The passing of President David O. McKay at age 96 on Jan. 17, 1970, was not only sad, but jarring to the membership of the Church at large. His nearly 64 years as an apostle of the Lord had included almost 19 as the ninth president of the Church. For many members, he was the only living Church president in their memory.
"We thought the world was going to end," recalled one Church member who was a young man at the time of President McKay's death.
Thirty-five years later, the Church has grown explosively in both membership and global reach. By far, the majority of the members today never had the chance to be acquainted with this gentle, eloquent and inspired leader.
Beginning next year, they can come to know him better through the course of study for the Relief Society and the priesthood quorums and groups in the Church. The study guide Teachings of Presidents of the Church — David O. McKay, the sixth in a series, is available at Church distribution centers and is now being procured by units throughout the Church for dissemination to their members. The introduction to the study guide makes clear it is intended for personal or family study as well as for discussion in Sunday meetings, usually on the second and third Sundays of each month. Chapters cover a wide range of doctrinal topics, such as the divinity of Christ, elements of worship, the Resurrection, prayer, overcoming temptation, the importance of temples, service and developing Christlike character.
"In addition to his teachings, his physical appearance made a powerful impression," reads an opening section in the study guide. "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" (p. xiii).
An educator by profession, he exerted an influence such that some of his teachings lent themselves to catch phrases in the Church that are still familiar today.
"Every member a missionary" was first uttered publicly by President McKay as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve presiding over the European Mission at a time when public sentiment toward missionaries in England and elsewhere was somewhat bitter. "Let us throw the responsibility upon every member of the Church that in the coming year of 1923, every member will be a missionary," he declared. "Every member a missionary! You may bring your mother into the Church, or it may be your father; perhaps your fellow companion in the workshop. Somebody will hear the good message of the truth through you" (Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss, p. 10). He emphasized this teaching during his presidency. That emphasis prevails in the Church yet today, with the responsibility resting on Church members to find people for full-time missionaries to teach."
Another well-remembered maxim from President McKay is "No other success can compensate for failure in the home." This was actually a quotation from J. E. McCulloch, Home: The Savior of Civilization (1924). Apostle McKay first quoted it in a conference address of April 1935. As president of the Church, he repeated the statement in general conference of April 1964, at a time when family home evening was being revitalized as a practice in the Church. "When one puts business or pleasure above his home," President McKay said on that occasion, "he that moment starts on the downgrade to soul-weakness. When the club becomes more attractive to any man than his home, it is time for him to confess in bitter shame that he has failed to measure up to the supreme opportunity of his life and flunked in the final test of true manhood. No other success can compensate for failure in the home. The poorest shack in which love prevails over a united family is of greater value to God and future humanity than any other riches. In such a home God can work miracles and will work miracles."
In his personal life, President McKay exemplified this teaching. His unbounded love for his wife, Emma Ray, was well known, and he often expressed his tender feelings toward her in verse, drawing upon his accomplished facility with the English language. This love extended to their posterity, and enduring images from that time period show him enjoying his loved ones at the family farm in Huntsville, Utah. His homey affection for his horse, Sunny Boy, appealed to many Church members.
Born in Huntsville in 1873 and ordained an apostle in 1906, President McKay bridged the horse-and-buggy era and the jet age with his life and Church service. He saw the Church expand from a largely localized body in the Intermountain West to an international organization. The vision of Church leaders at the turn of the 20th century, that Israel would be gathered to stakes of Zion in areas where Church members lived instead of to the Intermountain West, was largely realized under President McKay.
From the time he was sustained as president of the Church in 1951, he became the most widely traveled Church president in history to that point. Beginning in June 1952, he visited nine countries of Europe, and in 1954, he undertook a 32,000-mile tour of missions, being the first Church president to visit Central and South American missions and the first General Authority to visit the South African Mission.
Temple construction was accelerated during his presidency, and he dedicated temples in Bern, Switzerland; Los Angeles, Calif.; Hamilton, New Zealand; London, England; and Oakland, Calif., during his 19 years as Church president. Only three had been dedicated in the entire first half of the century.
His testimony, written Jan. 2, 1915, was borne out in subsequent years and has timely application today: "The Lord is not only guiding His Church, but overruling the destiny of nations preparatory to the preaching of the gospel 'to every nation, kindred, tongue and people.' . . . Upon Latter-day Saints rests the responsibility of preaching the true gospel of peace to mankind. O may we be equal to this responsibility!" (Quoted in Middlemiss, pp. 37-38.)