“The Long Odyssey,” Ensign, Feb. 1974, 8
“It is a long odyssey from that Idaho farm to this Tabernacle where thousands gather in respect and love to pay him honor and acknowledge the power of God in his life.” So spoke Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Council of the Twelve at the funeral services of President Harold B. Lee, December 29, 1973.
That odyssey had a swifter landfall than any of the members of the Church had imagined, for in many ways, Harold B. Lee had taught the Church to live in the mansions of the future even while they were being built. At the age of 74, he was as contemporary as tomorrow’s sunrise.
And in many ways, he was a light-bringer. He stood at the center of the Church like a beacon, blazing vision and vitality for the 17 months and 20 days that he led the Church. This man, whose soul’s aspiration was to be a “pure vessel” for the Lord’s revelations, burned with testimony of the Risen Christ. He lit new paths for the priesthood, for the Aaronic Priesthood and Melchizedek Priesthood MIAs, for the Relief Society, for correlation.
And he warmed the hearts of the many he touched with a special glow. He moved with the swiftness of energy, but a child could catch up with him and, unafraid, take his hand. He was direct and vigorous, but nothing could be gentler than his arm, circling an aged sister’s shoulders while he bent to listen to her words. He was authoritative in his directions, but his face was alight with love when he spoke of his brethren, the General Authorities.
There were times when his eyes sparkled mirth and his mouth had a humorous slant. There were other times when his face was lined with weariness and sobered with the weight of his responsibilities. There were times—many times—when his face was gentle and sweet as he dealt with the members of the church, people whose heartaches and trials he understood.
The odyssey began on a farm in Clifton, Idaho, hard country and hard living, where he was born March 29, 1899, one of the six children of Samuel Marion and Louisa Emeline Bingham Lee. He received a country education and with it and the support of his parents, looked beyond the farm. He was equipped with ambition, competence gained by early responsibilities faithfully fulfilled, and—most importantly—a testimony based on the righteous living of his parents and his own spiritual experiences.
The odyssey took him on a mission, to a temple marriage with a gentle dark-eyed girl, to a career in education that changed to a career in sales and management to public service as a Salt Lake City Commissioner, and to Church service as president of Pioneer Stake.
It may have seemed that he voyaged in foreign waters as stake president, for he focused on the physical needs of his hungry, ill-clad, ill-sheltered people in launching a comprehensive welfare program during those shivering Depression days. But the voyage was a spiritual one, a voyage inspired by a compassion that brought him to tears for his people, and carried out with a diligence and care that bespoke his understanding of stewardship and consecration. After his work with his own people, the First Presidency called on that compassion and conviction to help establish our present-day welfare program.
From then on the odyssey took him deep into spiritual realms. As an apostle, his vision of the priesthood as the “greatest organization” to carry out the work of the Lord was the inspirational force behind the vast correlation program of the Church. In addition to this mammoth task, he added his insight to the General Melchizedek Priesthood, Military Relations, and General Music Committees and served as adviser to the Primary and Relief Society General Boards. Here he practiced what he later advocated for the Church, that Church members follow the Brethren with a testimony “that goes down into your heart like fire” of their divine callings.
Here his ability to follow was perfected. Here he was shaped for the awesome burden of leadership that came to him, first as President of the Council of the Twelve and as first counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith. Here he saw the first blossomings of the teacher development program, the bishops’ training program, the revision of the missionary discussion lessons, and the great effort of the Church correlation committee to coordinate the entire curriculum of the Church.
He served as apostle for 31 years, from April 6, 1941, until October 6, 1972. For two of those years he was first counselor in the First Presidency. From October 6, 1972, till the day after Christmas, 1973, he led the Church as its prophet, seer, and revelator.
The odyssey ended in a hospital room with heart and lung failure. All the medical resources available focused on prolonging his life: tubes in throat and veins to aid breathing, a pacemaker installed in his heart, an hour’s heart massage. “But,” says one of the doctors on duty that night, “it was his time to go.”
He died, as all men must, but few men leave behind them the consoling knowledge that he had indeed finished his odyssey quietly, on schedule. Denying that his passing was “untimely,” Elder Hinckley bore his testimony that “the death of no man of God is ever untimely. Our Father sets the time.”
One of the members of the Twelve expressed the same quiet sureness that President Lee’s mission was accomplished. Focusing on the correlation program that has altered the curriculum of every auxiliary class in every ward and affected even the organization and orientation of the brethren themselves, he said:
He is like a man assigned to prepare transportation for a difficult journey into unknown lands. In order to insure a safe journey he takes the car completely to pieces, checks every part, puts in stronger gears, changes some of the connections to insure that the power is available in times of difficulty. The car is finally put together. He does the timing and the tuning and supervises the painting. He gets in and test drives it once or twice. Finally he gets out, polishes the last flecks of dust off the radiator cap, brushes off his hands, and contemplates the journey ahead. Then comes the signal, your work is completed. The journey will be safer because of your effort. Your work is over.
Ours goes on.
Our knowledge that Christ still leads his Church removes uncertainty, but it does not remove the pain of our bereavement. President Spencer W. Kimball spoke for the Church when he said softly, “How we loved him!”
In the pages that follow, pictures and his own anecdotes about his life highlight his growth in service and spirituality. Statements of sympathy reveal the cross-section of Church and public officials who mourn his passing. In “He Touched My Life” are testimonies from members of the Church who met him perhaps only once, but who will remember him always. Some of his great doctrinal insights are shared in “A Sure Trumpet Sound,” taken from his speeches and writings.
We share an intimately personal glimpse of the prophet’s boyhood home in the account of his mother’s life in “Louisa Bingham Lee: Sacrifice and Spirit.” The section ends with the magnificent tributes and testimonies borne of him by his fellow General Authorities in the funeral sermons of President Spencer W. Kimball, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, President Marion G. Romney, and President N. Eldon Tanner.
So passes a prophet.