Thursday, April 19, 2007

Opening The Book Revue: David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism

No, the Book Revue is not a burlesque for literary types, it is We might be windmills' recurring review of books.

I got David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (DOM) for Christmas. Greg Prince, the principal author, is president and director of a biotech company in the D.C. area. He has also written two books about the priesthood: Having Authority: The Origins and Development of Priesthood During the Ministry of Joseph Smith (1993), and Power from on High: The Development of the Mormon Priesthood (1995). He is an active Mormon.

The most distinctive feature of DOM is that unlike most biographies, it is organized topically rather than by chronology. This allows a quick survey of a topic, and would be particularly useful for research.

Predictably, the chapter I was drawn to most quickly was the one on the development of President McKay's attitudes and opinions on civil rights and the church's institutional ban on the ordination of black members to the priesthood. DOM doesn't add anything earth-shatteringly new, but it does trace President McKay's somewhat ambivalent attitudes on race throughout his life, developing from his statement as a young missionary that he "doesn't care for" blacks, to the point that he was repeatedly struggling in prayer, wrestling with the Lord to get a revelation that would allow ordination of blacks. Prince depicts President McKay's worldwide tours as a the impetus for this development.

Less predictably, the chapters on church correlation and church education were also interesting. Likewise Prince's review of interfaith relations. One of the most remarkable moments in the book is where President McKay, visiting an Episcopal bishop with whom he had developed a friendship, accepts a blessing by the laying on of hands on commemoration of his birthday. Considering the LDS doctrinal stance on priesthood and authority, and considering President McKay's office within that priesthood, accepting such a blessing in an indication of profound humility both on a personal and an institutional level.

But perhaps the most interesting insight to take away from this book is the picture it paints of the ecclesiastical tug and pull within the General Authorities and within the church at large. This picture may be slightly exaggerated by the fact that President McKay's administration covered a time of great social and political upheaval in general. The competing influences of Hugh B. Brown and Ezra Taft Benson, the tug and pull between the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, and the influence on President McKay of those not in the official ecclesiastical structure, such as Ernest Wilkinson all show that there is more to church administration than is always apparent. Understanding this sheds light on President Packer's statement that the brethren have never been more united.

If you're looking for something a bit more sensational or scandalous, Michael Quinn's articles will sate that appetite. But for something a bit more reserved in the assertions it makes, yet an open examination, I recommend the book.

An interview with Greg Prince
A review of DOM over at DMI


Warren said...

Have read the other two or have heard anything about them? The titles sound interesting.

JKC said...

I haven't. But after reading DOM I might want to sometime. Prince's writing style is very much that of a scientist: very fact based and not very elegant, but he limits himself to conclusions that can be reasonably drawn from data rather than speculative, which is refreshing.

I think the first is a shorter preliminary work that kind of got incorporated into the second.