(August 4, 1899 - May 30, 1994)
Agricultural economist, former Secretary of Agriculture under President Eisenhower, and first president of the Mormon church to hold a graduate degree, which he obtained at ISC.
Born in Whitney, Idaho, Ezra Taft Benson’s birth was difficult. Both he and his mother nearly died. Both survived, and Benson would be the eldest of eleven children. The parents named him after a great grandfather who had been among the early Mormon leaders. The young child could trace his lineage to a Revolutionary War veteran.
Benson’s family owned a 40-acre farm, and in this environment arose Benson’s interest in agriculture. The family raised livestock, sugar beets, potatoes and wheat. By age 4 Benson was helping on the farm. During his years on the farm came momentous changes: indoor plumbing, the telephone, and electricity. The family was close, and Benson recalled his childhood as a mix of work and leisure. Devout Mormons, the parents baptized and confirmed him on his eighth birthday. By age 15 Benson had ingrained the habit of reading scripture daily. He entered elementary school at age 8, and then studied at Oneida Stake Academy, a high school, in Preston, Idaho. Because of his height he excelled at basketball. From his youth Benson was an avid reader, though he confined himself chiefly to religious tracts. He was also a boy scout and scoutmaster. Graduating high school in 1918, he joined the Army at the height of the influenza pandemic. He survived but several of his military comrades died.
In 1919 Benson entered Utah State Agricultural College, now Utah State University, where he met and later married Flora Amussen. In 1921 the Mormon church elevated Benson to elder. He served as a missionary to England, many of whose residents were hostile to Mormonism. Returning to the United States in 1923 Benson transferred to Brigham Young University, where he majored in animal husbandry and marketing, graduated with honors in 1926, and won a scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Iowa State College, now Iowa State University, from which he earned an M.S. in agricultural economics. He would later become the first president of the Mormon church to hold a graduate degree. Ezra and Flora returned to Whitney, where they bought his parents’ farm. The couple kept chickens, pigs, and cattle.
His success as a farmer led to his appointment as an agricultural extension agent in Franklin County, Utah. In 1929 the University of Idaho hired Benson to chair the new Department of Agricultural Economics and Marketing in Boise, Idaho. He used his marketing skills to raise national awareness of Idaho as a potato producing state. Curiously he did not like New Deal farm policies, despite their success. In 1939 Benson became secretary of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. In this role he befriended members of Congress and was frequently invited to testify as an expert on farm policies. In 1943 the Mormon church elevated Benson to apostle, the youngest person so ordained. In this role he toured missions in war torn Europe and helped resettle refugees from Poland in Allied held lands.
In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Benson Secretary of Agriculture, making him the first Mormon to hold a cabinet post. He came to this position with the conservative belief that the federal government should grow no larger. He believed that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) too closely regulated farming. His religious fervor led Benson to inject piety into the federal government. At Benson’s suggestion, Eisenhower devoted several minutes at Friday morning cabinet meetings to silent prayer. Under Benson’s guidance, prayer opened Thursday staff meetings at the USDA. One of Benson’s subordinates Earl Butz, who would later become Secretary of Agriculture, recalled Benson’s piety. He worked to make the USDA more efficient and less costly to operate. He convinced President Eisenhower and a majority in Congress to diminish price supports to farmers, a move that angered farmers. Liberals in Congress disliked Benson for this reason, making the secretary a controversial figure in Eisenhower’s administration.
Nonetheless Benson had a close relationship with Eisenhower and was the lone cabinet member to serve all 8 years of Eisenhower’s presidency. Moreover, Flora formed a friendship with Mamie Eisenhower, the president’s wife. As Secretary of Agriculture, Benson directed farmers to take marginal land out of production to conserve land and reduce the glut of food on the market. Benson did not confine his duties to agriculture, but worked with Eisenhower on several fronts. Benson wrote a speech, which the president delivered, condemning Soviet brutality in Hungary. Benson’s hostility toward the Soviet Union arose from his suspicion of communism, which he thought threatened religious and intellectual freedom. In addition to Eisenhower, Benson forged a close relationship with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. The two shared similar religious beliefs. When Soviet premiere Nikita Khrushchev visited the United Stats, Benson took him on a tour of the research complex in Beltsville, Maryland.
Benson’s departure from the USDA at the end of Eisenhower’s presidency led him to resume work for the Mormon church. Holding positions of increasing responsibility, Benson in 1985 became the 13th president of the church. During his presidency he promoted missionary work, prayer, and good works. Benson urged Mormons to read the Book of Mormon frequently. During his presidency, the Mormon church expanded worldwide, winning large numbers of converts in Eastern Europe. As president he promoted freedom worldwide. During his lifetime he received numerous awards and eleven honorary degrees from universities.
Having lived a long life, Ezra Taft Benson died May 30, 1994 in Salt Lake City.
Leonard J. Arrington. ed. The Presidents of the Church. Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 1986.
Sheri L. Dew. Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography. Salt Lake City: Deseret Books, 1987.
W. Paul Reeve and Ardis E. Parshall. eds. Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.
James G. Ryan and Leonard Schlup. eds. Historical Dictionary of the 1940s. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2006.