Church History
Harold B. Lee

Harold B. Lee

Harold B. Lee served as the 11th President of the Church from July 1972 until his death in December 1973. He was born to Louisa Emeline Bingham Lee and Samuel Marion Lee in 1899 and grew up on a farm in Clifton, Idaho. He started school early in childhood and earned a teaching certificate from Albion State Normal School at 17 years of age, becoming the principal of the school in Oxford, Idaho, a year later. At age 21, he served a mission in the western United States and upon returning home enrolled at the University of Utah to continue his studies in education. Harold married Fern Lucinda Tanner in 1923, and they had two daughters, Maurine in 1924 and Helen in 1925.1

President Harold B. Lee and Fern Lee

Elder Harold B. Lee playing the piano, with his wife Fern.

Harold B. Lee was called as president of the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City in 1930, just as the Great Depression brought widespread unemployment and economic catastrophe. More than half of his stake’s 7,500 members needed work, and he piloted programs to help struggling families find employment and increase bishops’ storehouse inventory. The First Presidency called on Lee to head a committee to develop a Churchwide welfare plan. Launched in 1936, the resulting Church Security Program enhanced local stakes’ response to emergencies and spearheaded new work projects for the unemployed. Lee served as the managing director of the program from 1936 to 1941.2

In 1941, at age 42, Lee was ordained an Apostle by President Heber J. Grant. Elder Lee continued directing the Church’s welfare program and toured missions throughout the world. His apostolic ministry overlapped with global instability during the Second World War and the new international order that emerged in the war’s aftermath. Church membership and international reach grew more rapidly in the postwar years than they had in previous decades, making it difficult to implement Church programs uniformly. President David O. McKay tasked Elder Lee to lead the Church’s effort to unify Church operations and bring all organizations and programs under priesthood leadership oversight. Elder Lee supervised an accelerated correlation effort and was soon pleased to see priesthood quorums more closely direct the work of the gospel and Latter-day Saints across the world participate in the same lessons and activities.3

Within three years of 1962, Elder Lee lost both his wife, Fern, and daughter Maurine to sudden health failures, a season he called the “saddest experience” of his life. In 1963, he married Freda Joan Jensen in the Salt Lake Temple, and the two frequently traveled together on Church assignments during Elder Lee’s remaining years as an Apostle and later President of the Church.4

In 1970, newly ordained Church President Joseph Fielding Smith called Harold B. Lee to serve as a counselor in the First Presidency, in addition to Elder Lee’s new responsibility as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When President Smith passed away 30 months later, President Lee was ordained President of the Church. He almost immediately began suffering acute pain from blood clots and underwent almost constant medical treatment for the rest of his presidency. He still traveled to Mexico City for the second area conference in Church history, which gathered the largest assembly of Latter-day Saints at a general or regional conference to date. He also traveled to the Holy Land, becoming the first President of the Church to visit Israel, where he toured historical sites associated with the ministry of Jesus Christ, held impromptu devotional services, and organized the first branch of the Church in Jerusalem.5

The morning after Christmas Day 1973, President Lee was admitted to the hospital suffering fatigue and lung problems. He died unexpectedly later that day. “President Lee was a great friend of the downtrodden,” wrote Spencer W. Kimball, his successor as President of the Church. “While he was an outstanding administrator and tireless worker, frequently he found time to visit the sick and those heavy of heart. When President Lee prayed, he really talked with his Heavenly Father.”6

For more information about the life of Harold B. Lee, see the Prophets of the Restoration videos on or in the Gospel Library app.

Related Topics: Correlation, Welfare Programs, Great Depression

  1. L. Brent Goates, Harold B. Lee: Prophet and Seer (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1985), 37, 45, 48, 60, 84–86.

  2. Goates, Harold B. Lee, 86–88, 93–96; see Topics: Great Depression, Welfare Programs. The Church Security Program was renamed the Church Welfare Program in 1938.

  3. See Topics: Correlation, World War II, Servicemember Branches; Goates, Harold B. Lee, 367–73.

  4. Goates, Harold B. Lee, 345, 351–52, 356, 360–62.

  5. Goates, Harold B. Lee, 458–59, 472, 474, 484–85.

  6. Goates, Harold B. Lee, 575, 584–85.