Friday, May 21, 2010

Did David O. McKay find a thousand errors in Mormon Doctrine?

As reported by Julie M. Smith over at Times and Seasons, it has been announced by Deseret Book that McConkie's Mormon Doctrine will no longer be published.  During discussions about that decision, it has been alleged on two blogs that President McKay found over a thousand errors in the book. [1]  This rumor was given new life a few years ago by Greg Prince and Wm. Robert Wright who included a section titled "The Controversy over Mormon Doctrine" in their 2005 McKay biography. [2]

Is there any truth to the rumor that McKay found over a thousand errors in the book?  You might think there is if you only get part part of the story.

The Prince and Wright Mormon Doctrine Time Line

Let's start with what Prince and Wright included.

1958: "Bruce R. McConkie, then a member of the First Council of the Seventy ... published an encyclopedic book with the presumptuous title of Mormon Doctrine. [3]

1959: David O. McKay asked Mark E. Petersen and Marion G. Romney to critique Mormon Doctrine for him. [4]

1960: Marion G. Romney's letter to David O. McKay was reviewed (but see the 1959 Romney omission, below) and Mark E. Petersen "gave McKay an oral report in which he recommended 1,067 corrections." [5]  The First Presidency asked Elder McConkie to drop his plans for a Mormon Doctrine second edition. [6]

1966: McConkie "moved with the same boldness of eight years earlier, and published a second edition of Mormon Doctrine." [7]

Actually, it isn't surprising that some people are confused about Elder McConkie and his book after reading the Prince and Wright short and sketchy version of the Mormon Doctrine story.  A more complete version might include:

Petersen as Editor

Admittedly, the exact nature of each of Elder Petersen's 1,067 recommended corrections isn't known, but I think it helps to remember his professional career.

Prior to his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, he was employed for many years by the Deseret News as a "copy reader, news editor, managing editor, and editor." [8]  He was fully qualified to look at Mormon Doctrine from a professional editor's point of view.

It seems unlikely that someone experienced in looking for spelling and grammar errors would suddenly adopt a different approach on Mormon Doctrine and concentrate only on sections that should be dropped or rewritten.  We could ignore Elder Petersen's professional background and speculate that his list included only doctrinal errors.

Or, on the other hand, we could accept the likelihood that his list covered the whole spectrum of editorial corrections.  Personally, I think it is ludicrous to assume that he brought a list of 1,067 doctrinal errors to the meeting.

The Inspired Version of the Bible

It is also possible that not all of the doctrinal errors Elder Petersen did bring to the meeting were, in the end, actually doctrinal errors.

Elder McConkie and Elder Petersen are on record with differing viewpoints about the Inspired Version of the Bible.  Elder McConkie thought it could "be used with safety" [9]  while Elder Petersen thought it was "of questionable value." [10]

Again, we could speculate that Elder Petersen didn't mark for correction any of Mormon Doctrine's references to the Inspired Version.  Or we could accept the likelihood that as many as 170 such references were on his list of recommended changes. [11]

Then we could observe that in 1979, just twenty years later, more than 600 "doctrinally significant ... excerpts from the JST (then commonly known as the Inspired Version)" became part of the LDS edition of the Bible after "the First Presidency decided ... early in that decade" to include them. [12]

Clearly, these Inspired Version changes may now be used with safety.  In fact, they "are scripture and have the same truth and validity as if they were in the Pearl of Great Price itself." [13]

Other Prince and Wright Omissions

I think it is noteworthy that, prior to being called as General Authorities, both Marion G. Romney and Bruce R. McConkie practiced law in Salt Lake City, both having held the title of assistant city attorney. [14]  It makes sense to me that President McKay would invite an attorney to review another attorney's book for him.

1959: On January 5, 1959, President McKay asked Elder Romney to review Mormon Doctrine. Twenty three days later, on January 28, 1959, Elder Romney wrote David O. McKay a lengthy letter detailing his findings.  The 1959 dates of January 5th and 28th are not mentioned by Prince and Wright.

Having been asked to look for problems, Elder Romney responded accordingly [15]  and apparently, his letter was reviewed again the following year on January 7th as pointed out by Prince and Wright who were careful to quote some of his negative comments. [16]

But in addition to his criticisms of Mormon Doctrine, Elder Romney made positive comments about the book and I think we ought to consider them as well.  They have been summarized as follows:

"In general, Elder Romney had a high regard for Mormon Doctrine and felt it filled an evident need remarkably well." [17]

1966: During the summer of 1966, the First Presidency assigned Spencer W. Kimball to act as McConkie's advisor in the preparation of a Mormon Doctrine second edition. [18]

"There were about fifty items that Elder Kimball wanted Elder McConkie to revisit... They dealt with tone and with the wisdom of including particular things.... Elder Kimball was a wise mentor who taught [Elder McConkie] the difference between being right and being appropriate.... Elder Kimball's list of things that needed changing [was] much less extensive than the changes that were made in the second edition....

"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." [19]

1972: When the First Presidency and the Twelve approved Bruce R. McConkie to be presented and sustained as the Church's newest Apostle, Marion G. Romney was a member of the First Presidency and Mark E. Petersen was a senior Apostle.

It would appear, according to Prince and Wright, that Elder McConkie had published his second Mormon Doctrine edition in 1966 against the wishes of the First Presidency and Apostles Romney and Petersen.

If that were true, one would have to wonder why Romney and Petersen approved McConkie's 1972 call to the Apostleship.  But Romney and Petersen obviously had a much more complete understanding of Mormon Doctrine's history than is found in Prince and Wright.


President David O. McKay clearly did NOT find over a thousand errors in Mormon Doctrine, even though one could get that impression from reading Prince and Wright.

The fact is that Prince and Wright omitted certain key elements of the Mormon Doctrine story.  And by doing so, they created a false picture of "The Controversy over Mormon Doctrine."


1.  See Neal's comment here, Holden Caulfield's comment here, and hawkgrrrl's comments here and here.

2.  Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. SLC: University of Utah Press, 2005, pp. 49-53.

3.  Prince and Wright, p. 49.

4.  Prince and Wright, p. 50.

5.  Prince and Wright, p. 50.

6.  Prince and Wright, pp. 51-52.

7.  Prince and Wright, pp. 52-53.

8.  Thomas S. Monson, Ensign, Mar. 1984, p. 9.

9.  Elder McConkie stated in Mormon Doctrine:

"At the command of the Lord and while acting under the spirit of revelation, the Prophet corrected, revised, altered, added to, and deleted from the King James Version of the Bible to form what is now commonly referred to as the Inspired Version of the Bible....

"Such Biblical revisions as have been made may be used with safety, and parts of these are now published by the Church in its standard works [including] the Book of Moses [and] the revised 24th chapter of Matthew." (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, 1966, pp. 383-385; the same wording is in the 1958 first edition.)

10.  Elder Petersen stated in As Translated Correctly:

"It will be recalled that the Prophet Joseph Smith began what truly was an inspired translation of the Bible, but persecutions and his subsequent martyrdom made it impossible for him to finish the work.  Certain parts which he did finish are now printed in the Pearl of Great Price as the Book of Moses and the 24th Chapter of Matthew.

"Not satisfied with these, however, the Reorganized Church decided to publish the  ' inspired version '  including what changes the Prophet had made.  But, not happy with all of his changes, THEY ALTERED THE BIBLE TO SUIT THEIR OWN DESIRES, and actually changed some of the corrections made by the Prophet Joseph himself....

"Such changes of course make the work of questionable value, because the ordinary reader is at a loss to know what the Prophet corrected and what the Reorganized Church  ' corrected '  (?) to their own liking." (Mark E. Petersen, As Translated Correctly, SLC: Deseret Book, 1966, p. 30; capitalized emphasis and "(?)" in the original.)

11.  See Dennis B. Horne, Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights From His Life & Teachings, Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2000, pp. 63-64.

12.  Robert J. Matthews, "Why does the LDS edition of the Bible not contain all of the corrections and additions made by Joseph Smith?" Ensign, June 1992, p. 29; see also David Rolph Seely, "The Joseph Smith Translation:  ' Plain and Precious Things'  Restored," Ensign, Aug. 1997, p. 13

13.  On March 10, 1985, a Churchwide satellite fireside on "Using the Scriptures" was held.  Speakers included President Gordon B. Hinckley and the three Apostles (Thomas S. Monson, Boyd K. Packer, and Bruce R. McConkie) who served on the Scriptures Publication Committee during the preparation of the new LDS edition of the scriptures.  During this fireside, Elder McConkie said:

"Other Inspired Version changes are found in the footnotes of our new edition of the Bible.  Those too lengthy for inclusion in the footnotes are published in a seventeen-page section at the back of this Bible edition.  All of these changes and additions are scripture and have the same truth and validity as if they were in the Pearl of Great Price itself." (Ensign, Dec. 1985, p. 58.)

14.  See Ensign, July 1988, p. 74 (Romney) and New Era, June 1985, p. 9 (McConkie).

15.  Horne, p. 63.

16.  Prince and Wright, p. 50.  Prince and Wright date the letter Jan. 7, 1960, but I've seen multiple sources that date it Jan. 28, 1959 (i.e. Horne, p. 63).

17.  Horne, p. 63.

18.  See Joseph Fielding McConkie, The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son, SLC: Deseret Book, 2003, p. 183; click here to read the entire chapter; see also Horne, pp. 65-66.

19.  Reflections, pp. 187 & 191.)


Anonymous Mark D. said...

I think you are being a little selective here. These passages ought to be included for balance, for example:

"It was agreed that the necessary corrections are so numerous that to republish a corrected edition of the book would be such an extensive repudiation of the original as to destroy the credit of the author; that the republication of the book should be forbidden and that the book should be repudiated in such a way as to save the career of the author as one of the General Authorities of the Church. It was also agreed that this decision should be announced to the Council of the Twelve before I talk to the author."
(Office Journal of David O. McKay, Jan 7, 1960)

"Now, Brother Smith, he is a General Authority, and we do not want to give him a public rebuke that would be embarrassing to him and lessen his influence with the members of the Church, so we shall speak to the Twelve at our meeting in the Temple tomorrow, and tell them that Brother McConkie’s book is not approved as an authoritative book and that it should not be republished, even if the errors (some 1,067) are corrected."
(Office Journal of David O. McKay, Jan 27, 1960)

Note that it says "errors". This book had already been published. surely the publishers had already proofread for grammar and spelling. It is likely of course that many of these errors were not particularly critical.

5/21/2010 07:28:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...


I'm basically with you on this one. I'm not sure Prince and Wright deserve criticism, but the charge that MD has over a thousand errors strikes me as similar in nature to the charge that the Book of Mormon had [whatever number] of corrections.

5/21/2010 07:48:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


Mark D.

I appreciate your quotes from pages 50 and 51 in the Prince and Wright book. But McKay did NOT find a thousand errors in Mormon Doctrine.

Your quotes discuss the 1,067 corrections recommended by Mark E. Petersen. And McKay was certainly aware of Petersen's list. But if there were actually a thousand errors, why did Spencer W. Kimball authorize the second edition after only fifty corrections?

Your quotes say nothing about McKay finding errors. Okay, you may downplay Petersen's successful career as an editor if you wish, but you are wrong about the publisher having already proofread for grammar and spelling:

-------------- quote --------------
"A responsible editor would have caught these things and insisted that they be changed. Much of the flap and fuss about Mormon Doctrine could thereby have been avoided.

"Question: So who was the editor?

"Response: There wasn’t one. Bookcraft was a young company in the process of establishing itself and growing up into the fine, professional publisher of Latter-day Saint books that it eventually became. George Bickerstaff, their first full-time editor, began working for Bookcraft in 1968, two years after the release of the second edition of Mormon Doctrine.

"Question: So if George Bickerstaff, or someone with his Church sense, had been the editor at the time Bruce McConkie took the manuscript of Mormon Doctrine into Bookcraft, the first edition would probably have appeared essentially as the second edition did?

"Response: Yes. That is one of the important roles a good editor will play. Getting a call from your editor can be like going to the dentist. It often means that something has to be pulled or filled or, at best, polished." (See Reflections, footnote 18 above, pp.186-187.)
-------------- end quote --------------

And yes. I agree with you on the likelihood that most of Petersen's corrections were not critical.



I like your comment, but it makes me nervous. You see, I don't think Mormon Doctrine is scripture and I'm sure you don't either. So I just thought we should make that point clear. Beyond that, it's always nice to be together on something. Thanks for your comment.

5/21/2010 09:00:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


JTez:  Mormon Doctrine will not soon be buried. It will not soon be forgotten. Not only will it continue to be sold in Deseret Book's electronic library, those of us (including Church leaders) who have actually opened the book will continue to quote it on matters of doctrine.

5/22/2010 04:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Mark D. said...

Gary, It doesn't matter whether there were a dozen substantive doctrinal errors or misstatements or ten dozen. The biggest problem with the book was its tone and style. The author was a Seventy at the time and he writes a book documenting his own personal take on Mormon doctrine as if it was the unquestionably established doctrine of the Church.

Not with any sort of argument, persuasion, or citation, but rather ex cathedra as if he were the pope or something. That is a major problem. No one can even read the book or any other of the author's works and get the slightest clue about theology, process, or reasoning.

Everything he wrote that is unique to him is already a dead letter, because he didn't take the time to persuade anyone. And as it happens, from first to last, the revelations, scriptures, and commentaries that has a lasting influence are those that do just that. That is a fatal flaw, it means that much of the life work of a great man is mouldering in the grave hardly before the paint is dry.

5/23/2010 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...


Mark D.

I hope you'll forgive me for not being "persuaded" by your writing. Under assignment from the First Presidency, Spencer W. Kimball personally supervised McConkie as he made more changes than Kimball thought were necessary. Then, as part of that same assignment, Spencer W. Kimball approved the second edition. Therefore, I agree that it doesn't really matter how many errors there were.

As I said above, Mormon Doctrine is not scripture. It never was. But the book ranks near the top among LDS books in terms of its years in print (52), copies sold (hundreds of thousands), and in the number of times it has been quoted in talks and lessons at all levels of Church leadership.

I appreciate your comments. I think you've made yourself clear. There are others in the Church who feel as you do. And I respect that. I just don't think he was as off-putting as you say he was. If he had been, the opinion of those with whom he served as an Apostle would likely have been more like yours. But it wasn't. According to Ezra Taft Benson, the First Presidency and Twelve "often" turned to Elder McConkie on matters of doctrine. (Ensign, June 1985, p.16.) And they have also "often" turned to Mormon Doctrine in their general conference talks.

5/24/2010 12:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Dave C. said...

MD is about as good as it gets when it comes to non-canonized literature dealing with LDS doctrine. Like you, I do not think that the 1000 or more recommended changes were doctrinal - if that were true, then I dare say that MD would constitute a book of heresies, not Mormon doctrine.

Finally, if SWK found a revised edition acceptable, then it is good enough for me.

6/03/2010 03:21:00 PM  

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