Bruce R. McConkie stands in an interesting place in the history of the Church. For some, he holds a place in the upper echelons of a pantheon of Latter-day Saint thinkers and writers who have shaped, advocated, and defended the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For others, he is seen as an example of anti-intellectualism who mingled the doctrines of the Church with fundamentalist Protestant beliefs and outlooks. Regardless of where one stands, mention of Elder McConkie is likely to lead to a strong reaction when it comes to discussing Church history and beliefs. In a recent, lengthy interview with Kurt Manwaring, Dennis B. Horne (one of McConkie’s biographers) shared some of his perspectives on the influential apostle. What follows here is a co-post to the interview, focusing in on a small part of what is discussed.
One thing that has been an area of ongoing discussion in Latter-day Saint thought is McConkie’s book Mormon Doctrine. Originally published in 1958, this encyclopedic work on doctrine is known for its authoritative tone and topical discussions of Latter-day Saint beliefs. Controversial for its inclusion of McConkie’s beliefs about people with black African ancestry, evolution, the Great and Abominable Church, etc., it has been an ongoing target of criticism. Horne responded to some of those criticisms, such as the ones leveled by Greg Prince and Wm. Wright in their biography of President David O. McKay. For example, one part of the discussion focused on the idea that Bruce R. McConkie went behind President McKay’s back to publish a second edition of Mormon Doctrine. Horne called this a falsehood and quoted McConkie’s son as writing that:
On July 5, 1966, President McKay invited Elder McConkie into his office and gave approval for the book to be reprinted if appropriate changes were made and approved. Elder Spencer W. Kimball was assigned to be Elder McConkie’s mentor in making those changes. Joseph also queried: “Haven’t you heard people say that Bruce McConkie had the book reprinted contrary to the direction of the First Presidency?”
To which he answered: “Yes, but if they would think about it, that assertion does not make much sense. The publisher was Bookcraft, not Bruce McConkie, and Bookcraft was always very careful to follow the direction of the Brethren. It could also be noted that Mormon Doctrine was reissued in 1966, and its author was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1972. It takes a pretty good imagination to suppose that a man who flagrantly ignored the direction of the president of the Church and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would be called to fill a vacancy in that body.
Whatever faults one might want to attribute to Bruce McConkie, no one who knew him could question his integrity or his discipline, particularly where matters of priesthood direction were concerned. Never in my life have I known a man who was more disciplined or obedient to priesthood direction. Bruce McConkie would have died a thousand deaths before he would have disregarded the prophet’s counsel or that of the Quorum of the Twelve. . . . He followed counsel and minded his business. I have never met, nor do I expect to meet, a man more disciplined to the order of the priesthood.
To suppose that he would reject the counsel of the president of the Church or the Quorum of the Twelve is to completely misrepresent the man and the truth.
Horne also quoted from his own biography of McConkie:
In 1958 Elder McConkie’s seminal encyclopedic work, Mormon Doctrine, was published. Because it explained gospel doctrines clearly and forcefully, it quickly became a very popular book with latter-day saints. However, the breadth of subjects covered (some outside the range of LDS doctrine), the authoritative tone in which they were explained, and the controversial nature of some of the content, caused the First Presidency to take a close look at it.
Both Elders Marion G. Romney and Mark E. Petersen were assigned by the First Presidency to submit written reports on their findings after reviewing the book. These reports eventually led to a meeting between the First Presidency (then consisting of David O. McKay, J. Reuben Clark, and Henry D. Moyle), Elder Mark E. Petersen, and Elder McConkie, to discuss his best-selling book.
When they called Bruce in, they asked him to take a seat, but he said he would prefer to stand. Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve, present and accounted for during this meeting, did most of the talking.
President Henry D. Moyle (the second counselor) indicated that on this occasion the First Presidency gave Bruce a “horsewhipping.” They were really hard on him and “raked him over the coals” for a period of time.
He further indicated that it was the worst criticism that that First Presidency had ever given a General Authority; that he went home feeling badly that they had been so hard on Bruce—it was basically Mark E. Petersen doing the talking and the First Presidency going along with and backing him up in his criticisms of Bruce’s book; that Elder Petersen was the real force behind the (temporary) discontinuance of Mormon Doctrine; he was the reason the First Presidency gave it so much attention and why Bruce got in so much trouble over it.
President Moyle indicated that Bruce simply listened to what they had to say, didn’t offer any arguments or protestations, said he had no questions at the end of the meeting when he was asked if he did, and he left.
He then went on to share in the interview that:
Elder Marion G. Romney really didn’t think that much was wrong with Mormon Doctrine, and President Joseph Fielding Smith didn’t think anything was wrong with it.
I have thought long and hard about why Elder Petersen didn’t like Mormon Doctrine and said he found more than a thousand errors in it. As I have read the doctrinal writings of each man, it has become apparent to me that they really thought very much alike, with very similar doctrinal views. They both denounced error and intellectualism when they saw it, and the error of worldly philosophies. Many of their talks are similar in doctrinal content.
Joseph Fielding McConkie believed that Elder Petersen’s distrust of the JST (or the Inspired Version) of the Bible may have caused him to designate every use of that work in Mormon Doctrine as an “error.” This is not known for sure, but if that was the case, then such references would not be considered errors today.
It’s an interesting point, and worth considering when approaching the book.
I once had an institute teacher who discussed Church history talk about Elder McConkie, emphasizing that even if there are problematic things that he said and wrote, we need to be careful to not throw the baby out with the bath water (i.e., there are great things and important that he shared, even if you don’t agree with everything from him). Horne shared some similar thoughts in the interview:
Joseph McConkie wondered, in writing, how anyone could justify ignoring or discounting all that Elder McConkie ever said or wrote throughout his ministry, by stating that he (may have) got something wrong in Mormon Doctrine. To say that everything taught must be distrusted because someone is found to be wrong about a few things, would surely make everything all of us say untrustworthy, for whom among us is perfect in all we say, write, or teach?
It’s a good point – as a writer, I certainly know that I am quite far from being free of errors, so it makes sense to me to give leeway to others with the same problem of not being perfect.
As mentioned, the full interview is quite lengthy, so I’ve only scratched the surface by touching on a couple points relating to one topic in the space that I have. I recommend hopping on over to FromtheDesk to read the full discussion here. It covers a broad range of topics, from Bruce R. McConkie’s father to his role in the 1970s edition of the scriptures to the final days of his life and Elder McConkie’s magnificent final public sermon. It’s interesting and worth taking the time to read and consider.