“Elder Bruce R. McConkie: ‘Preacher of Righteousness’” Ensign, June 1985, 15
“I know that my Redeemer liveth!”
This testimony—central to the life, the words, and the mission of Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve—was expressed in word and song at his memorial services 23 April 1985 in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
Speaking in general conference less than two weeks earlier, Elder McConkie had repeated the witness he gave the Church for almost four decades as a General Authority: “As pertaining to Jesus Christ, I testify that he is the Son of the Living God and was crucified for the sins of the world. He is our Lord, our God, and our King. This I know of myself independent of any other person.” (Ensign, May 1985, p. 11.)
Elder McConkie had battled cancer for over sixteen months. After surgery in January 1984, doctors told him he had only a short time to live. But sustained by his faith—and the faith, fasting, and prayers of family and friends throughout the world—he continued uncomplainingly to perform the duties of his calling, even viewing his trials as a blessing. “I am quite overwhelmed by deep feelings of thanksgiving and rejoicing for the goodness of the Lord to me,” he said in conference the April after surgery. “He has permitted me to suffer pain, feel anxiety, and taste his healing power.” (Ensign, May 1984, p. 32.)
“During the past year, when he has not been well,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley at the funeral, “he has been indefatigable in his pursuit of the work of the Lord to open new areas, to strengthen the missionary service, to build the Saints, to bear solemn and sincere witness to the reality and divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and to the restoration of His work.”
In October, his health began to deteriorate. Rallying strength for his final public testimony, he asked his brother Briton for a blessing. Then, on the day of the conference, he rose from his sickbed to testify of the Savior:
“I am one of his 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.
“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.” (Ensign, May 1985, p. 11.)
Referring to that stirring testimony, President Hinckley said: “Can any of us doubt that he has now reported to the Lord whom he loved, that he has felt of the nail marks in His hands and in His feet and wet His feet with his own tears? I can well imagine that he has repeated the words that were spoken by Thomas of old, ‘My Lord and my God.’ (John 20:28.) I believe that he has received in response the words, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant: … enter thou into the joy of thy [Lord].’ (Matt. 25:21.)”
During his struggle with cancer, Elder McConkie demonstrated faith that he would live until his mission was accomplished. Even near the end, when his illness kept him from his duties, he would get up every morning, then lie on top of the bed fully dressed as evidence that he trusted in the healing power of the Lord. “To him, getting under the covers would have symbolized that he had given up,” says a family member. He bought a suit and a new pair of shoes, and spoke optimistically of returning to the many projects he still wanted to work on.
When he received a blessing from Elder Boyd K. Packer a week after conference, however, he was told he was one of “the faithful elders of this dispensation [who], when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel … in the great world of the spirits of the dead.” (D&C 138:57.)
“Following the blessing,” Elder Packer related, “Brother McConkie wept and said, ‘It is now all in the hands of the Lord.’ He affirmed his willingness to do as the Lord should wish. After we left his home that day, for the first time he took off his clothes and went to bed.” Five days later, 19 April 1985, he died.
The day of his death was stormy, but the afternoon of his funeral was warm and beautiful. The flowers on the grounds of Temple Square and inside the Tabernacle spoke of spring and renewal. President Spencer W. Kimball was in attendance, as were Elder McConkie’s 95-year-old mother, his Wife and family, and thousands of Latter-day Saints who had been strengthened by his lifelong mission.
The Tabernacle Choir sang “I Believe in Christ,” a hymn with words written by Elder McConkie. In the fourth verse, the struggles of mortality—known so well by the author are seen in their eternal context:
I believe in Christ; he stands supreme!
From him I’ll gain my fondest dream;
And while I strive through grief and pain,
His voice is heard: ‘Ye shall obtain.’
President Gordon B. Hinckley praised Elder McConkie for his “great sense of mission.” The Apostle knew that “his responsibility, his overriding trust [was] to stand before the world as a special witness of the Savior of mankind. He made this the first interest of his life. His writings, his talks, his travels were all centered on this one grand objective.”
He spoke of Elder McConkie’s zeal in carrying the work forward in South America: “The work has now developed in a marvelous and wonderful way in that great continent. … To Brother McConkie deservedly goes much credit for the present stature of the work there.”
President Ezra Taft Benson eulogized him as a preacher of righteousness. “Thanks be to God that Elder McConkie’s written words of testimony remain to continue to bless a world that needs them so desperately. …
“Often when a doctrinal question came before the First Presidency and the Twelve,” he continued, “Elder McConkie was asked to quote the scripture or to comment on the matter. He could quote scripture verbatim and at great length.” He “provided the entire Church with an example of gospel scholarship. He could teach the gospel with ease because he first understood the gospel.”
Elder Boyd K. Packer also praised Elder McConkie’s remarkable scriptural contribution to the Church. “To me there was one great crowning achievement in Brother McConkie’s ministry. … If ever there was a man who was raised up unto a very purpose, if ever a man was prepared against a certain day of need, it was Bruce R. McConkie.” The preparation and publication of the new LDS editions of the scriptures, which “will one day emerge as a signal inspired event in our generation … , could not have been done without Elder Bruce R. McConkie,” he said. “Few will ever know the extent of the service he rendered. Few can appraise the lifetime of preparation for this quiet crowning contribution to the onrolling of the restored gospel in the dispensation of the fulness of times.”
Elder Packer spoke of the uncompromising attitude his associate had toward his obligation to speak the truth. “It was not granted to Brother McConkie to judge beforehand how his discourses would be received and then to alter them accordingly. Nor Could he measure what ought to be said and how it ought to be said by ‘what will people think?’ … When he was tempted to change [his words], the Spirit would withdraw a distance. … He could stand what the critics might say and what the enemies might do, but he could not stand that.
“He would be driven to his knees to beg forgiveness and plead for the renewal of that companionship with the Spirit which the scriptures promise can be constant. Then he would learn once again that what was true of holy men of God who spake in ancient times applied to him as well. He was to speak as he was moved upon by the Holy Spirit.”
Elder James E. Faust spoke of some of the achievements of Elder McConkie’s life. “To me, the greatest measure of Bruce Redd McConkie is the size of his heart, the warmth of his soul, and the depth of his testimony.” Elder Faust illustrated this sensitivity: As a new General Authority; he planned and conducted a seminar in which Elder McConkie was to participate. “Sensing my feeling of inadequacy, Bruce said in an offhand way to my Ruth: ‘I wish I had Jim’s experience in the Church.’ At that time, he had already been a General Authority for thirty years. This was so typical of his sensitive concern for others.”
On another occasion, a Church leader in South America apologized for making a procedural mistake. Elder McConkie sought to put him at ease: “President, don’t give it another thought,” he said. “In this Church we begin where we are; we begin today. We don’t look backwards; we look forward. Please don’t be concerned.”
Bruce Redd McConkie was born 29 July 1915 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the first child of Oscar W. and Margaret Vivian Redd McConkie. “His life began as a miracle,” said Elder Boyd K. Packer. “It was a very difficult birth. He was thought to be stillborn and the doctors worked frantically to save his mother. Then someone heard a tiny cry and turned to him.”
The family returned home to southern Utah a year later, where Bruce spent his boyhood on a farm. One day, his father miraculously saved Bruce’s life by responding quickly to the Spirit’s prompting to run out into the orchard. Upon seeing a galloping horse, he thought, “I must stop this horse.” It wasn’t until he had done so that he discovered the horse had been dragging his son.
When Bruce was a teenager, the family moved to Salt Lake City, where he finished high school. He served as a missionary in the eastern United States from 1934 to 1936, then earned a law degree from the University of Utah in 1939. After two years as assistant Salt Lake City attorney and city prosecutor, he spent four years as a security and intelligence officer in the army. Returning to civilian life with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he joined the American Legion and the Reserves. Later, as a General Authority, he supervised the spiritual welfare of Latter-day Saints in military service.
Thirty-year-old Bruce McConkie didn’t return to a legal career after the war; instead, he joined the editorial staff of the Deseret News. Less than a year later, on 10 October 1946, President George Albert Smith called him to serve in the First Council of Seventy. He held that position for twenty-six years, during which time he served three years as president of the Southern Australia Mission. Then on 12 October 1972, President Harold B. Lee called him to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder McConkie is best known and loved among Church members for his sermons and writings on doctrinal subjects—his encyclopedic work, Mormon Doctrine, covering over 1,100 gospel subjects; his three-volume New Testament commentary; his six-volume series on the life and mission of Jesus Christ.
“He had his own unique style,” said President Hinckley. “With measured words, firm and unequivocal, and with order and logic, he wove the patterns of his discourses. His language was clear, its meaning unmistakable. … He spoke from a cultivated mind, but also from a sincere heart.”
“Dad paid a price to learn,” says his son Mark. “He knew gospel understanding comes to people who earn it—it’s not some sudden flash that comes without effort. Even though he had already read the scriptures many times during his life, he reread the entire standard works, taking notes on everything that was messianic in nature, before writing The Promised Messiah. Then when he wrote The Mortal Messiah, he read the entire standard works again and wrote down everything that was helpful in analyzing the life of the Savior. For The Millennial Messiah, he read the entire standard works a third time and wrote down everything that was millennial. Some people may not appreciate the intense labor that went into it.”
A daughter once asked him how he learned the gospel. When he was a young man, he said, about eighteen or nineteen, he went through the Book of Mormon verse by verse, studying and cross-referencing, and rewriting each verse in his own words. He covered the entire Book of Mormon in this way and had a stack of papers over a foot high when he was through. “I asked him what he did with those papers, and he said he threw them away—it wasn’t the stack of papers or what he wrote that was important, but the discipline and understanding it gave him. This is the way he taught himself.”
Robert J. Matthews, dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, tells about serving as a missionary under Elder McConkie’s father in the days before Elder McConkie was a General Authority. “Oscar McConkie was a very capable man in his own right. One day we missionaries asked him a question; he thought a little while and said, ‘I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to ask my son, Bruce.’
“I asked him how old his son was; when he told me he was only thirty, I said, ‘How is it that you—being his father, a judge, a mission president—feel that you have to ask your son for the answer?’ He replied, ‘You just don’t know Bruce!’”
Years later, Brother Matthews worked with the Scriptures Publications Committee in the preparation of the new editions of the scriptures. “One of Elder McConkie’s major accomplishments on that committee,” he says, “was the individual chapter headings and section summaries. [He again read the entire standard works while doing this project.] Although I read these headings before publication, I still frequently marvel and am reimpressed with the clarity and insight wherein few words say so much.
“Sometimes those of us who worked with the Committee discussed the headings with him before publication. He was always open and non-defensive, and never did I see him use the weight of his office to decide a point. He would often say in a friendly way: ‘If you fellows want to change the wording you may do so.’ We rarely did, and then only with his concurrence.”
Velma Harvey, Elder McConkie’s secretary for thirty-two years, speaks of his graciousness. “In all the years I worked for him, he never said an unkind word to me. I have never known a more Christlike man.”
One of Elder McConkie’s former missionaries, Robert McDougall, recalls the great impact his mission president had upon his life. A native-born Australian, he was called to serve a full-time mission in his homeland under President McConkie. “I have to admit to a great deal of apprehension the day I climbed aboard the plane to answer the call. … There was no mission-home training available and I felt unprepared and very nervous.
“I will never forget the feeling of comfort I got when he met me at the airport and took me in his arms and then spent the weekend taking me everywhere he went, talking to me, teaching me, and getting me ready to serve.”
Brother McDougall remembers well Elder McConkie’s energy and sense of humor. “I remember one occasion when he invited his missionaries to a meeting at the top of a 4,000-foot mountain. The catch was that they had to walk. When they got to the top, worn, tired, and panting, they found Elder McConkie sitting fresh as a daisy, waiting for them.
“On another occasion, he called me out of the shower at 6 A.M. to ask me to gather all of the missionaries in the region for an all-day meeting. The most surprising thing about that invitation was that I was a very junior missionary and he was about 2,000 miles away at the time.
“I began to call the other missionaries to tell them about the meeting,” he remembers. “Most thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but eventually all of them, including the regional elders, assembled for the meeting.”
The missionaries waited for over an hour for their mission president to arrive, many wondering if the young elder had understood the message accurately. Just as some were ready to call the meeting a hoax, “a smiling President McConkie drove into the parking lot.
“That day we sat at his feet and were taught in vintage McConkie style, straight scripture—for seven hours.
“He started by saying he had asked us to meet to discuss one scripture. I remember to this day, more than two decades later, the exact verse because he elaborated on it, took it apart, examined every related reference and historical context for seven hours. When he had finished, we had spent the entire day on one verse. He stopped because it was obvious we couldn’t take any more, not because he had no more to give. He was just getting started.” (The Provo Herald, 21 Apr. 1985.)
In 1937, Bruce R. McConkie married Amelia Smith in the Salt Lake Temple. “She has stood by his side, a true helpmeet,” wrote Elder S. Dilworth Young years ago. “In their young married life when money was scarce she enlarged it by her skill in handling a home, in cooking, sewing, and household work. With eight children to care for, she found time to be by his side on hikes, camps, socials, and in the physical labor of making a home. …
“As one enters her home, one sees … a devoted mother who is indeed the queen of the household. She is a noble example of Latter-day Saint womanhood,” Elder Young continued. (Ensign, January 1973, p. 11.)
“Dad was absolutely nutty about Mother,” says his daughter Vivian.
“There was a natural affinity between the two of them. He told us over and over that Mother was perfect. As a kid, I used to argue with him about that—I told him he was putting her up on a pedestal. But he told me that’s where she belongs. After having seen what my Mother has been through and how she has handled everything, I see that he really was right.”
One of the daughters once asked her dad what a prophetess is. His reply: “A prophetess is a woman like your mother.”
“That’s how he treated Mother,” says Vivian. “He adored her; he wouldn’t allow any criticism of her. And he wanted her to be by him all the time—he always wanted her to be in the same room with him.”
Mark remembers that Thursday nights were reserved as his parents’ date night. “Their courtship continued until today.” They enjoyed shows, went out for ice cream or popcorn, or just went for walks. They once went through a bird-watching phase together, and later enjoyed collecting and polishing rocks, making beautiful jewelry for friends. They studied the scriptures together, and she listened as he prepared his manuscripts and sermons.
Their first son, Bruce, Jr., died after living only a few weeks. The McConkies later had eight more children who, in the words of President Hinckley, “wonderfully honor his name.”
The children speak of Elder McConkie as a gentle, sensitive father. “Dad was very affectionate with us,” says Vivian. “Whenever he saw us—when we were little or after we had grown up—he always greeted us with a kiss on the forehead.” And he had lots of fun with them. He enlisted all of the kids in his own “eat-what’s-put-before-you” club; he taught them manners in the “McConkie charm school”; he delighted them with a number of humorous poems; he playfully taught the girls how to dance; he teasingly told one of his daughters that a boy had to have a recommend before he could date her. In return, they teased him for singing off-key, and they never let him live down the “Boy Scout stew” he made for dinner when Amelia was in the hospital with their last baby. (“It had everything in it!”)
According to his children, he was a patient father who didn’t raise his voice. Once when they were young, he sent someone downstairs to get a watermelon for dinner. But it was filled with nails—one of the youngest kids had used it as a pegboard to practice hammering. “Dad looked at that melon sitting on his plate and said, ‘Well, well, well. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s good we have another watermelon!’” So he sent one of the children back down for the second melon. It, too, came back filled with nails. Without making an issue of it, Elder McConkie cut it open and salvaged what he could of the fruit.
He would often take his children into the living room, set them on the couch (he would lie down on the floor, his favorite place), and read the Book of Mormon to them—stopping every few verses to talk about it, making it a fun learning experience.
He used family experiences to teach his children correct principles. “One day as a teenager I was walking with him down Main Street,” remembers Vivian. “He looked up at the temple and asked, ‘Vivian, what is a definition of a temple?’ I said I didn’t know. Then he said, ‘A temple is a holy sanctuary set apart from the world wherein sacred ordinances are performed pertaining to eternal life and salvation.’ He gave me a definition—more or less what you’d find in one of his books. He would often ask us questions like that.”
And he encouraged his children to ask questions too. “Whatever gospel question we had, we knew we were going to get something substantial in response.” Sometimes when they asked questions, he would list from memory the pertinent scriptural references and encourage them to study out the answer. Sometimes he would ask them what they thought the answer was, and then discuss it with them. “He was interested in whatever topic we were discussing, and it was so much fun for him that it naturally became interesting and fun for us, too. All of his kids have liked the gospel because he loved it.”
“Because we loved Dad, we came to love the things he loved,” says Mark. “Because Dad loved the Savior and prophets, we loved them. His heroes became our heroes. His friends became our friends.”
All Latter-day Saints who heard Elder Bruce R. McConkie teach the gospel and bear his apostolic witness of the Savior could express similar gratitude. Because of his life and testimony, our faith has been strengthened and our hope for eternal life is brighter.