Ezra T. Benson, apostle, missionary, statesman and builder, cut down in the prime of life, left a record of achievement difficult to equal.
What was the secret of his success as a resolute leader in church and community life in Utah?
In retrospection it becomes apparent that the motivating force back of Ezra T. Benson’s exceptional record was his love of God!
His background reveals that same quality in his progenitors—hardy, brave folk who, for six generations, had been devout church-going builders of Massachusetts. True to tradition, his parents, Chloe Taft and John Benson, were staunch believers in a divine providence.
From his wise and intelligent mother and energetic, exemplary father, he learned to know God and the Gospel virtues. He learned to obey them. Therein lay the spring of his greatness. These characteristic traits developed in his youth, laid the foundation for the great spiritual character he became later. It prepared him and made him receptive to the Gospel truths when he heard them as a mature man in a struggling little frontier settlement in Illinois.
What had drawn him to Illinois? What unfulfilled hopes had led him away from the comfortable living in Massachusetts where, since 1765, his ancestors had lived profitable from the land. Why should he leave the pleasures of association with family and friends to endure the rigorous hardships of pioneering and begin a new life among strangers? It was not because of poverty. He had ample means. He had been successful in remunerative business ventures. Regardless of this he was not content. A restless urge which gave him no peace took him farther and farther west.
In conversation with George Q. Cannon, years later in Utah, he said in relation to those years, “I feel the Lord was preparing me for the future. I could not feel content in any of the many places that I visited, and where so far as worldly prospects were concerned I had every opportunity of doing well. The feeling of seeking—of going on—was ever with me until I heard the Gospel. Then I knew the Lord had guided me to Quincy, Illinois, for a purpose.”
From that time on, Ezra T. Benson’s life took on a new meaning. It became purposeful. Love of God dominated his will and gave him spiritual power and direction; it superinduced that quality which makes men great, that is, the ability to guide his course of life in the true and proper direction—never faltering—but each day making some progress toward perfection and eternal life.
Some men potentially great leaders, destroy their opportunity by seeking power, fame and the gratification of their selfish desires. Ezra T. Benson sought only to life to be acceptable in the sight of his Father in Heaven.
Following his conversion he was given responsible duties in the Church. His gratitude for this new knowledge of life and the plan of salvation was expressed by his willingness when work was to be performed. Nor did he shun an opportunity to preach and tell others of the revealed message of God.
During his lifetime he fulfilled many important positions at home and abroad. His vital personality, fine appearance, abounding energy and enthusiasm, together with his deep and abiding faity that God would not forsake his people in time of distress and need, made him a valued man who never gave up until his assignment was finished satisfactorily.
Scarcely had he entered and viewed the mountain valley in July 1847, when he was assigned to go back again across the dreaded wilderness with Porter Rockwell to advise and inform the oncoming Saints with respect to the location and route to Salt Lake Valley.
A gigantic problem confronted the leaders of the Church in Winter Quarters. There was dire financial distress among the people. The Church was poverty stricken. Cholera and small pox stalked in their poor, crowded shelters. Converts to the Church were arriving weekly by boat from New Orleans. Funds were needed immediately to aid the exodus to Zion.
Ezra Taft Benson was called by Brigham Young on a special mission, one that required arduous, untiring efforts and great tact. He was called to travel throughout the eastern states without purse or scrip to preach the gospel and persuade sympathetic people to give financial aid to the harassed, persecuted Mormons in their move to the West.
On his return he was set apart to labor with Orson Hyde and George A. Smith in presiding over the people of Potawattamie County and execute the movement to the Rocky Mountains.
A tremendous responsibility rested upon the shoulders of these brethren. The terrific task of organization—of providing adequate housing, food and proper equipment for the long journey with no means at hand—makes one realize how big of stature these early Church leaders were and what insurmountable difficulties can be overcome under the guiding hand of God.
Ezra T.Benson’s devotion to duty did not go unrecognized by his Heavenly Father. On his return trip to Utah in the late summer and fall of 1849, he headed one of the last companies to leave Winter Quarters. Three weeks after their departure he was stricken and lay nigh to death with what was known as bilious colic, but more probably was appendicitis. The prayers and supplications of the Saints for this eminent leader who had served them so well did not go unanswered. The Lord heard their please and touched Elder Benson with his healing power. As if by a miracle, he was completely healed, an attestation of the power and inner strength which comes from God to man through prayer.
Ezra T. Benson believed in prayer. He believed that prayer was the fuel which keeps faith alive and burning in our hearts. He admonished prayer ofttimes in his sermons. In discourses delivered at the Salt Lake Tabernacle on February 16, 1853, and again April 7, 1867, he said in part, “Show me an individual who lives without prayer and I will show you an individual who lives without the bread of life. Nothing short of the bread of life that comes down from God out of heaven can supply the wants an satisfy the feeling of the Latter-day Saints and those who love truth. If you suffer the Spirit of the Lord to leave your hearts and the devil comes along and finds an empty house, he enters in. Of all the qualifications given me, I want most of have a testimony of Jesus Christ that will pierce like a cannon ball.”
On his return to Utah in 1849, his health and strength flowed back and with renewed strength and vigor he took up his duties. Without thought of self or earthly pleasures he faithfully attended to his calling, performing zealously the tasks required of him. He loved the people and visited the ward and stakes in sunshine and storm to preach the gospel and minister unto their needs. It is said of him that it was not unusual for him when preaching to remove his coat, having become warm with the fervor and enthusiasm for the Lord’s work.
His love of life led him into various activities. His interest in the economic development of the people and the natural resources of the great basin was made manifest in many ways. He served continuously as an elected representative of the people in the legislature from the first session on until his death. His wisdom was felt in the forming of legislation for the good of the people. His views on taxation, road building, agricultural benefits and economic problems were sound and basic. As a part of his legislative life, Ezra T. Benson sent the following petition to the members of the legislature in 1852:
To the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Deseret:
Whereas we are and will be eminent among the nations it becomes possible for the benefits of this age in which we live as well as posterity and whereas your petitioners conceive numerous defects in the present English language which are detrimental to the progress of the learner, therefore your petitioners deem it expedient that a University should be established on liberal principles that education may be in the reach of every condition in life. For you will understand that the colleges, seminaries and established institutions of this age are beyond the reach of persons in destitute circumstances and even those who attend the high schools spend much of their time upon mere speculative nations about the spelling and original meanings without enlarging their minds with beneficial knowledge. We would therefore recommend plainness and simplicity that words may not lose their force from not being understood. We therefore recommend an alternative giving each word its most proper sound and appropriate letters according to their sounds and leaving out silent and unnecessary letters. We earnestly recommend and urge the necessity of an institution established wherein these defects may be remedied and that our posterity may receive a knowledge of all things and able to teach the nations far in advance of this age in science and religion. We therefore recommend that a committee be appointed who shall make such connections as will be deemed beneficial to the student that education may be freed from those parts that render it so difficult. A spelling book should be composed, a dictionary and reading book adapted to the advances of the scholar, containing useful knowledge. Also books on all the sciences calculated to enlarge the mind and benefit society that we may present to mankind a system of education of a superior nature.
We would not presume to discount anything that is correct but to purify what we have and add additional laurels to the wreath of intellectual enjoyment of man. We therefore submit the preceding statements and request to your Honorable Body and as petitioners in duty bound will ever pray.
Ezra Taft Benson
His devotion to duty is exemplified in the statement that he made shortly after being called to preside over Cache Valley, “It matters not to me what territory I go to reside in, if I can know and feel that I am doing the will of Heaven, and carrying out the counsel and instructions of my brethren who preside in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . . . . . .We are like an old blacksmith’s bellow, the moment we cease to blow, the fire dies. If we quench the spirit and do not magnify the Lord by our works and by our faith, that which is within us soon goes out. The moment we cease our exertions that moment we begin to decline.”
His attributes of affection, gentleness and thoughtful consideration for others were not external like a lovely clock that is worn for effect on special occasions, they were a part of his nature—constant and true. Within the confines of his home with his family, away from pomp and ceremony, it was then these qualities were most in evidence.
Exemplifying this affection and love for his family, a letter written to his fourth wife, Elizabeth, from Saint Louis in 1856 reads in part:
“I hope these few lines will reach you and that little Fred is in good health and spirits. I expect he is beginning to talk by this time.
“O how much greater the ties of a husband and father are when they are far from their loved ones, what would I give, could I step in and embrace you all in my arms this evening. Could money hire me to stay from my family with the feeling I have now? No, never! Were it not for the Gospel, I would start tomorrow morning for my mountain home as fast as steamboat and horse power could carry me, and I would try and see you in the less time than forty-eight days.
“Now I must close my letter by wishing you all the comforts and peace you can get. Give my love to all my Tooele brethren that inqure after me. Tell them to write me at No. 42 Islington St., Liverpool England.
I remain as ever
Your affectionate husband,
Ezra T. Benson”
Elder Benson at that time was stopping in Saint Louis en route to the European Mission to preside over it with Orson Pratt. Before he left on a trip of any length, each member of the family was bid an affectionate good-bye. Sometimes, when it was possible and his trips were short, he would take some of his children along with him. What fun it was to accompany “Pa” to Ogden or Brigham City.
Mrs. Tirvah Farr Gary, daughter of Lorin Farr, remembers of his coming often to visit at the home of her father. Many times he would bring three or four children. If the beds were all taken in the Farr home, the children were put in bed in the wagon box in the yard. Elder Benson would see to their needs himself. He heard their prayers and tenderly tucked them in and kissed them all good-night.
Ezra T. Benson, obeying the commandment of plural marriage as taught him by Patriarch Hyrum Smith, married eight wives with the consent of Pamelia the first wife. These refined, intelligent, capable women loved and respected their husband. Left alone so much of the time, with the cares of home and children while he was away performing the duties of his calling, they assumed this responsibility without murmur or complaint. A feeling of kinship and harmony existed between the wives. If one were ill and needed assistance, the others would come to her aid. Each family had their own home. Yet a feeling of unity prevailed among the families. Ezra T. Benson’s love and devotion for them all bound them together. His philosophy of respect for his family is expressed in this remark made by him, “When we say anything to our families let it be in accord with the counsel of the Spirit of God that union may prevail.”
This warmth and kindliness extended beyond his family to his friends and fellowmen in general. He enjoyed entertaining church associates. Mrs. Laura Mikelson, as a young girl worked for the Ezra T. Benson family. Mrs. Mikelson lived to be 96 years of age. She served for 23 years as the president of the Fourth Ward Relief Society of Logan. She ofttimes told his descendants of his kindness to others. She said, “We always looked forward to having General Church Authorities come from Salt Lake City. It was my job to see about the food. Brother Benson would roll up his sleeves and ask for an apron and help us serve. Seldom would he sit down until everyone was cared for. It was such fun and I felt it was such an honor to be in their company.
“When Indians would come around, which they often did, asking for staple supplies he would invite them in and ask them to sit down, often giving up his chair to one of them. His consideration of people was one reason we all loved him so.”
He was just as vital physically as he was strong spiritually. Working on his father’s farm in the open air and sunshine as a youth, developed and strengthened his muscles and gave him a physical body of great prowess and stature. He made a splendid figure on his white horse, which he rode on special occasions in Logan. On July 24, 1865, a grand celebration was held honoring the pioneers. As Brigadier General of the Logan Militia, he was escorted from his home by the Logan Marshall and bands, the Chaplain of the Militia and the bishops of the several wards to the public square where they joined the rest of the procession. On his prancing white charger, Elder Benson was the central figure of the parade.
Life was sweet to him. He lived every moment of the day to the fullest. He was a great leader and defender of the truth. In January of 1858, he said these words, “When a man will stand in defense of the truth, he has more power and influence among the nations of the earth than a dozen of the ungodly.”
Ezra T. Benson was a godly man, his influence for constructive living was widely felt while he was alive and has extended on to the third and fourth generation after his passing.
Some men have bequeathed great fortunes to their posterity; Ezra T. Benson left a legacy greater than gold—a good name, a name symbolic of faith, courage, endurance and the will to do.