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.
Thanks for the review.
Interesting that there’s a post about a biography of David O. McKay today. I spent about an hour and a half today in three LDS bookstores (in Orem/Provo) trying to find “David O. McKay: The Rise of Modern Mormonism” and not a single one of them had it. Perhaps I should add that this was two Deseret Book and one Seagull Book store. Each of the stores had only ordered one or two copies of the biography and they were completely out. This seemed a bit bizarre to me but maybe there are good reasons for this. If I had the time I would have checked Barnes and Noble, just in case they might have had a copy.
I couldn’t help but notice that all of these stores had tons of copies of “Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo” prominently displayed. Ay caramba.
Thanks, as always, for your review. While the pickin’s are still slim, as you say, for many other latter-day prophets, there is actually a new and reputedly terrific biography by Greg Prince called David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (University of Utah Press). I just ordered the book so I don’t have much more to say about it, but Kathleen Flake, in her 12 questions post, called it “the definitive biography” of President McKay. It might be interesting to compare Prince’s work to Woodger’s.
Um, I’m writing my review of _David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism_ in another window even as we speak. ;)
I see Danithew just beat me in referring to Prince’s book. It’s on sale for $19.77 (reg. price $29) at Amazon.
Julie wrote: “I’m writing my review of _David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism_ in another window even as we speak.”
Wow. Now that’s good service.
Before you go throwing stones, I ask whether or not you have ever published a book; or at least submitted a manuscript for publication. The #1 answer to most of the criticisms listed above probably has far more to do with the Publisher than the author.
That said…I haven’t read the book, but do know some of what went into this work & the professor. Why? Because I was one of her Research Assistants a number of years back (about 5-6). Prof. Woodger knows plenty about Pres. McKay. She tried for a number of years to publish a collection of the love letters that the McKays traded with each other. So, if you don’t see much in the domestic area in this book…it isn’t because the material isn’t available.
Lyle, I have written and published a book, so I am familiar with the process. And whether Sister Woodger or her publisher is responsible for the book’s main flaw (its lack of depth), it doesn’t change the readers’ experience of the book; the flaw is still there. I wasn’t implying that she doesn’t know much about President McKay, just that she doesn’t *tell* much about him. I was aware of (and want to read) the ‘love letters’, but I don’t know that the existence in print of those letters justifies the lack of information about Pres. McKay’s family life in this book. It might be helpful to compare this book to others in the (sub)genre of biographies of LDS leaders; if you do so, you’ll find that most of them will have a chapter devoted solely to the person’s family relationships. So it comes across as a lack in this book. It is nothing personally directed at the author; she’s done the LDS community a great service; should we be surprised that it isn’t perfect?
Fair enough; and I know you have published. My pre-caveat was for others. However, in all fairness, it should be said that Desert Book’s desire to turn a profit was probably the greatest single factor in limiting the depth & length of the book.
Covenant, not Deseret.
But you raise a very important topic about publishing in the LDS market, worthy of its own post. (While you can hardly blame any of the publishers for wanting to turn a profit and, you know, pay their employees, it is reasonable to desire that they didn’t aim for the lowest common denominator.)
Julie, I’m glad you’ll be writing a review of the other biography (already mentioned) as well. I’m very much looking forward to it when it is ready.
I thought the book discussed Mormon Doctrine somewhat.
I’m pretty sure you are thinking of the other DOM book, because an excerpt from it about Mormon Doctrine was recently in the SLT.
Sorry I confused the two. Which would you recommend buying?
Depends on what you want out of life. My review of the other book is up now.
FWIW, I always ignore counsel not to use outside materials in church lessons. I think such materials can be very useful in providing a depth to the material that students crave.
It seems to me that Woodger’s book is the type of biography more fitting of a Prophet of the Lord. I don’t want to hear of his flaw, his coke-drinking or his fallibilities; I want my faith to be strengthened and my testimony enhanced by what I read.
This is what has interested me and worried me about books like this, blogs like this and Mormon Studies in general: that in our questioning and delving we are mistaking the historical points of interest for the real priority — coming closer to Christ. I would like to think that we can acheive both, but if I have to choose, I’d rather be ignorant than unfaithful.
Now back to watching Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
To the degree that it is possible, I’d like to know many of the details about the lives of the prophets and still be faithful.
If you feel like the other Pres. McKay book is not for you, then by all means, don’t read it. But I do want to suggest at least one way that a warts-and-all book such as that one can in fact help people come closer to Christ.
Years ago, I was a very young and inexperienced Primary President. One of my counselors had 15 years on me, had been in the Primary Presidency for several years, and had been an elementary school teacher by profession. I yielded to her every whim because she had a plan and I didn’t. She could make a case for her position and I couldn’t for mine. Perhaps needless to say, things didn’t go well by any stretch of the imagination. I still struggle with my negative feelings about her in particular and that experience in general.
While the reasons that President McKay yielded to others are much different than the reasons that I yielded, I think that if I had read that book before my service, I would have learned a few lessons from his experience and not repeated that behavior. In other words,
“And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophetsï¿½ . . . Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.”
Furthermore, I have learned and grown in faith from the discussion on the other thread. Comment #3 reaffirmed my testimony that the Lord picks the right person for the right time and that the Church didn’t need an excellent administrator then as much as it needed President McKay’s strengths.
As you know if you have read the other post, I am conflicted about this type of tell-all history, despite seeing some benefits in it. Perhaps an apt analogy is this: If your parents always settled their disagreements out of your earshot, how much did you learn from them about how to reconcile differences in a marriage? At the same time, I think children can be damaged from watching their parents fight in front of them. So as a parent, how much do you disagree in front of the kids? And how much should we know about the disagreements of Church leaders?
Julie, thanks for replying! A permablogger reply is always great!
I’m not a parent, so I can’t tell you how much is the right level of disagreement to show in front of kids (maybe someday!)
But I wonder if a parent analogy is appropriate. We need to have absolute confidence in the divine mandate given to our leaders, in ways that don’t apply to parents. We need to trust in them like we would our parents, I guess, but in a different manner: we need to believe that everything they do is at the Lord’s direction. I would say that a better analogy to draw is between members of a bishopric: how much disagreement should ward members witness between members of a presidency or bishopric?
I’m going to disagree with you on the idea of ‘absolute confidence in the divine mandate given to our leaders.’ Here’s a story from Elder Ballard’s excellent book Counseling with our Councils :
“One bishop told me of a time soon after his call to the bishopric when a new Young Women president was needed in his ward. ‘There was a clear impressoin in my mind who the new president should be,’ the bishop said. ‘But when I spoke with my counselors about the call, they had another name in mind, and they made a good and compelling case for the second woman to serve in this important position. I was a brand-new bishop, and I had tremendous respect for these two good men who were serving as my counselors,’ the bisho continued. ‘I guess I had more confidence in them than I did in my own spiritual sensitivity, because I chose to ignore what I was personally feeling and to accept their recommendation as the decision of the council.’ The bishop was unable to issue the call before he had to leave town for an extended business trip, so he asked his first counselor to extend the call to the second woman. When he called a couple of days later to ask his counselor how things were going, he was told that there had been a problem. The woman, a faithful and devoted young sister, felt uncomfortable with the calling and asked for a day or two to reconcile her feelings. ‘It just doesn’t feel right,’ she said after a couple of prayerful days.”
The story goes on, but in this case, the woman relied on personal inspiration and the end result was that it ‘corrected’ an error made by a bishop. (Finally, the first woman was called and all lived happily ever after.) I think it is fair to say that the second woman would have acted differently if she had ‘absolute confidence in the divine mandate given to our leaders’ or she believed ‘that everything they do is at the Lord’s direction’.’
Now, this kind of thing is the exception, not the rule, but there’s a reason why we discern truth not by solely relying on our leaders but by also relying on personal revelation. It is because sometimes, our leaders our wrong. If we don’t believe in prophetic infallability, why would we act as if an apostle or a bishop is infallible?
Back to the original issue, though, I decided to reread the talk by President Packer that I linked to in the other review. I am still conflicted about tell-all histories and see the damage that they can do to the weak in faith. But at the same time, I’m glad that the Book of Mormon editors left in Lehi’s grumbling because I learn from it.
Julie, I guess I don’t believe in infallibility. I was just trying to say that we need to have different kinds of confidence in our church leaders than we do in parents. Both forms of trust and confidence are essential, but different in nature: one is much more strongly linked to a divine mandate. I don’t need to know that my parents were hand-picked by God, so long as they love me. I come out much more along President Packer’s line of thinking on the issue, although you’re right that the Book of Mormon gives me comfort to read of Nephi’s struggles, weaknesses, etc. Tough issues!
“we need to believe that everything they do is at the Lord’s direction.”
Ironically, I think this is exactly what they don’t want us to believe, that everything they do is inspired and at the Lord’s direction.
“With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.”
-Elder McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, “Prophets.”
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”
– (Journal of Discourses, 9:150.) Discourses of Brigham Young, 135. (Quoted by Elder Faust in Reach up for the Light, 115. To Reach Even unto You, 36. Ensign, Sept. 1998, 4. Ensign, August 1996, 7. Ensign, Nov. 1989, 10-11. quoted by Elder Maxwell in A More Excellent Way, 20. We will Prove Them Herewith, 21-22. Quoted by Elder Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, July 1972, 61. Conference Report, October 1963, 17-18.Quoted by Harold B. Lee, Conference Report, October 1950, 130.)
“I have exhorted the brethren, all the day long, in this way. My whole study is employed and my whole soul is drawn out to induce this people to live their religion. How often has it been taught that if you depend entirely upon the voice, judgment, and sagacity of those appointed to lead you, and neglect to enjoy the Spirit for yourselves, how easily you may be led into error, and finally be cast off to the left hand?”
-Brigham Young, JD 8 (Discourse of May 20, 1860)
Jenn, we posted at the same time.
Jinx! Buy me a (caffeine-free) Coke!
Ben S., I was Just thinking about that McConkie quote. I agree with it, but I think our natural tendency is to overemphasize the human failings of the Brethren rather than appreciate the sanctity and power of their calling. I hate cults of personality as much as the next gal, but I’m worried that we are being tempted into an Access Hollywood-style religion where the juicy tidbits of their private lives are more important than the roles they have been called to play.
I’m not fixated on the so-called failings of our leaders.
However, in my experiences, fundamentalist assumptions about infallibility play a significant role for (many?) of those who leave the Church. Consequently, I tend to try to counteract those fundamentalist assumptions and bring the pendulum back in to the middle, where we both recognize the humanity and inspiration of those called to lead us, as well as our duty to verify their statments by independant revelation (Elder Oaks’ phrase from the Joseph Smith conference last weekend).
I’d rather be ignorant than unfaithful.
I beg your pardon. Being ignorant is being unfaithful.
I want my faith to be strengthened and my testimony enhanced by what I read.
We define faith in this Church as a belief in things not seen that are true. Reading a whitewashed or two-dimensional portrait of a Church leader cannot, by definition, enhance your faith — it only fosters an inaccurate, incomplete, and impossible fantasy about how the Lord directs his Church.
Do you really want to build a testimony on that kind of delusion? Sooner or later you will be confronted with the shortcomings and imperfections of the men and women whom the Lord chooses as his servants. Do you want a testimony that takes those shortcomings and imperfections in stride, that comprehends how inspiration works through imperfect agents? Or do you want one that takes no account of how the Lord actually works, one that leaves no room for human error? The latter kind of testimony is really built on the sand, it won’t survive the first serious storm that batters it.
Worse yet, what will you do when you sooner or later find yourself in one of those leadership postions, with no true understanding, only a rose-colored distortion, of how Church leadership actually works?
We do ourselves no favors by pretending that the Lord directs this work in some idealized, romanticized fashion. The Church would be far better served by more detailed, accurate accounts of how the Lord’s servants actually accomplish His work.
I’d second Ben’s comments. I think we, as a culture, worry so much about what damaging or even humanizing facts will do to others testimonies that we don’t realize how many more are leaving because we obscure them.
I’m not saying in the least focus on them. However I think we have to portray people as they are. In the 19th century the church was small enough that many, if not most, people had personal experiences with apostles and knew them warts and all. Because of the growth of the church we miss that fact. I think that means when the facts come out, some are so shocked that they end up having their testimonies shaken. Some then see that and blame the facts and not the obscuring of the facts as the problem.
If we don’t engage the humanness of our past leaders in a faithful manner, then there are no end of people willing to do so in an unfaithful and destructive manner.
I think we spend too much time worrying about Church History and not enough time making the Church’s Future. On the other hand, I do enjoy a good book and do dig around these BLogs too much. Perhaps this is all we can muster, while others go out and live real Christ like lives, we sit at home and read books and talk about it….
Your anti-historical approach really bother me. We can debate about the best way to do history, and, of course, no one should forget the part about being a good Christian, but I think that the Church has set the pattern (through an entire year of seminary, Institute, and Sunday School being devoted to the history of the Church, not to mention a Church historian, archive, and museum of Church history) that our history is important, worth learning and worth sharing.
I’m wondering if you have read, “My Father, David O. Mckay”? It was written by his eldest son, David Lawrence McKay, not long before David Lawrence passed away. It is a wonderful book, especially thick with those human references you said you were craving about Emma Ray and David O. It talks about their courtship, and their parenting styles as told through the eyes of their oldest child. It shows very plainly how difficult Emma Ray’s life was, and how she cried for two days straight after their 2 and a half year old son, Royle, died from pluerisy (whatever that is). It is not necessarily a definitive biography, but it does capture some great snapshots, and gives an excellent view of what family life was like with David O. McKay as a father. There’s a great line from their 4 year old daughter, who says to her father after they had actually sat down at the table together as a family, “Nice to have you here. Come again sometime.”
Please click on the words ‘pretty slim’ in the original post.
(In other words, there are no copies of this book available–anywhere.)
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you. And I do see the value of learning from the History ofthe Church, but it seems of late that Church history is either used to tear things down or as trivial novelty or both, as if the History of the Church were some cheap drama. While there is a richness and depth to our chruch histroy which I really love, warts and all, sometimes these blogs drive me crazy, and yet I keep doing this. At any rate, forgive my derangement. I enjoyed both of your reviews.
I had no idea it was out of print. I guess it’s a good thing I’ve got one, seeing as I’m the DOM Relief Society teacher. Would you like to borrow it? I’d be happy to ship it out to you sometime, just as long as you promise to give it back :)
Heather, that is very, very nice of you but I consider it like unto adultery to bookswap.
Good point, Julie.
Of course, after polygamy is restored, it will be okay for one man to bookswap with more than one woman, as long as she’s not bookswapping with anyone else. (Oh, and it’s also permitted in special cicumstances to bookswap with a woman even if she’s bookswapping with someone else, as long as you’re commanded to do so by an angel with a drawn sword.).
But of course, if they refuse to bookswap, they’d better not get drunk and lie down in the street.
Amazingly, a few months ago I found that book on the shelf at our public library.