“David O. McKay: The Worth of a Soul,” Tambuli, Oct. 1993, 26
David O. McKay, ninth President of the Church, was committed to excellence, to sincerity, to the worth of individual souls. And he had a love for the gospel that gave meaning and direction to his noble instincts.
His life spanned a significant part of modern-day Church history. When David was born on 8 September 1873 on his parents’ farm in Huntsville, Utah, Brigham Young was still President of the Church. By the time he died ninety-six years later, President McKay had guided a worldwide Church into the second half of the twentieth century—when man walked on the moon.
During President McKay’s administration, the Church grew from 1.1 to 2.8 million members; the number of stakes nearly tripled; the number of missions more than doubled; the missionary force increased sixfold; temples were dedicated in Switzerland, New Zealand, Great Britain, and California; and the gospel was taken to more nations than ever before.
President McKay was prepared for this work and responsibility from his earliest childhood in Huntsville, where he was taught by the example of his parents that the Lord and His work were to come first in a person’s life. When he was eight years old, his two older sisters died, and a short time later, his father was called on a two-year mission to Scotland. Sister McKay was to give birth to a baby girl in ten days, the farm had to be run, and the young family needed to be fed. It was a time of testing and of sacrifice—and David learned much about faith and commitment. As his father climbed on his horse to leave, he lifted young David up into his arms, kissed him good-bye, and said, “David, take care of Mama and the family.” From that day forward, David O. McKay developed an exceptional sense of responsibility.
David was taught well by his parents, but as a teenage farm boy he desired his own personal witness of the reality of God and His work.
“One day in my youth I was hunting cattle. While climbing a steep hill, I stopped to let my horse rest, and there, once again, an intense desire came over me to receive a manifestation of the truth of the Restored Gospel. I dismounted, threw my reins over my horse’s head, and there under a serviceberry bush I prayed that God would declare to me the truth of his revelation to Joseph Smith. I am sure that I prayed fervently and sincerely and with as much faith as a young boy could muster.
“At the conclusion of the prayer, I arose from my knees, threw the reins over my faithful pony’s head, and got into the saddle. As I started along the trail again, I remember saying to myself: ‘No spiritual manifestation has come to me. If I am true to myself, I must say I am just the same “old boy” that I was before I prayed.’”
He had learned a great lesson. A young Latter-day Saint does not get conviction merely by asking the Lord, but by combining that asking with work, service, sacrifice, and obedience to God’s commandments.
As a young teenager, David continued to work on the farm and later attended the University of Utah, graduating in 1897. During his years at college he played football, played piano for a dance band, and was elected president of his senior class. He had made his professional plans as graduation drew near, but shortly before receiving his diploma he received a letter from President Wilford Woodruff, calling him to serve a mission in Great Britain. It was a major decision—and he struggled with it, as must many young men and women today. He decided to set aside his plans and accept the call.
His first months in the Scottish conference, where his father had served years earlier, were not easy, as is the case for many missionaries. He describes this discouraging time and its resultant renewal of his commitment to the Lord in these words:
“I was homesick and a little discouraged on this day. …
“I had just left school. I loved school and I loved young people. I loved youth. And then to go over there and feel … [people’s] prejudice [against the Church] gave me the blues.
“As [my companion and I] were coming back into town, I saw on my right an unfinished dwelling, over the front door of which was a stone on which there was a carving. That was most unusual, so I said to Elder Johnston, ‘I’m going to see what that is.’ I was half way up the graveled walk when there came to my eyesight a striking motto as follows, carved in stone: ‘Whate’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.’
“I repeated it to Elder Johnston as we walked in to town to find a place for our lodgings before we began our work. We walked quietly, but I said to myself, or the Spirit within me, ‘You are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More than that, you are here as a representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. You accepted the responsibility as a representative of the Church.’ …
“That afternoon, by the time we found our lodgings, I accepted the message given to me on that stone, and from that moment we tried to do our part as missionaries in Scotland.”
At the age of fourteen, David had been told in his patriarchal blessing: “The Lord has a work for thee to do, in which thou shalt see much of the world, assist in gathering scattered Israel and also labor in the ministry. It shall be thy lot to sit in council with thy brethren and preside among the people and exhort the Saints to faithfulness.”
This prophecy was echoed while he was serving his mission in Scotland. During a missionary conference, President James L. McMurrin of the European Mission presidency pointed to young Elder McKay and said, “Let me say to you, Brother David, Satan hath desired that he may sift you as wheat, but God is mindful of you. If you will keep the faith, you will yet sit in the leading councils of the Church.” Not many years passed before those prophecies were fulfilled.
At the missionary conference, Elder McKay felt “a rich outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord.” It was, he recorded, “a manifestation for which as a doubting youth I had secretly prayed most earnestly on hillside and in meadow.”
After returning from his mission to Scotland, David married his college sweetheart. On a cold morning in January 1901, he and Emma Ray Riggs arrived in a horse-drawn buggy at the Salt Lake Temple, there to be married in covenant before the Lord. So well were the promises of love and honor kept between them that over sixty years later, the suite in the Hotel Utah where they lived was affectionately referred to by some as the bridal suite. “Sixty-nine years is none too long for a honeymoon,” they agreed, “especially when you are planning to be married forever.”
In 1899, he became an instructor at the Church-owned Weber Academy in Ogden, Utah, and later worked as its principal. In the Church he served as a stake Sunday School superintendent, and in 1916—at the early age of thirty-two—he was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He served energetically in a great many capacities—as general superintendent of the Sunday School, Church commissioner of education, and president of the European Mission. At age sixty-one he was chosen as a counselor in the First Presidency to President Heber J. Grant, and he later held the same position under President George Albert Smith.
In the April conference of 1951, the same year that he and Emma Ray celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, David Oman McKay stood in the Tabernacle on Temple Square and spoke to those assembled. At the age of seventy-eight, he was unanimously sustained by the Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator—and President of the Church.
“Brethren and sisters, brethren of the General Authorities,” he began, “God keep us as one, overlooking weaknesses we see, keeping an eye single to the glory of God and the advancement of his work.
“And now to the members of the Church. We all need your help, your faith and prayers, not your adverse criticism, but your help. You can do that in prayer if you cannot reach us in person. The potency of these prayers throughout the Church came to me yesterday when I received a letter from a neighbor in my old home town. He was milking his cows when the word came over the radio which he had in his barn, that President Smith had passed. He sensed what that would mean to his former fellow-townsman, and he left his barn and went to the house and told his wife. Immediately they called their little children, and there in that humble home, suspending their activities, they knelt down as a family and offered prayer. The significance of that prayer I leave for you to understand. Multiply that by a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand, half a million homes, and see the power in the unity and prayers, and in the sustaining influence in the body of the Church.”
President McKay’s administration, like his life before, was filled with remarkable accomplishment. He and Sister McKay went to nation after nation to visit and bless both members and nonmembers. Temple building commenced in many countries, missionary activities expanded, Church population grew. A great spirit of progress seemed to captivate everyone, and goodwill developed toward the Latter-day Saints.
But it was his commitment to love every person that thrilled Church members. One day a Sunday School class of youth came several miles to see him, by appointment, but he had just rushed off to the hospital where his brother, Thomas E. McKay, lay near death. The following Sunday, miles away from his office, there was a knock on the door of the Sunday School classroom. When the teacher opened the door, there stood President McKay. He had come to meet the class and apologize for being gone the day they had come to see him.
After explaining why he was not in his office that day, he shook hands with the teacher and with each of the children. “I want you to know,” he said, “that the President of the Church keeps his appointments if at all possible.”
This great caring about how we behave toward everyone around us was one of the great lessons President McKay taught. On the trip to Europe to dedicate the temple sites in Switzerland and England, President McKay was surrounded by eager English youth seeking autographs from him. The first in line was a young girl about nine years old. She asked the President’s son, who was accompanying him, “May I have President McKay’s autograph?” The son, who thought his father was too tired, began to dissuade her. But President McKay, overhearing the conversation, turned to her and asked jokingly, “Do you think I can write plainly enough so you can read it?” The girl wasn’t sure whether he was in earnest, and she became flustered. At that moment, an aide interrupted with a pressing question, and several minutes of conversation ensued. When the President turned back to speak again to the girl, she had disappeared.
“I have never seen father more upset,” said his son. “Please find that girl in the blue dress,” President McKay directed. “I’m sure she has the impression that I didn’t want to sign her book. She misinterpreted my remarks. You must find her.” Before long, branch presidents and mission presidents were looking for a little girl in blue. But the search was in vain. Finally, a missionary thought he knew who the girl was. He telephoned the President later that night and then received these instructions: “Tell the girl that I am sorry I missed her, and that I have asked the branch president to send her book to me by mail to Salt Lake City; I will sign my autograph and mail it directly back to her.” And he did!
The worth of a soul! President McKay felt that every living thing deserves our respect and thoughtful care. He felt this way even about animals and birds, and he liked to return often to his Huntsville farm to ride his horses and to visit. Once, someone broke into the farm and stole the President’s saddles. When the saddles were replaced with new ones, they were kept in the saddle house under lock and key. One day President McKay’s sisters stopped to check on things at the farm, and seeing one of the windows on the saddle house open, they closed it to avert a second theft. Hearing from his sisters what they had done, the President gently said, “I left that window open purposely because there is a bird’s nest inside, and that is the only entrance the parent birds have to carry food to their babies. I think I shall just have time to run over.” He went and opened the window and, returning, said in a gracious way, “It was just as I expected—one little bird was outside trying to get in, and the mother bird was inside attempting to get out.”
While serving as a member of the Council of the Twelve, Elder McKay owned a big boar named Caesar. One Sunday morning Caesar broke out of his enclosure. Not having time to repair the fence before boarding a train, Elder McKay put him in the chicken coop. But he forgot to tell any of his boys about it. That night at 2 A.M., the McKay household was awakened by the incessant ringing of the telephone. Answering it, and fearful that a tragic message was involved, they received a telegram over the phone: “Caesar in chicken coop. Water him!”
President McKay’s bearing, nobility, and dignity and his love of the Savior he served were evidenced in every word he spoke and in everything he did. But what he had become through his commitment to the Savior was evident even when he sat peacefully and said nothing. The following incident is told by a man who met President McKay on his return from one of his visits to Europe:
“I remember being in New York when President McKay returned from Europe. Arrangements had been made for pictures to be taken, but the regular photographer was unable to go, so in desperation the United Press picked their crime photographer—a man accustomed to the toughest type of work in New York. He went to the airport, stayed there two hours, and returned later from the dark room with a tremendous sheaf of pictures. He was supposed to take only two. His boss immediately chided him: ‘What in the world are you wasting your time and all those photographic supplies for?’
“The photographer replied very curtly, saying he would gladly pay for the extra materials, and they could even dock him for the extra time he took. It was obvious that he was very touchy about it. Several hours later the vice-president called him to his office, wanting to learn what had happened. The crime photographer said, ‘When I was a little boy, my mother used to read to me out of the Old Testament, and all my life I have wondered what a prophet of God must really look like. Well, today I found one.’”
David O. McKay was a prophet who saw good in everyone and who truly cared for people.
David O. McKay Highlights, 1873–1970
8 September: Is born in Huntsville, Utah.
President Brigham Young dies.
Graduates from the University of Utah.
Serves a mission to Scotland.
Begins teaching at Weber Academy.
Marries Emma Ray Riggs.
Is called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Serves as general superintendent of the Sunday School.
Serves as Church commissioner of education.
Makes tour of missions worldwide.
Serves as president of the European Mission.
Serves as Second Counselor in the First Presidency.
Is sustained as President of the Church.
Dedicates Swiss Temple.
Dedicates Los Angeles California Temple.
Dedicates New Zealand Temple, Church College of New Zealand, London Temple, and Church College of Hawaii.
Introduces Church correlation program.
Dedicates Oakland California Temple.
18 January: Dies in Salt Lake City, Utah.
James B. Allen, “David O. McKay,” in The Presidents of the Church, edited by Leonard J. Arrington, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986.
James B. Allen, “David O. McKay,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
“David O. McKay,” in My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980.