As we continue to get settled into our new apartment, and as I continue to unpack books (where on earth did I get so many books?), I came across a box that contained primarily devotional writings by Latter-day Saint leaders, including two or three compilations of Eza Taft Benson’s religio-political writings and speeches. I took a minute and flipped through one of the volumes—a 1960 publication compiled by President Benson’s son, Reed entitled … So Shall Ye Reap: Selected Addresses of Ezra Taft Benson. I was intrigued by many things—the book’s preface, for instance, was authored by Herbert Hoover and the introduction by Harold B. Lee, something not likely to be seen repeated in a book authored by a general authority today. But one thing in particular caught my eye. One selection is titled “Prayer at Cabinet Meeting,” and is a transcript of the prayer offered by then Secretary of Agriculture Benson at the first Cabinet meeting of the recently-elected President, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I’d read the prayer before, and seen the handwritten note President Eisenhower had sent President Benson thanking him for his regular prayers at Cabinet meetings*, but something stood out to me this time that had not before. And it actually was nothing in the prayer itself. That is all pretty much what you might expect—expressions of gratitude for the founding fathers, the freedom enjoyed as Americans, and “the glorious Constitution,” as well as invocations of divine blessings to be bestowed on President Eisenhower, congress, and the judiciary, topped off with a typically Mormon blessing on the food served that day to the president and his cabinet (“For this food which we are about to partake … we thank thee. Bless and sanctify it to our nourishment and good.”).
What stuck out to me, though, was the short paragraph written by Benson that explained the prayer’s inclusion in the book:
The following, requested by the press, is a reconstruction as nearly as possible, of the prayer offered at the beginning of the first Cabinet meeting of President-Elect Dwight D. Eisenhower held in New York City at 12:30 p.m., January 12, 1953. The prayer was called for, without previous notice, at the beginning of the luncheon meeting and was given spontaneously. I have never attempted before to write or reconstruct a prayer (p. 261).
In actuality, this brief statement does not explain the prayer’s inclusion in the book as much as it attempts to justify the recording and printing of a prayer at all. Benson is careful to stress that the prayer was unplanned and “was given spontaneously,” and that it was his first ever attempt at writing a prayer. This all seems typically Mormon to me—writing to what I assume was a primarily LDS audience (the book was published by Deseret Book), the author makes sure that those readers are aware that he was not in the heretical habit of writing and repeating prayers and that the invocation at this meeting was not rote, but rather spontaneous.
I’m interested in any feedback presenting any additional insights into the language used by Benson in this brief passage, the subject of Mormon disdain for pre-meditated and rote prayers more generally, or anything else related to the topics addressed above.
*This note, as I recall, was on display in the Benson Building at BYU a few years ago. I assume it may still be there, as part of a large glass-encased exhibit celebrating the life, service, and achievements of ETB.