“Chapter 11: Harold B. Lee: Eleventh President of the Church,” Presidents of the Church Student Manual (2004), 177–93
“Chapter 11,” Presidents of the Church Student Manual, 177–93
He was born 28 March 1899 in Clifton, Idaho, to Samuel Marion and Louisa Emily Bingham Lee.
He attended Oneida Stake Academy (1912–16).
He taught school for four years (1916–20).
He served a mission to the western United States (1920–22).
He was a principal in the Granite School District, Salt Lake City, Utah (1923–28).
He married Fern L. Tanner (14 Nov. 1923; she died 24 Sept. 1962).
He became president of the Pioneer Stake (26 Oct. 1930); he helped develop self-help projects in his stake.
He was appointed a member of the Salt Lake City Commission (Dec. 1932).
He was called to organize the Church Security Welfare Program (1935).
He became managing director of the Church Security Welfare Program (15 Apr. 1936).
He was ordained an Apostle (10 Apr. 1941).
He toured the Orient (fall, 1954).
He toured the missions of Central and South America (1959).
He became chairman of the Church Correlation Program (4 Oct. 1961).
He married Freda Joan Jensen (17 June 1963).
He became President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith (23 Jan. 1970).
He became President of the Church (7 July 1972); he organized the Jerusalem Branch (20 Sept. 1972); he presided at the second area conference of the Church, in Mexico City (26–28 Aug. 1972).
He died in Salt Lake City, Utah (26 Dec. 1973).
Reporters waited anxiously on 7 July 1972 for their first press conference with Harold B. Lee, newly ordained President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To them he said, “The safety of the church lies in the members keeping the commandments. There is nothing more important that I could say. As they keep the commandments, blessings will come” (quoted in Stephen W. Gibson, “Presidency Meets the Press,” Church News, 15 July 1972, 3).
Harold B. Lee’s great-great-great-grandfather William Lee fought and was wounded while fighting against the British in the Revolutionary War. His great-grandfather Francis Lee joined the Church in 1832 and passed through the travails of sufferings that the early Saints endured. His grandmother Margaret Lee experienced eleven pregnancies, but had no children survive until her twelfth, Samuel Lee. She died eight days after his birth.
Harold Bingham Lee was born in Clifton, Idaho, on 28 March 1899 to Samuel and Louisa Bingham Lee. Harold was the second of six children. Samuel Lee, Harold’s father, was a quiet, compassionate, unassuming, thoughtful man. He was a devoted husband and father and a faithful servant of the Lord. When Harold was called on a mission to Denver, Colorado, his father gave him a blessing. When he was called as an Apostle, his father again gave him a blessing. His mother, Louisa, was a strength in and out of the Lee home. She was sensitive to the Spirit and taught her son to follow the promptings of the Spirit.
As Harold B. Lee grew up, he experienced the challenges of rural living. During his youth there were few tractors and little power machinery to cultivate, seed, or harvest crops. This rural setting provided training and blessings that were to be of great importance to his future callings in the Lord’s kingdom.
Later in his life, he explained what it was like: “I have thought of the discipline of the boy and girl of my youthful days in a rural community. We began to ‘do chores’ shortly after daybreak so we could ‘start’ with the day’s work by sun-up. When the day’s work was finished, we had yet to do our evening ‘chores,’ usually by aid of a lantern. Despite the fact that there were no wages and hours regulations or child labor laws, we did not seem to be stunted from our exertions. Sleep requirements did not admit of too frequent frivolities. Returns from our labors were small and usually came on a once-a-year basis at harvest time. Homes of that day went throughout the summer with but very little ready money but from our cows we were provided milk, butter and cheese; in our granaries there was usually sufficient wheat to be taken to the mill for flour and cereals. We had our own chickens and garden and fruits in season” (Decisions for Successful Living , 12–13).
Harold B. Lee recalled an important incident from his youth: “As a little boy I had my first intimate touch with divinity. As a young boy I was out on a farm waiting for my father to finish his day’s work, playing about and manufacturing things to wile away the time, when I saw over the fence in the neighbor’s yard some broken-down buildings where the sheds were caving in and had rotting timbers. I imagined that that might be a castle that I should explore, so I went over to the fence and started to climb through; then I heard a voice as distinctly as you are hearing mine: ‘Harold, don’t go over there.’ I looked in every direction to see where the speaker was. I wondered if it was my father, but he couldn’t see me. There was no one in sight. I realized that someone was warning me of an unseen danger—whether a nest of rattlesnakes or whether the rotting timbers would fall on me and crush me, I don’t know. But from that time on, I accepted without question the fact that there were processes not known to man by which we can hear voices from the unseen world, by which we can have brought to us the visions of eternity” (in Conference Report, Manchester England Area Conference 1971, 141; or Ensign, Nov. 1971, 17).
“Louisa’s patriarchal blessing had mentioned her gift of healing, and her inspiration had preserved Harold’s life on several occasions. At age eight, his mother sent him for a can of lye, high on a pantry shelf, to make soap with. He slipped and the can tipped its deadly contents all over him. Immediately Louisa grabbed Harold so he wouldn’t run, kicked off the lid of a large vat of pickled beets, and splashed cup after cup of red vinegar juice all over his head and body, neutralizing the lye. What could have been a tragedy was averted because of her inspired action.
“While working in the fields in his teens, Harold gashed an artery on a broken bottle. Louisa stopped the bleeding, but the wound became infected. She took a clean black stocking, burned it to ashes, opened his wound, and rubbed the ashes into it very thoroughly. It healed quickly after this” (Jaynann Morgan Payne, “Louisa Bingham Lee: Sacrifice and Spirit,” Ensign, Feb. 1974, 82–83).
President Harold B. Lee explained how the hardships he went through as a youth helped him develop an understanding of others’ needs: “Yes, we might have been close to the poverty line in the days of my youth. But out of that period came training and compensations that never could have come, I think, if we had been living in the lap of luxury. We didn’t starve. We had food to eat, and Mother knew how to make over the clothes for her boys. I never had what they called a ‘boughten suit’ until I went to high school, but I always thought I was well dressed. After I filled a mission, I came back home and went to the University of Utah to get a teaching certification, and ofttimes I walked to and from school. I didn’t have the money to ride because I needed the money to buy books” (Ye Are the Light of the World: Selected Sermons and Writings of President Harold B. Lee , 344–45).
Soon after his call to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Harold B. Lee paid the following tribute to his mother:
“I have been blessed with a splendid father and a grand and lovely mother, one who didn’t display often her affection, but showed her love in tangible ways that, as a child, I came early to recognize as true mother love.
“As just a high school boy I went away on a high school debating team. We won the debate. I came back and called mother on the telephone only to have her say: ‘Never mind, Son. I know all about it. I will tell you when you come home at the end of the week.’ When I came home she took me aside and said: ‘When I knew it was just time for this performance to start I went out among the willows by the creek side, and there, all by myself, I remembered you and prayed God you would not fail.’ I have come to know that that kind of love is necessary for every son and daughter who seek to achieve in this world” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1941, 120).
Harold B. Lee completed the eighth grade at the Clifton, Idaho, grammar school by age thirteen. His parents were supportive of their son continuing his education and sent him to the Oneida Stake Academy. The academy, founded in 1888 in Franklin, Idaho, had been moved to Preston in 1898. It offered courses in science, mathematics, biology, business, history, and physical education. There were special courses in carpentry, music, and missionary work. Harold gave special attention to music his first two years. He played the alto and French horns and later took up the baritone horn. As he grew in stature he took a more active role in sports, with basketball being his favorite. During his senior year, his school activities included reporting for the school newspaper and debate. He graduated in the spring of 1916.
Harold B. Lee explained what he did to qualify for a teaching certificate:
“In the summer of 1916, at the age of seventeen, I attended the Albion State Normal School at Albion, Idaho, to receive preparatory training to become a teacher. This was a fine school, providing me some of the finest teachers of my lifetime. The laws of Idaho required a rigid test in fifteen subjects in order to qualify, and I spent a very strenuous summer in intensive study, losing twenty pounds in weight, but [I] gained my objective, passing the required examination with an average grade of 89 percent.
“Albion was a quaint little old-fashioned town twenty or thirty miles from the nearest railroad at Burley, Idaho. Practically nothing was there but the school, which was splendid. There were no amusements except at the school, and the old board sidewalks indicated the general backwardness of the inhabitants. Removed as it was from all attractions that might detract from school, I think I never absorbed so much knowledge as during the summers of 1916 and 1917 when I earned my second- and third-class certificates” (quoted in L. Brent Goates, Harold B. Lee: Prophet and Seer , 48).
After his first summer at Albion State Normal School, Harold B. Lee was prepared to begin teaching. His first teaching position was in a one-room schoolhouse in Weston, Idaho, with twenty-five students in grades one through eight. A coin was flipped to see if his salary would be sixty or sixty-five dollars a month. Harold lost. He spent many long hours preparing a curriculum that would meet the needs of such a diverse group of students. He was strict, but fair, and earned the respect of his students.
At age eighteen, Harold became the principal of a school in Oxford, Idaho. As an addition to the regular curriculum, he established the Oxford Athletic Club and started a women’s choir. He was also called to be the elders quorum president. He later wrote about his time at the school:
“I was principal of this school for three winters and was there during the severe influenza epidemic of 1918, our school being quarantined for some months. We had just reopened the school when every family but two came down with the disease, and it became necessary for neighboring towns to assist in supplying food and nursing until their recovery. …
“Because my father had financed me through school, and I was staying at home, I turned over my paychecks from teaching school to him and then paid my extra expenses by playing in a dance orchestra” (quoted in Goates, Harold B. Lee, 53).
In September 1920, at the age of twenty-one, Harold B. Lee received a letter from President Heber J. Grant calling him to the Western States Mission, with headquarters in Denver, Colorado. His mission call meant that the Lee family would need to get by without Harold’s income. It also meant that they would have to support their son and brother in the mission field.
After serving for nine months, Elder Lee was called to preside over the Denver Conference. His mission president, John M. Knight, told him, “I am just giving you a chance to show what is in you” (quoted in Goates, Harold B. Lee, 62). He earned the respect of his mission president, his fellow missionaries, and the members of the Church.
One highlight of his mission was being invited by President Knight to tour the mission. On one occasion, President Knight was unable to be present the first two days of meetings with the Saints in Sheridan, Wyoming. The leaders in Sheridan were disappointed with the prospect of spending two days with such a young and inexperienced priesthood leader; however, after being instructed by Elder Lee, when President Knight joined them two days later they wanted to hear more from the young missionary.
Elder Lee was released from his mission in December 1922. He recorded in his journal: “When the [mission] president announced that I was released, he said that it would bankrupt the English language to tell how much he thought of me and said that I had been on the firing line from the time I had arrived in Denver” (quoted in Goates, Harold B. Lee, 72).
One of the great blessings of Harold B. Lee’s mission was meeting Sister Fern Tanner. Upon his return, he renewed his association with this fellow missionary and she became his wife on 14 November 1923. Soon after his mission he also paid a courtesy call to a former missionary companion’s girlfriend, Freda Jensen. Freda never married the missionary. She remained unmarried until the death of Fern Tanner Lee. She then, forty years after their first meeting, became the wife of Harold B. Lee.
A severe financial depression hit the United States in October 1929. By 1930, when Harold B. Lee was thirty-one, unemployment had risen drastically and credit was not available. More than half of the members of the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City, Harold’s stake, were out of work. In October he was called as president of the stake. He worried about the welfare of his members. He wept and prayed, and finally inspiration came. Programs were set up to care for those in need.
President Marion G. Romney, who was a member of the First Presidency, spoke of those early years:
“Soon after I met him I learned that he then lived in a modest cottage on Indiana Avenue. It was equipped in part with furniture fashioned by his own hands. The other furnishings were made by his accomplished wife. That humble home was hallowed by the love he bore to his sweetheart and two bright-eyed little girls, Maurine and Helen.
“Our nation was at that time in the midst of the great depression of the 1930s. He was the president of Pioneer Stake. Few people in the Church were more severely punished by want and discouragement than were the members of his stake. Although harassed with the problems incident to securing for himself and his loved ones the necessities of life, he grappled mightily with the larger problem of looking after the needs of the total membership of his stake.
“Many there were in that day who, having faltered, turned to state and federal governments for help. Harold B. Lee was not among them. Taking the Lord at his word that man should earn his bread in the sweat of his face and convinced that all things are possible to him that believeth, he struck out boldly with the fearless ingenuity and courage of a Brigham Young to pioneer a way whereby his people could, by their own efforts and the help of their brethren, be supplied the necessities of life.
“Directed by the light of heaven, through building projects, production projects, and a variety of other rehabilitation activities, he gave a demonstration of love for his fellowmen seldom equalled in any generation.
“Those who were close to him in those dark days know that he wept over the suffering of his people, but more than that, he did something for them.
“With all his heart he loved and served his fellowmen. He loved the poor, for he had been one of them. ‘I have loved you,’ he said. ‘I have come to know you intimately. Your problems, thank the Lord, have been my problems, because I know as you know what it means to walk when you have not the money to ride. I know what it means to go without meals to buy a book to go to the University. I thank God now for those experiences. I have loved you because of your devotion and faith. God bless you that you won’t fail.’ (General Conference address, April 6, 1941.)” (“In the Shadow of the Almighty” [funeral address], Ensign, Feb. 1974, 96).
President Harold B. Lee shared the following experience that occurred when he was a stake president:
“The first Christmas after I became stake president, our little girls got some dolls and other nice things on Christmas morning, and they immediately dressed and went over to their little friend’s home to show her what Santa Claus had brought them. In a few moments they came back, crying. ‘What in the world is the matter?’ we asked. ‘Donna Mae didn’t have any Christmas. Santa Claus didn’t come.’ And then belatedly we realized that the father had been out of work, and there was no money for Christmas. So we brought the little ones of that family in and divided our Christmas with them, but it was too late. We sat down to Christmas dinner with heavy hearts.
“I resolved then that before another Christmas came, we would be certain that every family in our stake had the same kind of Christmas and the same kind of Christmas dinner that we would have.
“The bishops of our stake, under the direction of the stake presidency, made a survey of the stake membership, and we were startled to discover that 4,800 of our members were either wholly or partially dependent—the heads of families did not have steady employment. There were no government make-work projects in those days. We had only ourselves to whom we could look. We were also told that we couldn’t expect much help from the general funds of the Church.
“We knew that we had about one thousand children under ten years of age for whom, without someone to help them, there would be no Christmas, so we started to prepare. We found a second floor over an old store on Pierpont Street. We gathered toys, some of which were broken, and for a month or two before Christmas parents came to help us. Many arrived early or stayed late to make something special for their own little ones. That was the spirit of Christmas giving—one had only to step inside the door of that workshop to see and feel it. Our goal was to see that none of the children would be without a Christmas. We would see that there was Christmas dinner in all the homes of the 4,800 who, without help, would otherwise not have Christmas dinner.
“At that time I was one of the city commissioners. The night before Christmas Eve, we had had a heavy snowstorm, and I had been out all night with the crews getting the streets cleared, knowing that I would be blamed if any of my men fell down on the job. I had then gone home to change my clothes to go to the office.
“As I started back to town, I saw a little boy on the roadside, hitchhiking. He stood in the biting cold with no coat, no gloves, no overshoes. I stopped and asked where he was going.
“‘I’m going uptown to a free picture show,’ he said.
“I told him I was also going uptown and that he could ride with me.
“‘Son,’ I said, ‘are you ready for Christmas?’
“‘Oh, golly, mister,’ he replied, ‘we aren’t going to have any Christmas at our home. Daddy died three months ago and left Mama and me and a little brother and sister.’
“Three children, all under twelve!
“I turned up the heat in my car and said, ‘Now, son, give me your name and address. Somebody will come to your home—you won’t be forgotten. And you have a good time; it’s Christmas Eve!’
“That night I asked each bishop to go with his delivery men and see that each family was cared for, and to report back to me. While waiting for the last bishop to report, I suddenly, painfully, remembered something. In my haste to see that all my duties at work and my responsibilities in the Church had been taken care of, I had forgotten the little boy and the promise I had made.
“When the last bishop reported, I asked, ‘Bishop, have you enough left to visit one more family?’
“‘Yes, we have,’ he replied.
“I told him the story about the little boy and gave him the address. Later he called to say that that family too had received some well-filled baskets. Christmas Eve was over at last, and I went to bed.
“As I awoke that Christmas morning, I said in my heart, ‘God grant that I will never let another year pass but that I, as a leader, will truly know my people. I will know their needs. I will be conscious of those who need my leadership most’” (Ye Are the Light of the World, 345–47).
Harold B. Lee’s experiences in his youth and in caring for the people of his stake helped prepare him for a future calling.
The early 1930s were characterized by such phrases as “soup kitchens” and “bread lines.” The Great Depression had hit the United States and 25 percent of the normal labor force was unemployed. Other countries were in as bad or even worse condition. Church members were not exempt from the effects of this period, for many had grave financial problems. The Pioneer Stake of Salt Lake City, for example, had over 50 percent of its male population unemployed. But the Lord had been inspiring his prophets to prepare the Church for such times of difficulty, and the president of that stake, Harold B. Lee, was called to assume an important responsibility in such preparations. In 1941, then newly called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Harold B. Lee testified of the Lord’s hand in establishing the Church welfare program:
“For the last five glorious, strenuous years, I have labored, under a call from the First Presidency, with a group of men in the development of and the unfolding of what we have called the Church Welfare Plan. I felt that I should bear my testimony to you concerning that work. … It was on April 20th, 1935, when I was called to the office of the First Presidency. That was a year before official announcement of the Welfare Plan was made in this Tabernacle. There, after an entire half day session, at which President Grant and President McKay were present, President Clark then being in the East—they had some communications with him, so that all members of the Presidency were in agreement—I was astounded to learn that for years there had been before them, as a result of their thinking and planning and as the result of the inspiration of Almighty God, the genius of the very plan that is being carried out and was in waiting and in preparation for a time when in their judgment the faith of the Latter-day Saints was such that they were willing to follow the counsel of the men who lead and preside in this Church.
“My humble place in this program at that time was described. I left there about noon-time, feeling quite as I do now. I drove with my car up to the head of City Creek Canyon. I got out, after I had driven as far as I could, and I walked up through the trees. I sought my Heavenly Father. As I sat down to pore over this matter, wondering about an organization to be perfected to carry on this work, I received a testimony, on that beautiful spring afternoon, that God had already revealed the greatest organization that ever could be given to mankind, and that all that was needed now was that that organization be set to work, and the temporal welfare of the Latter-day Saints would be safeguarded. …
“It was in August of that same year. … At that time there was an upturn in business, so much so that some were questioning the wisdom of this kind of activity, and why hadn’t the Church done it before now? There came to me, in that early morning hour, a distinct impression that was as real as though someone had spoken audibly, and this was the impression that came, and has stayed with me through these years: There is no individual in the Church that knows the real purpose for which the program then launched had been intended, but hardly before the Church has made sufficient preparation, that reason will be made manifest, and when it comes it will challenge every resource of the Church to meet it. I trembled at the feeling that came over me. Since that day that feeling has driven me on, night and day, hardly resting, knowing that this is God’s will, this is His plan. The only thing necessary today is that the Latter-day Saints everywhere recognize these men, who sit here on the stand, as the fountainheads of truth, through whom God will reveal His will, that His Saints might be preserved through an evil day.
“… I know that the work that we are now advancing and unfolding has still greater potential possibilities. They will come to the extent that the Latter-day Saints will learn to do what they are told, but not until; and some of the grandest things yet to come can only come if and when we learn to listen to these men who preside as prophets, seers and revelators” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1941, 120–22).
President Heber J. Grant called Harold B. Lee as an Apostle of the Lord. He was ordained on 10 April 1941. Years later, he shared his feelings about the call:
“I shall never forget my feelings of loneliness the Saturday night after I was told by the President of the Church that I was to be sustained the next day as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles. That was a sleepless night; there ran through my mind all the petty things of my life, the nonsense, the foolishness of youth. I could have told you about those against whom I had any grievances and who had any grievance against me. And before I was to be accepted the next day, I knew that I must stand before the Lord and witness before him that I would love and forgive every soul that walked the earth and in return I would ask him to forgive me that I might be worthy of that position.
“I said, as I suppose all of us would say as we are called to such a position, or any position, ‘President Grant, do you feel that I am worthy of this call?’ And just as quick as a flash, he said, ‘My boy, if I didn’t think so, you would never be called to this position.’
“The Lord knew my heart and he knew that I was not perfect and that all of us have things to overcome. He takes us with imperfections and expects us to begin where we are and make our lives conform fully with the principles and doctrines of Jesus Christ.
“The following day I went to the temple where I was ushered into the room where the Council of the Twelve meet with the presidency each week in an upper room of the temple. I thought of all the great men who have occupied those chairs and now here I was, just a young man, 20 years younger than the next youngest of the twelve, I was being asked now to sit in one of those chairs. It was frightening and startling.
“And then one of the radio committee who had a Sunday night program said, ‘Now you know that after having been ordained, you are a special witness to the mission of the Lord Jesus Christ. We want you to give the Easter talk next Sunday night.’ That was to bear testimony of the mission of the Lord concerning his resurrection, his life, and ministry, so I went to a room in the Church Office Building where I could be alone, and I read the gospels, particularly those that had to do with the closing days and weeks and months of the life of Jesus, and as I read this I realized that I was having a new experience.
“It wasn’t any longer just a story; it seemed as though I was actually seeing the events about which I was reading, and when I gave my talk and closed with a testimony, I said, ‘I am now the least of all my brethren and want to witness to you that I know as I have never known before this call came that Jesus is the Savior of this world. He lives and he died for us.’ Why did I know? Because there had come a kind of a witness, that special kind of a witness, that may have been that more sure word of prophecy that one must have if he is to be a special witness” (“Speaking for Himself: President Lee’s Stories,” Ensign, Feb. 1974, 18).
Shortly after his call he toured missions and military bases throughout the world, delivered radio sermons entitled “Youth and the Church,” and labored diligently as an advisor to the Primary and Relief Society organizations. He organized two missions in South America and the first stake in England.
Referring to the night before his sustaining as an Apostle, Elder Harold B. Lee related: “I know there are powers that can draw close to one who fills his heart with … love. … I came to a night, some years ago, when on my bed, I realized that before I could be worthy of the high place to which I had been called, I must love and forgive every soul that walked the earth, and in that time I came to know and I received a peace and a direction, and a comfort, and an inspiration, that told me things to come and gave me impressions that I knew were from a divine source” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1946, 146).
In 1960, under the leadership of President David O. McKay, the First Presidency sent the following letter to the General Priesthood Committee, which was under the direction of Elder Harold B. Lee:
“We of the First Presidency have over the years felt the need of a correlation between and among the courses of study put out by the General Priesthood Committee and by the responsible heads of other Committees of the General Authorities for the instruction of the Priesthood of the Church.
“We have also felt the very urgent need of a correlation of studies among the Auxiliaries of the Church. …
“We think that the contemplated study by the Committee now set up should have the foregoing matters in mind. We feel assured that if the whole Church curricula were viewed from the vantage point of what we might term the total purpose of each and all of these organizations, it would bring about such a collation and limitation of subjects and subject matters elaborated in the various Auxiliary courses as would tend to the building of efficiency in the Auxiliaries themselves in the matter of carrying out the purposes lying behind their creation and function.
“We would therefore commend to you Brethren of the General Priesthood Committee the beginning of an exhaustive, prayerful study and consideration of this entire subject, with the cooperative assistance of the Auxiliaries themselves so that the Church might reap the maximum harvest from the devotion of the faith, intelligence, skill, and knowledge of our various Auxiliary Organizations and Priesthood Committees” (quoted in Harold B. Lee, in Conference Report, Sept.–Oct. 1967, 98–99).
These revealed principles were later known as the principles of priesthood correlation. As they were gradually unfolded before the Church, and particularly to the priesthood leaders, it became evident that this was not just an administrative program to facilitate improved communication and a more effective curriculum; it was the design of the Lord to establish a program of defense against some of the insidious designs of the adversary that were intended to thwart and break down the family and the kingdom of God.
In 1961 Elder Harold B. Lee was appointed chairman of the Church Correlation Committee. Past experience had taught him the challenge of such an assignment. With faith and courage he counseled with other leaders and formulated a plan that spoke of renewed effort in welfare, missionary work, genealogy, education, home teaching, and family home evening. The entire strength of the Church was being marshaled to bless and sustain the home.
Elder Harold B. Lee testified of the Lord’s guidance in developing a Church correlation program:
“Sometimes the startling nature of my assignment has required courage almost beyond my strength. I come to you tonight subdued in spirit, I come to you with a sincere witness that the Lord is revealing and working through channels that he has appointed. Don’t you ever let anybody tell you, the membership of the Church, that the Lord is not today revealing and directing and developing plans which are needed to concentrate the entire forces of this Church to meet the challenge of the insidious forces at work to thwart and to tear down and to undermine the church and kingdom of God.
“I bear you my solemn witness that I know that God is directing this work today and revealing his mind and will. The light is shining through, and if we can get the priesthood now to come alive and to put into full gear the full strength of the priesthood, we shall see some of the most wonderful developments and some of the greatest things happen to the forces which the Lord can set in motion that we have ever known in this dispensation” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1962, 83).
Elder Harold B. Lee taught about “four important factors … in developing effective correlation. First, we must see that the whole effort of correlation is to strengthen the home and to give aid to the home in its problems, giving it special aid and succor as needed.
“Second, the strength of the priesthood must be fully employed within the total responsibility of priesthood quorums as clearly set forth in the revelations.
“Third, we must survey the purposes lying behind the creation and purpose of each auxiliary organization.
“And fourth, the prime and ultimate objective of all that is done is the building up of a knowledge of the gospel, a power to promulgate the same, a promotion of the faith, growth, and stronger testimony of the principles of the gospel among the members of the Church” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1964, 80–81).
In the October 1967 general conference, Elder Harold B. Lee re-emphasized the need for the various Church programs to support the home: “Again and again has been repeated the statement that the home is the basis of a righteous life. With new and badly needed emphasis on the ‘how,’ we must not lose sight of the ‘why’ we are so engaged. The priesthood programs operate in support of the home; the auxiliary programs render valuable assistance. Wise regional leadership can help us to do our share in attaining God’s overarching purpose, ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.’ (Moses 1:39.) Both the revelations of God and the learning of men tell us how crucial the home is in shaping the individual’s total life experience. You must have been impressed that running through all that has been said in this conference has been the urgency of impressing the importance of better teaching and greater parental responsibility in the home. Much of what we do organizationally, then, is scaffolding, as we seek to build the individual, and we must not mistake the scaffolding for the soul” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1967, 107).
Prophets of God are not immune to the tests and trials of life. They are prepared in the crucible of adversity and suffering. Harold B. Lee’s life received the polishing and refinement that can come only from the touch of the Master’s hand. Through this process he gained experiences that were for his good and for the good of the Lord’s kingdom. The deaths of loved ones, personal physical suffering, and calls that seemed impossible were but a few of his experiences.
Fern, his beloved wife of thirty-nine years, died in 1962. Several months later, Elder Lee shared what he learned: “In 1958, just after I had returned with my sweet companion from the Holy Land, I addressed myself to this studentbody on the subject, ‘I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked.’ I described the paths and the lanes we had traveled in that Holy Land where the Master had traveled. But the experiences of the last five months have impressed upon me how short-sighted then was my view of the path where Jesus walked. I have come to learn that only through heartbreak and a lonely walk through the valley of the shadow of death do we really begin to glimpse the path that Jesus walked. Only then can we come to claim kinship with Him who gave His life that men might be” (Building Your House of Tomorrow, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [13 Feb. 1963], 11).
Three years later, in 1965, Elder Lee endured the loss of his daughter Maurine. He was in Hawaii, away on Church conferences, when he received word of her serious illness and then, shortly thereafter, of her death. Speaking of the anguish of heart in such experiences, he said:
“Many times I personally have wondered at the Master’s cry of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. ‘And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.’ (Matt. 26:39.)
“As I advance in years, I begin to understand in some small measure how the Master must have felt. In the loneliness of a distant hotel room 2,500 miles away, you, too, may one day cry out from the depths of your soul as was my experience: ‘O dear God, don’t let her die! I need her; her family needs her.’
“Neither the Master’s prayer nor my prayer was answered. The purpose of that personal suffering may be only explained in what the Lord said through the Apostle Paul:
“‘Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered;
“‘And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;’ (Heb. 5:8–9.)
“So it is in our day. God grant that you and I may learn obedience to God’s will, if necessary by the things which we suffer” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1965, 130–31).
Although our prayers may not always be answered in the way we desire, the Lord is keenly aware of each of us and our unique challenges. As we seek to do His will and obey His commandments, He will guide and protect us until our days are finished here on this earth. Elder Harold B. Lee shared an example of the guidance and protection he received in his life:
“May I impose upon you for a moment to express appreciation for something that happened to me some time ago, years ago [March 1967]. I was suffering from an ulcer condition that was becoming worse and worse. We had been touring a mission; my wife, Joan, and I were impressed the next morning that we should get home as quickly as possible, although we had planned to stay for some other meetings.
“On the way across the country, we were sitting in the forward section of the airplane. Some of our Church members were in the next section. As we approached a certain point en route, someone laid his hand upon my head. I looked up; I could see no one. That happened again before we arrived home, again with the same experience. Who it was, by what means or what medium, I may never know, except I knew that I was receiving a blessing that I came a few hours later to know I needed most desperately.
“As soon as we arrived home, my wife very anxiously called the doctor. It was now about 11 o’clock at night. He called me to come to the telephone, and he asked me how I was; and I said, ‘Well, I am very tired. I think I will be all right.’ But shortly thereafter, there came massive hemorrhages which, had they occurred while we were in flight, I wouldn’t be here today talking about it.
“I know that there are powers divine that reach out when all other help is not available” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1973, 179).
In a 1970 general conference address, President Harold B. Lee, then a counselor in the First Presidency, compared avoiding near tragedy on a space flight to being guided to safety in a troubled world:
“Some months ago, millions of watchers and listeners over the world waited breathlessly and anxiously the precarious flight of Apollo 13. The whole world, it seemed, prayed for one significant result: the safe return to earth of three brave men.
“When one of them with restrained anxiety announced the startling information, ‘We have had an explosion!’ the mission control in Houston immediately mobilized all the technically trained scientists who had, over the years, planned every conceivable detail pertaining to that flight.
“The safety of those three now depended on two vital qualifications: on the reliability of the skills and the knowledge of those technicians in the mission control center at Houston, and upon the implicit obedience of the men in the Aquarius to every instruction from the technicians, who, because of their understanding of the problems of the astronauts, were better qualified to find the essential solutions. The decisions of the technicians had to be perfect or the Aquarius could have missed the earth by thousands of miles.
“This dramatic event is somewhat analogous to these troublous times in which we live. … Many are frightened when they see and hear of unbelievable happenings the world over—political intrigues, wars and contention everywhere, frustrations of parents, endeavoring to cope with social problems that threaten to break down the sanctity of the home, the frustrations of children and youth as they face challenges to their faith and their morals.
“Only if you are willing to listen and obey, as did the astronauts on the Aquarius, can you and all your households be guided to ultimate safety and security in the Lord’s own way” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1970, 113).
In a later address that same general conference, President Lee said: “Now the only safety we have as members of this church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church in that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through his prophet, ‘as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; … as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.’ (D&C 21:4–5.) There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.’ (D&C 21:6.)” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1970, 152).
President Joseph Fielding Smith called Elder Harold B. Lee to be a counselor in the First Presidency in 1970; two years later, on 7 July 1972, President Lee was ordained President of the Church. Church members had felt his influence for over thirty years as an Apostle, and now they would feel his firm hand as President of the Church. He spoke of the priesthood as the greatest power on earth, of the family as the most important of all our labors, of enemies within the Church, and that the safety of the Saints was in giving strict obedience to God’s prophet. He had a Christlike combination of love and firmness for those found in transgression. He reached out in love to help them along the path of repentance. He was concerned about the widowed, the handicapped, and the unmarried.
Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said of President Lee: “Loyalty to God and his Son, the resurrected Lord. This was the flawless gem in the crown of his life. He was wont to say, ‘Never think of me as the head of this Church. Jesus Christ is the head of this Church. I am only a man, his servant.’ Of him, the Lord, he taught with a remarkable capacity as a teacher. Of him he testified with a persuasiveness almost irresistible. A business leader said to him one day, ‘I believe in the Lord, but I do not have a testimony of the living Lord.’ President Lee replied, ‘Then you lean on my testimony while you study and pray until your own is strong enough to stand alone’” (“Harold Bingham Lee: Humility, Benevolence, Loyalty,” Ensign, Feb. 1974, 90).
President Harold B. Lee said: “Now I want to tell you a little sacred experience I had following the call to be the president of the Church. On the early morning thereafter with my wife I kneeled in humble prayer, and suddenly it seemed as though my mind and heart went out to over three million people in all the world. I seemed to have a love for every one of them no matter where they lived nor what their color was, whether they were rich or poor, whether they were humble or great, or educated or not. Suddenly I felt as though they all belonged to me, as though they were all my own brothers and sisters” (in Conference Report, Mexico and Central America Area Conference, Aug. 1972, 151).
In his first general conference address as President of the Church, Harold B. Lee looked back at his life and contemplated experiences he had passed through that had sometimes been difficult to understand:
“The day after this appointment, following the passing of our beloved President Smith, my attention was called to a paragraph from a sermon delivered in 1853 in a general conference by Elder Orson Hyde, then a member of the Twelve. This provoked some soul-searching in me also.
“The subject of his address was ‘The Man to Lead God’s People,’ and I quote briefly from his sermon: ‘… it is invariably the case,’ he said, ‘that when an individual is ordained and appointed to lead the people, he has passed through tribulations and trials, and has proven himself before God, and before His people, that he is worthy of the situation which he holds. … that when a person has not been tried, that has not proved himself before God, and before His people, and before the councils of the Most High, to be worthy, he is not going to step in and lead the Church and people of God. It has never been so, but from the beginning some one that understands the Spirit and counsel of the Almighty, that knows the Church, and is known of her, is the character that will lead the Church.’ (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, p. 123.)
“As I have known of the lives of those who have preceded me, I have been made aware that each seemed to have had his special mission for his day and time.
“Then, with searching introspection, I thought of myself and my experiences of which Orson Hyde’s appraisal had made reference. Then I recalled the words of the Prophet Joseph’s characterization of himself, which seemed somewhat analogous to myself. He said:
“‘I am like a huge rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry, priestcraft, lawyer-craft, doctor-craft, lying editors, suborned judges and jurors, and the authority of perjured executives, backed by mobs, blasphemers, licentious and corrupt men and women—all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus will I become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty. …’ (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 304.)
“These thoughts now running through my mind begin to give greater meaning to some of the experiences in my life, things that have happened which have been difficult for me to understand. At times it seemed as though I too was like a rough stone rolling down from a high mountainside, being buffeted and polished, I suppose, by experiences, that I too might overcome and become a polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.
“Maybe it was necessary that I too must learn obedience by the things that I might have suffered—to give me experiences that were for my good, to see if I could pass some of the various tests of mortality” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 19–20; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 24–25).
President Harold B. Lee taught:
“The members of this church throughout the world must brace themselves for the never-ending contest between the forces of righteousness and the forces of evil. …
“If we follow the leadership of the priesthood, the Lord will fulfill his promise contained in the preface to his revelations, when Satan would have power over his own dominion. This was his promise: ‘… the Lord shall have power over his saints, and shall reign in their midst, and shall come down in judgment upon … the world.’ (D&C 1:36.)
“I earnestly urge all our people to unite under the true banner of the Master, to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ so powerfully that no truly converted person could ever be aligned with these controversial concepts and procedures contrary to the Lord’s plan of salvation” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1972, 63–64; or Ensign, Jan. 1973, 62–63).
President Harold B. Lee said: “I am convinced that the greatest of all the underlying reasons for the strength of this church is that those who keep the commandments of God are 100 percent behind the leadership of this church. Without that united support it would be readily understood that this church could not go forward to meet the challenges of the day. Our call is for the total membership of the Church to keep the commandments of God, for therein lies the safety of the world” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1973, 10; or Ensign, July 1973, 6).
When he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Harold B. Lee said:
“Almost imperceptibly we see the hand of the Lord moving to do things, and this I construe to be a consolidation of the forces of the Lord under the direction of the prophet, just as in an army, in order to meet a superior force of the enemy in numbers, the forces of our opposition to the forces of evil must be consolidated in order to give them the most effective possible defense.
“We are in a program of defense. The Church of Jesus Christ was set upon this earth in this day ‘… for a defense, and for a refuge from the storm, and from wrath when it should be poured out without mixture upon the whole earth.’ (D&C 115:6.)” (in Conference Report, Sept.–Oct. 1961, 81).
On another occasion he quoted a prophecy of President Heber C. Kimball as being applicable to our day:
“President Heber C. Kimball, shortly after the Saints had arrived here in the mountains—and some, I suppose, were somewhat gloating over the fact that they had triumphed for a temporary period over their enemies—had this to say: ‘… we think we are secure here in the chambers of the everlasting hills, where we can close those few doors of the canyons against mobs and persecutors, the wicked and the vile, who have always beset us with violence and robbery, but I want to say to you, my brethren, the time is coming when we will be mixed up in these now peaceful valleys to that extent that it will be difficult to tell the face of a Saint from the face of an enemy to the people of God. Then, brethren, look out for the great sieve, for there will be a great sifting time, and many will fall; for I say unto you there is a test, a TEST, a TEST coming, and who will be able to stand? …
“‘Let me say to you, that many of you will see the time when you will have all the trouble, trial and persecution that you can stand, and plenty of opportunities to show that you are true to God and his work. This Church has before it many close places through which it will have to pass before the work of God is crowned with victory. To meet the difficulties that are coming, it will be necessary for you to have a knowledge of the truth of this work for yourselves. The difficulties will be of such a character that the man or woman who does not possess this personal knowledge or witness will fall. If you have not got the testimony, live right and call upon the Lord and cease not till you obtain it. If you do not you will not stand.
“‘Remember these sayings, for many of you will live to see them fulfilled. The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?’ (Life of Heber C. Kimball, pp. 446, 449–450.)” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1965, 128).
Then, as President of the Church, he gave the following admonition: “The greatest challenge we have today is to teach the members of this church to keep the commandments of God. Never before has there been such a challenge to the doctrine of righteousness and purity and chastity. The moral standards are being eroded by powers of evil. There is nothing more important for us to do than to teach as powerfully, led by the Spirit of the Lord, as we can in order to persuade our people in the world to live close [to] the Lord in this hour of great temptation” (quoted in J. M. Heslop, “President Harold B. Lee: Directs Church; Led by the Spirit,” Church News, 15 July 1972, 4).
When he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Harold B. Lee had urged families to hold a weekly home evening: “Greater emphasis on the teaching of the children in the home by the parents was brought forth in what we call the family home evening program. This was not new. Fifty years ago it was given emphasis; and as we went back into history, we found that in the last epistle written to the Church by President Brigham Young and his counselors, it was urged that parents bring their children together and teach them the gospel in the home frequently. So family home evening has been urged ever since the Church was established in this dispensation” (in Conference Report, Sept.–Oct. 1967, 101).
Later, with the adversary ever increasing his attack on the family, President Lee spoke out:
“These are challenging times. Around the world there are influences which would strike at the home, at the sacred relationships of husband and wife, of parents and their children. The same destructive influences face our unmarried adult members of the Church.
“How fortunate we are in the midst of all this to have the teachings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the head of the Church. His words, and those of his prophets, are ours to help us strengthen our homes and bring more peace and happiness into them.
“There is no other people on the face of the earth, whom I know anything about, who have the lofty concepts of marriage and the sacredness of the home as do the Latter-day Saints. In a revelation given in our day the Lord said: ‘Marriage is ordained of God unto man. Wherefore, it is lawful that he should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation.’ (D&C 49:15, 16.)
“There are, however, unmistakable evidences that the same dangers that are abroad in the world are now among us and are seeking to destroy this God-given institution, the home” (Strengthening the Home [pamphlet, 1973], 1–2).
President Harold B. Lee taught: “There is one grand objective in all this great Church organization. … That objective is to provide for and to promote the spiritual, temporal and social salvation or welfare of every one who has membership in one of these priesthood or auxiliary groups, and if each such group is moved by the power and righteousness of the principles inherent therein, ‘they will have all the power necessary to meet every problem in this modern and changing world.’ (Brigham Young.)” (Decisions for Successful Living, 211).
President Harold B. Lee said: “The great call has come now in the sermons of the brethren to aid those who are in need of aid, not just temporal aid, but spiritual aid. The greatest miracles I see today are not necessarily the healing of sick bodies, but the greatest miracles I see are the healing of sick souls, those who are sick in soul and spirit and are downhearted and distraught, on the verge of nervous breakdowns. We are reaching out to all such, because they are precious in the sight of the Lord, and we want no one to feel that they are forgotten” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1973, 178).
President Harold B. Lee died on 26 December 1973. Though his administration as President of the Church lasted only eighteen months, his teachings and influence in the leading councils of the Church had been profound for decades. Some felt that his passing was untimely, but the death of a man of God is never untimely. His successor, President Spencer W. Kimball, said at his funeral, “A giant redwood has fallen and left a great space in the forest” (“A Giant of a Man,” Ensign, Feb. 1974, 86).
President Lee’s sister, Verda Lee Ross, said, “Anyone who came into his home was a prince or a princess. He treated them like royalty. He was a most gracious host. It was difficult ever to see him standing while he was with a group, because he would be kneeling down talking to a child or bent over giving comfort to an elderly person. Everyone meant something to [him]. He loved people—all people” (from an interview with members of the Lee family conducted by the CES College Curriculum staff, 6 July 1978).