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Landmark 'Mormon Doctrine' goes out of print

Published May 21, 2010 6:51 pm

Religion » McConkie's Mormon Doctrine is popular but polarizing.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After more than 50 years, Bruce R. McConkie's Mormon Doctrine , one of the most influential LDS books of the 20th century, has quietly gone out of print.

The encyclopedic explanation of LDS teachings, first published in 1958, went through 40 printings, selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Deseret Book has decided not to reprint the classic volume, said spokeswoman Gail Halladay, because of "low sales."

"The demand is no longer there," said Halladay, managing director for marketing and communications.

From the day it came off the presses, though, Mormon Doctrine , was at once wildly popular to many and deeply troubling to more than a few, even at the highest levels of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Several passages about the Roman Catholic Church and McConkie's views of blacks were seen as especially offensive.

Although McConkie, an LDS apostle who died in 1985, took sole responsibility from the start for Mormon Doctrine 's content, it often was quoted over the pulpit and treated by members as quasi-official. The book, with its presumptive title, seemed to provide an answer to every question and left little room for ambiguity.

" Mormon Doctrine served two generations of the Mormon rank and file as the main authoritative source of LDS teachings," said LDS sociologist Armand Mauss. "With its authoritative tone and constant promotion from high places, it came to be regularly cited in the church curriculum, especially in [Church Educational System] materials, and soon took on almost a scriptural stature."

To assemble the volume, McConkie, son-in-law of LDS Church President Joseph Fielding Smith, drew on Mormon scriptures, prophetic sermons and commonly held beliefs. He put them together in alphabetical order and with a tone of certainty.

Still, many complained that it did not fairly reflect the diversity of opinion among Latter-day Saints and their leaders.

"The book would more accurately have been entitled, Mostly Mormon Doctrine ," Mauss wrote in an e-mail from his home in Irvine, Calif.

The book was even challenged by LDS President David O. McKay, who led the church from 1951 to 1970.

McKay asked two senior apostles, Mark E. Petersen and Marion G. Romney, to review Mormon Doctrine soon after its release and propose a list of corrections, according to David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince and Robert Wright.

Petersen recommended 1,067 changes "that affected most of the 776 pages of the book," the biography says.

McKay feared that if the corrections were made, it would seriously affect McConkie's credibility, so he preferred not to see the book republished at all.

"Nonetheless, McConkie audaciously approached McKay six years later and pushed for publication of the book in a revised form," according to Prince and Wright. McKay responded that "if republished," the book should be clearly marked as McConkie's work and not an official church publication.

McConkie took that as a go-ahead, Prince and Wright wrote.

"The book became one of the all-time best-sellers in Mormondom," they wrote, "achieving the near-canonical status that McKay had fought unsuccessfully to avoid, and setting a tone of doctrinal fundamentalism, antithetical to McKay's personal philosophy, that remains a legacy of the church to this day."

McConkie came to be viewed as a leading LDS theologian. He wrote many other books, including a series about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the chapter headings in Mormon scriptures, even the words to the popular LDS hymn "I Believe in Christ."

Many Mormons forever will remember his tearful and stirring final testimony at the April 1985 General Conference just weeks before dying of cancer.

"I am one of [Christ's] witnesses, and in a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears," he said. "But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God's almighty son, that he is our savior and redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way."

Prince said he "never saw anything in Bruce McConkie that was mean or un-Christian," but the LDS scientist nonetheless was "delighted" by news that Mormon Doctrine no longer would be published.

"His book," Prince said, "has done some serious damage."

In the first edition, Prince said, it was his "diatribe against the Roman Catholic Church that did the most harm, but subsequently, the real damage has been his statements about blacks."

After the LDS Church opened its all-male priesthood to blacks in 1978, McConkie deleted his previous statement predicting that never would happen. Even in the most recent edition, though, McConkie wrote that God cursed Cain with "a mark of a dark skin, and he became the ancestor of the black race."

Mauss, the sociologist, thinks the book is going out of print "none too soon, especially given the current public-relations preoccupation of the LDS Church."

The volume's continued availability after its wide distribution, he said, will "continue to provide critics of the church with an enduring basis for claiming, however unfairly, that 'Mormon doctrines' are non-Christian or anti-Christian, and that the church is a racist institution."

"Elder McConkie was an apostle and a good man but a man of his times," said Darius Gray, former president of the

Genesis Branch for black Mormons. "Sadly his times included a period in this nation when not all men were judged by the content of their character but rather the color of their skin."

The gospel of Jesus Christ never has been a respecter of persons, said Gray, co-producer with Margaret Blair Young of a documentary film, "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons."

"The LDS Church is a young church," he said, "and, as it has grown, it has become more inclusive, embracing of all God's creations."

The continual publication of Mormon Doctrine seemed to suggest an approval of the concepts and attitudes of a former time, Gray said. By not reprinting it, "a weight will have been lifted off the body of the church. We have thankfully moved on."

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Excerpt from Mormon Doctrine about Noah's son Ham

"HAM: Through Ham (a name meaning black) 'the blood of the Canaanites was preserved' through the flood, he having married Egyptus, a descendant of Cain. ... Ham was cursed, apparently for marrying into the forbidden lineage, and the effects of the curse passed to his son, Canaan. ... Ham's descendants include the Negroes, who originally were barred from holding the priesthood but have been able to do so since June 1978."

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