Monday, September 26, 2016

Mormon Book Bits #33: Bruce R. McConkie, Sound Doctrine, Doctrines of Salvation (3 vols), Mormon Doctrine, and A New Witness for the Articles of Faith

Editor's note: This is # 33 in a series of posts by Dennis Horne about collectible books. The introduction is here.

            [I should note that the below accounts are cobbled together from several sources and therefore may read a little uneven and slightly repetitive; however, I think the material represents a fine review of what is known of Mormon Doctrine and others of Elder McConkie’s fine doctrinal works.]

At the commencement of his service as a new member of the First Council of the Seventy in 1946, Bruce McConkie visited with President J. Reuben Clark, a Counselor in the First Presidency—a conversation meant to orient and prepare the new General Authority for what lay ahead of him. Bruce recorded: “Pres. Clark called me in for an informal talk.  He . . . said he wanted to counsel me, in the language of Dr. James E. Talmage, against the ‘witchery of words.’  He also said that he knew I was a student of the gospel but wanted to tell me that there were two viewpoints on many points of doctrine which were held by good Latter-day Saints, and said not to try to force my views on anyone for that would only lead to hurt feelings and ill will. . . .  Pres. Clark also said that I would get sat on, but to take it in good stead, and wherein I was wrong to correct the errors, but that wherein I was right, not to worry about the rebuffs.” Not long after this interesting interview, Elder McConkie recorded further counsel given him and other General Authorities by the prophet: “[In a Council meeting of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles] Pres. [George Albert] Smith spoke for about 20 minutes on various subjects…. He said that when any man present wrote anything as doctrine that great care should be taken to be sure it was correct, and that if there was any doubt, it should be left unwritten.  People would think it was the voice of the Church when those present wrote, he said.” These settings of inspired counsel set the stage for the literary developments spread throughout Elder McConkie’s life; some that went well, some not as well.

Sound Doctrine

            The compilation of Doctrines of Salvation, and the encyclopedic Mormon Doctrine, were not really Bruce R. McConkie’s first literary efforts. He was actually involved with editing and abridging the Journal of Discourses into what was proposed to be a multi-volume set (probably 10). In asking one of Bruce’s brothers about whatever happened to this project, he said something to the effect that President J. Reuben Clark had halted it, with the idea being that they weren’t going to have a Seventy correcting the sermons of apostles and prophets. I don’t know how accurate that statement was by the time it got to me; people tend to summarize and reword when telling old stories.

I did find the following mention of matters related to Sound Doctrine in Pres. Clark’s diary:

Yesterday morning (March 15, 1956), Brother Bruce R. McConkie came in to learn something about the matter that was before the First Presidency, that is, the publication of a part of the sermons in the Journal of Discourses, as already submitted to us.

I told him that I had read with some care about 150 pages; that I had reported to each of the Brethren separately, but that we had not had any joint conference regarding the matter; that I would arrange for such a conference as early as I could; that since he had come in to find out about the matter, I would be glad to tell him the way in which I was impressed, and which I understood was the impression of the other brethren expressed separately.

I said I assumed that he would not print, that is, was not proposing to print the sermons of the other brethren, that is, the early brethren, on such matters as the Adam-God theory, so-called, and the sermons on plural marriage. He said that was his idea. I said that I personally and I thought the other brethren agreed with me, felt it would be unwise to issue a Journal of Discourses with those sermons omitted inasmuch as that would give the cultists an opportunity of attack which might increase our present difficulties instead of mollifying them.

I called attention to the fact that some of the sermons that he was proposing to print were of a character that might challenge the wisdom of the printing of them, and I instanced the sermon by one of the Pratts, I think it was Parley P., who gave a discourse on electricity, which of course, did not represent the scientific developments in that field since he spoke. Brother McConkie agreed with that.

I told him that I had not checked his references, footnotes, so I could not speak about them.

I mentioned the fact that the title he had given to the collection “Sound Doctrine,” implied that there was other doctrine that was unsound and that perhaps it would not be wise to give forth that implication. He seemed to agree with that idea.

He made a suggestion for another title which I have forgotten, but which was open to somewhat of the same objection. In this connection he made some observation to the effect that his “sound doctrine” might not, of course, be the sound doctrine of some of the other brethren.

I said I felt that we were having a great many books published now by some of the leading Brethren; that these books did not always express all the sentiment of the other Brethren, at least some of them, and might be contrary to it; he admitted that.

I also called attention to the fact that it would have been better if he had conferred with the Brethren before he began the printing of his book, instead of afterward, and he admitted that that was a mistake which he had made.

I told him that I would bring the matter to the attention of the Brethren so soon as I could and intimated to him strongly that perhaps in general the thoughts I had expressed would be the thoughts of the Brethren and that it would not be wise to issue the publication as he had planned it.

I said we were anxious that he should not suffer any undue loss in the matter. [Diary of J. Reuben Clark, March 16, 1956]

            Needless to say, Elder McConkie was unable to proceed with Sound Doctrine. Instead he gave the contract with the publisher to his son, Joseph Fielding McConkie, who produced one volume entitled Journal of Discourses Digest. Joseph told me that this project was also discontinued as the publisher eventually decided to look into the idea of printing all twenty-six volumes of the Journal rather than an abridgment of ten volumes of them.

Doctrines of Salvation

In his biography of his father, The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son, Joseph Fielding McConkie wrote these summaries of Bruce’s work on Doctrines of Salvation:

“His first venture into print was the three-volume work entitled Doctrines of Salvation, in which he edited material from letters and other writings of Joseph Fielding Smith. When correspondence did not adequately cover a particular subject, he would elicit it from President Smith, put it into writing, and have him sign it. President Smith never found it necessary to change so much as a word of what Elder McConkie had written.” (3)

“The mutual respect existing between him and his son-in-law gave rise to the idea that Bruce edit a three-volume work drawing on the many letters Joseph Fielding Smith had written over the years. It also created a wonderful opportunity for President Smith to mentor the young Seventy. Many interesting gospel discussions between the two men grew out of this work. In 2001, nearly fifty years after they were first published, the three volumes were combined into one and given as a Christmas gift to Church employees and CES personnel.” (387)

The 2001 leather edition of Doctrines of Salvation given to church employees by the First Presidency had some revisions that were directed and approved by the Church Correlation Committee, meaning the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. The Correlation Department was asked to assist with preparation. These included an alteration of subject order, and removal of material that could be considered offensive to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now renamed The Community of Christ).

            Of his father-in-law’s doctrinal writings and his preparation of Doctrines of Salvation, Elder McConkie himself said: “It was my privilege to read all that he had written in published form, and all of his private correspondence, as I prepared three volumes of his sermons and writings, I found more material about Elijah and his mission, about the visit of the Lord Jesus in the Spirit World, and about temple ordinances and the sealing power in general than any other subject on which he had spoken.” (Genealogical Seminar, July 30, 1975, 1)

Mormon Doctrine: A Compendium of the Gospel:

            The first edition of Mormon Doctrine, considered by many to be one of the most highly collectible Mormon books produced in the 20th century, achieved its coveted standing after a unique and legendary “saga” that has long been a favorite topic of discussion for collectors and others. Appearing in 1958, it was published by Bookcraft.

The following works contain information about Mormon Doctrine: Dennis B. Horne, Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights from His Life & Teachings (2000), chapter 5, and the second enlarged edition, pages 427-431 contains extra info also given herein; also Dennis B. Horne, Determining Doctrine (2005), pages 25-26; and Joseph Fielding McConkie, The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son (2003), chapter 11. It is assumed that readers of this blog will already have some familiarity with these sources before reading the below, which both includes information from those sources and adds to it. I have not tried to reproduce everything about Mormon Doctrine here that is in those books, such as the reports given Pres. McKay, but that info is largely available in those books or elsewhere online.

Gregory Prince and Robert Wright wrote David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, that included several pages (49-53) supposedly examining the Mormon Doctrine episode, but their biased interpretation excluded some sources that would have given a more rounded and balanced perspective. In short, they seemed to be trying to spin the story as negatively toward Bruce as possible.

Bruce’s wife Amelia indicated that he was working on Mormon Doctrine at the same time he was compiling and editing material for Doctrines of Salvation. She said: “The idea for Mormon Doctrine had been in his mind for a long time, and he was continually jotting down ideas on cards or notes he kept in his pocket. He never ran out of things he wanted to know, study, or write about. After he passed away, our sons found his long list of titles for future books he wanted to write.”

            When Mormon Doctrine hit bookstore shelves in 1958, it was greeted with enthusiasm, quickly becoming a best-seller. This was largely due to its clear, understandable, encyclopedic format, as well as the fact that its author was a general authority, having by then been a member of the First Council of the Seventy for over a decade.

            Elder Glen L. Rudd recorded his experience with Bruce and Mormon Doctrine:

Elder Bruce McConkie and his family lived on the same street as we did—about three houses away. His kids played in my yard and mine played in his, and there was always some activity. One day I was standing on his front lawn when he came home from work in his car. As he got out of the car, he had a large package in his hands. I said, “Bruce, what do you have there?” He said, “Oh, this is my new book. I just picked up the first six copies that have been printed.” He then turned to me and said, “You are worthy to receive the first copy of Mormon Doctrine that has ever been distributed.” He then handed me the book. He said, “I’ll sign it later, but I want to go and show my wife my new book.”

            I have now had in my possession for all of these many, many years, this lovely book—the first one given out—by Bruce himself. This book is all over the world and is constantly used by members of the Church.

Because it gained wide-spread use among Latter-day Saints, and also because it declared—in strong, forceful terms—interpretive positions on many subjects (including a controversial definition of the “great and abominable church” as being Roman Catholicism; an explanation regarding blacks and the priesthood before 1978, and denunciation of the theory of organic evolution), it eventually came under scrutiny by some of the Brethren, and under attack by liberal, semi-dissident types.

After Mormon Doctrine was published in 1958, Bruce got “sat on” emphatically by the First Presidency. They had asked for and received reports from two members of the Twelve (Elders Romney and Petersen) that they used in determining their course of action in dealing with Bruce and his book.

Related to Elder Romney’s report, which is available elsewhere, is this tidbit: On January 16, 1959, Elder Romney recorded in his diary that he, “Rode home with Delbert L. Stapley. En route we called on President Clark at his home. . . . He seemed to appreciate our call. He said Presidents McKay and Richards expressed confidence in me when they assigned me to read Bruce McConkie’s book, Mormon Doctrine.” Elder Romney’s assignment was due, of course, to his reputation among the Brethren as an orthodox scriptural and doctrinal giant.

Regarding Elder Petersen, his daughter and biographer wrote this about him:

If he felt something was right, he did not hesitate to try to accomplish the means to make the changes necessary. Now he seemed to appoint himself a doctrinal watchdog, and if anything was printed that he knew was incorrect, he wrote to the people involved. When he read an article in the Ensign that presented a false teaching as to how the Bible passages quoted in the Book of Mormon came about, he sent off a five-page letter to the magazine advisors listing the reasons that the disputed theory should be discarded….

If Mark was aware that any of the General Authorities or Regional Representatives might be preaching doctrine not in harmony with Church teachings, he never hesitated to point out the error in their thinking. (167).

   In Elder Petersen’s case regarding this matter, he was not self-appointed, but was assigned by the First Presidency to read Mormon Doctrine and report back.

Elder Marion G. Romney’s initial report included this statement:

The author is an able and thorough student of the gospel. In many respects he has produced a remarkable book. Properly used, it quickly introduces the student to the authorities on most any gospel subject.

As to the book itself, notwithstanding its many commendable and valuable features and the author’s assumption of “sole and full responsibility” for it, its nature and scope and the authoritative tone of the style in which it is written pose the question as to the propriety of the author’s attempting such a project without assignment and supervision from him whose right and responsibility it is to speak for the Church on “Mormon Doctrine.”  Had the work been authoritatively supervised, some . . . matters might have been omitted and the treatment of others modified.[1]

About a year later further extensive reports were submitted to President McKay by Elders Romney and Petersen (January 7, 1960). Brother Romney was Bruce’s second cousin and had once been his stake president. They were both strong “scriptorians” (a word Elder McConkie is thought to have invented) with similar doctrinal views and preaching styles.   

 Elder Petersen had been Bruce’s boss during his short stint as a reporter with the Deseret News, and from that point forward was senior to him in Church leadership as well. This placed Elder McConkie at a disadvantage where doctrinal determination was concerned, since the Brethren generally defer to those senior to them in Church leadership—and always to the First Presidency. From available evidence it seems justifiable to conclude that these good brethren experienced some diversity of views with each other on largely non-fundamental issues—and Mormon Doctrine excelled at giving a strong opinion on an amazing breadth of gospel subjects.

Joseph Fielding McConkie said: “When he wrote Mormon Doctrine he drew freely upon the Inspired Version [JST], quoting from it about 300 times. These were announced as errors by those who were critics of his book.” One of these critics counting the JST as an error is thought to be Elder Petersen. He supposedly came up with over one thousand errors. Without recourse to his copy of the book, we cannot say definitively what they all were. However, we can say that although his findings were part of a report to the First Presidency, they do not constitute any kind of official repudiation of the book; also that President Joseph Fielding Smith would have disagreed with the vast majority of Elder Petersen’s list, and that there simply wasn’t all that much wrong with the book.

            The most difficult part of the over-all experience for Elder McConkie—possibly the most difficult experience he ever endured with his ecclesiastical superiors—came when he met with the First Presidency (then consisting of David O. McKay, J. Reuben Clark, and Henry D. Moyle) and Elder Petersen about the matter. I am informed of the following by a source of unquestioned authority and integrity:

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 was also present during this meeting and did most of the talking. President Henry D. Moyle (the second counselor) indicated that on this occasion the First Presidency gave Bruce a “horsewhipping”; that they were really hard on him and raked him over the coals for an extended period of time; that it was the worst criticism that that First Presidency had ever given a general authority; that he went home feeling bad 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.

President Moyle indicated that he felt bad enough about their “horsewhipping” of Bruce that he resolved to make it up to him someday. So a year later when the time was right and a mission president was needed in Australia, President Moyle decided to call Bruce to serve there as a way to make up for what they had done, and so called him. The service as a mission president was the greatest thing that could have been done for Elder McConkie because he became the boss, the president; he could make his own decisions, could sign the checks, could run things his way. Bruce had never been in a position of authority where he could run things but as a mission president he finally had it; the mission experience really helped and changed and improved Elder McConkie. Elder Marion G. Romney really didn’t think that much doctrinally was wrong with Mormon Doctrine, and President Joseph Fielding Smith didn’t think anything was wrong with it. (Source withheld out of considerations of confidentiality; for narration of a similar experience involving an author, the First Presidency, and Elder Mark E. Petersen, see Leonard J. Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, pages 146-47).

Regarding the above mentioned meeting of the First Presidency, Elder Petersen, and Bruce, Joseph Fielding McConkie wrote: “After the experience President Moyle observed, ‘I've never seen a man in the Church in my experience that took our criticism—and it was more than criticism—but he took it better than anyone I ever saw. When we were through and Bruce left us, I had a great feeling of love and appreciation for a man who could take it without any alibis, without any excuses, and said he appreciated what we said to him.’"

The First Presidency also counseled Elder McConkie to “answer inquiries on the subject [of their decisions regarding Mormon Doctrine] with care.”[2] Bruce seems to have fully complied with this counsel since a surprisingly little amount of direct comment regarding his book from Elder McConkie himself seems to be known—especially considering how almost legendary some elements of the story became. One evidently rare explanation was written by Elder McConkie in response to a critical inquiry he received from a non-Latter-day Saint:

If you . . . had an understanding of our teachings, you would know that we have what is called the Standard Works of the Church. These are the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.  We accept them as scripture. They are binding upon the Church. Everything else that is written, no matter by whom, is the best wisdom and understanding of the author. It should be perfectly obvious to anyone that if I write a book entitled, Mormon Doctrine, I do all that is humanly possible to make it conform to and reflect accurately the teachings and doctrine of the Church. Insofar as I know I have done this in the publication you mention. If there are members of the Church who do not understand some matter I have written, all I can suggest is that they study the scriptures and enlarge their understanding to the point that they come to a proper view of whatever is involved. Obviously either I or anyone else could make a mistake on some point, but I assume from your letter that whoever is objecting to something is doing so out of prejudice or lack of understanding. It would be well for all of us to seek to learn what the truth is on all points rather than to strive to defend our preconceived prejudices.[3]

On the right occasion and with the right people, Elder McConkie was able to poke a little fun at some of the reasons for the notoriety attached to Mormon Doctrine, especially the first edition, and later with the second edition as well, once jokingly referring to them as the “non-expurgated” and “expurgated” versions. To a close friend, with whom he knew he could share his sense of humor, he wrote this note:

March 16, 1960
Los Angeles Calif.

Dear ___:

Today I ran into a puzzling problem.  Is it true that birds can read?  And if they can’t, who tells them things that are none of their business?  This is what happened: I stopped at San Juan Capistrano to see the old mission buildings constructed by that great church which is not the Lord’s Church.  The swallows are not yet back, but there were some Catholic pigeons around, and so it happens, I had a rather, shall we say, discomfiting experience.  And me with a clean white shirt put on only this morning!  Now what I want to know is this: How did those pigeons know what I wrote about the Catholics in Mormon Doctrine?  Can you help me?  This is very disturbing!  Sincerely,


In listening to some audio recordings of lectures given by Elder McConkie, I noted that he occasionally mentioned and quoted a Catholic prayer book that he possessed. He read from it to illustrate how far afield they had wandered from the scriptures in various areas, such as the trinity. His perusal of this book may well have influenced him into adding certain anti-Catholic-doctrine articles to his book that refuted them.

In January of 1997 I interviewed Joseph Fielding McConkie by phone about Mormon Doctrine. He said that around 1966 Spencer W. Kimball approached Bruce and asked him to republish Mormon Doctrine with the changes, with him acting as advisor. Bruce had dropped the matter and forgotten about it but now proceeded under Elder Kimball’s direction.

In July 1997 I had another phone conversation with Joseph Fielding McConkie. Upon asking him for clarification of the First Presidency’s role in the republication of Mormon Doctrine, he told me that the First Presidency, specifically Pres. McKay, had asked Elder Spencer W. Kimball to work with Elder McConkie as advisor or overseer of the revision of Mormon Doctrine.

As far as Bruce’s relationship with Mark E. Petersen, I am told that they never “had words” (got upset at each other), but Bruce did not care for Elder Petersen and they didn’t get along. (Personally, I think the world of both of them; two marvelous spiritual giants.) Whether he was right or wrong in doing so, Elder Petersen took it upon himself to make life very difficult for Elder McConkie in relation to his best-selling book. However, in my opinion, things gradually became better between them. It seems probable to me that as time passed they were able to resolve differences to some mutually satisfactory point. Support for my conclusion is found in a 1980 BYU devotional address titled “The Covenant People of God,” given by Elder Petersen. Toward the beginning of his remarks, he referred to some of Bruce’s comments to the Council of the Twelve in their regular Thursday temple meeting, relating them in a respectful, almost reverential manner. Among other things, on that occasion Elder Petersen said:

This morning at seven o’clock, the Counsel of the Twelve met in their fourth-floor assembly room in the Salt Lake Temple. We were there from seven until twelve in a very moving, spiritual meeting. The sacrament was passed, and we all partook of it in a most solemn manner and were grateful for the privilege. We were glad that we could again renew our covenants with Almighty God, and with his beloved son, Jesus Christ, to serve him and keep his commandments; we were glad for the great opportunity of having his Spirit to be with us. And we had the Spirit in rich measure.

Behind the pulpit in that little meeting room is a beautiful mural depicting the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane. We talked about Gethsemane and about the Savior.

Brother Bruce R. McConkie spoke at length about the tremendous suffering that the Savior went through.  He did it in a very touching way and with great solemnity, reminding us how the Savior went into the Garden of Gethsemane. . . .

Brother McConkie called our attention to the fact that the suffering incident to the Atonement began there in Gethsemane and that the Savior suffered so dreadfully that drops of blood came from his pores. . . .

Brother McConkie then told us that the Savior was not kneeling in that prayer.  The suffering that he endured was so infinite, so much beyond our understanding, that even he fell prostrate upon the ground.”[4]

Such moving references from one Apostle about another evidence a feeling of brotherhood and regard and I doubt Elder Petersen would have mentioned them if he felt any ill will.[5] Even apostles offend on occasion and must forgive each other just like the rest of us.

In 1968, some two years after the appearance of the second edition, President Harold B. Lee made this observation to religious educators, which I have thought related to Mormon Doctrine and other like books: “There is a vast difference between a book coming from the President of the Church containing his writings which we label gospel doctrine and a book coming from a writer not in such an authoritative position who labels his book, ‘Gospel doctrine.’ See what I mean?” (“Viewpoint of a Giant,” Summer School Devotional Address, Department of Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, Brigham Young University, July 18, 1968, 6-7.)
As mentioned earlier, in 2003, a biography of President David O. McKay appeared in which the authors selectively used only those historical sources that referred to Mormon Doctrine and its author disapprovingly, exaggerated and manipulated them, and completely ignored others.[6] The resultant depiction of this episode is one that the book’s critics may find appealing, but is so one-sided and biased that it lacks credibility. They also insinuated that Bruce “audaciously” pressured an aged and infirm President McKay into making an ambiguous statement about Mormon Doctrine that Elder McConkie could then interpret to mean he had been given permission to “move with boldness” and publish a second revised edition.[7] A comprehensive review of all the available sources, including the above, simply does not support these allegations.[8]

Anti-Mormons and other critics often seek to portray the book as an embarrassment to the Church. This claim must be judged as largely fallacious, with a few minor exceptions, given that most regular Mormons have responded to it by studying and quoting from it for almost sixty years—and how virtually no non-Mormons (except anti-Mormons looking to make mischief) ever really read in it. Elder Spencer W. Kimball made this observation, which applies to Mormon Doctrine and any other book containing gospel explanations: “Now, I am sure it was quite a surprise to you when I indicated that the writings of all the good members of the Church were not scripture and could not necessarily be depended upon, and that their writings, numerous of which there are, were their own concepts. I did not want to deprecate their splendid efforts, for on the whole the commentaries written by many people are excellent, but the student of the gospel must be able to cull the material and to take that which fits into the total big program, and to discard anything else which appears to be speculative on the part of the writer of the commentary.” (Edward L. Kimball, ed., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 136.)

Elder McConkie told a good friend that he had never meant to hurt the feelings of Catholics; at the time he simply hadn’t thought to give that possibility consideration. He had written the entire book—really his first non-compilation original work—from the perspective of scriptural and doctrinal commentary for a latter-day saint audience, not for spite or criticism of others.

One of the finest indirect compliments Elder McConkie’s work received came from an apostolic associate several years after his death. Elder David B. Haight, in an unusual General Conference talk, spoke of a remarkable visionary experience given to him during a critical illness. After relating details of the last events of the life of Jesus Christ that he was shown in vision, Elder Haight bore fervent testimony of the infinite power of the atonement and in so doing quoted from Mormon Doctrine.[9]

            By 2008, word circulated that Deseret Book, which had long-since acquired Bookcraft and therefore the copyright, was letting the current edition of Mormon Doctrine go out of print. The reason was that sales had slowed. Critics tried to cultivate the rumor that the Church was embarrassed by and therefore repudiating the book; an absurd claim. I even had producers/reporters from local TV stations calling me to ask about it. The fact was that I had been told that it would no longer be printed a year before the critics discovered the change and ramped up the publicity machine. Mormon Doctrine simply wasn’t selling well; in fact, most of Bruce’s books weren’t. Over a quarter-century had passed since his death; he was being forgotten (a tragedy in itself); other more well-known authors’ works were replacing his on the bookstore shelves. Its content was available to subscribers on Deseret Book’s online library “gospelink.” Those who speculate otherwise are not trustworthy sources of information and are usually mad at the book for its uncompromising stand on subjects like evolution.

I thought it interesting when I noticed that Deseret Book placed a plaque on the wall of their corporate office reception area stating that Elder McConkie was one of their authors that had sold over a million copies of books he had written. I would guess that Mormon Doctrine accounted for a generous portion of that number.

            The first edition was issued in a green cloth binding with a likeness of Joseph Smith on the lower right-hand corner, as well as a much rarer black cloth binding. The second edition has been issued in limited leather runs, with cream and black bindings among them.

            Regarding one of the reasons why some were upset with the book, Joseph Fielding McConkie wrote: “The first edition of Mormon Doctrine, released in 1958, caused something of a stir by directly identifying Roman Catholicism as the ‘great and abominable church’ spoken of by Nephi in the Book of Mormon.” And: “Question: It has been suggested that the treatment of the Catholic church may not have been the primary source of the criticism directed at Mormon Doctrine but, rather, that the standard Elder McConkie held out for the members of the Church caused some to squirm. Is that the case? Response: I think so. It is hard to imagine that a lot of Catholics in Salt Lake City were buying a book entitled Mormon Doctrine and then taking offense at it. The Protestants had been saying worse things about them for four hundred years, and it was, for the Catholics, like water off a duck's back.” These statements are quite correct, but some further facts should be noted as well. One was that Bruce’s wording for that 1958 identification was changed for the second 1966 edition to: “The titles church of the devil and great and abominable church are used to identify all churches or organizations of whatever name or nature—whether political, philosophical, educational, economic social, fraternal, civic, or religious—which are designed to take men on a course that leads away from God and his laws and thus from salvation in the kingdom of God.” Having made the change as requested in his book, later evidence indicates that Elder McConkie continued to view matters as he stated in the first edition. In one of his last major talks before his death he said, speaking of the Bible:

And it once was in the sole and exclusive care and custody of an abominable organization, founded by the devil himself, likened prophetically unto a great whore, whose great aim and purpose was to destroy the souls of men in the name of religion.

In these hands it ceased to be the book it once was. Originally “it contained the fulness of the gospel of the Lord.” It was sent forth “from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles, according to the truth which is in God.”

Then it came into the hands of “that great and abominable church, which is most abominable above all other churches.” They took “away from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord.”

            Having noted this evidence, a second observation is in order: Elder McConkie was not speaking officially for the Church in Mormon Doctrine (any printing or edition), nor in the above discourse, and as well-considered and thoughtful as his comments may have been on any subject therein, they did not necessarily reflect the official position of the Church.

            Joseph Fielding McConkie also wrote:

Question: Is it true that President David O. McKay banned the book?

Response: In January 1960, President McKay asked Elder McConkie not to have the book reprinted.

Question: How is it, then, that the book was reissued?

Response: 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. [This is in accordance with what he said to me in our interviews, quoted above.]

Question: Is this generally known?

Response: I don't think so. I don't know how people would be expected to know this.

Question: Haven't you heard people say that Bruce McConkie had the book reprinted contrary to the direction of the First Presidency?

Response: 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. . . . When individuals went to him with concerns that fell outside the bounds of the authority or responsibility explicitly given to him, he simply refused to hear what was being said. 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.

Question: How do you know President McKay directed your father to reprint Mormon Doctrine?
Response: My father told me that President McKay had so directed him. In addition to that, I am in possession of handwritten papers by my father affirming that direction.

            One of the more foolish criticisms of Elder McConkie that I encounter in online chat-sites is the charge that he ignored the First Presidency and issued the second edition of his book despite their express wishes and direction. This blog piece should fully counter that fallacy. What actually happened was that President McKay, for whatever reason, changed his mind and decided to allow Bruce to rewrite/edit the book under Elder Kimball’s supervision, and then republish it. This is just not that hard of a concept to grasp. It is simply a very good and useful book, despite what liberal extremists might say.

            Joseph Fielding McConkie explained: “Question: How did Elder McConkie feel about the suggestions made by Elder Kimball? Response: He was very appreciative. Elder Kimball was a wise mentor who taught him the difference between being right and being appropriate. The fact that something is true does not necessarily mean one ought to say it. Question: Elder Kimball's list of things that needed changing sounds much less extensive than the changes that were made in the second edition. Does this suggest that a wiser Bruce McConkie did a lot of rewriting on his own? Response: Yes, it does.” (italics added)

            Joseph also wrote:

Question: What doctrinal errors were corrected between the first and second editions of the book?

Response: I do not know of a single instance in which Elder McConkie was asked to change or chose to change his doctrinal position. The second edition of Mormon Doctrine is a substantially better book. The tone of the book is softer, articles attacking false doctrines born of apostasy but not directly germane to Mormonism have been dropped, and eighty pages of new material have been added. No doctrinal changes were made, however. The essence of each entry remains the same.

The report submitted to the First Presidency by Elder Spencer W. Kimball indicates that he checked changes made on fifty-six pages, all of which he approved. He did not indicate a single instance of doctrinal disagreement with what was written. Again, I know of no single instance in which the doctrine announced in the first edition differed from that of the second edition. Much was changed by way of tone: Things were simply said more appropriately, but the same things were said.

            Another, and one of the most famous, changes was Elder McConkie’s wording on blacks and the priesthood. The 1978 revelation to President Kimball lifting the restriction had not been received at the time of printing of either the first or second enlarged editions, but his wording about blacks not being able to receive the priesthood in this life was removed and the announcement of the revelation included in the revised second edition, what I have seen some people refer to as a third edition, though technically not correct.

            Lastly, Joseph wrote about what seems to be a twinge of regret that Elder McConkie had about writing Mormon Doctrine: “He did observe on a number of occasions that, perhaps, in writing the book he had done too much for its readers. ‘It may have been better for them,’ he said, ‘to have been required to find answers for themselves.’”

A New Witness for the Articles of Faith

            In his biography of his father, Joseph Fielding McConkie wrote:

Elder McConkie also wrote a seven-hundred-page work entitled A New Witness for the Articles of Faith. He took an approach to the Articles of Faith entirely different from Elder James E. Talmage’s work eight decades earlier. Elder Talmage had sought to give credibility to Joseph Smith and to Mormonism by showing that its doctrines were based on the Bible. Elder McConkie, on the other hand, sought to explain them in the light of modern revelation. He felt that the best evidence that God has spoken in our day is found in what God has said today. . . .

This work, which was warmly received, elicited the following note of appreciation to Amelia from one of her husband’s colleagues [Elder Dallin H. Oaks]: “I read choice books a few pages at a time, so I can savor them and think about their implications. Proceeding in that manner, I have just finished reading A New Witness for the Articles of Faith. This is undoubtedly the most profound and inspirational doctrinal book I have ever read. It has and will have a great influence on my thinking and my ministry.” (389-90)

            Enough said, for those with ears to hear and hearts to understand.

            Some seven or eight months before his death, Elder McConkie wrote this: “Since my call as a General Authority in 1946 I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to follow what I felt was the pattern of the past and the approved course of the present in both teaching and writing.” I think we might venture to say that Mormon Doctrine was at once both a spectacular success and a painful learning experience, one that would have been less so if he had remembered President Clark’s counsel (as quoted above) better. He handled the internal rebuke he received as well as anyone could.

            While on the subject, below are some comments I have encountered from some knowledgeable individuals regarding Elder McConkie’s books. I include them here since they may be of interest to readers:

A few years later I traveled to Provo to participate in the CES Religious Educators’ Symposium on the Book of Mormon. I attended a presentation by Joseph McConkie on the Gathering of Israel and the Second Coming of Christ. This time I was stunned, not by the power of the presentation alone, but by what he was teaching. Joseph put forward an approach to the gathering of Israel, including the gathering of the ten tribes, that I had not encountered before. He didn’t speak of the lost tribes in the center of the earth or on the North Star or another planet, but rather as a people scattered among the nations who would be gathered just like everyone else is gathered—through receiving the testimony of the Book of Mormon, accepting the restored gospel, and joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And then, of all things, to substantiate his most unusual claims, he quoted extensively from the Book of Mormon and then at length from a book by his father yet to be published by Deseret Book. The book, of course, was The Millennial Messiah. I can still remember looking around to see if anyone else was as intellectually startled as I was, and I noticed across the room that George Horton was engaged in an animated conversation with Gerald Lund about these things. I enjoyed the symposium very much, as I always did, and took many things home with me on which to reflect. When The Millennial Messiah was released, I devoured it and was once again quite startled by Elder McConkie’s rather unusual teachings about the gathering of Israel. I phoned Robert J. Matthews, BYU’s dean of Religious Education, and asked him what he thought about the whole thing, what he made of Joseph’s teachings and of Elder McConkie’s book. Dean Matthews calmly explained that he agreed completely with Joseph’s conclusions and then added humorously, “Now, Bob, if you will read and study this book [The Millennial Messiah] carefully, then put it under your pillow at night, you will be exalted in the celestial kingdom!” I have often wished that it was that easy.

Joseph Fielding McConkie:

When the first volume of Doctrinal New Testament Commentary was published in 1965, Dad included the text of the King James Bible side by side with the Inspired Version. Again he was sharply criticized for so doing. The two volumes that followed in 1970 and 1972 continued with the same format.

After his call as an Apostle he wrote a six volume work to testify of Christ. It begins with the Promised Messiah and concludes with the Millennial Messiah. Between these two books are four other volumes of commentary on the ministry of Christ both in the Old World and in the New. In the writing of these books he drew heavily on what we learn in the JST.

Relative to Elder James E. Talmage’s work Jesus the Christ Dad said, “His work is profound and sound and should be studied by every member of the true Church,” and yet I hear his voice saying, ‘Now is the time to build on the foundations I laid some seventy years ago, using the added knowledge that has since come by research and revelation, and to pen a companion volume to the one I was privileged to write.’

Elder Tamage’s work was first published in 1915. I note three things in particular that place us in a position to enhance what he wrote. First, President Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead, received in 1918. Second, President Joseph Fielding Smith’s Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, first published in 1938. And third, our conversion to the Joseph Smith Translation, which did not take place until its introduction to the Church in our new edition of the Bible published in 1979.  These three sources bring with them a great deal of light not enjoyed by a writer in 1915.

As to his own work Elder McConkie said, “It too is but an opening door. Others who follow will find the errors and deficiencies that always and ever attend every mortal work, will correct them, and, building upon whatever foundations then exist, will write greater and better works on the same subject.”

His final work, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, was also intended to stand on the shoulders of Elder Talmage’s work The Articles of Faith. The great difference in the two books is that Elder Talmage teaches or defends the basic beliefs of the Latter-day Saints from Biblical texts. Elder McConkie declares the same doctrines from the revelations of the Restoration drawing heavily on the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, the Joseph Smith Translation, Lectures on Faith, and Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Joseph Fielding McConkie:

“On a number of occasions during the preparation of lessons, I have studied a matter out and then gone to my father seeking the benefit of his insight and understanding, only to go into the classroom and have someone quote some statement or supposed statement by my father which refuted what he had just taught me. I am also aware of matters on which he contradicts himself within the books he wrote. When I have pointed these out to him and suggested that he might have one statement or the other changed for subsequent editions, his response was, "Goodness no! Let it stand." When he changed his mind on a matter he had no interest in covering the trail. He also had no difficulty in saying, ‘I was wrong.’ There is no reason to suppose that such attitudes were distinctive or peculiar to him and are not shared to a greater or lesser degree by all of our prominent theologians.

“It reflects a rather acute case of spiritual anemia to argue that because someone once said something that was wrong, he is never to be trusted again. This affliction is common to those who seek to disqualify something one of our leaders has said which they don't want to accept. Supposedly they are excused from accepting the present counsel if they show some previous error or mistake in judgment on the leader's part. This can be likened to a man saying to his wife, ‘You burned the toast once, and I will never eat anything you cook again.’ At best, such an attitude would weaken the marriage and in some instances it could result in starvation. So it is in the realm of spiritual things: if we reject the inspired counsel of a leader because he once burned the toast, we have certainly weakened the bonds of our covenants and enhanced the possibility of spiritual starvation.”

            Sometime, I believe in the late 70s or very early 80s, Elder McConkie wrote a manuscript that has never been published. Titled, These Three: Elohim, Jehovah, and Michael, it remains a subject of intense interest among Mormon book collectors who speak of it in hushed tones and understandably covet it. One of Bruce’s brothers informed me that the book was superb. Another well-placed source informed me that one reason it was never published was because it had not been through the internal review processes established for proposed General Authority books.

I am aware that Elder McConkie did not particularly care for Church “Correlation” in the limited sense of when an office staff member was assigned to read and evaluate/correct his (Bruce’s) own work before it could be used or distributed. In point of fact, there wasn’t an employee of the Church qualified to question Elder McConkie’s breathtakingly deep and insightful doctrine—but that was/is the process in place. I speculate that rather than have a staff member in the Office of the Twelve or First Presidency fuss over his manuscript, he decided not to submit it for review; hence no publication. As anyone who has read A New Witness for the Articles of Faith can attest, Elder McConkie could wade into deep doctrinal water and do so on a solid and sure scriptural footing. It may be that These Three was thought to be too deep for many readers.

Imagine what would happen today, when bitter critics/antiMormons and enemies of the Church (not to mention hostile media) run rampant, if a book of doctrine written by an apostle were to come forth that approached the brass plates or perhaps even some of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon—what a firestorm of mockery and scorn and gnashing of teeth and rending of the sacred that would immediately take place; a pearl of great price cast before noisy swine. It is this same principle that keeps our modern prophets and apostles from teaching many precious doctrines and bearing more plain testimonies than they otherwise could and would—but the dogs of the world would turn again and rend them. Therefore, without the express promptings of the Spirit, they keep such pearls to themselves.

In conclusion, there is a sad movement around the fringes of the Church today, as well as among those decidedly outside of it for good reason, to seek to marginalize or dismiss or bring into disfavor Elder McConkie’s uncompromising doctrinal teachings. His son knew it well, as noted above. In answer, I recommend to thoughtful people the views and course of the man who in all likelihood will become the next president of the Church, President Russell M. Nelson: “Occasionally, I would have an idea I wanted to discuss or had a question. I would knock on his door, and he was always gracious, always warmly welcoming. When I could see this was an opportunity to learn from him, I would ask him to put his remarks on pause for a minute while I called Elder Oaks and asked him to come up so we could converse with Elder McConkie together. That was a rare privilege.”[10]

            For people who only knew of Elder McConkie from his authoritative demeanor when speaking at the pulpit—which is how most people naturally would have—his friend Glen Rudd wrote: “If only the people of the Church could have seen the other side of Bruce McConkie they would have realized what a balanced, magnificent individual he became in his journey through life.”

[1] Letter, Marion G. Romney to David O. McKay, 28 Jan. 1959, 1.
[2] As quoted in “Item’s from David O. McKay’s Office Journal Relating to the Publication of Bruce R. McConkie’s ‘Mormon Doctrine,’” Jan. 28, 1960.
[3] Bruce R. McConkie Correspondence, April 3, 1979.
[4] “The Covenant People of God,” BYU Speeches, 129-30.
[5] Years after the Mormon Doctrine issues had become history, both Elders Petersen and Romney enthusiastically sustained Elder McConkie in his call to the Quorum of the Twelve. Marion G. Romney, whose elevation to the First Presidency occasioned the vacancy in the Twelve that Elder McConkie filled, told Bruce that it had been made known to him during Bruce’s funeral address for President Joseph Fielding Smith that he would be called as the newest Apostle.
[6] See Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 49-53, and notes on 418. For example, the authors quote only the negative portion of the quotation from Romney’s letter to McKay and omit the complimentary part. Further, they seem to have decided to review this controversial episode using only the McKay diary sources, and ignored all other primary and secondary sources—a decision markedly contrary to scholarly standards of balance and objectivity..
[7] See Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 52-53.
[8] Church leaders do not work and serve in a vacuum, and Elder McConkie was not in a position to purposely misconstrue instructions from President McKay for his own ends, nor was it his character to do so. As stated Elder Spencer W. Kimball was assigned by the First Presidency to advise and approve Elder McConkie’s revisions. If Bruce had done something as egregious as these authors imply, he would not have been called as a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles six years later.
[9] “The Sacrament—and the Sacrifice,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 60.
[10] See

1 comment:

  1. A remarkable essay. As one who never felt much affinity for the authoritative McConkie approach, as I perceived it from a distance, I have to say this piece of writing has been eye-opening and moving. Thank you.