Twelve years ago a shock got me to come back to church, but I didn’t really want to change. I’d obey the letter of the law, but (I thought, indoctrinated by worldly platitudes) I’d do it “on my own terms.”
I resolved that no matter what, I would cling to the counter-culture and never become some “suit” like that paragon of old-fashioned Mormons, Bruce R. McConkie. I’d heard a lot about Elder McConkie, and he seemed to naturally fill the role of the “oppressor” that I’d been trained to expect. Not really knowing much about him, I set him up as my model of what not to become.
Comfortable with this preemptive defensiveness, I thought re-activity would be easy. Fortunately for me, repentance is an inherently unnerving process, and I guess I was softened a bit by the time I received the Melchizedek priesthood. The Elders Quorum priesthood manual at the time had an appendix in the back that contained Bruce R. McConkie’s essay “Only an Elder.”
The title intrigued me and I read it. That was my first lesson in loving Elder McConkie. Three things impressed me. First was that McConkie hallmark, straightforwardness. Maybe it should have riled me, but I had already been reading some bits of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and they were both also given to strong statements. Should a man following them in the Apostleship just footnote their messages, or shouldn’t he follow their example and also be bold?
His focus on personal responsibility also struck a responsive chord. I was starting to understand the need for society to pay more attention to this area, and I’ve become grateful for the first gospel teacher who made it clear to me: we are responsible for our own salvation.
McConkie’s explications always had a clean symmetry that resounded deeply, not unlike hearing the missionary discussions for the first time. Error tends not to be so succinct. As I read that essay, I knew that I had found something strong to hold onto. This definitely was not the culture’s meandering pontification.
Another aspect of the message impressed me. The title of the essay—“Only an Elder”—referred to a common lament McConkie had heard that left a sour taste in his mouth, that a man in the Church didn’t really have much authority. McConkie eloquently described each rank and file elder as an equal partner in a brotherhood that included the apostles and prophets of history. That was the first time I had to consider my opportunities and responsibilities in terms of having a “ministry.” It was a sobering thought.
This was an important theme in McConkie’s work that I’ve ever cherished—the idea that gospel knowledge wasn’t just a list of facts to memorize so we can pass some kind of celestial standardized test, but that it would lift us up and bring us closer to God in every moment of our lives.
So it was harder not to like him after that. But knowing the disdain with which intelligent people in America are supposed to regard seriously “fundamental” interpretations of religion, I tried.
Until I was invited to choir. One Sunday, a counselor in my bishopric testified of the sustained spiritual growth enjoyed by active members of the ward choir. So I tried it out. The piece we were practicing was Elder McConkie’s hymn “I Believe In Christ.”
Nobody had ever told me that this “suit” was a poet! The words were simple, but they communicated a maximum of emotional impact in a minimum of words. Poetry indeed. A thousand theology Ph.D.’s working for a thousand years could not have crafted so supple a paean to the majesty and intimate efficacy of the Lord’s power in our lives.
It was a turning point and a blessing to sing that song. It’s been one of my favorite hymns since.
Several years ago I thought I’d challenge myself by studying the scriptures cover to cover. When I got to the New Testament, I knew I was likely to be wading in deep waters. This little collection was the source of two millennia of divisive debate. I knew some sections would be difficult to understand, and that some passages might even seem hard to reconcile with our doctrine. I would definitely need a reliable guide, and when solid spiritual scholarship on the scriptures was needed, guess who was most natural to turn to for help?
Elder McConkie’s Doctrinal New Testament Commentary was the third and most important turning point in my opinion of him. I spent a lot of time being nurtured by his elemental combination of mental acuity and spiritual sensitivity with DNTC.
What did I get out of it? His authoritative explanations simply floored me. Ancient mysteries were easily resolved in a sentence or two. Reading McConkie explain justification by faith was like watching Einstein solve a third-grade subtraction problem.
Hundreds of pages of interpretation flew by; they were not only cohesive, but compellingly lucid. Just to see such bold assertions at all was a refreshing, invigorating experience. On top of that, to see such assertions articulated in a style as fluently incisive as McConkie’s added another level to the increasing awe. In my experience, people who are pulling weak material out of nowhere just don’t write that powerfully.
Doctrinal New Testament Commentary went even further than that, though. His writings excelled on multiple levels of brilliance. In Volume III, McConkie’s comments on James 1:22 contain a list of New Testament euphemisms for “keep the commandments.” Besides learning a major, oft-ignored Biblical theme from that little list, I realized then that I had never searched the scriptures as deeply as McConkie had.
If we’re to benefit from the scriptures and become more like Christ through them, shouldn’t we follow the example of those who have mined these texts the most and gotten the most out of them? Such scrupulous examination tends to be the domain of the devout, and to them we may best look for role models. I’ve since tried to make lists and chains in my scriptures like McConkie may have done, as well as copying some of his most salient thoughts into the margins of my scriptures.
You can get to know someone surprisingly well by what they write. As I read more of McConkie’s work, I began to see shades of every color in the man I’d assumed to be an icon of black and white.
One of my favorite passages of his own prose comes from Volume II of DNTC. Elaborating on Acts 21:17, McConkie says, “conversion is a gradual process…. If there is a lesson for us in these events, it is that staunch and stable members of the Church should be tolerant and charitable toward persons newly coming out of the darkness of the world into the light of the gospel.” That wasn’t the McConkie I’d assumed him to be.
I had heard of McConkie’s final Conference address, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” but I had never really interacted with it until I read it in a collection of popular Conference talks a few years ago.
By this time, I was approaching his work with respect and anticipation, even if I still harbored some doubts about his personality as I still misunderstood it. This last talk of his opened my heart to him more. There’s not much I could say of this talk that hasn’t already been said. Needless to say, I was as moved by it as I ever have been moved by anything.
Even McConkie’s critics have to allow that this talk is special. It says things that simply could not be said by those of less faith, knowledge, and experience. Such is the nature of language—it molds itself to the spiritual ability of the writer. No wonder so many of the world’s substitutes for McConkie are little more than “tinkling cymbals and sounding brass.”
By this point, I’d hoped my journey from being just another narcissistic, cynical outsider to being another pilgrim on the path was making progress. I’d like to think any reservations I still held about McConkie as someone to emulate on our way to becoming Christlike, a sort of landmark to reach for first on the long journey, was blissfully evaporated. If not, a fifth and final epiphany did the trick.
A few years ago I was browsing at an LDS bookstore and found a new biography called Bruce R. McConkie: Reflections of a Son, by Joseph Fielding McConkie. I actually wondered if, despite all I had learned, my old assumptions might finally be vindicated. Eagerly, I turned to the chapter that covered the controversy surrounding the first edition of Mormon Doctrine. What shouldn’t be surprising by now is that I learned there really wasn’t much controversy.
Church leaders had some reservations about a few of McConkie’s comments, and requested that he edit them for a second edition. He did, and that was that. Most of the chapter focused on how humbly McConkie submitted to this very subtle chastisement, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the obvious contrast between what so many had assumed and what the truth really was.
Reflections of a Son was full of other fascinating ideas from McConkie that I wanted to copy; for example, when he was stuck with a few minutes to kill, he would plan talks on a variety of subjects that could be given later at a moment’s notice. The theme throughout was a striving to be not simply active, but as active as possible, and to increase that ability.
Another one of those vague convictions that had been incubating in the back of my mind finally found a solid form just then: McConkie’s strict adherence to the letter of the law was a good thing. Why do so many of us set up this arbitrary conflict between the letter and spirit of the law? The all-too-popular philosophy that some elements of gospel living are excessively rigid can only serve to excuse wicked behavior. Period. How did I not see that before?
My youthful worldly attachments and immature desires often led me to be tempted by “cultural” strains of the faith. But now it seemed so clear: if the Restoration is true and years of miracles, martyrdom, and service had led to this point, was the true path of discipleship really to be found in fashionable skepticism or half-hearted partial activity?
Perhaps these intersections of Elder McConkie’s works with my life were no coincidence. Perhaps his insights and crystal clear examples were exactly what I needed to take the building blocks of accumulating adult experience and turn them into a growing testimony.
In this case, the new guideline for living prompted by Elder McConkie was that, in a world of snowballing immorality, maybe a higher bar of old-fashioned tradition is just what we need. When the sickness is relative, revisionist hedonism, maybe the best medicine, maybe the only medicine, is a comprehensively conservative lifestyle focused on the Savior and grounded in the teachings of His current prophets.
In the April 2001 General Conference, Elder Richard G. Scott spoke of striving to create an “ideal” family in the proper way. Doesn’t it seem reasonable that we should also be striving to become ideal disciples, ideal gospel students and servants, in the Lord’s proper way? And who might be a reliable model to help us realize that ideal?
So McConkie was orthodox. Maybe this world could use a little more orthodoxy. Maybe it could use a lot. After all, would we be better or worse off spiritually if we tried to be more like him?