I’m glad to see that the LDS manual for Teachings of the Presidents in 2015 will cover Ezra Taft Benson, the man who was President of the Church from 1985 to 1994 and served as an Apostle beginning in 1943. Though he was often controversial for his views on government, one thing you must remember about him is that he may have more experience with government and politics than any other LDS president or apostle, having served as serving as United States Secretary of Agriculture from 1953 to 1961 under US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also had more to say on government than almost any other Church leader, and throughout his tenure as an Apostle frequently addressed topics such as the proper role of government, the US Constitution, threats to freedom, the existence and goals of secret combinations, etc.
Much of what he said on these topics was said during the Cold War era, so his comments and rhetoric are often directed to communism and socialism, and surely will be offensive to many in our day, especially those who consider socialism as progress. The progress of the US government in size, power, and debt generation since his day surely has been impressive, and is quite in line with some of his warnings. His frequent statements on such topics, however, strike me as thoroughly downplayed in the new manual with his teachings, which may be entirely appropriate given the potential for political divisiveness and distraction from the goals. (The manual is intended for use during adult classes on the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of the month, and is used during the 3rd hour of our 3-hour block on Sundays.) But some may interpret the relative silence on such topics in the new manual as the result an official stance that such views are discredited and irrelevant today. I don’t think that’s a justified assumption. On the other hand, his controversial statements while an Apostle quickly became much more toned down once he was President of the Church, though he did not become completely silent or drop his stance, as you may see from a reference I mention below.
Personally, I think much of what he had to say is worth understanding in the context of where the world was then, and in terms of the basic principles of personal liberty. We don’t discuss these issues in much depth any more, I fear, though I hope we will consider these issues in our studies and have a healthy discussion in appropriate forums. The world has changed a great deal since the Cold War, but the conflict of personal liberty versus concentrated power in the hands of conspiring men (or even well meaning men) is still relevant, in my opinion, just as it was when the Constitution was framed. He saw and experienced a great deal about how government works, and I think it is foolhardy to disregard what he learned and saw without seeking to understand him. Further, for those who take the Book of Mormons seriously, it may be a fruitful exercise, regardless of your political views, to compare Book of Mormon teachings with his interpretation of its content relevant to government and secret combinations.
For a little further background regarding his views, see his 1979 General Conference address, “A Witness and a Warning.” Also see his October 1988 talk given as President of the Church, “I Testify,” which makes an ominous reference to Ether 8 in the Book of Mormon and the complex topic of “secret combinations.” If you want to more fully see what made him so controversial and so despised by some, dig up a copy of a book he wrote before he became President, An Enemy Hath Done This.
His tenure as President was a difficult one, touched with controversy not just from his previously expressed views on politics and government, but also with his tenure while ill and incapacitated. His last couple of years were sad and frustrating ones for his family and for the Church.
May the Priesthood and Relief Society lessons in 2015 be worthwhile and helpful, without painful controversy and political divisiveness. For those who didn’t like President Benson or his more controversial views, my scanning of
the new manual suggests it won’t be too difficult of a year for you. There is wisdom in sticking to the basics in our classes, but also much wisdom in digging deeper on our own.