Joseph Spencer on Bruce R. McConkie’s Legacy

Long-time followers of my blog posts (if any exist) are likely aware that I have a complicated relationship with Elder Bruce R. McConkie. He was hugely influential to me in my teenage years and early twenties before my own views of Latter-day Saint theology began to conflict with his in a few very notable ways. I still have a large amount of respect for him, both for his role as an apostle and his intellectual efforts to create a systematic theology, but I also find that his authoritarianism and some of his views rub me wrong. I don’t seem to be alone in this wrestle, however, as there seems to be a large segment of Latter-day Saints who have downplayed McConkie’s contributions, even while other Latter-day Saints tend to see his work very favorably (hello there, Dennis Horne!). Joseph Spencer has recently offered a reassessment of Bruce R. McConkie in an interview on the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk that has led me to ponder more on Elder McConkie’s legacy. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

To start, I will note that Joseph Spencer isn’t advocating for a wholehearted acceptance of all aspects of McConkie’s work. When asked about Mormon Doctrine, for example, he wrote that “I find less theological strength in Mormon Doctrine than I do in some of Elder McConkie’s other writings—his ‘Messiah’ series or his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary.” He added that “I don’t know that Mormon Doctrine ought to serve as a foundation for theologians today. … I don’t know that young theologians would be especially benefited by returning to Mormon Doctrine to see how Elder McConkie did things.” 

Instead, Joseph Spencer highlighted the overall impact that McConkie had on Latter-day Saints engagement with the scriptures as being the best takeaway from his work:

Elder McConkie was the most serious advocate in the Church’s history for real engagement with scripture. No one before him, and no one since, has done more to convince the Saints that they ought to consecrate their intellectual faculties to the study of scripture.

Whatever faults he may have had, that one success—in my view, at least—makes him among the tradition’s most important voices.

While Spencer may not have been a direct disciple of McConkie, this aspect of Elder McConkie’s ministry has been important in shaping the type of theologian he wants to be:

For me, at least, the point of doing theology is always just to understand better and more richly the scriptures that the Latter-day Saints take to be binding.

Every reading is offered up to the public only for whatever it’s worth, and the labor to produce it is undertaken out of deep devotion to the scriptural words that have been given to guide the Saints toward lives of faith. For my own part, at least, I want my work in theological reflection to do no more than sharpen my own (and maybe others’) sense of what it means to be faithful to the Restoration.

Thus, given the importance of scriptures in McConkie’s theological project, Joseph Spencer sees himself and similar Latter-day Saint theologians as heirs of McConkie’s work.

More than just shaping a cultural emphasis on the scriptures, however, Spencer does feel that McConkie deserves more credit than he has generally been given among the intellectual Latter-day Saint community:

When he was at the height of his influence (in the 1960s and 1970s), which was strongest among religious educators within the Church Educational System, many Latter-day Saint intellectuals felt him to be more authoritarian than authoritative.

That attitude has persisted and, as Elder McConkie’s influence has waned in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it has also grown more widespread.

He has often been accused of treating alternative views dismissively, using words like “heresy” even when referring to ideas once held by earlier presidents of the Church. In many ways, he has become for many a symbol of authoritarian or doctrinaire leadership.

This view, while accurate in assessing his tone as authoritarian, misses a large part of what Elder McConkie did:

Caricatures are easier to deal with than real people, and this is one problem with many criticisms of Elder McConkie. Whatever the general understanding of his views and personality might be, he was a more complicated individual than they suggest.

Bruce R. McConkie was a fierce advocate for the serious, academic study of Latter-day Saint history. He privately pleaded with other leaders for more openness about controversial ideas taught by Church leaders of previous generations. He happily conceded his errors when he was corrected by his leaders and publicly disavowed his own teachings when revelation proved them to have been speculative or misguided. …

Elder McConkie was an interesting and inventive thinker, one whose thought hasn’t yet been taken seriously enough by intellectual historians to see for its real contribution.

(I will note that the fact that while “he happily conceded his errors when he was corrected,” that did not always lead to as far-reaching of efforts to concede errors as is sometimes thought, especially with his teachings related to the priesthood and temple ban.)

While intellectual historians are often opposed to McConkie’s work on the basis that it has some anti-intellectual elements, McConkie was an intellectual in his own right:

It isn’t hard, I think, to see the appeal Elder McConkie’s work had for many members of the Church. For anyone who had a rationalist bent, a kind of inclination toward reasoning and intellectual labor, but who also held traditional suspicions about the skepticism of the sciences, Elder McConkie’s writings struck exactly the right balance.

The project was deeply intellectual, wholly a matter of reasoning and reflection, and yet it expressed obedience to divine authority rather than to the self-arrogated authority of “intellectuals.” …

It’s of course true that many of the more academically inclined among the Latter-day Saints accused Elder McConkie of embracing a certain kind of irrationalism—or of being simply allergic to the life of the mind.

That, however, is an unfair assessment. It was just that Elder McConkie represented a rather different life of the mind than the one they embraced.

McConkie was an intellectual, just not in the same mold as many academic scholars.

For more discussion about Joseph Spencer’s reassessment of Bruce R. McConkie, head on over to read the full interview on the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. There’s plenty more there to consider.

8 comments for “Joseph Spencer on Bruce R. McConkie’s Legacy

  1. I find it more that Elder McConkie had a certain world view, and while that was shaped through extensive reading of the standard works, every scripture reading was to be a proof text of his preferred world view.

  2. As I look back on those turbulent times I can’t help but believe that perhaps the Lord had reserved Elder McConkie (and others of that era) for the work they would do in grounding the church during the upheaval of the 60’s & 70’s. While McConkie may have been wrong about some things he was right about the things that really mattered–perhaps almost to a fault at times. But that’s what the church needed in those days–IMO.

  3. Personally, I don’t remember BRM fondly. I grew up in the late 60s & 70’s I found him to be bloviating, self obsessed, austere, unapproachable and certainly one of the Church’s “hardliners”. So many of the doctrines he declared to be true (beyond any doubt) have since been disavowed or (more often than not) sent down the memory hole.

    I’m glad he’s gone to his reward; and we don’t have to deal with him any further.

  4. I am with LeftHL on this – I am of the BRM-ruled generation, but I was repulsed by his ‘this-is-the-way-it-is’ manner of speaking. I usually thought a doctrinal discussion should be along the lines of ‘come, let us reason together’. I wondered how miserable it would be to be one of his children, living under his ‘be good or begone’ precepts, but I have heard people say that he was completely different (nicer, more complimentary, more supportive) at home, so I suppose he is a mixed bag.

  5. Thanks for the post. I appreciate the reminder that human beings are complicated and that turning each other into caricatures is neither kind nor helpful to understanding. I must strongly disagree, though, with calling Bruce R. McConkie an “intellectual.” While he clearly had an active mind and great intellect, an intellectual is typically someone who engages deeply with complex ideas and who values careful, critical thinking. He did neither. And it doesn’t do to label him as just a “different type” of intellectual.

    Elder McConkie publicly denounced the critical study of the scriptures. He also showed favor for his own opinions as a church leader over the thoughtful consideration of contemporary thinkers (e.g., his very regrettable treatment of of Eugene England). Also, he dismissed scientific knowledge if he sensed incongruence with his own scriptural interpretations (e.g., his teachings against evolution). And he played a big role in the correlation effort which had as one of its purposes to limit independent intellectual and theological thought within the Church.

    Saying Elder McConkie was just a different sort of intellectual disregards the meaning of the word. It’s akin to calling a chef “an innovator,” but who never incorporates new techniques and who sticks to a single traditional recipe. While Elder McConkie was undoubtedly smart and had a keen intellect, history shows that he applied his intellectual abilities in a decidedly anti-intellectual way. To label him otherwise is to misrepresent history.

  6. Bruce McConkie was dogmatic and his dogmatism (regarding the LDS Church’s racial bigotry) came back to bite him. The LDS Church’s First Presidency, 15 December 1969, falsely claimed Joseph Smith, Jr., and God had restricted blacks of African descent from the LDS priesthood (which McConkie had bought into); but when it was discovered that Joseph (The Prophet of The Restoration) had signed the 1836 Elijah Able license as an elder, President Spencer Kimball and The Twelve (one of whom was McConkie) decided it was time to announce a new “Revelation” which was accomplished on 9 June 1978.

  7. I read the entire interview at From the Desk, and found it extremely frustrating. How many times can Joseph Spencer say, “I haven’t studied this enough to know how it happened, but I’m telling you how it happened” and still be taken seriously?

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