20th Century 21st Century Theology

Is Bruce R. McConkie Treated Unfairly?

It may be time to set aside unfair narratives and reexamine his legacy.

Perhaps no one has influenced Latter-day Saint scriptural literacy more than Bruce R. McConkie. His writings were both prolific and authoritarian. Consequently, 20th-century intellectuals sought an alternative voice, paving the way for a New Mormon History which may have intentionally downplayed the Apostle’s influence. In this interview, Joseph Spencer examines Elder McConkie’s influence and suggests that it may be time to set aside unfair narratives and reexamine his legacy.

Learn more in Joseph Spencer’s 2024 article in Wayfare.

Why do people sometimes speak poorly about Bruce R. McConkie?

Bruce R. McConkie was a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, after having served in the presidency of the Seventy for years, and so it might seem strange that he has been the object of criticism. This is probably especially true for those who have only heard his name cited authoritatively.

But the fact of the matter is that, when he was at the height of his influence (in the 1960s and 1970s), which was strongest among religious educators within the Church Educational System, many Latter-day Saint intellectuals felt him to be more authoritarian than authoritative.

That attitude has persisted and, as Elder McConkie’s influence has waned in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it has also grown more widespread.

He has often been accused of treating alternative views dismissively, using words like “heresy” even when referring to ideas once held by earlier presidents of the Church. In many ways, he has become for many a symbol of authoritarian or doctrinaire leadership.

How can criticism of Elder McConkie be unfair?

Caricatures are easier to deal with than real people, and this is one problem with many criticisms of Elder McConkie. Whatever the general understanding of his views and personality might be, he was a more complicated individual than they suggest.

Bruce R. McConkie was a fierce advocate for the serious, academic study of Latter-day Saint history. He privately pleaded with other leaders for more openness about controversial ideas taught by Church leaders of previous generations. He happily conceded his errors when he was corrected by his leaders and publicly disavowed his own teachings when revelation proved them to have been speculative or misguided.

That’s emphatically what Elder McConkie sought to do.

His witness of Jesus Christ and his endorsement of the doctrine of grace were unswerving in a period when Latter-day Saints talked less of Christ than they do today.

But more than all that, Elder McConkie was the most serious advocate in the Church’s history for real engagement with scripture. No one before him, and no one since, has done more to convince the Saints that they ought to consecrate their intellectual faculties to the study of scripture.

Whatever faults he may have had, that one success—in my view, at least—makes him among the tradition’s most important voices.

Does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a formal theology?

I think what we mean when we say that the Church doesn’t have a formal theology is that Church authorities don’t feel obligated to expound official doctrines using the tools of traditional or establishment (Christian) theology—and, so, that Latter-day Saints standing outside of the structures of ecclesiastical authority have latitude to reflect on the Restoration’s claims in more strictly theological ways.

But it’s important to emphasize that, for exactly these reasons, those who do theology in the Latter-day Saint context do so in a wholly auxiliary position. Nothing they say is (or ought to be) binding for the Church. It’s all, as Adam Miller recently put it in the subtitle to his book Original Grace, an experiment.

Who are today’s Latter-day Saint theologians and what is their goal?

As I see it, there are three or four distinct groups of theologians working in the Latter-day Saint context, and each group has its own aims and interests.

Terryl Givens: History of thought

One group studies the history of Latter-day Saint thought but studies this with an eye to theological implications for the present.

Terryl Givens is certainly the leading example of this approach.

Blake Ostler: Applications of mainstream theology

A second group brings the tools of mainstream English-speaking philosophy (so-called “analytic philosophy”) to the study of Restoration ideas and puts these in conversation with other philosophers of religion (especially Christian philosophers).

Blake Ostler has been the most visible example of this approach for a long time.

James Faulconer: Applications of contemporary European thought

A third group uses the tools of contemporary European thought to the theological study of Latter-day Saint scripture.

James Faulconer has been the champion of this approach for at least two decades.

Benjamin Keogh: Conversation with traditional Christian orthodox theology

And a fourth, just emerging group puts Latter-day Saint ideas and sources in direct conversation with traditional Christian orthodox theology—say, with the major decisions of ancient Christian ecumenical councils.

Major proponents of this approach are still emerging, but I’d set my sights on Benjamin Keogh.

As I say, each thinker who finds her or his place within one of these groups will have her or his particular interests and aims. I find my place in the third group, with an unrelenting emphasis on the meaning of scripture (and drawing on the tools of certain strands of European thought).

And for me, at least, the point of doing theology is always just to understand better and more richly the scriptures that the Latter-day Saints take to be binding.

Every reading is offered up to the public only for whatever it’s worth, and the labor to produce it is undertaken out of deep devotion to the scriptural words that have been given to guide the Saints toward lives of faith. For my own part, at least, I want my work in theological reflection to do no more than sharpen my own (and maybe others’) sense of what it means to be faithful to the Restoration.

What did theology mean to Bruce R. McConkie?

Traditionally, theology happens when one brings the tools of reason to the direct (and usually systematic) study of the revealed. For most Christians, this simply means that it’s the rational study of God as revealed in Christ.

But because Latter-day Saints have generally understood the notion of divine revelation as broader in a way—as involving not only the revelation of God in Christ but also revelatory words that give concrete direction to the faithful—they have often understood theology to be the rational elaboration of much more.

It did something for the Saints.

In his book Mormon Doctrine, Elder McConkie included an entry on “theology,” most of which is taken from James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith and which argues that theology must take as its scope “the facts of observed” as well as “revealed truth” and then put these “in orderly array.”

That’s emphatically what Elder McConkie sought to do. He aimed to produce a deeply systematic account of the Restoration, and he believed that this involved questions ranging from the use of playing cards to the nature of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t shy from calling his labors theological, although he never felt obligated to put his reflections in conversation with the larger theological tradition at all.

The First Presidency determined in 1960 that Mormon Doctrine had over 1,000 errors. Do we know what they were?

That’s right. After the book was published, the First Presidency asked a couple members of the Twelve to create a report of potential concerns in the book. Reportedly, they found many. (All this has been covered from the historical angle in Gregory Prince and Robert Wright’s book, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.)

I’m not sure whether it’s possible to see a copy of the document produced by that committee, but I imagine that the changes made between the first (1958) and the second (1966) editions of Mormon Doctrine would make clear what things were seen as most in need of alteration.

That bar is terrifyingly low today.

For my part, I’m not terribly interested in what the alleged errors were (especially because I suspect that many were about tone, or about the wisdom of saying certain things so authoritatively).

What interests me the most is what it looks like for someone with such a strong theological bent to wrestle with how to revise his thinking, to adjust his style of presentation, or to reflect on what’s most useful to shape the life of faith.

What are the theological strengths of Mormon Doctrine?

I’ll confess that I find less theological strength in Mormon Doctrine than I do in some of Elder McConkie’s other writings—his “Messiah” series or his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary. Even in Mormon Doctrine, though, the key strength is the same that you find in these other works, namely that they’re always organized around probing scripture for possible meaning.

Mormon Doctrine is shot through with scriptural references, with (often brief) interpretations and glosses of scriptural passages, and with occasional expositions of more heft and substance. Even if one doesn’t draw any (or even most) of the same interpretive conclusions, the fact that Elder McConkie gave so much attention to reading scripture did something for the Saints.

When he brought that same intense interest to his other projects—maybe especially the Doctrinal New Testament Commentary—the result was an unmissable invitation to be buried in scripture.

What would scriptural literacy be like without Elder McConkie’s contributions?

This is, I think, a crucial question. It’s often said that American Latter-day Saints are far more scripturally literate than average Americans—even than other American Christians.

Unfortunately, however, that bar is terrifyingly low today. There’s a major difference between knowing the rudiments of a few stories from the Bible—or even having the words of certain passages memorized—and really probing the meaning of the text.

He created a culture.

What Elder McConkie gave to the Saints was a feeling of responsibility to go much further than developing a basic familiarity. A whole generation or two of Latter-day Saints felt that they had a religious duty to see past the surface of the text, to develop at least some decent understanding of historical context and then to ask what implications for faithful living might be drawn from serious reflection on scripture.

Whether Elder McConkie modeled the best ways of actually reading specific passages is of less importance than the simple fact that he created a culture in which members of the Church felt they ought to get to the bottom of scriptural meaning.

That culture is receding today, in my experience—whether that’s due to encroaching secularism, information overload, prioritizing of piety over knowledge, or something else.

In a lot of ways, however, whatever scriptural literacy there is among the Latter-day Saints is probably still largely due to Elder McConkie’s influence.

Can Mormon Doctrine serve as a foundation for today’s theologians?

I don’t know that Mormon Doctrine ought to serve as a foundation for theologians today. What’s important to me is the way that its influence at the level of culture shaped at least one group of theologians—the third group I mentioned above—in their development of an approach to doing theology.

I don’t know that young theologians would be especially benefited by returning to Mormon Doctrine to see how Elder McConkie did things. Rather, I think they’re right simply to run with the way that the project—especially as it came to infuse the spirit of the Church Educational System—has formed and molded them.

Elder McConkie was an interesting and inventive thinker.

Indeed, I think much of that crowd of theologians were shaped more directly by those who were shaped by Elder McConkie than they were directly by Elder McConkie himself. My theological sensibilities were awakened when I sat in Stephen Robinson’s classes at Brigham Young University in the early 2000s, for instance, rather than by reading Mormon Doctrine when I had time.

In short, I think Mormon Doctrine is more a historical catalyst than a foundation for active thinking.

Why did academics like Sterling McMurrin dismiss Bruce R. McConkie’s theology?

Sterling McMurrin had two problems with Elder McConkie’s work. First, he described it (in his book The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion) as conservative and intellectually anemic—as if all of Elder McConkie’s systematizing labors were unimaginative, undertaken only out of slavish obedience.

Second, he clearly felt that it was uninformed, forged without any real awareness of the larger philosophical and theological conversations that might have helped to make it more rigorous.

The second of these accusations is hard to dismiss. Elder McConkie clearly didn’t think he needed to bother with the thinking of people he was as likely as not to dismiss as simply products of apostate religion. From his point of view, all such authors’ starting places were so far from where they should have been that they couldn’t have done much more than put their rationality in the service of defending something untrue.

From McMurrin’s perspective, this was sheer naivete.

The first accusation, however, is quite hard to defend. Elder McConkie was an interesting and inventive thinker, one whose thought hasn’t yet been taken seriously enough by intellectual historians to see for its real contribution.

How did the New Mormon History movement work to downplay McConkie’s theology?

This, I’m convinced, was deliberate and, in many ways, was understood to be a cultural imperative. Those engaged in the professionalization of Latter-day Saint history in the 1950s through the 1970s generally seem to have felt about Elder McConkie in much the way Sterling McMurrin did.

Where McMurrin responded to something like Mormon Doctrine by calling for a revitalization of Latter-day Saint theological reflection, the historians proposed a totally distinct way to breathe new life into the Latter-day Saint intellectual community. They turned, obviously, to history.

It’s a fascinating move, really.

Presumably, what the historians found in the past was a version of their religious tradition that looked a good deal less authoritarian, and a good deal more open in its possibilities than it seemed to them at the time.

Elder McConkie inherited that view of rationality in a pretty direct way.

There’s maybe something optimistic about such a turn, then, especially because it seemed to enliven an entire generation of intellectually inclined Latter-day Saints. But there’s also something pessimistic about the turn to the past. It can be a way of giving up on the present, of suggesting that there’s nothing but decline to be found in the development of the tradition.

Be all that as it may, the historians effectively created an alternative to Elder McConkie’s approach to dedicating one’s mind to the Latter-day Saint tradition. One didn’t have to subscribe to the elaboration of doctrine, because one could range through the open fields of history—and in that, one could find a kind of intellectual identity that, many felt, was more seriously respectable in mixed company.

Why do you refer to McConkie’s approach as a “layman’s rationalism”?

I mean two quite specific things by speaking of Elder McConkie’s approach as a layman’s rationalism.

First, rationalism is the intellectual worldview according to which the world can be ultimately explained in fully rational terms; it’s committed to the idea that there’s a kind of rational system that organizes everything, and that that rational system is at least in major part available to human beings. It’s perfectly clear, I think, that some kind of rationalism inspires Elder McConkie’s work from start to finish.

One could scratch the itch without worrying that apostasy was near.

Second, though, it’s worth emphasizing that his rationalism isn’t informed by the literal centuries of reflection on rationality that preceded him. He had the same sensibility that rationalists before him had, but he wasn’t interested at all in figuring out how very serious rationalist thinkers had (in various ways) articulated the nature of the rational, the nature of the rational system that organizes the world.

He clearly felt that he could think through such things beginning from his own mind and the resources of the Restoration alone. That’s a layman’s rationalism.

It’s worth saying that this is an old American tradition. From early in American history, what’s called Scottish “common sense” philosophy (especially that of Thomas Reid) shaped the deeply rationalistic bent of American religious thought. That flowed straight into the early history of the Church, and Elder McConkie inherited that view of rationality in a pretty direct way.

Why was McConkie’s work so appealing during the last decades of the 20th century?

It isn’t hard, I think, to see the appeal Elder McConkie’s work had for many members of the Church. For anyone who had a rationalist bent, a kind of inclination toward reasoning and intellectual labor, but who also held traditional suspicions about the skepticism of the sciences, Elder McConkie’s writings struck exactly the right balance.

The project was deeply intellectual, wholly a matter of reasoning and reflection, and yet it expressed obedience to divine authority rather than to the self-arrogated authority of “intellectuals.”

What had been dominant soon wasn’t.

With something like Mormon Doctrine, one could scratch the itch of intellectual curiosity and even of intellectual rigor without worrying that the road to apostasy was near.

It’s of course true that many of the more academically inclined among the Latter-day Saints accused Elder McConkie of embracing a certain kind of irrationalism—or of being simply allergic to the life of the mind.

That, however, is an unfair assessment. It was just that Elder McConkie represented a rather different life of the mind than the one they embraced.

This is something that the style of theology that I and certain other people practice try to make clear in our own way. There’s a real danger in exalting the self-arrogated authority of the academy, but that doesn’t mean one has to throw away the life of the mind at all. Although we don’t carve out the third way here in quite the same manner that Elder McConkie did, we share his sense that revelation has to be given a certain kind of priority over reason, even as we give everything we’ve got to thinking rationally about what’s revealed.

Why did memory of McConkie’s work start fading during the 21st century?

There’s a story to be told here that I’m not entirely qualified to tell, mostly because it’s tied up in sources I haven’t spent so much time with. But, as I understand things, it was President Gordon B. Hinckley—or at least those working under him—who began to downplay Elder McConkie’s writings.

For decades, Mormon Doctrine had been held up by the institutional Church itself as authoritative, especially within the context of curriculum writers and those leading the Church Educational System. President Hinckley began to emphasize that Church leaders didn’t feel anything like as confident about many matters as Elder McConkie presented himself as being.

President Hinckley downplayed some of the teachings associated with an authoritative approach to theology, such as in his interview with Larry King.

There began a process of minimizing what the Church embraced as official doctrine, relegating many things that had been taught by different general authorities to opinion or speculation.

Just a few years into the twenty-first century, Mormon Doctrine was removed from circulation by decree. All this institutional development coincided with the rise of the new field of Mormon studies, launched in earnest with the publication of Terryl Givens’s By the Hand of Mormon in 2002 and Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling in 2005.

Givens especially worked to shift attention away from Elder McConkie’s way of doing theology, and he’s made a career of exploring explicit alternatives to many of Elder McConkie’s conclusions. That this intellectual cultural development coincided with an institutional decision to downplay Elder McConkie’s writings had a very real effect. What had been dominant soon wasn’t.

Why might now be a good time for a reassessment of his influence?

The philosopher G. W. F. Hegel liked to say that the owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk. He meant by this that philosophy (the love of wisdom—and Minerva was the goddess of wisdom) does its thinking after the things it’s thinking about have run their course (only when the day is done, so to speak).

From the 1960s to the end of the 1990s, Elder McConkie was a boogeyman for the historians who dominated Latter-day Saint intellectual culture, and so they couldn’t think about his role or influence in a dispassionate way. And then, when in the early 2000s, the new field of Mormon Studies took its rise, Elder McConkie was still enough of a boogeyman for those interested in theology that they too couldn’t really think about him without deeply distorting biases.

During all those same years, from the 1960s until just about today, Elder McConkie’s biggest fans couldn’t really assess his influence either, if only because they were likely to lionize him rather than to think carefully and critically about the limits of his rationalist project.

But today, we’ve got some distance. It’s dusk. And so it’s time for the owl of Minerva to take flight. What, looking back, might we see as important about Elder McConkie’s influence, quite apart from any particular theological conclusions he drew?

It’s this that I’m trying to come to see for myself.

What are you appreciative of Bruce R. McConkie?

What I appreciate above all—and this has to be clear from all I’ve said above—is that Elder McConkie drew the Latter-day Saints’ collective attention toward scripture.

I was myself deeply and thoroughly shaped by that particular aspect of his heritage. I was never a McConkie-ite (as we called such people in the mission field); I never bought up all his books, collected all his talks, and memorized all his ideas. Honestly, I didn’t read more than a few pages of his writings until just a couple of years ago, and I’m still anything but deeply conversant with his work.

(My own intellectual formation as a Latter-day Saint had everything to do, instead, with Hugh Nibley—although that’s a topic for another time.)

Learn more about Joseph Spencer’s assessment of Hugh Nibley in this episode of Y Religion.

How did Elder McConkie shape me despite my basic unfamiliarity with his actual project? He shaped the educators who shaped me, and what they did in shaping me was share his intense conviction that the scriptures form the hardest kernel of the Restoration’s revelatory project.

I feel deeply indebted to Elder McConkie for having passed that conviction to so many who in turn passed it to me. It’s a conviction that’s harder and harder to find among the Saints, but it’s a conviction that drives not only all of my intellectual work, but also—and especially—my devotional life.

Scripture is where I find my spiritual home, and that’s something Bruce R. McConkie gave to me, however indirectly. I can only hope I can give the same conviction to others.

About the interview participant

Joseph Spencer is an Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of New Mexico and is one of today’s prominent Latter-day Saint theologians. He has published several related books and articles, including The Vision of All, A Word in Season, and 1st Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction.

Recommended resources

Learn more about Bruce R. McConkie and Latter-day Saint theology in these articles:

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “Is Bruce R. McConkie Treated Unfairly?”

As I look back on those turbulent times I can’t help but believe that perhaps the Lord had reserved Elder McConkie (and others of that era) for the work they would do in grounding the church during the upheaval of the 60’s & 70’s. While McConkie may have been wrong about some things he was right about the things that really mattered–perhaps almost to a fault at times. But that’s what the church needed in those days–IMO.

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