Saturday, October 26, 2013

Who Started the Welfare Program?

Regular visitors to this page will know my identity as the eldest grandson of President Harold B. Lee. From time to time I am asked to contribute insight and commentary on his history, as I was last week in our ward gospel doctrine class.

The lesson was on the origins of the Church Welfare Program. Whenever these infrequent invitations pop up, I go back and take a fresh look at what I know about Harold B. Lee. Each time I do it I feel as though I have a personal "visit" with him. It all feels so familiar and comfortable. His spirit and his gentle reminders to me are omnipresent.

This time as I reviewed the origins of the Welfare Program through his writings I had a fresh perspective.

President Harold B. Lee, 1930
Harold B. Lee was thirty-one years old when he was called as the President of the Pioneer Stake. There were six stakes in Salt Lake City at the time. The year was 1930, and the full impact of the Great Depression was being felt by the members of his stake. It was eighty-three years ago today on October 26th, when the stake was reorganized. A few days before that, he was invited to come to the office of President Rudger Clawson. He describes it this way:

"On the Friday preceding the quarterly conference, I was called to the office of President Rudger Clawson, where I was told by President Clawson and Elder George Albert Smith that I had been chosen by the First Presidency and the Twelve as the new president of Pioneer Stake. I told them I would much prefer working as a counselor to Brother Hyde, and was bluntly told by George Albert Smith that I had been invited to meet with them, not to tell them what should be done, but to find out if I was willing to do what the Lord wanted me to do. There followed a discussion on the selection of my counselors. Again I was told when I asked if they had any suggestions on that, 'We have suggestions, but we are not going to tell you - that is your responsibility. If you are guided by the Spirit of the Lord, you will choose those whom we have in mind.'" (Harold B. Lee, Prophet & Seer, L. Brent Goates, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1985, 88).

He describes how difficult the decision was in choosing his counselors:

"I retired that night, or rather early morning, to a fitful sleep, about three o'clock in the morning, after earnest prayer for guidance. During the few hours I tried to sleep it would seem that I had chosen two counselors and was trying to hold council meetings with them. Disagreements, obstacles, and misunderstandings would arise, and I would awake with a start to realize that my first choices were wrong. This process was repeated with ten or twelve of my brethren until, when morning came, I was certain the Lord had guided me to choose Charles S. Hyde and Paul C. Child as my counselors. When I announced to the Brethren my decision the next morning, they smiled their approval. The men whom they had desired had been selected.

"On the Saturday night following our conference priesthood convention, I went for a long ride with Brother Hyde, who was many years my senior in age and experience, and informed him of the proposed change and of my desire for him to be my first counselor. It was like a thunderbolt to him, and he deferred his answer until he could think it over and talk with President Clawson the next day. Paul C. Child had been my bishop in the Poplar Grove Ward for seven years, and he was not aware of his selection until his name was placed before the conference." (ibid., 88-89).

Harold B. Lee recorded in his journal that by 1933, out of their stake population of 7,300, there were over 4,800 who were "wholly dependent upon outside agencies" for a livelihood. The national jobless rate became a shocking 24.9 percent. Out of a work force of 51,132,000, approximately 12,830,000 were unemployed. As a stake presidency much of their time was spent in prayerful supplication over what to do about their stressful conditions.

Almost immediately in the fall months of 1930, they had gone to work to do what they could to alleviate the problems of the unemployed.

"An employment committee in each ward, consisting of a member of the bishopric and the chairman of the welfare committees of the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and the Relief Society welfare workers, kept in touch with the available male and female workers. Directed by Fred J. Heath of the stake central committee, workers from all wards were assigned to farm and industrial projects, which were organized from Provo on the south to Layton on the north.

"Workers were told that for their services the stake would undertake to see that food and fuel and shelter for themselves and their families would be provided fully. Hundreds of tons of produce soon began to roll in-peaches, tomatoes, fruits, vegetables, and meats. Relief Society women were organized and two canning machines were purchased for their own use. After exhausting all surplus bottles in the area through a 'drive,' we purchased ten to twenty thousand cans from the American Can Company at 1.5 cents each.

"After supplying our families and stocking our storehouse, we were able to sell considerable surplus to outside people.

"The storehouse was known as the Pioneer Stake bishop's storehouse and the bishops of our eleven wards were organized into an executive committee, with Bishop Joseph H. McPhie of the 25th Ward as chairman. They were instructed to meet regularly and to manage and initiate the policies of the storehouse. The First Presidency, after hearing our plan, agreed to permit withdrawals from the tithes to supplement the food received from our own efforts. With these funds we purchased at wholesale prices butter, eggs, flour, sugar, coal, etc., to provide a wide variety of foodstuffs for our people." (ibid., 94-96).

Harold B. Lee was often asked, "Who started the Welfare Program?" In 1958, speaking at a regional welfare meeting, this is what he would say repeatedly in answer:

"Everywhere I went people were always asking questions. They asked, 'Who started the welfare program?' I have always answered, and do today, 'The Lord started it.' Many asked how the welfare program was getting along — and that got to be such a monotonous question that everywhere I was being asked how the welfare program was going — and I used to say, 'Just as fine as the bishops of this church make it go, and no better.'" (Teachings of Harold B Lee, Clyde J. Williams, editor, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996, 304).

There are perhaps a thousand more details in the history that are all well-documented, but many years later looking back, Elder Lee offered this more valuable insight in a magazine article entitled, "Are You Ready for Christmas?" It was published in the Improvement Era in December, 1968.

"One Christmas (I believe it was the first one during my presidency), our small daughters quickly opened their Christmas morning gifts and soon dashed over to show their little friends the new dolls and other gifts. Shortly they returned home, both in tears.

"'What in the world is the matter?" we asked.

Sobbing, they said: 'Our friends did not have any Christmas. Santa Claus did not come to their home.'

"All too late we remembered that just across the street was a family whose father was not a member of the Church, although the children were, and the mother passively so; he had been out of work, and we had forgotten. Our Christmas was spoiled.

"We sent for those children and tried to divide what we had in an attempt to make up for our lack of thoughtfulness, but it was too late. Christmas dinner that day did not taste very good to me. I was unhappy. I realized that upon my shoulders rested the welfare of the people of the stake.

"We made a survey and were startled to discover that 4,800 of our membership were either wholly or partially dependent — the heads of families did not have steady employment.

"There were no government make-work projects in those days. We had only ourselves to look to. Church finances were declining. We were told that we couldn't expect much help from the general funds of the Church. Thus, it was in this same condition that we approached another Christmas season.

"We knew that we had about one thousand children under ten years of age for whom, without someone to help them, there would be no Christmas.

"We started to prepare. We found a second floor over an old store on Pierpont Street. We gathered toys, some of which were broken, and for a month or two before Christmas, fathers and mothers were there. Some arrived early or stayed late to make something special for their own little ones.

"That was the spirit of Christmas giving — one only had to step inside the door of that workshop to see and feel it. Our goal was to see that none of the children would be without a Christmas.

"There was to be Christmas dinner in all the homes of the 4,800 who, without help, wouldn't have Christmas dinner. Nuts, candy, oranges, a roast, and all that went with it would be their Christmas menu.

"It so happened that I was then one of the city commissioners. On the day before Christmas that year we had had a heavy snowstorm, and I had been out all night with the crews getting the streets cleared, knowing that I would be blamed if any of my men fell down on the job. I had then gone home to change my clothes to go to the office.

"As I started back to town, I saw a little boy on the roadside, hitchhiking. He stood in the biting cold, with no coat, no gloves, no overshoes. I stopped, and he climbed into the car beside me.

"'Son,' I asked, 'are you ready for Christmas?'

"'Oh, golly, mister, we aren't going to have any Christmas at our home. Daddy died three months ago and left Mamma and me and a little brother and sister.'

"Three children, each under ten!

"'Where are you going, son?'

"'I am going up to a free picture show.'

"'I turned up the heat in my car and said, 'Now, give me your name and address.'

"Further conversation revealed that they were not members of the Church.

"'Somebody will come to your home; you won't be forgotten. Now, you have a good time today — it's Christmas Eve.'

"That night I asked each bishop to go with his delivery men and see that each family was cared for, and to report back to me.

"While waiting for the last bishop to report, I painfully remembered something. In my haste to see that all my duties at work and my responsibilities in the Church were taken care of, I had forgotten the boy in my car and the promise that I had made.

"When the last bishop reported, I asked, 'Bishop, have you enough left to visit one more family?'

"'Yes, we have,' he replied.

"I told him the story and gave him the address.

"A little later he called to say that that family too had received some well-filled baskets. Christmas Eve was over at last, and I went to bed.

"As I awoke that Christmas morning, I said in my heart, 'God grant that I will never let another year pass, but that I, as a leader, will truly know my people. I will know their needs. I will be conscious of the ones who need my leadership most.

"My carelessness had meant suffering the first year because I did not know my people. But now I had resolved never again to overlook the needs of those around me." (ibid., 322-24, emphasis mine).

I heard Harold B. Lee give many sermons while I was a young man growing up. I was twenty-five years old and married with two children when he died, so I knew his heart, mind and soul as well as anyone could. Whenever he spoke about the Welfare Program, he invariably turned to these verses:

For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures.
I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine.
And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.
But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.
For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment. (D&C 104:13-18, emphasis mine).

In his own words as recently as last week, Harold B. Lee gave me valuable insights into how he believed the Welfare Program started. Boiled down to its essence, I concluded the Welfare Program started because of the need of some little girls who lived across the street who didn't have Christmas that year. It stemmed not from his organizational genius or his brilliant mind, but rather from his "carelessness," which then led to seeking inspiration with his valued counselors on how to address the overwhelming basic needs of his stake members.

Anthon H. Lund, Heber J. Grant, Charles W. Penrose
First Presidency, 1930
The answers then flowed in the form of revelation from God over a period of years. Those revelations translated into action in the Pioneer Stake, then his implementation church-wide in the years that followed under the direction of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles.

The principles haven't changed much in the years since. The goal of Church Welfare is to eradicate the dole - getting something for nothing. When people who need help are willing to work as they are able, self-reliance and self-worth are re-enthroned until they are able to stand on their own once again without assistance. The assistance they receive is only designed to be temporary, and their needs are provided by the bishops in the wards in which they reside. Sometimes those needs become perpetual due to poor health and other extenuating circumstances, and the good bishops of this Church are taught to seek out the people within their ward boundaries who need assistance and then to give it freely as required.

The bishop has at his disposal funds donated by members of his ward in the form of "fast offerings." Once a month we fast for twenty-four hours and donate the equivalent cost of those meals or substantially more for those who are in a position to do it. It's all voluntary, it's the Lord's way of providing for His saints and all His children, and there is no government program involved. Today those funds are commoditized for distribution worldwide whenever and wherever disasters strike.

It's a timely lesson for the world in which we now live in America, overwhelmed, it seems, with government interventions as far as the eye can see. All of that giving is mandated in the form of tax collection, and the misuse of those tax revenues is plain for anyone with eyes to see. Seldom do those tax monies reach the intended recipients without the government extracting a sizable portion. The Lord's way is to render help voluntarily.

If Harold B. Lee could see little children in need in his day and with scarce resources inspire a whole generation to find a way to bless the lives of others around them without government intervention, surely we can do it today out of our abundance.


  1. Thanks for posting this Dad. An answer to my prayer this Sabbath.

  2. This is awesome and helps me with perspective on such matters. Thanks Dad.

  3. When you are in a position to teach these principles, please contrast clearly for others the stark differences between "the Lord's way" and the government way. One is given as a gift from the heart out of compassion and a desire to lift and bless lives. The gifts are consecrated into the hands of inspired priesthood leaders who distribute the assistance by revelation to those in need. The other is extracted from citizens through taxation and redistributed based on someone's agenda about what they think is "fair." The government way HAS NEVER been the Lord's way. And it never will be. The government way is a cheap imitation. . . make that VERY EXPENSIVE and WASTEFUL imitation.

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