Scholars and Latter-day Saint authors critiqued the recently published biography of David O. McKay Saturday, extolling its candor while also lamenting the lack of an intimate look at the man who presided as the ninth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Gregory Prince, co-author of "David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism," fielded questions about his lengthy 550-page work during the final day of the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. The four-day event is sponsored by the Sunstone Foundation, founded in 1974 as an open forum to discuss spiritual, intellectual and cultural issues about the LDS lifestyle.
"We're still stuck in the 19th century as historians, and it's time we got into the 20th century," Prince said. "We need to do it big time."
The panel of four critics praised the book for doing just that by providing an in-depth look at the workings of the church's administration under President McKay from 1951-70. The book, co-authored by Robert Wright, is a compilation of more than 200 interviews and thousands of pages of documents kept by President McKay's personal secretary, Clare Middlemiss.
Those primary source documents give the book an unusual candor that reveals both the strengths and shortcomings of church leaders, Edward L. Kimball said.
"I have sheer envy at the character of analysis and the data on which he had to draw," said Kimball, son of former LDS President Spencer W. Kimball and co-author of his father's biography. "It has the ability to tell to us in incredible detail the workings of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles."
But Prince added that he doesn't take credit for the book, which he said has three heroes President McKay, Middlemiss for keeping the extensive records and Wright, Middlemiss' nephew to whom she entrusted the records before she died.
If anything, Prince said, he was simply a "conduit" for the information. Prince also was quick to remind the audience at the Sunstone lecture that the book was not based solely on Middlemiss' records, which included a daily journal of President McKay's doings, a collection of his discourses and records of his personal life.
The book also was based on eight years of interviews and a thorough scouring of documents at the University of Utah manuscript collection, Prince said.
"It's not biased by her (Middlemiss). It's as close to objectivity as we could get," he said. "These oral histories are invaluable. You do a few hundred of them and you find out how golden they are."
Despite the critics' esteem for the book, all of the panelists said they craved more intimate details into the personal and family life of President McKay. Although the book begins with several vignettes revealing President McKay's personality, it then lurches into a history of the administration of the church, said Boyd Peterson, author of "Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life."
Sometimes, he added, President McKay is pushed into the background of the story by other strong characters in the church's presidency."The institutional church becomes the principal character of this book, sometimes to the exclusion of David O. McKay," he said.
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