In Defense of Elder Bruce R. McConkie – A True Apostle of Jesus Christ

Bruce_R._McConkie2

There is no denying the considerable influence of Elder Bruce R. McConkie upon the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and upon Mormon culture. Elder McConkie was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from October 1972 until his death in April of 1985.

Prior to becoming an apostle, he published Mormon Doctrine, a book of commentary on the gospel and the church presented in the style of an encyclopedia, comprised of his own, unofficial doctrinal analysis and explanations. The book was a cultural phenomenon for decades to come. But the leadership of the church at the time was not entirely happy with the book’s success, since it represented personal interpretations that were not the official teachings of the church. He was asked to revise his tone and make many, many changes in the second edition. Deseret Book discontinued publication of Mormon Doctrine in 2010.

Over the decades, Elder McConkie has become a favorite subject of derision by liberal and dissident members of the church. It makes me very sad to see bloggers and internet commenters regularly refer flippantly and dismissively to Elder McConkie. Despite some real human weakness, he was a remarkable man, a powerful teacher, and a true apostle of Jesus Christ. There is much we can learn from him and he deserves greater respect and consideration.

Much of the disdain revolves around Elder McConkie’s views and writings defending the church’s policy of withholding the priesthood from members of African descent prior to the 1978 revelation that ended the restriction. In the mind of some, he plays the role of the ignorant, prejudiced bogeyman in opposition to the enlightened, liberal, agitating intellectuals. And the way the story is often represented, Elder McConkie was only finally repudiated when President Spencer W. Kimball received the revelation rescinding the priesthood ban, forcing Elder McConkie to recant (which to his credit he did).

But Elder McConkie’s involvement in what culminated in the revelation lifting the restriction is far more complex than such oversimplified stories allow.

Edward L. Kimball’s fantastic, comprehensive account of the history of the reception of the 1978 revelation that lifted the priesthood ban (PDF) includes some important tidbits about Elder Bruce R. McConkie that appear to have been widely overlooked.

Edward Kimball notes that in June of 1977, a year before the revelation was received, “Spencer invited at least three General Authorities to give him memos on the implications of the subject. Elder McConkie wrote a long memorandum concluding that there was no scriptural barrier to a change in policy that would give priesthood to black men. Considering Elder McConkie’s traditional approach to the topic during the Lee administration, this conclusion explains why, according to Elder Packer, “President Kimball spoke in public of his gratitude to Elder McConkie for some special support he received in the days leading up to the revelation on the priesthood.” Although minutes of quorum meetings are not available and participants have not commented in detail, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve discussed the issue repeatedly, at length, and over a period of months.” (p. 46 – 47)

Then, about a year later, on June 1, 1978, the day the revelation was received, but before its reception, President Kimball asked ten of the twelve to stay with him after their normal worship meetings (two were absent). He asked them to skip lunch and fast with him as he sought a clear answer from the Lord on the issue.

He explained to them his thoughts and feelings, and then “he asked the Twelve to speak, without concern for seniority. […] Elder McConkie spoke in favor of the change, noting there was no scriptural impediment. President Tanner asked searching questions as Elder McConkie spoke. Then Elder Packer spoke at length, explaining his view that every worthy man should be allowed to hold the priesthood. He quoted scriptures in support of the change. Eight of the ten volunteered their views, all favorable. President Kimball called on the other two, and they also spoke in favor. Discussion continued for two hours.” (p. 55 – 56)

Then they joined together in prayer to ask for confirmation and received a glorious response from the Lord. The full account is powerful and I encourage you to read it (PDF). The focus here, however, is on Elder McConkie.

After their miraculous experience, but before they adjourned, President Kimball asked Elders Packer, McConkie, and Hinckley to each write a proposal for how to announce the change. (p. 59)

Seven days later, a draft announcement was constructed from the three proposals, which was then revised by the First Presidency. Then, on June 8th, the announcement was reviewed by the council of the twelve apostles, who also made some slight alterations. Edward Kimball relates that then “they discussed timing. Some thought it best to wait for October general conference. Others suggested making the announcement at the mission presidents’ seminar the next week. But Elder McConkie urged immediate release: ‘It will leak, and we have to beat Satan. He’ll do something between now and then to make it appear that we’re being forced into it.’ ” (p. 60)

The next morning, June 9th, all available General Authorities were called to meet in the temple. President Kimball spoke about the matter. Then the written announcement was read out loud and they solicited comments from the general authorities present. According to Edward Kimball’s account, in response to the solicitation for comments, “the Apostles led the way. Elder McConkie, among the first to speak, gave an impassioned extemporaneous lecture on the relevant scriptures.” (p. 64)

After the decision was unanimously approved by sustaining vote of the General Authorities, the Public Communications department was instructed to immediately make the decision public.

As you can see, the idea that Elder McConkie was some kind of stubborn holdout until the very end when he was grudgingly corrected by prophetic revelation is simply not true. Yes, he had written previously that the restriction would not be lifted until the millennium. And he had advocated theories for why the restriction existed that turned out to be incorrect– some of which he continued to believe even after the revelation.

But let’s review the additional facts from the excerpts above:

  • A year before the revelation was given, he had written a long memo to President Kimball concluding that there was no scriptural reason the policy could not be lifted.
  • Before the revelation was received, he spoke up in favor of the change, reiterating that there was no scriptural impediment.
  • And he defended that view under searching questions from President Tanner.
  • Then after the confirming revelation was received, he wrote one of the three drafts that were later merged into the final announcement.
  • He advocated for immediate announcement instead of waiting.
  • And when the announcement was presented to the General Authorities he was one of the first to voluntarily stand and declare his support, giving an impassioned extemporaneous discourse on the related scriptures.

In August later that same year, in an address on the topic given at a Church Education System symposium entitled All Are alike Unto God (PDF), Elder McConkie declared:

There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which 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 whomsoever 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.

We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.

It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year (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.”

Elder McConkie’s willingness to publicly recant personal beliefs for which he was well-known is an example of integrity and humility that we would all do well to emulate. He truly believed in prophets and revelation.

Those who marginalize and demonize Elder McConkie, or any of the other faithful apostles of the church, exhibit a childishness and faithlessness that is unbecoming. We can be mature enough to recognize human weakness and error in individuals, while still respecting and honoring them as true prophets and apostles and while continuing to be confident that the Lord guides His church through their unanimous voice. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with every idea or opinion put forth by them individually, but we ought to approach their teachings with requisite soberness and deference. The Lord called them, knowing their individual strengths and weaknesses. Faithful members of the church are rightfully wary of those who undermine the living prophets and apostles by being publicly dismissive and disrespectful.

Those who mock and dismiss Elder McConkie deprive themselves of the great opportunity to learn many good and great things from an Apostle of Jesus Christ.

Category: lds
Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,
Bookmark: link

7 Responses to In Defense of Elder Bruce R. McConkie – A True Apostle of Jesus Christ

  1. richalger

    A great tribute. He was a man of God, a fallible man, but true to the callings he received from God.

    I can only hope to be the same.

  2. SilverRain

    Thank you so much for this post! I think that often we criticize people in the past, but have so very little information and understanding of what we are criticizing. It is easy to judge someone as racist when we look back with 20/20 hindsight, and the privilege of being raised in a different world.

  3. It would be helpful if you could link to specific examples of “Those who marginalize and demonize Elder McConkie” so that readers can judge for themselves if that is what is happening or if a straw man has been constructed here.

  4. J. Max Wilson

    John H.,

    I am aware that there are some people who dislike what I write who have been promoting the idea that the “liberal Mormons” to which I refer in many of my posts are all imaginary; that the views to which I am supposedly responding are all made up by me or are simply a convenient caricature or straw-man. Unless I am mistaken, Aaron C. Brown is the primary advocate for this particular approach to undermining what I write. (How’s that for specificity?)

    I am not opposed to calling out individuals with specific examples. My post on “How Not to Save LDS Youth in a Secular Age” from January was in response to a specific post by David Bokovoy.

    But there are a number of downsides to that approach. Calling out specific individuals tends to transform the discussion into a personal conflict instead of a discussion about principles and ideas. My particular personality is more attracted to discussions about principles, systems, psychology, and ideas. I am also introverted, which means that social interactions (even digital ones) drain my energy rather than energize me. And personal conflict drains me even faster.

    So when I write a post like this one, it is usually not in reaction to something specific that I have seen in the last few days. Usually it is something that I have observed periodically over a long period of time that I am finally getting around to writing about.

    When I have ideas that may turn into a post I add them to a list of posts I’d like to write. And they often sit on that list for a very long time. I have some post ideas, and half written posts, that have been waiting for literally years for me to write or to finish. I’ve been thinking about portions of this particular post for over a year.

    As you well know, I’ve been involved with LDS blogging for an entire decade. Some of my observations have built up over a long time. The initial ideas are very often sparked by something I read or hear. And during the months or even years that follow, I notice other examples. But I don’t keep a catalog of every instance. My hope is to write observations and ideas that are not emotional responses to current events, but more timeless thoughts on principles and frameworks of thought that matter to me. (I know that reacting more to current events is a better way to drive traffic, but I really don’t care about that.)

    So I don’t have links to the specific comments or blogs that contributed to my observations above. I am confident that I could combine a series of web searches and blog conversations from months ago and find quite a few examples. But it would take hours and hours that I simply do not have. I hardly have time to write the blog posts in the first place. And I tend to be a slow, careful writer. It costs me.

    I realize that all of this opens me up to the kind of “straw-man” accusations I mentioned, and under which I am assuming your query is operating. A few years ago I was told privately by a blogger at popular Bloggernacle blog that the problem with what I write is that because I am not pointing to specific individuals and examples, a lot of people can’t tell if I am writing about them or not. But I note that if I do talk about specific blog posts and people, I tend to get dog-piled with accusations of “unrighteously sitting in judgement of my fellow saints” and repeated attempts to shame me into silence.

    I suspect that when I use the term “Liberal Mormon” I am casting a wider net than perhaps those who dislike my approach do with the term. They might do well to to consider the possibility that some bloggernacle participants are simply blind to how far off the farm their public discussions and comments come across to a lot of faithful latter-day saints.

    If my observations apply to you, then apply them. If they do not, then you can happily ignore them and move on. If you don’t know anybody you consider a “liberal Mormon” or a “dissident” who speaks disrespectfully of Elder McConkie, or mocks and demonizes him, then I am happy for you. But I believe that there are many people who have observed what I have; people who read my posts and recognize the kinds of attitudes and liberal ideas that I describe from their own experience in the LDS Blogs.

  5. Jim

    I remember reading somewhere (I wish I could find it) that President Kimball would take his scriptures and Elder McConkie’s document with him when he went to the Temple to pray about the Priesthood restriction. Elder McConkie was willing to expand our scripture canon. It was his idea to submit Joseph Smith’s Vision of the Celestial Kingdom and Joseph F. Smith’s Vision of Redemption of the Dead (now D&C 137 and 138) for inclusion into the scripture canon.

  6. JMW,

    I appreciate the difficulties involved in both casting a wide net and in making a targeted critique. I think much of what you’ve written above functions well as a defense of Elder McConkie without needing to do either. That said, I think there are legitimate concerns over the lasting effects of Elder McConkie’s tenure and this approach doesn’t engage them very effectively. Still, bravo for the defense.

  7. Lamoni

    I appreciate your article. I have been in wards where people over-used “Mormon Doctrine” in their sacrament talks and Sunday School and Priesthood lessons. I believe that 80% of the book is on solid ground and can be backed up with what prophets have said over the pulpit in general conferences. Another 10% is speculation that is probably true, however the remaining 10% is what was repeated the most often in the area where I grew up because they were so shocking. I heard repeatedly that the Catholic Church was the great and abominable church mentioned in the Book of Mormon for example. This was even repeated in my Book of Mormon class at BYU.

    It is difficult to judge a book harshly without casting blame on the author. I believe that it may still be appropriate to cast the blame on the author in this case, but it is more important to realize that Bruce R. McConkie did many more wonderful things after the book was published. I believe he was wrong to publish the book when he did and he was wrong to give it the title that he did, but it is also refreshing to know that we don’t need to have a perfect understanding of the scriptures to be called to serve and we can still be very effective instruments in God’s hands. He was a great example of how that was true. He also had the humility to recant everything that he said which was in error as he received more revelation.

    This is another example that scares me away from posting stuff on my own blog. I am quite willing to change my opinion as I learn more facts, but once I publish my opinion for the world to read, that is what I will be judged on regardless of whether or not I still believe what I wrote in the past.

Leave a Reply

  • Log in to comment
  • Register for an account

Be sure you are familiar with the Comment Policy before commenting.

Anyone who wishes to comment here must register for a sixteensmallstones.org login or connect using their Facebook account. Registration is simple and fast.

Once you have activated your account, you must log in to post comments. The first time you comment will still be moderated, but once I have approved your first comment you should be able to continue to add additional comments on any article without further impediment as long as you are logged in.

Copyright © 2005-2017 J. Max Wilson. Some Rights Reserved.