Book Review: Harvard S. Heath, ed., CONFIDENCE AMID CHANGE: THE PRESIDENTIAL DIARIES OF DAVID O. MCKAY, 1951-1970 (Signature, 2019)

By January 18, 2019

Harvard Heath tells us in the introduction to his edited selections from the David O. McKay diaries that the complete diaries run some 40,000 pages long, about 15,000 pages of which are dated entries. The volume he produced here comprises, he estimates, about ten percent of those dated entries. He also includes a very few selections from the hand of other authors, most prominently Alvin Dyer. The McKay diary, of course, is as much a production of McKay’s longtime secretary Clare Middlemiss as of McKay himself; a fair number of its entries are in her voice, and much of the rest McKay dictated to her for transcription.

We thus owe Middlemiss a great debt, and historians might be further grateful that she left a copy of it to her nephew W. Robert Wright, who in turn donated it to the University of Utah. It’s that copy from which this volume has been assembled.

Heath chose, as he says, to emphasize “history, doctrine and entries showing the president’s administrative style.” (xiv)  This, of course, means that a historian interested in the full range of McKay’s presidency will want to slog through all 40,000 pages; though it would have been of course impossible to include all those entries here, the historian in me worries about what I might be missing. Nonetheless, the excerpts Heath has provided here are extremely valuable in their own right, and he deserves plaudits for making them accessible.

To the diaries themselves, and what they might reveal about the workings of Mormon leadership within the McKay administration. Heath points out in his introduction that McKay was something of a “bridge between centuries, with one eye on the future and another on the past.” (x) This is an apt description of the man who emerges in these pages. McKay seems to me a man blessed with an essentially generous, tolerant and open-hearted personality nonetheless rooted in the essentially parochial and conservative instincts of a late nineteenth century upbringing. He was refined and compassionate, easily touched by the needs of the marginalized (as witnessed by his repeated worries, shared with his counselors, that young Black boys would be embarrassed when their white friends received the priesthood while they themselves did not (452)—a concern that he nonetheless was reluctant to rectify). He wanted the Church to open and operate retirement homes for the indigent elderly. Yet at the same time he was comfortable dealing with presidents; his diaries record meetings with every president who served while McKay was in office. (McKay was most impressed with Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson; least with John F. Kennedy, whom he seems to have found callow—though, as on page 400, the gracious McKay consistently sent Kennedy his best wishes.)  

And yet, as noted in the aside above, McKay retained the suspicions and prejudices of his youth throughout his life. I was somewhat surprised by his consistently expressed hostility to Roman Catholicism, for instance. In these pages he names Roman Catholicism one of the two great threats to the LDS church, along with Communism; he accuses Roman Catholics of formulating conspiracies to undermine the strength of the LDS church in Utah; he states that the cross is an “outward” sign of ritualistic religion. On similar grounds he is dismayed when Minerva Teichert adds the hint of a halo to Christ in her artwork. (96, 196, 173) While his counselors Hugh B. Brown and N. Eldon Tanner muse that perhaps men of African descent might be given the Aaronic priesthood, McKay worries that establishing church units in Nigeria would encourage young Nigerian men to come to BYU and hence foster interracial marriage. (404-5) He is certain that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and scoffs at the “cowardly” United Nations for its refusal to mention God in its charter. (15)

McKay at the same time maintained a courtliness and temperateness that begins to feel archaic even in the pages of the diary, as fewer and fewer of his comrades seem to share these values over time. These things gave him the charisma for which he is noted. They also stiffed his spine when it came to those things he regarded as gauche or inappropriate. He shared many of Ezra Taft Benson’s right wing political sensibilities; the diary clearly reveals that McKay was a conservative Republican with a suspicion of communism notable even for the mid-twentieth century. More, Benson was extraordinarily persistent with McKay, nagging the church president again and again for permission to deliver political speeches, to campaign for president or vice president on a third party ticket, to get more involved with the John Birch Society. Sometimes Benson asked for forgiveness rather than permission, and sometimes McKay turned a blind eye to Benson’s activities. But he could be firm when he wanted to be.  When the conservative segregationist George Wallace asked Benson to join him on a third party ticket for the presidency in 1968, McKay, at that point ninety-four and ailing, ordered Benson flatly “You should turn the offer down.” (742)  When Benson asked for permission to john the Birch council, McKay rejected him. (689)  McKay also went out of his way to make it clear that members of the Church could vote or serve in office as Democrats, ensuring that prominent Mormon Democrats did not feel alienated from the Church. This was critical for McKay, whose imperative toward comity and warmth was the truest expression of his Mormonism.

In his valuable history of Mormon leadership in McKay’s administration, Gregory Prince notes that McKay’s conciliatory personality led him to often be persuaded by whomever was last in his office. That tendency seems most pronounced toward the end of his life, when his ailments noticeably slowed him down. (The best example here is the comedy of errors surrounding Benson’s efforts to get a portrait of McKay on the cover of the magazine of the John Birch Society (640-644); McKay is talked into it by Benson and out of it by Mark E. Petersen, who is angry at Benson for suggesting the idea. Then Benson talks McKay into it again and back out by Petersen, and eventually the Church threatens to sue if the image is used.  Another is Bruce R. McConkie’s ability to persuade McKay to authorize republication of Mormon Doctrine, which a few years earlier McKay had stated should not be republished, on grounds as much related to the book’s stentorian tone, which the broad-minded McKay disliked, as to its doctrinal statements. (663))

McKay’s affability, though, also illustrates his essential vision of the Church as a warm community of people much like McKay himself.  The hominess of this vision contributes to his worry about the ability of Nigerians and other Africans to successfully integrate into it. It is also illustrated in the sentiment he feels toward his closest associates. Frequently throughout the diaries he gathers his closest advisors around him and weeps as he professes gratitude for their kindness and love. (as on 13)  He makes Joseph Fielding Smith a counselor in his First Presidency after a long night of swapping stories and memories of their long service together. (619) Near his death he begs Middlemiss to never leave his side. (748) He gathered talented people to him—Hugh Brown, Stephen Richards, Middlemiss, Mark Garff—and their loyalty evidenced his leadership abilities.

This sentiment also meant that McKay was manifestly uncomfortable with the growth and bureaucratization of the church over which he presided. He frequently urged General Authorities to avoid using administrators and secretaries to do their work, telling them that “personal work” required their own involvement. (29)  He repeatedly urged the Quorum of the Twelve to seek agreement and unity. He reluctantly went along with the creation of a new layer of ecclesiastical bureaucrats—Area Authorities—but worried that they would contribute to greater distance between the leadership and laity of the church.

By the end of his life, somewhat ironically, McKay was incapacitated enough that his diary entries have become largely records of those other leaders—Brown, Garff, Joseph Fielding Smith, Middlemiss—presenting him with ideas which he gave pro forma approval to. The community of leaders he had assembled around himself and trusted deeply were capable, but they were also birthing a new church, one far more expansive, globalized, diverse, and administrative than McKay was comfortable with. Yet it was perhaps his gift to allow such a thing, so against his own sentiments, to emerge.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great review Matt. Thanks for this. I’ll be looking for it. It appears a Kindle is available on the 29th of January. Haven’t seen the hardcover yet, but there may be some floating around out there. Harvard Heath has done good work in the past.

    Comment by Terry H — January 18, 2019 @ 1:23 pm

  2. Thanks Matt. My biggest questions around this document is the voice of Middlemiss. My hunch is that she is writing in McKay’s voice more than McKay is dictating. Is there a critical apperatus (or effort) to disentangle those potential conflations? It is a valuable document regardless, but I think this is important moving forward.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 19, 2019 @ 8:47 am

  3. J, That’s a great question. From my reading of the diaries, I think (but could easily be wrong) that Middlemiss becomes an increasing presence especially after McKay’s stroke(s) beginning in the mid-ish 1960s. I suspect that in Middlemiss’s mind, she’d spent enough years at McKay’s side that she could accurately represent McKay’s voice, actions, beliefs, etc., in the narrative of the diaries. I doubt she saw herself as misrepresenting McKay in any way. Readers who make their way through the diaries will encounter a host of materials in addition to the diary entries. The diaries may offer the greatest insights into the Church at mid-twentieth century as will ever be available.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — January 19, 2019 @ 11:39 am

  4. Thanks Matt. The possible filtering through Middlemiss and the material that didn’t make the cut are factors. Nevertheless a vitally important volume. Thanks to Signature and Heath.

    Comment by wvs — January 22, 2019 @ 6:05 pm


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