Maligning McConkie

For the last 35 years of David O. McKay's life, Clare Middlemiss was his personal secretary. After her death it came to light that over the years she had made unauthorized copies of 130,000 pages of a wide variety of things ranging from McKay's diary and personal letters to transcripts of First Presidency meetings. She stored the copies in her garage and bequeathed them to a nephew who, with the help of a friend, used them to write David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, University of Utah Press, 2005). The following explains how this book wrongfully discredits and defames Elder Bruce R. McConkie.

Bruce R. McConkie (1915-1985) was not yet a member of the Twelve when Mormon Doctrine was published. He was 43 years old. The book was published by Bookcraft (privately owned) instead of Deseret Book (Church owned), and the title itself was deemed by some to be inappropriately audacious. Today, after more than half a century, the book is still a lightening rod for criticism of its author.

In 1999, when Bookcraft was acquired by Deseret Book, many people thought Mormon Doctrine would quietly disappear from the bookstores. Instead, Deseret Book began printing the book as one of its own titles.

In 2010, however, Deseret Book decided to drop Mormon Doctrine. That decision sparked open rejoicing in some quarters and lively discussions on quite a few LDS blogs. Several bloggers claimed the book should never have survived the 1950's because President McKay found over a thousand errors in it when it was first published.[1]

This thousand errors rumor found new life in 2005 when Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright published David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and included a short section titled "The Controversy over Mormon Doctrine."[2] You can read it here.

Given the enormous frequency with which Mormon Doctrine has been quoted in official LDS media for more than 50 years, it is surprising that anyone could believe the book contains a thousand errors. Yet, by simply omitting a few significant aspects of the Mormon Doctrine story, the rumor is made to appear believable.

Let's begin by looking at a few events that Prince and Wright did include.

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 future plans for Mormon Doctrine.[6]

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

The short Mormon Doctrine story published by Prince and Wright definitely makes a point. But does it portray a fair and accurate picture of Bruce R. McConkie? I don't think it does. Here are some things Prince and Wright neglected to mention.

Petersen's career. 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 Twelve, Petersen was employed for many years by the Deseret News. He started as a copy reader, then worked as a news editor, later he was managing editor, and finally editor of the newspaper.[8] He was fully qualified by training and experience to look at Mormon Doctrine from a professional editor's point of view.

It seems unlikely to me that someone skilled at looking for spelling and grammar errors would suddenly adopt a different approach on McConkie's book and concentrate only on erroneous teachings. Why ignore Elder Petersen's professional background and speculate that his list included mostly doctrinal errors?

In all likelihood, his list covered the whole spectrum of editorial corrections. It is ludicrous to think that Petersen found 1,067 doctrinal errors in the book.

In 1958, Bookcraft was a fledgling publisher without a full-time editor. An editor would have found and dealt with most of Petersen's list prior to Mormon Doctrine's initial publication.[9]

The Inspired Version. It is also possible that some of the doctrinal errors Elder Petersen did find were, in the end, not actually doctrinal errors. For example, 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"[10] while Elder Petersen thought it was "of questionable value."[11]

Why speculate that Elder Petersen didn't mark for correction any of Mormon Doctrine's references to the Inspired Version? In all likelihood, as many as 170 such references were on his list of recommended changes.[12]

Then in 1979, just twenty years later, more than 600 "doctrinally significant ... excerpts from the JST (previously known as the Inspired Version)" became part of the LDS edition of the Bible after "the First Presidency decided" to include them.[13]

Clearly, these Inspired Version changes may now be used with safety. For all practical purposes, they "are scripture and have the same truth and validity as if they were in the Pearl of Great Price itself."[14]

Romney's opinion. 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 and both held the title, at different times, of assistant city attorney.[15] It makes sense that President McKay would invite an attorney to review another attorney's book for him.

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, who imply that Romney didn't respond until January 7, 1960.)

Having been asked to look for problems, Elder Romney responded accordingly[16] 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.[17]

But in addition to his criticisms of Mormon Doctrine, Elder Romney made positive comments about the book and 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."[18]

Significantly, Romney did in fact quote from Mormon Doctrine in one of his own subsequent general conference talks.[19]

The second edition. According to Prince and Wright, David O. McKay told McConkie on July 5, 1966, that "should the book be re-published at this time" McConkie would be responsible for it. Then Prince and Wright give us this choice bit of reasoning.

"McConkie, who practiced law prior to becoming a General Authority, was well versed in the legal meaning of words; and so one is hard pressed to concluded that he misunderstood McKay's cautionary statement, 'should the book be re-published,' as a mandate to republish."[20]

According to Bruce R. McConkie's son, "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."[21]

I am "hard pressed to conclude" that Bruce R. McConkie misunderstood Spencer W. Kimball's assignment in the preparation of a Mormon Doctrine second edition.[22]

"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."[23]

Called to the Twelve. In 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.

According to Prince and Wright, the reports prepared by Elders Romney and Peterson led to a First Presidency decision that Mormon Doctrine should not be reprinted. Yet in 1966 McConkie "moved with the same boldness of eight years earlier, and published a second edition" anyway, according to Prince and Wright.[24]

But notice that Romney and Petersen both approved McConkie's 1972 call to the apostleship. Clearly they had a much more complete understanding of Mormon Doctrine's history than is found in Prince and Wright.

Contrary to rumor. President David O. McKay did NOT find over a thousand errors in Mormon Doctrine. Copies published by Deseret Book carried 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."

McConkie was a doctrinal giant. Mormon Doctrine was a prodigious work. Yet by simply omitting key elements of the story, Prince and Wright created a false picture of "The Controversy over Mormon Doctrine."

Conclusion. Bruce R. McConkie's influence is greatly underestimated by those who ignore his reputation among those with whom he served as a Church leader. According to President Ezra Taft Benson, the First Presidency and Twelve frequently turned to Elder McConkie on matters of doctrine.[25]

His part in the preparation of the 1979 LDS Bible and 1981 edition of the triple combination was monumental. He was one of three (along with Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer) assigned by the First Presidency to oversee the project. He personally wrote all of the newly revised chapter and section headings and his imprint is on many entries in the LDS Bible Dictionary.

The scripture project, said President Boyd K. Packer “was one great crowning achievement in Brother McConkie's ministry.... If ever there was a man who was raised up unto a very purpose, if ever a man was prepared against a certain day of need, it was Bruce R. McConkie." According to President Packer, the project "could not have been done without Elder Bruce R. McConkie."[26]

President Packer served closely with Elder McConkie during that project and believes "few will ever know the extent of the service he rendered. Few can appraise the lifetime of preparation for this quiet crowning contribution to the onrolling of the restored gospel in the dispensation of the fulness of times."[27]


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. One wonders how long it took to give an oral report of 1,067 corrections.

6. Prince and Wright, pp.51-52.

7. Prince and Wright, pp.52-53.

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

9. See Joseph Fielding McConkie, The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son, SLC: Deseret Book, 2003, pp.186-187.

10. 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.)

11. 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.)

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

13. 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

14. 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.)

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

16. Horne, p.63.

17. 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).

18. Horne, p.63.

19. See Ensign, May 1974, p.90.

20. Prince and Wright, pp.52.

21. Reflections, p.183.

22. Reflections, p.183.; see also Horne, pp.65-66.

23. Reflections, pp.187 and 191.

24. Prince and Wright, pp.51-53.

25. Ensign, June 1985, p.16.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

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