Address of President David O. McKay

[1] President Wilkinson, fellow teachers, I am proud to be with you on this important occasion. I am always pleased to be associated with teachers from kindergarten to university. I look with deep concern upon the tendency of university students at the present time to prefer the scientific and economic fields to the field of teaching. I think teaching is the noblest of all professions, excepting only that of motherhood in the home. There is greater opportunity to do good in the realm of teaching than in any other. In the medical profession, the doctor heals the body. In the realm of teaching the teacher may save a soul.

I have listened with deep interest to the masterful presentation given by your president regarding present conditions, future prospects, the ideals, the standards of the Brigham Young University. I think it is one of the most appropriate addresses to which I have listened for many a day.

My address will relate more to the idealism of this institution, and may, after Dr. Wilkinson's practical presentation, seem to some more theoretical than practical.

In anticipation of this moment I thought I should like to say a few words regarding fundamental objectives of this great school. I think it well to have in mind for the next few moments our relationship to the boys and girls who are coming here to develop and to achieve their aims in life. I think that that noblest aim is character, notwithstanding what some leading professors say about the special work of a university. What other conceivable purpose is there in making discoveries in science, in delving into marvelous powers hitherto hidden by nature, except for the development of the human soul? What good are they if they are separated from the individual and from the groups?

No wonder God said, "This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." What possible good would salten seas, molten lava, the mountains, the prairies be without humanity? What good would all God's creations be to him if he had not his children? And I repeat, what good are all these inventions and discoveries without their application to human beings? So the paramount purpose of all education, particularly in a Republican form of government such as we [2]b> have here in the United States, is to make good citizens and to enrich the human soul.


I name one objective—humility, and awe in the presence of God's infinitude. Too many students arrogate to themselves a superiority of intelligence when they get just a few scraps of knowledge, and draw their conclusions—false conclusions very frequently—from their limited acquisition of facts.

Over 40 years ago, I read a book written, I think, by an Indian philosopher in which the statement was made that all the data of the whole universe, so far as man is individually concerned, naturally divide themselves into four distinct separate classes.

First -- Things we know.

Second -- Things we assume to know.

Third -- Things we believe.

Fourth -- Things of which we are wholly and entirely ignorant.

I believe that is a good classification.

In the first class, things we know, for example, he names our existence. We know that we exist. We know that others around us exist, that fire burns, that water quenches thirst, that snow is soft and white, that ice is hard and could to our senses. We know that flowers bloom and the birds sing. We know that as individual intelligences we possess certain faculties, capacities, and powers; that certain things called food, water, and air are necessary to sustain the life of our physical bodies. We know when we are happy. We know what sorrow is. We know that we can think, and that we can convey our thoughts to others.

We know that life has a present existence, and that what we call death dissolves the physical manifestations of this earthly life. Through our physical senses we have personally demonstrated these things. Any claim outside the range of our own personal experience, "we definitely and positively really know nothing. In other words, a personal experience is the only absolute basis and infallible test of what we know."

I thought then as a teacher, and I think now, that he should have included in that realm of personal knowledge spiritual experiences, for they fall within the range of this personal knowledge.

[3] I do not know what you are thinking at this moment, but you know, for thought is the most real thing to you in the world. So, also, is spiritual experience.

Let up pass to the second class: Things we assume to know. The author to whom I have referred says: "We assume to know that the earth is round. We assume to know how old we are. We assume to know there was a certain man named Columbus who discovered America; that Washington was the first President of the United States of America. We assume to know that Moses led the children of Israel out of captivity into the land of Egypt. We assume to know that Benjamin Franklin, by means of a kite discovered electricity; that Newton made a scientific discovery concerning the actions of force, which we named gravity.

In the third category, Things we believe, he says that we believe in a great creative intelligence which has a personality. Some believe that that creative intelligence has a personality; some believe he is not only a personal God, but that he is a triune being, composed of three person namely the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Others believe he is but one person. Some believe in the doctrine of literal transubstantiation, in accordance to which the bread and wine used in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper are said to be transmuted into the body of Christ. Others believe, with equal sincerity, that such a doctrine is not only false, but utterly absurd. Others believe in the immortality of all mankind while others believe in conditional immortality only as a reward of individual effort. And so he enumerates others beliefs.

Then in the fourth class, things of which we are wholly ignorant, "WE neither know nor assume to know, nor do we have even a definite belief as to where, when , or how, for example, matter first came into existence, or how long it will continue to exist. . . what will ultimately become of it. We neither know nor assume to know, nor do we have a clearly defined belief, as to how many suns, moons, and stars there are throughout all the universal space -- how many of them are uninhabited, or what may be the number and character of those which are inhabited. WE neither know nor assume to know, nor can we formulate so much as a definite belief, as to the number of fishes or any other living things in all the waters of the earth, the insects which pervade the atmosphere and encircle and enclose the earth, or the living creatures that move upon the dry land. In all such problems, and many others, we do not hesitate to acknowledge our total ignorance." And I quote, "No man is in position to understand or appreciate how most infinitesimally small seemingly insignificant by comparison is the value of his own definite personal knowledge until he undertakes to write out in definite form a crystallized statement of those things he can say truly he knows. Then it is for the first time he becomes clearly conscious how meager is his store of actual knowledge, and how conspicuous is his intellectual poverty."

Humility and Awe in Contemplating God's Infinitude

When a student glimpses hat in his first class, or his first night in a dormitory at the BYU, if he just closes his eyes and contemplates how infinite are God's creations, he begins to sense a feeling of humility and awe. Thus he takes the first step forward toward his proper education.

It is the objective of this University to impress upon every student that God should be made the center of his life, not self. There is his first comprehension of the difference between the animal plane of existence, and the plane of the spirituality of the soul. Thus to become conscious of one's own ignorance is the first lesson that a student should learn in a University. To be as unpretentious as Sir Isaac Newton, who, at the close of a wonderful life of discovery said, "I have been but a child playing upon the seashore. I have gathered a few pebbles here and there, but the great ocean lies before me unexplored." There is true humility, true greatness, and a man who senses that, who senses God as the center, truly takes the first step toward the greatness of the human soul.

To be ignorant of one's own ignorance is to be in an unprogressive, uninspired state of existence. A feeling such as expressed by Sir Isaac Newton gives a glimpse of our own actual attainments, gives us a broader understanding, and a more just appreciation of all mankind. It teaches us a deeper respect for the lives and experiences of our fellow men; it admonishes us to a more generous sympathy of every man in his hones efforts, and stimulates us to a more helpful desire to increase our own store of exact and definite knowledge.

Things we assume to know are in general the discoveries and demonstrations of science. Therein is the next objective, under this first heading, of the University -- to discover those new things. Oh, how fascinating! How glorious to live in this age when scientists are bringing into the realm of knowledge things which have been hidden from the creation of the world! Things we neither know, nor assume to know, nor even believe constitute at present an unknown field of nature. Whatever that field may contain is as yet a closed book to us. "The unexplored field of nature may perhaps contain countless treasures of infinite value to each one of us and doubtless does, but until we see, know, or in some other manner become possessed of them their intrinsic value is not for us at least a conscious factor."

Important Duty

One of the most important duties every individual owes to himself and to his fellow men is at all times, and as rapidly as possible, to increase the number and volume of the things he knows, and in so doing select those facts and truths of which he can make the most valuable use. Exact and definite knowledge is always of the greatest possible value and importance to every individual who has the moral courage to use it rightly.

[5] Under that heading, as a fundamental object of the University, (and this I say with all sincerity of soul,) is to have the individual student sense his relationship to God, our Creator, and to learn by experience, sometimes in sorrow and tears, for example, when he feels that he will fail in an examination, that God is there to inspire and to bless; to feel that this old body is but physical, but that the spirit within is the offspring of God, and that there may be communication between him and divine power. The student who feels that, and everyone has the right, is not going to be swayed either by false theories or by dogmatic statements, but is anchored to the revealed word of God given to man from the beginning.

Self Effort Essential

A second objective is that knowledge comes through personal effort. No use trying to cheat.

The acquisition of knowledge involves labor. Exact and definite knowledge comes to all of us in exact ratio with the amount of intelligence, moral courage, and perseverance we put into the active search for it. No shirking, no superficial study. " It is easier to entertain a prejudice than it is to acquire the knowledge necessary to rise above it. Most of us are the witless slaves of prejudice. It is more convenient to cherish a superstition than it is to acquire the wisdom necessary to demonstrate its fallacy."

In this effort to increase the data from the realm of the unknown to the realm of the known is the duty of the University, and therein comes the duty of research that must be carried on in the various scientific fields. But it is not the chief end as we shall see later.

Freedom of Choice

A third objective of the University grows naturally out of self effort and that is to emphasize the responsibility of individual choice, of free agency. Never before in the world, it seems to me, has there been a time when that principle should be so emphasized in the minds of scientific men and in the minds of young hopeful students than at the present, because we have leaders of nations who trample that eternal principle under their feet, who crush the very source of the seed of liberty planted in every individual soul that never will die. Communists, no matter what they do, can never kill this immortal Truth.

Teach students that they have the responsibility of choosing whether they be monkeys gratifying their passion, stealing from their fellows, ruining girls who trust them or whether they will rise above the jungle plane and choose the higher life. In all creations only human beings can sense the possibility of a life that rises above the animal plane of existence. Boys, sense that and never as a child of God fall below that high plane of human existence.

According to Fixed Laws

The stern fact of life is that animals, as other living things, can grow and produce their kind only in accordance with fixed laws of nature, and the divine command, "Let the earth bring forth the living creatures after his kind, cattle and creeping things, and the beast of the earth after his kind." (Genesis 1:24) thus every creature is responsive to the physical demands which it must obey. The human organism, being material and chemical, the same as that of the animal, also is subject to the appetites, passions, and other cravings of the physical body.

To man, however, there is given a special endowment, not bestowed upon any other living thing. When the Creator "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life," (And never mind when it was,) "and man became a living soul," God gave to him the power of choice. Only to the human being did the Creator say, "Thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee." (Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:17). As God desired men to become as he, it was necessary that he should first make them free.

Thus man was endowed with the greatest blessing next to life that can be given to mortal beings—the gift of free agency. Without this divine power to choose humanity cannot progress.

Commenting upon this special endowment, a leading scientist, LeComte DeNouy in his book, the "Human Destiny," gets a glimpse of some of these divine principles revealed to the Prophet Joseph.

"By giving man liberty and conscience God abdicated a part of his omnipotence in favor of his creature, and this represents the spark of God in man." "God is within you," he put s in parentheses. "Liberty is real, for God himself refused to trammel it." Freedom of speech, freedom of action within bounds that do not infringe upon the liberty of others, are man's inherent right, divine gifts "essential to human dignity and human happiness."

What a travesty on human nature when a person or a group of persons, though endowed with a consciousness of being able to rise in human dignity to realms indiscernible by lower creations, yet will still be content to obey animal instincts without putting forth effort to experience the joy of goodness, purity, self-mastery, and faith that spring from compliance to moral rules. How tragic it is when man, made a "little lower than the angels," and crowned with glory and honor, will content himself to grovel on the animal plane." (Psalms 8:5.)

Students, open your eyes and see the glories that this University offers in asking you to resist indulgence in things which merely stimulate the passions.

Glories of the Church

This Church is more glorious than even the greatest of men outside of it glimpse. "Therefore, cheer up your hearts and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves." "This love of liberty which God has planted in us," said Abraham Lincoln, "Constitutes the bulwark of our liberty and independence. It is not our crowning battlements, our bristling seacoasts, our Army and our Navy. Or defense is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and we have planted the seeds of despotism at our very door."

The opposite of freedom is bondage, servility, restraint, conditions that inhibit mentality, stifle the spirit, and crush manhood. To coerce, to compel to bring the individual into servitude is the Communist plan for the human family.

Aside from resisting oppression from without, each individual carries the responsibility within himself of living nobly or ignobly. Daily every normal person is faced with a choice of submission to what Paul designates as the "works of the flesh," or of reaching upward for the fruits of the spirit which are "love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, neatness, temperance, against such there is no law." (Galatians 5;22-23)

Teaching for Life

Now I come to the fourth objective, and that is teaching for life. It is true that we have to make a living. To some making a living is the whole purpose of existence. Some make the object of life pleasure. Some make the object of life fame, or wealth, but the true end of life is not mere existence. It is not pleasure. It is not fame. It is not wealth. It is the perfection of humanity through individual achievement under the guidance of God's inspiration. That is the aim of education in this great institution.

I have already mentioned indulgence in passions that steal, kill and destroy noble traits of character, and lead from the pathway of happiness into the downward road of misery and death. Youth of our Church and country, the abundant life is not found by indulgence, but by rising above it. He who said, "I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly," inspired the Apostle James to say, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you." (James 4:7)

He who with strong passion remains chaste, he who is keenly sensitive with manly power of indignation in him can yet restrain himself and forgive -- these are strong men, spiritual heroes. It was Sir Humphrey Davey who once wrote, "If I could choose what of all thing would be at the same time the most delightful and the most useful to me, I should prefer a firm religious belief above every other blessing; for this makes life a discipline of goodness, creates new hopes when all earthly ones vanish, throws over the decay of existence, the most glorious of all lights, [8]awakens life even in death, makes even torture and shame the ladder of ascent to Paradise, and far above all combinations of earthly hopes, calls up the most delightful visions of the future, the security of everlasting joys."

Quote from Patrick Henry

And I like to quote Patrick Henry, who said at the close of his life: "I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian religion. If they had that and I had not given them on cent, they would have been rich and if they had not that, and I had given them all the world, they would be poor."

What he had was the general idea of the Christ. What you have, and what we must give to our students, is the complete fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In the words of Browning in "Paracelsus," let us say to our students: "Live in all things outside yourself by love and you will have joy. That is the life of God; it ought to be our life. In Him it is accomplished and perfect; but in all created things it is a lesson learned slowly and through difficulty."

"Let every man remember that the destiny of mankind is inconquerable," says LeComte DeNouy, "and that it depends greatly upon his will to collaborate in the transcendent past. Let him remember that the law is and always has been to struggle, and that the fight has lost nothing of its violence by being transposed from the material on to the spiritual plane. Let him remember that his own dignity, his nobility as a human being must emerge from his efforts to liberate himself from his bondage and to obey his deepest aspirations, `the bondage of appetites and passions, etc.' And let him above all never forget that the divine spark is in him alone, and that he is free to disregard it, to kill it, or to come closer to God by showing his eagerness to work with Him and for Him."

I have respect for a scientist who comes that close to the revelations of God to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and I have great respect for the man who is esteemed the wisest American, who said: "Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be fit to live as well as to think." What higher purpose is there in life for the school supported by the government or by the Church.

In conclusion, by fellow teachers, leading youth to know God, to have faith in his laws, to have confidence in his fatherhood, and to find solace and peace in his love, this is the greatest privilege, the most sublime opportunity offered the true educator.

[9] In the 93rd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants the responsibility and opportunity of the Church school, and the teachers therein is summarized as follows: "I give unto you these sayings that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fullness.

"For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fullness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father." (Doctrine and Covenants 93:19-20).

Great Opportunity

Fellow teachers, I congratulate you upon the opportunities ahead to meet thousands of students who are coming full of hope, some full of fear, facing the eternal creations of a wise Creator, our God and Father. With all my soul I pray that you may instill into every soul faith in that divine Being, faith in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer, and faith in your fellow men.

I want to conclude by making a reference to the responsibility of planting into that soul a false idea. Thrice worthy of condemnation is he who would crush in a boy's mind a flower of truth and sow in its stead the seed of error.

Years ago as a member of the normal class at the University of Utah I read an article that impressed me with the seriousness of the offense of false teaching. It was somewhat like this. A teacher had been condemned to hades. There he was shown eight different and varying degrees of punishment and torture. He saw the thief alternately beaten and resuscitated. On another and deeper plane he saw the malefactor dragged limb from limb, eyes gouged out, tongue and nails torn from the roots. In a third, the wicked were beaten about like animals in a pen. So he passed the horrors of the fourth, of the fifth, of the sixth, of the seventh, until he peered into the bottomless pit of perdition. Horrified at his impending fate he remonstrated, saying he did not deserve such punishment; but his tormentor answered: "The condemned whom you have seen suffering in the other planes of hell trespassed only upon the rights of their fellow men, stole only other men's property, or perpetrated only physical injury, but you by your false teaching and corrupt practices led the young into sin and immorality. You poisoned the human soul, for you there await the deepest depths of hades and the severest tortures of the damned."

Such was the impressive way one author had of impressing prospective teachers with the responsibility they were assuming. Touching this point the greatest of all teachers has said:

[10] "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me," that is cause one of these little ones to stumble—"It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea." (Matthew, 18:6)

With all the power and endowment I have as your fellow worker and as President of the Church, I bless you, teachers and instructors of the Brigham Young University, bless you with discernment, that you may read the souls and longings of your students, bless you with wisdom to know the truth as it is given by revealed word in the authorized books of the Church, bless you with the power to discern between truth and error as given by individuals, bless you with the power to lift the souls of your students from the animal realm into the realm of spirituality, leading to happiness in this life, and eternal happiness and exaltation in the life to come.

Address of President David O. McKay at Brigham Young University Faculty Workshop [17 September 1954]. Brigham Young University, Provo.

(See BYU Special Collections)