The Bruce R. McConkie Wars

As long as I’ve been online I’ve been fascinated by how polarizing any discussion of Bruce R. McConkie becomes. I have never understood why a group of supposedly believing Latter-day Saints should be of such divided opinion on the teachings of a prophet who wrote most of our Bible Dictionary, the chapter headings in our standard works, and is cited so often in some of our most basic doctrinal texts.

One of the things that I was surprised to learn in the light of Elder McConkie’s controversial reputation is that his book, Mormon Doctrine, is cited in the back of our Gospel Essentials manual, Gospel Principles. Now hasn’t this manual been through correlation? Isn’t this the manual used to teach investigators and our newest members the most basic teachings of the Church? Why then would this committee written and approved book, include Mormon Doctrine in a very short list of “Books Cited?” It is alongside such works as The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball, Stand Ye in Holy Places by Harold B. Lee, Gospel Ideals by David O. McKay, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith by Joseph Fielding Smith, and Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage? After all, there are only twenty-three titles on the list. Why include Mormon Doctrine if there is so much bad doctrine in it? It just doesn’t make sense.

The answer, of course, is that there is not a lot of bad doctrine in the book. Sure, much of the book consists of Elder McConkie’s personal opinions on doctrine and the scriptures. But who is to say that his opinions are not true? Are his opinions untrue just because one disagrees with them? And if a Latter-day Saint has a different opinion on doctrine, why should we prefer his? Does he know the scriptures better? Has he a stronger command of the teachings of the modern prophets? Maybe he is a lot smarter than Elder McConkie, could that be it? Or perhaps he is closer to the Lord and receives more revelation?

I think those who hold a negative opinion of Bruce R. McConkie don’t like him primarily because of his articles on blacks and evolution. And they don’t like his tone of authority.

Yet the Lord called him to be an Apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve, even after his outrageous disobedience in publishing a Second Edition. I’m surprised the Lord would do this considering how wrong headed his opinions were, aren’t you?

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4 Responses to The Bruce R. McConkie Wars

  1. Lee Crites says:

    I have a slightly different take on this discussion that might help; it might hurt — no clue at this moment. Be that as it may…

    There are 15 Apostles today: 3 in the First Presidency and 12 in the Quorum of the Twelve. I believe that number is significant, not in some metaphysical way, but in a real way. I believe that in the economy of the Lord’s work, if we didn’t NEED 15, then we wouldn’t HAVE 15. If only 10 were needed, then we might have the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Seven. But 10 isn’t the right number — 15 is.

    Why 15?

    I can’t speak for that number, particularly, but I can for the size of the number.

    I can read McConkie or Maxwell, and understand in the first reading what it is they were trying to say. That doesn’t make me an “intellectual,” it simply means that my mind works in the same way theirs did, so when they form a statement/point/argument, I internalize it in the same way, so I understand right off.

    On the other hand, when I hear Pres Monson speak, I get a good feeling, I know he is the Lord’s prophet, etc — but when he is done, I have to ask someone what in the world he was trying to say. How Pres Monson puts together his point is so different than how I think that it just doesn’t jive. At all. The Spirit edifies me while I listen, and I know I am listening to the Lord’s chosen prophet. But the message is lost in translation.

    I could continue through the 15 making similar comments, but I think the two opposites is enough to make my point.

    So “mother of all” doesn’t like BRM’s tone or delivery, and listening to him leaves her somewhat cold. Okay. There are 14 others to choose from.

    I am not advocating ignoring the messages of truth that one Apostle delivers because you don’t like them — I am saying that the messages of truth come from all 15 of the Apostles, and that if we truly listen to ALL of them, and honestly try to comply with the council we receive from ALL of them, that whichever of them speaks “our language” will do so in a way that will trigger our understanding.

    My wife and I are companions in this. She explains Monson to me; I explain Packer to her — and so on.

    The point, at least to me, and what I am trying to make here, is not to discredit one Apostle (for any reason), but to make sure we are focusing on the messages enough that when it is finally said in a way that sinks in, we are edified and uplifted by it — and that causes the change the Lord is looking for on our lives.

  2. Gary says:

    What follows are excerpts from chapter 11, “The Mormon Doctrine Saga 1958 and 1966” in the book The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003) written by Joseph Fielding McConkie. Click here to read the entire chapter.

    “The book Mormon Doctrine, written by Bruce R. McConkie, is one of the time-honored classics of Mormon literature. Few books can match it 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. And perhaps no book save the scriptures themselves has been surrounded by more myth and lore. In recounting the Mormon Doctrine saga, I have confined myself to matters upon which I am competent to speak….

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

    “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….

    “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….

    “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….

    “Changes [regarding evolution] 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.’ “

  3. Well, we could adopt creeds and eliminate any Latter-day Saint having a different opinion on doctrine. But for some reason that methodology does not please the Lord. Why? Bruce McConkie suggested a reason in a letter to Eugene England that “I do not know all of the providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality.” I think the reason for this sifting that Elder McConkie regrets is that truth needs context or it doesn’t live.

    We value the freedom of the soul according to section 134. And I think that’s because we value a living faith, both true and part of the fiber of lives where we’re at.

    Some things Elder McConkie said in a life of service don’t hang together for me. You suggest my divergence would be revealed in one of these binary questions:
    – Do I think I know the scriptures better?
    – Do I think I have a stronger command of the teachings of modern prophets?
    – Do I think I’m smarter than Bruce McConkie?
    – Do I think I’m closer to the Lord and receive more revelation?

    I think I know the scriptures well enough and I can read modern prophets well enough to know where I’m at when Elder McConkie speaks from the scriptures. But when he speaks as one having authority, not as the scribes, sometimes I don’t receive a confirming witness. I don’t have the conceit of being closer the Lord than Bruce McConkie has been, but I can receive my own witness and guidance and have confidence in that. Your terms make him a bully that I should cow to his greatness. That doesn’t fit anything I understand about how God establishes relationships, even relationships between the great and small.

    Let’s take the case of when Elder McConkie said that God was omnipresent (for example, in the Three Pillars talk, 1981), I struggled with his use of omnipresence. I saw it as a contradiction to God the Father’s corporeality, a rejection of the restoration for the language of abominable creeds. Today I’m closer to this idea, since the Holy Ghost, being a member of the Godhead is God, but even then I prefer to understand omnipresence as the idea that God’s power and reach is everywhere, which is not what omnipresence traditionally means. Big words make for theology games. Is the Holy Ghost in the bar? In what sense would God be in outer darkness? So now I’ve redefined omnipresence so it’s about God’s relating, that there is no where we are not in context to him. Do I get to do that?

    I disagree with Bruce McConkie on points, I understand him in ways he probably wouldn’t have agreed with, but that’s all part of my living relationship. I can respect and struggle and disagree and find him enlightening even while I’m redefining his terms. And I don’t resent the authority in the tone of authority. I’m frustrated because the tone of authority leaves me without a handhold when I can’t accept what he says.

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