“David O. McKay: The Worth of a Soul,” New Era, Jan. 1972, 55
Today people are concerned with commitment—commitment to excellence, to sincerity, to the worth of individual souls. David O. McKay was similarly committed, but with a love for the gospel that gave meaning and direction to his noble instincts.
In his earliest childhood in Huntsville, Utah, where on his father’s farm he grew to manhood, 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 of age, 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. But the Church came first. It was a test of faith, of commitment. As the elder McKay climbed on his horse to leave, he lifted his little son up into his arms, kissed him good-bye, and said, “David, take care of Mama and the family.” From that day onward, an exceptional sense of responsibility seemed to press on young David.
President McKay recalls another vivid lesson from youth:
“I thank my earthly father for the lesson he gave to two boys in a hayfield at a time when tithes were paid in kind. We had driven out to the field to get the tenth load of hay, and then over to a part of the meadow where we had taken the ninth load, where there was ‘wire grass’ and ‘slough grass.’ As we started to load the hay, father called out, ‘No, boys, drive over to the higher ground.’ There was timothy and redtop there. But one of the boys called back, (and it was I) ‘No, let us take the hay as it comes!’
“‘No, David, that is the tenth load, and the best is none too good for God.’”
He 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.
He continued to work on the farm and later went to the University of Utah. During his years at college he played football, played piano for a dance band, and was elected president of his senior class. His professional plans were made as his 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 some young men today. His ultimate decision, however, was to set aside his plans and accept the call.
His first months in the Scottish conference, where he was assigned, were not easy, as they are not 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. A Scottish woman had said, when I gave her a tract, ‘Better gae to your home, ya canna have any o’oor lassies!’
“I did not want any of their lassies. I had left a sweet one at home. But it made me discouraged to think of the ill will which they had towards the Mormons. What misconceived notions they had of our purpose among them!
“I had just left school. I loved school and I loved young people. I loved youth. And then to go over there and feel that antipathy and prejudice gave me the blues.
“I was with Peter G. Johnston, one of the truest friends in all the world. He was from Idaho, an experienced, wealthy man, a lover of all things beautiful. I was fortunate to have his companionship. …
“As we 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.’
“Then I thought what we had done that forenoon. We had been sightseeing; we had gained historical instruction and information, it is true, and I was thrilled with it, for we had just finished studying the ‘Lady of the Lake’ at the university. However, that was not missionary work.
“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.”
After returning from his mission to Scotland, he 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, their suite in the Hotel Utah 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.”
He then became an instructor at the Church-owned Weber Academy in Ogden, Utah, then the principal, a stake Sunday School superintendent, and in 1916, at the early age of thirty-one, a member of the Council of the Twelve. He served energetically in a great many capacities—general superintendent of the Sunday Schools, Church commissioner of education, president of the European Mission. At age sixty-one he was chosen as a counselor to President Heber J. Grant and held the same position under President George Albert Smith.
In the April conference of 1951, at the age of seventy-eight, David Oman McKay stood in the tabernacle on Temple Square and spoke to those assembled. He had just been unanimously sustained as the prophet, seer, and revelator by the Saints.
“Brethren and sisters, brethren of the General Authorities, 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 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 Mormons.
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 of age. 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 became flustered. At that moment an aide interrupted with a pressing question, and several minutes of conversation ensued. When the President turned to the table to begin writing autographs, the girl 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 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 often liked to return to his Huntsville farm to ride his horses and to visit. Several years ago 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 of 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 was inside attempting to get out.”
While 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 catching 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, 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 every thing he did. But what he had become through his commitment to the gospel 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 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.’”
He was a prophet who saw good in everyone and really cared for people.
David O. McKay Highlights (1873–1970)
Sep. 8, 1873
Born in Huntsville, Utah
Graduates, University of Utah; class president and valedictorian
Serves mission to Great Britain
Becomes faculty member at Weber Stake Academy
Marries Emma Ray Riggs
Ordained apostle; becomes second assistant superintendent of Sunday School
Writes first book, Ancient Apostles
General superintendent of Sunday School
Church commissioner of education
Makes tour of missions worldwide
President of European Mission
Second counselor in First Presidency
Sustained president of Church
Dedicates Swiss Temple
Dedicates Los Angeles Temple
Dedicates New Zealand Temple, Church College of New Zealand, London Temple, and Church College of Hawaii
Beginning of Church correlation effort
Dedicates Oakland Temple
Jan. 18, 1970