A Joseph Fielding McConkie Story

I served as a missionary in Scotland for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from September of 1987 until September of 1989. For the last five months of my service, that mission was under the direction of Joseph Fielding McConkie, a singularly gifted gospel teacher, a devoted disciple of Christ, a fierce champion of the Restoration, and a bold witness of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. President McConkie passed away on October 10th, 2013.

He was only my mission president for a relatively short period of time, but he made an indelible impression on me and on my testimony of the Restored Gospel. If you have read anything I’ve written on the subject of religion here on this blog, chances are you’re reading warmed-over McConkie. So much of my thinking on these subjects has been shaped by his perspectives that it’s difficult to separate his point of view from my own.

As I attended his funeral yesterday and sang “Praise to the Man” alongside other middle-aged dudes in a choir of former Scotland missionaries, I tried to think of the best way to honor his memory here. I could recount some of his more memorable teachings, or I could recount some examples of his singular sense of humor.

Then I remembered a story that does both.

During a series of missionary zone conferences, President McConkie would take Bible texts used by critics of the Church and demonstrate how, rather than prove the Mormons wrong, these verses in context actually reinforced a testimony of the Restored Gospel. On this occasion, President McConkie began his instruction by quoting from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 22, verse 30:

“For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”

By that time in my mission, I had bumped into many an angry evangelical Christian that had thrown those words of the Savior in my face as evidence that the Latter-day Saint doctrine of eternal marriage ran contrary to the Bible. The conventional wisdom is that Jesus was announcing that there is no such thing as marriage in heaven. Certainly a cursory reading of his statement here would give that impression.

Not so fast, President McConkie said. Back up a little, focus on the context, and understand the point that the Savior is trying to make.

He began in verse 23 of the same chapter, which sets up the exchange that yields Jesus’s marriage statement:

The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection…

President McConkie noted that it’s important to recognize the Sadducee agenda here. These guys are questioning Jesus not to challenge him about marriage, but rather to trip him up about the reality of resurrection, a doctrine they rejected. (“The Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection,” President McConkie said, “so they were sad, you see.”)

That’s why Jesus, in his response, doesn’t focus on marriage, either. “But as touching the resurrection of the dead,” Jesus says:

But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying,

I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.
(Matthew 22:31-33)

The astonishing doctrine is not the marriage doctrine, then, but rather the doctrine of resurrection, and everyone knows it, including the Sadducees. That’s the point of the exchange. So when we look at what Jesus says about marriage in order to make that point, we need to realize that his purpose is not to expound on the nature of marriage in the eternities to a group that rejects eternity, but rather to sidestep the rhetorical trap the Sadducees are setting.

Jesus did that all the time. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and “the baptism of John, was it of heaven or of men?” and “he that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” were all examples of Jesus refusing to accept at face value the premises being presented to him.

That’s all well and good, but what did Jesus mean about marriage in verse 30?

The key, according to President McConkie, can be found in the antecedent to the word “they” in Jesus’s answer. “They” neither marry nor are given in marriage. Who are “they?”

The Sadducees, in setting up the scenario to flummox the Savior, talk about how “there were with us seven brethren,” and each of them, in turn, marries a woman whose first husband dies. The next husband dies, too. This happens over and over again, and she ends up marrying eight times, so who is going to be her husband in the resurrection?

Again, it’s essential to remember that this query is coming from a group of people who don’t believe in a resurrection. They think this example, then, shows how ridiculous the concept of resurrection is on its face, and that Jesus won’t be able to provide a satisfying answer, and his authority with the masses will be undermined by anything he says.

But Jesus refuses to play the game.

“They neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Jesus says – the “they” in question being the people provided in the Sadducee example. “There were with us seven brethren,” the Sadducees said, emphasis added. In other words, seven Sadducees, who don’t believe in a resurrection, marry a Sadducee woman who obviously wouldn’t believe in a resurrection, either. The Savior, then, is masterfully skewering them for their presumption in assuming they’ll be married in a resurrection they deny.

They, the eight men and the one woman who deny the resurrection in the example provided, aren’t going to be married in the resurrection. If you want to be married in the resurrection, you have to accept the Lord and his doctrine. Implicit in Jesus’s rejection of the marriage example of the Sadducees is an assumption that, while “they” won’t be married, there will be others who will be.

“There’s a modern precedent to this,” President McConkie told us. “Can anyone think of a woman in our day who has been married eight times?”

Sure, we all answered. Elizabeth Taylor.

“Good. Is there any question as to who Elizabeth Taylor’s husband is going to be in the resurrection?”

We, laughing, shook our heads.

President McConkie laughed, too, and then said, “Elizabeth Taylor is going to be lucky to be resurrected.”

Joseph Fielding McConkie. A great scholar and a great man. I’m going to miss him.

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  1. That’s brilliant exposition. True it is that Jesus was often tested with some sort of word-trap and he dodged the trap and in so doing sometimes left people with an incomplete understanding, especially after a couple thousand years of handling and mis-handling.

    My response has usually been “The bible also says nothing about *divorce* in Heaven.” Take these words as VERBS — there will be no marriage (no ACT of marriage) in Heaven because such acts take place on EARTH. The *state* of marriage will exist. That it is a verb is indicated by “given” — there will be no “given in marriage” strongly suggests the ceremony itself.

    It also conforms to LDS understanding NOT to expect to be able to suddenly choose to get married in the next life if you ignored it in this one.

    • This precipitates another Joseph Fielding McConkie story.

      Right after Pres. McConkie had made this case, I was a bit unsettled, as he concluded by saying “we need to get away from the idea that marriage is only an earthly ordinance. That’s not what the scripture means. ” The problem was that I had just read that explanation in “Jesus the Christ” earlier that same day. At dinner, I sat next to Pres. MacConkie and asked him about the discrepancy. His answer was “Talmage is the reason this problem got started.”

      Take that how you will.

  2. It’s baffles me to no end that such smart people never could put together the real gospel of Jesus Christ from all the resources the Restoration affords. Neither Brother McConkie nor his acclaimed father ever once in all their words expounded the gospel as Jesus commanded it. Nor did they attempt to do accordingly in their own lives. See D&C 84 and 3 Nephi 11

    • Whereas it baffles me that you’re ignoring the legion of plain and precious pronouncements from these men that do exactly what you describe.

    • “It’s baffles me to no end that such smart people never could put together the real gospel of Jesus Christ”

      Only one person is authorized to declare the real gospel of Jesus Christ. You are not Him. For everyone else there’s telling stories that you have heard, and it will be the Holy Ghost that corrects your personal misunderstandings (or not).

      You may have some stories of your own. i certainly have some.

      To put it in other words; it is impossible for any human to “put together the real gospel” (besides the “No True Scotsman” fallacy aspect of it) and that is because words do not have predictable meanings.

      Scripture provides the foundation. Additional revelation usually benefits only the recipient of the revelation as it will be tuned especially to his understanding, his foundation, and the way he uses words. True it is that sometimes those stories are published and often valued. Sometimes a revelation is intended to guide a certain person a certain way, and other persons would be led astray by that very same revelation. Or as Spencer W Kimball put it, “the words necessary to correct faulty thinking in one man will put dangerous ideas in the mind of another”.

      Some revelations are pretty clear and more or less universal. Modern revelation on marriage seems to fall in this class. Whether that is part of what you mean by “true gospel” only you and God knows.

    • “Neither Brother McConkie nor his acclaimed father ever once in all their words expounded the gospel as Jesus commanded it.”

      Says you 😉

      I’m glad for Bruce R. McConkie’s explanations. I look forward to seeing yours.

  3. You betray everyone of you absolute gospel ignorance proving no gospel accomplishment. It is never taught in all the halls of Mormondom what Jesus commanded to seek the kingdom TAKING NO THOUGHT FOR YOUR LIFE! There is only abject ignorance what Christ insisted must be part of THE acceptable sacrifice which brings full purpose of heart to the alter. No, never mind teaching children how to grow up without sin unto salvation. Let them assume in perfect hypocrisy that they have what only the visitation of the promise of the Father can bring the baptism of fire and of THE Holy Ghost. Teach them to pursue excellence in Babylon’s crafts. Want more or better, I can do that.

    • It is true that Mormons usually do not teach the principles of other denominations, sects and religions. This should come as no surprise here.

      “Want more or better,”

      Yes!

      “I can do that.”

      Unlikely. You seem to worship ignorance:

      Mr. Muir wrote: “There is only abject ignorance what Christ insisted must be part of THE acceptable sacrifice”

      Unlikely.

      D&C 131:6 “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.”

      John 8:32 “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”

      • I am certainly ignorant of what you are getting at. The context of what you quote is to you guys. Not that ignorance is all that is possible. Did I not wonderfully illuminate a lost principle in how one must go about coming unto Christ acceptably? Why persecute me for doing a good thing? Note please how during the forty days Christ was seen of the Jews (Acts 1&2) he instructed them to continue with one accord, meaning singleness of heart, or TAKING NO THOUGHT FOR THEIR LIFE, while they fast and pray and earnestly take upon them the name of Christ with full purpose of heart, yearning for the fulfillment of the ‘promise of the Father’ which IS the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost.

        In ignorance of how to go about it, Mormons simply assume it is an imperceptible process. Hypocrisy that really means they found a way around Christ’s commandments and are all good so why not go get that degree and get rich, stinking rich.

        • To Mr. Muir: Thanks for your reply. I will explain more fully for the benefit of all readers.

          “I am certainly ignorant of what you are getting at.”

          The Stallion has expressed his admiration for one of the more enlightened and informative among the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is inevitable that when the restored gospel is being discussed soon will arrive the challenges — how boring would it be otherwise?

          “Where the body is the eagles will gather” http://www.defendingthebride.com/sc/mass/mat24.html

          Interestingly, this saying works whether you think “body” is corpse and “eagle” is vulture, or if you think body is the church and eagles heavenly messengers. The parable however seems to make most sense in the former — if you are out on the desert (which was true of Jerusalem) and you see hawks, eagles or vultures soaring in a circle above something, you know there’s a body there.

          So it is that the “body” of saints will attract eagles AND vultures; good spirits and evil spirits. They cannot stay away. So it doesn’t really matter what exactly you think of it — the fact that Mormons attract so much attention is, all by itself, evidence of it being a “body” attracting supporters (me) and challengers (you).

          Your criticism is that Stallion is not teaching YOUR version of the gospel. Well, neither are you. You had, and still have, an opportunity to do so — but this is Stallion’s blog, his version of the Gospel. Where is your blog, your version? Are you only here to contend? What does the scripture say about contention?

          http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Bible-Verses-About-Strife/

          Rather a lot. So here you are stirring up contention and strife contrary to many scriptures.

          “Did I not wonderfully illuminate a lost principle in how one must go about coming unto Christ acceptably?”

          Yes, you did not. First, if it is “lost” then why should I believe you, and every other person that comes along claiming to be a prophet illuminating lost principles? We have the plain words that are NOT LOST as to how to come unto Christ acceptably (broken heart and contrite spirit is the required sacrifice, and offering that sacrifice in Jesus’ name).

          “Why persecute me for doing a good thing?”

          That’s existence. Anything that does not go your way is “persecution” and anything you do is “good”. Or maybe not.

          “Note please how during the forty days Christ was seen of the Jews (Acts 1&2) he instructed them to continue with one accord, meaning singleness of heart, or TAKING NO THOUGHT FOR THEIR LIFE”

          Okay, noted. What does that have to do with me? I wasn’t there and I’m not a Jew.

          “In ignorance of how to go about it, Mormons simply assume it is an imperceptible process.”

          In all my years arguing online, I have never, ever, found a single principle that ALL Mormons believe. It is impossible to arrogate ANYTHING to “Mormons”. No doubt one or more are exactly as you, or any other critic, believes; while other Mormons are not as you believe.

          “Hypocrisy that really means they found a way around Christ’s commandments and are all good so why not go get that degree and get rich, stinking rich.”

          That didn’t make much sense but whatever it means, yes, some Mormons are hypocrites and so are many anti-Mormons; conveniently ignoring their own “judge not” as they (and you) go about judging Mormons.

          • Aren’t you Ricochet Rabbit. Not pinning you down. You give no value in the least to what Jesus commanded about taking no thought for your life WHILE you seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Everybody knows about the broken heart and contrite spirit. What they are not taught because there is no living experience to draw from, handy to the General Church, is exactly and precisely how to bring that broken heart and contrite spirit so that the Father will draw you to come unto Christ successfully, to actually be visited by the promise of the Father with the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost.

            You are again going to ignore this and spiritualize it into something slippery. Do we ever hear testimony of the when the Holy Ghost falls upon a Mormon and the various gifts that attended THE EVENT?

            I am not being Evangelical about this. I am a Joseph Smith Mormon.

            “The Baptism of water, without the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost attending it is of no use; they are necessarily and inseparably connected.” TPJS 360

            Think about what you are really defending. Ignorance, inexperience, and hypocrisy. Show me a man who is taught of God. Everyone born of God is taught of God. John 6;45.

        • Exploring Muir’s exposition, also known as wresting scripture, or swallowing camels while straining at gnats:

          “Note please how during the forty days Christ was seen of the Jews (Acts 1&2) he instructed them to continue with one accord, meaning singleness of heart, or TAKING NO THOUGHT FOR THEIR LIFE”

          I’ll challenge that with Jesus telling his disciples to sell a garment and buy a sword:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sell_your_cloak_and_buy_a_sword

          Different person, different day, different commandment. Simple, no?

          So which applies to YOU? Should you take no thought for your life? Should you buy a sword? Maybe something else entirely?

          Not one commandment Jesus uttered is for AMERICANS. Maybe some are, maybe some aren’t. I am a GENTILE. So are you, most likely, with commandments that are not the same, with promises that are not the same, and blessings that are not the same, as that offered to the Jews and the Children of Israel (Abraham’s Covenant).

          We should understand that God gives specific commandments to specific persons and some general commandments, but specific commandments supercede general commandments.

          There have been times in my life when the spirit of God has told me to do, or not do, something whose purpose was not immediately apparent. Sometimes the purpose becomes known, sometimes not.

          The point is that I don’t need Mr. Muir telling me what to do since scripture already provides the general commandments and God Himself can provide my specific instruction.

          • Listen to yourself. Jesus told the Nephites at the temple in the Land of Bountiful after plainly teaching his gospel of the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost that ANYTHING more of less comes of evil. You take license to deny very specific instructions careful about how to approach the living God and make a gospel covenant. This is always between you and God alone. You conflate buying a sword with this? Why? Oh, because Jesus said that also sometime in some other context. REALLY? And if he want to tell you how to get the gospel right he will just have to bother telling you. WOW!

  4. Thanks for sharing the story about President McConkie. He was my mission President also. An amazing man, I miss him dearly.