On Sunday I received this year’s course curriculum for RS and Priesthood: a diminutive paperback with a striking portrait on the cover, entitled Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay. I don’t remember President McKay–I was born in 1974, four years after he died–but still he retains a high profile in my mental images of the prophets: the lovely way his name rolls off the tongue, his irresistibly quotable aphorisms, that enviable hair. Just as President Kimball, the prophet of my childhood, will always embody for me the prophetic presence, President McKay was the definitive prophet for several generations of Latter-day Saints, including my parents’.
President McKay rightly occupies that place in the minds of so many Latter-day Saints: in many ways, he seems to have ushered the Church into the favorable social, political and international positions which it now occupies. Many of our present defining aspects of church membership and image were pioneered by President McKay. Seminary and institutes, for example, and the Church Educational System more generally, bear his imprint as a gifted lifelong educator: “True education,” he said, “seeks … to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest men, combined with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love–men and women who prize truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control as the choicest acquisitions of a successful life.”
He also seems to have emphasized an affect-intensive view of modern family life, which in many ways prophetically presaged a general cultural move in that direction. By all accounts he was a devoted family man, and his famous dictum that “No success compensates for failure in the home” is a memorable and inspiring precursor to some contemporary strands of the family values movement.
He was a voracious learner, and a political man, as well. His valedictory address to the University of Utah class of 1897 was entitled “An Unsatisfied Appetite for Knowledge Means Progress and Is the State of a Normal Mind.” He prized democratic institutions, and spoke out strongly against the atheistic implications of communism, thus nudging the church into the geopolitical field which it occupied for several decades. But in 1969, amid the divisive civil rights struggles that wrenched American society during that period, he authorized the issuing of an official statement calling upon Church members everywhere to do their part to see that civil rights for all races were upheld. Furthermore, when visiting South Africa in 1954, he was reminded of the policy that required South African priesthood holders to trace their genealogy beyond the continent of Africa, in order to ensure that there was no black ancestry; empathetic to the difficulties this imposed on righteous members, he felt inspired to modify the policy so that the genealogical test would not apply. In this he contributed to the spiritual and administrative environment in which President Kimball would be able to seek and receive the revelation on priesthood in 1978.
I’m interested to hear the recollections of readers who knew President McKay as their prophet. Was his presence as charismatic as it has become to history? What did you glean from his ministry?