Teaching Legacy: Joseph Fielding McConkie

No Compromise with Truth

Robert L. Millet

Robert L. Millet (robert_millet@byu.edu) was a professor emeritus of ancient scripture, BYU when this was written.

The passing of Joseph Fielding McConkie on October 10, 2013, is a great loss to the Church and the Church Educational System (CES) in general. If he was anything—and he was many things—Joseph was a religious educator, a superb one. His death is also a great personal loss, creating an empty space that I do not anticipate will ever be refilled. He was one of a kind, and I will miss him.

I first came in contact with Joseph and his teachings through the written word. In 1977 my wife and family and I relocated to Tallahassee, Florida, where I served as the director of the institute of religion adjacent to Florida State University. Within a year I was called as bishop of the Tallahassee First Ward. I was invited to accompany the stake president, Richard Chapple, and his second counselor, Charles Madsen, to general conference in 1978. The day before conference began, the three of us went into the downtown store of Deseret Book to browse. In sorting through the newest publications, I noticed a book by Joseph Fielding McConkie entitled Seeking the Spirit, which I purchased primarily to occupy my mind in the Tabernacle the next day prior to the start of the Friday morning session. As I had anticipated, my colleagues and I entered the Tabernacle on Friday at about 8:00 a.m. and thus had two hours to wait. I stood and stretched and scoped out the place for any persons in attendance that I might know and eventually opened the book and began to read. I first glanced at the title page. Of course I recognized the name of the author and knew something of his background in the CES and that he was now a member of the Religious Education faculty at Brigham Young University. I seemed to have remembered that he had written a brief biography/tribute to his grandfather Joseph Fielding Smith and also a short book on teaching, Teach and Reach, which I had read as a very inexperienced seminary teacher in Salt Lake City.

I was immediately drawn into Seeking the Spirit, captured by the penetrating message it delivered—that it is the spiritual right, and even responsibility, of every Latter-day Saint to seek after and receive personal revelation. Several times during the next hour and a half I interrupted my friends in whatever they were doing to read aloud something I had come across in the book. I was also impressed by Joseph’s style of writing. He was obviously the son of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, and he wrote with the boldness and fearlessness of a McConkie, but I noticed that he made his points more quickly, more directly than his father, yet he was no less profound in his pronouncements. He wrote as one having authority, one who had paid a significant price in gospel study to be able to elucidate sacred principles and to do so with spiritual persuasiveness.

A few years later I traveled to Provo to participate in the CES Religious Educators’ Symposium on the Book of Mormon. I attended a presentation by Joseph McConkie on the Gathering of Israel and the Second Coming of Christ. This time I was stunned, not by the power of the presentation alone, but by what he was teaching. Joseph put forward an approach to the gathering of Israel, including the gathering of the ten tribes, that I had not encountered before. He didn’t speak of the lost tribes in the center of the earth or on the North Star or another planet, but rather as a people scattered among the nations who would be gathered just like everyone else is gathered—through receiving the testimony of the Book of Mormon, accepting the restored gospel, and joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And then, of all things, to substantiate his most unusual claims, he quoted extensively from the Book of Mormon and then at length from a book by his father yet to be published by Deseret Book. The book, of course, was The Millennial Messiah. I can still remember looking around to see if anyone else was as intellectually startled as I was, and I noticed across the room that George Horton was engaged in an animated conversation with Gerald Lund about these things. I enjoyed the symposium very much, as I always did, and took many things home with me on which to reflect. When The Millennial Messiah was released, I devoured it and was once again quite startled by Elder McConkie’s rather unusual teachings about the gathering of Israel. I phoned Robert J. Matthews, BYU’s dean of Religious Education, and asked him what he thought about the whole thing, what he made of Joseph’s teachings and of Elder McConkie’s book. Dean Matthews calmly explained that he agreed completely with Joseph’s conclusions and then added humorously, “Now, Bob, if you will read and study this book [The Millennial Messiah] carefully, then put it under your pillow at night, you will be exalted in the celestial kingdom!” I have often wished that it was that easy.

I joined the BYU religion faculty in the summer of 1983, and, as fate would have it, my office was right across the hall from Joseph’s in the old Joseph Smith Building. He roamed over to my place one day soon after I arrived, introduced himself, and we struck up a conversation. Before long we began to talk about where we had worked, and in particular our experiences with anti-Mormon propaganda, he having encountered it in full force in Washington state, and I in Florida and Georgia. He looked at me and said, “Maybe we ought to do a book together.” Many months later we submitted a manuscript to Bookcraft, and sometime after that our first coauthored book, Sustaining and Defending the Faith, was released. It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Over the next eleven years we coauthored ten books and edited each other’s works.

People who know Joseph and me quite well have often asked how we worked together so harmoniously, given that we had two very different teaching and writing styles. Over the years I have had a number of people say, for example, that they could easily tell which chapters of a book he had written and which I had done. Our answer to the query was simple: we believed in and taught the same doctrine and were not persuaded that it had to be presented in exactly the same way to be effective. I came to appreciate Joseph’s most distinctive teaching style, for example, when the two of us were invited to be the two presenters at an all-day Book of Mormon symposium at the stake center adjacent to the Washington D.C. Temple, where several hundred people assembled. As Oliver Cowdery might have said, it was a day “never to be forgotten” (see Messenger and Advocate, October 1834, 14). While I cannot remember the exact order in which the classes took place, but the day went something like this:

The Nature of Fallen Man (Millet)

Redemption through the Holy Messiah (McConkie)

Ye Must Be Born Again (Millet)

The Destiny of the House of Israel (McConkie)

And so forth, for eight hours. I recall being rather surprised at the end of the day how quickly the day seemed to have passed and also how energized we both felt at 5:00 p.m. It was an invigorating experience, both spiritually and physically. We did this on a number of occasions. In addition, among my fondest memories are the times the two of us served as tour guides to the Holy Land, to the British Isles, and to Church history sites. In the latter example, I will go to my grave rejoicing in the supernal experience we had as a group to be able to be in the Kirtland Temple for a three-hour period, courtesy of our friend Lachlan Mackay of the Reorganized Church (now Community of Christ). We sang a number of the hymns that had been written and sung at the dedication of that temple in 1836, I spoke for a little over an hour on the Lectures on Faith, and Joseph then waxed eloquent about the first day of dedication and the coming of Moses, Elias, and Elijah a week later. There were many tears of joy and testimony shed that day, including those of our host.

I want to say something more specifically about him as a teacher. I know of no one who could engage a scriptural text as tenaciously and rigorously as Joseph Fielding McConkie. He was born to be a scriptural exegete! On several occasions philosophy majors at BYU shared with me that it had been recommended strongly by their academic advisers that they enroll in classes taught by Joseph McConkie. Why? Because he taught from and stayed with the scriptural text. I can remember the two of us speaking to a large group on doctrinal themes of the Pearl of Great Price. Joseph assigned himself the topic of the Abrahamic covenant. He worked with Abraham 2:8–11; four verses, for fifty-five minutes, and still didn’t finish what he wanted to say at the time the session ended! He also spoke at that same gathering on the preeminence of Christ and drew upon Abraham 3 to demonstrate how all things bear witness of the Redeemer.

I recall the day, during the time when I was serving as dean of Religious Education, that President Merrill J. Bateman said to the deans of the various colleges, essentially, “We need to find ways to get the blessings of Brigham Young University out to the greater Church; this is their university too.” I came back to my office, did some prayerful thinking, spoke with my associate deans Don Cannon and Larry Dahl, and decided to move forward with an idea: we would essentially set up a religion course for the KBYU television audience. These came to be known as the Scripture Roundtables, where four or five of the religion faculty would discuss a section of scripture and share their respective insights into the passages under consideration. We decided to start with the Pearl of Great Price, and we determined in those early days of the filming to hold fifty-five minute segments. Joseph was never more animated and colorful than when he was a participant in the roundtables. Many of those who were involved can still remember a fairly heavy conversation going forward, only to have it punctuated now and then by the following from Joseph: “Now hold on. Let’s think for a moment. Let me teach you something.” And he would proceed to do so. He was not only inspiring; he was entertaining to watch.

When his missionaries in the Scotland Edinburgh Mission, where he and Brenda presided for three years, began to return home, a goodly number of them enrolled in my classes. I say without hesitation that these returned missionaries were distinctively different: they had a love for and a devotion to the Restoration that was obvious in the way they spoke and the manner in which they responded to questions. In addition, they had a familiarity with and commitment to the Restoration scriptures that was contagious. It was clear to me and to other members of the faculty that these young people had, in both zone conferences and in private interviews, been privileged to sit at the feet of a master teacher.

There is so much more I could say, so many occasions where I saw the power of God resting upon him as he read from and expounded the scriptures. Much like his father, Joseph never left anyone wondering where he stood on important matters. That didn’t always win friends to his cause, and sometimes listeners went away offended by his certitude. But with Joseph there was no compromise when for him truth was at stake.

For some of us who have been around for a while, there’s a particular melancholy associated with the passing of some of the great religious educators, especially those who were irreplaceable doctrinal giants, great redwoods in the theological forest, men who were fearless and peerless defenders of the faith: Daniel Ludlow, Robert Matthews, Truman Madsen, and now Joseph McConkie. We will all miss our association with our beloved colleague Joseph but rest secure in our knowledge that the restored gospel is being preached with great power in the postmortal spirit world and that Joseph Fielding McConkie may now enjoy the sweet association of his great-grandfather Joseph F. Smith; his grandfathers, Joseph Fielding Smith and Oscar W. McConkie; and his father, Bruce R. McConkie. What a reunion! What a classroom! And, oh, what testimony is now being borne on the other side!