Article Last Updated: 5/07/2005 03:09 AM=20
New book offers a glance into early conflicts and compromises among
the LDS hierarchy
A candid peek=20
By Peggy Fletcher Stack=20
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune =20
There was a time when Clare Middlemiss was the most powerful woman in
the LDS Church.
She was not the leader of the church's all-female Relief Society
nor the wife of the prophet, but the intrepid secretary of President
David O. McKay, the charismatic Mormon leader who shepherded his
church through the sleepy post-World War II years into the Cold War
and then on to the turbulence of the civil rights, anti-war and
For 35 years, anyone who wanted an audience with McKay had to go
through Middlemiss. More sergeant than stenographer, the West High
School and LDS Business College graduate was the first and only woman
ever to be secretary to a Mormon president. She never married, rarely
took a vacation and worked an unpaid second shift at home documenting
McKay's every word and action. She copied his letters, diaries and
minutes of presidency meetings, transcribed his sermons and clipped
out news stories about him, eventually filling 130,000 pages.
Not long after McKay's death in 1970, Middlemiss herself began to
fail, and died in 1983. Now her influence has returned in the form of
her eyewitness materials, which offer unexpected glimpses of the man
she revered as well as a candid peek at behind-the-scenes conflicts
and compromises among the LDS hierarchy of his day.
It's all in a new book, David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern
Mormonism, recently published by the University of Utah Press. It has
arrived just in time to provide a scholarly counterpart to this year's
Sunday school curriculum of McKay's spiritual legacy, mandated for
every congregation in the 12 million-member LDS Church.
"This is a landmark book," says Peter DeLafonsse, the U. editor
who solicited the manuscript, the first major Mormon work the press
has published in years.
Jan Shipps, the premier non-LDS historian of Mormonism, goes even furth=
"It is certainly the most important book of Mormon history to come
forth in the last decade," she says. "It is the scaffolding on which
we will hang the story of Mormonism in the 20th century."
Middlemiss had planned to write the definitive McKay biography,
but when her health began to decline, she bequeathed the records to
her nephew, Salt Lake City attorney Wm. Robert Wright. While serving
as an LDS mission president in Washington, D.C., Wright enlisted the
help of Maryland businessman and researcher Gregory Prince. In
addition to scouring the Middlemiss collection, they interviewed 200
people who had worked with McKay.
They realized immediately what an unusual resource they had. The
LDS Church considers all general authority materials, including
anything from a church president, to be off-limits to researchers. By
contrast, Wright deposited his aunt's papers in the David O. McKay
Collection at the U.'s Marriott Library so they would be available to
The result of the Wright/Prince collaboration is an extraordinarily
even-handed look at the rapidly expanding LDS Church in the middle of
the 20th century as it moved away from its 19th century polygamy,
parochialism and obscurity into the international arena. It explores
the church's missionary successes, including its controversial
"baseball baptism" program; the church's financial crisis, spawned by
overbuilding churches and on the Brigham Young University campus; its
confrontation with Communism, its outreach to other faiths and the
antagonisms over its exclusion of blacks from the all-male priesthood.
McKay, whose kindness sometimes kept him from taking a strong
stand, was at the center of it all.
Poet and intellectual: To an entire generation of Mormons, the
white-haired, white-suited McKay embodied the idea of a prophet.
Generous, educated, jovial, tolerant, even beatific, his "imprint on
Mormonism was indelible and will likely forever influence its
destiny," Prince writes in the introduction.
Born in the small northern Utah town of Huntsville in 1873, McKay
spent hours memorizing poetry as he carried mail to and from mining
camps. At the U., he continued his love of literature, while being
class president and courting his future wife, Emma Ray Riggs. His
first foray out of the state came with his two-year church mission to
Scotland, where he wrestled with his own skepticism and faith. Not
long after becoming president of Weber Stake Academy (now Weber State
University) in Ogden, McKay had to give it up. The church had tapped
him for an apostle at 33 in 1905, and it's a lifetime calling.
Throughout his remaining six decades, though, McKay remained an
intellectual, the authors write. "He cherished the things of the mind,
cultivated his own intellect throughout his life, encouraged his
fellow Latter-day Saints to do likewise, and vigorously defended the
consequences of intellectualism."
When the distinguished Mormon educator Sterling McMurrin, known
for his unorthodox religious views of Mormon origins and scriptures,
was threatened with church discipline by two apostles, McKay was
"Well, all I can say is, that if they put you on trial for
excommunication, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf,"
McKay told McMurrin in a Sunday morning meeting in 1954.
The church president told McMurrin that he had no problem with the
theory of evolution, yet he would not voice that support publicly. So
opposition to the theory, espoused by future president Joseph Fielding
Smith, seemed the de facto church position.
Like many others in the 1950s, McKay was deeply suspicious of
Communism. While overseeing the church's international outreach, he
watched the Iron Curtain close down Mormon branches in places such as
Czechoslovakia and Korea. Yet he never became an extreme or paranoid
When apostle and future president Ezra Taft Benson began publicly
associating with the archconservative John Birch Society, many of the
apostles urged McKay to distance the church from the group. McKay did
try on several occasions to rein in Benson, but his affection for the
apostle, who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, prevented him
from being unequivocal.
In 1966, Benson wanted to use McKay's photo on the April cover of
American Opinion, the Birch Society magazine. Unaware of the
connection, McKay agreed. But at the urging of the other apostles, who
worried it would seem an endorsement of the group's politics, he
reversed the decision.
At their next meeting, Benson persuaded the 92-year-old McKay to go
ahead with the photo. Mc=C2Kay's counselor N. Eldon Tanner got wind of
it and he called an urgent meeting with McKay, his son Lawrence
Mc=C2Kay, and apostles Smith and Mark E. Peterson. Together they called
American Opinion's editorial offices in Massachusetts and demanded
that the magazine remove the photo.
Benson's brand of conservatism nudged many Mormons away from their
McKay was a Republican, but would develop a surprising bond with
Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, the authors write.
They had met briefly when Johnson was vice-president. Then, two
months after President Kennedy's assassination, Johnson invited McKay
to come to D.C. and meet with him - the first religious leader he
invited to the White House.
"I don't have anything emergency, but I just need a little strength
and I think that would come from visiting with you an hour or so,"
Johnson said, according to the phone transcript written by Middlemiss.
At the White House, Johnson told McKay "that events were crowding
in on him: Cyprus, Vietnam, the shooting of Americans over Berlin,
Panama. He felt he needed help. When he was a boy he could rest his
head on his mother's shoulder," recalled Lawrence McKay, who
accompanied his father. "Now he needed another shoulder to rest on."
A shoulder to rest on is an apt metaphor for McKay's legacy, the book s=
"The greatness of David O. McKay is not captured in fact and
figures. Other church presidents have served longer, traveled farther,
presided over greater growth, built more buildings, defined more
doctrines, and instituted more sweeping changes in organization and
policy," Prince and Wright write.
Rather, it was in his striking appearance, distinctive presence
and infectious optimism.
"Clean-shaven, immaculately dressed, and movie-star handsome,
McKay immediately caught the attention of member and nonmember alike,
and held it," they write. "He democratized Mormonism, calling upon
every member to be a missionary and thus participate in moving the
church into a 'New Era.' ''
The depth of his humanity might never have been fully realized
without Middlemiss, McKay's devoted, obsessive secretary.
Courtesy of Wm. Robert Wright=20
David O. McKay and his wife, Emma Ray McKay, left, and secretary
Clare Middlemiss, stopped in Scotland on their 1955 European tour.