As astounding as it seems, there has never been a satisfactory biography of David O. McKay, who was in many ways the most charismatic LDS president since Joseph Smith.
McKay, who was tall, athletic and handsome, with thick, wavy white hair, is the one Mormon prophet who has been commonly thought to have "looked like a prophet."
Moreover, in a lengthy tenure as an LDS apostle beginning when he was 32 and lasting until he died at 96, McKay made a huge impact on the church's growth with his own determination to make Mormonism "an international church." By the time he died, McKay was the only church president that two out of of three Mormons had ever known.
In "David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism," a scholarly treatment that often seems more like a doctoral dissertation than a conventional biography, Greg Prince has made an extraordinary contribution in the first legitimate attempt to tell McKay's fascinating story.
Co-author William Robert Wright was the nephew and confidante of Clare Middlemiss, 35-year personal secretary to McKay both as an apostle and as LDS Church president.
Middlemiss, an effective and confident woman who acted more as a chief of staff than a secretary, was also the keeper of his diary, letters, scrapbooks and other documents. She must be praised for keeping an unrivaled historical cache that provides probably more information than has been available about any modern LDS leader.
Wright merely acted as a critic for Prince, who wrote the book. Hence, his title of co-author seems disingenuous. While Prince is unusually well-educated and is a Mormon history buff with an incomparable personal LDS library, his training in dentistry and medical research do not suit him well for the analytical work of historian.
The book suffers from the use of huge, undigested quotations from McKay and a number of church leaders and associates. A trained historian would have pared down the material, done some paraphrasing and devoted precious time to analyzing the evidence.
Instead, Prince just lays it out in lengthy chapters, each of which starts over again chronologically, making the narrative jarring and sometimes confusing.
Still, there is a huge and interesting body of material here that will be fascinating to both general readers and historians and surely will lead to other biographies that improve on this one.
This is an excellent start, but it is not the definitive McKay biography. There is too much bureaucracy in these pages about correlation, education, building, missionary work and temple building, for instance.
But the leadership style of David O. McKay is clearly revealed. Prince portrays him mostly as the strong personality he was, but he also shows an occasionally softer McKay, a man who, for instance, could be manipulated by such feisty personalities as Brigham Young University president Ernest L. Wilkinson and Ezra Taft Benson, an eloquent apostle who became President Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of agriculture.
Prince's evidence suggests that McKay allowed Wilkinson to spend much more money on BYU's physical plant than he planned. And though McKay agreed with Benson about the threats of communism, he failed to realize that Benson's extremist political views were so deeply ingrained.
The ultimate strength, then, of this book is its ability to paint McKay as a human being with the occasional wart. The more honest a biography can be, the more a reader can identify with someone he admires.
With "David O. McKay: Beloved Prophet," Mary Jane Woodger, a BYU church-history professor, has written a more conventional biography, using more traditional and less powerful evidence.
She is, however, a better narrative writer than Prince, and she succeeds where he fails in promoting the predominant memories people have of McKay the man his personal side, his family side, his well-disciplined child-rearing tactics, his Scottish stories, his tendency to use bona fide literary examples in his sermons, his subtle but wry sense of humor, his impeccable fashion sense, his tendency to be the showman, his devotion to his beloved wife Emma Ray, his love of clearing wood on his Huntsville farm.
This is the flesh-and-blood McKay that resonated so well with so many people.
This book represents the polar opposite to the scholarly Prince approach. Sometimes it cries out for more interpretation and detail, but the average Mormon is likely to find it enjoyable reading that strengthens an already established bias about the marvelous bigger-than-life McKay personality.
What: Greg Prince and Bob Wright, authors of "David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism," will speak as part of the Marriott Library Books and Authors Series
Where: Gould Auditorium, Marriott Library, University of Utah
When: Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
E-mail: [email protected]