To this day, no Mormon has served longer in the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles than David Oman McKay the ninth of 15 presidents and prophets of the 12.3 million member church.
For 63 years and nine months as a general authority, the last 19 years as president, McKay moved through leadership roles in the hierarchy of the church in ways that turned it more global and gained it greater respect and acceptance.
The white-haired, gregarious leader had set the standard for lifelong leadership to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. McKay, who died Jan. 19, 1970, at age 96, lived longer than any president before or since. At 95, current President-Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley could eclipse McKay next year as the oldest.
The epic story of McKay’s life is told in "David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism" by Gregory Prince and William Robert Wright, published in April and in its third printing (University of Utah Press, 544 pages, $29.95). It contains perhaps the richest, most detailed accounts of a Mormon prophet. It came about through the painstaking 35-year, day-by-day preservation of McKay’s papers by his personal secretary, Clare Middlemiss, who had intended to write the definitive biography on him after his death.
"This was her life’s work," Prince said in a phone interview. "She wrote the diaries on her own time." Middlemiss, the only woman ever to serve as the private secretary to a Mormon Church president, worked nights, weekends and holidays compiling McKay’s records.
But her own failing health prevented her from doing the book. In the end, about 130,000 pages of letters, diaries, meeting minutes, sermons and press clippings were turned over to Wright, a Salt Lake City lawyer and Middlemiss’ nephew. Wright, in turn, enlisted Prince, author of two other Mormon books, including "Power From on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood," as the primary writer of the McKay story.
The huge treasury of papers, including 40,000 pages of diaries, gave the authors massive material to winnow into an important work of church history.
"A part of that record is in the church archives, and they were very helpful," Prince said. "The diaries had never been available to scholars before and probably never would have been available to me if I had gone to the archives with that request, but Clare kept a complete copy."
In practice, the church regards much of the materials of its general authorities, including presidents, as offlimits to researchers. However, Wright gave the Middlemiss collection to the University of Utah’s Marriott Library as the David O. McKay Collection, making it readily accessible to others.
McKay, first ordained an apostle in 1906 at 32, had graduated valedictorian in 1897 from the University of Utah. He taught and became principal of Weber Stake Academy in Ogden, Utah, now Weber State University. He quickly gained leadership roles, including the superintendency of the Latter-day Saints Sunday school and expanding seminary building construction program. He oversaw three Mormon colleges transferred to state colleges and Brigham Young University’s transition into a four-year institution.
His persona transformed the image of Mormonism outside the church, Prince said. "Every church president since Brigham Young had worn a beard and either had been a polygamist or was the son of a polygamist," Prince said. "That was the image that Mormonism still projected to the world as late as 1951."
Into the presidency that year stepped McKay. "You have this robust former football player, movie -starhandsome, immaculately dressed and groomed, flowing white hair, and that suddenly is the image that is projected to the world and catches on almost immediately."
During his nearly two decades as prophet, church milestones included starting a standard plan of missionary work; construction of the first European temple, in Switzerland; lowering the age for the Aaronic priesthood from 15 to 14 and the age for male missionaries from 20 to 19; starting "family home evenings" and an aggressive extension of the church around the world.
"David O. McKay inherited a church that was provincial and backward-looking," the authors write. His predecessors’ beards and polygamous backgrounds had cast them as "out of touch with moderns." With his charisma, kindness and intellect, "he democratized Mormonism, calling upon every member to be a missionary and thus participate in moving the church into a ‘New Era.’ "
"He pitched a wide tent and then told members of all stripes that he welcomed them to join him and build the church within it," the book concludes.
Prince said as he synthesized the materials and amassed 15,000 pages initially in his computer, his biggest discoveries dealt with McKay’s attitudes on blacks and the priesthood. (It wasn’t until 1978 under his successor as president, Spencer Kimball, that black males were accepted into the priesthood of the church.) McKay had joined his conservative colleagues who opposed civil rights. He was suspicious of that movement’s motives, Prince said. Part of that might have been a result of the influence of Ezra Taft Benson, the 13th president, who supported the ultra-conservative John Birch Society and was influenced by its founder, Robert Welch, who asserted that the civil rights movement was a front for Communists.
"I was disappointed," Prince said. "I had hoped he would have been more progressive." The church became more conflicted over the black priesthood issue as it expanded into African nations and Australia and received queries about what to do as men came into the faith.
In 1967, Arizonan Stewart Udall, U.S. secretary of the interior and a Mormon, wrote the First Presidency, saying, "It must be resolved because we are wrong and it is past the time that we should have seen the right."
Though pressure came from many corridors and some changes were made for blacks to do more in the church, McKay, now in his final years, declined to change the priesthood rule.
Arizona church spokesman Don Evans called McKay "such a fixture for so many years and was the president of the church that so many people identified with, especially baby boomers. He was the president of the church when they grew up.
"He looked the way a prophet should look because of his appearance and bearing," Evans said. "He was charismatic, and people really responded to him just because of the way he related to others."