Ezra T. Benson (1811–1869): A Brief History
By Benson Y. Parkinson
November 2003

Ezra T. Benson was born February 22, 1811, in Mendon, Massachusetts. Ezra was the great-grandfather of Ezra Taft Benson, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and later President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The original Ezra’s middle name was also Taft, but since the younger Ezra became famous, people generally call the older one Ezra T. or sometimes E. T., though as near as I can tell from his letters and writings, he rarely if ever used just “E. T.” himself. Ezra T. was an Apostle under Brigham Young.

Ezra married Pamelia Andrus in 1831. He farmed and worked in the hotel business and did well. For a time he ran a cotton mill in Holland, Massachusetts, but a cotton crop failure drove him out of business, so he went back into the hotel business and also became postmaster in his town and again did well. But he felt a persistent urge to visit the West. Friends and even acquaintances tried to dissuade him, and he wound up living in Salem and working for a trading firm for a time. When he got feeling he would like to go West again, friends offered to loan him any amount of money to start a business where he was, but he went anyway. He layed out the town of Pike in Illinois and sold lots, selling also goods and cordwood to riverboats on the Illinois River, but the place was feverish, and he began to look for a new place for his family. He moved to Quincy, Illinois, in 1839 and boarded with a family of Mormons recently driven from Missouri. He thought the Mormons strange at first, but also concluded they were not the characters the anti-Mormon preachers made them out to be. He grew more and more convinced by the Mormons’ teaching, and gradually, he says, “their spirits became amalgamated with mine.” He was baptized in 1840.

Ezra took advantage of every opportunity to learn and serve, and before long he was called to the stake presidency in Qunicy. After meeting the Prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, he moved his family there in 1841. He worked on the temple and told his neighbor, Heber C. Kimball, one of the Church’s Twelve Apostles, that he thought he was ready to go on a mission. Elder Kimball said not yet but a little later, and soon he received his call. In June 1842 Ezra left for an 18-month mission in New England, traveling without purse or scrip. His first sermon he felt was pretty clumsy. His second was so full of the Spirit he thought his feet were six inches off the ground. Then, as he says, he got thinking he was a preacher and failed to put his trust in the Lord as much as he should, and his third sermon was as dry as old bones. So he learned as he went along. He preached to his relatives, but none accepted the gospel, and some would have nothing to do with him. He did not do well among strangers either at first, but Willard Richards, another of the Apostles, came through and told him “not to be discouraged, for I should commence to baptize.” He persevered, facing mobs on more than one occasion. Once as he finished preaching some men blew out the lights and manhandled and spat on him with tobacco juice, and nearly tarred and feathered him, but the mob relented and let him go. As the months passed he baptized quite a number, just as Elder Richards had predicted, and at the conclusion of his mission led a large group of members to Nauvoo.

Upon his return he worked on the temple and also built his family a brick home in Nauvoo and made them comfortable. He was troubled when he heard of rumors of celestial marriage. So he asked Hyrum Smith, the Prophet’s brother and a member of the First Presidency, about them. Hyrum taught him that the principle was true if done with the proper authority, that man and woman could be sealed to each other for eternity, and that if the Lord commanded, just as in Old Testament times, a man could be sealed to more than one wife at a time. Ezra became convinced and accepted the principle and was sealed to Pamelia that day. A few months later he took a second wife, Adeline Andrus, Pamelia’s sister. By the end of his life he had 6 wives and 35 children. (He was married for time to two other women in caretaker marriages. One was Desdemona Fullmer, one of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s widows. Also, this number if children includes several who did not live past childhood.)

In 1844 Joseph Smith, despairing of getting help for the beleaguered Saints from any of the existing political parties or presidential candidates, decided to run for president of hte United States himself. Ezra was one of many faithful elders called to stump for him. He traveled to New Jersey, preaching and organizing, but in June news reached them that the Prophet and his brother Hyrum had been murdered. Ezra’s companion asked who would now lead the Church. “I told him I did not know, but I knew who would lead me and that would be the Twelve Apostles.” He returned to Nauvoo and was present when Brigham Young and the Twelve were chosen over Sidney Rigdon to lead the Church. He notes that many at the meeting saw Brigham changed to where he looked and sounded like the Prophet. (Eliza Perry, one of Ezra’s future wives, was one of these.) In December he began a third, six-month mission to New England, presiding in the Boston conference. Again he baptized many, but also had to work hard to counter the influence of Sidney Rigdon’s followers and other apostates. He taught tithing as a way to raise money for the Nauvoo Temple, and he experienced the gifts of healings and tongues.

Back in Nauvoo, he again worked on the temple, and because because mobs were beginning to assemble in Illinois now, stood guard there at night as well. He served on the high council, responsible for Church discipline during these troubled times. In December, when the temple was completed enough for ordinance work, Ezra and his wives received their endowments, after which Brigham Young called Ezra and Pamelia to work in the temple giving them to others.

Two months later, in February 1846, when the first group of Saints were preparing to leave Nauvoo, Brigham asked Ezra to accompany him. Ezra asked where he could find a team, as he had no property except a brick home and a lot he couldn’t sell. Brigham told him to ask every man he saw in the street until he found one. Ezra did so, and before the afternoon was out he had a wagon, team, and bountiful supplies. After a few days of travel he got bogged down in the mud and asked Brigham if he could stay behind on the prairie and come when he could. Brigham said, “No, come over to my camp and I’ll lighten you up.” So he did and Brigham gave most his food to other travelers, leaving him hardly anything for the journey. After that he rode fine on top of the mud while others bogged down to their axles. He’d tell them, “Go to Brother Brigham. He’ll lighten you up!” Ezra was made a member of the presidency in Mt. Pisgah, a way-station established by the pioneers for those who came later, but just a few weeks later, Parley P. Pratt, another of the Apostles, arrived with a letter informing him he had been called to be one of the Twelve. He said it struck him like a bolt of lightning from the blue. He traveled to Council Bluffs and was ordained there on July 16, 1846.

Ezra’s first duty, even before his ordination, was to help raise men to serve in the Mormon Battalion. Once they were off he was called to serve a mission in the East, which lasted from August to late November of that year. That winter with the Twelve he helped run things in Winter Quarters and organize the pioneers for their journey west in 1847. Ezra accompanied the first group, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley with Brigham Young on July 24, 1847. Ezra preached one of the first sermons in the valley, accompanied the Apostles on exploration parties up Ensign Peak and to the Great Salt Lake, where they bathed and found they could not sink. He was with Brigham and the Twelve when the President stuck his cane in the ground and said “Here we will build a temple to our God.”

Brother Brigham sent him with Porter Rockwell to take messages to the second company, but on return he met Brigham and the other Apostles with a company heading East again, so he joined them. On September 21, Indians stole many of their horses. The pioneers, caught unprepared, ran after them on foot, a pretty hopeless undertaking, but Ezra and Heber C. Kimball managed to get mounts and rode hot in their pursuit. The chief of the Indians meanwhile recognized the Mormons, who had been friendly to them on the way West, so came down with a party to smoke the peace pipe with Brigham and the brethren. Ezra and Heber rode up suddenly, hats blown off in the wind, which sent the chief’s men scurrying every direction and even into the creek. Soon they got things straight, and the Indians said to come to their camp and they would return their horses. When the pioneers arrived, they discovered a huge herd of 1000 stolen horses. True to their word, the Indians returned all the animals the pioneers could identify, though to the pioneers’ frustration, several of their best animals were nowhere to be found. They continued east again. Grass got more and more scarce, their provisions too. They began to grow sick eating so much game, and even that was getting hard to get as the season advanced, but a company came out from Winter Quarters to meet them, and on .

1848 Ezra went on a mission to raise funds for the pioneers. He traveled incognito through Missouri with a group of brethren, as Colonel Benson from Massachusetts. He visited Washington and talked with Colonel Kane, the Mormons’ famous friend. He and the other missionaries raised enough to fill a riverboat with goods to send to Council Bluffs but were disappointed at how little people were willing to give. When Brigham Young went West again in 1848, Ezra and George A. Smith remained behind as counselors to Elder Orson Hyde overseeing the Saints in Iowa. He worked hard to shore them up and prepare them to emigrate. In 1849, the first year of the gold rush, he told the people in general conference, “I go for salt instead of gold.” He and George A. each brought a company West that summer.

Ezra lived in Great Salt Lake City, farming and building a large home on the corner just southwest of Temple Square. He built first a sawmill and then a large flour mill in Tooele County, and he represented Tooele in the legislature, though he appears never to have lived there. He belonged to any number of civic and religious institutions, such as the Deseret Theological Society, the Deseret Typographical Society, and the Deseret Pomological Society (which promoted fruit trees), and was on the board of regents of the University of Deseret. Much of his time he spent traveling on assignment to visit the outlying towns in the territory and teach them and help them be unified. Brother Brigham sent him East for another load of immigrants in 1851–52 and again in 1854. He was a counselor to Orson Pratt in the presidency of the British Mission in 1856–57. Elder Pratt spent most his time writing and publishing the Millennial Star, counting on Ezra to travel throughout the isles and in Sweden to rouse up the people with his fiery speeches. Several times he faced mobs, somehow managing to come away unscathed for the most part.

He was called to preside in Cache Valley in 1860. He and Bishop Peter Maughn named most the towns and organized the bishoprics, and between them they oversaw everything that happend as those colonies got going. Ezra with some partners built a canal and another mill, which helped Logan get going, and later Ezra helped organize the Logan Cooperative Merchantile Institution, a large co-op that sought to unite the people economically and lift them out of their poverty. Later this became part of ZCMI. Indian raids were common in the early years. Ezra led the militia, which drilled regularly, and organized a network of minute men in every corner of the valley. He had a large flagpole in his front yard, on the hill just down from where the temple is now, that could be seen from all over the valley. That and other flags were used to signal the men. Ezra urged the people to be measured in their response to depredations, and to give the Indians food when they asked for it. Ezra represented Cache Valley in the legislature. All this time he continued to travel and to preach the gospel at home and throughout the territory.

In the 1860s a man named Walter Murray Gibson went to Hawaii and drew away a lot of Hawaiian Saints by telling them he represented the Church. He got them to pool all their resources for a plantation on the island of Lanai. He put priesthood certificates up for sale. It cost you $150 to be an apostle, lower amounts to be an archbishop, bishop, seventy, high priest, and on down to deacon. Ezra and four others were sent in 1864 to straighten things out. They preached to the Saints and excommunicated Gibson. Eventually all the Saints left him, though he got to keep the plantation.

Ezra contracted with the railroad to prepare a hundred miles of roadbed prior to the driving of the golden spike in 1869. This gave work to the people of Utah and brought the railroad with its increased trade and easier access for immigrants to Zion. Ezra’s company completed that and contracted for another hundred miles. The railroad was slow to pay, so he did his best to pay his men out of his personal holdings, which pretty well bankrupted him. These were tense times. On September 3 he traveled to Salt Lake to try to reach a settlement, stopping at his friend Lorin Farr’s as was his custom. He went out to walk a colicky horse, lifted a neighborhood boy on its back to give him a ride, and was walking back to the house, when suddenly he slumped in the yard and died. He was 58 years old.

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