Rehabbing Elder McConkieBy: Mormon Heretic
Elder McConkie has been much maligned in the bloggernacle for his book Mormon Doctrine, which has often been cited as “Bruce’s Doctrine”, or known to have many errors (even by me.) However, many often fail to mention Elder McConkie’s contributions to Mormonism: he put together much of the Bible Dictionary (of which few people complain), as well as many of the chapter headings in the LDS scriptures. President Kimball also singled out Elder McConkie for his part as to whether the priesthood/temple ban on black church members had any basis in scripture.
I’ve been reading Lengthen Your Stride by Edward Kimball, and I wanted to discuss Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s role in the events leading up to the 1978 revelation. Benchmark Books has published a limited edition, longer “working draft” version with much more information than is available in the traditional version of Lengthen Your Stride, though you can see this working version on the accompanying CD. The information in blue comes from the longer “Working Draft” version. From page 344 of the longer version (Chapter 22),
In June 1977, Spencer invited at least three General Authorities to give him memos on the implications of the subject.11 Elder McConkie wrote a long memorandum concluding that there was no scriptural barrier to a change in policy that would give priesthood to Black men.12 Considering Elder McConkie’s extremely traditional approach to the topic during the Lee administration, this conclusion explains why, according to Elder Packer, “President Kimball spoke in public of his gratitude to Elder McConkie for some special support he received in the days leading up to the revelation.”13
Elder McConkie is often quoted as saying in a 1979 talk to Seminary and Institute teachers (from page 377)
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whosoever has siad in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
…It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation….25
What is surprising about Elder McConkie is that he created an updated version of Mormon Doctrine in 1979, but he did not revise his teachings in the book. In the footnote 25, Edward Kimball states,
Despite this sweeping language, Elder McConkie may have changes his views only about when the curse should be lifted. In the 1979 revision of his second edition of Mormon Doctrine, he continued to express the view that those of black African lineage descend from Cain and at least those who lived before 1978 come to earth under a curse related to their pre-mortal lives. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, sv. Cain (108-9) Caste System (114), Egyptus (214), Ham (342), Negroes (526-28), Races of Men (616)/ And he said in McConkie, “New Revelation,” “The ancient curse is no more. The seed of Cain and Ham and Canaan and Egyptus and Pharaoh–all these now have power to rise up and bless Abraham as their father” (128). But he also said, “[W]e can only suppose and reason that it [the restriction on Blacks] is on the basis of preexistence and of our premortal devotion and faith.” [pages 130-31]. Dennis B. Horne, Bruce R. McConkie: Highlights from His Life and Teachings (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2000), 151-52, attributes to Elder McConkie unchanged views as to the basis for the policy. (emphasis in original)
I think this paradox between McConkie’s speech and his updated book Mormon Doctrine is especially intriguing. I admit that I like his speech better than his book, and if I have to choose between the two, I choose the speech as the more inspired message. But I was also fascinated to find out President McKay’s thoughts on the topic as well. In a previous post, I discussed McKay’s conversation with Sterling McMurrin where McKay agreed with McMurrin that the ban was not doctrinal, but merely policy. Yet, McKay felt the even though it was policy, it still required a revelation to remove the ban. In Kimball’s book, the author expanded on McKay’s thoughts a bit (which seem similar to McConkie’s thoughts). From page 314, McKay wrote in a 1947 letter,
I know of no other basis for denying the priesthood to Negroes other than one verse in the book of Abraham [1:26]; however, I believe, the real reason dates back to our pre-existent life.19
Edward Kimball goes on to state that
Men reasoned that if there were “noble and great” spirits before mortality (Abraham 3:22-26), there must also be spirits of all degrees of lesser quality. But if, in the long run, men and women of all races would be blessed in accordance with their desserts, race is seen to be essentially irrelevant, except perhaps as a test.19
It seems then that Elder McConkie’s thought were in line with President McKay’s, especially in regard to the non-scriptural idea that the ban was a result of pre-mortal behavior. It is worthy to note that President McKay did pray to have the ban removed several times. Edward Kimball states that McKay
told Elder Marion D. Hanks that “he had pleaded with the Lord but had not had the answer he sought.”57 Leonard Arrington reported a statement by Elder Adam S. Bennion in 1954 that President McKay had prayed for change “without result and finally concluded the time was not yet ripe.”58
What are your thoughts about Elder McConkie’s role in this? Do you have any thoughts regarding why McKay didn’t receive an answer because the time wasn’t right, yet the time was right for President Kimball?