“David O. McKay: Ambassador of the Faith,” Ensign, Jan. 2005, 40–46
On a rainy morning in 1953, 79-year-old President David O. McKay visited Thurso, Scotland, to see the home where his forebears had embraced the restored gospel more than 100 years earlier. President McKay’s son Llewelyn, who accompanied him on this visit, recalled: “[As we approached the home], the sun broke through the clouds and smiled at us as though he were reflecting the joy and happiness in father’s heart. As we all gathered in front of the home, tears came to father’s eyes as he looked through the door. ‘If it had not been for two missionaries knocking on this door about 1850, I shouldn’t be here today!’” he declared.1
Even though the home had fallen into disrepair and was by that time used only to store potatoes, President McKay lingered for some time in the doorway, speaking fondly of what had happened there. The gratitude and joy President McKay expressed that day were characteristic of his life and ministry. As a General Authority for almost 64 years, including 19 years as the ninth President of the Church, he served with the energy of one who cared deeply for people and for the gospel and found joy in bringing the two together.
Born on September 8, 1873, in Huntsville, Utah, David Oman McKay was the first son of David McKay and Jennette Evans McKay. When the younger David was just seven years old, his father accepted a mission call to serve in Scotland—even though at the time Sister McKay was expecting a baby and had only her young son to help on the farm. Her encouragement was undoubtedly a key factor. As soon as she read the missionary call letter, she said: “Of course you must accept; you need not worry about me. David O. and I will manage things nicely.”2
Under Jennette’s direction the farm did well. Strong spiritual growth paralleled the temporal prosperity the family experienced during David Sr.’s mission. “Family prayer was an established procedure in the McKay home, and when Jennette was left alone with her small family it seemed an ever more important part of the day’s events. David [O.] was taught to take his turn at morning and evening prayers and learned the importance of the blessings of heaven in the home.”3
In a general conference address many years later, President McKay related the following childhood experience with prayer:
“I remember lying [in bed] one night, trembling with fear. As a child I was naturally, or unnaturally afraid of the darkness, and would frequently lie wondering about burglars, ‘bug-a-boos,’ and unseen influences. So I lay this night completely unnerved; but I had been taught that God would answer prayer. Summoning strength I arose from the bed, knelt down in the darkness, and prayed to God to remove that feeling of fear; and I heard as plainly as you hear my voice this afternoon, ‘Don’t be afraid; nothing will hurt you.’ Oh, yes, some may say—‘simply the imagination.’ Say what you will, I know that to my soul came the sweet peace of a child’s prayer answered.”4
His father’s teachings and example were as powerful as his mother’s. On one occasion David O. McKay, his brothers, and his father were harvesting hay. When the time arrived to gather the tenth load, which was to be given to the Church as tithing, David McKay Sr. told the boys to move to a better spot than where they had gathered the previous nine loads. When young David O. questioned this instruction, his father said, “That is the tenth load, and the best is none too good for God.” Years later David O. McKay referred to this experience as the “most effective sermon on tithing I have ever heard in my life.”5
President McKay’s understanding of his parents’ influence deepened as he grew older. When he taught Church members about the importance of family and home, personal experience framed his teachings:
“[The] realization of mother’s love, with a loyalty to the precepts of an exemplary father, … more than once during youth, turned my steps from the precipice of temptation.
“If I were asked to name the world’s greatest need, I should say unhesitatingly wise mothers; and the second, exemplary fathers.”6
As a youth and young adult, David O. McKay demonstrated tremendous ability in many areas, including scholarship, athletics, music, public speaking, and leadership. While choosing his greatest talent is arguably an impossible task, teaching ranks near the top.
In 1889, at the age of 15, he was called as the Sunday School secretary in his ward, a position he held for four years until he was called as a Sunday School teacher. Concurrent with his work as a Sunday School teacher, he served as a teacher and principal at the Huntsville grade school—before receiving a university education.
Already having a great deal of practical experience, he attended the University of Utah from 1894 to 1897, graduating as valedictorian with an offer to teach in Salt Lake County. Following graduation, however, he received another opportunity to teach; he was called to serve a mission to the British Isles, a calling he fulfilled from 1897 to 1899.
His proselyting experiences included numerous open-air meetings in which he and other missionaries preached the gospel on street corners or other public places and distributed tracts, or pamphlets, to those who would accept them. As his missionary journal attests, each meeting proved a unique experience. Following one particularly difficult open-air gathering, Elder McKay recorded, “I have heaved a thousand sighs!” After a more promising meeting, he wrote: “Had several interesting conversations. Nearly everyone who took a tract last week seemed pleased to accept this one. Several asked when we would hold another meeting.”7
In 1898, while supervising missionary work in Scotland, he prepared an article for a local Glasgow newspaper to refute slanderous information the newspaper had published about the Church. In this instance and in similar circumstances he would encounter as a mission president 20 years later, his letters to the editor succeeded because of their mild tone and well-reasoned teachings.8
Shortly after he was released from his mission, he began serving as a member of the Weber Stake Sunday School board. He was assigned to reorganize and revitalize classwork by working with teachers and revising teaching materials. After six years of service in the Weber Stake, he became second assistant to the general superintendent of Sunday Schools, who at that time was President Joseph F. Smith. He became first assistant in 1909 and in 1918 was made superintendent.
During his early efforts with the Sunday School, he worked in the public schools as well. He taught at the Weber Stake Academy in Ogden, Utah, a school now known as Weber State University, and he was later appointed principal of the academy. One of his students, Joseph Anderson—later a member of the Seventy—recalled: “We all fell in love with him. And he became so absorbed in his subject that he wouldn’t even hear the bell ring sometimes.”9
He strongly believed that all education should foster Christian character. “True education,” he said, “seeks to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also, honest men, with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love. It seeks to make men and women who prize truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control as the choicest acquisitions of a successful life.”10
His gospel teaching continued throughout his life, but his formal, full-time work with the public schools ended in 1906, when he was called to be an Apostle at age 32.
David O. McKay’s marriage to Emma Ray Riggs on January 2, 1901, was a source of joy to him. It became an example to everyone. In teaching about successful marriages, President McKay declared:
“I should like to urge continued courtship, and apply this to grown people. Too many couples have come to the altar of marriage looking upon the marriage ceremony as the end of courtship instead of the beginning of an eternal courtship. Let us not forget that during the burdens of home life—and they come—that tender words of appreciation, courteous acts are even more appreciated than during those sweet days and months of courtship.”11
President McKay lived this counsel—composing love poems for his wife on her birthday, holding the car door open for her, and greeting and bidding her farewell with an affectionate kiss. Once when President and Sister McKay were traveling through California, a young boy who had been watching them approached her and said, pointing to President McKay, “I guess that man over there loves you.”12
The seven McKay children benefited from their parents’ righteousness and love for one another. One of their sons, David Lawrence McKay, recalled: “Our parents’ expectations provided the path for us to follow, and our love for them provided an irresistible motivation for us to walk that path. We learned to love them because they first dearly loved each other and us.”13
Called as an Apostle in April 1906, Elder McKay gave his first general conference address in the concluding session of October conference that year. In words that reflected his desire to serve, he said, “As members of the Church … , I believe that we ought to go home determined to carry out the responsibility that is upon us, not merely because these brethren have urged us to do so, but because we have it in our souls to do it.”14
In 1920, at the age of 47, Elder McKay was called by the First Presidency to spend one year visiting and strengthening branches and missions of the Church around the world. This journey in many ways foreshadowed the global emphasis of his presidency. He and his companion, Hugh J. Cannon, president of the Liberty Stake in Salt Lake City, traveled approximately 60,000 miles (95,000 km) and gained knowledge that helped prepare the Church for further worldwide growth.
Shortly after returning from his yearlong mission, he was called to take his family to England to preside over the European Mission. In fulfilling this calling, “every member a missionary” became his refrain. He taught: “[Every member] has the responsibility of bringing somebody: a mother, a father, a neighbor, a fellow worker, an associate, somebody in touch with the messengers of the gospel. … And personal contact is what will influence those investigators. … It’s what you are, not what you pretend to be that will bring people to investigate.”15
In 1934 he was called to serve in the First Presidency as a counselor to President Heber J. Grant. In 1945 he was called as a counselor to President George Albert Smith. During these years he gained valuable experience and carried a substantial administrative and ecclesiastical load.
In the spring of 1951 President and Sister McKay left Salt Lake City for a much needed vacation. However, on their first night away, President McKay awoke with a distinct impression that they should return to Church headquarters, which they did the next morning. Within a few weeks President Smith suffered a stroke and passed away.16
In April 1951, having already served in the First Presidency for 17 years, David O. McKay became the ninth President of the Church. At that time the Church had just over one million members and eight operating temples (all in the United States, Hawaii, and Canada).
President McKay was determined to see the Church continue to grow around the world. Missionary work was key to this effort. In 1952 the First Presidency introduced the first official proselyting outline for full-time missionaries. In 1961 President McKay convened the first worldwide seminar for all mission presidents, who were taught the importance of example and fellowshipping in missionary work. He emphasized the concept of “every member a missionary.”
President McKay felt that personally strengthening the Saints around the world was another key to Church growth. In a conference address as President of the Church, he declared: “God bless the Church. It is worldwide. Its influence should be felt by all nations. May his spirit influence men everywhere and incline their hearts toward good will and peace.”17 Between 1952 and 1963, he visited the Saints in Europe several times and made trips to South Africa, South America, and the South Pacific.
He also desired to make the blessings of the temple available to more members of the Church. During his service as President, he dedicated temples in Bern, Switzerland; Los Angeles, California; Hamilton, New Zealand; London, England; and Oakland, California. He wrote, “I want to bring the temple to the people,” firmly believing that “one of the distinguishing features of the restored Church of Jesus Christ is the eternal nature of its ordinances and ceremonies.”18
Around the world President McKay was regarded as an important spiritual leader. During a visit with the Queen of the Netherlands in 1952, President and Sister McKay were invited to have tea. When the McKays declined for religious reasons, the queen asked, “Do you mean to tell me you won’t have a little drink of tea, even with the Queen of the Netherlands?” President McKay responded, “Would [you] ask the leader of a million, three hundred thousand people to do something that he teaches his people not to do?” She replied, “You are a great man, President McKay. I wouldn’t ask you to do that.”19
Church members loved to hear President McKay speak and simply to be in his presence. Despite his many duties, he often remained after meetings until he had shaken each person’s hand. One member who attended the dedication of the London England Temple recalled “standing in endless lines” to greet the prophet but eventually having her turn. “He made every single one of us feel special when we so easily could have been just one of hundreds,” she said.20
President McKay’s health began to decline in the 1960s, and additional counselors were called to the First Presidency to help carry forth the work. However, he continued to strengthen members with his conference talks, sometimes delivered in person and sometimes read by one of his sons.
At the time of his death in January 1970, Church membership had reached almost three million. Of this man who had taught so tirelessly of family, self-mastery, character, missionary work, and faith in Jesus Christ, President Joseph Fielding Smith, who succeeded President McKay as Church President, said: “He was a man of great spiritual strength, a natural-born leader of men, and a man beloved by his people and honored by the world. For all time to come men shall rise up and call his name blessed.”21
President Hugh B. Brown, who served as First Counselor to President McKay, summed up his life: “President McKay has lived as nearly as it is humanly possible for a man to live a Christ-like life. He found that the answer to the yearning of the human heart for fullness lies in living outside oneself by love. He proved the truth of Christ’s paradoxical saying, ‘He that will lose his life for My sake shall find it.’ He was a true servant of the Lord. He lived as he taught.”22