Matthew L. Harris discusses the background, and negative feedback, to Ezra Taft Benson's talk, "Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Brethren."

Matthew L. Harris

Matthew L. Harris, Watchman on the Tower: Ezra Taft Benson and the Making of the Mormon Right (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 102-3

University of Utah Press
Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Matthew L. Harris
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Benson’s most controversial sermon, however, was given in a 1980 devotional address at Brigham Young University. In “Fourteen Fundamentals Following the Prophet,” Benson made a number of statements in what was a clear indication of “his own future intentions as church president.” At the time, he was the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and stood in line to replace the ailing eighty-five-year-old Spencer Kimball, who suffered from declining health. Benson confidently assured BYU students and faculty that “the prophet will never lead the Church astray.” More controversially, he asserted “that the living prophet is more important . . . than a dead prophet” and added that “the prophet may be involved in civic matters.” For some critics, this marked Benson’s clear intention to have the church endorse right-wing political candidates in the name of God. For others, it means that Benson was a “false prophet” for callously dismissing the teachings of earlier prophets.

Scores of listeners expressed outrage over the address and flooded the First Presidency with letters. Additionally, news outlets picked up the story and criticized Benson for his blatant partisanship. For Kimball, who shunned conflict, Benson’s divisive rhetoric posed a challenge to the church. He had already “called in [Benson] several times to discuss political statements he had made.” Similarly, he refused to publish Benson’s 1979 general conference sermon in international church magazines fearing it might impede church efforts to gain missionary access in communist countries. Benson’s ill-advised BYU speech forced Kimball to call Benson in once again. According to general authorities with direct knowledge of the affair, President Kimball asked Benson to apologize to the Quorum of the Twelve but they “were dissatisfied with the response.” The enfeebled president then instructed Benson to apologize again the following week, this time to a combined meeting of all the general authorities. The apostle also prepared a written apology to the public, though it is not clear if he delivered it.

Benson’s BYU sermon was the last time he spoke exclusively in public about politics or communism. The church resident had chastised him, indeed humiliated him, before his fellow general authorities. For the good of the church—and himself—Benson had the good sense to see that political winds in the church were shifting.

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