I have mixed feelings about the very presence of Woodger’s David O. McKay: Beloved Prophet. On the one hand, as someone who wants to read biographies of all of the prophets of this dispensation, I’m always happy to see a new addition to the fold. While there are other biographies of President McKay, the pickings are pretty slim–and expensive (but see post below).
(At the risk of digressing, let me note my dismay that Deseret Book has allowed so many books to go out of print when they could easily keep them around with a print on demand service instead of creating a situation where the few copies still in circulation can command astronomical prices. To see what I mean, go to the advanced search page at Amazon and do a search with Deseret as publisher and the results listed in order of Price High to Low.).
On the other hand, it seems that this book is being published this year in order to capture the market of Relief Society and Elders Quorum and High Priest Group teachers eager to teach better lessons. (Previous publications [see here, here, and here] would seem to support this theory.) This seems inappropriate given that the curriculum warns the teacher, “it is not necessary or recommended that members purchase additional commentaries or reference texts to supplement the material in this book.” I suppose it could be argued that the book is designed for class members, not teachers, who want more information about the prophet, but publications (see here, here, and here) geared to the curriculum year for Primary cannot make the same claim. I must admit that it feels vaguely unethical to sell things intended to be used counter to counsel.
But now that it’s here, let’s consider Beloved Prophet on its own merits. Its biggest weakness is its (lack of) length. A slender 266 pages (with perhaps a dozen pages of photos) does not leave much space to tell the story of a man who was an apostle for sixty-four years (which is longer than anyone else in this dispensation). Consequently, it reads more like a biographical sketch than a biography. Consider this paragraph:
When David and Hugh [J. Cannon] landed in Papeete, Tahiti [as part of a tour of the missions], David was surprised with “the slow-paced life-style” of the people. He was disappointed in the circumstances he found in Tahiti but reminded himself that the prophet had asked him “to appraise conditions worldwide as a basis for action . . . to improve or expedite the work,” and that meant appraising the negative as well as the positive.”
End of story. Are you dying to know what was going on in Tahiti? I am.
I finished feeling that I’d seen a few snapshots of President McKay instead of sitting down with him for a chat. I didn’t gain a sense of who he was. And I had a mild case of whiplash.
But I must admit that several of those snapshots of President McKay were pretty good:
(1) We only get a glimmer of his wife, Emma Ray, but from that glimmer we learn that she struggled sometimes with the burdens that his Church schedule imposed. ( If you find this less-than-remarkable, then you haven’t read many biographies of LDS leaders, from which one gets the impression that the average leader’s wife is positively delighted at the thought of being stuck at home with a dozen small children while her husband attends a committee meeting.) So to read that “David found it difficult to juggle family time with his busy Church schedule” or that Emma Ray cried when left alone with a brand new baby while David went to a meeting is a good thing: it suggests that they are actual human beings, not yet fully assimilated in the Mormon Borg. When Emma Ray hears David’s name called during Conference as the newest member of the Quorum of the Twelve, her first thought is, “now he will never be home.” I’m not, in case you were worried, gloating in her weakness, but rather identifying with this shred of humanity that then allows me to better appreciate her strengths.
(2) Woodger gives only the tiniest peek into David’s homelife (which in itself is, I suppose, rather odd for someone well known for saying that “no success can compensate for failure in the home”). We hardly see him interacting with his children, and we don’t see the story of their lives here. We do learn of his affection for his wife, and we see that “Emma Ray could put her foot down.” On a similar note, I always feel a little woozy when I read of the obstacles that the Church put on family life for the members a century ago (and still puts on its leaders today). Woodger writes of David choking back tears when he looks at his baby, knowing he won’t see him again for an entire year while he tours the missions of the Church.
(3) We do get a hint of the personality of President McKay. We find out that he didn’t see eye-to-eye with J. Reuben Clark (his fellow counselor in the First Presidency) on several issues. We find out that after a musical had been rained out, President McKay made the decision to allow an extra performance on the Sabbath and when the angry response flooded in (which initially had to be deflected by the director, Lorin F. Wheelwright, who said, “You flatter me to think that I possess the authority to make this decision alone.”), President McKay calmly responded, “I have given this matter full consideration, and I am willing to face my Maker on this decision.” We see him as an earnest deacons’ quorum president, as a young priest mangling the sacrament prayer, as a young man earnestly praying for (but not receiving until a decade later) a testimony of the gospel, and as an angry young man responding to a mission call by (according to his brother) throwing “the letter across the table in disgust and [saying] ‘isn’t that heck?’ He used a stronger word.” But my favorite President McKay story:
Even as the prophet, he loved to drive fast . . . [he was] pulled over by the highway patrol on numerous occasions . . . He was speeding down Harrison Boulevard in Ogden when ‘he saw a red light flashing behind him.’ . . . When the officer saw who the driver was, he said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry; I didn’t realize it was you.’ David said, ‘Young man, if I was going one mile over the speed limit, you give me a ticket. You do your duty.’ He was issued his ticket. The next morning, when he arrived at the office, there were about fifteen copies of the Ogden Examiner waiting for him. Printed on the front page was the headline, ‘Mormon Prophet Gets Citation.” Church employees who lived in Ogden had put them on his desk, some expecting him to call the Ogden Examiner editor and tell him ‘a thing or two.’ David did call him, but instead of chastising the editor, he thanked him. ‘I have been reading the article about me in your paper. I wanted to thank you. You have been able to straighten up a lot of people around here who think that I am slowing up.”
Later, we see the man LBJ called on for spiritual support, a man who performed miracles and was loved by the Saints. For this portrait, brought to the modern audience, we can thank Woodger.
But there is one questionable move that Woodger makes in this book. She devotes an entire page of text to a statement that, as the text notes, McKay “reportedly” gave to some of the Church’s physical facilities workers. The footnote clarifies that her source is Covey’s The Divine Center and that the statement was (supposedly) made by President McKay “at a meeting in his apartment in the Hotel Utah to a group of brethren responsible for physical facilities in the Church, reported by Cloyd Hofheins in a talk to the seventies quorum of Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake” and then cited by Covey. So, if I’m counting correctly, we’re getting fourth-hand information here, with two of the ‘hands’ as notetakers in an informal setting. This makes me nervous. The Saints take the words of the prophets too seriously for them to be traded around like outgrown baby clothes. (At this point, you probably want to know what the statement was. It begins “Someday you will have a personal priesthood interview with the Savior Himself. If you are interested, I will tell you the order in which He will ask you to account for your earthly responsibilities.” The order given is: wife’s happiness, children as individuals, talents, Church activity, job (honesty, not position), and contribution to society.) I find this suspect; generally, even the prophet does not describe the afterlife with such definitive banality. Even if we’re sure President McKay actually said this (and we’re not), it sets a bad precedent when a statement so far from its source is allowed to circulate among the Saints.
Despite this flaw, this book is a good starting point, accessible to even the weakest of the Saints, for the life of President McKay.