George Stuart Benson (1898–1991)
George Stuart Benson was the second president of Harding College (now Harding University) in Searcy (White County), but he is most remembered as a crusader against communism. He founded the National Education Program (NEP) at Harding to advocate for American values and the free enterprise system.
George Benson, son of Stuart Felix Benson and Erma Rogers Benson, was born on his parents’ small Oklahoma farm in Dewey County on September 26, 1898. He attended several elementary and secondary schools in the area and then attended classes at Oklahoma A&M until transferring to Harper College in Harper, Kansas. In 1924, Harper College merged with Arkansas Christian College in Morrilton (Conway County) to form Harding College, a private school associated with the Churches of Christ. Benson moved to Morrilton, where he graduated in the spring of 1925. On July 2 of that year, he married Sallie Ellis Hockaday; they would have two daughters. In the fall, the newlyweds left for China to engage in missionary work for the Churches of Christ.
A little less than a year later, a communist uprising drove the Bensons from their mission. Christian converts helped smuggle the couple from the area. They went first to Hong Kong and then to the Philippines, where they stayed until 1928 when Chiang Kai-shek took control of China. Upon their return to China, Benson founded the Canton Bible School. In spite of the school’s success, Benson felt the need for additional education himself to lend more prestige to his leadership, and so the Bensons and their daughter returned to the United States in 1930; he completed a master’s degree at the University of Chicago in 1931, and in 1932, Harding College conferred the LLD upon him as he prepared to return to China.
The communists were in resurgence in China, and the atmosphere became increasingly dangerous. In the spring of 1936, the board of Harding College, which was now located in Searcy, contacted Benson and invited him to return to become its second president, a position he accepted. The couple arrived at Harding in time for the fall session. Benson found the school over $80,000 in debt and in receivership to its bank creditors. He approached the business community for support, presenting a three-point message of faith in God, constitutional government, and the free enterprise system. Benson invited corporate leaders to the campus to speak to students on these subjects. Contributions poured in, and on November 29, 1939, the debt was paid.
In 1941, Benson applied to testify at congressional hearings concerned with raising taxes to pay for the anticipated war. On May 15, 1941, Benson shocked both the committee and reporters by saying he saw no need for any major tax increase if Congress would cut government waste. To support his point, he presented a list of government programs he contended were no longer needed (including many New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the National Youth Agency) and tallied the savings to the American people. When Benson finished, the committee violated a standing House rule and gave him a rousing ovation.
Benson’s speech was printed in several national newspapers and then in the Chicago Journal of Commerce. Benson became a national pundit on taxation and government waste. On December 3, 1941, the Tax Foundation of America honored Benson with a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Oklahoma City Times ran feature stories about Benson, as did the Saturday Evening Post (“Arkansas Crusader”), National Geographic (“Arkansas Rolls Up Its Sleeves”), and Reader’s Digest (“If I Were a Communist”).
In the early 1940s, Benson established the National Education Program (NEP) on the Harding campus; its goal was to promote Americanism, patriotism, and the free enterprise system. The NEP sponsored Freedom Forums for high school students around the nation. Benson hired former Disney cartoonist John Sutherland to produce cartoons about the free market. One of these, “Meet King Joe,” was produced in 1949 for the NEP. Also in 1949, the Freedoms Foundation medal was awarded to Harding College with General Dwight D. Eisenhower presenting Benson the medal. As Cold War tensions mounted, the NEP continued to sponsor a series of educational films, including Communism on the Map (1960). Benson and his colleague Dr. James D. Bales spoke and wrote extensively on the anti-communist theme.
During the 1950s, Benson was busy writing a weekly column titled “Looking Ahead,” which appeared in over 4,000 newspapers, and speaking on a weekly radio program called “Land of the Free,” which was carried on 300 stations. In 1953, the Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine annual poll chose Benson as “Arkansas Man of the Year.” In 1957, Oklahoma Christian College asked Benson to serve as its chancellor.
Benson initially resisted overtures by students and faculty to begin the process of desegregating Harding, but in the fall of 1963 he announced that the school would be admitting its first black students. He announced his retirement in April 1965. He remained the president of the NEP and also began building a system of Christian schools and a Christian junior college in Zambia, Africa. The state of Oklahoma inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1978, Benson and the NEP received their eighteenth award from the Freedoms Foundation. In 1981, Benson was nominated for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In December 1981, Benson’s wife died. On February 22, 1983, he married Marguerite O’Banion, his secretary of forty years. Benson continued speaking, lecturing, and garnering support for Harding University and many other schools and projects.
Benson’s health began to fail in early 1991, and by that fall, he was repeatedly in the hospital. While Benson was on his deathbed, James D. Bales informed him of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Benson died on December 15, 1991, and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Searcy.
For additional information:
Benson Files. Harding University Archives and Special Collections. Brackett Library. Harding University, Searcy, Arkansas.
Benson, George S. Missionary Experiences. Edited by Phil Wilson. Edmund, OK: 1987.
Hick, L. Edward. “Sometimes in the Wrong, but Never in Doubt: George S. Benson and the Education of the New Religious Right”. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.
Maxwell, Robbie John. “Educator to the Nation: George S. Benson and Modern American Conservatism.” PhD diss., University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, 2015.
———. “The Emergence of a Pioneer Conservative: George S. Benson and the Politics of America’s ‘Great Interior’ in the 1930s and 1940s.” Journal of Contemporary History 53 (December 2018): 714–739.
———. “’A Shooting Star of Conservatism’: George S. Benson, the National Education Program and the ‘Radical Right.’” Journal of American Studies 53 (May 2019): 373–400.
Stevens, John C. Before Any Were Willing: The Story of George S. Benson. Searcy, AR: Harding University, 1991.
Paul D. Haynie
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