SAN ANTONIO — On Oct. 1, 1959, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stepped into a 150-year-old historic Baptist church near Red Square in Moscow during the Cold War and gave an impromptu Christian sermon.
Reid L. Neilson of the LDS Church History Department described the visit during the Mormon History Association Conference on June 6.
Ezra Taft Benson, acting in his position as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, was concluding his stay in the Soviet Union as part of a two-week diplomatic tour of Eastern Europe, when, as he said in his own words, “the most remarkable incident of the entire trip occurred the last evening in Moscow.”
Elder Benson had been trying to visit different churches in Russia, to no avail. He just wanted to celebrate Jesus Christ on Russian soil, Neilson explained. It was not until the last night on the way to the airport that Elder Benson talked a chauffeur into doing a U-turn near a church — and the memorable sermon began.
Entering the church on that rainy evening, they found the church filled.
“We were ushered into a place near the pulpit,” Elder Benson recalled. He had not come prepared to speak but spontaneously testified of Jesus Christ.
“It was very kind of your minister to ask me to extend greetings to you,” he began. “I bring you greetings from the millions and millions of church people in America and around the world. Our Heavenly Father is not far away. He can be very close to us. I know that God lives. He is our Father. Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World, watches over this earth. He will direct all things. Be unafraid, keep his commandments, love one another, pray for peace and all will be well.”
He continued, “This life is only a part of eternity. We lived before we came here as spiritual children of God. We will live again after we leave this life. Christ broke the bonds of death and was resurrected. We will all be resurrected.”
Elder Benson concluded with his testimony as an apostle: “I leave you my witness as a church servant for many years that the truth will endure. Time is always on our side. God bless you and keep you all the days of your life, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Neilson described how Elder Benson remembered the reaction to his words, translated on the spot into Russian. Women waved handkerchiefs, men nodded their heads and many cried in the congregation. They finished by singing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.”
Elder Benson, who became the 13th president of the LDS Church, often referred to that night in later writing, once reminiscing, “It has been my privilege to speak before many church groups in all parts of the world, but the impact of that experience is almost indescribable. I shall never forget that evening as long as I live. Seldom have I felt the oneness of mankind and the unquenchable yearning of the human heart for freedom so keenly as at that moment.”
For a report of the meeting from Grant Salisbury and Warren K. Leffler, the writer-photographer team for “U.S. News & World Report” that accompanied Secretary of Agriculture Ezra T. Benson to Russia, see the related blog post at Keepapitchinin.org.
Emily W. Jensen enjoys writing, editing, reading and eating dark chocolate, sometimes simultaneously. She happily covered the Mormon blogs for the Deseret News for five years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org