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Homosexuality: What Would David O. McKay Do?

LDS President David O. McKay
LDS President David O. McKay

April 13, 2013

LDS President David O. McKay

LDS President David O. McKay

Where answers were not forthcoming, he would act on the side of compassion, inclusion and progression

by Greg Prince

Presented at an Affirmation social in Salt Lake City, April 5, 2013. A scientist, a scholar, and a member of the Affirmation Board of Directors, in 2005 Greg Prince co-authored the award-winning book David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.

Having seen the bumper sticker, WWJD, I designed one of my own to introduce the subject of my remarks: WWDOMD—What Would David O. McKay Do?

I begin with the comprehensive history of homosexuality in the General Handbook of Instructions—the Mormon equivalent of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law for well over a century—through all editions until the death of David O. McKay:

“Cases Handled by Church Courts: These include, but are not limited to: Fornication, adultery, homo-sexual acts, or other infractions of the moral code.” (General Handbook of Instructions, 1968 edition, p. 122)

That’s it. That’s the entire history.

Now, let me give you the comprehensive history of homosexuality contained in the 40,000-page diaries of David O. McKay, which began in 1932 and ended at his death in 1970:

March 4, 1965: “[President Hugh B. Brown] asked the question as to what our action would be in these cases, whether or not they should be excommunicated from the Church. I said that they should be excommunicated without any doubt, that the homosexual has no right to membership in the Church.”

December 11, 1968: “At the beginning of the [First Presidency] meeting we met with Elders Spencer W. Kimball and Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve and discussed the report which they had presented at a recent meeting of the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve regarding an assignment that had been given them by me about eight years ago to develop a program to help those of our people who are involved in homosexual and perversion practices.

I was greatly shocked and dismayed to learn of the extent of the penetration of this dreaded practice, which has spread even to the membership of the Church. Elder Kimball mentioned that this problem has grown all over the world, and that it has now come out in the open, whereas formerly it was undercover.”

That’s it. That’s the entire history of the subject from the David O. McKay papers: one diary entry in 1965, one diary entry in 1968, and one brief mention in the 1968 edition of the General Handbook. And all three predated June 28, 1969—the date of the Stonewall Riots that began to change the way the straight—and even the gay—world thought of and interacted with homosexuality. You will see from these examples that President McKay was a product of his own time regarding this issue, which means that it was barely a blip on his screen. There is not even a record that he ever knew anyone who was gay.

That said, his record on other sensitive social issues is extensive enough, and shows enough evolution, to allow a good-faith discussion of what he might say on the subject if he were the President today instead of a half-century ago. The case study for my comparison: race.

It is not much of a stretch to say that in the first half of the 20th century, racism in Utah differed from that in the American South primarily in the number of lynchings. If that statement jolts you—and it should—consider the following:

    • In 1945, an equal rights act was introduced in the Utah Senate that would have expressly prohibited “discrimination on account of race in admission to any place of public accommodation.” The bill died in committee, as it did again in 1947, 1949, and 1951. No effort was made in 1953 to reintroduce it.
    • In the early 1950s Harmon Cole, an African-American resident of Salt Lake City, wrote: “The Negro finds himself in a peculiar position in Utah; he has no stated laws of the Jim Crow type, but he still cannot act as a free citizen in his community. This is so because of the ‘understood discrimination’ against him. Let me give you a few examples from my own experience: We are not free to eat or to sleep where we want, nor, in a theater, can we sit where we choose.… If we have friends from out of town or if we want to take the suggestion of some advertisement ‘and eat out tonight,’ we must find some restaurant or cafe other than the Hotel Utah, Newhouse, Mayflower, and their kind. We will have to eat at a third or fourth rate restaurant or cafe. A few months ago, my wife was asked to come to a hotel in Salt Lake City to call on a Caucasian friend. She was asked at the desk to take the service elevator to her friend’s room, since Negroes were not allowed to use the passenger elevator.”
    • In 1954 a field director for the National Urban League wrote, “In large areas of Utah, Nevada, and southern Arizona, and in most of the smaller towns, the discrimination is almost as severe as in the south.”
    • A black African visitor to Salt Lake City in the mid-1950s reported that after a 2 ½-month tour of the northern United States, he encountered in Utah his first rejection because of his race. “I have been in all major northern cities from New York to Buffalo, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and others. I was rather shocked to be turned away from restaurants in Salt Lake City because of my race.”
    • A 1963 article in the Indianapolis Star quoted Charles Nabors, a member of the executive board of the NAACP, saying Utah “has potentially the worst race problem in the United States.”
    • Four years later, Apostle Ezra Taft Benson, speaking in General Conference, poured additional gasoline on the fire by saying, “There is no doubt that the so-called civil rights movement as it exists today is used as a Communist program for revolution in America.”

That was the Utah of David O. McKay. How did he respond to the racist world in which he lived? Until he went to Scotland on a mission at the age of 24, McKay lived his entire life in the small —and completely white— Utah town of Huntsville. According to his eldest son, he had little contact with blacks during his entire lifetime. On the ship to Scotland in 1897, he and his fellow missionaries reacted negatively to a group of internationally renowned black singers on board, with the result that the singers were invited to dine at the captain’s table, and the missionaries were not. Attending a concert by the same singers in Glasgow a year later, McKay revealed his prejudice in a diary entry: “Although, I do not care much for a negro, still I have a warm spot in my heart for these beautiful singers.”

Even after becoming a General Authority, McKay’s record on race, particularly when viewed from today’s perspective, was troubling. In 1949 he spoke with an Arizona legislator, and then made the following notation in his diary:

“Pres. Nielsen then discussed the race question that is coming before the Arizona State Legislature.…I said that the South knows how to handle them and they do not have any trouble, and the colored people are better off down there.” (February 25, 1949)

In 1956, now as Church President, he blocked an attempt by the Deseret News to encourage school desegregation, this in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that outlawed school segregation:

“I telephoned to Dr. O. Preston Robinson, General Manager of the Deseret News this morning. He had submitted a suggestive editorial on the problem of desegregation. I told him that I had no objection to the editorial’s being printed as it now stands with the exception of the reference to segregation in the school room. I said that there is a different problem attached to this subject; for instance there may be a district where the negro is in the majority; that there might be three or four white children. Inasmuch as the negro child is two or three grades below the white child of the same age, it would not be fair to force the few white children to attend—furthermore, the negro really prefers to attend a school for the colored people. I therefore instructed Dr. Robinson to leave the reference to the school room out of the editorial.” (April 2, 1956)

Five years later, responding to the subject of racial integration, he said, “We should like to leave the solution for the Southern States people to handle. If the Government judiciary had kept out of this the Southern States would have handled it properly.” (June 13, 1961)

One week later, he endorsed a proposal put forward by Henry D. Moyle, his First Counselor:

“President Moyle reported that Brother Eugene Merrill reports having a plan, which President Moyle encouraged him to follow up, by which it is hoped that the War Department will be encouraged to make use of two of their plants in California and retain their colored contingents there instead of sending them to Tooele.” (June 22, 1961)

As a final example, in 1963 he was invited to participate in a White House conference on civil rights. He declined, and instead sent James Faust, then an attorney and stake president in Salt Lake City, and gave him the following instructions:

“I told Brother Faust that he should go and find out what President Kennedy is trying to do. I said that I did not like to see a law passed which will make the Hotel men violators of the law if they refuse to provide accommodations for a negro when their hotels are filled with white people, or restaurant men made violators when they decline to serve colored people.

I said that businessmen ought to be free to run their own businesses, and not become law breakers if they choose to employ certain people; that if we have such a law as that, then it is unfair to the majority of the citizens of this country.” (June 19, 1963)

Given that backdrop, which can only be called racist and regressive, what was David O. McKay’s track record on the closely related subject of blacks and priesthood ordination? Inclusive and progressive—seemingly an impossible paradox. Let me review that record.

Although the Church’s ban against ordination of blacks of African ancestry dated to the early days of Brigham Young’s leadership, McKay did not put a personal face on the policy until fifteen years after he became an Apostle! On his around-the-world trip in 1921, he encountered in Hawaii a worthy black man who had married a Polynesian woman:

“My sympathies were so aroused that I wrote home to President Grant asking if he would please make an exception so we could ordain that man to the Priesthood. He wrote back saying, ‘David, I am as sympathetic as you are, but until the Lord gives us a revelation regarding that matter, we shall have to maintain the policy of the Church.’”

There is no record that McKay challenged the policy in the subsequent three decades prior to becoming Church President. However, he appears to have taken to heart President Grant’s counsel that a) the matter was policy and not doctrine —that is, mutable instead of immutable— and b) it would take a revelation to change it—but it could change if such a revelation were to occur.

Soon after becoming Church President in 1951, McKay was informed by the president of the South African Mission that its recently implemented policy that “no man was to be ordained to or advanced in the priesthood until he had traced his genealogy out of Africa,” had brought the mission to a virtual standstill. In order “to observe conditions as they are,” he flew to South Africa early in 1954, thereby becoming the first LDS General Authority ever to visit the country. Upon viewing those conditions, he made an on-the-spot decision to change the rule on genealogy:

“Why should every man be required to prove that his lineage is free from Negro strain especially when there is no evidence of his having Negro blood in his veins? I should rather, much rather, make a mistake in one case and if it be found out afterwards suspend his activity in the Priesthood than to deprive 10 worthy men of the Priesthood.”

The South African trip was the catalyst for McKay to begin a process of challenging the ban on priesthood ordination. Within months of McKay’s return, according to Apostle Adam S. Bennion, he took the matter to the Source. “McKay, Bennion said, had pled with the Lord without result and finally concluded the time was not yet ripe.” On at least four subsequent occasions, he again took the matter up with the Lord:

    • On one occasion his daughter-in-law, Mildred McKay, a general officer in the Primary Association, expressed her anguish that black male children, who commingled with white children during their Primary years, were excluded from the Aaronic Priesthood when they turned twelve. He replied that he had taken the matter to the Lord “many times” but had not received an answer, and said, “I don’t know why.”
    • Marion D. Hanks, a General Authority called by McKay in 1953, spoke with McKay in the late 1960s prior to traveling to Vietnam to visit LDS servicemen. Hanks related an incident from a prior trip to Vietnam, in which he had comforted a wounded, black LDS soldier. As Hanks told the story, McKay began to weep. Referring to the priesthood ban he said, “I have prayed and prayed and prayed, but there has been no answer.”
    • Lola Timmins, a secretary in McKay’s office from 1960 to 1968, recalled a day when he returned from a meeting with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in the Temple. The subject had come up in several such meetings; and obviously venting some private feelings, he told the secretaries that he had inquired of the Lord several times on the matter, and that the answer was, “Not yet.”
    • But the most remarkable account came from Richard Jackson, an architect in the Church Building Department: “I remember one day that President McKay came into the office. We could see that he was very much distressed. He said, ‘I’ve had it! I’m not going to do it again!’ Somebody said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m badgered constantly about giving the priesthood to the Negro. I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.’”

The answer that President McKay sought unsuccessfully came to his successor, Spencer Kimball, eight years after McKay’s death. Although he was never able to get the revelation that would change the policy, on several occasions McKay nibbled at its periphery, granting exceptions on occasion even when there was evidence of black African ancestry, and in the process explaining, “I have met this question by following the rule that we shall face the Savior and tell what our decision is with a clear conscience.”

Now, what does this extensive case study have to do with LGBT issues today? There is a key to understanding how one man could be so regressive on the issue of race and civil rights, and yet so progressive on the related issue of race and priesthood, and it is this: his views on the former were shaped by it being a “them” issue. Civil rights, in his mind, were “out there,” and thus could be approached abstractly and, in concert with the times, regressively. Ordination of blacks, however, was an “us” issue for the last four decades of McKay’s life, beginning with his face-to-face encounter with a worthy black male in Hawaii in 1921. Each time he encountered the issue, there was a name and a face attached to it, and because of that he approached it with compassion and inclusion, rather than convention and exclusion.

Recall now the statement that I quoted at the beginning of this presentation, which McKay made in a First Presidency meeting in 1968, only a year prior to his death: “I was greatly shocked and dismayed to learn of the extent of the penetration of this dreaded practice, which has spread even to the membership of the Church.” The personal element was absent. He never put a face to the issue of homosexuality, and thus he approached the issue as he had that of civil rights: abstractly and regressively, in concert with the pre-Stonewall times.

Were David O. McKay to return to this church today, how would he likely react to the way things have been and are, and how might he address LGBT issues in the Church moving forward?

    • He would be astounded —rather than being “shocked and dismayed” as in an earlier time— to see thousands and thousands of gay Mormons in the pews and in the mission field, living their religion and flavoring the “stew of Mormonism.”
    • He would be horrified to learn that shortly after his death, BYU students were subjected to what, in the context of recent events in Iraq, could be labeled torture, with electric shocks being applied in a misguided and impossible attempt to reorient their sexual orientation.
    • He would be incredulous upon hearing that stalwart LDS families had literally thrown their gay sons or daughters out of the house, effectively disowning them and, in the process, filling homeless shelters.
    • He would weep, as he did in his earlier meeting with Elder Hanks, upon learning that Stuart Matis had taken his own life on the steps of his LDS chapel because his church had rejected him.
    • He would be baffled upon learning of the high percentage of the American population that views Mormonism unfavorably, in large part because of its perceived homophobia—given that shortly before his death not only was Mormonism viewed favorably in this country, but also a Gallup poll had listed him as one of the five top religious figures in the country. Norman Vincent Peale was also on that list; Billy Graham was not.
    • He would be delighted that national LGBT leaders have been invited as VIP guests of the Church to attend the Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert—and he would wish he could have been at the banquet prior to the concert, just four months ago, when two men who had been foes four years earlier as they led their respective organization’s campaigns for and against Prop 8, sat next to each other and forged a friendship over dinner.
    • He would nod approvingly at the advances of science and how they are reshaping the world’s understanding of homosexuality. In an earlier era, he saw that science was prevailing in the debate over biological evolution, and he wisely kept the Church from staking out the kind of official anti-evolution position that currently shackles other religious traditions.

    • Once he recovered from being introduced to the Internet —and perhaps after playing a few video games— he would marvel at the power of websites, and be pleased both with the reach and the content of

That’s how he would likely view the past and present. What about the future? Let me look forward by looking backward, as in the title of the movie, “Back to the Future.” In 1962, President McKay and his counselors wrestled with the question of whether they should proselytize in the country of Nigeria, for they knew that if they planted the Church there, they would have to confront directly the question of priesthood ordination of black Nigerian males. At the time, the total black membership of the Church probably numbered in the hundreds—well under 1%. As I read to you a lengthy quote from the minutes of a First Presidency meeting, consider an LGBT population in the current church of perhaps 5%, and substitute one group for the other in the discussion:

McKay: “A very important question we have to decide, and we will bring it up next Thursday —we have all heard the report of Brother Williams regarding Nigeria— we have several hundred people there who have taken upon themselves the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unauthoritatively, and they are asking that we come down. What shall be our attitude toward this invitation?”

Brown: “It is probably a precedent-establishing decision.”

McKay: “It is as great in the Church today as the question that nearly split the primitive Church when they preached only to the Jews.”

Moyle: “Sooner or later it will have to receive the same answer.”

McKay: “Before that time every Roman or Gentile had to become a Jew to become a member of the church. Paul is given credit for having carried the gospel to the Gentiles, and I suppose he did, but he had made them Jews by circumcision and of abstaining from meats and so on, but really that revelation came to Peter.”

Brown: “He opened the door.”

McKay: “It took the Lord to do it, and he and Paul were witnesses before the Twelve when the Twelve had to decide whether to carry the gospel to the Gentiles. James presided at that meeting, James the brother of the Lord, because Peter was a witness and Paul was a witness, and Peter related the experience he had when he had the vision on the housetop, you remember, a sheet was lowered with several meats. In the dream, the Lord said: ‘Rise, Peter, kill and eat,’ and he said: ‘Not so Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ And the voice said: ‘What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.’ When he went to Cornelius, the centurion, he sat down, contrary to his teaching and training, to the table with those Gentiles. It was against the rules. But he heard Cornelius—it was Cornelius, the centurion. The Holy Ghost came upon the centurion, and Peter said: ‘Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?’ The only exception in the holy scripture that the Holy Ghost came without baptism, and it took the experience of Cornelius, and that was even after the dream. ‘Can we forbid baptism to those who receive the Holy Ghost as well as we?’ And he gave that testimony to the Twelve. James gave the decision that they can join the Church without circumcision. Even after that it was hard for some members of the Church to sit down to the table and eat with Gentiles. Peter sat down with them and Paul was offended with him when some members came from the Jerusalem church and Peter got up from the table and walked away. That prompted Paul’s saying: ‘I withstood him to his face,’ because he did not conform to the ruling and he was recalcitrant.…

“Well, that is the beginning of the Gentiles coming into the Church. They did not comprehend what Jesus said: ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel unto every creature, and he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned.’ Now we are facing just such a crisis, and we had better be united on it either one way or the other.…We are facing a problem just as serious as that before the original Twelve.” (January 9, 1962)

In the context of that discussion a half-century ago, ask yourselves what might be the discussion today if David O. McKay were to reconsider two statements. The first was part of a poem written in 1845 by Eliza R. Snow, later set to music with the title, “O My Father.” She asked a rhetorical question: “In the heavens are parents single?” The second is from the Proclamation on the Family: “Gender is eternal.” How would David O. McKay, today, respond to those two statements, and how would his answers affect the future of LGBT in the Church? He likely would not answer immediately. Instead, he would study, ponder, and take his deepest questions to the Lord. Where he received answers, he would unhesitatingly relay them to the Church. Where answers were not forthcoming, he would act on the side of compassion, inclusion and progression, for the homosexuality that he previously saw as impersonal and threatening, he would now see as personal, inherent, endearing and edifying. And where he chose to move forward, he would say to his colleagues and to his followers, “I have met this question by following the rule that we shall face the Savior and tell what our decision is with a clear conscience.”

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