--Personal Secretary Clare Middlemiss and Church President David O. McKay: A Molten Attraction That Douses the Inspirationally-Fired but Historically Questionable “David O. McKay vs. the Volcano” Story? (**Important Facts from "Fetal Deity" Added)--
In an another thread, “Fetal Deity” recounts a harrowing episode allegedly involving divine intervention where David O. McKay, said to have been prompted by the Spirit, warned his fellow sight-seers to step away from a precarious vista at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, moments before the hanging balcony on which they were said to be standing reportedly gave way and disappeared into the mountain’s molten mouth.
“Fetal Deity” (hereafter “FD”) describes this reported episode as “one of the most impressive cases of prophetic inspiration that I can recall being told in my TBM childhood.“
“FD” then asks a pointed question: “So what are your impressions of this anecdote? How would you explain it? Does it make you wonder if you jumped ship too soon?”
(“’David O. McKay Versus the Volcano'--Do any of you remember this story?,” posted by Fetal Deity, "Recovery from Mormonism" bulletin board, 16 November 2010, 06:29 p.m., at: http://exmormon.org/phorum/read.php?2,35917
The anecdote, which “FD” both cites and sources, is found in the account of Sister Virginia Budd (Jacobsen), published in "Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay,” revised and enlarged, Clare Middlemiss, comp. " [Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1976)], pp. 52-53.
It reads as follows:
"It happened in 1921, while President McKay and Elder Hugh Cannon were making a tour of the missions of the world. After a day of inspiring conference meetings in Hilo, Hawaii, a night trip to the Kilauea volcano was arranged for the visiting brethren and some of the missionaries. About nine o'clock that evening, two carloads, about ten of us, took off for the then very active volcano.
"We stood on the rim of that fiery pit watching Pele in her satanic antics, our backs chilled by the cold winds sweeping down from snowcapped Mauna Loa, and our faces almost blistered by the heat of the molten lava. Tiring of the cold, one of the elders discovered a volcanic balcony about four feet down inside the crater where observers could watch the display without being chilled by the wind. It seemed perfectly sound, and the 'railing' on the open side of it formed a fine protection from the intense heat, making it an excellent place to view the spectacular display.
"After first testing its safety, Brother McKay and three of the elders climbed down into the hanging balcony. As they stood there warm and comfortable, they teased the others of us more timid ones who had hesitated to take advantage of the protection they had found. For quite some time we all watched the ever-changing sight as we alternately chilled and roasted.
"After being down there in their protected spot for some time, suddenly Brother McKay said to those with him, 'Brethren, I feel impressed that we should get out of here.'"
"With that he assisted the elders to climb out, and then they in turn helped him up to the wind-swept rim. It seems incredible, but almost immediately the whole balcony crumbled and fell with a roar into the molten lava a hundred feet or so below.
"It is easy to visualize the feelings of those who witnessed this terrifying experience. Not a word was said . . . the whole thing was too awful, with all that word means. The only sound was the hiss and roar of Pele, the Fire Goddess of old Hawaii, screaming her disappointment.
"None of us, who were witnesses to this experience, could ever doubt the reality of 'revelation in our day!' Some might say it was merely inspiration, but to us, it was a direct revelation given to a worthy man."
Another version of the same reported event is found in the Mormon Church’s educational publication, “Preparing for Exaltation" (Teacher’s Manual), Lesson 15: “Recognizing Personal Revelation,” p. 80 (published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, copyright 1996, printed in the United States of America,
English approval: 9/95, at: http://lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?hideNav=1&locale=0&sourceId=3dff767978c20110VgnVCM100000176f620a____&vgnextoid=5158f4b13819d110VgnVCM1000003a94610aRCRD
The LDS Church’s condensed lesson manual version of the story proceeds thusly:
"In 1921 Elders David O. McKay (who later became the ninth President of the Church) and Hugh J. Cannon visited missions around the world. While in Hawaii, they visited the Kilauea volcano, the largest active volcano in the world, with some of the missionaries. They discovered a natural balcony just inside the volcano, and Elder McKay and several of the missionaries climbed down to stand on it. On this balcony they were out of the chilly wind and had a marvelous view of the inside of the volcano. After a while, Elder McKay said, 'Brethren, I feel impressed that we should get out of here.' Almost immediately after they climbed back to the rim, the balcony on which they had been standing crumbled and fell into the molten lava below. (See “Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay," comp. Clare Middlemiss, rev. ed. , 51–53.)"
--Just How Plausible is This "David O. McKay vs. the Volcano” Tale?--
Is the story believable, particularly the version of events presented by Clare Middlemiss, David O. McKay’s long-time, devoted secretary, as found in her compilation of “cherished experiences” from the life of McKay?
That question is a legitimate one for two reasons:
1) Questions of factual accuracy surround the story itself; and
2) Questions regarding Middlemiss’s compiled version of events may have been unduly influenced by her close personal relationship with McKay.
--Issues Regarding the Historical Accuracy of the “David O. McKay vs. the Volcano” Story--
Richard O. Cowan, professor emeritus of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, points out what could be a major synchronization problem between David O. McKay’s (along with that of fellow sight-seer Hugh Cannon’s) version of events at the volcano, when compared to the account provided by Virginia Budd (Jacobson )--the latter found in Middlemiss’s compilation of “cherished experiences” from the life of McKay.
The lack of correlating confirmation between the two accounts arguably strikes at the heart of the “guided-by-divine-inspiration” theme of the faithful Mormon-preferred version.
Recall Budd's description of what supposedly happened when God is said to have intervened in order to save the observing party from certain death:
"After being down there in their protected spot for some time, suddenly Brother McKay said to those with him, 'Brethren, I feel impressed that we should get out of here.’
"With that he assisted the elders to climb out, and then they in turn helped him up to the wind-swept rim. It seems incredible, but almost immediately the whole balcony crumbled and fell with a roar into the molten lava a hundred feet or so below.”
Yet Cowan, in his article “An Apostle in Oceania: Elder David O. McKay’s 1921 Trip around the Pacific,” notes that neither McKay or Cannon mentioned the inspirational moment of divinely-guided escape that makes Budd’s account so moving for those who read and believe it on face value.
“Cited in Middlemiss, “Cherished Experiences,” [pp.] 52–53[,] both McKay and Cannon described visiting Kilauea Volcano during the night of February 10–11 , BUT NEITHER MENTIONS EITHER THE ‘BALCONY’ CRUMBLING OR THE PROMPTING [BY THE SPIRIT] TO MOVE OUT OF HARM’S WAY AT THIS CRITICAL MOMENT.”
(Richard O. Cowan, “An Apostle in Oceania: Elder David O. McKay’s 1921 Trip around the Pacific,” published in “Pioneers in the Pacific,” ed. Grant Underwood (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005) pp. 189–200, emphasis added, at http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/pioneers-pacific-memory-history-and-cultural-identity-among-latter-day-saints/16-apostle-oc
*****Poster "FD" offers some additional, important and very illuminating evidence from others who were on the volcano-visiting excursion that differs starkly, dramatically and in critical detail from what Budd claims transpired.
"FD's" devastating analysis is quoted below and deservedly at some length:
"Every occurrence of the story that I located on . . . official LDS/BYU pages repeats quotes and paraphrases of the very same witness, Sister Budd (Jacobsen), recounting the very same version of the story. None of these retellings offer any additional accounts from the viewpoint of other individuals present that night.
"However, at least three others in the party DID go on record with their versions of what occurred--the most revealing being that of David O. McKay, himself (I quote from his 'trip diary,' as presented by Clare Middlemiss in 'Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, Revised and Enlarged' [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], pp. 51-52; ironically, this account occurs side by side in the same book as the 'collapsing balcony' version related by Budd [Jacobsen].)
"'IT WAS ELEVEN O'CLOCK P.M. [February 10, 1921] when nine of us in two automobiles left Hilo for a thirty-seven mile drive to the crater. The entire distance, the roadway is lined with Ohia trees, ferns, and the Lehua, the island flower. As the headlight flashed on this tropical foliage and brought out in bold relief the beautiful flowers in full bloom, I thought I had never before taken a night ride to equal this midnight auto drive.
"'When yet within six miles or more of the volcano, we could see its lurid light shooting up toward the clear sky. Unfortunately, just at the rim of the crater, which, by the way, is about ten miles in circumference, one of our autos balked--David Kalani's; but we drove the distance twice, and thus all nine of us arrived without much delay.
"'After going as near as possible with the autos, we began our ascent to the steam-cauldron that was filling the air with sulphurous vapor.
"'The first distinct sound I heard was like a blacksmith's bellows raised to the nth power. Then, as we ascended the top of the crater, what I beheld will never be forgotten. Rivers of molten lava flowing in a sea of fire and brimstone, bubbling and spurting from 10,000 cauldrons! A miniature volcano just below us blowing an acetylene flame, with the noise of a thousand blowers, and shooting red hot lava sparks a hundred feet in the air! Grotesquely shaped animal-like figures projecting from the sides of the crater! Dinosaurs and plesiosaurs, half-hidden by the smoky vapors that arose from everywhere and floated out into the blackness of the night toward the top of Mauna Loa! Great, black, whale-like spots floating and writhing on top of the lurid red surface of the fiery furnace, until a burst of gases dissipated it into a dozen shattered remnants. A molten stream flowing to the right, another flowing to the left in the same lake, each seemingly stirred by a thousand demons, urging it to the onslaught! When these two forces met, there was seething and spurting, and twisting and writhing, then they sank to some underground cavern flamed once again with the fires of Hades!
"'But it is vain to attempt to describe the indescribable or to picture the unpicturable! Kilauea to be appreciated or abhorred must be seen in nature's setting, not puny man's.
"'We arrived at the crater's edge at two a.m. and walked around over the sharp and broken lava, watched the ever-changing surface of the cauldron, or dozed upon the rocks until sunrise of Friday, February 11, 1921.
"'Brother Cannon, Brother Smith, Sister Budd, Elders Cox, Davis, Swain, David Kalani, and I then stood on the brink while the kodaks clicked, after which we returned to Hilo, enjoying the morning ride, notwithstanding the sleepless night.'
"Did you note the extensive detail and flowery, emotional language? Yet not a word about any danger or
prophetic warning! With all the excitement in his descriptions of the evening, and if Budd (Jacobsen)'s recounting were accurate, wouldn't we expect McKay to insert at least a passing reference to the disaster narrowly averted? ('Oh, by the way, if God hadn't warned me, three other elders and I would have fallen into the volcano and died that night.')
"I located a second retelling of the event, as related at the October 1941, General Conference, by Elder Roscoe C. Cox, former president of the Hawaiian Mission, who also made the trip to Kilauea that night with the missionary group:
"'God has been good to me and to my family, very good. I trace a lot of it back to a day on the banks of the Kilauea Volcano. A group of us spent a night there when that crater was putting on a grand show. We got down and played with the lava. We gathered up the fine strings of lava, known as Paley's [Pele's] Hair.
"'In that group was President David O. McKay and Hugh J. Cannon. They were making a trip around the world. They had just come from China.
"'Morning came. When they were leaving, they shook hands goodbye, with some of us who were staying on for another hour or two. President McKay had gone, possibly two rods distant; then he returned, and again he took my hand, and looked through me, as only President McKay can look through a person, and said again: "God bless you, Elder Cox."'http://search.ldslibrary.com/article/view/168566?q=
"Elder Cox was speaking on a specific message of God's goodness. If Budd (Jacobsen)'s portrayal of the events were true, wouldn't this have been an ideal occasion on which to mention how Cox had witnessed that God once saved a group of his missionaries, and a future prophet, from death?
"And according to Richard O. Cowan Emeritus professor at BYU, a third recounting of the evening was made by Hugh J. Cannon, McKay's traveling companion during the trip, with no suggestion of near-tragic or miraculous occurrences:http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/pioneers-pacific-memory-history-and-cultural-identity-among-latter-day-saints/16-apostle-oc
(See footnote 17.) . . .
"So why the spectacular differences between the story as told by Virgina Budd (Jacobsen) and that which was related by other
eyewitnesses to this particular event? While I couldn't find any reference as to when she first recorded her story, the byu.edu source above simply states (evasively?) that she 'later penned her recollections of that evening' (implying that years may have elapsed in the interim!).
"In contrast, the account David O. McKay gives in his 'trip diary' was presumably made at a time very soon after the events described. Greater weight, therefore, would have to be given to the accuracy and completeness of McKay's record in this case. Also, two others (Cannon and Cox) corroborate McKay in as far as they fail to mention any extraordinary occurrences that evening.
"While it is difficult to accuse someone--witness and/or author--of explicit prevarication or manipulation (although Steve Benson's post clearly opens up that possibility), something strange has apparently occurred in this case. My 'theory' is as follows, and while speculative, it is based on some experience and understanding of the fallibility of human memory:
"I believe Sister Budd (Jacobsen) was quite impressed by the trip to the volcano that evening long ago; the experience was exciting but uneventful. Then, between February of 1921 and the occasion on which she first committed her recollections to paper, she must have experienced SOMETHING (a dream? a movie?) in which she saw the collapse of a rock ledge or 'balcony,' perhaps into a pool of molten lava; maybe a group of individuals barely escaped the danger with their lives (it sounds like a classic scene from any one of a number of action-adventure films!) She then conflated the two separate memories into a single spectacular event--one in which the very future of Christ's church on earth hung in the balance, where a budding prophet was snatched by the voice of God from the very jaws of hell!"
("Follow-Up to: 'David O. McKay Versus the Volcano'--Analysis, Research and Conclusions," posted by "Fetal Deity," on "Recovery from Mormonism" board, 17 November 2010, 7:56 p.m.)
Couldn't have said it as good myself. :)
--What Accounts for Such Major Differences Between Budd's Version of Events and Those of Others Who Were Also Present?--
Could Budd have simply embellished the story, adding dramatic elements designed for inspirational effect--ones that, in fact, never took place? That certainly seems like a possibility worth considering.
But what about Middlemiss’s decision to include Budd’s now-suspect and possibly-exaggerated version of events in her “Cherished Experiences” compilation? Could Middlemiss’s choice to do so have had something to do with her desire to present McKay in the best, most impressive light possible--a desire driven on Middlemiss’s part because of her close personal attachment to McKay?
--The McKay-Middlemiss Connection--
Authors Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, in their book “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 2005), write about the long and close relationship between Middlemiss and McKay.
They note, for instance, her unique role as a groundbreaking female personal secretary to a Mormon Church president:
"McKay was not a conventional thinker [and made] . . . many unconventional moves . . . after becoming president. . . . McKay retained his personal secretary of sixteen years, Clare Middlemiss. Never before (or since) had the private secretary to a church president been a woman. During the subsequent nineteen years, Middlemiss would become arguably the most powerful woman in the history of the church, and would chronicle McKay's activities in unprecedented detail."
(Prince and Wright, "David O. McKay: The Rise of Modern Mormonism," p. 2)
Historian D. Michael Quinn, in his book "The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power," describes the unparalled and significant influence of Middlemiss over the operations of McKay's First Presidency office:
" . . . McKay's secretary Clare Middlemiss 'draft[ed] suggested answers to letters for [his] consideration before he had even read the correspondence.'
"Middlemiss also decided who saw her employer and who did not. When A. Hamer Reiser began his ten-year service as an assistant secretary in the First Presidency's office in 1956, he 'observed with disbelief the power exercised by Clare Middlemiss.' She gave instant access to McKay for her favorite general authorites and department heads but put off the less favored, including members of the Twelve. Being on good terms with Middlemiss was necessary to achieve sucess with McKay. Flattery become the administrative lubricant of the McKay presidency.
"One of McKay's biographers referred to this 'watchful diligence of the hovering Clare Middlemiss.' A mixture of devoted friend, confidante, and executive secretary since 1935, Middlemiss said, 'I have devoted my whole life to President McKay--I want nothing more.' During McKay's presidency (1951-1970) she had her own private secretary, and Middlemiss was a force to be reckoned with. For example, one church administrator noted in 1962 that 'through arrangement with President McKay's secretary whom I had converted to my side of this issue also, I went in to see President McKay.' For almost two decades after 1951, Middlemiss was a crucial ally, since McKay often made promises or decisions with those he met privately.
"In 1966 general authorities informed Utah's senator that 'one of the problems we have is that Miss Middlemiss runs the office of President McKay and often calls in his name to order things done.' A First Presidency secretary acknowledged that the administrative power of Clare Middlemiss 'created some unintentional problems' involving 'the historic differences between line and staf personnel.' In other words, she rivaled the authority of the Presidency counselors and this created 'problems' between Middlemiss and Counselor Hugh B. Brown."
(D. Michael Quinn, "The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power" [Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1997], pp. 157-58)
Book reviewer Gary James Bergera, in “Sunstone Magazine,” further lays out the basics of Middlemiss's relationship with McKay, describing her as McKay’s “loyal personal secretary” who kept “McKay’s voluminous diaries” (she not only kept them, but actually wrote them, given that McKay did not himself keep a personal journal).
Bergera notes how Middlemiss’s deep devotion to McKay leads one to wonder to what extent she wrote about McKay’s experiences through her own personal prism and not through the microscope of objective fact:
“As keeper of McKay’s diaries, Middlemiss looms large in [Prince’s and Wright’s] book, her ghostly presence a constant reminder of our debt to her contribution to Prince’s reconstruction. In fact, Middlemiss as creator of McKay’s remarkable diaries causes one to wonder to what extent any introspection contained in the diaries reflects more of Middlemiss, and of her own ‘construction’ of McKay, than of McKay himself.”
Bergera then enters even greater speculative territory, where he subtly suggests that Middlemiss and McKay may have had a bond, if you will, that was deeply personal--and beyond the office.
Complicating that premise, however, is the fact that little of the Prince/Wright book is devoted to examining McKay’s personal life. Still, Bergera hypothesizes about the possible nature of the relationship between Middlemiss and McKay:
“ . . . [E]xcept for a page or two, there is almost no mention [in the book] of McKay’s private, or intimate, life--no detailed discussion of his relationship to his wife, Emma Riggs, nor to his children. Given his consuming involvement in the Church, if I were to base my judgment on Prince’s account alone, I would conclude (perhaps incorrectly) that McKay was largely an absentee husband and father. In view of McKay’s well-known, oft-repeated dictum, ‘No success can compensate for failure in the home,’ I wonder how the McKay marriage and family operated on a daily basis. Assuming that Emma McKay acted as the primary parent and caregiver, I wonder what role(s) David O. McKay actually played in his own marriage and family.”
“I also wish that more discussion had been possible of McKay’s, his wife’s, and his children’s relationship(s) to Clare Middlemiss.”
Bergera goes on to observe that, following McKay’s death, the single Middlemiss never married and, in fact, spent “her final years alone as the president’s ‘de facto relict’” [defined in broad terms as a survivor who, akin in this case to a “widow” of sorts, exercised power or served her function as the keeper of McKay’s flame/legacy without necessarily being legally or officially authorized to do so).
Finally, Bergera suggests (in a short, one-sentence footnote at the end of his review) that Middlemiss may have been romantically drawn to McKay, to the point of perhaps desiring him as her husband in Mormon eternity:
“One wonders if Middlemiss, who never married, in life or death, was ever sealed to McKay.”
Bergera ultimately leaves such questions unanswered, observing that the complication of family realities may have affected the writing of the Prince-Wright book:
“Given that Prince’s co-author [Wright] is Middlemiss’s nephew and executor, perhaps a more probing discussion of the dynamics of her relationship to the McKays, and vice versa, was not feasible. After the opening to the public in September 2005 of Middlemiss’s copy of McKay’s diaries, now house--thanks to W[illia]m. Robert Wright--in the Marriott Library’s Special Collections department at the University of Utah, attempts to address these and similar questions may [now] be a little less complicated.
(Gary James Bergera, “A Book of Revelations: ‘David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,“ book review, “Sunstone,” Issue 38, September 2005, pp. 65-67, at: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/issues/138.pdf
Another book reviewer agrees that Middlemiss’s long and loyal service to McKay could have clouded her ability to be objective about him--possibly leading Middlemiss, as I am offering here, to portray her “bosom boss” (my term of endearment) in ways that exaggerated his life experiences in an excessively-positive and -inspiring manner (perhaps via an enhanced “volcano” story)--and all due to her deep admiration and affection for him.
Middlemiss certainly embarked on a devoted, deep and life-long commitment to McKay, perhaps marked by a strong inclination to embellish his stature, as the reviewer suggests:
“Claire Middlemiss served as personal secretary to David O. McKay from 1935 until he died in 1970. Shortly after she started working for Elder McKay, she began keeping a diary of his daily activities that eventually ran some forty thousand typescript pages. . . .
“ . . . Middlemiss[‘s] . . . vision, arguably, is not always 20/20. Her admiration for her subject is obvious, and her portrait is perhaps more flattering than one would expect from an objective chronicler.”
(“Objective History? Diaries and Observations from Afar?,” book review of “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,” by “Shirt Wearer” Moreno Valley, California, 8 December 2008, at: http://www.amazon.com/review/R3L8LE07JDGOEC/ref=cm_cr_pr_viewpnt#R3L8LE07JDGOEC
--Conclusion: A Fanciful Disruption of the Eruption?--
In the end, could Clare Middlemiss’s strong attachment to David O. McKay have triumphed over her attention to historical accuracy? She obviously was devoted, in life and death, to McKay. She loyally defended him, highly regarded him, worked tirelessly for him, never married after he died and compiled a book of “cherished experiences” from his life—which may have included at least one story that had been exaggerated but that she nonetheless allowed to stand.
Could that have been because Clare was determined to stand by her man?
Edited 7 time(s). Last edit at 11/17/2010 09:03PM by steve benson.