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5 times David McCullough offered a ‘history lesson’ to Latter-day Saints

The award-winning author, historian and narrator died on Sunday, Aug. 7, at age 89

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough’s latest book is “The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.”

Simon & Schuster


David McCullough — awarding-winning author, American historian and PBS Television documentary narrator — died on Sunday, Aug. 7, at his home in Hingham, Massachusetts.

The 89-year-old historian was known for his ability to imbue the events and characters of America’s past with life in a way that made his books feel more like literature than nonfiction. 

“I think of writing history as an art form,” McCullough said in an interview in 2008 for a documentary. “And I’m striving to write a book that might — might — qualify as literature. I don’t want it just to be readable. I don’t want it just to be interesting. I want it to be something that moves the reader. Moves me.”

McCullough’s beloved wife of more than 60 years, whom he called his polar star, or the star by which he navigates, Rosalee Barnes McCullough, preceded him in death by less than two months, per the Associated Press.

During his acclaimed career, the author crossed paths several times with Church leaders or Latter-day Saint audiences. 

Here’s a look back on five times he offered a “history lesson” to Latter-day Saints.

1. “The Glorious Cause of America”

David McCullough speaking at BYU in the Marriott Center. Sept. 27, 2005

David McCullough, author of “John Adams” and “1776,” spoke at BYU in the Marriott Center on Sept. 27, 2005.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

During a forum at Brigham Young University on Sept. 27, 2005, McCullough taught students about “The Glorious Cause of America,” the title of his address.

“We can know about the years that preceded us and about the people who preceded us. And if we love our country — if we love the blessings of a society that welcomes free speech, freedom of religion, and, most important of all, freedom to think for ourselves — then surely we ought to know how it came to be,” he said. “Who was responsible? What did they do? How much did they contribute? How much did they suffer?”

He also challenged students to pursue history avidly. “I hope you do this not just because it will make you a better citizen, and it will; not just because you will learn a great deal about human nature and about cause and effect in your own lives, as well as the life of the nation, which you will; but as a source of strength, as an example of how to conduct yourself in difficult times—and we live in very difficult times, very uncertain times. But I hope you also find history to be a source of pleasure. Read history for pleasure as you would read a great novel or poetry or go to see a great play.”

2. A visit to President Hinckley

President Gordon B. Hinckley and author/historian David McCullough on Nov. 9, 2006.

President Gordon B. Hinckley meets author/historian David McCullough on Nov. 9, 2006.

Courtesy Office of the President

On Nov. 9, 2006, McCullough traveled to Utah for a speaking engagement and paid a courtesy call to Church President Gordon B. Hinckley

The Church News reported that the two noted authors shared a love for American history and discussed McCullough’s book on John Adams, second president of the United States.

During the visit President Hinckley inquired of McCullough about the Founding Fathers of the United States. “I think those men were a little arrogant and maybe a bit difficult to get along with, but they had one overriding determination and that was the establishment of this nation. Is that a fair appraisal?”

McCullough agreed and noted that the Founding Fathers “saw themselves as players in a grand historic role and were determined to act their part.”

3. Municipal Citizen of the Century

David McCullough congratulates President Gordon B. Hinckley in September 2007

Historian and author David McCullough, left, congratulates President Gordon B. Hinckley after he received the Municipal Citizen of the Century Award Sept. 12, 2007, in Salt Lake City.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

On Sept. 12, 2007, President Hinckley was honored by the Utah League of Cities and Towns 100th Annual Convention as the “Municipal Citizen of the Century.”

At the luncheon, McCullough was the featured guest speaker. In his remarks, President Hinckley acknowledged McCullough — who, like him, received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Government.

President Hinckley said he had gained a greater appreciation for the travail that went into building this nation from reading McCullough’s books “John Adams” and “1776.” However, he had only skimmed McCullough’s 1,000-page Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Harry Truman. 

“At my age of 97, I cannot afford the time to read anything that long,” President Hinckley quipped.

During his speech, McCullough said the most important history lesson is how to be a decent human being, learning “how to behave in the roles life will cast you in.”

4. Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square Christmas concert

David McCullough with the Tabernacle Choir, Natalie Cole and President Thomas S. Monson

David McCullough, center, his wife, Rosalee Barnes, President Thomas S. Monson, singer Natalie Cole, and leaders and members of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, then known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, on Sunday morning, Dec. 13, 2009.

Gerry Avant

In December 2009, McCullough presented a reading of “American Christmas Memories” as part of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square’s annual Christmas concert.

During the last of the live performances in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Church President Thomas S. Monson joined the guests onstage. 

He told them that the five most important words in the English language are, “I am proud of you.” The two most important words, he said, are “Thank you.”

Looking at singer/songwriter Natalie Cole and McCullough, President Monson said, “We are proud of you. Thank you.”

The Church News reported that McCullough, who twice won the National Book Award and twice the Pulitzer Prize, said, “President Monson, I am, oddly, at a loss for words.”

In a news conference following a performance, McCullough said he felt participating in the concert was a wonderful chance to talk about something he cares about greatly — “which is that history should not be ever perceived as just politics and the military, and to leave out music, art, literature, architecture, dance, poetry, drama is to leave out not just color and flavor and sound, but a lot of the soul of civilization.”

He added, “To have in this one performance, musicians, dancers, people speaking great literature of the Bible, singing, architecture, all working at once, we should never, ever take it for granted.”

5. A celebration of family history

David McCullough with President Henry B. Eyring in Salt Lake City

Author and historian David McCullough acknowledges the audience alongside President Henry B. Eyring following McCullough’s remarks at “A Celebration of Family History” in Salt Lake City in 2010.

Deseret News archives

In May 2010, McCullough joined President Henry B. Eyring, then first counselor in the First Presidency, as one of the featured speakers at “A Celebration of Family History,” a national genealogical conference put on by the Church’s FamilySearch organization. 

In his speech, McCullough admitted that he never knew much about any of the subjects on which he set out to write a book. 

“I feel that each book is a journey, an adventure, a hunt, a detective case, an experience, like setting foot in another continent in which you’ve never traveled,” he said. “That’s the joy of it. That’s the compulsion of it. And you’re fired by what we human beings are blessed with, called curiosity. It’s what, among other things, distinguishes us from the cabbages. The more we know, the more we want to know; curiosity is accelerative.”

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