When Bruce R. McConkie first published Mormon Doctrine in 1958, he called it “unique” and “the first major attempt to digest, explain, and analyze all of the important doctrines of the kingdom.”
It was nothing if not ambitious. He called it an “extensive compendium of the whole gospel” that covered no less than “the whole field of revealed religion.”
While the ambition is laudable, the goal itself is problematic for many reasons. The clear implication throughout the book is that this is the final word on how each of these subjects is to be interpreted. While Elder McConkie noted in his preface that he assumed “sole and full responsibility” for the contents, the authoritative tone, which begins with the presumptuous title and infuses every word written within the book’s pages, leaves the reader with the impression that this is, indeed, the final and definitive word on what Latter-day Saints believe.
It is not. Furthermore, it never was.
In page 50 of his book “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,” Greg Prince described the reaction of David O. McKay, who was then serving as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as “not favorable” to the books publication, and that, upon review by church leaders, “Mormon Doctrine” was found to contain roughly 1,067 different doctrinal errors spread throughout “most of the 776 pages of the book.” As a result, President McKay established a policy, still in effect today, that requires all church leaders to submit their books to the First Presidency for approval.
But the problem is not just any errors on Elder McConkie’s part. The problem is with the idea that a definitive, single, irreducible interpretation of Mormon doctrine is either possible or desirable.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as one of its Articles of Faith, states that We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Yet a church built on this principle of continuing revelation has somehow adopted the idea that everything we now believe is rigid, fixed, and unchanging. That doesn’t make logical sense.
In addition, in Doctrine and Covenants section 1:24, the Church also teaches that all revelation is given from God to his “servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language.” Surely in the impartation of information from the divine to the mortal, it is the height of presumption to assume human weakness never interferes with the message.
The purpose, then, of the Mormon Canon Project is to amplify the wisdom of the crowd, so that our weaknesses can be made strengths. Elder McConkie’s template is a great starting point for discussion, and he has helpfully alphabetized all the topics for consideration. As we all contribute to a broad understanding of consensus about what Mormon Doctrine truly is, perhaps we can find come close to the consensus that eluded Bruce R. McConkie so many years ago.