In April of 1951, at the age of 77, David Oman McKay became the ninth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During the nearly 20 years he served as President, he was revered by Church members and many others worldwide as a prophet of God. As he urged Church members to develop Christlike character and to share the gospel through both teaching and example, the Church experienced rapid growth throughout the world. In addition to his teachings, his physical appearance made a powerful impression. Upon meeting him, many people commented that he not only spoke and acted like a prophet, but that he looked like one. Even in his later years, he had a tall, impressive physique and thick, wavy white hair. His countenance radiated the righteous life that he led.
In his teachings as a General Authority, David O. McKay often referred with gratitude to the heritage and example he received from his parents. The family of his father, David McKay, had joined the Church in Thurso, Scotland, in 1850. In 1856, the family traveled to America and, after working and saving money for three years, crossed the plains to Utah, arriving in Salt Lake City in August 1859.1
In the same year that the McKays joined the Church in Scotland (1850), the family of David O. McKay’s mother, Jennette Evans, embraced the restored gospel near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. Like the McKay family, the Evans family sailed for America in 1856 and arrived in Utah in 1859. Both families soon settled in Ogden, Utah, where David McKay and Jennette Evans met and fell in love. They were married on 9 April 1867 in the Endowment House by Elder Wilford Woodruff.2
On 8 September 1873 in the small Utah town of Huntsville, David O. McKay was born—the third child and first son of David and Jennette Evans McKay. His childhood was happy but not without trials. In 1880, a series of events tested and proved the family’s faith and brought early maturity to young David O. McKay. His two older sisters, Margaret and Ellena, died within days of each other, one of rheumatic fever and the other of pneumonia. Approximately one year later, his father received a mission call to Scotland. David McKay was somewhat concerned about accepting the call because it would mean leaving his wife (who was expecting another child) alone with the responsibilities of the family and the farm. However, when hearing of the call, Jennette was firm in her response: “Of course you must accept; you need not worry about me. David O. and I will manage things nicely!”3 With this encouragement and the assurance of help from neighbors and relatives, David McKay accepted the call. His parting words to seven-year-old David O. were to “take care of Mama.”4
Due to wise management by Jennette McKay, the hard work of many, and the blessings of the Lord, the McKay farm prospered despite David McKay’s two-year absence. During this time and, indeed, throughout her life, Jennette McKay was equally vigilant about the spiritual welfare of the children: “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.”5
President McKay often spoke of his mother as an example worthy of emulation. On one occasion he stated: “I cannot think of a womanly virtue that my mother did not possess. … To her children, and all others who knew her well, she was beautiful and dignified. Though high-spirited she was even-tempered and self-possessed. Her dark brown eyes immediately expressed any rising emotion which, however, she always held under perfect control. … In tenderness, watchful care, loving patience, loyalty to home and to right, she seemed to me in boyhood, and she seems to me now after these years, to have been supreme.”6
When David O. McKay was asked to name the greatest man he had ever met, he replied without hesitation, “My father.”7 After returning from his mission, his father served as the bishop of the Eden and Huntsville Wards from 1883 to 1905.8 David McKay Sr. shared many experiences and his testimony with his young son. President McKay remembered: “As a boy, I sat and heard that testimony from one whom I treasured and honored as you know I treasured no other man in the world, and that assurance was instilled in my youthful soul.”9 The strength of his father’s example and testimony sustained him as he grew in his knowledge of the truth.
In everyday life, President McKay’s father taught him lessons that strengthened him and found their way into his teachings as an Apostle. He once told of an experience when he was collecting hay with his brothers. The tenth load was to be given as a tithing offering to the Church. David O. McKay’s father told the boys to get the tenth load from a better spot than where they had been gathering. His father said, “That is the tenth load, and the best is none too good for God.” Years later, David O. McKay said that this was the “most effective sermon on tithing I have ever heard in my life.”10 His father also taught him to respect women. President McKay told youth, “I remember my father’s admonition when I started in my teens to court a young girl: ‘David, you treat that young lady as you would have any young boy treat your sister.’”11
Later in life, while serving as President of the Church, he gave the following tribute to his parents: “I am grateful for the wise and careful guardianship and training of noble parents … a guardianship which kept me from turning to paths that would have opened to an entirely different kind of life! Every year increases my appreciation and love for an ever watchful, precious mother, and a noble father.”12
As a young man, David O. McKay was called to serve in the presidency of the deacons quorum. At that time, the deacons of the ward were responsible to keep the chapel clean, chop wood for the chapel stoves, and make sure that the widows in the ward always had firewood.13 He told the quorum members that he “felt his inability to fill his position when he could see others that were more capable to occupy it than himself, … [but that] he felt to press on with the help of the Lord.”14 This attitude was typical of the humility with which he would accept callings throughout his life.
As the bishop’s son, he had the opportunity to meet Church leaders who visited the family home. On one occasion, in July of 1887, Patriarch John Smith visited and gave him his patriarchal blessing (David O. was 13 at the time). After the blessing, Patriarch Smith placed his hands on the young man’s shoulders and said, “My boy, you have something to do besides playing marbles.” David later went into the kitchen and said to his mother, “If he thinks I’m going to stop playing marbles, he is mistaken.” His mother set aside her work and tried to explain what Brother Smith had meant. Although neither David O. McKay nor his mother knew exactly what his future held, the experience showed that the Lord had greater responsibilities in store for the young man.15
Throughout his teenage years, he remained active in Church service and continued to gain knowledge and experience. In 1889, at the age of 15, he was called as the Huntsville Ward’s Sunday School secretary, a position he held until 1893, when he was called to serve as a Sunday School teacher.16 His great love for the Sunday School and for teaching would continue throughout his life.
David O. McKay once wrote, “There are three great epochs in a man’s earthly life, upon which his happiness here and in eternity may depend, [namely], his birth, his marriage, and his choice of vocation.”17 Already blessed by birth and upbringing in a righteous family, he continued to benefit from wise decisions relating to his education, profession, and eventual marriage.
After completing his studies through the eighth grade in Huntsville, he attended the Weber Stake Academy in Ogden for two years. Then, during the 1893–94 school year, at the age of 20, he returned to Huntsville and worked as a teacher at the town’s grade school. Around this time, his Grandmother Evans made a financial gift to each of her living children of $2,500. Money was scarce for the McKay family, and neighbors suggested that David O. McKay’s mother, Jennette, invest the money in stocks. However, she firmly declared, “Every cent of this goes into the education of our children.”18 Therefore, in the fall of 1894, he and three of his siblings (Thomas E., Jeanette, and Annie) journeyed to Salt Lake City by wagon to attend the University of Utah. The wagon was filled with flour and jars of fruit and had a milk cow trailing behind.19
Of David O. McKay’s university experience, his son Llewelyn wrote: “School was important. The love for learning grew by leaps and bounds; deep friendships were formed; and his fine sense of values was enhanced. He became the president of his class and was selected valedictorian. … Participating with enthusiasm in sports, he became right guard on the university’s first football team. The greatest event during this time was his acquaintance with Emma Ray Riggs.”20
During the second year of their university education, the McKay students rented a house from Emma Robbins Riggs, the mother of Emma Ray Riggs. One day, the mother and daughter stood at the window and watched as David O. and Thomas E. McKay arrived with their mother. Emma Ray’s mother commented: “There are two young men who will make some lucky girls good husbands. See how considerate they are of their mother.” Emma Ray then remarked, “I like the dark one,” who was David O. McKay. Although he and Emma Ray Riggs saw each other occasionally, they did not develop a serious relationship until a few years later.21
Upon completing his university studies in the spring of 1897, David O. McKay was offered a job as a teacher in Salt Lake County. He was happy for the position and wanted to begin earning money to help the rest of his family. However, around this same time he received and accepted a call to serve a mission in Great Britain.
On 1 August 1897, he was set apart by President Seymour B. Young to serve as a missionary in the British Isles. The first part of his mission was spent in Stirling, Scotland, where the work was slow and difficult. He fulfilled his work diligently and on 9 June 1898, he was called to preside over the missionaries in Scotland. Upon receiving the calling, he turned to the Lord for help. His responsibilities in this calling gave him maturity and experience beyond his years and prepared him for future service.
Another significant experience took place just three months before he went home. As a youth, he had often prayed for a spiritual confirmation regarding his testimony. On 29 May 1899, he attended a memorable missionary meeting. He recounted: “I remember, as if it were but yesterday, the intensity of the inspiration of that occasion. Everybody felt the rich outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord. All present were truly of one heart and one mind. Never before had I experienced such an emotion. It was a manifestation for which as a doubting youth I had secretly prayed most earnestly on hillside and in meadow. It was an assurance to me that sincere prayer is answered ‘sometime, somewhere.’ During the progress of the meeting, an elder on his own initiative arose and said, ‘Brethren, there are angels in this room.’ Strange as it may seem, the announcement was not startling; indeed, it seemed wholly proper, though it had not occurred to me there were divine beings present. I only knew that I was overflowing with gratitude for the presence of the Holy Spirit.”22 Elder McKay finished his mission honorably and was released in August of 1899.
During his mission he had corresponded with Emma Ray Riggs, or “Ray,” as he affectionately called her (her parents had named her for a ray of sunshine). Their courtship began to blossom through the mail between Scotland and Salt Lake City. He found in her a person who was his equal in every way, including intelligence, social graces, and spiritual qualities.
She had continued her schooling while David O. McKay was on his mission, and after graduating with a B.A. in education, she took a position at the Madison School in Ogden, Utah.23 At the same time, the fall of 1899, he joined the faculty of the Weber Stake Academy. During that school year, the two of them often met in a park between their schools. It was there, in December 1900, that he asked her to marry him. She asked, “Are you sure I’m the right one?” He said he was sure.24 On 2 January 1901, Emma Ray Riggs and David O. McKay became the first couple in the 20th century to be married in the Salt Lake Temple.
In 1902, at the age of 28, he became the principal of the Weber Stake Academy. In spite of many administrative responsibilities, he continued to take an active part in the education of the students. He remained committed to education throughout his life, believing that “true education 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.”25
He believed that education was important for everyone. He served as a principal during an era when very few women received a secondary education. In discussing the important role of women, he wrote the following: “Not much emphasis has been placed upon the part that women played in the settlement of the Western Empire. In this we are but following the general practice of men throughout the ages. Women bear the burdens of the household, carry most of the responsibility of rearing a family, inspire their husbands and sons to achieve success; and while the latter are being given the applause of public acclaim, the wives and mothers who really merit recognition and commendation remain smilingly content in unheralded achievement.”26 While working at the Weber Stake Academy, he emphasized the importance of education for both sexes, and female student enrollment greatly increased during his tenure.
During the years he served as a professional educator and administrator at the Weber Stake Academy, he also served in the Weber Stake Sunday School presidency, where he developed new programs. At the time he was called to the Sunday School presidency, the organization received little formal direction from general Church leadership. As the second assistant superintendent—assigned to classwork—David O. McKay immediately began working to improve classroom teaching and learning by using the methods he had learned as a professional educator. One Sunday School leader described his work as follows:
“He first called for weekly meetings of the stake board members. He drilled the members in outlining lessons and in selecting an aim (now called objective) for each lesson. He drilled them in organizing and illustrating the aim. He stressed lesson presentation and application of the aim in each child’s life. This was followed by a monthly … meeting to which all the ward Sunday School teachers and officers were asked to come, having previously read the lessons to be considered. … As a result of these … meetings, teachers went home with a ‘bundle of notes’ on each of four lessons for the month ahead. … [These] meetings became very popular with 90 per cent to 100 per cent attendance at each.”27
News spread quickly of the great success of the Weber Stake Sunday School. President Joseph F. Smith, who at that time also served as the general superintendent of the Sunday Schools, was impressed with David O. McKay’s innovative ideas regarding teaching and invited him to write an article for the Juvenile Instructor, a Sunday School magazine.28
On 9 April 1906, after having served six years in the Weber Stake Sunday School, he was ordained an Apostle at the age of 32. Soon thereafter, he was also sustained as the second assistant in the General Sunday School superintendency. He then became first assistant in 1909, and general superintendent from 1918 to 1934. The same innovations he used in the Weber Stake Sunday School were quickly put into practice by the entire Church. Seeing a need for uniform lessons, he wrote the book Ancient Apostles, which was prepared as one of the first Sunday School lesson manuals.
Elder McKay’s name became synonymous with the Sunday School in the years he served in the Quorum of the Twelve, and he was still writing lessons for the Sunday School when he became President of the Church. In working to improve gospel instruction, his emphasis often focused on children. In his words, children come “from the Father pure and undefiled, without inherent taints or weakness. … Their souls are as stainless white paper on which are to be written the aspirations or achievements of a lifetime.”29 He saw the Sunday School as playing a key role in teaching and building character in children and youth.
Other experiences prepared David O. McKay to eventually lead a worldwide Church. In December 1920, he and Elder Hugh J. Cannon, editor of the Improvement Era, were set apart by President Heber J. Grant and his first counselor, President Anthon H. Lund, to tour all Church missions and schools throughout the world. During the tour, which lasted a year, they traveled approximately 60,000 miles (more than twice the circumference of the earth), teaching and blessing Church members worldwide. Despite difficulties such as seasickness, homesickness, and other challenges in traveling, they had a successful mission and arrived home on Christmas Eve, 1921. In the days following their arrival, they made a full report to President Grant and were honorably released.30 In the first general conference after their return, President Grant declared:
“I rejoice in the fact that Brother McKay is with us today. Brother McKay has circled the globe since he was last at a conference—has visited our missions in nearly every part of the world, and has returned, as every missionary does return who goes out to proclaim this gospel and comes in contact with the people of the world and with all the varieties of faiths of the world, with increased light, knowledge and testimony regarding the divinity of the work in which we are engaged.”31
When it was Elder McKay’s turn to speak in conference, he summarized his travels with a strong testimony: “When we left home, … we looked forward with no little misgiving and anxiety to the trip ahead of us. … The keen sense of our responsibility, adequately to fulfil the desires of President Grant and his counselors and the Twelve, who had honored us with that call, made us seek the Lord as I had never sought him before in my life, and I wish to say this afternoon that the promise made by Moses to the children of Israel just before they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised land, has been fulfilled in our experiences. As we sought the Lord with all our souls He came to our guidance and assistance.”32
Shortly after his return from the world tour, he was called to be the president of the European Mission. He left for Liverpool in November of 1922. It was during this calling that he began to teach the concept of “every member a missionary,” an emphasis he would later continue as Church President. As a mission president, he reorganized missionaries into groups, with several missionaries acting as traveling elders to help train the other missionaries in better teaching methods. One of his greatest challenges was to defuse negative press. His method was to personally contact the editors and reason with them, asking for equal opportunity to present the truth about the Church. A few editors refused his requests, but many were very receptive to him.33 His public relations skills proved to be a great blessing to the Church during his mission presidency and throughout his ministry.
In the fall of 1934, he was sustained as second counselor to President Heber J. Grant. President J. Reuben Clark Jr., who had been serving as President Grant’s second counselor, became first counselor. Although President McKay came into the First Presidency with a strong Church background, on the day he was sustained he still felt humbled by the calling. He stated: “Needless to say I am overwhelmed. During the past few days I have had difficulty in keeping my thoughts and feelings under control. The light heart, the buoyancy of spirit that should accompany the high appointment that has come to me has been somewhat counter-balanced by a heaviness incident to the realization of the great responsibility that comes with the call to the First Presidency.”34 Even after many years of service as a General Authority, he admitted that it was “always more or less an ordeal for me to face an audience,” knowing the magnitude of his responsibilities.35
During President McKay’s early years in the First Presidency, Church members were facing the Great Depression. In 1936, the First Presidency officially announced the Church Security Program, which would later become the Church Welfare Program. As a strong supporter of welfare, President McKay emphasized that spirituality and welfare were synonymous: “It is something to supply clothing to the scantily clad, to furnish ample food to those whose table is thinly spread, to give activity to those who are fighting desperately the despair that comes from enforced idleness, but after all is said and done, the greatest blessings that will accrue from the Church Security Plan are spiritual. There is more spirituality expressed in giving than in receiving. The greatest spiritual blessing comes from helping another.”36
Following the death of President Grant in 1945, George Albert Smith became President of the Church and called President McKay to serve as his second counselor. His duties continued much as they had before, with new opportunities and challenges constantly arising. One of the most demanding projects he undertook was an appointment as the chairman of Utah’s centennial celebration, which involved many months of planning amid his already heavy workload. The statewide celebration, which culminated in July 1947, was hailed as a great success. A local newspaper reported the following:
“Rodney C. Richardson, Coordinator of California centennial affairs, came to Salt Lake City to study Utah’s Centennial, which, he said, was conceded to have ‘the best planning in the nation. Lack of commercialism is one of the outstanding features of the Utah Centennial. It has been a true historical celebration.’” In addition to the praise from California, several other states wrote, requesting plans and other literature associated with the celebration.37
As President George Albert Smith’s health began to decline, the responsibilities of his two counselors increased. In the spring of 1951, President McKay and his wife, Emma Ray, decided to drive from Salt Lake City to California for a much-needed vacation. Stopping in St. George, Utah, the first night, President McKay awoke with a distinct impression that he should return to Salt Lake City. A few days later President George Albert Smith suffered a stroke and passed away on 4 April 1951.
After having served for 45 years as an Apostle, David O. McKay became the ninth President of the Church on 9 April 1951, with Stephen L Richards and J. Reuben Clark Jr. as counselors. In 1952, the First Presidency introduced the first official proselyting plan for full-time missionaries. The program was designed to increase the effectiveness of full-time missionaries by providing a standard outline of the discussions to be used in teaching investigators. The outline included five discussions entitled “The Book of Mormon,” “Historical Basis for the Restoration,” “Distinctive Doctrines of the Church,” “Responsibilities of Church Membership,” and “Becoming a Member of the Church.”38
Nine years later, in 1961, he convened the first seminar for all mission presidents, who were taught to encourage families to fellowship their friends and neighbors and then have these people taught by missionaries in their homes.39 Emphasizing the concept of “every member a missionary,” he urged every member to make a commitment to bring at least one new member into the Church each year. A language training institute for newly called missionaries was also established that year. With these new initiatives, Church membership and the number of full-time missionaries grew rapidly. Under his direction, the number of stakes more than doubled (to approximately 500) as new stakes were formed around the world in such countries as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, Germany, Guatemala, Mexico, the Netherlands, Samoa, Scotland, Switzerland, Tonga, and Uruguay. Also in 1961, to accommodate this tremendous growth, members of the First Quorum of the Seventy were made high priests so that they could preside at stake conferences, and the new office of regional representatives of the Twelve was established in 1967.
President McKay traveled more miles than all of his predecessors combined. In 1952, he began the first of several important trips—a nine-week trip to Europe, where he visited nine countries and several missions. At the first stop in Scotland, he dedicated that country’s first chapel, which was located in Glasgow. Throughout the remainder of the trip, he held approximately 50 meetings with Church members, gave numerous interviews, and visited with dignitaries from many countries.40 In 1954, he traveled to the isolated mission in South Africa, being the first General Authority to visit that area. In the second leg of his journey, he visited Church members in South America. In 1955, he visited the South Pacific, and later in the summer of that same year, he returned to Europe with the Tabernacle Choir.
He felt that his travels brought “a keener realization on the part of members of the Church that they are not detached entities but are in reality part of the Church as a whole.”41 For the first time the Church was truly becoming global. President McKay 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.”42
While in Europe in 1952, he made arrangements to construct new temples, the first that would be built outside the United States and Canada. The Bern Switzerland Temple was dedicated in 1955, and the London England Temple was dedicated in 1958. Also dedicated during his presidency were the Los Angeles California Temple (1956), the Hamilton New Zealand Temple (1958), and the Oakland California Temple (1964). Under his direction, films were used for the temple endowment, making it possible for the ordinance to be received in various languages.
In 1960, the First Presidency assigned Elder Harold B. Lee to establish Church Correlation, with the intent of coordinating and consolidating Church programs, reducing overlap, and increasing efficiency and effectiveness. In a general conference address announcing this initiative, Elder Lee stated: “This is a move, which … has lain close to President McKay’s mind and now as the President of the Church he is instructing us to move forward, that we consolidate to make more efficient, and more effective the work of the priesthood, the auxiliaries, and the other units in order that we may conserve our time, our energy, and our efforts toward the prime purpose for which the Church itself has been organized.”43
Among people of other faiths, President McKay was regarded as an important spiritual leader. He met with world leaders and local government officials regularly. He was also visited by United States presidents, including Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. On one occasion, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who called President McKay often, invited him to Washington, D.C., for personal counsel on several issues that were troubling him. During the visit, President McKay told him: “Let your conscience be your guide. Let the people know that you are sincere, and they will follow you.”44
Beginning in youth and throughout his life, President McKay studied the words of great authors and frequently taught from the passages he had memorized. For instance, he told Church members: “Wordsworth’s heart leaped up when he beheld a rainbow in the sky. Burns’ heart wept when his plowshare overturned a daisy. Tennyson could pluck the flower from the ‘crannied wall,’ and see, if he could read in it the mystery, ‘all that God and man is.’ All these, and other great men, have shown to us, in the works of nature, the handiwork of God.”45
Church members loved to hear President McKay speak. His discourses often included inspiring stories from his many experiences, and he always appreciated good humor. He enjoyed telling the story of a newspaper delivery boy who shook hands with him before he got on an elevator. The boy then ran upstairs to greet the aged prophet as he exited on the floor above. The boy said, “I just wanted to shake hands with you once more before you die.”46
His general conference addresses emphasized the importance of the home and family as the source of happiness and the surest defense against trials and temptations. The axiom “no other success can compensate for failure in the home” was often repeated as he called on parents to spend more time with their children and teach them about character and integrity. He taught, “Pure hearts in a pure home are always in whispering distance of heaven.”47 He called the home the “cell-unit of society” and declared that “parenthood is next to Godhood.”48
He spoke of the sanctity of marriage and referred often to the love he felt for his family and his wife, Emma Ray. Their marriage of over 60 years became the model union for future generations of Latter-day Saints. He admonished, “Let us teach youth that the marriage relation is one of the most sacred obligations known to man, or that man can make.”49
As his health began to decline in the mid-1960s, he soon spent much of his time in a wheelchair and called additional counselors into the First Presidency. Despite his weakening physical condition, he continued to conduct the business of the Church and to teach, lead, and inspire. Not long before his death, he spoke at a meeting in the Salt Lake Temple with the General Authorities of the Church. Elder Boyd K. Packer, who was present at the meeting, recalled the experience as follows:
“[President McKay] talked of the temple ordinances and quoted at length from the ceremonies. He explained them to us. (That was not inappropriate, considering that we were in the temple.) After he had spoken for some time, he paused and stood gazing up to the ceiling in deep thought.
“I remember that his big hands were in front of him with his fingers interlocked. He stood gazing as people sometimes do when pondering a deep question. Then he spoke: ‘Brethren, I think I am finally beginning to understand.’
“Here he was, the prophet—an Apostle for over half a century and even then he was learning, he was growing. His expression ‘I think I am finally beginning to understand,’ was greatly comforting to me.”50 Even with his extensive understanding of the gospel and his experience in the Church, President McKay was humble enough to realize that he could still learn and discover deeper levels of meaning.
After serving as the Lord’s prophet for almost 20 years, President David O. McKay passed away on 18 January 1970 in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife, Emma Ray, and five of his children at his bedside. In a tribute to him, President Harold B. Lee stated that he had “left the world richer and heaven more glorious by the rich treasures he has brought to each.”51 Of David O. McKay’s legacy, his successor, President Joseph Fielding Smith, declared: “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.”52