Harold B. Lee: Life and Thought: A Review

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.

1 comment for “Harold B. Lee: Life and Thought: A Review

  1. FYI:

    Elder Marion G. Romney, speaking in Conference on his call to the Twelve:
    “Now I love all the brethren, every one of them. I don’t go down through the Twelve, except to mention Brother Lee and Brother Moyle. They are my closest associates. Brother Lee is a seer. I know I’ll never go wrong if I’m with him,. . .”

    President/Elder Spencer W. Kimball about Elder Lee, from his diary:

    ““Elder Lee and I caught the Los Angeles Limited at six o’clock for Los Angeles. We had a delightful visit on our way down and I appreciated very much discussing the Gospel with him and getting his reaction to problems which have come to me recently from many people. Elder Lee is very wise, sagacious for his experience and age, and the Lord has made of him a great character.”

    “Today President Joseph Fielding Smith came down the hall and put his arm around me and said ‘I think a lot of you—I love you Brother Kimball.’ These were precious words—priceless. To have the approval and appreciation of a man of his stature and goodness!!! Brother Lee invited me to his home for dinner and as we rode along, he said he was hungry to visit with me and as he got older he felt to lean on his brethren more and more. I was so grateful for his appreciative expressions. I told him he was fast approaching the place of first seniority in the Twelve. He would surely be the President and that I would sustain him with all my heart. There are great compensations to me for these occasional expressions of the thanks and appreciation.”

    “I have just been released by the First Presidency as the Chairman of the Committee on Publications and the Reading Committee of which I have served for several years. They indicated this release was because of being over tied with numerous other responsibilities, and especially in light of the fact that I have just recently been appointed as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Missionary work. . . . It has been a most strenuous and difficult assignment and though I have appreciated the privilege of serving in it, I am grateful now to be in the missionary work and leave this to Brother Lee who has been appointed to take [my] place. I see this as quite an inspired change since the missionary work is my loved field and since Brother Lee is the Chairman of the Great Correlation Committee and, therefore, through his sub-committees he can have all of this work done by the specialists in those special fields of adult and youth and children work.”

    ““I was highly elated when Brother Lee spoke in high terms of the work that I had been doing. He indicated that as late as Thursday, the President of the Church had complimented me on the work that we had done for the Indians. And, Brother Lee said that perhaps I would go down [in church history] as the great Indian defender. He was very complimentary—I was embarrassed but appreciated it since I did not know that he had felt that way.”

    “Then President Lee, having mentioned that I was having some [health] troubles, Elder Benson prayed valiantly for me. Now I was seated in a chair and all the Brethren circled around me. President Tanner anointed me with oil and President Lee gave to me a sealing, and it was a marvelous blessing. He has given me many blessings and many others have in time of need. I have assisted all the Brethren in many administrations. I think never have I heard a more beautiful comprehensive pleading and prayer and administration and dedication than this. There was dedication in his payer, and though it had some fearsome aspects, it was soothing and gave me peace.”

    “This was the first Thursday of the month and the Brethren came fasting. . . . The sacrament was administered and the regular program blessing and prayer at the altar. President Lee called on me first to give my testimony. He called on various ones to follow and the spirit grew warmer until he finally concluded the meeting with his feelings and all the brethren seemed to feel that this was about the greatest meeting that had ever been held here.”

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