“Louisa Bingham Lee: Sacrifice and Spirit,” Ensign, Feb. 1974, 80
This account of Louisa Bingham Lee was originally prepared for the March Ensign, to honor President Lee in his birth month. But now, at this time of mourning, we find it appropriate to share this warm record of President Lee’s boyhood home, and of the beloved lady who stood at its heart.
President Lee’s feelings about his parents were deep and tender, particularly for his mother. On April 6, 1941, the Sunday when he was sustained as an apostle, he said:
“I thank God today for my parentage. My father and mother are listening, either in this great assembly or on the radio. … I think perhaps this is my way of paying tribute to the two family names they gave me at my birth, Bingham and Lee. I trust I shall not disgrace those names. I have been blessed with a splendid father and a grand and lovely mother, one who didn’t display often her affection, but showed her love in tangible ways that, as a child, I came early to recognize as true mother love.
“As just a high school boy I went away on a high school debating team. We won the debate. I came back and called mother on the telephone only to have her say: “Never mind, Son. I know all about it. I will tell you when you come home at the end of the week.” When I came home she took me aside and said: “When I knew it was just time for this performance to start I went out among the willows by the creek side, and there, all by myself, I remembered you and prayed God you would not fail.” I have come to know that that kind of love is necessary for every son and daughter who seek to achieve in this world.”
Louisa bent over her 17-year-old son once more to feel his feverish head and listen to his tight, labored breathing. It was after midnight, and Harold’s pneumonia had not seemed to respond to his mother’s famous mustard plasters. Anxiety clutched at her heart and she knew she must do something quickly, or her son would die in a few hours.
She hurried to the back porch and opened a large sack of onions, filled her apron, and went into the kitchen. After slicing a large panful of onions she dumped them into an empty flour sack and covered her son’s chest with that wet, juicy sack. Then she prayed and waited for a miracle.
By morning his breathing was improved, and he was over the crisis. When her family praised her for saving Harold’s life, Louisa modestly replied, “Oh, but I didn’t save his life. The Lord did. He just expects us to do everything we can to help!”
Louisa Emeline Bingham Lee’s life was one devoted to those who needed her help. Led by the spirit of the Lord, she gained the wisdom to know what to do, and the fortitude to do it. The sacrifice and courage required during her childhood prepared her to be true to the faith that the Lord, her parents, and her husband and children had in her.
Louisa was the oldest of three children born to Rachel Elvira Henderson and Perry Calvin Bingham. She was a New Year’s baby, born January 1, 1879, in Clifton, Idaho. At eight years of age, Louisa’s carefree childhood came to an abrupt end when her mother became an invalid, and her father had to be away from home for weeks, even months, at a time, hauling freight to Montana or working on a pipeline. Louisa was responsible for bathing, feeding, and caring for her younger brother and sister and her bedfast mother.
Louisa would arise very early, fix breakfast, dress and tend her brother and sister, bathe and feed her mother, and then dash off to school. When all the other children were jumping rope and playing at recess time, Louisa would run home to see her mother and begin preparing lunch. At noon she would hurry home again to mother her little flock.
She would haul a heavy galvanized tub into the house and fill it with water to wash clothes in; but because she was so small, she had to stand on a box to reach far enough down into the tub to scrub the clothes on the washboard.
In the hot summer months Louisa’s mother would often call for a cold drink of water to ease her parched throat. The spring was about 100 yards from the house, and Louisa would have to run along a little path through the bushes and down into a hollow to get the water.
She used to hope when her mother called in the night that it wouldn’t be for a drink of water, but it nearly always was. Sometimes at midnight or after, she would pick her way down that dark, frightening path to the spring, praying all the way. Branches would catch on her clothing and terror would clutch at her heart, and she would race back as soon as she had the water. Her courageous service was born of love, and that service engendered in turn deep devotion.
Louisa learned to sew as her mother gave instructions from her bed, but since her feet barely reached the treadles of the sewing machine, it was a tiring effort. Because the family had such a struggle to make ends meet, Louisa would wash and take the stitches out of used clothing and suits, iron them, and remake the cloth into clothes for herself and her family. This arduous training paid real dividends later in her love for sewing and her ability to create masterpieces of elegance and style.
As she grew into a beautiful young woman, other exigencies of their situation turned, chrysalis-like, into marvelous homemaking skills. She cooked with a gourmet’s touch; her home reflected a flair for color, line, and good taste; and she studied her Relief Society lesson, her Sunday School lesson, and the scriptures as intensely and as thoroughly as if she were getting a university degree.
Already accomplished at the age of 16, Louisa’s virtues and budding beauty impressed a handsome young man named Samuel Marion Lee, who had moved to Clifton from Salt Lake City. Samuel, who was born in Panaca, Nevada, on November 22, 1875, was the 12th and only surviving child of Samuel M. and Margaret McMurrin Lee. He weighed only 3 1/2 pounds at birth and his mother died when he was nine days old. Samuel, after being nursed for several months by his aunt, was taken to Salt Lake City, a 14-day trip by wagon, to live with his grandmother, Margaret Laing McMurrin. He called her a “kind, loving, and devoted mother,” and through her kind and tender care he developed into a strong healthy boy.
Samuel recalls visiting his grandfather McMurrin during the latter’s six-month prison sentence for polygamy: “It seemed cruel indeed, to see my dear, kind grandfather behind prison bars; tears came to all our eyes each time we made him a visit. I truly believe that he tried to live this principle of plural marriage as nearly perfect as it was possible for mortal man to live it.”
When Samuel was 17, his beloved grandmother developed cancer. After repeated operations and untold agony, she died in his arms September 4, 1893. Heartbroken, he moved to Clifton to live with his aunt and uncle, Riley and Jeanette Davis. It was here that he met the woman of his life.
Then Samuel Lee, now
Working on his nearby farm,
Watched her grow,
Saw with his heart
As well as with his eyes
The slow unfolding
Of her girlish charm,
The bloom of girlhood
High upon her cheeks,
A budding woman,
Gentle, soft, and warm.
And she saw him,
The young, strong, steady hands,
The head well set,
The shoulders square
The muscles strong
A good young man …
Samuel Marion Lee and Louisa Bingham were married in the Logan Temple on May 13, 1895.
And so they came together,
Drawn by a magnet
Neither one could see,
To be the parents of a
Man of destiny.
—S. Dilworth Young
Samuel, a spiritual leader who would later be bishop for more than nine years, had chosen well. His wife was not only a splendid homemaker, but one who would share the hard-working life of a farmer with fortitude and devotion. He spoke of her:
“Louisa’s life has been one of love and devotion to her parents and family. And in addition to caring for an invalid mother and father for many years … during her married life she was gone into the fields and helped her husband with mowing, raking hay, drilling grain, harrowing, hauling hay, feeding the stock, irrigating, hoeing, and most everything connected with farm life. Always sacrificing her time and pleasure for the benefit of her family. Nursing her children in sickness, with patience and skill. Teaching her children correct principles and striving to guide them from childhood to manhood and womanhood.”
Harold Bingham Lee was the second of their six children—four sons and two daughters, in that order. Louisa’s patriarchal blessing had mentioned her gift of healing, and her inspiration had preserved Harold’s life on several occasions. At age eight, his mother sent him for a can of lye, high on a pantry shelf, to make soap with. He slipped and the can tipped its deadly contents all over him. Immediately Louisa grabbed Harold so he wouldn’t run, kicked off the lid of a large vat of pickled beets, and splashed cup after cup of red vinegar juice all over his head and body, neutralizing the lye. What could have been a tragedy was averted because of her inspired action.
While working in the fields in his teens, Harold gashed an artery on a broken bottle. Louisa stopped the bleeding, but the wound became infected. She took a clean black stocking, burned it to ashes, opened his wound, and rubbed the ashes into it very thoroughly. It healed quickly after this.
She nursed her son, Clyde, through diphtheria by swabbing his throat constantly for several days and nights to keep it from closing. Her skills also extended to occasional midwifery, and she assisted the doctor in delivering eight of her own grandchildren.
When Perry and Harold were six and four years old, respectively, Louisa used all her sewing skills and made beautiful suits for them. They had all the most fashionable Lord Fauntleroy ruffles and trims imaginable, but as soon as the boys were out of sight, they would hurriedly tuck up the lace-trimmed sleeves and turn under the ruffled collars so their friends wouldn’t make fun of them.
To add to their chagrin, Harold was blessed (or cursed, as he might have thought) with a head of wavy hair that Louisa deftly combed into ringlets that hung below his shoulders. That was too much! Harold whacked some of them off at the age of five and Dad finished the job while Mother shed tears.
Perry commented: “My mother taught us many things, but I think we taught her something too—that little boys didn’t like ruffles and ringlets!”
Louisa’s daughters, Stella and Verda, recall the simple joys she created: hot homemade tomato soup after sacrament meeting; the “lumpy-dick” treat which Harold was so fond of; and a very special evening when the little girls could not sleep as long as the delicious aroma of baking bread was tantalizing their nostrils. Their father opened their bedroom door quietly, picked the little girls up in his arms, took them into the bright light of the kitchen, and sat them down at the table in their flannel nightgowns. Mother placed a plate of delectable slices of hot bread and honey on the table and a glass of milk for each.
Although Louisa’s motto was, “You can always do a little bit better,” her example was the most potent sermon of all. Her home was shining, and her husband once commented: “Mother, I do believe that you make dirt just because you enjoy cleaning it up so much!” Her daughters especially remember hearing their mother call to them, “I don’t want any of you children to leave this house without a bath and clean underclothes. What if you are in an accident!”
Her home reflected a great love of beauty, and her flower arrangements personalized her home. Though the family was poor for many years, the children were always well-dressed and well-fed because of Louisa’s thrifty efforts and talents. Later, when the pressure of necessity was gone, she took pleasure in making her own clothes, tasteful and elegant creations.
She always knew where her children were and she sent the boys everywhere in pairs, because, as one said: “Mother always knew that if we did anything wrong, what one wouldn’t tell, the other one would!”
Her discipline, though firm, was not harsh. She insisted on obedience, and her children didn’t argue with her. Louisa didn’t believe in hitting or spanking her children, but she kept a little green willow handy and when the children got out of line she would swish it around. One day a six-year-old son refused to do as he was asked and dashed off through the alfalfa field. Louisa couldn’t see him and knew she couldn’t catch him, so she just stood at the edge of the field, switch in hand and called: “Now, son, you think it over. You’re going to get this little green willow whether you stay in there all day or 15 minutes. So it’s up to you. I’m going to stand here 15 minutes and then I’m going back to the house. Now you just keep it in mind while you play today that you are going to get this little green willow.”
After 15 minutes the errant little boy appeared; and though it was “the hardest thing in the world to do” at the moment, she applied the little green willow—but very lightly! Those 15 minutes of her precious time were spent waiting at the edge of eternity for a child to think it over, to repent, and to learn to obey.
President Lee recalled that when he became the principal of the Clifton School at age 17, he was younger than several of the boys in his school, but they didn’t know it—and he saw no need to tell them!
His strenuous schedule, in addition to being a principal, included playing basketball after school with the ward team, going to debate tournaments, and playing the trombone in a dance band on weekends. Louisa would often wait up until Harold would return, and he would share his day’s activities with her.
Her concern was so great that one freezing night she felt prompted to ask her husband to go look for Harold. It was an inspired request, for Harold’s horse had stumbled while crossing a stream and dumped the rider and his trombone into the freezing water. His father found him bruised and cold but uninjured.
Louisa would never defend her children if they were wrong or at fault, but if she felt they were unjustly treated or unfairly criticized, she would defend them to the end.
Her marvelous sense of humor and quick repartee produced lines her family still chuckle over.
Her youngest daughter, Verda, suffered ill health for many years; and one day when Verda was preparing to go back to work after a particularly severe illness, her mother gave her this advice: “Verda, always remember to never, never look like you feel!”
After an operation on Louisa’s right knee for osteomyelitis, as they wheeled her out of the hospital in a wheelchair, Samuel commented to his daughters: “You girls just don’t seem to have nearly as pretty legs as your mother does.” Louisa’s quick reply was: “Now, Father, I haven’t got a leg to stand on!”
Verda recalls that after Harold had become a member of the Council of the Twelve, her mother paired her children by similarities in their personalities. She commented: “You know, I think you are a lot like your brother Harold in many ways, Verda,” and then lest Verda be puffed up with pride, she added, twinkling, “And there are a lot of things I could improve in both of you!”
Service in the Church began early in the life of Louisa. From the ages of 14 to 18, she taught a Sunday School class. After her marriage she served as a counselor in the YWMIA presidency for six years; then served as president of YWMIA for seven years and afterward as counselor in the stake YWMIA presidency for several more years. After moving to Salt Lake City in 1922, she taught Primary, served in the Relief Society, and was “mascot” of the choir. Even though she didn’t sing with them, she would attend choir every week and lend them her support.
But Relief Society was very special to her, and Louisa numbered Relief Society sisters among her closest friends. She was especially popular on quilting days, both for the machinelike evenness of her stitches and for her joyous sense of humor.
She loved and taught the youth and they often sought her advice and encouragement. When her sons asked what to say at a particular funeral or speaking engagement, she would reply: “Just preach the gospel!” In fact, she told her son, Harold, that at too many funerals the speakers talked only about the dead person. She said: “When I die, I want the gospel preached. My friends already know me and it won’t do them any good to hear about me. Just preach the gospel to them!”
Music, the arts, sports, and the outdoors were all delights to Louisa and whenever she attended some particular event or place that thrilled her, she was grieved if her family was not with her. Nothing pleased her more than to share her incomparable cooking and hospitality with friends, and no one left her home without being served some refreshment.
Tithing was an important principle of the gospel in the Lee home. She had great faith that the Lord would see them through trying financial times if they returned to him their tithes. One morning when she looked in her purse to send one of the girls to the store for groceries, she noticed that she didn’t have even one dime—it was completely empty. Later that afternoon, the doorbell rang and a Relief Society sister asked her to pay for her Relief Society Magazine subscription. She went to her purse without remembering that it was empty; and when she opened it, was stunned to find a five-dollar bill in it. That evening she reiterated to her family the blessing of tithing.
Some of her favorite experiences occurred after her son had been called to the Council of the Twelve. Alone and unrecognized, she would attend general conference from 7:00 a.m. through the last session. She loved to hear everyone’s comments about the conference talks! “It’s great fun to listen to what people say about your own son!”
Louisa suffered with angina heart pains for many years, and more than once her sons and husband had to carry her, almost unconscious, outside to the fresh air to revive her. She would return from quilting all day at Relief Society and collapse on the bed, utterly spent. But when her family and doctors cautioned her about her strenuous activities and busy schedule, she would reply spunkily: “I am going to wear out, I am not going to rust out!”
There were times when her faith was the only refuge and comfort. Just before Christmas, Samuel lay dying in the hospital at age 70. The doctor told Louisa that her husband had less than three days to live. Her daughter heard her exclaim, “That’s what he thinks! I am taking Father home!” She called her sons at 10:30 p.m. to come administer to their father. Her faith was rewarded, for she took her husband home and he lived for another year. President Lee has said of his mother: “She was an angel from heaven and she passed through the lights and shadows of life with great fortitude. And when everyone else gave up she didn’t!”
A slender, beautiful woman, whose hair kept its light brown color until she was 80, Louisa looked much younger than her years and was alert and busy until a few weeks before she died on July 27, 1959. During the July 24 Pioneer Day celebration three days prior to her death, she lay critically ill in the hospital. Verda hated to leave her even for a moment, but Louisa insisted that she go eat with her family. When Verda said hesitantly, “Mother, you’ll be here when I get back, won’t you?”, her mother replied perkily: “Of course I will, I can’t go any place, I’m sewed to the bed!” She died three days later. Without telling her family, she had paid for and arranged her own funeral.
The greatest tribute that can be paid to Louisa Bingham Lee comes from her husband, Samuel:
“Her efforts have not been in vain for she can look with honor and pride upon her children, realizing that they are monuments of her life’s mission.”