Sunday, March 19, 2006

what's in a name?

the funny thing about mormon doctrine is that it is and it isn't.

the book is arguably the most well-known book in the lds culture after the scriptures. most homes and college apartments have a copy of the black book somewhere on their shelves. but the book was originally green, and caused quite a stir when it first came off the presses in 1958.

there is a lot of rumor and smoke surrounding the book; i will try to state fact as i know it and throw in some 'plausibles' where noted.

at that time, bruce r. mcconkie was 43 years old and had served in the first council of the seventy for twelve years [this was before the organization of the general quorums of the seventy, which we have today].

the book's cover was green, with a small picture of joseph smith in the lower right corner. the dust jacket was of a black and white motiff, again with the prophet on the cover. the backside caption promised a 776-page compendium of gospel knowledge, the first of its kind.

published by the young press 'bookcraft', the book never underwent a scruntious editing process. it's tone was unmistakably mcconkie, clear-cut black or white, spoken with bold authority. the most infamous entry may be that speaking out in no uncertain words against the Roman Catholic Church, although there were several controversial entries. among these were the bold stances against practices found amongst some Latter-day Saints, including playing with face cards and my personal favorite, the pronouncement that 'light speaches' in church meetings are 'highly offensive' to the Spirit.

further, that a man had the audacity to speak so definitively on behalf of the entire Church and call the book 'mormon doctrine' ruffled several feathers itself.
despite all this, bookcraft never received a single complaint.

but that doesn't mean elder mcconkie didn't.

in january 1960, president david o. mckay asked him that the book not be reprinted. the catholic bishop of salt lake city had even contacted president mckay to express his personal displeasure regarding what the book said. understandable as that is, the point has been raised that the blunt remarks toward the catholic church were not what bothered most people; after all, how many catholics in salt lake city are buying a book called 'mormon doctrine' and getting offended? continuing this logic, it is suggested that the entry on evolution and all it's incorrectness [the longest entry in the book] is the real reason it caused so much controversy.
i have no opinion on this myself.

just the same, the book caused the first presidency enough concern that they called bruce mcconkie into their office and scolded him without reserve. said president henry d. moyle, 'i've never seen a man in the church in my experience that took our criticism--and it was more than criticism--but he took it better than anyone i ever saw. when we were through and bruce left us, i had a great feeling of live and appreciation for a man who could take it without any alibis, without any excuses, and he appreciated what we said to him.'

though the book opens with the author openly stating he takes full responsibility for all that is contained therein, and that it is indeed not an official church publication, he is one in a position of authority, and it is difficult to separate the man from the office.

as evidence for the attitudes of both parties, consider that just six years after the publication of the second edition, elder mcconkie was called to the quorum of the twelve.

this also caused much discussion about general authorities of the church writing books. since that event, a very structured and careful process has been set up to oversee any publication by those in such authority.

on july 5, 1966, president mckay called elder mcconkie into his office and said that the book may be reprinted if he made the appropriate changes, and was given elder spencer w. kimball to oversee his work. elder kimball listed roughly 50 changes to be made. none were doctrinal in nature, but rather dealt with tone and appropriateness. in a book called 'mormon doctrine', discussing the herecies of various Christian denominations was certainly unnecessary.

while only fifty changes were suggested, i have seen it noted that there are 1,067 changes between the two editions. i do not know what constitutes a 'change' in that sense, but i do know that elder mcconkie did a lot of revising on his own; some entries were dropped entirely, and 80 pages were added. a lot of the revising had to do simply with tone.

amidst all the revisions, there is no evidence that changing the title was ever suggested.

since its second edition in 1966, the book has been a staple in any Latter-day Saint home, quoted extensively in nearly every gospel study manual, and remains in print today.

there were four [or five] printings of the infamous first edition. they can be found about every month or two on ebay; a copy on good condition will sell for around $200-250. a signed copy can go for almost twice that.

the first printing of the second edition was similarly green and can be found for around $30-40. the second and subsequent printings were the black formats that we know today.

bruce's father-in-law was joseph fielding smith, at that time a member of the quorum of the twelve and one of the most notable gospel scholars of our time. he kept his copy of the book at home, fearing that if he kept it at the office, someone may borrow it and forget to return it.

in junior high, i would sometimes grab my dad's copy off the bookshelf late at night. lying on the floor, i would flip through it, reading whatever entry seemed interesting.
last winter i decided i needed my own copy. leaving deseret book that night, i was like a kid with a new toy--i carried it everywhere, excited to share with my roommates what new comment i discovered about the tribes of israel and whatever else.

one of my roommates saw it and reminded me that 'that isn't actually doctrine.'

true, the book is not official church doctrine. but truth is not determined by canonization. sections 137 and 138 of the doctrine and covenants were no truer after they were added to the scriptures than they were before.

rest assured--i have my own opinions as well.

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