Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Mormon Book Bits #34: Joseph Fielding McConkie, The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son (2003)

Editor's note: This is # 34 in a series of posts by Dennis Horne about collectible books. The introduction is here.

This book was the second biography of Elder McConkie to be released within a three year period after nothing for fifteen years. I am told that Elder McConkie had asked his family not to write one; he felt the message of supreme importance, not the messenger. However, as time would tell, this desire proved unrealistic. The life of the messenger, or Witness, was simply too compelling.

Elder McConkie’s story begged to be told, with the first major attempt being my Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights from His Life & Teachings which appeared in 2000 and again in 2010. This work concentrated more on the public ministry and contributions of that great apostle, while Joseph’s aimed more at telling the family perspective, usually phrasing Elder McConkie’s deeds or teachings in a manner to draw a lesson—sort of a teaching biography (Elder Boyd K. Packer’s biography used a similar formula). Joseph stated his reasoning thusly: “This volume finds justification in the thought that to know something about the life of an Enoch, an Elijah, or one of their modern-day counterparts might be of help to some in obtaining the faith common to such great witnesses of Christ. A life well lived is a story worth telling.”

Joseph’s book had the advantage of drawing on family records and other materials that were not made available to me—thereby providing a fuller portrait. For whatever reason, Joseph’s book did not acknowledge the existence of my earlier work. And perhaps its greatest weakness is that the author imposed so much of his own personality and feelings upon the narrative that sometimes it becomes difficult to tell which thoughts and conclusions are the subject’s and which are the author’s. (Boyd Peterson’s biography of Hugh Nibley had the same weakness, the son-in-law occasionally imposing his own thoughts and beliefs into the text as he wrote, thereby causing readers to mistake them as the subject’s.) Nevertheless, The Bruce R. McConkie Story is a very fine, highly-commendable production that I for one appreciated and was pleased to read more than once.

At Elder McConkie’s death, The First Presidency designated Bruce’s son Joseph Fielding McConkie to act as the custodian of his papers and journals (which Bruce evidently kept sporadically, despite what one article said), with two members of the Quorum of the Twelve serving as advisors to him. (I have heard rumor that they had some involvement with changing the title of Mark McConkie’s volume of his father’s sermons from the 1st edition to the 2nd; also that they asked that no follow up volume be published; but that is all that is, rumor.)

Joseph gathered the copious material together and organized and wrote the book, which is (again) rumored to have been much longer in manuscript form than what was eventually published. He also had to deal with the onset of cancer. As Joseph himself told the story:

“I have been asked what my motivation was in my writing The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son.

“The answer rests as much in things I do not understand as it does in things that I do.
It has been almost 20 years since Sheri Dew of Deseret Book invited me to write such a book. The feeling that I should do so simply was not there at that time. Perhaps this was a matter of my not being ready. I do not know.

“It was about three years ago [from 2003 back to 2000, about the same time that my McConkie biography hit store shelves] that the feeling came that I should see what I could do with the topic though the idea intimidated me. The project presented a number of special challenges. I note two, first, the story was too good to tell. That is it was simply too personal or sacred in some instances to make public.

“Secondly, the story was too bad to tell. That is because Bruce McConkie chose to stand for something he had a lot of critics even within the Church. Their actions were often sufficiently petty that they did not deserve a place in print. They simply did not engender faith and I knew that my father would want no part in telling such stories.

“Suffice it to say there were a number of other difficulties peculiar to this work. My concern manifested itself last September when it was discovered that I had a tumor in my colon the description of which was a perfect match to the one that my father had. I asked my doctor what I could have done differently. He said, nothing, this is a case where heredity trumps.

“One of the surgeons involved in the operation told me that while I was under the influence of the anesthetic I repeatedly pled for ‘help with the manuscript!’  The other surgeon assured me that a miracle took place that day and that I was not alone in the operating room.

It was immediately after that experience that the obstacles in my path were removed and we were able to move forward with publication. During this period I had the opportunity to learn some of the great lessons that my father had learned as it became my turn to battle cancer.

“You do not search and learn about a man like Bruce McConkie and have the kind of experiences that I had and not learn something.

“I am asked what the most meaningful things I learned about my father were. I am not sure I know the answer to that question. One of the important things I learned was that when you get into a story like this the story gets into you and you will never be the same.

“I knew how concerned my father was over the welfare of each of his children, I had not known the sense of reverence he had for his forebears.

“I knew of the profound respect he had for those who presided over him, what I had not known was the sense of respect he had for those who labored under his direction. I will note, however, that it was much easier to labor under his direction as a priesthood leader than it was to work under his direction in the yard.

“With his children, one of Dad’s favorite sayings (which came from his mother) was ‘live above it.’ When something happened that in your judgment was unfair, living ‘above it’ hardly seemed like the best solution. When as an adult I learned how frequently he was called on to practice what he preached, I began to see a lot of things quite differently….

 “I have also come to learn that, privately, some people are not what they appear in public. In a way that is true of my father. People thought him a good man. In truth he was much better than they supposed. I never learned a thing about him that did not make him stand a little taller. The same was true of my mother. They were the kind of people that real people liked.” (www.meridianmagazine.com)

            Joseph’s chapter about his father’s book Mormon Doctrine divulged some new information not previously known. Evidently it also resulted in a stiff scolding, as hinted in the following quotations, the first from the book, the second from a later reminiscence:

            “I have been told that when he [Bruce R. McConkie] met with the First Presidency [to discuss the book Mormon Doctrine], my father was invited to be seated but chose to remain standing.  I also know that it was his practice (because he told me I was to do the same) when you are getting scolded, you offer no excuses—you just take it” (The Bruce R. McConkie Story, 185).

Later, Joseph said: “After writing the chapter ‘The Mormon Doctrine Saga,’ I understand what he [Bruce] was teaching me when one day while I was sitting in his office out of the clear blue he said, ‘When the time comes that you are called in and rebuked for something that you did that was right and proper, you stand and take it, you offer no excuses just take it.’ (www.meridianmagazine.com. Emphasis added.)

            Careful readers and scholars will find limited citations (for its size) in Joseph’s book about Bruce, and that is because, as he said himself, there is no library or archive that contains much of the quoted and paraphrased source material. He drew on Bruce’s private papers for significant portions. Readers of the book should be aware that there are certain groups of pages where Joseph quotes (or almost quotes) his father at some length but does not include quotation marks to so designate. Rather than complain I have felt to be grateful for the material.

            As of this writing, over 31 years have elapsed since Elder McConkie passed away. He is rapidly being forgotten. Joseph himself had to admit: “To the rising generation he may be only a name they hear appended to a quotation in a talk or lesson. But to many of their parents, he is a man held in particular love and esteem.” And this forgetting is more apparent today than when he wrote that over 13 years ago. Let us hope that these books about his life, and those he wrote himself to teach the gospel, will keep his memory and legacy and doctrinal understanding alive for those with enough sense to value them as the surpassing treasures they are. 

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