My main purpose is to see what we might learn from the life of this Latter-day apostle and how we might apply these lessons to our own lives.
I must start with my personal opinion that he was a great man. Any Latter-day Saint who has read the account of his remarkable humanitarian mission to Europe after World War II, or who can trace their daily study of the Book of Mormon to President Benson’s emphasis on this book of scripture, or whose lives were changed by his landmark sermon on pride, will agree with me on this.
A healthy respect for great men and women recognizes that none of us are perfect. The story of Peter is inextricably bound up with the heartbreaking account in the scriptures of his denials of the Savior the night before his crucifixion – but this account strengthens our love for Peter rather than diminishes it.
Such is the case with Ezra Taft Benson during the decade of the sixties. The historical record is quite clear on the facts. An understandable fear of Communism during the early days of the Cold War resulted in Elder Benson becoming over-zealous in publicizing his personal political opinions. This over-zealousness resulted in strained relations with several of the senior members in the Quorum of the Twelve and First Presidency, hurt feelings among many Latter-day Saints who did not agree with his opinions, and lost opportunities to counsel the Saints on important gospel subjects rather than politics. The historical record contains many instances of frustration of senior Church leaders during this period with Elder Benson, and his refusal to moderate his public remarks about politics. The First Presidency statement in January 1963 is but one of many examples. In this statement, they repudiated those who would claim the Church was aligned with the John Birch Society or “any extreme ideologies”, and while affirming their opposition to communism, stated “they who pretend to fight it by casting aspersions on our elected officers or other fellow citizens do the anti-communist cause a great disservice.”
Elder Benson’s refusal to follow counsel from his senior brethren has left an unfortunate and unforeseen legacy. It is well known that others in Church leadership disagreed with Elder Benson’s political views; Hugh B. Brown, Harold B. Lee and N. Eldon Tanner being among the most frequently mentioned. But since the other Brethren followed the counsel not to preach politics from the pulpit and Elder Benson did not, just reading General Conference talks from this period could give the mistaken impression that Elder Benson’s political ideology did, in fact, reflect Church doctrinal beliefs. Probably the most unfortunate consequence of this, as described in the above noted blog, was after the death of President David O. McKay. Some misguided political disciples of Elder Benson distributed petitions encouraging Latter-day Saints to vote no on the elevation of “socialist” Joseph Fielding Smith as Prophet and holding out for the advancement of Elder Benson over his more senior brethren.
One interesting question is this: Elder Benson as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve chafed at the restrictions against publicly preaching his political views. But after he became President of the Church, the preaching of politics was replaced by the important gospel doctrines that have become his legacy. Why? As we all hopefully do, President Benson matured and gained wisdom over the years. More importantly, if one believes in the principle of revelation to modern prophets, as I do, one is left with the unavoidable conclusion that his Priesthood Leader at the time instructed him to speak of other subjects. Earlier I mentioned President Benson’s landmark sermon on pride. I am confident that if given the opportunity, Ezra Taft Benson the Prophet would have counseled Elder Benson the Apostle twenty years earlier:
“Pride is a damning sin in the true sense of that word. It limits or stops progression. The proud are not easily taught. They won’t change their minds to accept truths, because to do so implies they have been wrong…We can choose to humble ourselves by receiving counsel and chastisement.”
So to the question: What can we learn from this? Even great men like Ezra Taft Benson can be temporarily decoyed into putting the things of this world above the basic principles of the Gospel. When that happens, our ability to have influence as disciples of Christ is diminished. All we who are passionate about politics, whether conservative or liberal, need to keep this important lesson in mind. If devotion to political ideology begins to rise above our devotion to the teachings of Christ and the Restored Gospel, we need to recognize and put aside our pride, as President Benson would have counseled us, and hit the reset button on our lives.
It’s a shame that many of President Benson’s modern political disciples have learned the wrong lesson from his life. To them, I would simply say: You are dishonoring a great man and a prophet of God when you attempt to intermingle his political views with his wise and timeless counsel on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.