There was a time when Clare Middlemiss was the most powerful woman in the LDS Church.
She was not the leader of the church’s all-female Relief Society nor the wife of the prophet, but the intrepid secretary of President David O. McKay, the charismatic Mormon leader who shepherded his church through the sleepy post-World War II years into the Cold War and then on to the turbulence of the civil rights, anti-war and women’s movements.
For 35 years, anyone who wanted an audience with McKay had to go through Middlemiss. More sergeant than stenographer, the West High School and LDS Business College graduate was the first and only woman ever to be secretary to a Mormon president. She never married, rarely took a vacation and worked an unpaid second shift at home documenting McKay’s every word and action. She copied his letters, diaries and minutes of presidency meetings, transcribed his sermons and clipped out news stories about him, eventually filling 130,000 pages.
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Not long after McKay’s death in 1970, Middlemiss herself began to fail, and died in 1983. Now her influence has returned in the form of her eyewitness materials, which offer unexpected glimpses of the man she revered as well as a candid peek at behind-the-scenes conflicts and compromises among the LDS hierarchy of his day.
It’s all in a new book, David O. McKay and The Rise of Modern Mormonism, recently published by the University of Utah Press. It has arrived just in time to provide a scholarly counterpart to this year’s Sunday school curriculum of McKay’s spiritual legacy, mandated for every congregation in the 12 million-member LDS Church.
“This is a landmark book,” says Peter DeLafonsse, the U. editor who solicited the manuscript, the first major Mormon work the press has published in years.
Jan Shipps, the premier non-LDS historian of Mormonism, goes even further.
“It is certainly the most important book of Mormon history to come forth in the last decade,” she says. “It is the scaffolding on which we will hang the story of Mormonism in the 20th century.”
Middlemiss had planned to write the definitive McKay biography, but when her health began to decline, she bequeathed the records to her nephew, Salt Lake City attorney Wm. Robert Wright. While serving as an LDS mission president in Washington, D.C., Wright enlisted the help of Maryland businessman and researcher Gregory Prince. In addition to scouring the Middlemiss collection, they interviewed 200 people who had worked with McKay.
They realized immediately what an unusual resource they had. The LDS Church considers all general authority materials, including anything from a church president, to be off-limits to researchers. By contrast, Wright deposited his aunt’s papers in the David O. McKay Collection at the U.’s Marriott Library so they would be available to everyone.
The result of the Wright/Prince collaboration is an extraordinarily even-handed look at the rapidly expanding LDS Church in the middle of the 20th century as it moved away from its 19th century polygamy, parochialism and obscurity into the international arena. It explores the church’s missionary successes, including its controversial “baseball baptism” program; the church’s financial crisis, spawned by overbuilding churches and on the Brigham Young University campus; its confrontation with Communism, its outreach to other faiths and the antagonisms over its exclusion of blacks from the all-male priesthood.
McKay, whose kindness sometimes kept him from taking a strong stand, was at the center of it all.
Poet and intellectual: To an entire generation of Mormons, the white-haired, white-suited McKay embodied the idea of a prophet. Generous, educated, jovial, tolerant, even beatific, his “imprint on Mormonism was indelible and will likely forever influence its destiny,” Prince writes in the introduction.
Born in the small northern Utah town of Huntsville in 1873, McKay spent hours memorizing poetry as he carried mail to and from mining camps. At the U., he continued his love of literature, while being class president and courting his future wife, Emma Ray Riggs. His first foray out of the state came with his two-year church mission to Scotland, where he wrestled with his own skepticism and faith. Not long after becoming president of Weber Stake Academy (now Weber State University) in Ogden, McKay had to give it up. The church had tapped him for an apostle at 33 in 1905, and it’s a lifetime calling.
Throughout his remaining six decades, though, McKay remained an intellectual, the authors write. “He cherished the things of the mind, cultivated his own intellect throughout his life, encouraged his fellow Latter-day Saints to do likewise, and vigorously defended the consequences of intellectualism.”
When the distinguished Mormon educator Sterling McMurrin, known for his unorthodox religious views of Mormon origins and scriptures, was threatened with church discipline by two apostles, McKay was sympathetic.
“Well, all I can say is, that if they put you on trial for excommunication, I will be there as the first witness in your behalf,” McKay told McMurrin in a Sunday morning meeting in 1954.
The church president told McMurrin that he had no problem with the theory of evolution, yet he would not voice that support publicly. So opposition to the theory, espoused by future president Joseph Fielding Smith, seemed the de facto church position.
Like many others in the 1950s, McKay was deeply suspicious of Communism. While overseeing the church’s international outreach, he watched the Iron Curtain close down Mormon branches in places such as Czechoslovakia and Korea. Yet he never became an extreme or paranoid opponent.
When apostle and future president Ezra Taft Benson began publicly associating with the archconservative John Birch Society, many of the apostles urged McKay to distance the church from the group. McKay did try on several occasions to rein in Benson, but his affection for the apostle, who served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, prevented him from being unequivocal.
In 1966, Benson wanted to use McKay’s photo on the April cover of American Opinion, the Birch Society magazine. Unaware of the connection, McKay agreed. But at the urging of the other apostles, who worried it would seem an endorsement of the group’s politics, he reversed the decision.
At their next meeting, Benson persuaded the 92-year-old McKay to go ahead with the photo. McA^Kay’s counselor N. Eldon Tanner got wind of it and he called an urgent meeting with McKay, his son Lawrence McA^Kay, and apostles Smith and Mark E. Peterson. Together they called American Opinion’s editorial offices in Massachusetts and demanded that the magazine remove the photo.
Benson’s brand of conservatism nudged many Mormons away from their bipartisan makeup.
McKay was a Republican, but would develop a surprising bond with Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, the authors write.
They had met briefly when Johnson was vice-president. Then, two months after President Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson invited McKay to come to D.C. and meet with him – the first religious leader he invited to the White House.
“I don’t have anything emergency, but I just need a little strength and I think that would come from visiting with you an hour or so,” Johnson said, according to the phone transcript written by Middlemiss.
At the White House, Johnson told McKay “that events were crowding in on him: Cyprus, Vietnam, the shooting of Americans over Berlin, Panama. He felt he needed help. When he was a boy he could rest his head on his mother’s shoulder,” recalled Lawrence McKay, who accompanied his father. “Now he needed another shoulder to rest on.”
A shoulder to rest on is an apt metaphor for McKay’s legacy, the book says.
“The greatness of David O. McKay is not captured in fact and figures. Other church presidents have served longer, traveled farther, presided over greater growth, built more buildings, defined more doctrines, and instituted more sweeping changes in organization and policy,” Prince and Wright write.
Rather, it was in his striking appearance, distinctive presence and infectious optimism.
“Clean-shaven, immaculately dressed, and movie-star handsome, McKay immediately caught the attention of member and nonmember alike, and held it,” they write. “He democratized Mormonism, calling upon every member to be a missionary and thus participate in moving the church into a ‘New Era.’ ”
The depth of his humanity might never have been fully realized without Middlemiss, McKay’s devoted, obsessive secretary.