When a prophet gets Alzheimer’s disease

If you have been a member of the LDS church for any length of time then you probably recall the PR issues the church struggled with due to President Benson’s decline in health toward the end of his life. Unfortunately, that decline occurred shortly after he became the senior apostle and therefore, the prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was the prophet from 1985 to 1994.

The first few years of his presidency (up until 1988) were good ones. In fact, they were memorable for several reasons. When most members of the Church think of President Benson, they remember his emphasis on using the Book of Mormon. I know I do. I distinctly recall his strong use of D&C 84:53-57 in which the Lord condemns the Church for vanity in not believing and remembering to use the Book of Mormon. Powerful!

President Benson is also remembered for his wonderful talk on pride that is used in many places in the official church curriculum. It is a classic. But do you remember that President Benson was so incapacitated that he was unable to read it? President Hinckley read it for him in the April 1989 General Conference. After that, we rarely heard from President Benson in General Conference. In fact, we never did. His last talk in October of 1989 was read by President Monson and was appropriately entitled, “To the Elderly in the Church.”

President Benson had Alzheimers

I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone then or now to realize that President Benson had Alzheimer’s disease. In other words, he was senile. This presented a problem for some members of the church. In particular, Steve Benson, the grandson of President Benson and a Pulitzer prize winning cartoonist for the Arizona Republic had a problem with this. More to the point, he had a problem with his perception that the Church was trying to cover it up.

He contended that the top echelon of the Church were putting on a charade when they would appear with President Benson at a public event such as a groundbreaking ceremony, put his foot on a shovel and snap a picture. The church, he believed, had boxed itself into a theological corner. How could the Church possibly be true, claiming that we are led by a living prophet when that living prophet was incapacitated? Were we just perpetuating an illusion?

Sadly, Steve’s personal problem spilled out into the public when he went on record with a story in the Salt Lake Tribune July 10, 1993. That story was soon followed by others that included evidence that seemed to back up his claims. A legal transfer of power had taken place back in 1989 and copies of the documents were produced to substantiate it. Big deal. I’ve seen and also have copies of those documents. They are a matter of public record. So what?

The focus is on the prophet

I think what Steve missed and probably what some members of the Church forget is that the power and authority of the Lord’s kingdom on the Earth in these latter days is distributed among fifteen prophets and apostles. The Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are equal in power and authority. They all hold the keys of the kingdom. So what if the prophet is incapacitated? Joseph Smith was dead!

I don’t know Steve personally and I have no problem with his right to express his opinion about how he feels that he and all the rest of the church were deceived by a massive PR effort and cover up. Steve and his wife gave up their membership in the church in an act of protest over their hurt feelings in the matter. Unfortunately, he continued to speak out against the Church through a series of articles that can still be found all over the Internet on Anti-Mormon sites.

Steve may have been the source of the rumor that President Benson’s last known General Conference talks were not really his but were written by his son or even his daughter in law. You can find several sites that have posted what they claim is indisputable evidence that his talk on pride was lifted heavily from a chapter in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis entitled, “The Great Sin.” Once again, so what? I have no problem with that or if his talks were ghostwritten.

Keys of the Kingdom

I like what my fellow blogger, S Faux of Mormon Insights wrote in a comment to one of my earlier posts. He said, “For some reason, God works through flawed men. I think it has something to do with the fact that there is no one else from which to choose.” He also said, “The reason I am a member of the Church has little or nothing to do with the personalities in the Church.” I concur. Prophets come and prophets go. I remain in the church because it is true.

I have written about the keys of the kingdom previously. I have also written about why it is that we can and do claim to be the only true and living Church upon the face of the Earth. This essay is not really about authority. It is more about loyalty. Once you obtain a knowledge for yourself that this Church is true, and that it is the Lord’s only authorized organization for administering the ordinances of salvation, then there needs to be a commitment to that organization.

Every organization has deficiencies. Most of those are found among the people and sometimes within the leadership of the Church. Apostles have been excommunicated. Prophets get senile. That doesn’t change the fact the Lord said in Daniel 2:44-45 that the Kingdom of God as setup in the last days shall never be destroyed or left to another people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that kingdom and will remain to welcome the Lord to the earth again.

Summary and conclusion

Steve Benson now says that he is an atheist. Yet he also says, “cut me and I bleed Mormon.” I suspect he may be one to whom President Monson was recently referring when he offered yet another invitation to come back. It is the same invitation that every prophet has offered and that the Lord extends through His authorized servants every day. His arms are open and stretched out with the hope that those who were once faithful will return to the fold.

Was Steve Benson right? Of course he was. President Benson was incapacitated while serving as the prophet. Was he right in claiming that the church tried to cover it up? I don’t think so and I don’t think there was a cover up. There was a lot of love for President Benson expressed by President Hinckley, President Monson and many others during those last few years of his life. These brethren, along with most of the rest of the church were loyal to the Lord’s prophet.

I offer my take on this matter as a regular member of the church. I once wrote tongue-in-cheek that I work for the Church as a blogger. Like many of you, I am disgusted by the terrible falsehoods, lies, innuendos and misrepresentations that can be found on the Internet about the Church. Nobody asked me to write my essays. But did you notice that Elder Ballard reiterated his call to the members of the Church to become more involved in positive blogging? Let’s do so.

10 thoughts on “When a prophet gets Alzheimer’s disease”

  1. ChristFollower

    Your blog reminds me of the old analogy about a glass of water filled halfway up. Is it half full or half empty? It’s interesting to read your interpretation of things so many people find negative things to react to. Many apologetic sites basically “shoot the messenger”. i.e. they disparage the character of people like Steve Benson or Grant Palmer as a way of discrediting their work, without necessarily addressing the facts they present. Your thoughts strike me as being less polarizing and more honest. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Tim:Thanks for another good essay. I hope you are not getting tired of my comments, and thanks for the quote above. I was acquainted with Steve Benson at BYU years and years ago. I wish he would return. I know he loved his grandfather very, very much.I agree with “Christfollower” above. We need to appreciate our religious/intellectual enemies more. Ad Hominem arguments get us no where. Your approach to essays seems to avoid that fallacy.Although much of our Church is divine, our leaders are human, and they are NOT infallible. Presidents of the Church have Counselors for a reason. The Council of Twelve exists for a reason. No single person can carry the entire load of the Church, not even the President who carries all the keys.

  3. I think Steve Benson did the members of the Church a big favor by helping us remember that the keys of the kingdom are not just held by the President of the Church, but that they are held jointly by all members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.Steve Benson was right. President Benson had Alzheimer’s. Would it have been better if the Brethren had been up front about it? I don’t know. It didn’t bother me at the time and it still doesn’t bother me. The church is led by imperfect men. They make mistakes in judgment. I am grateful that it is not my place to judge them.

  4. The Faithful Dissident

    Thanks for this post, I was just a kid when Pres. Benson passed away and I honestly never knew he had Alzheimer’s.I work in a nursing home with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Unfortunately, for some, dementia still carries a stigma, much like mental illness. I would hope that if the current prophet should develop a dementia disease, that there would be no reason to cover it up, just as there is no reason for us to cover up the fact that we have diabetes, cancer, or such illnesses. The demented are, essentially, the same person they have always been, even though it may get harder to reach that person as the disease progresses.

  5. Christa Jeanne

    Great post – thanks for that. I love, love, love the line you quoted about God working through imperfect people because there’s no one else from which to choose. I think people forget that all too often. The gospel is true, the Church is a divinely inspired organization – and we’re all just imperfect beings doing the best we can. If we kept that perspective in mind, we’d really be able to become a Zion people. Instead too often we get hung up on personalities and character flaws (without, of course, taking a mirror to our own).

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  8. As an active but skeptical member, the question for me is this: Is the Church justified in committing wholesale deception upon its membership? Do the members have a right to know that the man they are sustaining as prophet, seer and revelator is senile and is not even the legal head of the Church anymore? I can handle the fact that there are 14 other leaders (+ presiding bishopric and others) that can work out Church affairs without the help of the most senior one that is incapacitated. But why not be frank with the membership of the Church rather than mislead them? The Church weakens its case for being a trustworthy organization when people learn of these actions.

  9. Hi Tadpole,

    Thanks for your comment and questions. As I wrote in the essay, and contrary to Steve Benson’s assertions, I do not think there was any kind of a cover-up. We simply do not have all the facts to be able to make that kind of a judgment. Perhaps Steve has more inside information that he has shared elsewhere but I have not seen evidence of what some have termed as a conspiracy to deceive.

    As you have noted, the end-result can be perceived that way, but I cannot believe that the men that I sustain as prophets, seers and revelators had any malicious intent in mind when they “trotted the prophet out for photo ops” as Steve implied. Can’t we assume that they kindly asked him if he wanted to be there on days like that? I remember the photo when it came out and thought it was great to see him.

    You’ve got to put yourself in these men’s shoes. They had great love and respect for the prophet and showed us a great example in the way that they treated him during the years that he was incapacitated. Should they have been more up-front and frank with the membership of the church about his health? In hindsight, probably, but I wonder if it even occurred to them that there might be a problem.

    I trust these men. Even though my sister is the secretary to one of them, I have no additional inside information that would sway my opinion one way or the other. I base my trust on two things – a close listening to what they say when they speak as prophets in General Conference and the impressions I have in my heart and mind when I pray for them each night. May God bless his prophets and apostles!

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