Yes, I’m reviewing two books on David O. McKay. My original intention was to review them together (and explore the larger issue of writing faith-promoting as opposed to warts-and-all history), but I decided that wouldn’t be fair. It didn’t seem fair because David O. McKay: Beloved Prophet is a credible entry in the well-established subgenre of LDS biography. It does exactly what it is supposed to do. But David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism is a category killer.
Because it relies on the extensive (130,000 pages) personal diaries of President McKay (maintained and then deposited at the U of U by his intrepid secretary, Clare Middlemiss, who should be the subject of her own book someday), it contains material that we just don’t get in LDS biography, including such things as verbatim transcripts of First Presidency meetings. ( In fact, it could fairly be said that one of the defining characteristics of LDS biography is the drawing of a discreet curtain around our subject as he enters the Quorum of the Twelve, as if he were an ER patient about to undergo an embarrassing medical procedure.)
For a variety of reasons, this book may be the most important work in Mormon Studies published in this decade (and, yes, I know about Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith that is coming out in the Fall.). Here’s why:
(1) As I said, we don’t normally get this kind of access to a prophet and his work. There is historical as well as devotional value here. Some readers will be uncomfortable with the tussle and disunity among the highest leaders of the Church. At times I was, too. I am sympathetic to the position that history must take a back-seat to faith –that we shouldn’t even allow it along for the ride if it will distract from faith. At the same time, if your testimony is weak enough to be rocked by the shocking revelations herein (Did you know that David O. McKay once asked for a Coca-Cola?), then you have underlying problems that will eventually rear their doubting heads even if you keep your nose out of this book.
I do exaggerate by suggesting that The Coke Incident was the most scandalous part of the book. The picture is of a prophet who loved and was loved by his people, but was not a particularly good administrator, and often backed down either because of weariness brought on by age or a desire not to impede on someone’s agency or, as he put it, “tender heart.” His position was that “we shall never be condemned for what we do not say,” and so he didn’t reign in Elder McConkie (over Mormon Doctrine), Elder Smith (over Man, His Origin and Destiny), or Elder Benson (over his support of the John Birch Society), although apparently he would have liked to. (Interestingly, Woodger subtly suggests that administration wasn’t President McKay’s strong suit, but does it without presenting much supporting data.) Will the average LDS reader be able to swallow the multiple incidents of conflict in the Quorum of the Twelve (here’s President McKay on his feelings about Elder Harold B. Lee going too far with correlation: “It is easy to understand how the Apostasy took place in the early days.”) and First Presidency? I don’t know. (But I won’t be shocked if Deseret pulls this book from its shelves.) There is, on balance, a very positive portrait of President McKay in this book, but I cannot say the same for (future) presidents Smith, Lee, and Benson (but I cringed at the snarky comment that then-Elder Smith made about him).
The issue of faithful-versus-warts history is huge and complicated. While you might think we have a clear contrast between this book and Woodger’s, she’s the one who told us about the young McKay cursing (mildly) at his mission call; Wright and Prince don’t. Rather, they set the tone of the book by starting out with reports from many people (member and non) about the ‘aura’ that President McKay had that caused even Gentiles to watch him walk through a crowded train station and ask, “Who is that?”
The authors quote President McKay as saying, “Perfect people would be awfully tiresome to live with; their stained-glass view of things would seem a constant sermon without intermission, a continuous moral snub of superiority to our self-respect.” Amen, President McKay. It only took me to page 24 (that’s right after the Coke story . . .) to love President McKay.
(2) Prince and Wright could have fairly titled this book something along the lines of A History of the LDS Church from 1950-1970. Without distracting from their overall mission, they fill in enough gaps that this book isn’t just about President McKay. Unlike some people around here, I wasn’t raised on Mormon Studies (I was a convert–the only one in my family–as a teenager) and while I’ve heard bits and pieces of the story of the evolution debate in the Quorum of the Twelve, the Mormon Doctrine controversy, the Sterling McMurrin and Fawn Brodie affairs, Elder Benson’s involvement with ultra-right-wing politics, the BYU spy scandal, baseball baptisms, etc., I didn’t have a solid picture of these things until I read this book.
There’s also an excellent chapter on blacks and the priesthood, all the more useful because it focuses on an epoch of that issue that is often overlooked. And contrary to the current apologetic position that ‘the Brethren were pro-civil rights, but restrained from giving blacks the priesthood,’ we get here plenty of data points suggesting that many of them were anything but in favor of civil rights and that they, in fact, toyed with the idea of giving at least the Aaronic Priesthood to men of African descent. One of the most poignant passages in the whole book concerns President McKay’s dismay after his repeated pleadings in prayer that he be allowed to ordain blacks were denied.
(3) Even if this were a much inferior work, it would still be a vital contribution to LDS History. You can perhaps be forgiven for hearing the phrase ‘Church History’ and thinking ’19th Century Church History.’ There’s just a lot more out there in print on Joseph and Brigham than there is on David and Spencer and we should rejoice at a work that attempts to fill in that lacuna.
(4) There’s great trivia in this book, and lots of it. Did you know that President McKay was more likely to quote great literature than scripture in his Conference talks? Did you know that in the early 20th century, most LDS didn’t know that the priesthood couldn’t be given to blacks? Did you know that President McKay considered building a Temple on a cruise ship and sailing it around the world (and can you imagine the old people fighting for that assignment?)? Did you know that Paul H. Dunn wrote his dissertation on the difference between what the Brethren said was the doctrine of the Church and what was taught by CES? That President McKay (probably) originated the practice of exchanging rings in the sealing room during a Temple wedding?
I hope I won’t be distracting from this phenomenal book if I note two weak points:
(1) The book is arranged topically, not chronologically. While not a problem in itself, I do question some of the topics selected (and left undone). For example, there is a chapter on ‘ecumenical outreach,’ but this does not seem to have been a major theme for President McKay. Secondly, virtually every chapter covers a controversy surrounding Church practice, not doctrine. Although the policies surrounding blacks and the priesthood, communism, and gathering to Zion are, of course, doctrinally based, they are primarily issues of policy. There’s nothing here, for example, about McKay’s shaping of doctrine (i.e., views on the Godhead, repentence, etc.). Is that because these weren’t major issues during his administration, or does it reflect the selection bias of the authors? I’m not sure.
(2) Paul H. Dunn is quoted extensively in this book from a series of interviews that the authors did with him. In the majority of cases, the quote is introduced with something similar to this: ‘one General Authority said . . .’ I can see why they interviewed him and used his statements (he is much more frank than I would imagine virtually any other GA would be on the record), but to never mention in the book his dubious standing (even in the biographical information in the end) in the Church and to often ‘hide’ his identity by only naming him in the endnotes, not the text, seems a little sloppy to me. This is especially true since the book contains an excellent summary of the Douglas Stringfellow hoax, a situation very similar to Dunn’s (except that Stringfellow was a Utah politician, not a GA) and President McKay’s condemnation of it. It is debatable whether Dunn can be considered a reliable source given his past, so I think the authors should have been more transparent if they were going to quote him.
These are minor points, however. It is just about killing me not to write a 10,000-word post and detail everything that fascinated me in this book. But I don’t want to give you the impression that you’ve gotten the good stuff and can skip reading it. Because you can’t. (You’ll just need to read it for yourself to find out how Mormon Doctrine ended up having one very positive effect on LDS-Catholic relations.) This one is mandatory for anyone with an interest in Mormon Studies.