The DeMcConkie-izing of the Church

Elder McConkie, I think, made large contributions to the Church. He systematized and provided the only real encyclopedic Gospel reference book in a time when computers filled rooms.  I think he provided some things the Church needed at a particular time. That time appears to have passed.

The following should be taken with a grain of salt. I have sources, but most of them are shadowy people I’ve met in dark parking garages.

Mormon Doctrine, written by a member of the 70 in 1957, has outlived its usefulness. High church leadership intended The Encyclopedia of Mormonism to replace it (which has unfortunately not come to pass), and Deseret Book will not republish it after the current printing sells out.

The introduction to the Book of Mormon, penned at least in part by Elder McConkie, has recently been modified. (See discussion and links here and here.)*

New Institute manuals are being written, and for at least one volume, the writers have been instructed not to use Elder McConkie (among others) as a source.

The man’s testimony still stands, but his intellectual contributions have been surpassed.

*Frankly, I don’t see this as a tempest in a teapot, and it changes very little. The intro as written (“primary” “principal ancestors”) still allows for the presence of peoples other than those in the Book of Mormon, something Elder McConkie believed. As changed, it still allows Book of Mormon genes and descent to Native Americans whether in North or South America. It’s not doctrinal revisionism, nor is it messing with any canonized text. I don’t see much of a difference, except that it diffuses absolutist misreadings.

41 Replies to “The DeMcConkie-izing of the Church”

  1. That’s interesting, although perhaps not unsurprising.

    What’s interesting about McConkie’s writings, especially his NT commentary, is how much actual doctrine there is. Arguably on some things he gives more information than anyone else about rites and meaning. Of course his writings are massively dated and were taken as far too authoritative for decades. I’m eagerly awaiting the time when we have enough distance that we can return to McConkie’s writings with fresh perspective, the way we do Pratt, Roberts or others.

    I also agree that the furor over the changes in the introduction is much ado about nothing. Although I am glad the change has been made.

  2. Frankly, I don’t see this as a tempest in a teapot, and changes very little

    I suppose you mean to say that you do see this as a tempest in a teapot.

    I don’t see how church leadership could have seen the Encyclopedia of Mormonism as a candidate to replace Mormon Doctrine, given the cost of the set.

  3. Ah, thanks Justin.

    I think the idea was to supplant MD as the representative encyclopedic book of LDS history and scripture, not necessarily make it onto every LDS bookshelf. But I actually know very little about the details other than what I have above.

  4. Given the cost there was no way the Encyclopedia of Mormonism was going to supplant MD as Justin notes. What it did do was provide a quasi-authoritative resource not so bound to a particular view of theology. That is it was (in part) to help break down the McConkie as the authoritative source of Mormon doctrine. In that I think it was very successful. It really was a sea-change in the Provo area, in my experience, in terms of classroom discussion on doctrine. Slowly over the next 10 years McConkie became quoted much less and in a far less authoritative way.

    Of course there are still McConkie acolytes. But’s that’s fine so long as they don’t go to extremes. There are folks who are into other figures who wrote on theology as well.

    I think there were other things going on as well to downplay McConkie’s perhaps too dominate role in theology. Although to be honest I’m frankly shocked it’s taken so long to get new institute manuals out. (Since the ones so commonly used are pretty bad and were written more than 30 years ago in some cases)

  5. When the Encyclopedia of Mormonism was first released, I bemoaned its potential to become a creedal statement of LDS belief. I agree that, given the cost of the set, my prediction was over the top. Clearly, however, church curriculum is presenting it as authoritative. I’ve been told by participating writers that it was very heavily correlated. I find the increasing reliance on the Encyclopedia unfortunate, given some serious errors in the work. For example, it perpetuates the outright falsehood that Joseph Smith only attended three masonic meetings in his lifetime. I’ve been able to identify over thirty times he attended masonic meetings, just from the published History of the Church and the original Nauvoo Lodge record.

  6. The intro as written (”primary”) still allows for the presence of peoples other than those in the Book of Mormon, something Elder McConkie believed.

    I would ask: what did “principal” mean as it modified “ancestors” in the introduction?

  7. Nick, there’s no doubt there are lots of errors in the Encyclopedia. Although given when it was written it was still a huge step up from what was available. It’d be nice to have a new version although I just can’t see that happening.

    But I think it’s still a big plus overall and I’d much rather have CES folk referring to the EoM than MD or many other pre-EoM works.

  8. Justin, thanks for catching my second error (also now corrected.) I whipped this off pretty quickly.

    I always read “principal” as something like “most important.” I suppose if one read it as “main” then it implies that there were far more BoM peoples than others, but it still allows for others, whose presence or lack has been the primary locus of interpretive conflict.

  9. I simply wonder if a theological principle or idea is being lost by deleting “principal” and not using another word or concept. “Among the ancestors” says very little.

  10. Do we also need to downplay Spencer W. Kimball’s teachings about the Lamanites?

    The Lamanite missions and programs? This isn’t “much ado about nothing”…

  11. Frankly, Sarah, I don’t see that this calls any of his teachings into question. Natives can still be descended from Lehi. This new wording doesn’t change much at all.

    (edited for clarity)

  12. Sarah, I think that Pres. Kimball’s views have been downplayed for quite some time. Although most polynesians play them up still – for obvious reasons.

  13. I don’t see how church leadership could have seen the Encyclopedia of Mormonism as a candidate to replace Mormon Doctrine, given the cost of the set.

    If you’ll recall, the articles in the EofM were bundled into a four-volume paperback set, with each volume organized around a specific topic. still lists them for sale through used book sellers.

    If this had been more carefully done — say, alphabetically rather than topically — and clearly issued as a replacement for MD, it might have worked.

  14. I suspect Mike that the Church didn’t want to replace one “source” with an other. So it’s probably good that the EoM didn’t become MD. As I said though I think it undermined the approach many used MD for through the 90’s.

  15. To add (and this perhaps goes to Nick’s point) I think that the EoM achieved it’s aim (broadening what was acceptable theology in Church and CES) but now has itself become dated. There’s been a lot of research over the last 15 years, after all. I could name about a dozen entries with major problems. So not republishing the EoM makes sense. Further its existence in libraries means it’ll be referred to for some time.

    I think the Church wants its True to the Faith, which is far more limited and vague, to be the new MD.

  16. In the spirit of passing on things from shadowy sources that should be taken with a grain of salt: I have heard that one of McConkie’s motivations for writting The Messiah series and A New Witness for the Articles of Faith was to fix what he thought were glaring problems in Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and Articles of Faith. If that is actually true, then there is a certain irony about the next generation putting out EoM to combat the problems created by MD.

  17. “I think the Church wants its True to the Faith, which is far more limited and vague, to be the new MD.”

    I believe that this is the case. I really like TttF.

  18. It’s interesting in that McConkie’s Messiah series, while wildly popular, never came close to supplanting Talmage. (Talmage’s books were, when I was in the MTC, one of the few books we were allowed to read – McConkie was quasi-allowed but not encouraged)

  19. I think the Church wants its True to the Faith, which is far more limited and vague, to be the new MD.

    Perhaps, but they are not selling it very hard. Copies were distributed in my ward when it was released, and nobody has mentioned it since. If not for the Bloggernacle, I would have forgotten about it.

    Preach My Gospel, on the other hand, is getting the hard sell. So they do know how to do it.

  20. Go back in time and there are parallels to BRM being replaced by todays “strongmen” (whoever that might be). Former day strongmen like George Q. Cannon , Joseph F. Smith, Talmage, J Reuben Clark, Widtsoe, Joseph Fielding Smith (to mention a few I can think of) all faded with time. It doesn’t mean that that were forced out, just replaced.

    I love to read from all of them. But I am close to BRM time so he remains well read at my house.

  21. D & C 28:8

    “8 And now, behold, I say unto you that you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them; and inasmuch as they receive thy teachings thou shalt cause my church to be established among them; and thou shalt have revelations, but write them not by way of commandment.”

    God seemed clear on who and where the Lamanites were.

  22. Sarah, that’s only true if you make certain assumptions about how we got the D&C (and other scriptures), assumptions neither I nor the Ensign and those General Authorities behind the Ensign (or at least the Correlation Committee) share with you. It is, perhaps, an assumption you make that you’re just not aware of.

    From the Ensign
    “Joseph Smith did not receive all these revelations [in D&C] as word-for-word dictations from the Lord (although he may have received some this way). Rather, he received inspiration and wrote the revelations using his own words, often couched in Victorian English.”

    Even when God does speak directly to someone or dictate to them, does he speak in absolutes, and convey nothing but pure elevated Truth? Or does he have to speak to them on their own level, using their own understanding, so to speak? In other words, does God speak to them “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding?” I think he does.

    Thus, whether God dictated or whether Joseph Smith put inspiration and revelation into words, I don’t think the usage of “Lamanite” in D&C has anything to say one way or the other about Native American genetics.

    Now, that said, I don’t see this change in the Introduction as changing anything. American Indians can still be, and in my opinion, probably are genetic descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, as well as others. The D&C just isn’t a valid datapoint in that argument.

    And we should not conflate the issue of genetics (ie. todays geographic distribution of BoM descendants) with the issue of geographic extent of Book of Mormon peoples we have records of (ie. were they, at the time the BoM was written, in a limited area or covering all of N and S. America?)

  23. There appears to be many mainstream genetic archaeologists nowadays who believe much of the Old World genetic data in the indigenous population in the Americas can be traced to possibly numerous pre-Columbian transoceanic influences. I think for many if not most experts Bering Strait exclusivity has been blown out of the water.

    Just earlier this year they did carbon dating on pig remains in Chile, and reported them to be dated 1431 and coming from Easter Island. It doesn’t even seem remarkable anymore.

  24. Sarah, I feel that you’re missing the point, or at least not understanding the argument. The people being called out to be preached to are the Native Americans they knew, and referred to by that term.

  25. Nitsav

    God didn’t say “preach only to those Native Americans with Lamanite blood”, the clear assumption was Native Americans = Lamanites.

  26. Sarah, the BoM also teaches that non-Nephites are Lamanites. As well, for context, how many of your relatives are Jewish? Still, the Church has no problem calling itself Isreal (or it least it didn’t for generations).

  27. “There are lots of errors in the Encyclopedia.”

    “There’s been a lot of research over the last 15 years, after all. I could name about a dozen entries with major problems.”

    Recently regarding the fundamental flaws in the Evolution article, ldsWebguy responded: “You are completely correct that there are many things in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism that need to be updated.”

  28. I think it is a generational shift. A lot of BRM’s doctrines and personal interpretations simply don’t resonate with the “rising generation.” Also note from the David O. McKay book by Prince that DOM did not think that MD was correct when published, even way back when.

    McConkie’s other interesting characteristic is that he was never speechless about anything. He seemed to be loathe to admit a lack of knowledge on any topic related to the Gospel. of course, this comes from someone who was not even a member of the Church while he was alive.

  29. Actually Gary, you have convinced me that the EoM article on Evolution needs updated. And I do think that the treatment of Roberts and company is unfortunate. Although I think the bigger need is just to acknowledge that the vast majority of the evolutionary framework in biology is about as close to fact as we’re likely to get and adapt accordingly. (Note, not trying to generate a threadjack) However I also think the portrayal of folks who bought into dispensations culminated by total destruction shouldn’t be treated as if they were evolutionists even if they share some premises.

    There are others though. Masonry was one obvious example. I think though that probably the majority of articles would have at least a few changes.

  30. R. Gary,

    Thanks for the link on the EoM. Sounds like they are eventually looking at making it almost a wikipedia model, which would allow for constant updates.

  31. That does sound like what they are aiming at John. One wonders who will be given editorial rights and over what. It’d definitely be ideal to have something like a wiki for this though. Such projects end up harder than they first appear though. (Witness FAIR’s wiki) Still if you are starting with the text of the EoM that would be ideal.

  32. Clark,

    I would guess that they would probably assign an article to someone with an interest in the topic and allow them to accept suggestions and then edit the article appropriately. I would be shocked if they had a real wiki.

  33. I guess John what I’m hoping for is something more like FAIR does with their Wiki. Have a bunch of vetted folks who can work on all articles. There obviously will be some experts who can then decide to correct or delete changes. Otherwise all you really have are articles that a person is responsible to update. And I think history shows that in a busy schedule such updates can be forgotten about. Likewise you really need some diversity of thought to ensure that nuances come out.

  34. “DeMcConkie-izing” of the Church. Now that sounds like something I need to celebrate!
    No more McConkie unfounded ideas stated as doctrine! Yes! We were needing this cleansing for a long time now!

  35. The Church can leave McConkie behind or sweep him under the rug if that is its pleasure. But Bruce R. McConkie was a true prophet of God whose “personal opinions” were just as true as those of the Apostle Paul in the ancient Church. The Church cannot and I don’t believe ever will abandon the truth that was taught by Elder McConkie and his father-in-law Joseph Fielding Smith. If it does, it will be just another apostate church like all of the others. –John W. Redelfs

  36. Did I misread Redelfs, or did he really just set up Bruce R. McConkie as the true and everlasting standard by which the Church’s status as True or Apostate is to be judged? Not “living prophets,” not “Joseph Smith” — not even the Savior Himself!

    Due respect, but if adherence to Elder McConkie’s teachings is your standard for determining the legitimacy of the Church, the late, great Apostle would be the first person to condemn such idolatry. Elder McConkie must be turning in his grave knowing that there are people who judge the veracity of the Church against the impressive but surely imperfect teachings — based upon limited light, to turn a McConkian phrase — of any one man and/or his father-in-law. You seem to be flirting with the line that many crossed when they left the Church calling President Hinckley a fallen prophet for not pursuing the late Ezra Taft Benson’s political agenda.

    The ice is getting thin, brother.

  37. The encyclopedia of Mormonism was a water-wash of mush–nothing to ever sink the teeth into; no better than a collection of magazine articles of opinions. Most who wrote for it were less than scholarly and they never had the power or force to grab the mind and move it to action as the prophet Joseph did and Elder McConkie’s writings did. True doctrine motivate one to action. EoM was too much gush–I’m grasping to find words that describe it, as it wasn’t really substantial.
    I think that speaks for itself.

    Few people knew or will ever know who Elder McConkie was and his role in this dispensation, nor the great saving role he played in the lives of 1000’s and 1000’s of converts. He was very reserved and humble in his contributions, contrary to popular belief.
    Don’t ever shoot down one of the Lord’s apostles. Ask Pres. Packer, who was one of the few he really confided in, or Elder Perry, who sat by Elder McConkie for 11 years in the quorum of the 12.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *