David Oman McKay (1873-1970) was ninth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1951-1970), previously a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1906-1934) and a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church (1934-1970). He is remembered for his innovative Church leadership in a time of increasing international expansion, his contributions to education, his humanitarian efforts, his participation in Utah's civic affairs, his emphasis on families, and his practical wisdom and advice.
David O. McKay was born in Huntsville, Utah, where he grew up on the family farm. When he was eight, his father was called to serve a mission to Scotland. Before leaving, his father instructed David to help his mother care for the farm as well as a younger brother and two younger sisters. This was an early lesson in self-reliance and enterprise. By the time his father returned, David and his mother had earned enough profit on the farm to build a much-needed addition to their home.
Young David had an unquenchable desire for learning, which seemed to foreshadow a career in education. He read and memorized passages from world literature, and in later years his sermons and writings were filled with literary quotations. After graduating from the Church's Weber Stake Academy in Ogden, he became principal of the community school in Huntsville. A year later he enrolled at the University of Utah, where he graduated in June 1897 as class president and valedictorian. He was then 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 and was appointed principal three years later.
As a teacher, David O. McKay was popular and effective, and he was deeply concerned that students stretch their minds beyond the facts and into the world of ideas. He considered it 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, Elder McKay continued to lead Weber Academy until 1908, after which he served on the board of trustees until 1912. He later served on the Board of Regents of the University of Utah (1921-1922) and the Board of Trustees of Utah State Agricultural College (1940-1941). He was superintendent of the Church's Sunday schools from 1918 to 1934, and in 1919 he became its first Commissioner of Education. During that service he recommended that the Church close most of its academies, which by 1920 were unnecessary because of the increase of public high schools in Utah. In their place the Church established seminaries adjacent to many high schools to offer voluntary weekday religious education, usually on a released-time basis.
Elder McKay's early experiences as an apostle undoubtedly contributed to 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. During this service he revitalized missionary work and, emphasizing an international perspective, urged the European Church members to build up the Church in their homelands rather than immigrating to the United States. 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 Church through a critical period of transition: a time characterized not only by numerical growth but also by international expansion. Church membership increased during his presidency, from 1.1 million to 2.8 million. In fulfillment of his earlier promise to the European members, stakes were organized in England, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Switzerland. Stakes were also created in nine countries in other parts of the world. Temples were erected in England, Switzerland, and New Zealand. President McKay also made some innovative and important decisions affecting Church administration. These included 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 headed a number of civic committees, one of which was the Utah Centennial Commission that planned the 1947 centennial celebration. For most of his presidency he held weekly breakfast meetings with the chair 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 was non-partisan with respect to political parties, but he took a clear 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 Latter-day Saints, perhaps the best known of all his sayings has been "Every member a missionary." A personal life-long 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 espouse many values that were significant to him—including his emphasis on education. "True education," he taught, "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 illustrate 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.