Lesson 29: David O. McKay—Worldwide Ambassador of God

, "Lesson 29: David O. McKay—Worldwide Ambassador of God," The Presidents of the Church: Teacher’s Manual1996


Through studying the life of President David O. McKay, an Apostle and prophet, class members will better understand what it means to be an “ambassador” or representative of Christ’s church.


  1. 1.

    Prepare to show the picture of David O. McKay in the color section.

  2. 2.

    See that each class member has a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants.

  3. 3.

    Prepare a poster or prepare to write this statement on the chalkboard: “Whate’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.”

  4. 4.

    If the videocassette Testimonies of the Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (53242) is available, show the section “David O. McKay.”

Suggested Lesson Development


David O. McKay, from 1951 to 1970, was the ninth prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was called as an Apostle at the age of thirty-two, and before his ministry of over sixty-three years ended, he had traveled over a million miles as an ambassador of Christ.

  • What is an ambassador? (A representative, diplomat, or messenger.)

David O. McKay Developed Qualities Needed to Serve as an Ambassador of the Lord

The experiences we have in life help us develop the qualities we need to help the Lord further his work. We can better understand how President McKay became a representative or ambassador of Christ by studying some experiences in his life.

Experience 1: David O. McKay Received His Patriarchal Blessing

“Just a few weeks before his fourteenth birthday, David received his patriarchal blessing. After pronouncing the blessing, Patriarch [John] Smith placed his hands on David’s shoulders, and looking into his eyes said, ‘My boy, you have something to do besides playing marbles. …’ Among other things, the patriarch had said to young David:

“‘Brother David Oman McKay, thou art in thy youth and need instruction, therefore I say unto thee, be taught of thy parents the way of life and salvation, that at an early day you may be prepared for a responsible position, for the eye of the Lord is upon thee. … The Lord has a work for thee to do, in which thou shalt see much of the world. … It shall be thy lot to sit in council with thy brethren and preside among the people and exhort the Saints to faithfulness’” (Jeanette McKay Morrell, Highlights in the Life of President David O. McKay [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1966], p. 26).

Experience 2: David O. McKay Loved to Learn

President McKay was blessed with a zeal for learning. As a youth of sixteen, he became a student at the Weber Academy in Ogden, Utah. After finishing there, he and his brother and two younger sisters went to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. It was here he met Emma Ray Riggs, who later became his sweetheart and companion for over sixty-nine years.

Life at the university was noteworthy and filled with leadership experiences, hard work, and study. David was a football hero, senior class president, and valedictorian. His love for learning and the literary arts developed during these years at the university. He majored in English literature, memorizing scores of passages from the great authors and writers.

Experience 3: David O. McKay Served a Mission

After he graduated from the university, he planned to marry Emma Ray and teach at Weber Academy, where he had been offered a teaching contract. His plans were changed, however, when he received a mission call to Scotland. The first months of David’s mission were difficult. Only a short time before, he had been one of the most popular men on the campus at the University of Utah. Now he was among strangers and very unpopular. He tells in his own words how he was humbled and how the Lord taught him:

“I was homesick and a little discouraged on this day. … I had just left school. I loved school and I loved young people. … I was with Peter G. Johnston, one of the truest friends in all the world. … 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. … 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” (“Pres. McKay Speaks to Pioneer Stake Youth,” Church News, 21 Sept. 1957, p. 4).

As a struggling young missionary in Scotland, Elder McKay did learn to “act well his part” and became a leader in that mission. A counselor in his mission presidency was led to prophesy:

“‘“Let me say to you, Brother David, Satan has desired you that he may sift you as wheat, but God is mindful of you, and if you will keep the faith, you will yet sit in the leading councils of the Church”’” (Morrell, Highlights in the Life of David O. McKay, pp. 37–38).

  • How did these three experiences help prepare President McKay for the work the Lord had chosen for him? (Answers may vary; stress that all of these experiences helped David O. McKay catch a vision and begin to realize the importance of “acting well his part” as a representative of Christ and his Church.)

  • What qualities did David O. McKay develop as a result of these three experiences? (Review each of the experiences previously mentioned and lead the class members to the following conclusions.)

Experience 1: From his patriarchal blessing David O. McKay learned—

  1. 1.

    To be teachable; he was cautioned to yield to the teachings of his parents.

  2. 2.

    To make good use of his time. (The patriarch later told him he had better things to do than play marbles.) He was also told the Lord had a work for him to do.

Experience 2: From his love of learning and schooling, David O. McKay learned—

  1. 1.

    To study.

  2. 2.

    To work.

  3. 3.

    To develop his leadership qualities.

  4. 4.

    To increase his confidence.

  5. 5.

    To love learning.

  6. 6.

    To organize and lead among his peers.

  7. 7.

    To improve his social skills.

  8. 8.

    To make his love for literature part of his life.

Experience 3: As a missionary, David O. McKay learned—

  1. 1.

    To be humble and rely on the Lord.

  2. 2.

    That to be a representative of Christ is important.

  3. 3.

    To instill the statement to “Act Well Thy Part” in his heart.

David O. McKay Used His Qualities to Serve the Lord and the Church

Upon David O. McKay’s return from his mission in Scotland, he married Emma Ray Riggs and accepted the contract to teach at the Weber Academy. During this time he was called to be in the Weber Stake Sunday School superintendency. While serving in this capacity, President Joseph F. Smith declared that the Lord wanted David O. McKay to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. President McKay accepted the call and in April of 1906 was sustained. The responsibilities as a representative of Christ then took on a deeper meaning, and he continued “acting well his part.”

The qualities the Lord had blessed David O. McKay with through the years, became a strength to him as he fulfilled the responsibilities the Lord placed on his shoulders. He was a young Apostle—being instructed by each new experience—and because of his faithfulness, the Lord continued to bless him.

Scripture discussion

Read Doctrine and Covenants 43:9–10 with the class.

  • What do we learn from this scripture? (The Lord blesses us when we “act in all holiness” [D&C 43:9] before him. That is an essential part of being a representative for him.)

As we look into some of President McKay’s experiences as an Apostle, and later as the prophet, we can see that the qualities he developed while growing up became important tools for the Lord to use. They also enhanced President McKay’s success as a leader. Let’s consider some of these experiences and qualities.

David O. McKay “Acted Well His Part”

President David O. McKay “acted well his part” throughout his lengthy ministry. Whether attending a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth of England or mingling with so-called commoners, President McKay stood out physically and spiritually. A friend told this story of President McKay:

“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 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’” (cited in “Memories of a Prophet,” Improvement Era, Feb. 1970, p. 72).

Videocassette testimony

If it is available, show the videocassette, part 5 (1 minute, 6 seconds), of David O. McKay’s testimony.

At 6:00 a.m. Sunday, 18 January 1970, just as the Sabbath light was dawning over the valley of the Great Salt Lake, ninety-six-year-old David Oman McKay died. News of his death flashed around the world. Expressions of grief and respect began pouring in. He was known worldwide as America’s ambassador of goodwill. Most importantly, he was known and loved by our Savior, and truly became Christ’s ambassador.

Robert R. McKay, David O. McKay’s son, testified thus of his father:

“I can say this, and act as a personal witness, because in all of my years of close association in the home, on the farm, in business, in the Church, there has never been shown to me one action nor one word, even while training a self-willed horse, which would throw any doubt in my mind that he should be and finally did become the representative and prophet of our Heavenly Father. I leave you that personal witness” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1967, p. 84).

Testimony and Challenge

Bear your testimony and challenge class members to look into their own lives and identify the God-given qualities they are developing. Help each to realize that he or she is needed as a representative of the Lord’s Church. Emphasize: The Lord needs you! And challenge them: “Whate’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part.”