Bruce R McConkie (the ‘R’ stands for Redd), member of the First Council of the Seventy from 1946, was an apostle of the Mormon Church from 1972 until his death in April 1985. Born into a Mormon family he boasted polygamist forebears who rubbed shoulders with Joseph and Hyrum Smith. One biographer describes McConkie as, “breathing, talking, and living the principles of the [Mormon] gospel... in the McConkie home.” He married Emma, the daughter of Joseph Fielding Smith, grandson of Hyrum,  apostle from 1910 and church president 1970-72. He studied at Utah Law School, obtaining his BA degree and his LLB, served in the military, retiring as lieutenant-colonel and worked for the CIA.

His work has been described in glowing terms in a biographical note in the Ensign magazine, Jan.1973:

“He has written numerous articles and handbooks and read hundreds of manuscripts submitted for his appraisal. His sermons at conferences have been consistently doctrinal in nature, pointing out the basic gospel principles that lead to exaltation. He has truly taught that to know God and his Christ is to have life eternal. He has raised his voice in many lands as he has toured missions. His value in counsel has been wise, clear, and in harmony with the true principles of the gospel. His gift to write and speak concisely and with clarity amounts almost to genius, and he exercises these gifts willingly for the benefit of the work of the Lord whose name he reveres.

During his years in the First Council, he has found time to write four volumes of doctrinal studies and to edit three volumes of the doctrines expounded and explained by President Joseph Fielding Smith. These books, exhaustive in treatment and clearly written, reveal the clarity of the mind, the logic of the presentations, and the guidance of the Spirit in their composition. These stand as bulwarks defending true doctrine against the nebulous assertions of modern philosophers.”

Mormon Doctrine

A “True Believing Mormon”, a gifted man of doctrinal consistency, clarity, wisdom and genius, McConkie was, then, a man with solid Mormon credentials whose background fitted him well for a place in the leadership of the Mormon Church and his scholastic endeavours for his role as commentator and interpreter of Mormon Doctrine. Notably missing from the 1973 biography is any reference to Mormon Doctrine (pub.1958) the book that would become celebrated and repudiated in equal measure by Mormons.

In it he attempted to assemble a one volume systematic dictionary cum commentary, a compendium of what Mormons believe. McConkie described the work as the first major attempt to digest, explain, and analyze all of the important doctrines of the kingdom…the first extensive compendium of the whole gospel—the first attempt to publish an encyclopedic commentary covering the whole field of revealed religion." From Aaronic Priesthood, through Godhead and Scripture to Word of Wisdom, Worthiness and Zion McConkie presented the prevailing Mormon Doctrine.

It was written primarily as a reference book for Mormons and so its author was able to be more forthright on sensitive issues such as the Mormon attitude to Catholic and Protestant Churches (the former characterised in the first edition as “the Whore of Babylon” and the latter “daughters of a harlot”). However, such forthright language came under criticism by church leaders and the book was published in a revised form in 1966 and with further revisions in 1978. What was revised?

It seems the most notable difference between first and second editions was the tone. What concerned Mormon leaders was the use of “forceful, blunt language; some strongly worded statements [and] its authoritative style” and, while there were some doctrinal changes, it is notable that much of the Bible dictionary included in today’s Mormon reference Bible (pub.1979) was taken directly from Mormon Doctrine. There is a good account of the controversy at Since that time Mormons have found it easy to dismiss McConkie whenever he is quoted to them by critics yet he continues to be quoted widely by members, leaders and official publications of the Mormon Church.

The Apostle Mormons Love to Hate

This situation has earned McConkie certain notoriety and it is easy, indeed instinctive for Mormons to dismiss this Mormon apostle with impunity. It is interesting, however, that at least 80% of his "controversial" book was taken from Doctrines of Salvation, a compilation of the sermons and writings of his father-in-law Joseph Fielding Smith; a work that McConkie himself compiled and knew thoroughly. Smith's remarks on apostasy and “apostate churches” are hardly less controversial than McConkie's (Vol.3 of DofS). I just read him again on the subject and Smith is frank in his teaching about a mother church, which he pictures in the hands of Satan, a church that is evil, corrupt and polluted with pagan philosophies, and [Protestant] daughter churches that are no better.

He does concur that "there is some truth in all the churches" but this is not the ecumenical statement it sounds for he doesn't mean Christian churches especially but religions of the world, mentioning Buddhists, Greek and Roman Gods alongside what we might more readily call a church; not exactly flattering comparisons for the Evangelicals with whom Mormons seem anxious to associate and identify these days.

Smith comments:

"The fact that they teach some truth does not make them the Church of God. There is but one Church of God."

Smith's commentary is no less "offensive" to Christians or less controversial for the Mormon Church than McConkie’s, but McConkie was censured while Smith wasn't. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so ready, therefore, to buy into the whole disowning McConkie business. The “truth” he wrote chimed very well with the Mormonism of recent generations but what Mormons once believed and how they expressed that belief was becoming a liability.

But Such a Snug Fit

I was a Mormon from 1972 until 1986 and my memory is vivid not just because I was there but because I was taught, and in turn I taught this material for much of that time in priesthood, seminary, institute and Sunday school classes. Historically speaking, this is my old stomping ground so to speak. I know what we were taught and what we comfortably believed and McConkie was a very snug fit notwithstanding the official rebukes of his work.

The fact is that Mormons did and still do identify with McConkie and you will find his book on their shelves. A question I often ask is why does Mormonism not have commentaries? I think Mormons were hungry for something solid in that line to get their teeth into and McConkie provided it. They flocked to him, not because he and they were wrong, but because they spoke together the language of Mormonism, a language that became inconvenient as the world became more politically correct, and they identified with him.

How often have I heard people who minister to Mormons yearn for those days of McConkie because you knew where you were with him; not like today’s mealy-mouthed leaders whose work has to go through a correlation committee to ensure they are on-message. I just can’t imagine somehow Ezekiel, Isaiah Jeremiah or Paul seeking approval and endorsement from a committee for what God inspired them to say. Yet these are the men in whose footsteps these timid Mormon leaders of today purport to follow. Modern sons of Sceva might indeed declare, “Joseph I know, Brigham I know, McConkie I know but these faceless ciphers, who are they?”

The Mormon Message of prophets

Testing Mormon Prophets

Testing a Mormon Prophet

The Hinckley Timeline

The Changing Face of Mormonism

Coming up:

Who Speaks for Mormonism?


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