-- 20 Feb 1964
"The [18 Oct 1963] letter [To Congressman Harding] in no way reflects my view that Elder Benson is not a good apostle of the church," Robert McKay explained after newspapers published his letter. His clarification added that "in my own opinion Elder Benson would be better able to serve the church when he is free of Birch Society ties." (1)
-- 21 Feb 1964
President McKay ... released an official denial that [the] mission was "because of Elder Benson's alleged activities with the John Birch Society." (2)
Dwight D. Eisenhower's [praise] of Senator Harding's criticism of Ezra Taft Benson (his former cabinate member) is published in the Idaho State Journal. (3)
U.S. representative Harding, who had condemned Benson in Congress, publicly praised his exile to Europe, and circulated the anti-Benson letters of church leaders, was defeated that fall for re-election. Harding and others saw his defeat as a result of Mormon voters' distaste for public criticism of LDS leaders and as evidence of Birch Society influence.
To the contrary, an analysis of election returns from 1960 to 1964 shows that Harding overwhelmingly retained the support of Mormon voters. In fact, in Madison County with its 91.7 percent Mormon population, the number of votes for Harding actually increased from 1960 to 1964, despite his public criticism of Benson. In other words, public criticism of Benson in the 1960s seems not to have alienated a large majority of faithful Mormon voters. They may have shared Harding's dismay at the apostle's endorsement of the Birch Society. (4)
-- March 5, 1964
[Meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve (minus Benson, who was in Europe]
[McKay:] "Before partaking of the Sacrament this morning, I should like to refer to an unfortunate incident which has occurred since the Council last met in this capacity." McKay was particularly upset at letters he had received stating that "a lack of harmony among the leaders of the church" was "creating confusion among members and friends of the Church."
He then put Joseph Fielding Smith on the spot: "I said that I should like to know today that there is no dissension among the members of this Council, and that we partake of the Sacrament in full fellowship and full support of one another. I mentioned that since President Smith's name is associated with Brother Benson, particularly in the matter of the John Birch Society, that I think it would be well for President Smith on this occasion to explain his association with the controversy."
Smith replied that "he was glad to do so." He acknowledged that "he did say that when Brother Benson comes home, he hoped he would not get into politics and would keep his blood pure." However, he did not intend his comments to be a personal attack on Benson, but rather as an acknowledgement "that in politics a lot of things are done that are somewhat shady. He said he was speaking of conditions that exist in the political world, and intended no reflection upon Brother Benson." Smith said that he had discussed the matter of his letters with Benson and asserted that the two were "on the best of terms and fellowship with each other." Refusing to capitulate on his main point, he repeated that he would not do anything to hurt Benson but "hoped Brother Benson would keep himself out of politics."
McKay accepted Smith's explanation, but defended Benson: I then said that Elder Benson had permission from the President of the Church to give the lecture that he gave in the auditorium in Hollywood. I mentioned that some people had said that that was one activity wherein Brother Benson went contrary to the counsel of the Presidency and General Authorities. I said that Elder Benson had full permission to give that lecture and he gave a good talk…. I further said that Brother Benson had said publicly that he was in favor of the John Birch Society, and that I had told Brother Benson that he could not, as one of the Twelve, join that Society. This was before Brother Benson was called to be President of the European Mission, and his call as President of that mission had nothing whatever to do with the John Birch Society. I said that I had told him back in November last that he could not join the Society as one of the Twelve…. Brother Benson's call to preside over the European Mission had no relationship whatever to his desire to join that Society. I stated that so far as this Council is concerned, we have no connection whatever with the John Birch Society, no matter how good it may be and how noble its purposes; that Brother Benson received his call to go to Europe without any thought of associating his call to the European Mission Presidency with his views regarding the John Birch Society, and that so far as we are concerned this morning as the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve, we have nothing whatever to do with it, and Brother Benson's call over there had nothing to do with it.
I then said: "We shall partake of the sacrament this morning in the spirit of the opening prayer; that we be one in all things pertaining to this Church."
Although McKay's defense of Benson was impassioned and unequivocal, it sidestepped the issue that had catapulted Benson's talk into the national spotlight, namely, Benson's implicit endorsement of Birch Society founder Robert Welch's charges that Dwight Eisenhower, a close friend of McKay, was a tool of the Communists. (5)
1 - "Ike, LDS Leaders Thank Harding For Anti-Birch, Benson Speech," Idaho State Journal, 20 Feb. 1964,1, as referenced in D. Michael Quinn, "Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26:2 (Summer 1992). See also Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power Salt Lake City (Signature Books, 1994), Chapter 3
2 - "Benson Says: New Duties Not 'Rebuke,'" Salt Lake Tribune, 29 Oct. 1963, A-4; "Church Denies Mission Rumors," Deseret News, 21 Feb. 1964, A-8; "Letter Denies Rebuke in Benson Call," Salt Lake Tribune, 22 Feb. 1964, C-ll, as referenced in D. Michael Quinn, "Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26:2 (Summer 1992). See also Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power Salt Lake City (Signature Books, 1994), Chapter 3
3 - "Ike, LDS Leaders Thank Harding For Anti-Birch, Benson Speech," Idaho State Journal, 20 Feb. 1964, 1; "Ike Praises Idaho Solon For Benson Criticism," Salt Lake Tribune, 21 Feb. 1964, A-4, as referenced in D. Michael Quinn, "Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26:2 (Summer 1992). See also Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power Salt Lake City (Signature Books, 1994), Chapter 3
4 - "Solon Embarrassed By Letter Publication," Deseret News, 21 Feb. 1964, A-8; "'Release Unauthorized/ Solon Says of Letters," Salt Lake Tribune, 22 Feb. 1964, C-ll; "Idaho Writers Say Letters Were Widely Circulated," and "Bill Hall's Political Scratchpad," Idaho State Journal, 23 Feb. 1964,1, 4; "How Could He Lose?" Idaho Daily Statesman, 5 Nov. 1964, 1-2; Harding to Frank H. Jonas, 8 Dec. 1964, Jonas Papers; Jack Anderson, "Birch Society Influence Defeated Ralph Harding," Blackfoot News, 15 Jan. 1965, 4, also printed as "Reed Benson Spreads Birch Gospel" in Washington Post, 15 Jan. 1965, B-13; Lynn Broadhead to Dean M. Hansen, 15 June 1967; Swanson, "McCarthyism in Utah," 143; Hansen, "Analysis of the 1964 Idaho Second Congressional District Election, as referenced in D. Michael Quinn, "Ezra Taft Benson and Mormon Political Conflicts", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26:2 (Summer 1992). See also Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power Salt Lake City (Signature Books, 1994), Chapter 3
5 - David O. McKay diary ; Greg Prince, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism
LDS History Chronology: Ezra Taft Benson
Mormon History Timeline: the life of Ezra Taft Benson