Friday, May 21, 2010

The McConkie Doctrine

Word has come down from on high that Deseret Book will no longer be printing or carrying Bruce R. McConkie's book Mormon Doctrine. My search on the Deseret Book website using the search term "mormon doctrine" gave me 13 results, none of them the book Mormon Doctrine. It appears that indeed it has been exiled, but not repudiated. The Bloggernacle will provide you with more facts, rumors and speculation about the decision to send Mormon Doctrine to Siberia. Some have said that copies of the book pulled from Deseret Book shelves will be shredded and made into high-tech pulp for building materials in the soon-to-be-announced Yakutsk Temple.

As an aside, my personal copy of Mormon Doctrine was printed by the defunct publisher Bookcraft, which Deseret Book acquired in 1999. As you probably know, Deseret Book is the church-owned seller of books and sundry items (a subsidiary of Deseret Management Corporation, which is the for-profit management company for church assets and holdings). Signature Books publishes Mormon-themed works, but most often not the kind the church wants published.

I'm not surprised at this decision. Much of Mormon Doctrine is an incendiary, convoluted, contradictory mess. Oh, and then there's the book.  McConkie's magnum opus is based in significant part on all manner of Mormon folk doctrines, unverifiable statements of early church leaders and the personal musings of a man many Mormons look to as master scriptorian, gospel genius and hero of modern Mormonism. It's also based on a lot of published, absolutely verifiable statements and writings, many of which are absolutely and verifiably wrong.

It's difficult to overstate Bruce R. McConkie's truly wide-ranging impact on Mormon beliefs, practices and culture. McConkie wrote many other books (perhaps most notably his Messiah series) and gave many other talks (definitely most notably his final testimony in General Conference in April 1985, which I remember well) that are regarded as de facto canon. The LDS Topical Guide to the scriptures and the LDS Bible Dictionary both have McConkie's fingerprints all over them. Yet Mormon Doctrine stands alone and above all of these. This one volume has had the biggest impact of all his writings at all levels throughout Mormondom.

That there is no official repository of what is doctrine is a problem. Not even official church publications are "doctrine" per se. They are simply accepted as such by the rank and file membership of the church, like many things that come from charismatic church leaders. This seems to suit the hierarchy of the church. The brethren prefer having wiggle room to modify things bureaucratically rather than through a credible process of re-assessment.

When it comes down to it, "LDS doctrine" is whatever the current GAs with the strongest personalities say it is. Even David O. McKay didn't publicly repudiate McConkie's Mormon Doctrine. Most of what we know of his private opposition to its printing is from historians like Michael Quinn. McKay made it very clear to McConkie and among the high-ranking leadership that the book shouldn't see a second printing, even with corrections. He viewed it as presumptuous and problematic. One consideration seems to have been that so many corrections would be necessary that a it might appear that McConkie was being reprimanded (which is exactly what it would have been), and that this would undermine McConkie's credibility as a church leader. That in turn would call into question the authority and unity of the rest of the brethren. (McConkie was a member of the First Council of the Seventy in 1958 when the book was first published.) Since the authority of the brethren is very often the ultimate consideration (which has been made very clear to me personally by local and high-level church leadership on more than one occasion), they tried to handle the original publication of Mormon Doctrine behind the scenes. When McKay became very frail and Joseph Fielding Smith (who was McConkie's father-in-law and the next in the line of succession) was able to exert more influence, McConkie was allowed to do a second printing in 1966 with Smith's blessing. McKay couldn't do anything about it at that point. Then there was the post-1978 revision to take out the most inflammatory racist bits. Still lots of crazy talk though, couched in quasi-intellectual language.

The church's official bookstore has carried this book for decades. It has been used as source material for talks and lessons presented by church leaders throughout the church. This has made it de facto doctrine. We will see vestiges of the book for years to come. There are unattributed sections in the new Gospel Principles book that are taken directly from Mormon Doctrine. (At least for now, you can see the previous version of Gospel Principles, with a list of books cited at the church's own website). I don't think there will never be a public repudiation of any of the outlandish things in Mormon Doctrine. The brethren have painted themselves into a corner. It's nearly impossible for any one of them to directly question or openly disagree with another. This is because they appear to believe that to do so would destroy the delicate veneer of unity and destabilize the entire authoritarian system of church leadership. Maybe it would. Which leads me to ask, How would that be such a bad thing?

The First Presidency will send out press releases and official letters to be read in sacrament meetings to repudiate rumors of the "generals in the war in heaven" talk and all sorts of other petty stupidity. Yet they won't publicly clarify that Mormon Doctrine isn't official. Better to write a mid-level memo in an attempt to consign the book to oblivion but let useful falsehoods linger. That is the real secret to changes in doctrine, practice and procedure in the LDS church. It takes a while, but it usually works.

This is what happens when you run the church like a corporation. The marketing department (a.k.a. Correlation Committee) visited the people who run the gift shops (Deseret Book) and decreed it was time to discontinue an item that's been causing PR problems since it was first released. Mormon Doctrine is simply an old product line that's been cancelled. Just like the Journal of Discourses before it. But don't worry, there are always new products to roll out. Case in point: The new Gospel Principles book is the "New Coke"--just less filling.


  1. A very good summary of the Book of Bruce. Its publication was one of the factors leading to the establishment of correlation so now a conservative committee of the least common denominator must approve all publications and general officers are discouraged from writing independently.

    Books like McConkie's and JFS's are useful from the standpoint that they do address topics most authors (especially these days) won't touch, and they do a fair job of explaining where they come up with things. OTOH, they don't differentiate authorized teachings from speculation and lots of nonsense took up new legs.

    Great post. Great blog.

  2. If they make an official statement that it is not doctrine than it would probably bring up an onslaught of questions. Whereas if they say nothing at all and issue no official statement it will just fade away in a generation or two... Great post!

  3. Thank you Surak and Reina.

    @Surak/Greg: Special thanks for following my blog. I'm honored. I'd love to chat sometime, though I'm sure you're a very busy guy. I really enjoy your excellent blog.

  4. Well, I'm relieved. The book needed to go a long time ago. I'm interested in something that Surak said about general officers being discouraged from writing independently. I hope it's true, only because of the phenomenon of even the most innocuous book being considered as doctrine by the people, but am wondering about the source of this policy.

  5. I really enjoyed this post as it got to much of the history I wasn't really aware of concerning the book. I'm still at a point where I find posts like yours fascinating, though I don't search them out myself, a result of the latent fear of my own doubt, I suppose.