Sunday, January 11, 2015

Chronology: Ezra Taft Benson

This year's Relief Society/Priesthood manual covers the teachings of Ezra Taft Benson. In conjunction with this year's topic, I've assembled a lengthy chronology of the life of Ezra Taft Benson - a very dynamic and driven person who lived a fascinating life. Subscription info at

Growing up in a 100% LDS farming community in South Eastern Idaho, he learned to work hard, and was immersed in the religious ideals of his family, church and community. He proved to be a successful missionary in England under the leadership of two apostles (Orson Whitney followed by David O McKay). He took on leadership roles including one equivalent to that of a Stake President & zone leader. After his mission he continued his relationship with Flora Smith Amussen, and after she served a mission, they married and had six children. Her goal of having twelve children was cut short when she experienced serious health issues while her husband was away on a second mission in Europe.

Benson faithfully served in church callings and he was eventually called into the Quorum of the Twelve. In his lengthy journal entry for that day, he describes the "shock" he had the day he was called when visiting the Heber J. Grant home. To him, that day had the "greatest significance," as he describes staring into his eyes while holding Heber J. Grant's hands. He said it "seem[ed] like a dream."

When another apostle expressed reservations about going on a mission to post-WWII Europe to aid members of the church -- Benson (who had the largest and youngest family of the quorum) was called to leave his family and go to Europe. There, he and his assistant/translator spent a frenzied nine months traveling from country to country, coordinating relief shipments and providing encouragement to saints who had been devastated by the war. This left him profoundly changed, as he heard horrific stories and saw the effects of war, mistreatment and starvation. Here, he became an avid enemy of socialism, fascism and  m - after seeing the results Hitler and Stalin's attempts to impose socialism and communism.

Early in life, Benson was a county agricultural agent and then became involved in various farming enterprises which gave him the experience that lead to his invitation to be the secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration. After consulting with David O McKay, Benson accepted the role where he worked towards a free market economy for agricultural goods, lessening government price controlling measures. Benson's "get big, or get out of farming" approach made him unpopular among small farmers, who sometimes threw eggs at him. He had limited success in his efforts and eventually the gains he had made were overturned by a democratically controlled congress. Eisenhower appointed Benson as the leader of the secret "Eisenhower Ten" - a group that would run the country in the event of a national catastrophe, but Eisenhower eventually distanced himself from Benson when trying to help Nixon get elected. At one point, McKay privately told Eisenhower that if Benson became enough of liability, he (McKay) would extend a calling to Benson to take him out of Washington D.C. Benson was considered by some to be the most controversial member of Eisenhower's cabinet, and by others - the most influential.

After his service in the Eisenhower administration, Benson became an anti-communism crusader and eventually an advocate of the right-wing John Birch society. He adopted and taught their philosophies in church settings, seeing communism infiltrating the U.S. in many forms, including the civil rights movement, and at BYU. Benson's defence of free agency couched in Birch rhetoric disturbed politically moderate-to-liberal church leaders and Latter-day Saints. First Counselor Hugh B. Brown in particular tried to take measures to control Benson and counter his advocacy of "Birchism." Eventually Benson was called on another mission to Europe to try to stop what some of his fellow apostles considered to be conspiratorial rhetoric. Joseph Fielding Smith wrote to Idaho Congressman Harding "I am glad to report to you that it will be some time before we hear anything from Brother Benson, who is now on his way to Great Britain... When he returns I hope his blood will be purified" [from political ties]. However Benson, who saw communism becoming more infused in American life, saw his self-appointed anti-communism crucade in religious terms -- and continued his campaign after his mission.

When Spencer W. Kimball ascended to the Presidency, Benson became the president of his Quorum and eventually the president of the church. He emphasized the traditional role of women, the Book of Mormon and more. As he entered his 90s, he became frail and suffered from age-related mental issues, disappearing from the public sphere during the last years of his presidency.

This chronology traces through the very interesting and varied life of Ezra Taft Benson. I quote from a wide variety of sources including correspondences of First Presidency member Hugh B. Brown, and the diaries of Ezra Taft Benson, Spencer W. Kimball, David O McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith and other church leaders. I've relied heavily on several excellent articles by Gary Bergera covering two of Benson's missions, and his service as secretary of agriculture, and call as an apostle. I've also relied heavily on an excellent article by Michael Quinn on Benson's political conflicts.*

Also included are major issues dealt with by the Council of Twelve and First Presidency while Benson was in those quorums. Sometimes I've chosen to use the voice of other quorum members to illustrate issues Benson would have also dealt with.

Because of the length of this chronology, I've opted to gradually disseminate entries through daily posts over the next several months. I hope you'll consider subscribing via email, rss, or Facebook, and spend 3 to 5 minutes each day reading a bit more of Ezra Taft Benson's fascinating and varied life.

Subscription info at, upper right-hand corner (in full web view)

* Gary James Bergera, '"This Great Thing Which Has Come to Me a Humble, Weak Farmer Boy": Ezra Taft Benson’s 1943 Call to the Apostleship', Mormon Historical Studies (Fall 2008, v.9);  "Weak-Kneed Republicans and Socialist Democrats": Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 2, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, (Winter 2008, vol 41); '"Rising above Principle": Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 1', Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Fall 2008, v 41); "Weak-Kneed Republicans and Socialist Democrats": Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 2, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, (Winter 2008, vol 41); D. Michael Quinn, "Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26:2 (Summer 1992)