Bruce McConkie: Respected General Authority or Theological Hack?
By Bill McKeever
During his lifetime, Bruce Redd McConkie was probably one of the most popular theologians in the Mormon Church. This Mormon apostle regularly spoke at General Conferences, delivering a total of 69 messages since his installation as a General Authority in 1946. Today his speeches and writings are still quoted in LDS Church publications, including official church manuals. Although I rarely agree with his theological positions, I cannot fault him for writing what he truly believed. One thing that always impressed me about McConkie was that he did not shy away from expressing what he thought to be true. Compared to the spin and vagueness coming from today's Mormon leadership, McConkie's propensity to be blunt is something that I truly miss.
On occasion, his honesty caused him to use the bully pulpit to expose teachings—both within as well as outside the church—with which he did not agree. One issue that caught my attention was his public rebuke of George Pace, an associate professor at BYU. Pace had been advocating that members should strive to have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ," a popular theme in evangelical circles but anathema in Mormonism. In March 1982, McConkie gave a devotional address titled "Our Relationship with the Lord" that branded Pace's book as "unwise" because it contained "plain sectarian nonsense."
In 1981 McConkie began a stern letter of rebuke to BYU professor Eugene England with the words, "This may well be the most important letter you have or will receive." McConkie was livid over a paper England had written titled, "The Perfection and Progression of God: Two Spheres of Existence and Two Modes of Discourse." In the letter McConkie chided England for publicly discussing controversial statements made by Brigham Young, though he fully admitted Young did in fact teach them. In closing he warned England, "Now I hope you will ponder and pray and come to a basic understanding of fundamental things and that unless and until you can on all points, you will remain silent on those where differences exist between you and the Brethren. This is the course of safety. I advise you to pursue it. If you do not, perils lie ahead. It is not too often in this day that any of us are told plainly and bluntly what ought to be. I am taking the liberty of so speaking to you at this time, and become thus a witness against you if you do not take the counsel."
On another occasion he publicly condemned the concept of salvation by grace alone, dubbing it the "second greatest heresy" of Christendom. (The idea of God as a spirit won top heretical honors as McConkie called it the "father of all heresies.") In this speech he recalled an experience he had while driving his car and listening to an "evangelist who was preaching salvation by grace alone." When this radio evangelist offered his listeners an invitation to be saved simply by believing in Jesus, McConkie commented, "Unfortunately I did not accept his generous invitation to gain instant salvation; and so I suppose my opportunity is lost forever." The crowd laughed. ("What Think Ye of Salvation by Grace?" BYU devotional address, 10 January 1984).
McConkie was a prolific author who is probably best known for his mini-encyclopedia titled Mormon Doctrine. This 856-page tome, first published in 1958, covered just about everything imaginable that pertained to the LDS faith. It is still an incredible wealth of information for the student of Mormonism, although it has not escaped being a source of controversy.
Author David John Buerger noted in a March 1985 Sunstone article ("Speaking with Authority: The Theological Influence of Bruce McConkie") that the First Presidency expressed concern in 1960 over the book, claiming that it was "full of errors and misstatements" (p.9). To date I have never seen a list of these so-called errors. Rather, it appears that a major concern was the book's sharp language, especially regarding the topic of Roman Catholicism. For instance, on page 108 under the heading of Catholicism, the 1958 edition simply read, "See Church of the Devil." When the book was reprinted in 1966, much of the offensive wording was removed. However as Buerger notes, "over eighty percent of the changes in this second edition involved cosmetic modifications which changed the tone but ultimately not the meaning of the book's content."
Is Mormon Doctrine "full of errors"? Buerger pointed out that there are 607 total citations in Mormon Doctrine and that the person most oft-cited is Mormon founder Joseph Smith (215 times). The second most often quoted person is McConkie's father-in-law, tenth LDS President Joseph Fielding Smith (178 times). Buerger states that "about 15% of the book's cited text came from Joseph F. Smith's Gospel Doctrine; almost 10% came from the Lectures on Faith. Clearly, most Mormons would consider these sources to be authoritative."
Untrustworthy Theological Rogue?
When he was alive, I noticed that most of McConkie's public criticisms came from Mormons who held a more liberal view of LDS teaching. However, when McConkie died in April of 1985, it did not take long before I began to hear conservative Mormons speak critically of him, even declaring that the words of this apostle were nothing more than "mere opinion." One LDS Mormon woman wrote to criticize me for quoting McConkie saying she was counseled not to use his material when preparing her lessons for church. I told her that this seemed like odd advice given the fact that McConkie is often quoted in church publications. Criticizing the dead is an easy sport since rebuttals from the accused are few and far between. It should also be pointed out that I have never heard any Mormon with McConkie's credentials actually declare that this man's teaching should not be trusted. In fact, the stature of his public critics pale in comparison.
Many Mormons who currently wish to distance themselves from McConkie and his teachings ignore both the impact he made on the LDS Church when he was alive and the statements made by colleagues after his death. When he died in 1985 after a long struggle with cancer, church leaders took turns giving his eulogy. An article written on McConkie's life ("Elder Bruce R. McConkie: ‘Preacher of Righteousness," Ensign, June 1985, pp. 15ff) concluded this way: "Because of his life and testimony, our faith has been strengthened and our hope for eternal life is brighter." Several of his colleagues praised him for his personal piety while others took note of his ability to teach and understand LDS doctrine.
Ezra Taft Benson, then a fellow apostle, noted in his remarks that whenever a doctrinal question "came before the First Presidency and the Twelve," it was Bruce McConkie "who was asked to quote the scripture or to comment on the matter. He could quote scripture verbatim and at great length." According to Benson, McConkie "provided the entire Church with an example of gospel scholarship. He could teach the gospel with ease because he first understood the gospel."
Mormon Apostle Boyd Packer spoke of McConkie's uncompromising attitude he had toward his obligation to speak the truth. "It was not granted to Brother McConkie to judge beforehand how his discourses would be received and then to alter them accordingly. Nor could he measure what ought to be said and how it ought to be said by ‘what will people think?'"
Gordon Hinckley, then a member of the First Presidency, was the concluding speaker. In his comments he stated, "I felt like a little puppy trying to keep up with McConkie as he took his long measured steps...So it has been with most of us in keeping up with the stride of his mind in scholarship in the gospel" (Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, p.418).
Given the high regard these LDS leaders had for McConkie, why do so many members today seem to have such a low respect for this man? In light of the fact that his colleagues did not share this dismal view we can only conclude that modern-day critics of McConkie are the ones who are not in theological step with their church.
Did McConkie misrepresent Mormon teaching? This seems very unlikely considering the above. Mormons who have a reputation for spreading "false doctrine" are not usually quoted favorably in LDS Church manuals. Nor are they praised for their theological prowess by LDS leaders after they die.
As mentioned earlier, since I come from an evangelical worldview, I rarely agree with McConkie's conclusions. However, I still find it strange at how quickly some Mormons (many of whom insist they are faithful members) dismiss what he taught.