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Nonbiographies of David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball - Brother Orson Reviews Everything (Mormon Edition)

Nonbiographies of David O. McKay and Spencer W. Kimball
By Orson Scott Card November 11, 2005

Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (University of Utah Press, 2005, 490pp)

Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Deseret Book, 2005, 471pp)

2005 has been a good year for LDS biographical writing -- even though the two books I'm reviewing here are not, strictly speaking, biographies.

Edward Kimball's Lengthen Your Stride is the sequel to his 1977 biography of his father, President Spencer W. Kimball. Kimball assumes that we have already read the biography, and therefore he concentrates on President Kimball's years in the presidency.

Prince & Wright have a different reason for avoiding a traditional biography. In their David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, they have concentrated their efforts on key themes having to do with the second half of the title. President McKay's presidency was transitional, for reasons having to do both with his personal traits and with events that happened to be going on in the world around him. So creating a portrait of his life is quite secondary to depicting various problems and crises he faced as Church President. After a cursory overview of his life, the authors produce a book not dissimilar to Kimball's volume: Both are about the years of a prophet's governance of the LDS Church; more about the man in office than about the man himself.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Not only is it extraordinarily difficult to write an exhaustive biography of an LDS Church president, it may not even be wanted. Kimball's biography of his father was regarded as remarkable for its candor -- but even President Kimball's own son did not have full access to information about the inner workings of Church councils. When Sheri Dew wrote her excellent biography of President Hinckley, she came as close as anyone to the goal of creating a portrait of the whole man -- but, again, there is information we are unlikely to get.

There are good reasons for this. First, one might argue that the good of the Church requires that any dissension or disagreement in the highest councils be kept from the public -- even controversies in the past. To see why, one need only look at the harm caused by the disobedience of various apostles in the past, who spoke their own opinions in a controversy despite the request of the First Presidency that they refrain.

Every word by any General Authority -- especially those sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators -- might well be seized upon by members of the Church and made into the cornerstone of their own set of folk doctrines. When controversies among the Brethren become public, the members start to choose up sides and the Church is potentially riven.

We still have offshoots of Mormonism that cling to the teachings of Brethren who could not let go of polygamy when the First Presidency ordered it to end -- and not even when they insisted that this time they really really meant it.

Likewise, those who wish to make creationism vs. evolution a litmus test of one kind or another have no trouble finding General Authorities to quote -- with the strongest, clearest quotes coming from those least obedient to the counsel of the presidents who asked them to leave the issue alone.

So it's no wonder that the Church tries to keep public accounts of disagreements among the Brethren to a minimum. Not only are many records closed, many witnesses decline to speak; and since the only people present for some key discussions were those with an ax to grind, such information as we do get is often only semi-reliable, since all was filtered through the perceptions of an advocate for one side or the other.

Another reason biographies of Church leaders are hard to write is a general unreliability among all witnesses. By the time anyone cares to write the biography, it is already known that this person grew up to be one of the leaders of the LDS Church. That means that witnesses who are true believers will be far more inclined to see inspiration in all their actions, and to remember their younger years with hindsight that makes every memory mean far more than it did at the time -- or, often, than it deserves to. The Lord starts getting the credit for a lot of things that the man chose to do; and everything has an aura of destiny about it.

Meanwhile, witnesses who have lost the faith are likely to have their memories tinged by disillusionment or cynicism; while those who never believed are skeptical of his divine calling and therefore don't admit the possibility of divine direction or influence at any point.

Skepticism, overclaiming, cynicism, disillusionment -- this is not the stuff of reliable sources. The biographer is forced to judge the reliability of sources constantly, and then must deal with his own biases. Is he unconsciously trying to shape the account to fit a preconceived, faith-related or skepticism-related agenda?

On this point, both books reveal biographers who have taken their responsibility seriously. Believing and unbelieving readers will find themselves relatively unscathed; what matters is what the subject of the book believed -- and what he did about it.

Not that the writers have no agenda of their own. To Prince and Wright, the fact that President McKay was an intellectual (a word that begs definition, but they seem to use the most common one: he had college degrees) is very important, and they prioritize the events and problems of his presidency from that perspective. The result is that the account of the McKay presidency focuses on the issues that are likely to preoccupy those who see the Church through the lens of American intellectual culture.

Or perhaps I'm misreading their intent, and they are merely reporting like journalists, zeroing in on controversy because it makes the more entertaining story.

Thus, in their book, the most important thing about the missionary program was the baseball baptisms controversy; the most important thing about the building program was how overextended the Church became -- how close to illiquidity, and who took the fall for the mistakes; the most important thing about the Church's opposition to Communism is the effort to restrain Elder Benson from dragging the Church to an extremist position.

But let's face it -- these are also the most fascinating reading for even the most orthodox of Saints, because we aren't present in those inner counsels, and Prince and Wright have done a good job of finding the best possible sources and using them effectively and fairly. Though they deal with some of the hottest controversies in the Church at the time, they do it with great restraint and surprising balance.

One reason they had so much information is that they had a key source that was not under the control of the official Church: the notes and diaries of Clare Middlemiss, who was President McKay's devoted secretary for thirty-five years -- and also happened to be author Wright's aunt. Middlemiss was quite loyal to President McKay -- and not really to anybody else. This caused some serious resentment of her among some of the Brethren, especially during President McKay's last years, when it was very difficult for him to speak and be understood. She had a tendency to guard his door and bring out translations, so to speak, though this was much exaggerated among the resentful.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the McKay volume is the authors' candid depiction of the degree to which President McKay's virtues were also his weaknesses -- something that is repeatedly true of leaders in many settings. President McKay was a conciliator; he loathed conflict and avoided it almost at any cost. This meant a great deal of harmony, most of the time. But when a headstrong General Authority wanted to make a fight of it, as long as he maintained reasonable decorum, President McKay gave him far more rope than other Church presidents might have.

Which is why Elder Benson kept pushing the envelope on his (and his son's) association with the John Birch society, and why Bruce R. McConkie's audacious (and inaccurate) book Mormon Doctrine was permitted to remain in print, largely unrevised, to become a source of faulty doctrine that had the illusion of being official, just to mention a couple of cases. President McKay shared the Prophet Joseph's virtue -- and fault -- of giving his trust readily and withdrawing it only when forced to by unignorable circumstances.

Yet at no time does the reader feel that the book is finding fault, at least not on purpose. Rather it becomes a very useful look at the way that even when the Lord is directing his church, he allows the character strengths and weaknesses of his most trusted servants to have a great deal of influence over the course of events. President McKay was vital to the Church's ability to make changes that were needed to adapt to the radical transformation of the world in the middle of the twentieth century; but he also allowed some problems to become a bit out of hand -- though never to the point of causing serious permanent damage to the Church. In ever case, either he himself, or the Spirit directing him, pulled in the reins in time to avert lasting harm.

In writing Lengthen Your Stride, Edward Kimball had the advantage of being President Kimball's own son -- in a close family. He saw his father often. But he had the disadvantage that he was not his father's secretary. Clare Middlemiss, as secretary to the President, was there for the kinds of events from which the prophet's family members are generally excluded. So there is gain on the personal side, and Kimball's task as a chronicler was a bit hampered on the official side.

But the result is still a wonderful book; though I think most readers will find it less satisfying than Kimball's earlier biography of his father, for the simple reason that the President of the Church spends his life bound up in schedules and meetings, travel and a constant awareness of the public. The President of the Church doesn't have time to do anything much that's interesting, in the normal biographical sense. So Kimball was right to focus on the official acts of the Kimball presidency, during the years when his health allowed him to hold the reins of the Church most fully.

The heart of this book, the centerpiece, if you will, is the story of President Kimball's long struggle to win the Lord's -- and the other brethren's -- consent to extend the priesthood to everyone. On this issue, the McKay book makes a lovely prequel: We saw how President McKay came as close as he could, in an era when he possibly could not have got the consent of all the Brethren and certainly might have divided the Church by forcing the decision on the members too soon. Now, in the Kimball book, we can see President Kimball truly wrestling with the Lord, night after night, week after week, and then carefully bringing the other Church leaders into the process so that the decision, when it was reached, was truly unanimous.

Both books, while not really biographies, are wonderful accounts of two pivotal, active presidencies. Presidents McKay and Kimball were very different men (as is President Hinckley, arguably the strongest individual to hold the Presidencyfor any length of time since Heber J. Grant); yet they both brought all their best gifts to the office, and humbly accepted the counsel and help of others when their own abilities were not enough.

Anyone who wants to understand, as well as possible without being on them, the workings of the highest councils of the Church and what it means to be President, will find these two books valuable, perhaps indispensable.

Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card

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