With a triumphant but somber funeral, the world's 8.8 million Mormons bade farewell Saturday to Ezra Taft Benson, the Idaho plowboy who rose to become the 13th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the man whom the faithful considered to be God's prophet on earth.
Held in the Mormon Tabernacle, just a few yards from the historic Mormon Temple with its heroic gilded statue of the angel Moroni blowing a trumpet atop a stylized Gothic steeple, the funeral drew an estimated 5,000 Mormons and others, and messages from President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt and other dignitaries.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang several of Benson's favorite hymns, including "Love at Home" and "An Angel From on High."
Benson, who served as secretary of agriculture in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration and became president-prophet of the Mormon Church in 1985, died May 30 of congestive heart failure at age 94. He had been incapacitated for the last two years.
Thousands of people lined the highway between Salt Lake City and Whitney, Ida., as the funeral procession made the two-hour drive to Benson's birthplace. There, surrounded by the faithful, including his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he was buried in a rural cemetery beside his late wife, Flora, who died in August, 1992. It was only the second time a president-prophet of the church had been laid to rest outside Utah.
Former Los Angeles attorney Howard W. Hunter, the most senior member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, is expected to succeed Benson within a matter of days, church officials said.
Hunter, 86, who spoke with a sometimes frail voice and required assistance to reach his chair and the podium, said Benson would be remembered for his love of the Book of Mormon.
Hunter drew some appreciative laughter when he said that although Benson's passing was a time of sadness, "it thrills us to think of the joyful reunion President Benson is having with his beloved sweetheart, Flora, who has been waiting patiently--or perhaps even a little impatiently--for her husband of 66 years to join her on the other side."
Mormons believe in life after death and that marriages are eternal.
Tributes to Benson were numerous. Clinton hailed Benson as "a spiritual man . . . and someone who believed the priestly idea that families come first." Thomas S. Monson, former second counselor to Benson, recalled Benson's work in Europe after World War II in bringing food and clothing to the hungry and homeless. He was hailed for his work with the Boy Scouts of America and for his ardent anti-communism.
Gordon B. Hinckley, former first counselor to Benson, said he had no doubt that the sight of war-ravaged Europe and desperate people was responsible for Benson's anti-communism. Benson once offered outspoken support for the ultraconservative John Birch Society.
"I am confident that it was out of what he saw of the bitter fruit of dictatorship that he developed his strong feelings, almost hatred, for communism and socialism," Hinckley said.
During Benson's eight years as president, he emphasized the importance of missionary work and exhorted Mormons to read the church's sacred Scripture, the Book of Mormon, and pattern their lives after the prophets and Jesus Christ.
Benson had been a force within the denomination since 1943, when he became an apostle, a high-ranking position in the church's all-male hierarchy.
But the recurring theme Saturday was that of a simple farm boy who rose to political greatness and spiritual heights.
"The plowboy who became God's prophet has gone home," Monson said.