"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

David O. McKay

by James B. Allen

Mckay_bw.jpg (6015 bytes)

President David O. McKay (1873-1970), an educator, served in the Quorum of the Twelve
or the First Presidency for sixty-three years and nine months, longer than any other
General Authority in the history of the Church. Courtesy Utah State Historical Society.

David O. McKay (1873-1970), sustained as the ninth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 9, 1951, served as a General Authority for nearly sixty-four years, longer than any other person in Church history. During that time he served as a counselor in the First Presidency for seventeen years and was President for nearly nineteen years. He is remembered for his contributions to education, his exemplary family life, his emphasis on missionary work, his humanitarianism, his practical advice on achieving a happy life, and his participation in civic affairs, and for leading the Church toward increased internationalism.

The third child of David and Jennette Evans McKay, David Oman McKay was born in Huntsville, Utah, on September 8, 1873. While growing up on his father's farm, he faced tragedy and privation much earlier than many children. When he was six, his two older sisters died, and just a year later, his father was called on a two-year mission to his native Scotland. Young David matured quickly when he was left to help his mother care for the farm and the family, which included a younger brother and two younger sisters, one a two-year-old and the other a baby girl born ten days after his father left. The enterprising family, with the help of neighbors, had realized enough profit to surprise their father and husband with a much-needed addition to the house when he returned from his mission.

Young David continued to attend school, work on the farm, and, during the summer, deliver the Ogden Standard Examiner to a nearby mining town. He had an insatiable hunger for learning, and during his round trips on horseback, he spent much of the time reading and memorizing passages from the world's great literature that were later to permeate his sermons and writings. He also loved riding horses, swimming, and other sports; dramatics; debate; singing; and playing the piano with the Huntsville town orchestra.

After completing the eighth grade, David enrolled in the Church's Weber Stake Academy in Ogden, Utah. Two years later, he was back in Huntsville as principal of the community school, but after a year he decided that he needed more schooling for a career in teaching and enrolled at the University of Utah. He graduated in June 1897 as class president and valedictorian. The theme of his valedictory address, "An Unsatisfied Appetite for Knowledge Means Progress and Is the State of a Normal Mind," characterized his life.

After graduation Elder McKay accepted a mission call to Great Britain. He arrived in Liverpool on August 25, 1897, and, like his father before him, was soon appointed to preside over the Scottish conference (later known as district). During a special priesthood meeting, he received a powerful spiritual manifestation confirming the truthfulness of the gospel. He had been seeking that confirmation since childhood, and it remained with him throughout his life. In Liverpool in 1899, he discovered a saying that became a lifetime motto. Homesick and discouraged, he noticed over the doorway of an unfinished house an unusual stone arch bearing the inscription "What-E'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part." His attitude changed, and that perspective exemplified his life.

He returned home in the fall of 1899 and accepted a teaching position at Weber Stake Academy. On January 2, 1901, he married Emma Ray Riggs in the Salt Lake Temple; they had seven children.

As a teacher, McKay was popular, effective, and deeply concerned that his students absorb more than facts. He believed that teachers must lead students to stretch their minds into the world of ideas. "If you will give your class a thought, even one new thought during your recitation period," he later told other educators, "you will find that they will go away satisfied. But it is your obligation to be prepared to give that new thought" (1953, p. 439). He also believed that teachers must develop in students the moral and ethical values that lead to responsible citizenship. "Teaching is the noblest profession in the world," he proclaimed, for "upon the proper education of youth depend the permanency and purity of the home, the safety and perpetuity of the nation" (1953, p. 436). "True education," he said, "seeks…to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also honest men, combined with virtue, temperance, and brotherly love—men and women who prize truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control as the choicest acquisitions of a successful life" (1953, p. 441). Teachers must be the exemplars, and he scolded the nation for not recognizing the need to pay for outstanding teachers in the classroom.

In 1902 McKay became the principal of Weber Stake Academy, and he soon instituted a number of progressive and innovative program changes. His Church assignments during these years also centered on education, as he served on the Weber Stake Sunday School board and then as a member of the superintendency (see Sunday School). He was fully satisfied with what he believed would be a lifelong career in education when in 1906 everything changed: three members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles died, and David O. McKay, at age thirty-two, was called to that quorum.

In addition to his new responsibilities, Elder McKay remained active in educational administration. He stayed on as head of Weber Academy until 1908 and then served on its board of trustees until 1922. He was a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Utah in 1921-1922, and in 1940-1941 he was a member of the Board of Trustees of Utah State Agricultural College (later Utah State University). As a General Authority of the Church he became a member of the superintendency of the Church's Sunday School, and from 1918 to 1934 was the superintendent. In 1919 he became the Church's first Commissioner of Education, and in this assignment he had some difficult decisions to make. In 1920 he advised the closing of most Church-owned academies and the establishment of seminaries adjacent to all high schools with sufficient LDS population. Religious instruction would still be given to high school students, but without the expense of full high school programs. A seminary adjacent to Granite High in Salt Lake City had already proved successful, and the new recommendation was quickly put into effect. He also recommended that Brigham Young University adopt a full college curriculum and that the other five Church colleges (four in Utah and one in Idaho) develop just two-year programs, primarily for training teachers. Within the next ten years, all the Utah colleges except Brigham Young University were transferred to the state.

Elder McKay became the most widely traveled Church leader of his day, an emissary to the growing worldwide Church. In 1920-1921 he toured the missions of the world, stopping at many places never before visited by a General Authority. From 1922 to 1924, he was back in Europe, this time as president of the European Mission (see Europe). His success there became legendary, as he did much to improve the public image of the Church. He also revitalized missionary work by urging every Latter-day Saint to make a commitment to bring one new member into the Church each year. In later years he became famous for his motto "Every member a missionary," an emphasis that began in Europe in 1923. In addition, he urged the Saints to remain in Europe rather than to emigrate to America, promising them that one day the full program of the Church, including sacred temples, would be made available in their homelands.

In 1934 President Heber J. Grant chose David O. McKay to be his Second Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church. In 1951, the same year that he and Emma Ray celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, he became President of the Church. Tall, still robust despite his seventy-seven years, possessing a full head of wavy white hair, and with eyes that one man characterized as "fiercely tender," David O. McKay looked every bit the prophet his followers revered him to be.

President McKay's administration covered an important period of transition. As he guided the Church into the last half of the twentieth century, he faced critical new challenges connected with numerical growth, international expansion, and a variety of political and social problems related to the rapidly changing world. Church membership nearly tripled, from 1.1 million to 2.8 million; the number of stakes grew from 184 to 500; the number of missions more than doubled; the missionary force expanded six times; temples were erected in Switzerland, New Zealand, and Great Britain, as well as California; and the Church was established in several new countries. As an experienced leader with both a firm hand and a humanitarian nature, President McKay was admirably suited for the task of moving the Church toward the new internationalism that would characterize the later twentieth century.

In the summer of 1952 he visited nine European countries on what may have been the most significant tour of his career. His announcement that a site had been selected for the erection of a temple just outside Bern, Switzerland, ushered in a new era, symbolizing the establishment of the full program of the Church in nations outside North America. Having temples within traveling distance strengthened the Saints spiritually and encouraged them to remain in their homelands to build up the Church. President McKay dedicated the Swiss Temple in 1955, and soon temples began to dot the world. Smaller and less expensive than previous temples, the new temples introduced design changes and technological innovations (including special films) that made the temple ceremonies available in many languages.

Another step in the maturation of the Church outside North America was the organization of stakes. Having local stakes indicated that the local leaders were experienced enough to assume leadership in place of American mission presidents and that local members, rather than missionaries, could direct Church activities. The first stakes outside North America were organized in Hawaii (1935 and 1955) before President McKay's administration, and the second, in New Zealand (1958). These were followed, during his time as President, by stakes in Australia, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Samoa, Scotland, Brazil, Argentina, Guatemala, Uruguay, Tonga, Peru, and Japan.

President McKay's humanitarian impulse, even in controversial areas of Church policy, was demonstrated during a mission tour of South Africa in 1954. There he was reminded of the difficulties involved with the Church's policy of not allowing blacks or people with black ancestry to hold the priesthood. At that time, to be ordained, members in South Africa had to trace their ancestral lines beyond the continent of Africa because of the high possibility of black ancestry. President McKay listened with great empathy to those whose inability to trace their genealogy kept them from bearing the priesthood, and he felt inspired to modify the policy so that the genealogical test would not apply. It remained for one of his successors, President Spencer W. Kimball, to be given the revelation on priesthood in 1978.

Other controversial questions confronted President McKay, one concerning education. In 1954 the continued state support of Utah's junior colleges became a heated political issue. At the urging of Governor J. Bracken Lee and as a money-saving device for the state, the legislature authorized the transfer of Snow, Weber, and Dixie colleges back to the Church. Citizens placed the issue on the ballot as a referendum measure, and President McKay, concerned that the colleges would deteriorate if the state continued to operate them without adequate financing, announced that the Church was willing to take the schools back and operate them on a sound financial basis. In the referendum, however, the people of the state voted against the move.

President McKay made a myriad of far-reaching administrative decisions. As an avid missionary, he approved a new proselytizing plan, A Systematic Program for Teaching the Gospel, and in 1961 he presided over the first world seminar for mission presidents, where the plan was introduced. He promoted the continuing expansion of seminaries, institutes of religion, and Church schools in areas where public educational opportunities were limited. Other administrative decisions demonstrated his willingness to innovate as needs arose. In 1961 he authorized ordaining members of the First Council of the Seventy to the office of high priest, which gave them the right to preside at stake conferences and thus eased the growing administrative burdens of the Quorum of the Twelve, and in 1967 he inaugurated the position of Regional Representative of the Twelve. In 1965 he also took the unusual step of expanding the number of counselors in the First Presidency, as his own ability to function effectively became impaired with age.

President David O. McKay believed that Church leadership also implied civic responsibility. Throughout his career he remained active in public affairs and was frequently asked to head important civic committees. During most of his presidential administration, he held weekly breakfast meetings with the head of the Salt Lake area Chamber of Commerce and the publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune, which gave him an opportunity to share concerns with these civic leaders and reach agreements on many areas of mutual interest. Politically, he made every effort to keep the Church nonpartisan and constantly encouraged Church members in the United States to be active in both major political parties. At times, however, he took clear stands on controversial political issues when it was apparent to him that they were also moral issues. His denunciation of communism, for example, was uncompromising, on the grounds of its atheistic nature and its threat to the democratic institutions he valued. In 1969, amid the tense civil rights struggles that were dividing Americans as they had seldom been divided since the Civil War, he authorized the issuing of a strong official statement calling upon Church members everywhere to do their part to see that civil rights for all races were held inviolate.

President McKay kept up a steady pace of travel and administrative work until, in his nineties, his age required him to slow down. On January 18, 1970, at age ninety-six, he died in Salt Lake City.

David O. McKay's values were enunciated in his sermons and writings. His emphasis on education included equal emphasis on good reading. "Good reading is to the intellect what good food is to the body," he observed. "Thoughts, like food, should be properly digested" (1967, p. 53). He was vitally concerned with the family and constantly called upon parents to spend time with their children and to train them in all the virtues of good citizenship. His main religious message concerned the reality of Christ, his Atonement and resurrection, and the restoration of the gospel of Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith. He taught that Christ's gospel was meant to transform the individual and thus change society. The sanctity of the home, kindness, mercy, tolerance, spirituality, love of freedom, the power of prayer, charity, personal integrity—these were the subjects of his sermons and writings.

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page; People in Church History home page)


Allen, James B. "David O. McKay." In The Presidents of the Church, ed. L. Arrington, pp. 274-313. Salt Lake City, 1986.

McKay, David Lawrence. My Father, David O. McKay. Salt Lake City, 1989.

McKay, David O. Gospel Ideals: Selections from the Discourses of David O. McKay. Salt Lake City, 1953.

McKay, David O. Secrets of a Happy Life, comp. Llewelyn R. McKay. Salt Lake City, 1967.

McKay, Llewelyn R. Home Memories of President David O. McKay. Salt Lake City, 1956.

Middlemiss, Clare, comp. Man may Know for Himself: Teachings of President David O. McKay. Salt Lake City, 1966.

Morrell, Jeanette McKay. Highlights in the Life of President David O. McKay. Salt Lake City, 1967.

Symposium. "President David O. McKay, 1873-1970." Dialogue 4 (Winter 1969):47-62.


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