When teaching the Gospel Doctrine class, I often quote Church leaders from the fairly recent past. Even though they served within the lifetime of our class members, I’m surprised that so few remember those men or can cite any of their teachings.
I treasure my memory of those men because so many were my spiritual mentors as I was growing in gospel knowledge and testimony.
One such mentor was Bruce R. McConkie, an outspoken witness of and for the Lord. But some members react strangely when they hear his name. Their eyes roll, they grin derisively, and their heads shake back and forth as if they can’t believe I’m even quoting him. They feel he was a “loose cannon” because he spoke with such boldness.
Truman Madsen said: “Living prophets can get involved in your life, changing it, giving specific commandments and counsels, rebuking, approving or disapproving, but dead prophets stay out of your hair” (Joseph Smith the Prophet, 18-19). Even though he passed away 31 years ago, Bruce R. McConkie is still “in the hair” of some members because he spoke with such plainness and boldness.
Elder McConkie died of cancer on April 19, 1985. I commend to all the book, “The Bruce McConkie Story,” written by his son, Joseph Fielding McConkie. It will give you insight into a life dedicated to one thing: preaching the gospel.
Here are a few excerpts:
1. Criticism followed Bruce McConkie like a shadow. He expected it and measured himself by it. “The measure of a man," he explained to his children, "is not found in who speaks well of him but who speaks against him. It is just as important to have the right enemies as it is to have the right friends." He was an agent of the Lord. "Agents represent their principal. They have no power of their own. They act in someone else's name. They do what they are told to do. They say what they are authorized to say—nothing more, nothing less." As the Lord's agent, he delivered the Lord's message. If people were offended with him for having done so, so be it.
7. When a food faddist cornered Dad at a stake conference to advise him that there were people in that stake who ate both ham and chocolate, he responded, "You have no idea how widespread that problem is. Why just last Thursday after our Temple meetings the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve ate a meal together in the Temple and were served both ham and chocolates."
8. He wrote an article for the Ensign entitled "The Salvation of Little Children." In that article he noted that the scriptures promise the fulness of eternal blessings to children who die before the age of accountability. This article and the expression of that doctrine engendered more criticism than anything else he ever wrote. One writer demanded the right to meet him in a public debate over the issue. As is usually the case, that may have constituted more of a commentary on his critic than it did on him.
11. "We don't need to get a complex or get a feeling that you have to be perfect to be saved. You don't. There's only been one perfect person, and that's the Lord Jesus, but in order to be saved in the Kingdom of God and in order to pass the test of mortality, what you have to do is get on the straight and narrow path—thus charting a course leading to eternal life—and then, being on that path, pass out of this life in full fellowship. I'm not saying that you don't have to keep the commandments. I'm saying you don't have to be perfect to be saved. If you did, no one would be saved. The way it operates is this, you get on the path that's named the straight and narrow. You do it by entering the gate of repentance and baptism. The straight and narrow path leads from the gate of repentance and baptism, a very great distance, to a reward that's called eternal life. If you're on that path and pressing forward, and you die, you'll never get off the path. There is no such thing as falling off the straight and narrow path in the life to come, and the reason is that this life is the time that is given to men to prepare for eternity. Now is the time and the day of your salvation, so if you're working zealously in this life—though you haven't fully overcome the world and you haven't done all you hoped you might do—you're still going to be saved. You don't have to do what Jacob said, 'Go beyond the mark.' You don't have to live a life that's truer than true. You don't have to have an excessive zeal that becomes fanatical and becomes unbalancing. What you have to do is stay in the mainstream of the Church and live as upright and decent people live in the Church—keeping the commandments, paying your tithing, serving in the organizations of the Church, loving the Lord, staying on the straight and narrow path. If you're on that path when death comes—because this is the time and the day appointed, this is the probationary estate—you'll never fall off from it, and, for all practical purposes, your calling and election is made sure. Now, that isn't the definition of that term, but the end result will be the same."
Those defending questionable doctrinal positions have made much of the fact that Elder McConkie changed his mind on this, that, or the other thing, and therefore, they have frequently argued, he can hardly be quoted as competent authority on the issue at hand (if, of course, he has written or said something contrary to their own beliefs). This is a mirror reflection of the evangelical reasoning that the Bible must be inerrant and infallible, for if it were to be wrong on one thing, how could it possibly be trusted on another? On the contrary, Elder McConkie felt that if a man could serve as a general authority for forty years without learning something new and thus having to correct his views on a thing or two, that would truly be a "sad commentary." His world was big enough for different views and stable enough that no great personal trauma attended changing his mind on something.
14. "Maybe in our efforts as a Church to ensure that everyone knows we're Christian, we have gone too far. A while back we changed our missionary discussions to make our first discussion a message about Christ. It seemed at the time a good thing to do, given that Jesus is the Head of the Church. But what was the result? A decrease in convert baptisms and a decrease in the number of copies of the Book of Mormon placed by full-time missionaries from one million per year to 500,000. We arenot teaching the Restoration as we ought to."
What Elder McConkie said next changed the way many of us who were present now teach. He stated: "We will never achieve the quantity and quality of converts that President Kimball and the Lord have envisioned as long as we continue to stress the similarities between us and those of other faiths. It is only when we stress the differences that we are able to make our distinctive contribution in the world and thus make our influence felt."
15. On another occasion, when Dad was speaking in the Saturday evening session of a stake conference, he felt a bit queasy when he stood to speak. In the course of his talk, it became evident that his stomach was about to reject his dinner. Sensing the moment was imminent, he invited the congregation to sing a hymn, while he bee-lined to the restroom. It was obvious to everyone what was happening. When he returned, he said, "I might be the only general authority in the history of the Church who gave a talk that was so bad that it even made him throw up."
16. In September 1970, after the mission presidents' seminar in Osaka, Japan, Bruce and Amelia and Brent and Elaine Hardy visited the World's Fair, which was being held in that city. The Mormon Pavilion, with the film Man's Search for Happiness, had proved itself one of the most popular exhibits. Mission president Edward Y. Okazaki and his wife, Sister Chieko N. Okazaki, were their guides. At the Mormon Pavilion, Amelia observed a beautiful little Japanese girl standing in front of the statue of Christ and trying to pose in the same way. "That created," she said, "a very touching picture."
After they saw the film at the Mormon Pavilion, the group set out to visit some of the other pavilions. They were pleased to meet a number of former Japanese missionaries who were employed as guides at various exhibits because of their fluent Japanese and English. When they came to the Christian Pavilion, Bruce said, "Come on. Let's go inside and see what the opposition has."
As they entered, they were handed a pamphlet announcing the theme of the pavilion as "Holy Emptiness." To dramatize the theme, the cathedral was empty except for a few benches and an organ in the center. An organ recital was given each day, and they had arrived just in time for it. The organist was immediately identified by the missionaries as a Mormon elder. Amelia said, "Let's get him to play some Mormon hymns." She and the two elders went over to talk to him while Bruce and the Hardys walked through the back of the cathedral.
In a few moments the elder was playing "Come, Come, Ye Saints" and "We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet." People began to assemble to listen. At the same time the pavilion director was on his way to see what was going on. Learning that some Mormons were in his building, he immediately approached Bruce and Elder Hardy. "Are you Mormons?" he asked.
Bruce responded in the affirmative.
"Well," the director began, "I had not had an opportunity to visit your pavilion until the other day when I went in to see that film you show, and I want you to know that it made me furious."
"Is that so?" Bruce said. "Why?"
The man's face and neck got redder. "I did not take occasion to look up the director of the pavilion and register my protests, but since you are Mormons, may I tell you?"
"Certainly," was the response.
He then expressed his displeasure with the film Man's Search for Happiness because it portrayed a continuation of the family unit and the conscious identity of the human soul after death. He explained that he had been in Japan for eighteen years as a Lutheran minister teaching at a Lutheran school. "All these Buddhists by instinct think that the family unit exists after death. I have spent eighteen years of my life trying to knock this idea out of their heads and then I see this film that destroys all my work, and I would like to know if this is really what Mormons believe."
Bruce said, "Sir, you are very perceptive; that is precisely what we believe."
After some discussion of this matter, the pavilion director inquired about the Apostasy. He said, "I get the idea that you Mormons think you are the only true church."
"I assured him," Dad said later, "that he was catching the vision of what was involved."
Then the pavilion director said, "I wouldn't mind so much if your missionaries spent their time preaching to Buddhists, but I can't understand why you preach to the Christians. At the school where I teach, your elders come and pass out literature to my Christian converts. I would like to know why you do this and can't operate like other churches do." In making these expressions, he was getting quite exercised, so Dad "took off the kid gloves," as he said later. He answered, "Reverend, I am delighted to answer your question. The reason that our missionaries come and teach your people is that we think it is just as important for a Lutheran to be saved as it is for a Buddhist." To this he added the story of the First Vision, after which they parted.
The missionaries remained behind for a few minutes, and the director said to them, "I really didn't want to talk to him; I just wanted to talk to you."
"My reaction to that," Dad said, "was that if I were a Lutheran minister, I wouldn't want to talk to me either."
17. As to Bruce McConkie the preacher, Elder Packer observed: "His manner of delivery was unique, something of an Old Testament scriptural quality about it. It was not granted to Brother McConkie to judge beforehand how his discourses would be received and then alter them accordingly. He could not measure what he ought to say and how he ought to say it by, 'What will people think?' Would his sermons leave any uncomfortable? Would his bold declarations irritate some in the Church? Would they inspire the critics to rush to their anvils and hammer out more 'fiery darts,' as the scriptures call them? Would his manner of delivery offend? Would his forthright declarations in content or in manner of presentation drive some learned investigators away? Would he be described as insensitive or overbearing? Would his warnings and condemnations of evil undo the careful work of others whose main intent was to have the world 'think well of the Church'? Perhaps it was given to other men to so measure their words in that way, but it was not given to him. We have talked of this and when he was tempted to change, the Spirit would withdraw a distance and there would come that deep loneliness known only to those who have enjoyed close association with the Spirit, only to find on occasion that it moves away. He could stand what the critics might say and what the enemies might do, but he could not stand that. He would be driven to his knees to beg forgiveness and plead for the renewal of that companionship of the Spirit which the scriptures promise can be constant. Then he would learn, once again, that what was true of the Holy Men of God who spake in ancient times applied to him as well. He was to speak as he was moved upon by the Holy Spirit. What matter if it sounded like Bruce R. McConkie so long as the Lord approved. I knew him well enough to know all of that."
18. In the Saturday morning session on April 6, 1985, Dad gave his final talk in a general conference of the Church. As he rose to speak, his face was drawn and thin, his skin so yellow that many must have been tempted to adjust the color on their television sets, his steps those of a man many years his senior; nevertheless, he stood tall and spoke as he always had, with confidence and power. The family prayer that he might have both the strength and emotional control to give the talk was answered. The Spirit took over as Dad had prayed it would, and one of the most powerful talks ever given in the Tabernacle was delivered.
With a trembling voice, he concluded: "I am one of his witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears.
"But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God's Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way."