Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

One Year Later, Bruce R. McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine”: Buh. Bye.

posted by Jana Riess

Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the quiet removal of Bruce R. McConkie’s compendium Mormon Doctrine from Deseret booktores. All references to it had already been expunged from the Gospel Principles manual brought back into use for priesthood and Relief Society in 2010. It is no longer officially recognized by the Church.

Like many Mormons, I have some personal history with this book. When I was baptized into the LDS Church in 1993, the father of a friend gave me a copy , carefully inscribed to congratulate me on this momentous step. It looked like a helpful resource with its A to Z organization and comprehensive explanations. I was pleased to have it.

But then a friend quietly took me aside, looking fairly constipated with anxiety.

“I know you, and I know you’re actually going to read that book,” she told me. “So I wanted to tell you that just because it is called Mormon Doctrine, and it was written by a general authority, doesn’t mean that everything in it is really what the Church teaches now. If you have any questions about anything, anything at all, just come and ask me.”

This was confusing. This hyper-orthodox Molly Mormon friend was telling me, in her gentle Utah woman’s voice, that a Church general authority was not quite trustworthy as a source of information about the Church. Interesting.

Boy, was she ever right. When I read the book I found numerous passages I considered offensive, and others that seemed flat-out wrong in their interpretation of the Bible. I was grateful that she had taken the time to warn me and to teach me a valuable lesson: just because something has the veneer of authority does not make it authoritative or true.

I was very glad to hear the news a year ago that the Church had finally begun to officially disassociate itself with the book. Yet I still worry that the book lives on like that stubborn, garrulous old great-uncle you try to avoid at family reunions. It’s given enduring legitimacy to McConkie’s racism, sexism, and strange interpretations of the Gospel. (Check out a first edition to see his rant about psychology as a tool of the devil. It’s seriously trippy stuff. That was later removed, along with many other things.)

It’s not like various leaders of the Church haven’t tried their best to downplay the reliability of this book. When it was first published in 1958, its appearance was news to the prophet, David O. McKay, because McConkie – then just a member of the Council of the Seventy – hadn’t bothered to tell the First Presidency his plans to publish a book claiming to be an encyclopedia of Mormon doctrine. Whoops. McKay and two other apostles (including Marion Romney, Mitt’s dad’s cousin) spent over a year studying the book and compiling a report of the – wait for it – 1,067 corrections that needed to be made. The First Presidency ultimately recommended that the book not be given a second edition at all; it was too full of errors and had been “a source of concern to the Brethren ever since it was published.”

But the Mormon people apparently loved it, and six years later McConkie lobbied the ailing prophet for a second edition. It is not clear that McKay ever authorized it to be published under Church auspices, but McConkie moved forward anyway. (The McConkie family disputes this last claim, and if documents are added to the historical record that demonstrate McKay’s approval of the project, I will stand corrected. I have not yet seen any such evidence.)

Whether the second edition was authorized or not, the book’s success is history. It was  a top backlist performer for Deseret for half a century, even after the Church tried several years ago to supplant Mormon Doctrine’s monopoly on the easy-to-use dictionary format with the handy (and free!) little A-Z reference book True to the Faith. It helped some, but not entirely.

There will probably never be an official repudiation of the book. It’s not seen as good form for general authorities to rebuke one another; they’re much too nice for that nowadays. But at times it would save us all a lot of anguish if they would just stand up in General Conference and shout, “Elder so-and-so, your book was full of crap!” This kind of thing was done routinely in Joseph Smith’s day. Then he’d excommunicate everybody, they’d say they were sorry and request rebaptism, and they’d all sit down to fried chicken. It felt good to clear the air.

McConkie is long dead now – and, to be fair to him, he did issue the equivalent of an “I’m full of crap” statement after Spencer W. Kimball’s 1978 revelation on blacks and the priesthood. At that time, McConkie encouraged Latter-day Saints to forget everything he’d ever said about race and people of African descent, since the Church now had further light and knowledge on the subject.

The trouble is, some didn’t forget. Now, with his book finally off the shelves and lacking the Church’s seeming imprimatur, perhaps they will.

  • http://low-techworld.blogspot.com/ Scott.

    I had no idea that the book had been quietly removed. I guess they did a fine job in that regard.

    I’m frequently amazed–although I shouldn’t be–at how often Elder McConkie and his father-in-law are quoted in the Church’s Institute manuals. I assume this is because of the state of Mormon publication during the mid-twentieth century–when books like “Mormon Doctrine” and “Doctrines of Salvation” seemed to fill a void in supplemental gospel literature (possibly in the wake of the church’s similar distancing from the Journal of Discourses). It’s nice to think that more than a half-century’s worth of new doctrinal changes, insights, and authorities will finally have their say in church publications.

    That said, McConkie’s name still carries a lot of weight in Sunday school classes–even if its attached to principles he never taught personally. I think Mormon Doctrine’s legacy will be with us for a while.

  • http://pluralistnation.com Brian

    The Church walks a fine line between establishing a ‘true’ doctrine and believing in continuing revelation. Bruce’s ‘believe it or not’ Mormon Doctrine book spoke to those who wanted concrete knowledge nailed down in an easy to access format. Mormon Doctrine was especially good for young missionaries that didn’t really know much of what Mormons believe, beyond the standard discussions, yet people they would encounter could often know more. It was a cliff notes of sorts to ramp up to a better understanding of the teachings of Mormonism.

    Saying you are glad the book is going quietly into the night is probably a stab in the heart to generations of Mormons that followed Bruce’s strict way of thinking about the importance of the restored gospel.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment David

    Interesting article. Well written, as always.

  • http://loydo38.blogspot.com the narrator

    Although references to McConkie were taken out of the new Gospel Principles manual, his speculative theology remained mostly in tact. This, in my opinion, is even worse. Before one could at least see the reference to McConkie and think “Well, that was just Bruce’s opinion.” Now his theology is not tied directly to him, but is given a larger official stamp of approval by the Church.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lori Mitchell

    As always, thank you for the insight!

  • http://manaen.net manaen

    RE: “It is no longer officially recognized by the Church,” it never was officially recognized by the Church. The Church’s manuals frequently quote unofficial sources as expositions of ideas about the subject but these, like the manuals themselves and talks in General Conference, are not held out to be authoritative like the scriptures. The Church’s website has a page that explains that the only authoritative doctrine is found in the scriptures, official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith: http://newsroom.lds.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine

    “Mormon Doctrine”‘s 2nd edition emerged after the author had a wood-shed experience with the Church’s President over the 1st edition. As you noted, much of the 1st edition’s quirkier material — like equating the Roman Catholic church by name with the church of the devil — was removed in the 2nd edition. However, neither edition was officially sanctioned by the Church.

    Please note that the author specifically stated that “Mormon Doctrine” was NOT authorized by the Church. He wrote in the Preface for both the 1st and 2nd editions (I have a copy of each), “For the work itself, I assume sole and full responsibility.” He also wrote in the second edition’s Preface, “In publishing this Second Edition, as is common with major encyclopedic-type works, experience has shown the wisdom of making some changes, clarifications, and additions.”
    This book was published by Bookcraft, an independent publisher then.
    1) The book states that it is solely the responsibility of the author: it is not offered as authoritative for LDS doctrine
    2) The author himself views the content as flexible, subject to changes.
    3) It was not published by the Church nor by an entity controlled by the Church
    These being true, it never was appropriate to use “Mormon Doctrine” as an authoritative source about, well, Mormon doctrine.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mike H.

    Looking at my First edition “Mormon Doctrine” I inherited, I see a drawing of Joseph Smith Holding the scriptures on the cover. That’s more likely to get seen before the disclaimer inside. I can also confirm the First edition does have the cited piece about the Roman Catholics, plus a less than complimentary section on “Negroes”.

    Yet, it was help as almost scriptural my some. One member of my Ward has a copy of MD with his named embossed on it, like you would do with a set of scriptures. Yes, there was some obscure things (Eucharist, for one) dealt with, but a lot of MD was from the writings of Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith.

    I’m frequently amazed–although I shouldn’t be–at how often Elder McConkie and his father-in-law are quoted in the Church’s Institute manuals.

    It is interesting that once the writings of Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith were once major parts of various Church manuals. Now there are back on par with writings & teachings of other Church leaders in most Lessons. I don’t suspect any General Authority had a “corner” on Revelation & Knowledge. Even some of the things that Joseph Smith taught, or left unclear, were changed, like ordaining Seventies to be High Priests.

    There will probably never be an official repudiation of the book. It’s not seen as good form for general authorities to rebuke one another; they’re much too nice for that nowadays.

    Niceties aside, unity is pushed. There have been some cases where stands have had to be taken about incorrect doctrines. Alvin R. Dyer had been teaching that if your Patriarchal Blessing didn’t say you would be in the First Resurrection, then you would not be in it. Someone had asked a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy about it, and he said that Elder Dyer had been rebuked for teaching that doctrine. Also, disagreements do happen among Church Leaders. Read Hugh B. Brown’s an Abundant Life, a really good read, until my copy got lost.

    This kind of thing was done routinely in Joseph Smith’s day.

    Brigham Young also did it. He & Orson Pratt had a few doozies about doctrines.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kerry

    Thank you for the update concerning the ultimate fate of McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine, and what I found to be some fascinating background to the writing and publication of the book.

    In the spirit of love, with the desire to avoid any hint of deception, either perceived or genuine, before I comment further I want to make it clear that I am not a Mormon. I do not recognize the Mormon Doctrine as being the truth, anymore than a Mormon would recognize my own position as being the truth.

    Based on what I have heard from Mormons, and what I read years ago in the A to Z of Mormon Doctrine, I can only conclude the following; that while we both have faith in a God, we do not share the same conception of who that God is and therefore His nature. We differ on many vital areas of truth, such as who His Son is and the nature therefore of Jesus Christ; the nature of grace; and the means of salvation.

    Because of my love of truth, and my desire to love all others as commanded by God Matthew 22:36-39 I do want to have an accurate understanding of what Mormon doctrine actually is.

    “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (KJV)

    When I first entered into discussions with Mormons, my desire was to make sure that I did indeed know the truth concerning God and all that pertains to reconciliation with God. Having come to the conclusion, which I concede you will consider being incorrect, that Mormon doctrine is not the whole truth concerning matters of the faith why would I continue to care what Mormons believe and teach?

    It is because, out of love, I desire to understand and to be able to faithfully represent what Mormon doctrine is, when asked by others, and when discussing these matters with Mormons themselves. If we cannot even agree on what Mormon doctrine actually consists of, then what hope can we have of discussing whether or not such a doctrine is correct? Brian is spot on with his comment that there existed, and based on my personal experience continues to exist, the need for an authoritative, easily accessible account of Mormon doctrine.

    I must confess my concern for those who represent the Mormon faith when I discover that, even with missionaries and Elders, they often do not know what Mormon’s are supposed to believe. For example, when I ask such questions as “Do Mormon’s believe and teach that human beings who fulfil all the requirements, such as being married in the Temple, will eventually become the God of their own Earth, giving birth to their own Jesus Christ and Satan?” I am often met with confusion, with one turning to the other and asking “Do we believe that?”

    Many years ago, when I visited the Temple in Salt Lake city, I experienced the same thing, when I was passed from one set of people to another, further and further up the line of authority, until I reached the then Head of Public Relations for Utah. It was only when I asked him similar questions that I received this answer, I paraphrase here ‘While we do not directly teach such things, nonetheless based on what the Bible says, and what Joseph Smith teaches we teach that these are reasonable assumptions.”(Forgive me but personally I thought that a rather weak response at the time)

    If those who come to my door, and the Elders I meet, do not know specifically what Mormons are supposed to believe, then what chance have I knowing what Mormon doctrine actually consists of if not via some reliable authoritative source? For me that reliable source was in the past The A to Z of Mormon Doctrine. To hear that it is disputed raises for me the question “Is everything contained in The A to Z f Mormon Doctrine incorrect, and if not which parts are a correct representation of what Mormons are supposed to believe?”

    Though it appears that is readily admitted by the relevant authorities that there are flaws in McConkie’s book concerning what the Mormon Church believes and teaches to be true, would it be equally correct to state that, as you seem to imply, someone should stand and shout that his “book was full of crap!”

    If so, then to what extent is it the case that the Mormon Church, and therefore by default all Mormons, should distance themselves from everything the book contains? Certainly racism and sexism are patently wrong, however is McConkie wrong about everything? In sharing your own experience you write that you found numerous passages that you “…considered offensive, and others that seemed flat-out wrong in their interpretation of the Bible.” That would surely imply that there were others which you did not find to be incorrect.

    Is it then not possible that at least parts of the book are worth salvaging and perhaps presenting in a different book, one that is absent of the rubbish to which you, and the Mormon faith as a whole reject? If ‘True to the Faith’ is not sufficient to fill the apparent gap, then hopefully something will soon be produced that can do so. Whatever Christian doctrine we might subscribe to we are urged by the Word of God to do the following:

    1 Peter 3:15 “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and [be] ready always to [give] an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:” (KJV. See also 1 Timothy 1:5-7 and 2 Timothy 2:15)

    Whichever of us holds the Truth, we must know and understand what that truth is and be ready to give an account of it as good people who rightly discern the truth of God.

    If ‘True to the Faith’ is not sufficient to meet the need, then I would welcome suggestions concerning other readily accessible authoritative books that state, if not all, then at least the central doctrines of the Mormon faith.

    Believe it or not when I sat down to write this it was my intention to make it short. Nonetheless, I do hope that this comment will prove as enjoyable to read as it was to write.

    Again thank you for your interesting article.

    In His love,


  • http://gospelverseaday.com Jerry Fox

    Wow! Over a thousand errors?! I understood he prayed and fasted and spent time meditating in places like the temple to try to have the Spirit and really understand stuff. Yet, it turns out he was human. He wrote many accurate things helpful to young missionaries codifying their knowledge of the gospel so they could more effectively teach simple truths- faith, hope, charity, God lives and hears and answers prayers, truth is restored, the Book of Mormon is true, study and ponder and pray for your own testimony. I’m glad he wrote the book – warts and all. But it reminds us that we need to read the scriptures every day.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment William

    The reason Mormon Doctrine was so popular is simple. Members and others want to know what is correct and true about their Church, its leaders and its belief.
    More and more “LDS Doctrine” is jell-o nailed to the wall: impossible to pin down. This smacks of lies, deceit and double talk and raises the question ‘IS there really any Mormon Doctrine’?
    McConkies book addressed this hunger for Truth. Right or wrong, he helped people understand many things. A lesson the ‘correlated idiots’ of today need to learn. Leadership leads, it doesn’t have focus groups, lawyers and PR hacks changing “TheGospel” to suit the latest questioning or political situation.
    Leadership is sorely lacking in the LDS Landscape. Bruce McConkie knew it and worked to address the situation. Most of the GA’s run from this at every corner.

    What it comes down to is simple. LDS Leadership is an oxymoron.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mark

    Hate to tell you that this post is factually inaccurate. Mormon Doctrine was pulled because it was not selling. That is the reason. There is no doctrinal basis for pulling it on DBooks part. Quotes from Mormon Doctrine are not being expunged from church publications. My friend works in church correlation and told me today (Mar 9, 2012) that they are quoting Mormon Doctrine still in official church publications. Sorry to counter your pretended conspiracy against an apostle, but it is just not factually accurate.

  • http://Athought Your Name

    I don’t think the church ever came out and said the book was false. Obviously the blacks received the priesthood. Mckonkie was off on when since he thought they would in eternity but was he wrong on the rest of it. Did the church ever say the catholic church was not the church of the devil? I think the problem was that he was to specific and forgot about the muslins. Obviously not church official doctrine but how much is untrue. I think little is incorrect and the church does not want to be that bold. They like having good relations and do not ruffle feathers unless absolutely necessary. Gay marriage abortion and such

Previous Posts

Another blog to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting Flunking Sainthood. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here is another blog you may also enjoy: Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!!

posted 3:12:01pm Jul. 05, 2012 | read full post »

Thank You, Flunking Sainthood Readers!
OK, I admit it. I have a Google Alert on the title Flunking Sainthood, so that the search engine lets me know when there are new reviews or discussions about the book. In the last few weeks it has been exciting -- and humbling -- to see the many different kinds of people who are reading and talking

posted 12:41:10pm Jan. 25, 2012 | read full post »

NYC Conference on Mormonism & American Politics, February 3-4
"First Mitt won Iowa, then he lost Iowa? That's a classic Romney flip-flop." --Stephen Colbert     Working with the theory that there hasn't been nearly enough attention to Mormonism and politics this year, what with it being in the news every single day and all, Randy Balmer and I

posted 11:09:19am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »

Writing Retreat
Friends, I will be offline until January 23 for a writing retreat. I'm bringing my computer, but the place where I am going doesn't have email access

posted 8:47:20pm Jan. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Fun with the Book of Lamentations
Actually, no. That title was just a teaser. There really aren't any fun moments in the Book of

posted 11:33:13am Jan. 13, 2012 | read full post »

Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.