“Flora Amussen Benson: Helpmeet of a Prophet, Handmaiden of the Lord,” Tambuli, June 1987, 14
They are sitting side by side on the sofa, leaning toward each other, shoulders pressed together. Would they sing for those present? “Should we?” he asks her, a boyish smile lighting his eyes. She nods, and they begin “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies,” a familiar American folk song. She sings the melody in a high, clear soprano, and he harmonizes in matched, mellow tones. With heads almost touching, their eyes meet frequently.
There is a fine harmony here—musical and otherwise—that has been sixty years in the making.
“That’s terrible!” he claims, laughing, when they finish singing. But to those listening, their small performance was right in tune, 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 U.S. 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.
“Flora has had more vision for me and my potential than anyone else in my life,” says President Benson. “Her faith and support have been a great blessing.” “I’ve been 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 constant companion. She is often a bit shy in public, but she lends strength to the man at her side.
Flora was the last child of the last wife of Carl C. Amussen, Utah’s first jeweler. Born in 1823 into a home of refinement in Kjolge, Denmark, Carl found the gospel at the age of twenty-five when he picked up a copy of Parley P. Pratt’s Voice of Warning that was blowing along the street. The wealthy jeweler and watchmaker, a deeply spiritual man, was soon baptized. When his sincere efforts to convert his family in Denmark failed, he closed up his business and 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 the first landscaped gardens and fountain in the state. He 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 took time out to serve 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 circling the globe. A scholar who spoke several languages, he owned one of the finest libraries and oil painting collections in Utah.
Flora’s mother, Barbara Smith Amussen, was born in 1867 in Tooele, Utah, to Scottish parents. She had a yearning for education, a love of beauty, and a cheerful, generous nature. In her early twenties, 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-six. 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 until he could afford to attend school full-time.
“Who is that girl?” he asked.
“Why, that’s Flora Amussen,” his cousin replied.
“When I come here to school, I’m going to date her.”
“You’ll never make it; she’s too popular for you.” “That makes it all the more interesting,” the future prophet answered. He already knew 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, she was vice-president of the Utah State Agricultural College student body and president of the girls’ athletic club. She also won the girls’ singles tennis championship, was elected to the honorary dramatic fraternity for Shakespearean acting, and was in constant demand for her natural ability to play almost every musical instrument—without having to read music.
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 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, and I determined to make the best of it,” 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—the sweetest relationship I have ever known between a parent and child.”
Likewise was Flora impressed with this courteous, good-looking, deeply spiritual young man. “I wanted to marry a farmer and learn how to 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 Isles Mission. When he returned, he lost no time in proposing.
But Flora had a timetable of her own, and “Not yet” was her answer. She felt this young man needed a good education to be prepared for the great future ahead of him. Besides, she had received her own 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.
One of young Sister Amussen’s mission duties was working part-time in the Hawaiian Temple. 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 dangerous 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 prepared to marry Ezra Taft Benson, who by then had graduated from Brigham Young University. 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 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, Iowa. They traveled east in a used Ford Model T pickup truck 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 championship at Utah State Agricultural College.’ I hadn’t known 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. 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 Lord did not leave the young family on the farm for long. Brother Benson’s interests soon took him to Preston, then Boise, Idaho; then to California, for additional schooling; and eventually to Washington, D.C. It was his call to the Council of the Twelve in 1943 that 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 reorganize the Church there and to distribute badly needed food, clothing, and medical supplies. President Smith lived near the Benson family and promised to watch over Sister Benson and the children while Elder Benson was away.
Although her health was severely tested during the ten months he was gone, Sister Benson’s steadfastness never wavered. Three months after Elder Benson left, their nineteen-month-old daughter, Beth, became seriously ill with pneumonia. Sister Benson’s constant faith and tireless nursing, accompanied by priesthood blessings, restored Beth to health.
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 United States 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 one occasion, as a missionary effort, Sister Benson decided to give a luncheon for Mrs. Eisenhower and the other wives of the president’s advisers. As was common practice in the Benson household, no outside help was hired for the affair. She and her four daughters spent weeks carefully planning a menu, cleaning their home, preparing entertainment, and reviewing etiquette and protocol.
If Sister Benson worried that her guests would miss the coffee, cigarettes, and card playing which normally were part of such affairs, she needn’t have. The cocktails made from ginger ale and home-bottled apricot juice were a great success, as was the entertainment—a choir from Brigham Young University that was 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 what wonderful youth the singers were,” Sister Benson remembers.
Those Washington years, fraught with controversy and criticism over agricultural policy made Secretary Benson the target for more organized and sustained criticism 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 … 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.” (American Magazine, June 1954, pp. 109–10.)
Her husband, children, and Church have been the principal focal points of Sister Benson’s life. Her husband has been absent from home at least half of their married life, leaving much of the family responsibility on her willing shoulders. She often declined invitations, even one from the President of the United States, when she felt she was needed at home.
“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 clean 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, Canada; 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 great-grandchildren.
“I wanted a dozen 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 shown to be correct at a later time.
“Mother has the ability to hear the whisperings of the Spirit,” agrees Reed. “Whenever she says, ‘I feel you should do such and such,’ I listen to her, because so many times she has 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.”
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 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.”