Relief Society Lesson: The Life and Ministry of Ezra Taft Benson
A challenge with all of the Presidents of the Church manuals is to relate male life and leadership experiences to the life of the sisters in a local and modern day Relief Society. The overview of the life of President Benson provided in the manual contains sufficient information for multiple lessons. In an attempt to manage the extensive material and relate it to the lives of women I have highlighted favorite stories from most subsections of the overview and have also provided links and summaries to supplemental lesson resources that provide additional insight into the marriage partnership of Flora and Ezra Benson.
Lessons Learned on the Family Farm
This subsection of the lesson relates a remarkable story of how an infant Ezra Taft Benson was welcomed into the world through the innovative efforts of his grandmothers.
Ezra was born in the two-room farmhouse that his father had built the previous year. The delivery was long and difficult, and the attending doctor thought the 11¾-pound (5.3-kg) baby would not survive. But the baby’s grandmothers had a different idea. They filled two pans with water—one warm, the other cold—and dipped their grandson alternately in each pan until he started to cry.
Ezra Taft Benson was a hefty infant! He was fortunate to have two loving women attending his birth with faith and gumption to defy conventional medical wisdom and take action to save his life. When have people in your life defied the experts to successfully birth you through a difficult experience or bring about a big change? When have you been inspired to take an action that might not be conventional, but brought about something positive?
A large portion of this subsection discusses President Benson’s experience as a hard working child and youth on a farm. Were any members of the class raised on a farm? What values did they learn from this experience? How do we learn values like hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance outside of farm life? Who are examples of these values in your own life?
Another quote from this subsection relates to the spiritual center of the family, grounded in gratitude, humility, and sharing with others.
There was much of prayer in that little home in Whitney, Idaho. There was family prayer, night and morning, in which thanks was expressed for life with its challenges and opportunities, and in which pleas were made for strength to do the work of the day. Those in need were remembered, and when the family arose from their knees, the mother, who was the ward Relief Society president, would have the buggy loaded to share food with those in need, her eldest son as her driver. Those lessons were never lost.
President Benson’s mother set an example of loading the buggy with food to share with those in need. Who is an example to you of sharing with others in temporal or spiritual need? What helps you to be in a place where you are able to see the needs of others and share with them? How do you make prayer in your life meaningful and not a rote exercise?
Lessons Learned from Faithful Parents
This subsection relates how the Benson family dealt with their father being called on a mission. What can we learn about balancing the demands of parenting, earning a living, and fulfilling Church callings from the experiences of the Benson family?
These lessons of hard work, family unity, service, and gospel living began to be magnified one day when 12-year-old Ezra’s parents came home from a Church meeting with unexpected news. President Benson later recalled:
“As Father drove the horse homeward, Mother opened the mail, and, to their surprise, there was a letter from Box B in Salt Lake City—a call to go on a mission. No one asked if one were ready, willing, or able. The bishop was supposed to know, and the bishop was Grandfather George T. Benson, my father’s father.
“As Father and Mother drove into the yard, they were both crying—something we had never seen in our family. We gathered around the buggy—there were seven of us then—and asked them what was the matter.
“They said, ‘Everything’s fine.’
“‘Why are you crying then?’ we asked.
“‘Come into the living room and we’ll explain.’
“We gathered around the old sofa in the living room, and Father told us about his mission call. Then Mother said, ‘We’re proud to know that Father is considered worthy to go on a mission. We’re crying a bit because it means two years of separation. You know, your father and I have never been separated more than two nights at a time since our marriage—and that’s when Father was gone into the canyon to get logs, posts, and firewood.’”
With his father on a mission, Ezra assumed much of the responsibility of running the family farm. He “did the work of a man, though he was only a boy,” his sister Margaret later recalled. “He took the place of father for nearly two years.” Under Sarah’s leadership, Ezra and his siblings worked together, prayed together, and read letters from their father together. Seventy-five years later, President Benson reflected on the blessings that came to his family because his father served a mission:
“I suppose some in the world might say that his acceptance of that call was proof he did not really love his family. To leave seven children and an expectant wife at home alone for two years, how could that be true love?
“But my father knew a greater vision of love. He knew that ‘all things shall work together for good to them that love God’ (Romans 8:28). He knew that the best thing he could do for his family was to obey God.
“While we missed him greatly during those years, and while his absence brought many challenges to our family, his acceptance proved to be a gift of charity. Father went on his mission, leaving Mother at home with seven children. (The eighth was born four months after he arrived in the field.) But there came into that home a spirit of missionary work that never left it. It was not without some sacrifice. Father had to sell our old dry farm in order to finance his mission. He had to move a married couple into part of our home to take care of the row crops, and he left his sons and wife the responsibility for the hay land, the pasture land, and a small herd of dairy cows.
“Father’s letters were indeed a blessing to our family. To us children, they seemed to come from halfway around the world, but they were only from Springfield, Massachusetts; and Chicago, Illinois; and Cedar Rapids and Marshalltown, Iowa. Yes, there came into our home, as a result of Father’s mission, a spirit of missionary work that never left it.
You could also use this video clip on George Benson’s mission call in lieu of reading from the manual.
How did Sara Benson do it? Two years as the only at-home-parent to eight children! The lesson only mentions that the children took on additional responsibilities. What do you think were some of the costs to the family? Do you think Sarah Benson ever resented her father-in-law/bishop for calling her husband on a mission? How can we reach out to and support single parents in our community or those struggling with a spouse that is unavailable for equal co-parenting due to a church calling or work? Is there ever a time when it might be best for a family or individual to say “no” to a calling?
Church Service as a Young Man
This subsection relates an amusing anecdote where a 19 year old Ezra Taft Benson served as a young men’s leader. In order to inspire the youth to do well in a choir competition he promised a 35 mile hike as a reward. Ezra Taft Benson ends up shaving his head as well as delivering on the 35 mile hike.
I have chosen to introduce material about the life of Flora Benson in this subsection of the lesson. But, Flora Amussen Benson could easily be the subject of a separate lesson or could be introduced earlier in the lesson.
Flora Smith Amussen was born July 1, 1901, in Logan, the youngest of six children born to early Utah jeweler Carl C. Amussen and his wife, Barbara Smith Amussen. Carl Amussen had been a prominent Danish jeweler and watchmaker during the 1848 gold rush in Australia. He later joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, crossed the Plains in 1865, established his business and married Barbara, a Tooele native born of Scottish pioneer parents.
Flora’s father died when she was a year old, leaving her mother to rear six children. As a result, Flora and her mother developed an especially close relationship. (From a 5/31/94 Deseret News article)
Flora’s mother did not remarry. Both Flora and Ezra Benson shared the experience of spending at least a portion of childhood in a female led home with a father away from home or in the case of Flora’s father, deceased. How did these early experiences of female home leadership prepare them to meet the later challenges of President Benson’s Church and government service?
This subsection describes missionary experiences of both President Benson and Flora Benson. Yes, she served a mission!! (Have any other wives of Presidents of the Church completed missionary service?)
Consider using a video to introduce President Benson’s missionary experience to break up the monotony of reading from the manual. This 18 minute documentary covers the life of President Benson or you can use this short clip from the documentary that specifically addresses his mission experience.
Share from the manual this quote on how Flora prepared for a future with Ezra Benson.
Flora also looked forward to seeing Ezra. But she did more than anticipate the immediate prospect of spending time with him. She truly looked forward—to his future and his potential. From the time she was a teenager, she had maintained that she would “like to marry a farmer,”and she was happy with Ezra’s apparent desire to settle on the family farm in Whitney, Idaho. However, she felt that he needed to finish his education first. She later said, “[I] prayed and fasted for the Lord to help me know how I could help him be of greatest service to his fellowmen. It came to me that if the Bishop thought I was worthy, [he would] call me on a mission. The Church came first with Ezra, so I knew he wouldn’t say anything against it.”
Ezra was surprised when, after he and Flora had started courting again, she told him that she had accepted a call to serve a mission in the Hawaiian Islands. She was set apart on August 25, 1924, and she left the next day. Just after she departed, Ezra wrote in his journal: “We were both happy because we felt the future held much for us and that this separation would be made up to us later. It is difficult, though, to see one’s hopes shattered. But though we sometimes had a cry about it, we received assurance from Him who told us it would all be for the best.”
It all was truly for the best. Flora was, in the words of her mission president, “a very good, energetic missionary” who gave her “heart and soul, time, and talents to the work of the Lord.” She supervised the Primary organization in some areas of the mission, taught children at an elementary school, served in the temple, and participated in efforts to strengthen local Latter-day Saints. She even served for a time as a missionary companion to her widowed mother, Barbara Amussen, who was called on a short-term mission. Together, this mother-daughter companionship encountered a man who had joined the Church years earlier in the United States because of the efforts of Flora’s father, Carl Amussen. The convert had since fallen away from Church activity, but Flora and her mother fellowshipped him and helped him return to the Church.
Why was it important for Flora Benson to serve a mission? Many of the things that Flora did as a missionary are activities that women engage in outside of the mission field such as supervising Primary, teaching elementary school, fellow-shipping less active members and serving in the temple. What is different about doing these volunteer activities far from home? What benefits were derived from both partners choosing to serve missions?
Ezra and Flora Benson spent almost four years apart between their two missions during their courtship. How did time apart in their youth prepare them for the separations that came with travel and Church assignments later in life?
Now that the missionary age has been lowered should we expect most young women to serve missions?
Flora served for eight months with her mother as her mission companion. What do you think of that? Should this option be open today for widows and their daughters or granddaughters?
Beginning Life Together
This subsection describes marriage and the graduate school years for the Benson family.
One month after Flora returned from her mission, she and Ezra announced their engagement. Some people continued to question Flora’s judgment. They did not understand why someone so accomplished, wealthy, and popular would settle for a farm boy. But she continued to say that she had “always wanted to marry a farmer.” Ezra “was practical, sensible and solid,” she said. And, she observed, “He was sweet to his parents, and I knew if he respected them, he’d respect me.” She recognized that he was “a diamond in the rough,” and she said, “I am going to do all within my power to help him be known and felt for good, not only in this little community but for the entire world to know him.”
At the time of her marriage Flora had considerable wealth that she had inherited from her father’s estate. She gave that wealth to her mother (who had suffered adverse economic circumstances). It was important to Flora that she make an independent life with Ezra. What choices made by Flora and Ezra could serve as an example to young couples today?
This Deseret News article has some additional information on their early years of marriage.
Balancing Professional Opportunities and Church Callings and A Loving Unified Family
I have combined these two subsections as they are very much related. Young Ezra Taft Benson finished a masters degree in Agricultural Science and moved back to Idaho to run the family farm, only to move on quickly from local to national agricultural leadership positions. He accepted a calling as Stake President with a young family and intense career demands.
Ezra’s many responsibilities in Church callings and professional assignments often took him away from home. Sometimes the expressions of the young children emphasized this fact. For example, as he left for a Church meeting one Sunday, daughter Barbara said, “Good-bye, daddy. And come back again and visit us sometime.” It was a challenge for Flora to raise their six children with her husband gone so frequently, and she occasionally admitted to feeling “lonesome and just a bit discouraged.” Still, through it all, she cherished her roles as a wife and mother, and she was pleased with her husband’s dedication to the Lord and the family. In a letter to Ezra, she wrote: “As usual the days seem like months since you left. … [But] if all men … loved and lived their religion as you do, there would be very little sorrow [and] suffering. … You’re always so devoted to your family and ready at all times to give help to others in need.”
How do we express and manage feelings of loneliness and discouragement when doing something good takes a personal toll?
Sister Sheri Dew spoke on the life of Ezra Taft Benson as part of the Church History Department Men and Women of Faith lecture series.
Cue the video to minute 57:15 where I asked Sister Dew how President Benson managed his role as father with the extensive travel demands of his employment as Secretary of Agriculture. She explains that a significant burden fell to Flora and the older children and shares a story of when the family appeared on the Edward Murrow Show.
Providing Food, Clothing, and Hope in Post-War Europe
My favorite part of the hour-long Sheri Dew lecture on President Benson, speaks of his role as a man of faith in the context of his post-war mercy mission to re-establish contact with European members and distribute welfare relief. This topic starts at minute 9:45 of the video and concludes a little after minute 27. The 17 minutes of video is well worth watching and provides details from President Benson’s journal on the many challenges he faced. After learning about the 11 months he spent in the war ravaged Europe I felt a lot of respect for the first responder relief work he accomplished.
The manual describes how the Benson family responded to the news that Elder Benson would travel to Europe for an indefinite amount of time.
“In a sweet and impressive talk with my wife, sanctified by tears, Flora expressed loving gratitude and assured me of her wholehearted support. At dinner I told the children, who were surprised, interested, and fully loyal.”
A brief overview of his experiences
When Elder Benson and his companion, Frederick W. Babbel, arrived in Europe, they were saddened by the sickness, poverty, and devastation they saw all around them. For example, in a letter to Flora, Elder Benson told of mothers who were grateful to receive a gift of soap, needles and thread, and an orange. They had not seen such things for years. Elder Benson could see that, with the meager rations they had been given in the past, they had “starved themselves to try and give more to their children in true mother spirit.” He told of Church meetings in “bombed-out building[s]” and in “almost total darkness.” He told of refugees—“poor, unwanted souls, … driven from their once happy homes to destinations unknown.” He also told of miracles amid the grim results of war.
Why do you think Ezra Taft Benson was selected to head the mission to Europe when he had the most young children at home and the least amount of experience as an apostle?
When have you drawn from extraordinary faith to accomplish something significant?
Patriotism, Statesmanship, and Service in the United States Government
Ezra Taft Benson uniquely served both church and state simultaneously, once again putting significant demands upon his family.
The manual states
As Elder Benson had expected, his administration as secretary of agriculture was a tumultuous experience for him and his family. But he insisted that he was not trying “to win a popularity contest”—that he simply wanted “to serve agriculture and serve America”—and he followed this personal pledge: “It is good strategy to stand up for the right, even when it is unpopular. Perhaps I should say, especially when it is unpopular.” It was fortunate for him that he was not concerned with popularity; while he remained steady and true to his convictions, his popularity among politicians and citizens fluctuated drastically. At times, people wanted him ousted from his position as secretary of agriculture. At other times, people suggested that he would be a good choice for vice president of the United States.
The Gary James Bergera article Weak-kneed Republicans and Socialist Democrats: Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture provides some wonderful insights into the role of the Benson family in sustaining Elder Benson as he served as both an apostle and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Any discussion of Ezra Taft Benson’s eight years as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture must include mention of his family, especially his wife, Flora, and his oldest son Reed, whom he credited as his most valued advisers. “It was Flora’s ideas and courage -her positive influence and determination- more than anything else, “ Benson wrote in 1962, “which added steel to my spine to fight it out for principle against the nearly overwhelming pressures of political expediency.”
This 1956 quote from Flora as she spoke to 1,000 Republican women (from the Bergera article) is especially charming:
“We may live in Washington now, but I don’t have a maid. And when Mamie Eisenhower comes for dinner the girls and I pitch in and cook it. I guess I’ve just raised all my girls to marry poor men…When we women see things that are wrong, we must not just shake our heads. We must speak up. We are men’s helpmates-not just silent partners.” Afterward an observer quipped that Eisenhower should “get the [Benson] family a maid and send Mrs. Benson out in the nation to preach the gospel for the Republican farm program.
A few more quotes I enjoyed from the Bergera article,
I was trying to do all the jobs of a good homemaker, cooking, laundress, cleaning woman, nurse, counselor, time with my children, and at the end of the day look rested, poised, relaxed and properly groomed for a formal dinner or social engagement of some kind. . . . I was to look like a charming girl, think like a man, work like a dog and act like a lady.
As LDS women in what ways do we put excessive demands upon ourselves or one another? How do we balance achievement with self-care?
I also liked this Bergera quote where Elder Benson acknowledges the support of his wife and family.
I never realized it until later, but I know now that having Flora and the family nearby gave me new confidence in doing my job. I became more decisive, surer of myself, more willing to tackle the tough challenges. For years I had depended on her counsel and wise judgment to supplement my own thinking. In a good marriage that is inevitable. Husband and wife share their thoughts, and their desires, their problems, their joys and sorrows, until their unity is such that it’s hard to tell where one person leaves off and the other begins”
How does working in a partnership or team expand our capacity?
If you did not use the clip from the Sheri Dew video that discusses the Edward R. Murrow show, consider sharing this quote from the manual.
Even in his role as a government leader, Elder Benson was open about his Christian ideals, his testimony of the restored gospel, and his devotion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Whenever he conducted a meeting with his associates in the Department of Agriculture, the meeting began with a prayer. He sent President Eisenhower passages from the Book of Mormon that prophesied of the destiny of the United States of America, and the president later said that he had read them “with the greatest of interest.”He gave copies of the Book of Mormon to many other world leaders as well. In 1954, Edward R. Murrow, a prominent television news reporter in the United States, asked Elder Benson for permission to feature the Benson family on a Friday night program called “Person to Person.” Elder and Sister Benson declined at first, but they later consented after listening to their son Reed, who saw the invitation as a great missionary opportunity. On September 24, 1954, people all over the nation watched a live, un-rehearsed family home evening in the Benson home. Mr. Murrow received more fan mail as a result of that program than he had received for any other. People from all over the country and from varied religious backgrounds wrote to thank the Bensons for their shining example.
When is it appropriate to share our religious beliefs in the work place? How is our local culture like/unlike the circumstances in which Elder Benson served? Have any of you ever had a Family Home Evening you would want broadcast on national television? What ingredients go into your best family moments? How can single members of the Church be examples of a very family centered church?
A Special Witness of the Name of Christ
This subsection relates at some length a touching experience of interfaith and cross cultural connection as Elder Benson attended a Baptist church meeting in Russia. At the end of the narrative Elder Benson stated, “Seldom, if ever, have I felt the oneness of mankind and the unquenchable yearning of the human heart for freedom so keenly as at that moment.”
President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles/ President of the Church
I have joined these two subsections that cover history familiar to older class members. Consider having class members share their own recollections of President Benson.
President Benson gave a series of talks directed to specific audiences. I enjoyed reading about this response to his talk directed to children
President Benson wept when he received a letter from a family that had been influenced by one of these talks. In the letter, a young father explained that he and his wife had been watching general conference on television. Their three-year-old son was playing in a nearby room, where conference was playing on the radio. After hearing President Benson’s message to the children, the mother and father walked into the room where their son was playing. The little boy “reported excitedly, ‘That man on the radio said that even when we make mistakes, our Heavenly Father still loves us.’ That simple statement,” said the father, “has left a lasting and meaningful impression on our young son. I can still ask him today what President Benson said and receive the same enthusiastic reply. It is a comfort to him to know that he has a kind and loving Father in Heaven.”
Ask class members to share their own favorite teachings or recollections of President Benson as an apostle and prophet.
From the Sheri Dew video you might consider sharing the segment that begins at minute 43 on the gentleness and concern for others demonstrated by President Benson.
The Church History website has an interactive timeline on the life of Ezra Taft Benson with many more video links and photos than those referenced in this lesson guide.
This link will take you to a list of video clips of President Benson.