Harold B. Lee: Life and Thought by Newell G. Bringhurst (Signature Books, 2021) is a highly affordable and readable biography of one of the most influential figures in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although his tenure as president of the Church was short, Harold B. Lee had already reshaped much of the Church’s administration in the forms of Correlation, the Welfare Program and the mentoring of general authorities even before becoming the prophet-president. Bringhurst explores the life of this remarkable man in this volume of Signature Books’s Mormon Lives (or brief biographies) series.
As far as how this biography compares to other works focusing on Harold B. Lee’s life, it is a shorter work, so is not able to go into as much depth on any given topic as the full-length biographies that were written by Brent Goates and Francis M. Gibbons. The tone is more neutral (i.e., less prone to hagiography than, say, the Gibbons biography). Bringhurst relied on the Goates and Gibbons biographies as sources (due to their access to resources like Lee’s diary), while also building on those sources through access to oral histories from Harold Lee’s daughter’s family and a collection of personal correspondence held in a private collection. While Harold B. Lee’s personal life is part of the story the biography tells, the main focus is on President Lee’s impact on the Church. As Bringhurst explained: “I believe Lee deserves a new biography because his central role as the major architect of modern Mormonism has not received sufficient attention in previous studies” (x).
One aspect of Harold B. Lee’s life that I gained a deeper appreciation of through reading this biography was the role of mentorship in his life—both through being mentored by J. Reuben Clark, Jr. and his own role in mentoring a generation of general authorities. My previous introduction to the life and thought of Harold B. Lee was through the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual and Truman G. Madsen’s Presidents Of The Church: Insights Into Their Lives And Teachings. I believe Madsen mentioned J. Reuben Clark’s influence, but Bringhurst highlighted it in a way that stood out better. Bringhurst also brought out how, in turn, Lee both influenced the selection of many apostles and then trained and mentored the likes of Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson. This ensured that both his own and J. Reuben Clark’s influence remains present in the Church to this day.
I have to admit going in that I was concerned about the pairing of subject and author. Among those of the intellectual and left-leaning part of the Latter-day Saint community, Harold B. Lee is usually viewed as a persona non grata due to his strenuous opposition to lifting the priesthood and temple ban and his anti-intellectual streak that he institutionalized through Correlation. From what Newell G. Bringhurst has said, it sounds like he initially had similar doubts when he was asked to write a biography of President Lee. In the end, though, I was impressed with how respectful and objective the biography was. Throughout, the work and effects of Harold Lee in the Church are presented, with assessments of both the pros and cons of each. For example, Correlation was noted for streamlining the Church and its curriculum, allowing it to handle global expansion in the mid-to-late 20th century. On the other hand, it tightened the screws on intellectual inquiry while expounding a generally conservative ideology. All around, the biography felt very even-handed and fair in its appraisal of President Lee.