Utah History Encyclopedia


By Brent L. Goates
Harold Bingham Lee was the eleventh president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was ordained president on 7 July 1972 and served until his death on 26 December 1973. This 538-day tenure is the shortest service by a Mormon Church president in history, this despite the fact that when he assumed the office at age seventy-three he was the youngest president of the church in nearly forty years. His major contributions to the church, as the first managing director of its welfare program and later as the organizer of the church correlation program, were made when he was still serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

He was born on 28 March 1899 in Clifton, Oneida County, Idaho, to Samuel Marion Lee and Louisa Emeline Bingham. He was the second son in a family of six children, growing up in impoverished, rural conditions. He started school a year earlier than was the normal practice in his farming community because he could already write his name and knew the alphabet. As a young boy he was large for his age, and when his friends were ordained to the Mormon priesthood, he became a deacon also, although technically he was not old enough for the honor.

Lee also had a remarkably early entry into his professional career. He earned a teaching certificate at Albion State Normal School in southern Idaho, and in September 1916 he was appointed, at the tender age of seventeen, to be principal of the Silver Star School at Weston, Oneida County, Idaho. Here, in a one-room school, he had from twenty to twenty-five pupils, ranging from the first to the eighth-grade level. One year later, at age eighteen, he was appointed principal of the larger grade school at Oxford, Idaho, where he served for three winters, including the severe influenza epidemic season of 1918.

The assumption of such major responsibility in his teen years prepared Harold B. Lee, at age twenty-one, for missionary service in the LDS Church. In 1920 he was called to the Western States Mission, headquartered in Denver. In the center of his missionary Bible, Elder Lee recorded the names of the forty-five converts he baptized in two years. His proselytizing time was limited because, again moving ahead rapidly, he became a conference president (presiding over both missionaries and church members in Denver) only nine months into his mission.

At age thirty-one Elder Lee became the youngest stake president in the church when he was set apart in 1930 to preside over the Pioneer Stake in Salt Lake City. His stake was a pocket of poverty and unemployment due to the hardships of the Great Depression. With his counselors, Charles Stanford Hyde and Paul Curtis Child, Lee confronted the suffering with ingenious leadership and organizational skills. His successful struggles to save his people from hunger and financial ruin led to his appointment in 1935 to organize a welfare program for the entire church.

In 1932, at the age of thirty-three, Harold B. Lee became a community leader when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Salt Lake City Commission. He was assigned to direct the Department of Streets and Public Improvements. A year later his political career was launched when he was elected to the same position. In subsequent years Utah citizens unsuccessfully sought to persuade him to run for governor or the United States Senate.

Lee was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on 6 April 1941. As he looked around the upper room of the Salt Lake Temple where the quorum held its meetings, he discovered that every man there was at least twenty years his senior. He thought of himself as a seedling among giant redwoods, causing his tutor and friend, J. Rueben Clark, Jr., to refer to him affectionately as "Kid."

Early in his apostleship, Elder Lee served on a committee along with two senior members of the Twelve with the assignment to simplify church organization and functions. Through two decades Lee studied the subject and prepared proposals, but he learned patience while awaiting the right time to implement his reorganizational concepts. The time for action finally arrived twenty years later when, under the direction of LDS Church President David O. McKay, the Correlation Program was introduced, with Lee as chairman, innovator, and organizational scholar. Through this committee, a complete restructuring of the church occurred in the 1960s, with auxiliary organizations assigned a supporting role under priesthood direction. A return to simplicity was accomplished, and the home received primary emphasis.

In January 1970 Harold B. Lee was called to serve as a counselor in the First Presidency while concurrently presiding over the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He was called to be president of the church when Joseph Fielding Smith died on 2 July 1972. After a long period of time when the church presidency had been relatively unseen due to age and illness, he changed things. He went immediately to area conferences in England, Mexico, and Germany. He circulated among the youth at conferences, thus helping to restore to young people the image of an active prophet. He was the first president of the Mormon Church to visit Palestine.

President Lee's impressive attainments resulted partly from his personal struggles. He had to overcome critics who were jealous of his "beyond his years" abilities; he learned to control a fiery temper and a quick, action-oriented disposition which early in his life offended some people. Especially in his later years, Lee was gentle in manner, compassionate, gracious, hospitable, and thoughtful of others. He was always a gentleman, impeccably dressed. At age seventy-four he served as though in the prime of life, with a rich, full voice and characteristic vigor. His sudden death on 26 December 1973 from cardiac and lung failure stunned the entire church.

He found great pleasure but also experienced much sorrow in his family. In 1923 he married Fern Lucinda Tanner, whom he had first met in the Western States Mission. To them were born two daughters, Maurine Lee Wilkins and Helen Lee Goates, and they had ten grandchildren. Fern died 24 September 1962, before Lee entered the First Presidency. Maurine Wilkins died three years later, making this a sobering and tragic period in Lee's life. He married Freda Johanna (Joan) Jensen, a retired educator, on 17 June 1963. She outlived him by eight years.