President Ezra Taft Benson, prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died in Salt Lake City, Utah, on May 30, 1994, of congestive heart failure. He had served as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve since October 7, 1943, and was called as the 13th President of the Church in November 1985 following the death of President Spencer W. Kimball.
In President Benson’s first general conference address as prophet, he raised a theme that would mark his presidency—a call to read and study the Book of Mormon. He encouraged Church members to make the Book of Mormon the center of their personal study, family teaching, preaching, and missionary work.
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. At his birth, the doctor gave him up for dead. But the quick actions of his two grandmothers, who alternately dipped him in pans of warm and cold water, plus the administrations of the priesthood by his father, saved his life. Young Ezra was named after his great-grandfather, a member of the Council of the Twelve, who entered the Salt Lake Valley with the first company of Mormon pioneers on July 24, 1847.
President Benson grew up with the nickname “T.” He considered his home on a 40-acre farm in Whitney as nearly ideal. He said, “My parents … worked hard to generate in their eleven children … habits of honesty, industry, and ‘doing your job,’ whatever it might be. The idea that each of us, besides being an individual, was a member of a social unit—the family—was so deeply ingrained” (Cross Fire, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1962, p. 15).
At age 14, young Ezra T. took over management of the family’s dairy herd while his father was away on a three-year mission. He remembers sitting around the kitchen table, listening to his mother read the letters his father sent home. Reminiscing about listening to those letters, he said, “There came into that home a spirit of missionary work that never left it, and later seven sons, all of them, went on missions, to their blessing and the blessing of their posterity” (Glasgow Scotland Area Conference, June 21, 1976).
From 1921 to 1923, President Benson served as a missionary in the British Isles. Upon his return, he entered Brigham Young University, graduating with honors in 1926. In the meantime, Flora Smith Amussen, his sweetheart, accepted a mission call to Hawaii. He waited for her return, and they were married in the Salt Lake Temple, September 10, 1926.
After he received a master’s degree in agricultural economics from Iowa State University, the couple returned to the farm in Idaho. He was so helpful to other farmers that county commissioners drafted him to be the county agricultural agent. This led to other positions with the University of Idaho Extension Service and a move to Boise, the state capital. 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. His successful and influential career in agriculture economics led him to the highest agricultural office in the U.S. He served as Secretary of Agriculture for eight years.
President Benson’s church service paralleled his career. He served as president of the Boise Stake and later as president of the Washington D.C. Stake. He was called to the Quorum of the Twelve by President Heber J. Grant and sustained October 7, 1943. He was also actively involved in the National Council of Boy Scouts of America.
Perhaps President Benson’s most challenging call came in 1946 at the close of World War II when he was appointed president of the European Mission. His specific assignment was to reopen missions and to ease the suffering among members of the Church in the war-torn countries of Europe. Overcoming incredible difficulties caused by lack of transportation and basic supplies, President Benson was able to facilitate relief efforts for many European Saints.
In 1952, when President Benson became the Secretary of Agriculture, his influence spread beyond decisions concerning agriculture. He often invited government dignitaries to his home for dinner with his wife and children, Reed, Mark, Barbara, Beverly, Bonnie, and Beth. These influential leaders experienced the Benson concept of family firsthand by being invited to join in family prayers, singing around the piano, and scripture reading. A family home evening with the Bensons was televised and became one of the most popular episodes on a national news program.
While serving as Secretary of Agriculture, President Benson traveled to Moscow, Russia, in 1959. While there he attended a service in the Central Baptist Church. He was invited to speak. Through an interpreter, his words moved the Russian congregation to tears. His message was simple, but hopeful. He said, “Our Heavenly Father is not far away. He can be very close to us. I know that God lives. He is our Father. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, watches over this earth. He will direct all things. Be unafraid, keep His commandments, love one another, pray for peace and all will be well. … I leave you my witness as a church servant for many years that the truth will endure. Time is always on our side” (U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 26, 1959, p. 76).
The message of hope and of faith in the Lord continued throughout President Benson’s church service. As a special witness for Christ, he encouraged others to follow our Savior. He said, “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will find out 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. Whoever will lose his life to God will find he has eternal life” (New Era, May 1975, p. 20).
In the last talk President Benson gave to the Church at large, in October 1989 general conference, he bore a strong testimony and joined his voice with the words of the 12 prophets who preceded him in testifying of Jesus Christ. He said, “I leave my blessing upon you. The Savior lives. This is His church. The work is true, and in the words of our Lord and Savior, ‘Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life’ (3 Ne. 15:9), to which I testify” (Ensign, Nov. 1989, p. 8).
President Benson will be remembered and loved as a man who gave himself completely in service to his country and his church. He was indeed a man for all the world.