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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Bruce R. McConkie and B.H. Roberts—parallels and contrasts

This post begins a three-part series about Elder Bruce R. McConkie and his book Mormon Doctrine. In this article, I will point out several striking parallels between the earthly ministry and struggles of Elder Bruce R. McConkie and Elder B.H. Roberts.  These parallels include, for example, the fact that both men were called to the First Council of the Seventy at the age of 31—Elder Roberts serving 45 years until his death and Elder McConkie serving 38 years until his death (including 13 years as an Apostle).

Both men were prolific writers

Another similarity lies in the fact that both men were prolific writers.

Elder Roberts is "the author of the 3,400-page Comprehensive History of the Church (1930), the editor of the seven-volume 'documentary' History of the Church (1902–1932), and the author of the three-volume New Witnesses for God (1909)....  He authored, in addition, more than fifty tracts, articles, and pamphlets revolving around the Book of Mormon, its origins, its content, its meaning, its purposes, and its power as a sacred document."  (Truman G. Madsen, Ensign, Dec. 1983, 11.)

Elder McConkie is the author of the three-volume Doctrinal New Testament Commentary (1966-1973), the six-volume Messiah series on the life of Christ, and A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (1985).  Elder McConkie also edited the three volumes of Doctrines of Salvation, which contain the sermons and writings of President Joseph Fielding Smith.

The most striking parallel

But the most striking parallel is that each wrote a large encyclopedic volume about the gospel which generated controversy among the leaders of the Church—and it is here that we also begin to see the contrasts.

The book that caused trouble for Elder Roberts was The Truth, The Way, The Life (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1994).  Because Elder Roberts was not willing to accept criticism of his book from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, The Truth, The Way, The Life remained unpublished until more than 60 years after his death.  I've presented a rather detailed discussion of this whole affair at http://ndbf.net/eom.htm.

The book that caused trouble for Elder McConkie was Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958).  Because Elder McConkie was willing to accept criticism of his book from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, it has become "one of the time-honored classics of Mormon literature."  (Joseph Fielding McConkie, "The Mormon Doctrine Saga 1958 and 1966," in The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003], 182; click here to read the entire chapter.)

Today, it has rightfully been said that "few books can match it [Mormon Doctrine] in endurance or number of copies sold.  Perhaps few books, except the scriptures, can match it in the frequency with which it has been quoted in talks and lessons by those seeking to teach gospel principles."  (Ibid.)  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A difficult beginning

Trent D. Stephens and D. Jeffrey Meldrum state that "President McKay provately disavowed Elder McConkie's book, which was written without approval of or direction from the church.  The First Presidency concluded that the book was  ' full of errors and misstatements, and it is most unfortunate that the book has received such wide circulation'  (Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology, 179)."  (Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001], 49.)

Erich Robert Paul claims Elder McConkie's book was found to contain "over 1,000  'doctrinal errors' "  (Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992], 179.)

According to Elder McConkie's son, "In January 1960, President McKay asked Elder McConkie not to have the book reprinted."  (Joseph Fielding McConkie, "The Mormon Doctrine Saga 1958 and 1966," op. cit., 183; click here to read the entire chapter.)

Spencer W. Kimball assigned to help

But then "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."  (Ibid.)

"There were about fifty items that Elder Kimball wanted Elder McConkie to revisit....  These [were not] doctrinal matters in which he differed with Elder McConkie....  They dealt with tone and with the wisdom of including particular things....  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....  Elder Kimball's list of things that needed changing [was] much less extensive than the changes that were made in the second edition....  A wiser Bruce McConkie did a lot of rewriting on his own."  (Ibid, 187.)

"Changes [regarding evolution] between the two editions involve only a couple of sentences.  The discussion on evolution is the longest single entry in the book, and it includes a lengthy quotation by President John Taylor against Darwin and his theory of evolution.  In the first edition, this quotation was introduced with the statement that President Taylor's views reflected  ' the official doctrine of the Church.'  In the second edition, that statement was dropped.  Elder McConkie wrote,  ' How scrubby and groveling [changed in the second edition to  ' weak and puerile ' ] the intellectuality which, knowing that the Lord's plan takes all forms of life from a pre-existent spirit state, through mortality, and on to an ultimate resurrected state of immortality, yet finds comfort in the theoretical postulates that mortal life began in the scum of the sea, as it were, and has through eons of time evolved to its present varieties and state! Do those with spiritual insight really think that the infinite Creator of worlds without number would operate in this way? '  The conclusion to this section in both editions is  ' There is no harmony between the truths of revealed religion and the theories of organic evolution.' "  (Ibid, 188-189.)

Elder McConkie followed counsel

"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."  (Ibid, 183.)

Those today who so freely criticize Elder Bruce R. McConkie and his book Mormon Doctrine have forgotten two things:  (1)  Just as the 1931 First Presidency never said anything publicly about The Truth, The Way, The Life, so also the 1958 First Presidency never said anything publicly about Mormon Doctrine.  (2)  After rewriting Mormon Doctrine under the supervision of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder McConkie and his book can be said to have gone through "the refiner's fire."

President Spencer W. Kimball, who represented the Quorum of the Twelve during the 1966 Mormon Doctrine rewrite, has warned:  "The Lord gives the authority to judge and condemn only to the regularly constituted councils of the Church and not to man generally;  ' and those who lift their voices ... against the authority of the Holy Priesthood ... will go down to hell, unless they repent.' "  (Spencer W. Kimball, "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet," Ensign, Jan. 1973, 35.)

President Kimball gave the above warning during the same session of general conference in which Bruce R. McConkie was first sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.  I know because I was sitting on the main floor of the Salt Lake Tabernacle that morning.

9 Comments:

Blogger Jared* said...

Mormon Doctrine was the first real "church book" that I owned. I can't say that I read every page, but it served as the basis of my gospel study as a teenageer. I consulted it frequently when my protestant friend and I discussed religion.

Some of it I now disagree with or question, but it is a useful starting point on many gospel topics.

I've always found it distasteful when people attribute the further printing of the book to disobedience on Elder McConkie's part. I may disagree with him at times, but I'm confident that he was a straight arrow and right about many, if not most, things.

6/04/2005 09:29:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Jared: I appreciate your comment and agree with what you say. I have a copy that is nearly worn out. For years, before the age of laptop computers and Infobases, I carried it to Church along with my scriptures.

I find it interesting that current copies printed by Deseret Book carry this Publisher's Note:

"Mormon Doctrine has for decades been a classic work on certain beliefs and practices unique to the Latter-day Saints. A reflection of the times and culture in which it was written, this monumental work has added to the understanding of countless members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a valuable tool but should not be considered an official statement of doctrine."

6/04/2005 10:09:00 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

will go down to hell ...

And the reading one is supposed to obtain from your juxtiposition is?

Perhaps that Christ is no man's friend ... and that Blacks will not hold the priesthood until after the millinium?

I'm curious.

6/05/2005 07:06:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Stephen: The reading one is supposed to obtain from my juxtaposition is fully explained in my comment policies, as emphasized by my above comment here.

I believe Christ said, "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you" (John 15:14).

Regarding Mormon Doctrine and the Blacks, Elder McConkie did not say, "that Blacks will not hold the priesthood until after the millinium."

What he did say was "President Brigham Young and others have taught that in the future eternity worthy and qualified negroes will receive the priesthood and every gospel blessing available to any man." He also said what Presidents David O. McKay and Harold B. Lee, Elders Melvin J. Ballard and Mark E. Petersen, and others taught when he stated that "In the pre-existent eternity various degrees of valiance and devotion to the truth were exhibited by different groups of our Father's spirit offspring.... The present status of the negro rests purely and simply on the foundation of pre-existence." (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, 1966, 526-527.)

It is significant that Spencer W. Kimball did not have the entry changed for the second edition in 1966. It is also significant that Elder McConkie did change the entry immediately after the 1978 revelation on priesthood and all subsequent printings contain revised text which includes an announcement of the revelation, some appropriate commentary, and the text of D&C OD–2.

Regarding his former Mormon Doctrine entry, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has stated :

"There are statements in our literature by the early brethren that we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say,  ' You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such? '  And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world....

"It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the gentiles....

"We talk about the scriptures being unfolded—read again the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) and remind yourselves that those who labor through the heat of the day for twelve hours are going to be rewarded the same as those who came in at the third and sixth and the eleventh hours. Well, it is the eleventh hour; it's the Saturday night of time. In this eleventh hour the Lord has given the blessings of the gospel to the last group of laborers in the vineyard. And when he metes out his rewards, when he makes his payments, he will give the penny to all, whether it is for one hour or twelve hours of work. All are alike unto God, black and white, bond and free, male and female." (Bruce R. McConkie, "The New Revelation," in Priesthood, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981, 131-132, 137.)

6/05/2005 10:10:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...

I thought of a couple of contrasts that should be mentioned.

1. Whereas Mormon Doctrine is a source that is quoted often in correlated publications, the book itself was not an official publication by the Church. (It was published by Bookcraft, which has since been bought by Deseret Book.) Roberts' book, on the other hand, was going to be published by the Church. Not only that, but it was going to be used as a manual for class instruction.

2. Mormon Doctrine is organized much like a dictionary or encyclopedia. This compartmentalization probably made revisions easier to do. According to Welch, Roberts was willing to make some changes, but the controversial changes were problematic because the book was very integrated and Roberts felt like making the changes would undermine the integrity of the whole.

Even if Roberts had made the changes and the book was published, I think Mormon Doctrine would have eclipsed it anyway.

6/14/2005 06:04:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Jared: You just garnered this month's MVC (Most Valuable Comment) award. Both of your points (#1 and #2) are appreciated. I hadn't thought of either one in that light. Thanks for your excellent contribution.

6/16/2005 03:04:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Well, I'm honored. It's suprising that I thought of my award winning comment in a--shall we say--humble place.

6/16/2005 12:05:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Oops. I meant "my" this month's MVC.

6/16/2005 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Chase Tingey recently said (click here) that "upon McKay's deathbed [McConkie] ran down to the publisher and told them to print [the] second edition of ... Mormon Doctrine."

Chase seems unaware that Spencer W. Kimball was assigned by the First Presidency to act as McConkie's advisor during the preparation of the second edition which wasn't printed until all of Kimball's many concerns had been appropriately addressed.

7/12/2008 08:35:00 AM  

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