Mormon Doctrine: The Legacy

December 29, 2003 | 21 comments
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A few years ago, another law professor asked me what I thought of Richard Posner’s legacy with respect to law and economics. For those of you who do not inhabit this world, Posner is generally credited with popularizing the economic analysis of law, partly through his articles, but largely through the influence of his book, Economic Analysis of Law, now in its sixth edition. At first blush, discussion of his legacy might seem silly. Surely, the great Richard Posner had a salutary influence on the so-called Law & Economics Movement. But we wondered whether Posner’s proclivity for overreaching and sensationalism might not have tainted that legacy. Would economic analysis of law be more widely embraced today without him?

Just recently, inspired by my holiday reading on evolution, I have again wondered the same thing about Bruce R. McConkie and Mormon Doctrine. While I have strong positive feelings about the late Elder McConkie, I joined the Church after the revelation regarding blacks and the Priesthood in 1979 and missed his most controversial moments. (Though not all: I was in attendance when Elder McConkie publicly chastised BYU religion professor George Pace.) So, my question is this: what is the legacy of Elder McConkie and Mormon Doctrine?

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21 Responses to Mormon Doctrine: The Legacy

  1. Ben on December 29, 2003 at 11:00 am

    I think McConkie’s influence on the church has been the creation of a strong tendancy (at least for the average US member) towards literalist
    readings, a black/white “truth or damanable falsehood” mentality, and a reluctance to make use of modern scholarship. Though I find his own ideas and conclusions more theolgically liberal than my own, I think Barlow’s “Mormons and the Bible” chronicles this effect fairly well. Many more members have “Mormon Doctrine” on their shelves than , say, Teachings of David O. McKay” or Lowell Bennion, probably because Elder McConkie was willing to go out on dogmatic doctrinal limbs. He filled a vaccuum with quasi-official (again, in the mind of the average member) doctrine.

  2. Dave on December 29, 2003 at 2:00 pm

    Great question, Gordon. I second Ben’s comments about Barlow’s book, which does a great job putting the scriptural approach of Bruce R. McConkie and his father-in-law Joseph Fielding Smith (son of Joseph F. Smith and grandson of Hyrum Smith) in context. Together, they have defined the standard Mormon approach to the scriptures: too literal, too fundamentalist. For this and other reasons, I am of the opinion that Bruce R. McConkie’s legacy to the Church is, at best, a mixed blessing.

    On the other hand, I admire his zest for stating things directly, even bluntly. His talks were never recycled self-improvement mush masquerading as the gospel. He was never boring. I wish there were representatives of the liberal side of Mormonism in leadership who would make similar direct statements to balance the Mormon message. I find it ironic that David O. McKay, the closest thing we’ve had to a liberal President and who was President of the Church for over 20 years, is today almost forgotten. Yet Joseph Fielding Smith, President for only two and one-half years, remains a central figure.

    As for Mormon Doctrine–well, it was about time someone tried to make a systematic expostion of the doctrine. It had its flaws and he was unable to distinguish between Mormon doctrine and Bruce R. McConkie’s doctrine, but it laid the foundation for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which seems like an improved attempt to do what Mormon Doctrine tried to do.

  3. Brent on December 29, 2003 at 2:28 pm

    “I wish there were representatives of the liberal side of Mormonism in leadership who would make similar direct statements to balance the Mormon message. I find it ironic that David O. McKay, the closest thing we’ve had to a liberal President and who was President of the Church for over 20 years, is today almost forgotten.”

    The terms liberal and conservative get tossed around a lot and they have different meaning to different people. I am curious as to what you mean by stating that we need a representative of the “liberal side of Mormonism” or that President McKay was a “liberal President”.

    I think you give Elder McConkie too much credit for creating “a strong tendancy (at least for the average US member) towards literalist
    readings, a black/white ‘truth or damanable falsehood’ mentality, and a reluctance to make use of modern scholarship.” It seems to me that our doctrine and history create such a tendency, and that McConkie may himself have fallen into this “tendancy” rather than create it. Our doctrine is black and white in many areas. We whole-heartedly ascribe to a belief in absolute truth. Mormon notes in Moroni 7 that the light of Christ shows truth from error as the sun at noonday from the black of night. Elder McConkie and others simply have given opinions in areas where we do not have revealed confirmation of the Lord’s view in black and white terms. In some areas, they have likely overreached.

  4. clark on December 29, 2003 at 2:44 pm

    I think McConkie gets too bum a rap, myself. There are some very illuminating points of doctrine in his commentaries, especially his New Testament Commentaries. Also reading his New Testament Commentaries it is hard to call his hermeneutics “literalistic.” Rather I think he focuses in on simple prooftexts to make a point. But I think his hermeneutic is a little more sophisticated than what I see among the “literalists.” Read his comments on the meaning of Adam for instance and he is clearly *not* adopting the view many ascribe to him.

    Now I disagree with many of his comments on some matters. But I see that more in the midst of a social “war” raging from the 1940’s to 1980’s (on which he was frequently on the incorrect side of certain matters, as the revelation on the priesthood demonstrates).

  5. tyler durden on December 29, 2003 at 2:53 pm

    interestingly, i just commented my own blog yesterday after a discussion concerning mcconkie with a friend of mine who quoted him way too much during his gospel doctrine class.

    i love elder mcconkies zeal and love of the gospel. i also admire his fearless desire to teach what he thought was truth. however, at the same time i almost abhor his false seemingly absolute authority he placed on his own opinions. (i hope that last sentance made sense). unfortunately, too many lds are too quick to just accept what he said without evaluating his doctrines and comparing them to words of other prophets (especially brigham young), scriptures, and reason.

    its interesting how mcconkies family line shares the same techniques in their preaching. j. fielding smith -> bruce r. mcconkie -> joseph fielding mcconkie. now did joseph f. smith have this same approach as he taught?

  6. clarkgoble on December 29, 2003 at 3:01 pm

    The danger is, as “Tyler” points out, too much reliance on an expositary commentary. I’d complain the same if someone was overrelying on Brigham Young, H B Brown, B H Roberts, or anyone else to the exclusion of the scriptures.

    To add to what I’d said earlier, I think one reason McConkie was popular is because he attempted some degree of systemizing. Further there was, until the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, no real “dictionary” for gospel topics. I do think that is important, especailly for new members. One hopes that if a new edition of the scriptures comes about that the current Bible Dictionary (also largely done by McConkie) is expanded and rewritten somewhat.

    The problem is more that McConkie saw a real problem and attempted to solve it. His success was his weakness as he was so successful at solving the problem that people stopped questioning…

    But I find it unfortunate that he gets flack for trying to do an important service.

  7. Kristine on December 29, 2003 at 10:08 pm

    He doesn’t get flack for trying to do an important service. He gets flack for having made hundreds of errors and for reprinting the book over the objections of other apostles and members of the First Presidency. It rubs the wrong way when someone who insisted on everything else in the Church submitting to Correlation turns around and freelances his own stuff, particularly with a misleadingly official-sounding title.

  8. dp on December 29, 2003 at 10:22 pm

    I wonder whether Elder McConkie would have been happy to see Mormon Doctrine become almost canonical in the mind of many modern LDS. With the exception of Joseph Smith, he seldom personally quoted what other Church leaders have said. In a BYU address he once said “Last week I quoted Parley P. Pratt for the first time in my life. I did it because I could square what he said with the scriptures and because he said it better than I could have.” He referred to the use of references other than the Standard Works as drinking downstream. I can scarcely imagine one with such a view, referring to a book such as Mormon Doctrine in his teaching as often as many Saints do today.

    I have great respect for the massive amount of effort that went into producing Mormon Doctrine, especially in the pre – Internet/Infobases/Word processing era from whence it came. However, I feel it unfortunate that the collaboratively produced Encyclopedia of Mormonism, has not taken a greater foothold amongst the Saints in our day – perhaps due to it’s significantly higher cost.

    On the question of errors, my understanding is that most were corrected in the 2nd edition. Using a copy of the Marion G. Romney letter of 1959, and 1st and 2nd editions of Mormon Doctrine, I have hand marked all changes made to the 2nd edition, and from memory, practically everything noted in the letter was addressed.

    Whilst entertaining accounts confirm his tremendous confidence in his own understanding of the Scriptures* I feel that the take home lesson we can learn from Elder McConkie is that we should each develop a similar confidence in ourselves and our understanding of the Scriptures.

    *One account has a missionary asking a question regarding some point of doctrine. When asked for a reference, Elder McConkie replied “I said it, and you can quote me.” (Reference eludes me at the moment)
    Another shares a question asked in conversation by a recent convert, following a Stake Conference. Elder McConkie had spoken during the Conference of the necessity of temple marriage for exaltation. The convert says “but Christ wasn’t married” to which Elder McConkie leans his 6′ 5″ frame forward and in his deep voice says “Who said he wasn’t!?” (Personal recollection by convert in mission field)

  9. Brent on December 29, 2003 at 10:41 pm

    As a follow-up to DP’s comment about Elder McConkie’s preference to rely on scriptures rather than quotes from other church leaders, I remember taking a class from Joseph Fielding McConkie. He was very “pro-scripture” and recounted an incidence when a student called him to ask Bro. McConkie if he could provide some quotable sources for a certain proposition he wanted to make in giving a talk. Bro. McConkie said that he couldn’t think of any quotes from church leaders but the Lord did say in such and such in several scriptures. The student wanted quotes from local leaders and thus was not happy with Bro. McConkie’s help. I agree with DP that what we should take from Elder McConkie is a desire to learn and understand the scriptures so as to be confident in the the doctrines of the gospel. (Of course, I believe this also requires an knowledge of and appreciation for the teachings of modern prophets and apostles.)

  10. tyler durden on December 30, 2003 at 12:15 am

    while elder mcconkie may use scriptures as his sources, by reading j fielding smith’s books, one can see that mcconkie heavily relied on jf smith’s views and interpretations in formulating his own doctrines. by reading j fielding mcconkie’s books, one can see this same heavy reliance on his dad’s and grandad’s opinions.

    mcconkie obviously did not use brigham young as any source considering at mcconkie called at least two of young’s teachings about god deadly heresies (one of which was made in an official declaration by young and his counselors (god’s progression of knowledge))

  11. Geoff Matthews on December 30, 2003 at 12:47 am

    Despite Elder McConkie’s weaknesses, I admire the man. One, he put in a lot of effort to learn a lot about the Gospel. Two, in regards to the priesthood issue, he was upfront about being wrong. Three, a tremendous talent for public speaking. Four, an incredible breadth of knwoledge. Five, the type of sincerity you look for in a leader. Sure, he was wrong a few times, which leads to a short story.
    Joseph McConkie was my mission president (Scotland, 89 – 91), and he would referrence his father on certain topics. One such topic was the manner of the division in the Spirit World (Prison and non-Prison). It was my Mission President’s claim that the division was much like the divisions that we see in this world, one based on social pressures and personal preferrences. He mentioned that his father thought that the division was geographical. After saying this, he commented (with a mischevious grin):
    “Now that he’s there, he knows I’m right.”
    Laughs followed.
    Would Elder McConkie berate me for disagreeing with him on a manner that had little scriptural support (such as the above)? Possibly. But, would it matter in the eternal scheme of things? Not to me. Just because a leader is abrasive (and his son could be as well) is no reason to dislike the leader. I’m inclined to think that Elder McConkie left the world a better place than when he came upon it, and like myself, he is awfully grateful that the atonement of Christ is there for him.
    In short, I’m willing to recognize the shortcomings of the man, but they were overshadowed, IMO, by his strengths.

  12. tyler durden on December 30, 2003 at 1:03 am

    i have been a little too critical. i absolutely loved mcconkie’s messiah series. i would recommend it over talmage’s jesus the christ anyday. i love mcconkie’s zeal and love of the gospel and am inspired by the love and appreciation of the savior that he had. this love is apparent in every page of his messiah books.

    i guess my frustration should be more pointed at members of the church who have practically canonized his works and hold them even higher (it can seem) than the scriptures and proclamations of other latter-day prophets

  13. Clark Goble on December 30, 2003 at 3:19 am

    Regarding his father-in-law’s book Gospel Principles, which gets used almost as much as Mormon Doctrine (and is oft quoted by McConkie) I’d actually read that McConkie ghost wrote a lot of that. I was trying to find my notes on that but can’t anywhere. So don’t take that for fact. Does anyone know what McConkie’s influence was on his father-in-law’s writings? They certainly are a very similar style and extremely similar in approach.

  14. Nathan on December 30, 2003 at 12:39 pm

    I actually learned how to learn from “Mormon Doctrine” and consider it, if used properly, a great vehicle for discovering the teachings of the Scriptures. On my mission, when I had a question I would turn to the book. But, unlike what some here seem to be saying happens, I looked up and read the particular quotations and surrounding material. That brought me to investigate what other Apostles and Prophets had to say on the subject.

    I agree, however, that too many teachers used to use “Mormon Doctrine” almost like scripture. The good news, from my own observation, is that this is hardly ever the case anymore. The last five years has seen a markedly improved personal study of the Scriptures in Sunday School and elsewhere. Many more brilliant and diverse reference works are being utilized far more often. In fact, I almost never see “Mormon Doctrine” anywhere other than a shelf. Its days are passing . . . for good and ill.

    Finally, I think that the perception of “literalist” interpretation goes back as far as Joseph Smith and even Brigham Young. Those who deny this seem to have a selective reading habit; paying attention to the more “scandolous” statements and ignoring the bulk of the teachings. The fact is that LDS Doctrine is a very literal religion. Joseph Smith himself said as much.

  15. Jim on December 30, 2003 at 12:50 pm

    I agree with Nate that the problem of relying too heavily on Mormon Doctrine or other of Elder McConkie’s books is not nearly as widespread as it once was. Nevertheless, it seems to me that few people have the feeling that Elder McConkie did, that they can teach or speak without scattering proof texts from General Authorities through their talks or writings. That problem is, I think, increasing rapidly.

  16. Grasshopper on December 30, 2003 at 5:37 pm

    Jim, what is the problem that is increasing? That people are using proof texts from General Authorities?

  17. clark on December 30, 2003 at 7:22 pm

    Part of what has happened is that there are so many more resources for teachers. In the 1950’s through the 1980’s there really were limited resources for Mormons. With the internet, CD collections, and Amazon, I think getting LDS info is much easier than in the past and this has helped expand peoples horizons beyond Mormon Doctrine.

  18. Jim F. on December 30, 2003 at 7:59 pm

    Grasshopper: yes, proof-texting from General Authority talks and books seems to me to be very much on the increase. Many of us seem to feel that we cannot say anything without in church quoting a GA, whether or not the quotation adds anything to what we say.

  19. Nathan on December 31, 2003 at 7:01 pm

    ” . . . whether or not the quotation adds anything to what we say.”

    Than we should become more familiar with the teachings of General Authorities so we can have relavant quotations. In a religion that believes in prophets, shouldn’t they be used more than they are in our lessons?

  20. Clark Goble on December 31, 2003 at 8:18 pm

    I somewhat agree with Jim. I just think the problem is weak prooftext. By that I mean quotations added to have a quotation but which doesn’t actually strengthen what one says nor improve the rhetorical presentation. I think that a lot of scriptural use fits into this as well.

    But I agree with Nathan that we probably should utilize the prophets more. It is somewhat sad that in Priesthood lessons on the teachings of the prophets that in practice that actual ideas of the prophets are neglected. (At least in most lessons I’ve seen the last 5 years)

  21. Nate Oman on January 1, 2004 at 5:44 pm

    I suspect that the rise in quotations is a result of technology more than anything else. I suspect that the prediliction to quote GA’s is fairly constant, but the costs of finding the quotes has diminished massively.