David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince & Wm. Robert Wright

This is a singularly important book primarily because of the source material. It is based upon the diaries of McKay’s long-serving, private secretary, Clare Middlemiss, and therefore provides intimate and detailed access to minutes from the First Presidency meetings, private letters and other sensitive materials. The topically–themed chapters provide a vigorous, though at times repetitive, panorama of McKay’s 20 year service as Church President. A number of important themes could be discussed, and have been elsewhere, but I want to focus upon just one: dissonance among the brethren.

Though I am not an expert in Mormon History I have read many of the important monographs and articles in the field and was therefore aware of disagreements among the highest leaders of the Church. Yet, I was still surprised at the depth of ill-will, the stretching of counsel and, at times, the deception seen among the Apostolic leaders of the LDS Church. Evidently these are not perfect men and this book helped me see more clearly the times when they were petty or small-minded. These instances were not even sporadic; they seemed to be a frequent occurrence among the various quorums and I am left wondering how to reconcile notions of revelation, inspiration and unity with these accounts.

These records trouble conceptions of revelation which are linked with a specific vision of how councils work. Often a notion of councils which seeks idealistic models of co-operative discussion through loving participants has pervaded LDS ecclesiology. And yet it is evident that the participants, even at the very highest levels of the LDS Church, are far from the model of gentle and timid (i.e. loving) leaders. Thus not only is our conception of revelation mis-directed but also, it seems, is our view of the ethical implications of loving dialogue. At the very least, Maffly-Kipp’s sincerity box does provide one way that it becomes possible to observe how certain biases persist. These men are ordained to certain positions and sustained in those positions and it is possible that what they do can be divine, even if they did not pursue their goals with motives that were wholly pure.

Second, this book drives to the heart of another paradigm-shift. The narrative insists that this Church is a human-institution but with moments of divinity, rather than it being a divine-Church with moments of human weakness. Though I have accepted this premise for some time now; Prince’s biography helped me realise that I have some way to go before I fully accept that principle. In practice, therefore, the Church moves as most other organisations would if they were in similar situations. This view suggests that God is not involved in the daily management of the LDS Church but rather he speaks to his leaders at specific moments.

This paradigm-shift is associated with another insight which indicates that these weaknesses work together to form a revelatory process which works through collective error or that sin does not restrict the mechanism by which God moves through us. This fallen ecclesiology suggests that councils are a mechanism for the impure to still serve God and his people.

Prince’s book is a must-read text for anyone interested in the history of the LDS Church through the twentieth century.

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