Utah History Encyclopedia


By James B. Allen
David Oman McKay was ninth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1951-1970). He previously was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1906, and was a counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS Church from 1934. He is remembered for his forward-looking church leadership and its international expansion, his contributions to education, his humanitarianism, his participation in Utah's civic affairs, and his practical wisdom and advice.

David O. McKay was born in 1873 in Huntsville, Utah, and grew up there on the family farm. When he was eight, his father was called to serve as an LDS missionary in Scotland, and David was left to help his mother care for the farm as well as a younger brother and two younger sisters. He learned something about self-reliance and enterprise, and by the time his father returned the family had earned enough profit to build a much-need addition to the home.

McKay had an unquenchable appetite for learning that seemed to foreshadow a career in education. He read and memorized passages from much of the world's great literature, and in later years his sermons and writings were filled with quotations from such literature. After graduating from the LDS Church's Weber Stake Academy in Ogden, he became principal of the community school in Huntsville. A year later he enrolled in the University of Utah, and when he graduated in June 1897 he was class president and valedictorian. At that point he was called to serve a two-year mission for the church in Scotland; when he returned in the fall of 1899 he accepted a teaching position at Weber Stake Academy. He was appointed principal three years later.

As a teacher, McKay was highly popular and effective, and he was greatly concerned that students stretch their minds beyond the facts and into the world of ideas. He believed that it was also a teacher's responsibility to help students develop the kind of moral and ethical values that lead to responsible citizenship. As a church leader he once scolded the nation for not recognizing the importance of paying for outstanding teachers.

After his call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1906, McKay continued as head of Weber Academy until 1908, then served on the institution's board of trustees until 1912. He also served on the University of Utah's Board of Regents from 1921 to 1922, and on the board of trustees of Utah State Agricultural College from 1940 to 1941. He was superintendent of the LDS Church Sunday Schools from 1918 to 1934, and in 1919 he became the church's first Commissioner of Education. In that capacity he recommended the closing of most of the church's academies, which had been operating since the nineteenth century but by 1920 seemed almost superfluous because of the growth of public high schools in Utah. In their place the church established seminaries adjacent to high schools with sufficient LDS students. These would provide voluntary, week-day religious education, usually on a released-time basis.

McKay's early experiences as an apostle undoubtedly had an impact on the broad, international outlook that later characterized his presidency. He toured the missions of the world from 1920 to 1921, and from 1922 to 1924 he served as president of the European Mission. There he revitalized missionary work and, emphasizing his international perspective, urged the European Saints to stop migrating to America. Rather, he told them, they should build up the church in their homelands, and he promised them that one day all the programs of the church, including temples, would be available to them.

David O. McKay guided the post-World War II Mormon Church through a critical period of transition--one characterized not just by numerical growth but also by a new international outlook. Church membership tripled during his presidency, from 1.1 million to 2.8 million. In fulfillment of his earlier promise to the European Saints, stakes were organized in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Switzerland, as well as in nine countries in other parts of the world, and temples were erected in England, Switzerland, and New Zealand. President McKay also made some innovative and important decisions affecting church administration, such as ordaining members of the First Council of the Seventy to the office of high priest in order to provide more help to the Quorum of the Twelve in supervising the ever-growing number of stakes. He also instituted the position of Regional Representative of the Twelve.

Throughout his life President McKay was active in civic affairs, and he headed a number of civic committees, one of which was the Utah Centennial Commission that planned the 1947 pioneer centennial celebration. For most of his church presidency he held weekly breakfast meetings with the head of the Salt Lake area Chamber of Commerce and the publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune, providing an opportunity for church and civic leaders to maintain effective communication on topics of mutual interest. He kept the church non-partisan with respect to political parties, but he also took a definite stand if he believed that a political issue was also clearly a moral issue. In the 1960s, for example, he strongly denounced racism and urged church members to do everything possible to promote civil rights for all races.

Among the Mormons, perhaps the most well-known of all his sayings was his motto, "Every member a missionary." Another lifelong motto came from an inscription he found over the doorway of an unfinished home when he was a missionary in Scotland: "What-e'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part." His sermons and writings also depicted many other deeply held values, including education: "True education seeks . . . to make men and women not only good mathematicians, proficient linguists, profound scientists, or brilliant literary lights, but also . . . men and women who prize truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control as the choicest acquisitions of a successful life." "Good reading," he once observed, "is to the intellect what good food is to the body."

The numerous awards and honors received by President McKay illustrated the esteem in which he was held in Utah and elsewhere. They included several honorary doctorates, the highest awards given by the Boy Scouts of America, and the Distinguished American Award from the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame.

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994.