Great Sermons: The Purifying Power of Gethsemane

Unlike last week’s sermon, this sermon is widely known among members of the Church, though usually under the designation, “Bruce R. McConkie’s Last Talk.” I have written briefly about this sermon before on Times & Seasons:

I love Elder McConkie. After I joined the Church in my second year at BYU, he quickly became my favorite Apostle. (Is it all right to favor some Apostles over others?) I saw him at a BYU devotional (fireside?) and was very impressed. After returning from my mission, I attended the General Conference session where he gave his last talk — do you all remember that? Amazing! One of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life.

My presence at the session of General Conference was pure chance. Earlier in the week, I had resolved with another member of my BYU ward to attend a session of General Conference. We drove to Salt Lake City the night before, stayed overnight at a friend’s house, and proceeded to Temple Square early on Saturday morning. We were seated in the upper level of the Tabernacle, stage left, and I remember watching with a tinge of horror as a jaundiced Elder McConkie proceeded to the rostrum. He had seemed such a powerful man when I saw him before my mission, and now he was frail. But by the time he finished his concluding thought, the entire congregation was in tears: “I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way.”

In re-reading the sermon for this post, one aspect strikes me as incongruous with Elder McConkie’s sure testimony, and that was his use — three times — of the word “incomprehensible” in describing the Atonement. He had labored so long to comprehend and explain the Gospel, yet there he was at the end of his earthly labor, confessing the limits of his knowledge. I find hope for myself in this, that even in my ignorance of nuance and detail, I can gain a sure knowledge of my Savior.

In writing about Elder McConkie, our own Nate Oman has stated: “I realized that what I took as faux-Churchillian rhetoric in Elder McConkie was actually something much more daring. Elder McConkie ultimately wasn’t trying to produce rhetoric, scholarship, or even theology. He was trying to write scripture.” On this occasion, Nate and I agree that Elder McConkie succeeded.

Despite much effort, I was unable to locate an audio or video version of the talk online, but you can read the text in any number of locations, including here.

7 comments for “Great Sermons: The Purifying Power of Gethsemane

  1. I’ve seen video of it and I have to say, even though Elder McConkie died 9 years before I was even baptized, it still brought tears to my eyes.

    I’d love to see it again and would hope that someone could come up with a copy of it.

  2. I remember watching conference that day. It was the first time I felt that Brother McConkie was a human being. He came across as a rather hard, judgemental individual to me before that. I was deeply moved by his testimony. Every time we sing “I Believe in Christ” (didn’t somebody hate that song?), I think of him and feel buoyed by the strength of his testimony.

  3. Gordon, an observation about daily life shows that a person having a testimony of something that is incomprehensible to that person is not incongruous: The inner workings of CD players—which rely on quantum mechanics—are incomprehensible to most people, nevertheless everyone is competent to testify that CD players are real and that they function as advertised.

    One might say that CD players are different, because there are experts that understand them, while an apostle is supposed to be an expert on Christ. On the other hand, the claim that not even experts understand quantum mechanics would be defensible, nothwithstanding the fact that they can exploit it to great effect.

    This is the second time I’ve noticed you bringing the Brethrens’ spiritual experience down closer to our level (the first was the Pres. Hinckley on Larry King thread). You take encouragement from that; I wonder, in contrast, whether it shouldn’t be discouraging. Are the blind leading the blind?

    I am curious to know what you think the witness you quoted from Elder McConkie implies about the nature of his experience. I expressed my thoughts on this on Nate’s thread, here and here.

  4. Rather than “the blind leading the blind”, perhaps the analogy is, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!”

  5. Christian, I did not express myself very well in my original post. I am not troubled by the incongruity of “knowing” that Jesus is the Savior without understanding the Atonement. I just found it interesting. Your example of the CD player is nice, however, and is a great way to teach this.

    Christian: “This is the second time I’ve noticed you bringing the Brethrens’ spiritual experience down closer to our level (the first was the Pres. Hinckley on Larry King thread). You take encouragement from that; I wonder, in contrast, whether it shouldn’t be discouraging. Are the blind leading the blind?”

    Two quick thoughts. First, you imply that we are spiritually blind, but blindness has gradations. Elder McConkie’s talk illustrates well the notion that we may know many important things without knowing everything. The blind are leading the blind only to the extent that they travel to unknown lands, and I don’t see much point in going there without a seeing guide.

    Second, you could have written that my posts have been about bringing our personal experiences up closer to the level of the Brethrens’ spiritual experiences. Either way, my view is that the Lord does not select the 15 most spiritual men in the Church for the apostleship. The Apostles have been called as special witnesses, but I do not think that their spiritual experiences are inaccessible to me or to you.

    With regards to the nature of Elder McConkie’s experiences, you seem (in your comments on Nate’s thread) to be quite interested in whether Elder McConkie really saw the Savior, face to face. I have no idea whether he had such an experience, but I am confident that he had gained a knowledge of the Savior. And I appreciated him sharing that knowledge with me.

  6. For the video, alot of ward or stake libraries have old general conferences (even going back to 1985 when the talk was given)

  7. Btw, LDS Institutes of Religion typically have LARGE libraries of videos where one can find old copies of conference sessions. (I watched Elder Maxwell’s first sermon as an Apostle this way.) Someone really should put a few of the “classic” moments from General Conference on DVD or something. Thanks for your post!

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