning singing contests. His dedication to Scouting would eventually earn him positions on the National Advisory Board and the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America. His service would earn him the Silver Beaver, the Silver Antelope, and the Silver Buffalo awards, the highest awards in Scouting.
His success in the county led to other positions with the University of Idaho Extension Service and a move to Boise. He helped organize the Idaho Cooperative Council and became its secretary in 1933. One of the campaigns for which he was largely responsible made Idaho potatoes famous throughout the land.
After holding many other Church callings, he became president of the Boise Stake in 1938.
In 1939, he was asked to serve as executive secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, representing two and a half million farmers nationwide. He moved to the nation’s capital, where he served as the first president of the Washington D.C. Stake.
Over the next five years, he developed a national perspective on farm issues and won the confidence of government officials and business leaders. He was offered a position at triple the salary and decided to discuss the offer with his former mission president, President David O. McKay of the First Presidency.
While in Salt Lake, he was told that Church President Heber J. Grant wished to see him. President Benson recalls:
“President Grant took my right hand in both of his and looked into the depths of my very soul and said: ‘Brother Benson, with all my heart I congratulate you and pray God’s blessings to attend you; you have been chosen as an Apostle of the Church.’”
Although he could hardly believe it was true, he accepted the calling and put aside the high-salaried position he had originally come to discuss. He was sustained at the October conference and set apart on October 7, 1943.
Shortly after the end of World War II, Elder Benson was assigned to preside over the European Mission. From the headquarters in London he traveled throughout Europe, reopening missions and alleviating the suffering in war-torn countries. He was particularly moved to see the conditions under which members had remained faithful during six years of war.
Addressing a congregation in Scandinavia, Elder Benson said, “Tears have been shed today; it is not a sign of weakness, but of the power of the Holy Ghost. Here is a place where the Savior could come. I love you all because you love the work of the Lord.”
“For each of us there that day,” a member later said, “the war was finally over.”
In 1952, President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower invited Elder Benson to become the Secretary of Agriculture. At first he tried to decline, but encouraged by Church President David O. McKay, he accepted. Though he made key decisions in his political position, he is also remembered for his example of family life and religious conviction.
On one occasion, the Benson family held a home evening with President and Mrs. Eisenhower. On another, their home evening was featured on the Edward R. Murrow television program, prompting more mail than any other episode that year. At the annual convention of the World Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, the customary cocktail hour was replaced with a soft drink and fruit juice reception in honor of Elder Benson’s Word of Wisdom standards. Addressing a Christian congregation in Russia, Elder Benson moved everyone present with his powerful testimony that the Savior lives.
When lawyers and business leaders visited him, he often invited them home for dinner with his wife and their children, Reed, Mark, Barbara, Beverly, Bonnie, and Beth. Many national leaders became acquainted with family prayers, singing around the piano, and scripture reading as a family activity because they spent time with the Bensons.
In January 1961, he ended his eight years as Secretary of Agriculture with the desire to devote himself totally to his work as a member of the Council of the Twelve. Since then he has traveled widely doing missionary work and preaching the gospel.
On December 30, 1973, he was set apart as President of the Quorum of the Twelve. On November 10, 1985, he was ordained and set apart as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the next day it was announced to the world that Ezra Taft Benson is the 13th president of the Church and the Lord’s appointed prophet.
“We shall continue to stress the importance of strong Christian homes and family life. We feel the increasing necessity for parents to teach their children to live the principles of the gospel as revealed in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other sacred scripture,” President Benson said.