Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A brief history of 'Mormon Doctrine'

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One of the most influential Latter-day Saint books of the past fifty years has been discontinued.  The popular Mormon Doctrine by late apostle Bruce R. McConkie will not go through another printing.  
Mormon Doctrine has been a popular encyclopedic reference defining a wide range of Latter-day Saint doctrines with hundreds of thousands of copies printed.  While not an official publication of the church, it became very influential among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, going through 40 printings.
Last year Deseret Book decided to end future printings, citing low sales.  In December it was reported that references to Mormon Doctrine and other older works had been removed from the new LDS Gospel Principles manual.  This spring the remaining copies sold out and copies are no longer available in bookstores around Utah.
Beginnings of  Mormon Doctrine
Much of the energies of church leaders in the late 1800s and early 1900s were spent on issues surrounding persecution over polygamy and statehood.  Once these issues were resolved, some church leaders turned their attention toward Mormon theology.  Numerous statements by 19th century church leaders had not yet been synthesized into a coherent, organized manner and there was no source one could consult to determine what constituted LDS doctrine.
Authors such as B. H. Roberts, John A. Widstoe, and James E. Talmage wrote systematic works on LDS theology.  Also involved in this effort, Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith compiled 'The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith' in 1939 and in 1954-58 published the three-volume 'Doctrines of Salvation.'
In June, 1958, his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie surprised church leaders by publishing 'Mormon Doctrine: A Compendium of the Gospel.'  Trained as a lawyer and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, Elder McConkie had not been assigned to write the book, nor sought permission from church leaders. 
Elder McConkie saw it as "the first major attempt to digest, explain, and analyze all of the important doctrines of the kingdom."  Church leaders liked the concept of such a work, but were concerned about its harsh tone and errors, thinking it "most unfortunate that it has received such wide circulation."
Three years earlier the First Presidency had stopped the publication of Elder McConkie's book "Sound Doctrine" as they had decades earlier with B. H. Roberts' theological work "The Truth, The Way, The Life."
Church president David O McKay's combed through the book attaching hundreds of notes to its pages, and asked two apostles to investigate the book further.   "I asked them if they would together go over Elder Bruce R. McConkie's book, Mormon Doctrine and make a list of the corrections that should be made preparatory to his sending out an addendum to all members of the church who have purchased his book."
After a lengthy investigation, Elders Mark E. Peterson and Marion G. Romney reported their findings to President McKay and his counselors.  President McKay's office journal noted:
They submitted their report upon their examination of the book Mormon Doctrine by Elder Bruce McConkie.  These brethren reported that the manuscript of the book Mormon Doctrine had not been read by the reading committee, that President [of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and father-in-law of Bruce R. McConkie] Joseph Fielding Smith did not know anything about it until it was published."
Not only were they unhappy with a book seeking to declare church doctrine without their consent, but the committee took issue with strong anti-evolutionary and anti-Catholic statements, as well as the harsh tone and controversial interpretations of some doctrines and practices.  President McKay had been contacted by the Catholic bishop in Salt Lake City about his displeasure with the book.
Elder McConkie was called in to meet with the First Presidency.  Declining to be seated, he was informed of their decision not to allow a second edition which he was preparing.  He responded, "I am amenable to whatever you Brethren want.  I will do exactly what you want."  Elder Henry D. Moyle noted "I've never seen a man in the Church in my experience that took our criticism - and it was more than criticism - but he took it better than anyone I ever saw."
Unused copies of the book were recalled and inventories destroyed. But the book continued to cause concern.  For example, the next month, President McKay tried to alleviate concerns that the church was against evolution.  Other criticisms of the book included: that playing face cards was apostasy and rebellion; that birth control was rebellion against God; that capital punishment should be the penalty for sex crimes.
Six years later, Bruce R. McConkie published an approved, revised version of Mormon Doctrine with most of the 1067 identified problems corrected. 
President McKay's biographer Greg Prince noted:
McKay, age ninety-two and in failing health, did not take the matter up with his counselors or the Quorum of the Twelve. Rather, he said that "should the book be re-published at this time," McConkie would be responsible for it and "that it will not be a Church publication." Three days after meeting with McKay, McConkie wrote in a memo to Clare Middlemiss, McKay's secretary, "President McKay indicated that the book should be republished at this time."
Elder McConkie's son Joseph Fielding McConkie noted "On July 5, 1966, President McKay invited Elder McConkie into his office and gave approval for the book to be reprinted if appropriate changes were made and approved. Elder Spencer W. Kimball was assigned to be Elder McConkie’s mentor in making those changes."
Elder Kimball had a list of about 50 concerns affecting 56 pages of text.  Elder McConkie softened the tone, excluded items not pertinent to a discussion of LDS Doctrine, and added about eighty pages of new material.  No doctrinal changes were made.
The book would go on to become a best seller among Latter-day Saints, proving to be a useful, approved resource for doctrinal information. 
In 1972 he filled a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles created by the death of his father-in-law, then president of the church.  That same year a committee was organized to create a unified version of the LDS scriptures.  Elder McConkie was later appointed to the Scriptures Publications Committee and a new version of the scriptures was released in 1979, including a bible dictionary that borrowed from 'Mormon Doctrine.'
In 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation allowing black men the priesthood.  Of this Elder McConkie said, "There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things ... Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation." 
The next year he modified Mormon Doctrine creating the third and last edition.  He removed doctrinal statements that justified banning black men and women from full church fellowship.
The end of Mormon Doctrine
Some have suggested Mormon Doctrine was discontinued because the church's doctrinal emphasis has shifted, and that the church would prefer to de-emphasize some of the more edgy items penned fifty years earlier before church correlation existed.  While the 2nd and 3rd editions softened and corrected the text, remnants of uncomfortable items remained that are not found in church curriculum produced today.
Others regret the classic and handy volume will no longer be available, as it has continued to be relied on heavily by Mormons and church educators.  Joseph Fielding McConkie reflected it was a "time-honored classics of Mormon literature. Few books can match it in endurance or number of copies sold. Perhaps few books, except the scriptures, can match it in the frequency with which it has been quoted in talks and lessons by those seeking to teach gospel principles."
Latter-day Saint sociologist Armand Mauss noted that for members of the LDS Church, Mormon Doctrine "is considered authoritative, if not definitive, and easily ranks alongside the older Articles of Faith [by James E. Talmage] in its importance."
The book became one of the most influential LDS books of the 20th century.  Even out of print, Mormon Doctrine will remain an LDS classic.
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