David O. McKay: Father, Teacher, Prophet

On Sunday I received this year’s course curriculum for RS and Priesthood: a diminutive paperback with a striking portrait on the cover, entitled Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay. I don’t remember President McKay–I was born in 1974, four years after he died–but still he retains a high profile in my mental images of the prophets: the lovely way his name rolls off the tongue, his irresistibly quotable aphorisms, that enviable hair. Just as President Kimball, the prophet of my childhood, will always embody for me the prophetic presence, President McKay was the definitive prophet for several generations of Latter-day Saints, including my parents’.

President McKay rightly occupies that place in the minds of so many Latter-day Saints: in many ways, he seems to have ushered the Church into the favorable social, political and international positions which it now occupies. Many of our present defining aspects of church membership and image were pioneered by President McKay. Seminary and institutes, for example, and the Church Educational System more generally, bear his imprint as a gifted lifelong educator: “True education,” he said, “seeks … to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest men, combined with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love–men and women who prize truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control as the choicest acquisitions of a successful life.”

He also seems to have emphasized an affect-intensive view of modern family life, which in many ways prophetically presaged a general cultural move in that direction. By all accounts he was a devoted family man, and his famous dictum that “No success compensates for failure in the home” is a memorable and inspiring precursor to some contemporary strands of the family values movement.

He was a voracious learner, and a political man, as well. His valedictory address to the University of Utah class of 1897 was entitled “An Unsatisfied Appetite for Knowledge Means Progress and Is the State of a Normal Mind.” He prized democratic institutions, and spoke out strongly against the atheistic implications of communism, thus nudging the church into the geopolitical field which it occupied for several decades. But in 1969, amid the divisive civil rights struggles that wrenched American society during that period, he authorized the issuing of an official statement calling upon Church members everywhere to do their part to see that civil rights for all races were upheld. Furthermore, when visiting South Africa in 1954, he was reminded of the policy that required South African priesthood holders to trace their genealogy beyond the continent of Africa, in order to ensure that there was no black ancestry; empathetic to the difficulties this imposed on righteous members, he felt inspired to modify the policy so that the genealogical test would not apply. In this he contributed to the spiritual and administrative environment in which President Kimball would be able to seek and receive the revelation on priesthood in 1978.

I’m interested to hear the recollections of readers who knew President McKay as their prophet. Was his presence as charismatic as it has become to history? What did you glean from his ministry?

29 comments for “David O. McKay: Father, Teacher, Prophet

  1. I have to teach the “historical” lesson on him this Sunday. At first I was not excited because unlike many other figures we’ve had for Priesthood, Pres. McKay didn’t do anything that exciting.

    My second reading though was that he actually was the basis for a lot of teachings or policies that others (say Pres. Kimball) got credit for. Now some of this may be the lesson manual and not that accurate. However I was surprised that he was the basis for “every member a missionary” that I always ascribed to Pres. Kimball. He really was behind the internationalization of the church (with church population tripling under his watch). As was mentioned, our focus on the family in the fashion we do goes back to Pres. McKay.

    I also wonder if he isn’t one of those care-taker prophets who really move the church along but didn’t do anything “big” and don’t quite get the respect they deserve. I’d say Pres. Hinkley falls into this category and I think that might be the line I take with the lesson.

  2. Great thoughts, Clark. I forgot to mention that he built and dedicated the first temple outside of the US–the Switzerland temple, I believe. Adn that the missionary program as we understand it–including the slowdown of converts’ relocating to Utah–was largley pioneered by him

  3. A couple of things that haven’t been mentioned is that McKay greatly liberalized Church spending policies and also took the the Church a bit to the political left. Both J. Reuben Clark and McKay had been counselors in the First Presidency for around 17 years, under both Presidents Grant and George Albert Smith. First Counselor Clark was a Republican, anti-New Deal, fiscally conservative with Church funds, and wielded enormous influence under both Grant and Smith. Second Counselor McKay was a Democrat, (quietly) pro-New Deal, and argued for more programs, buildings, cultural amenities, etc, and his views usually did not prevail. When McKay became President, and chose Stephen L. Richards (who had a similar perspective as McKay), while Clark was made second counselor, it could be seen as a real changing of the guard.

  4. McKay was also the famous uncle of Fawn McKay Brodie. I read an interview where she indicated that at the outset of her Joseph Smith biographical project, her uncle offered her pretty liberal access to church materials, and she declined (He would have been an apostle, perhaps president of the quorum, at the time). In the interview she indicated that since he was not aware of the direction she had in mind, she felt it would have been unfair to him.

    As I understand it, he was a rather dapper dresser and could be rather charming. As an apostle, his social skills leveraged by making him the de facto ambassador for Mormonism. In this capacity, he represented

    Speaking of the modern missionary program, the modern lesson-driven approach was launched 53 years ago last Sunday (Jan 2, 1952) in Los Angeles Mission at the Adams Street Chapel (which I’ve heard is the first LDS chapel built in LA). This would have been under McKay’s presidency. Perhaps he had something to do with it as a counsellor in the previous first presidency, but it was most likely in the works before he became prophet. At any rate, there were 17 lessons, and they were written/edited/directly overseen by Gordon B. Hinckley. In some form or another, the basic lesson plan of all 17 of these lessons are still used in the church today to educate prospective and new church members.

    At any rate (and if I remember correctly), recalling the correlation thread, as an apostle McKay (being an educator by trade) headed up the first correlation drive (in the early 20th century—different from the one in the 1960s) that created the first unified church curriculum. Of course, his tenure also saw the creation of the 1960s program that resulted in something closer to what we use today.

    President McKay died on my first birthday, and I’ve felt guilty about this ever since.

  5. Greg,

    Are you saying that Clark was in the Presidency during the Great Depression and WW2? If so, it is not perhaps a great surprise that a more fiscally conservative approach would be a good move.

    President McKay was President during the 50’s and 60’s , two very prosperous decades, so willingness to spend on more things might have been a good idea then, even if it would have been a bad idea in the 30’s and 40’s.

  6. DKL, don’t feel bad. Nixon left office on the day I was born, and I’ve been racked with regret ever since.

  7. Clark was in the First Presidency from 1933 to 1959. His political and fiscal conservatism did not begin with the depression nor did it end the post-war boom. It was simply his temperament, which contrasts sharply with McKay.

  8. I should add that it certainly was providential that a man like Clark was in the First Presidency when the Church was on such unsure financial footing.

  9. I was not arguing that his temperament would have changed because I do not know. I was arguing that it may well have suited God to have a fiscally conservative set of policies during the 30’s and 40’s, which would look like the great influence of President Clark. But in the more flush 50’s and 60’s God might have preferred a more liberal spending regime since the money was now available what would not previously have been wise to do. That would then be reflected in President’s McKay’s policies and would be a task at which he would be better suited.

    On the other hand, had President Clark lived into the 60’s, an extremely prosperous decade, he may have become less fiscally conservative. Certainly I do not know.

  10. Does anyone have the full context for the famous Pres. McKay quote “No other success can compensate for failure in the home”? There are a couple of things I am wondering about:

    1) The manual seems to suggest that this statement was in fact taken from another work and quoted by Pres. McKay. Here’s the citation in the manual.

    2) I recall reading the whole paragraph from which this quotation comes thinking that the context made the statement say something quite different from the sense in which we usually receive it. Unfortunately, all I have is an impression in my memory. Can anyone corroborate/disabuse me of this idea?

  11. I forgot to mention that he built and dedicated the first temple outside of the US–the Switzerland temple,

    The poor citizens of southern Alberta may cringe at that comment. (I got my endowments at the Cardston temple – admittedly only about 15 miles or so from the border, but still…)

  12. Oops, sorry, Clark! My research was done in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism with two small ones climbing all over me… Is the first temple outside of North America correct?

  13. Just a note that Hawaii and Cardston have very similar designs. (I don’t know about the interiors – the interior of the Cardston temple is very beautiful with many kinds of wood and those impressionist paintings by Brigham Young’s grandson) Anyway, perhaps Rosalynde has a bias against that architecture? (grin)

    Sorry to hijack the thread, BTW.

    Regarding correlation though, I assume this is just talking about correlation of lesson manuals? I thought correlation proper had started earlier under Joseph F. Smith and reached steam under Heber J. Grant. McKay simply started trying to reform and improve lessons.

    The manual doesn’t mention it and I’ve been meaning to look it up, but weren’t there a lot of structural changes to teaching in the church under McKay? Further, wasn’t it under McKay that they stopped sending young married men on missions?

  14. I anxiously await Greg Prince’s administrative biography of President McKay, due from University of Utah Press this year. It’ll be the book to have before Bushman’s book comes out.

  15. Clark, Joseph F. Smith was the prophet when the initial project began. I believe he appointed McKay to head the committee, and oversee it directly. There’s some info on that in the priesthood reorganization article from BYU studies that I linked to in another thread.

  16. My husband gave a talk some years ago in which he sourced the “no other success can compensate…” quote to Dickens — I believe a character in Bleak House. I’ll double check with him and post a correction if I’ve got the wrong novel. That would predate the link mentioned in #11.

  17. Meem,
    “No other success can compensate for failure in the home” would certainly be a lesson drawn from the portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby in the “Telescopic Philanthropy” chapter of Bleak House. But I don’t recall seeing it phrased quite that way.

  18. President McKay was also responsible for assigning a junior apostle (Elder Hinckley) the task of figuring out how to present the temple ordinances in multiple languages, which resulted in the move to film. That story gets several pages in Pres. Hinckley’s biography.

    He also gave a talk in LA in whic he mentioned his underwhelming first visit to the temple, and a niece who didn’t like it as much as her sorority initiation. I’ve always wondered if that niece was Fawn Brodie… Story clip at http://home.uchicago.edu/~spackman/templeprep.htm#McKay

  19. Truman Madsen, in telling the story of President McKay’s talk, indicated that President McKay was 80 years old at the time (placing the date at 1953 or so). Madsen also quoted McKay as stating that the girl had gone through the temple “earlier that year.”


    [President McKay] told of a girl–a girl, I found later, who was his niece and therefore felt confident in confiding in him. Earlier that year she had been initiated in a sorority, and not long thereafter she had “gone through the temple” (as we say)….This was a man, at that time eighty years of age, who had been in the temple every week for some fifty years, which gave him, I thought, some right to speak.

    Brodie graduated from college in 1934 and was excommunicated in 1946. Since she married outside the church at age 20 (1936), I don’t know that she ever went through the temple.

  20. Rosalynde,

    The Alberta temple was dedicated on August 26,1923. Although I wasn’t around at that time, my grandfather and his parents and family were there.

  21. Brodie had home teachers until she died, and she often called on them, especially as she went through her final cancer.

    Interesting how things like that work. Her husband’s influence is an interesting thread that deserves some comment some day.

  22. ROSALYNDE POSTED: Furthermore, when visiting South Africa in 1954, he was reminded of the policy that required South African priesthood holders to trace their genealogy beyond the continent of Africa, in order to ensure that there was no black ancestry; empathetic to the difficulties this imposed on righteous members, he felt inspired to modify the policy so that the genealogical test would not apply.

    Yikes! I had never heard of this policy and find it very ugly. I wonder how many American LDS could have passed this test? My family certainly couldn’t have and they have been in the Church since the 1830s.

  23. did Pres Mckay ever visited Samoa during his tenure as a General Authority…I know he visited Hawaii but did he go further south to Samoa?

  24. Care-taker president? What a bunch of young bumpkins! David O. McKay was a tremendous force for improvement in many areas: (1) First, his emphasis on character building education, where (2) he modernized the Sunday School while he was the apoistle in charge of it, (3) he instituted “In Service Training” to improve teaching techniques of Sunday School teachers, and (4) he hired attorney Ernest L Wilkinson and built BYU from a tiny college down in Provo that the U of U laughed at into the largest private university in the nation. BYU has not grown since Pres. McKay’s passing.
    He was also a mover and a shaker in two other notable areas: (5) You mentioned “every member a missionary” program and (6) the new missionary discussions with the resulting tremendous growth of the church under his watch. (7) “No success can compensate for failure in the home” and the improving of the old family night into the new family home evening program. (8) Also improving the old ward teaching into the new home teaching.
    And Pres. McKay backed up young Turks with new ideas, like Harold B. Lee when (9) he spearheaded the new church correlation program under Pres. McKay. And (10) when Apostles McKay and progressive J Reuben Clark helped push thru’ Bro. Lee’s new church welfare program over the opposition of the old Utah Mormon aristocracy. Harold B. Lee was discouraged at first, but Bro. Clark told him to keep trying with his new ideas and he would fly air cover for him.
    Care taker? The ignorance on this matter is astounding. (11) Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, a gentile professor Robinson at Wichita State Univ. wrote a book called “The Rhetoric of David O. McKay: Mormon Prophet.” His thesis was that the tremendous growth of our church in the 1950s and 1960s was due largely to the wonderful gen’l conf. addresses of Pres. McKay, which he had broadcast nationwide on TV. Pres. McKay looked and talked and acted like a prophet, even to nonMormons.
    End of my comments. I hope the education hasn’t been too scathing.

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