Atypical description of President David O. McKay came from the editor of an Oregon newspaper after a first meeting with the Prophet: "President David O. McKay, the prophet and leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, really looks like a prophet. He looks like he might have stepped out of the Old Testament. . . . He is large in stature, vigorous, and extremely well preserved. His massive, well-groomed mane of white hair tops a handsome face that shines with strong character. Extremely expressive, it displays inspiration, firmness, understanding, humor, in rapid succession as he talks."1
This editor's comment is typical of those who met this inspired leader for the first time.A second account where the writer, reacting to his first experience with President McKay, 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."2
Such was the demeanor of this prophet of God. It seemed that everyone - young and old, rich and poor, Church member and non-member, felt the greatness of David Oman McKay.
President McKay's preparation to serve as a special witness of the Lord began humbly in Huntsville, Utah. Nestled in the mountains of northern Utah, Huntsville was a perfect nurturing place for this future prophet. He was born Sept. 8, 1873, the first son and third child of David and Jennette Evans McKay. His parents were converts to the Church and had emigrated from Scotland (father) and Wales (mother) to join the Saints in Utah. These two very devoted parents taught and trained David in the ways of the Lord. His affection for his parents is typified by his reply to the question, "President McKay, who is the greatest man you have ever met?" He replied without hesitation, "My father."3
President McKay's early life was spent developing his testimony. Later as an apostle, he would say about those early years: "I realized in youth that the most precious thing that a man could obtain in this life was a testimony of the divinity of this work. I hungered for it. I felt that if I could get that, all else would indeed seem insignificant."4
He had his first experiences with the Spirit in his tender years as he sought direction and consolation. As a young child, David was often frightened at night. One night he could not sleep, for he imagined he heard noises around the house. His brother, Thomas, was sleeping soundly beside him; his mother was asleep in a nearby room. Although his fright was increasing, he felt that he could not awaken them. So, he decided to pray. The real test of his fright came when he felt he had to get out of bed to kneel in prayer. Scared but determined, he finally made it; and he knelt and prayed to God to protect his family. In answer to his fervent prayer, he later reported, "A voice, speaking clearly to me, said, `Don't be afraid. Nothing will hurt you.' "5
His relationship with the Spirit grew and was cultivated through his early years during frequent rides on his horse into the hills surrounding his Huntsville home. These quiet moments of contemplation provided him the opportunity to develop a nature sensitive to the Holy Ghost.
As a youth, qualities and talents that he cultivated included a love for horses, playing baseball on the town team, playing in an orchestra and doing dramatic parts in town plays. His neighbors in Huntsville viewed David as a "deliberate, humorous and very philosophical man who never forgot the town where he was born."6
President McKay's fondness for missionary work began quite early in his life. When David was 7, his father was called to return to his native Scotland as a Mormon missionary. The elder McKay was hesitant to leave his young family and serve at that time. However, with the encouragement and support of his wife, he went. Such was the spirit and feeling for the Church in that faithful home, a home that shaped young David's life. Later, in 1897, after successfully graduating from the University of Utah, David O. McKay postponed his own wedding so that he, too, could serve the Lord in his ancestral country of Scotland.
While serving as a missionary, two events helped sustain him throughout the remainder of his life and ministry. While serving in Scotland he knew discouragement when he realized that many wonderful people in the land of his father were letting the message of the gospel go unheeded. Then one day he saw an uncompleted building with a motto carved in stone over a doorway, "Whate'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part." He later said that this was the turning point of his mission.7 With his renewed understanding of his purpose, President McKay became an even more dedicated missionary, serving for 18 months as president of the Glasglow Conference.
A second incident occurred at a conference for missionaries serving in Scotland, presided over by Pres. James L. McMurrin. The conference was an extremely uplifting event for all who were present, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the missionaries. During the meeting, President McMurrin turned to Elder McKay and spoke prophetically stating, "Let me say to you, Brother David, Satan hath desired you that he might sift you as wheat, but God is mindful of you. . . . If you will keep the faith, you will yet sit in the leading councils of the Church!"8 This prophetic utterance by President McMurrin stirred within David McKay the resolve to "keep the faith . . . and a desire to be of service to my fellowmen."9
Missionary zeal was always a part of President McKay's life. In 1920, as a young apostle, he was assigned by the First Presidency to visit all the missions in the world with the assignment "to make a general survey of the missions, study conditions there, gather data concerning them, and in short, obtain general information in order that there may be someone in the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve thoroughly familiar with actual conditions."10
This journey extended over 13 months and took him on a 62,000-mile tour of the world. His visits and experiences during this tour endeared him to the Saints worldwide. It was during this tour that the concept he would later popularize as president of the Church, "Every member a missionary," was born. After his return from this world mission tour, he, with his family, was called to serve as president of the European mission for two years. Later, while he was president of the Church, many of his ideas for missionary work had been fully implemented so well that nearly 100,000 people yearly were being converted and baptized.
One of the great legacies of President McKay's life and ministry was his emphasis on the importance of the home and the family. Many thoughts and anecdotes were taught by or told about David O. McKay. He and his sweetheart, Emma Rae Riggs, whom he had met while a student at the University of Utah, were married Jan. 2, 1901, in the Salt Lake Temple when David was 27 years old. From that union were born five sons and two daughters.
Their 69 years of marital companionship stand as one of the longest among modern world figures. Their loving association, known for its mutual courtesy and kind consideration, not only became an ideal among Latter-day Saints, but also was an example of what can be in a world where family separations and marital infidelities are commonplace.
He said of his wife: "She is the sweetest, most helpful wife that ever inspired a man to noble endeavor. She has been an inspiration, my life-long sweetheart, an angel of God come upon earth."11 President McKay's love for his wife was felt by many far and wide. His popular, "Heart Petal" poems written for his "Emma Rae" were sources of inspiration for many, especially those struggling with marriage problems. His statement that "No other success can compensate for failure in the home," was a clarion call for all people everywhere declaring the importance of the family.
President McKay decided early in his life to pursue an education. At the completion of his regular public schooling, he was determined to train and qualify himself for a career in education. He attended the University of Utah Normal School, located at the time a few blocks west of Temple Square, for three years. These years left a deep impression upon him, and he similarly impressed his associates. When he graduated in June 1897, he was class president and valedictorian.
Upon his return from the mission field, President McKay began his teaching career in 1899 at Weber Academy (Now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah. A year following his marriage, and about two years after he began teaching at Weber State, he was appointed superintendent at the academy. He held this position for almost six years when his call to the apostleship in 1906 brought that assignment to an end.
President McKay used his educational training and natural administrative abilities immediately in his calling as an apostle. He served in the general superintendency of the Sunday School for 28 years, from 1906 to 1934. He also served as Commissioner of Education for the Church from 1919-1921. Later in his life he would serve on the directing boards of the University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University.
This extensive background of leadership responsibility - as well as his natural interest in and love for education - became the impetus for the great advancements made in Church education during his tenure as president of the Church. The seminary, institute and Church school systems became worldwide with a vast system of campuses and expanded course work. Additionally, priesthood and auxiliary education within the Church were greatly stimulated and became more effective under the careful tutelage of President McKay, as he counseled general Church auxiliary presidencies and general board members.12
In all things David O. McKay was the kind, gentle teacher. He carefully lifted and strengthened as he went through his life day to day. President McKay's apostolic ministry was one centering on lifting and strengthening the Saints. He served in the holy apostleship longer than any other man in this dispensation - 63 years and 9 months. During his apostolic tenure he traveled more miles than any other. He traveled more than 2 million miles as Church president. During his administration, eight temples were built or announced. His concern for the home, family and individuals were majors themes of his writings, sermons and dealings with the Latter-day Saints.
President McKay joined with other General Authorities during the Depression years of the 1930s in going throughout the Church, explaining and organizing the new Church Welfare plan. He spent much time on the problems incident to the period. Even so, busy as he was, he never forgot the young people of the Church. On countless mid-week evenings he would, upon appointment, take Sister McKay to an assembly of young Latter-day Saints, where he would speak on the principles of happy courtship and marriage.13
The early years of the 1940s were years of the World War, and with other members of the First Presidency, President McKay was a source of great strength and assurances to members of the Church.
President McKay was called in 1934 to serve as the second counselor in the First Presidency, serving with President Heber J. Grant. Eleven years later, upon the death of President Grant, President McKay was again called to serve in the First Presidency, as a second counselor to President George Albert Smith. Six years later, at the age of 77, David O. McKay became the ninth president of the Church.
It was during his prophetic watch that many current practices of the Church were developed. The Saints were given full priesthood leadership in their respective areas, with local leadership filling stake organizations. A revised financial structure of Church holdings was developed with full-time presidents of each of the businesses assigned. This action allowed Church leaders to be more readily available to assist the Saints in spiritual and religious matters.
President McKay was constantly striving to enhance and strengthen existing programs of the Church. His educational and administrative talents were evidenced as he sought to build even better priesthood leadership throughout the Church, fortify the home through better family home evening and home teaching experiences, increase the Saints' desires to experience love for their brothers and sisters through better missionary service for the living, and increased temple ordinances for the dead.
President McKay's desire to bless and love and strengthen the Saints was always felt. His pure love for all was particularly evident in sermons he delivered with much eloquence and compassion. Many of these sermons were compiled in 12 volumes that were published for the benefit of the Saints.
The growth of the Church during his administration was truly remarkable and inspiring. At no time before his call had the Church experienced such growth as that which occurred during his almost 20 years of service as president. The Church experienced a large building spurt during President McKay's administration. More than 3,750 Church buildings were constructed, including 2,000 ward and branch meetinghouses. The number of missions doubled to a total of 88, and the number of missionaries grew from about 2,000 to 13,000. There were 184 stakes when he became president in 1951 with stake No. 500 created on the day of his death, Sunday, Jan. 18, 1970. At the time of his passing, it was noted that well over 50 percent of the Church members living at that time had been baptized since his presidency had commenced.14
Many inspirational lessons were learned by the Saints during the administration of this remarkable prophet. Any in his presence felt the uplift and the tenderness of David O. McKay. Two years before his death, President McKay was asked to describe his greatest accomplishment and his greatest experience. He said: "Making the Church a world-wide organization," and "the feeling of such peace and satisfaction and love for all God's children, which comes late in life after more than 80 years of work in the Church and travels among people of all lands. My one greatest desire . . . is that they may have peace and happiness in this world and the world to come."15
Surely David O. McKay left a legacy of hope and love to a troubled and confused world. If ever a man of modern history left his world better for having lived in it, that man was David Oman McKay.
1Henry A. Smith, Portrait of a Prophet at 90, Deseret News, Sept. 7, 1963.
2Arch L. Madsen, Tributes to President David O. Mckay, Improvement Era, September 1963, p. 786.
3Jay M. Todd and Albert L. Zobell Jr., Improvement Era, February 1970, P. 12.
4Improvement Era, Nov. 1966, p. 980.
5Improvement Era, Sept. 1966, p. 769.
6Deseret News, Sept. 7, 1963.
7Leornard J. Arrington, Presidents of the Church, p. 284.
8Jeanette McKay Morrell, Highlights in the Life of President David O. McKay, pp. 37-38.
9Preston Nibley, The Presidents of the Church, p. 393.
10Jay M. Todd and Albert L. Zobell, Improvement Era, Feb. 1970, p. 15.
11Emerson R. West, Profiles of the Presidents, p. 266.
12Jay M. Todd and Albert L. Zobell, Improvement Era, Feb. 1970, p. 15.
13Ibid., p. 19.
14Emerson R. West, Profiles of the Presidents, pp. 273-274.
15Ibid, pp. 270-271.
Highlights in life of David O. McKay
Sept. 8, 1873: Born in Huntsville, Utah, to David McKay and Jennette Eveline Evans.
Jan. 2, 1901: Married Emma Ray Riggs in the Salt Lake Temple.
April 9, 1906: Ordained apostle at age 32 by Joseph F. Smith.
Oct. 6, 1934: Sustained as second counselor to President Heber J. Grant.
May 21, 1945: Sustained as second counselor to President George Albert Smith.
April 9, 1951: Sustained as president of the Church at age 77.
Sept. 11, 1955: Dedicated Swiss Temple.
March 11, 1956: Dedicated Los Angeles Temple.
April 20, 1958: Dedicated New Zealand Temple.
Sept. 7, 1958: Dedicated London Temple.
October 1961: Inaugurated Church Correlation program.
November 1961: Established language training mission at BYU.
January 1964: Started new home teaching program.
Nov. 17, 1964: Dedicated Oakland Temple.
January 1965: Inaugurated family home evening program.
Jan. 18, 1970: Died in Salt Lake City at age 96.