The recent and perennially anticipated announcement that Deseret Book would finally let Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine go out of print was warmly received by many. After being stripped from the references in Church curricula, it was perhaps no surprise that the day had finally come (to the likely consternation of many in Seminary and Institutes). As much as I find sections of MoDoc deeply problematic and unhealthy for the Church, I also think it is important to remember that it is and always will be important.
We live in a time when the Journal of Discourses is avoided as a source in LDS Church publications—the Deseret News being the preferred citation for nineteenth century sermons—and people squint suspiciously at the words of Young, Kimball and Grant (as a side note, the Church’s shorthand expert LaJean Carruth recently told me that the JoD is much more accurate than the DNews). As much as I prefer living in the modern Church, and as much as I believe many nineteenth-century sermons to not be appropriate for modern devotion, I believe we should neither forget nor disparage the Journal of Discourses.
Fortunately, the JoD are too unwieldy and disorganized to effectively bring to gospel doctrine. MoDoc on the other hand can all too easily be anachronistically foisted upon unprepared audiences. Still, I believe that Elder McConkie should not be simply shoved off to the dust bin. But perhaps we are a bit too proximate for many to understand how his writings no longer belong in the Church.
Several years before publishing MoDoc, McConkie compiled the teachings of his father-in-law, Quorum of the Twelve President Joseph Fielding Smith. The three volume set, Doctrines of Salvation (1954-6) is a fun amalgam of old and (at the time) new Mormonism. Typically when including JFSII’s material, McConkie included a citation (including references to personal correspondence). However, there are frequently sections that include no source reference. For reasons I don’t have time to explain here, I tend to think that these sections were expansions made by McConkie.
In order to see how one of these sections plays out in contrast with the modern church, let’s look at a section from volume 3:
USE OF WORD “ORDAIN” IN EARLY DAYS. When the Prophet received the Presidency of the High Priesthood, the history says that he was ordained. Today we would say set apart. They used the term ordain in the early days of the Church for everything, even when sisters were set apart to preside in the Relief Society.
So far so good. This is generally the response when we see reference to Relief Society presidents, councilors, midwifes and nurses being “ordained” in the nineteenth century, and Church President John Taylor (who ordained the first RS presidency) said as much. To continue:
President Brigham Young and the other members of the Council of the Twelve had the fullness of the keys and priesthood conferred upon them by the Prophet before his death, so that any one of them could act, each in turn, should he come to the Presidency, and all he would then need would be the setting apart. All of the members of the Council of the Twelve today have had conferred upon them all the keys and authority necessary to be exercised by anyone who might reach the Presidency, and then he would be set apart.
This is an interesting section. I think it is the most historically defensible position; however, starting with President McKay, the twelve started “ordaining” the church president, a practice that is prominently referenced with each succession.
CLASS TEACHERS SHOULD NOT BE SET APART. Today we use the term setting apart when men are appointed to preside in stakes and wards and in auxiliary organizations. There is no reason to set apart teachers in classes or chairmen of groups. If we continue to do this, after awhile some may think these positions have become permanent offices in the priesthood. 
And now we have gone from a shift in succession practice, to a complete transformation of Church government. Think of how many less people the bishopric would have to set apart if this were still the dominant perspective. However, just like cracking open MoDoc or reading an Adam-God sermon in Gospel Doctrine is poor form, so too would pointing these excerpts out.
- Bruce R. McConkie, comp., Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-6), 106-7.