EZRA TAFT BENSON will be remembered as a man who, uniquely, occupied high office in the US government and the highest office in the Mormon church. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Secretary for Agriculture he was the first Mormon to reach the US cabinet. His tenure was marked by fierce controversy, and ultimately by failure: his schoolmasterly manner and rigidity of mind made him less than ideally suited to the task of winning support from the powerful agricultural interests represented in Congress. By the time he succeeded to the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a lay church in which the upper ranks are reached according to strict seniority, he was too old to have much personal impact.
Benson was born in Whitney, Idaho, in 1899, the eldest of 11 children. He came from tough pioneering stock: his great-grandfather and namesake led one of the companies that followed Brigham Young, the successor to the church's martyred founder, Joseph Smith, in the famous Mormon hegira across the great plains and through the Rocky Mountains to Utah in 1847. While his ancestry automatically entitled him to a leading place in the Mormon hierarchy, his family was poor. After missing some years of elementary school because he was needed on the family farm, he attended the Utah State Agricultural College in Logan. Here he met and became engaged to Flora Amussen. In line with Mormon convention, they postponed marriage until after he had completed two years as a missionary, most of which he spent in Newcastle upon Tyne (1921-23).
After graduating from Brigham Young University in 1926, Benson continued his studies at Iowa State College in Ames, where he received his masters degree. He returned to farm in Idaho, acting also as a part-time marketing specialist at the University of Idaho College of Agriculture. From 1933 to 1939 he was executive secretary of the Idaho Co-operative Council, helping to make Idaho potatoes among the most famous in America. After further study at Berkeley in 1937-38 he was appointed executive secretary of the National Council of Farmer Co-operatives, a powerful organisation of 4,500 small-to-medium-sized producers including the California Fruit Growers Exchange, owners of the 'Sunkist' label.
His move into national life coincided with his rise up the ladder of the Mormon church. In 1940 he became first president of the newly created Washington State (a position roughly corresponding to that of a bishop); in 1943, aged 44, he was appointed the youngest of the Twelve Apostles who head the Mormon hierarchy. This ensured that, provided he lived long enough, he would eventually become Joseph Smith's successor as 'Prophet, Seer and Revelator' and President of the only true 'restored' church of Christ.
In 1952, on the recommendation of his brother Milton, Eisenhower chose Benson as his Secretary for Agriculture with a mandate to 'get government off the farmers' backs'. Their first objective was to substitute the existing system of price supports fixed at 90 per cent by a more flexible one that would range from 75 to 90 per cent. The long-term aim was to end price supports altogether, along with the government controls that went with them. By freeing the market for agricultural products, Eisenhower and Benson hoped to solve the problem of massive overproduction which depressed farm prices and acted as a drain on the budget. In seeking to implement this policy, Benson waged a series of titanic struggles with Congress, most of which he lost: his agricultural bills were emasculated, necessitating the presidential veto. As mid-west Republicans became increasingly alarmed for their congressional seats, a 'Dump Benson' campaign gathered momentum; but Eisenhower continued to stand by him.
Benson made numerous trips abroad to try to dispose of American agricultural surpluses on the world market; his efforts brought accusations of dumping and protests from the State Department, where Dulles favoured lenient trade policies with America's allies and non-aligned countries. Though Benson, whose anti-Communist views verged on the paranoid, was hostile of the idea of selling US surpluses to Communist countries, he was prevailed upon by Eisenhower to accept the principle of 'net advantage', opening the way for massive sales of grain to the Soviet Union - and ultimately towards detente itself. Benson was charged with carrying out the Soil Bank scheme, devised by Eisenhower, according to which farmers were given payments for taking land out of production. The scheme went strongly against the grain of Benson's free-market views: it outraged his sensibilities to have to pay farmers to produce nothing. Nor did the scheme really benefit the people closest to his heart - the small family farmers whom both he and Eisenhower regarded as the bulwarks of American freedom and morality: by far the largest Soil Bank payments went to big operators.
By 1960 it had become clear that Benson and Eisenhower's policies had proved an abject failure. The rich farmers had grown richer; the government was more closely involved in agriculture than ever before, while the number of family farms had dropped precipitously. As his presidency drew to its close, Eisenhower, under pressure from Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate, effectively abandoned his Secretary for Agriculture, declining to veto two anti- Benson bills, and actually advising Nixon against allowing Benson to speak on his behalf in the Mid- west. In this he was probably justified: John F. Kennedy's victory in the traditional Republican heartlands of Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri by the slimmest of margins was partly attributable to the unpopularity of Benson and his policies.
In 1961 Benson took up full-time work for the Mormon church. He undertook foreign missions, including a two-year term as President of the European Missions based in Frankfurt. His elevation to the presidency of the church in 1985 was greeted with apprehension by Mormon liberals who had enjoyed a brief period of glasnost during the reign of his predecessor, Heber Kimball, when for the first and only time the contents of church archives were made accessible to genuine scholars.
Benson, a religious as well as a political hard-liner, had been in the forefront of the campaign to suppress or even alter documents that were seen to challenge the official, naive, version of Mormon history. According to this version Joseph Smith translated, under divine inspiration, an ancient text written on metal plates given to him by an angel, which described how the Americas were originally settled by peoples of Hebrew origin; through the redemptive power of the Mormon gospel, these people would lose their darkened complexions, becoming 'white and delightsome' again.
Benson was notorious for his racist views: in 1963 he had dismissed the civil rights movement as a 'Communist conspiracy' designed to destroy America; while one of his sons, Reed Benson, was an active member of the John Birch Society. When he indicated that as President he would not necessarily be bound by revelations vouchsafed to his predecessor, he alarmed more than just the church's liberal wing. In 1978 President Kimball had received a 'revelation' abolishing the doctrine that blacks (as distinct from native Americans) must be excluded from full membership of the church. Quite apart from the need to bring the Mormon church in line with mainstream American opinion in the wake of the civil rights movement, any counter-revelation excluding blacks would have had disastrous consequences on the church's growing missionary activity in Africa and Latin America.
In the event, the hierarchy's upper echelons, under the firm bureaucratic arm of First President Gordon B. Hinckley - the Mormon church's Cardinal Ratzinger - kept Benson under control, and evidently intercepted any dangerously contentious messages issuing from on high. A damaging episode occurred in September 1989 when the only native American belonging to the upper echelons resigned in protest at the church's racialist outlook and was promptly excommunicated. But in his capacity as Prophet, Seer and Revelator Benson generally confined his utterances to themes on which there was a consensus within the ruling gerontocracy: upholding 'family' values by keeping women at home, stressing the Book of Mormon as the 'keystone' of the faith, while de- emphasising the more heterodox or non-Christian aspects of Mormon theology. This strategy, designed to facilitate collaboration with conservatives in other churches, bore fruit, among other things, in the defeat of ERA (a proposed amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women).
The party line on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon was formally upheld: at the church- owned Brigham Young University research into the American origins of the Book of Mormon was discouraged; and one of BYU's brightest younger historians, Michael Quinn, was pressured into resigning for revealing in a scholarly article how revered church leaders continued to practise polygamy long after its abolition in 1890. Quinn, who continued to publish articles which cast doubt on the church's own version of its history, was excommunicated in September 1993 for apostasy.
Hinckley's tight control over the hierarchy enabled the church to weather the storm which broke just after Benson assumed the presidency, when a series of parcel- bomb murders in Salt Lake City revealed a web of conspiracy and deception leading to the presidential archives. During the trial of the bomber, Mark Hofmann, it emerged that the general authorities had become involved in the purchase of documents which cast considerable doubt on the canonical version of Joseph Smith's career and that of the early church. Although these documents were exposed as forgeries, all the evidence suggested that high church officials had been involved in their purchase in the belief that they were genuine. Their aim had been to bury them in the presidential archive away from public scrutiny.
While Benson may have been personally unaware of these dealings, the Benson era will go down in Mormon history as a time of intensifying struggle between the demands of truth and those of faith.