Flora Amussen Benson: Handmaiden of the Lord, Helpmeet of a Prophet, Mother in Zion

“Flora Amussen Benson: Handmaiden of the Lord, Helpmeet of a Prophet, Mother in Zion,” Ensign, Mar. 1987, 14

Flora Amussen Benson:

Handmaiden of the Lord, Helpmeet of a Prophet, Mother in Zion

They are sitting side by side on the sofa, leaning toward each other, shoulders pressed together. Would they sing? “Should we?” he asks her, nudging her playfully with his elbow, a boyish smile lighting his eyes. She nods, and they begin “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies,” she singing the melody in a high, clear soprano and he harmonizing in matched, mellow tones. With heads almost touching, their eyes meet frequently.

There is a harmony here—musical and otherwise—that has been sixty years in the making: a comfortable blending, a synergism that declares that together they are greater than the sum of each of them would be. A prophet and his wife.

“That was terrible!” he claims, laughing, when they finish singing. But to those listening, their small performance was right on key, typical of the harmony Ezra Taft Benson and Flora Amussen Benson have displayed as they have sung, laughed, prayed, and worked together through six decades. The years have taken them from a small farm in southern Idaho to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Cabinet in Washington, D.C.; from missions in the British Isles and Hawaii to the Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Sister Benson has been exactly the wife President Benson has needed to accomplish what he has,” says Gary Gillespie, President Benson’s secretary and close companion for six years. “She has been a great anchor and support to him.”

Sister Benson

A recent portrait of Sister Benson. (Photo courtesy of Busath Photography.)

“Flora has had more vision for me and my potential than anyone else in my life,” concurs President Benson. “Her faith and support have been a great blessing.”

President and Sister Benson

President and Sister Benson at a general conference in the 1970s.

The Bensons are sitting in the living room of their condominium across the street from the Church Office Building, the majestic spires of the Salt Lake Temple framed in their picture window. This, their latest home, is comfortable, though not lavish, decorated in muted tones that reflect an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Laughter is frequent as they reminisce about their lives. They talk easily, often finishing the other’s sentences, completing the other’s thoughts.

“I am very blessed to be the wife of a prophet,” says Sister Benson. Her husband’s calling takes him all over the world, and Flora has been a frequent companion. She is often reserved in public, but her presence lends strength to the man at her side. As they visit congregations across the continents, they meet with Saints eager to hear a few words from the wife of the President of the Church. Sister Benson obliges, usually by reciting a poem that has become a creed in her life: “Home” by Edgar A. Guest.

It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home

A heap o’ sun an’ shadder an’ ye sometimes have t’ roam

Afore ye really ’preciate the things ye lef’ behind,

An’ hunger for ’em somehow, with ’em allus on yer mind.

Ye’ve got t’ sing an’ dance fer years, ye’ve got t’ romp an’ play,

An’ learn t’ love the things ye have by usin’ ’em each day.

(Collected Verse of Edgar A. Guest, Chicago: Reilly and Lee Co., 1934, p. 12.)

“Every time she recites that, she steals the show!” her husband declares, obviously pleased at the affection that flows between the Saints and his wife. But Flora Amussen Benson has been winning hearts all her life.

Flora was the last child of the last wife of Carl Christian Amussen, Utah’s first jeweler. Born in 1825 into a home of refinement in Kjolge, Denmark, Carl wandered as a young man through Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, where he found the gospel when he picked up a copy of Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning that was blowing along the street. The wealthy jeweler, watchmaker, and dentist, a deeply spiritual man, was baptized at the age of thirty-nine. When his sincere efforts to convert his family in Denmark failed, he closed up his business and, bidding them farewell, left Europe to join the Saints in Utah.

From St. Louis, Missouri, to Salt Lake City, Elder Amussen traveled in style, with a cook and a driver for his ox-drawn wagon. When he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, he reestablished his jewelry business. It soon became a showpiece in the new city, with slate shingles—carried across the plains in the same wagon as his jewelry—and Utah’s first landscaped gardens and fountain.

For many years Brother Amussen was a successful businessman, Church worker, and civic leader, first in Salt Lake City and then in the northern Utah town of Logan. He also served four missions, two to Denmark and one each to Australia and New Zealand. He provided amply for his family, often taking family members on extended trips, twice encircling the globe. A scholar who spoke several languages, he owned one of the finest libraries and oil painting collections in Utah. The facade of his store still stands today on Main Street in Salt Lake City.

Flora’s mother, Barbara Smith Amussen, was born in 1867 in Tooele, Utah, to Scottish parents. Their pioneer qualities flourished in Barbara, including a yearning for education, a love of beauty, and a cheerful, generous nature. In her late teens, she married Carl Amussen, a man forty-two years her senior.

Sister Amussen gave birth to eight children, the last of whom—Flora—was only one year old when Brother Amussen died at age seventy-seven. A widow for the last forty years of her life, Sister Amussen served for more than twenty years as an officiator in the Logan Temple.

Flora Amussen’s character was nurtured in a home rich with love and faith. Although she doesn’t remember her father, stories of his life influenced her a great deal. But it was the closeness that developed between mother and daughter that gave Flora her rich foundation of faith, self-confidence, and reliance on the Lord.

Flora first saw “T,” as she affectionately calls her husband, when she was attending Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in Logan. He was standing on the corner with his cousin, one of her friends, as she drove by in her car and waved pleasantly. “T” was visiting the campus, taking college courses by home study and planning to attend full time during winter quarter. (“I wasn’t as affluent as some of my friends,” he explains. “I couldn’t afford to attend school all year.”)

“Who is that girl?” he asked.

“Why, that’s Flora Amussen,” his cousin replied.

“When I come here, I’m going to ‘step’ her.”

“You’ll never make it; she’s too popular for a farm boy.”

“That makes it all the more interesting,” the future prophet answered. He had a feeling she was the girl he was going to marry.

But the farm boy from Idaho found rigorous competition for Miss Amussen’s time. During her college years, the pretty coed was vice-president of the USAC student body, president of the Women’s Athletic Club, and chairman of the Junior Prom committee. She also was elected to the honorary dramatic fraternity for Shakespearean acting, having taken the lead in Twelfth Night, and was in constant demand for her ability to play the piano by ear.

President Benson recalls arriving for his first date with the “most popular girl in town.” Through the graciousness of Flora and her “queenly mother,” the farm boy in the “blue serge suit, shiny in the back,” was soon at ease in the large home of culture and refinement.

“As we left the house and she kissed her mother tenderly, I knew I was the escort of a choice girl,” he remarks.

“Nothing in Flora’s life impressed me more deeply than her reverent kindness to and deep love for her mother,” continues President Benson. “Their companionship was an inspiration—one of the sweetest relationships I have ever known between a parent and child.”

“I was determined not to marry someone unless he loved my mother as much as I did,” explains Sister Benson. A mutual relationship of respect and love soon grew between Sister Amussen and her future son-in-law, in whom she sensed great promise.

Likewise was Flora impressed with this courteous, handsome, deeply spiritual young man. “I wanted to marry a farmer, learn farm work, and cook and sew,” she says, adding emphatically, “and I learned!”

The young couple’s courtship was interrupted when Elder Benson was called to the British Mission. When he returned, he lost no time in proposing.

But Flora had a timetable of her own. She had a desire to serve a mission and received a call to the Hawaiian Mission. She served twenty months, part of the time teaching in the Church schools. For the last eight months, her mother was her missionary companion. During the time Sister Amussen and Elder Benson were serving missions, they decided to correspond once a month, with one strict rule—no mush!

It was in Hawaii that Flora had an experience that demonstrated the spiritual tone of her life. The young missionary was working part time in the Hawaiian Temple as part of her mission duties. One night, as she was getting ready to leave, she discovered everyone else was gone. Her walk to the mission home was through a dense forest and by a camp where some rough incidents had occurred. She feared for her safety.

Before leaving the temple, Flora prayed for the Lord’s protection. As she stepped outside, a circle of light appeared and surrounded her. That radiance shone around and ahead of her as she walked through the forest, past the camp, and to the steps of the mission home, disappearing as she slipped safely inside. She has since felt encircled with security and guidance many times as she has trusted in the Lord, though never as literally as that night in a land far from home.

Returning from her mission, Flora and Ezra Taft Benson, who by then had graduated from Brigham Young University, made plans to marry. On 10 September 1926, Flora Amussen left a handsome monthly allowance to begin married life on a meager subsistence with her beloved “T.”

“I had inherited from my father quite a portion of worldly goods in stocks and substantial dividends,” Sister Benson explains. “I turned all of this over to my widowed mother at the time of my marriage. I chose to marry a man who was rich spiritually, not materially. I preferred that whatever positions of honor or material things would come to us, we would achieve together, starting at the bottom.”

Hours after the ceremony, the newlyweds left Salt Lake City to take a seventy-dollar-a-month postgraduate scholarship at Iowa State College at Ames. They traveled east in a used Model T pickup that contained all their earthly possessions, camping along the way in a leaky tent.

While her husband worked on his Master of Science degree, Sister Benson took courses in home economics. The couple learned new ways to make their money stretch through the month, always taking out seven dollars first to pay the Lord his tenth. “The lessons I learned were priceless,” Sister Benson recalls. “Money could not buy them. We lived on the Lord’s help and the love that bound us together.”

A few weeks after their marriage, “T” felt they needed some recreation and suggested a tennis game. “I tell you, I never was beaten so badly in my life at anything,” President Benson laughs. “I said, ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’ Flora replied, ‘Oh, I won the women’s singles at Utah State.’ I hadn’t known that.” He pauses, then adds, “I’m not sure if we ever played again after that.”

After Brother Benson’s graduation, the Bensons moved to a farm in Whitney, Idaho. “We had a heavy debt on the farm,” President Benson remembers.

“It took hard work, budgeting, and planning to meet our obligations,” recalls Sister Benson. “Sometimes we would just get a cow paid for, and then we would have to sell it to pay the doctor for the arrival of a precious baby.”

But the young family did not stay on the farm for long. Brother Benson’s abilities soon took them to Preston, then Boise, Idaho; then to Berkeley, California, for additional schooling; and eventually to Washington, D.C. In 1943 a call from the Lord through his prophet Heber J. Grant changed the course of their lives forever—Brother Benson was called to be the youngest Apostle in the Council of the Twelve. This call brought them back to Salt Lake City.

Just two years later, at the close of World War II, Elder Benson was called by President George Albert Smith to go to Europe to reestablish the Church and to distribute badly needed food, clothing, and medical supplies. President Smith lived near the Benson family in Salt Lake City and promised to watch over Sister Benson, left alone with six young children while Elder Benson was away.

Although she was severely tested both physically and spiritually during the ten months he was gone, Sister Benson’s steadfastness and courage never wavered. Three months after Elder Benson left, their nineteen-month-old daughter, Beth, became seriously ill with pneumonia. Not wishing to distract her husband from his important assignment, Sister Benson made mention of Beth’s struggle for life in a letter to her husband only when the situation became desperate. Her constant faith and tireless nursing, accompanied by priesthood blessings, restored Beth to health. The letters the Bensons exchanged during this time speak volumes of the love and devotion of these close companions, yearning to be together but diligently serving the Lord apart.

Another chapter in the Bensons’ life began a few years later when Elder Benson, with the encouragement of President David O. McKay, accepted an appointment as Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower. Sister Benson cheerfully moved her family to the nation’s capital, focusing her time and energies on her family and shunning much of the Washington social scene.

But on several occasions, Sister Benson entertained the president and Mrs. Eisenhower and other prominent individuals. One such occasion was a luncheon she gave for Mrs. Eisenhower and the wives of the other Cabinet members. She and her four daughters spent weeks carefully planning a menu, cleaning their home, preparing entertainment, and brushing up on etiquette and protocol. As was common practice in the Benson household, no outside help was hired for the affair.

Sister Benson did not worry that her guests would miss the coffee, cigarettes, and card playing which normally were part of such affairs. The cocktails made from ginger ale and home-bottled apricot juice were a great success, as was the entertainment provided by the Benson children and the thirty-five madrigal singers from Brigham Young University who were touring the east coast.

“The most exciting part was the beautiful letters we received afterward from the women, telling us what a thrill it was to experience a touch of ‘Mormonism’ and family cooperation and what wonderful youth the BYU singers were,” Sister Benson remembers.

On another occasion, Secretary Benson and his family were invited to appear on the popular Edward R. Murrow “Person to Person” television show. At first Sister Benson was reluctant to “have her family exposed to the nation,” but when her son Reed pointed out that they would be “exposing the nation to the gospel,” she agreed.

The live television program featured the entire family participating in a typical Benson family home evening. It proved to be a huge missionary success, with many favorable responses about the family and their life-style directed to Mr. Murrow. He commented later in a national magazine that, to his surprise, the favorable mail response to the Bensons’ appearance topped the response to all other “Person to Person” shows.

Thought time would vindicate him, those Washington years were fraught with controversy and criticism over agricultural policy and his personal convictions. Secretary Benson was the target for more organized and sustained attacks than anyone else in high government office. Yet he was known for his peaceful manner and ability to stay cool under pressure.

What was his secret? American Magazine identified it as his home and family life, and more specifically Sister Benson. “[Secretary Benson] has gathered from both his religion and his close family life a strength and serenity that’s all but unique in public life. … Flora is considered to be the pivot on which the family moves. Friends of the family agree that she acts as a leavening influence on her husband.” (June 1954, pp. 109–10.) Those who grew up with the Benson children describe Sister Benson as “a delight—of all mothers, one of the most fun to be with.” It is not surprising that Sister Benson was honored as Homemaker of the Year in 1955 for her role as wife and mother.

Her husband, children, and Church have been the principal focal points of Sister Benson’s life. With his heavy duties, her husband has been absent from home at least half of their married life, leaving the brunt of family responsibilities on her willing shoulders. She often turned down invitations, even from the President of the United States, when she felt she was needed at home.

“I remember when Mother turned down a White House invitation so she could attend my high school choir program,” says Bonnie Madsen, the Benson’s third daughter. “Do you know what kind of security and confidence it gives to a child to know she is that important to her parents? That she is loved that much?”

“She never missed anything we were involved in and always supported us 100 percent,” says oldest daughter, Barbara Walker. “When I was campaigning for a student government office, she helped me make posters and flyers, and then went with me to distribute them on campus. She has always been enthusiastic and dynamic.”

“We never felt deprived because Dad was away from home so much,” declares Beverly. “Mom always made us feel that we were blessed to be his children and privileged that the Lord could use Dad as His special servant.”

“Flora was always there for the children and for me,” says her husband. “I can’t remember a time when I came home and didn’t find her there. She would meet me at the door with a smile and an embrace. It was that love and support that sustained me during my years in Washington when I was constantly under fire.”

It was during those years that the Bensons celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary. For Christmas that year, President Benson gave his wife a round, golden pendant which she has worn daily since. It is inscribed, “To Flora, For constant help, devotion and inspiration, Lovingly, T 1926–1956 Christmas.”

“One of my fondest memories is of Mom and Dad sitting together on the porch in Boise, Washington, Salt Lake City, or wherever we were living,” recalls Mark Benson. “I remember chasing fireflies and running through the irrigation water on the lawn and then coming back to them on the porch, where they were holding hands and talking.”

This love fortified the family. “Our parents instilled deep feelings of loyalty and love among us children,” Mark continues. “I don’t think that kind of atmosphere is generated naturally in a home, but is encouraged and promoted by a concerned and loving mother and father.” As the children have married and family numbers have increased, that same bond has easily stretched to encompass all newcomers, from spouses and in-laws to each cherished grandchild and great-grandchild.

“I would be willing to live in a log cabin if I could have my family and the gospel,” Sister Benson claims, then adds with a semi-serious wink, “Well, if the cabin is cleans and I can have curtains at the windows.”

The Bensons’ family includes son Reed, his wife, May and their nine children of Provo, Utah; son Mark, his wife, Lela, and their six children of Salt Lake City; daughter Barbara, her husband, Robert Walker, and their five children of Calgary, Alberta; daughter Beverly, her husband, James Parker, and their four children of Burke, Virginia; daughter Bonnie, her husband, Lowell Madsen, and their six children of Littleton, Colorado; and daughter Beth, her husband, David Burton, and their four children of Salt Lake City. In addition, they have twenty-two great-grandchildren.

“I wanted twelve children, but had to settle for a choice half dozen,” Sister Benson says, adding, “If we just would have had twins every time, we would have made it.”

In her patriarchal blessing, given when Flora was only eighteen months old, she was promised that men would not be able to deceive her. That promise has been fulfilled in her discernment and unerring judgment. On meeting a person for the first time, she often relates her impressions to her husband, only to have those feelings borne out at a later time.

“Mother has the ability to hear the whisperings of the Spirit,” agrees Reed. “Whenever she said, ‘I feel you should do such and such,’ that made a difference because so many times her feelings have been right. I have often walked into a room to find her on her knees, praying. I know that when she prays for you, you have a direct line of help.”

“Even when I was the only child left at home,” says youngest child Beth Burton, “Mother stayed there to be with me, still waiting up when I came home from a date, or just being there when I needed someone to talk to. But the minute I got married, she enjoyed at last the opportunity to be able to travel with Dad and spend more time with him.”

Recently, President Benson said that under all circumstances Flora has been “the perfect lady. … her congeniality, fine sense of humor, and interest in my work have made her a pleasing companion, and her unbounded patience and intelligent insight into children have made her a most devoted mother.

“These and other virtues, combined with a loyalty and self-sacrificing devotion to her husband, impel me to crown her the sweetest, most helpful, most inspiring sweetheart that ever inspired a man to noble endeavors.”

The Bensons enjoy one another’s company now more than ever, still going on frequent drives in the mountains, eating ice cream at a favorite spot, and singing and dancing together. Each day Sister Benson reads the Book of Mormon aloud to her husband, after which they discuss what they have read.

Both agree that one of the greatest strengths of their marriage is the absolute love and trust each has in the other. “I have never, never, had any question about Flora’s loyalty,” President Benson stresses. Each is still happiest when they are together.

After singing “There’s a Long, Long Trail a ‘Winding” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” at a recent family gathering, President Benson smiled at his wife of sixty years, declaring, “You’d think we were still in love … and we are.”

  • Derin Head Rodriguez, a free-lance writer, is a Relief Society teacher in the Draper (Utah) Eighth ward.

Opposite page, left: Sister Benson and her children in 1946: (from left) Reed, Sister Benson, Bonnie, Beverly, Mark, Barbara, and Beth; Elder Benson was in Europe helping to reestablish the Church after World War II. This page, below: Flora Amussen at about two years.

Right: Flora Amussen as a child. Center: Sister Benson in the 1960s. Far right: Sister Benson, always dedicated to home and family, is honored as Homemaker of the Year in 1955.

Opposite page, left: Sister Flora Amussen (back row, center) about 1925 with a school class she taught while serving a mission to Hawaii. Opposite page, right: Sister Benson, dressed to accompany her husband, then Secretary of Agriculture, to U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s inaugural ball. This page, left: President and Sister Benson celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1976. This page, right: Flora Amussen shortly before her marriage in 1926.