I was at BYU in September 1986. Ezra Taft Benson had been newly sustained as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the preceding April, just before the end of our Winter Semester. Now, he was coming to address the student body. We gathered en masse in the Marriott Center that Tuesday, eager to hear what our new Church President had to say to us.
I don't think I was the only one who was surprised when his topic was the Constitution of the United States. Or when we were told that he was addressing his words, not just to us, but to the entire membership of the Church.
Born and raised in Canada, I tended to be somewhat amused by the religious zeal that colored the patriotism of my American friends. And now, here we had the Prophet of God launching into what looked like it was shaping up into a discourse on the predestined pre-eminence of the United States. I admit that I briefly wondered whether President Benson had forgotten that the Church was not all American. I was perhaps a little put off by the patriotic Rah, Rah, Rah!
But it wasn't a discourse on the greatness of America. It was a call to understand the fundamental principles upon which political liberty rests. It was an assurance of divine providence in the enshrining of those principles in the US Constitution. And it was a call to prepare for what was ahead. President Benson declared, "we are fast approaching that moment prophesied by Joseph Smith when he said: 'Even this Nation will be on the very verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the constitution is upon the brink of ruin this people will be the Staff up[on] which the Nation shall lean and they shall bear the constitution away from the very verge of destruction.'"
I was a Canadian. Yet, as I sat and listened to President Benson's words in a congregation of about 19,000 students, I felt electricity course through me. Especially when he said, "I testify that the God of heaven sent some of his choicest spirits to lay the foundation of this government, and he has sent other choice spirits—even you who hear my words this day—to preserve it. We, the blessed beneficiaries, face difficult days in this beloved land, 'a land which is choice above all other lands' (Ether 2:10). It may also cost us blood before we are through. It is my conviction, however, that when the Lord comes, the Stars and Stripes will be floating on the breeze over this people. May it be so, and may God give us the faith and the courage exhibited by those patriots who pledged their lives and fortunes that we might be free."
I felt personally called to the work he was setting out. It made no sense. Did I even have a right to a voice on American politics? I did not know then that I was eligible to claim US Citizenship as passed down by my great grandparents. All I knew was that this was real; it mattered and it was up to me to do something about it. It was one of the defining moments of my life.
Revisiting that moment matters to me now as we prepare for what is arguably the most important Presidential election in US history. I feel daunted by the inadequacy of my voice and the paucity of my following. But there were 19,000 of us who heard him then and President Benson repeated much of the same message a year later in General Conference. If we all revisit his words and then raises our voices, we can be that staff on which the nation must lean.
For the next few blogposts, I'm going to be exploring President Benson's message in greater detail. You can access the original speech here and the General Conference version here. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who regards both Joseph Smith and Ezra Taft Benson as prophets of God, this series of posts will be my faith-based exploration of President Benson's words, directed specifically at fellow Latter-day Saints. If you're interested, would you join me in reviewing some principles that he defined as worth dying for? Let's explore them together and see what guidance they give us for the coming days.