Did a Lava-Hot Attraction Between President McKay and Secretary Middlemiss Put an Inconvenient Cork in This Inspirationally Fiery Story?
In a previous thread, “Fetal Deity” recounted 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”) described 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 asked 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," on "Recovery from Mormonism" discussion board, 16 November 2010)
The anecdote, which “FD” both cited and sourced, 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 Full-Throated "David O. vs. the Volcano” Testimonial Tale?--
Is the story believable, particularly the version of events presented by Clare Middlemiss, David O. McKay’s long-time, devoted secretary, and 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 McKay's Version of a Volanic Encounter--
RfM poster "FD" provides further (and recent) reason to seriously doubt the historical reliability of the McKay vs. the Volcano lore:
"Here is a small, but significant addition (and correction) to previous research on the subject.
"An Elder Roscoe C. Cox, former President of the Hawaiian Mission of the Mormon Church, related the following in the October 1949 General Conference of the church:
"'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, know 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: "Good bless you, Elder Cox."
"'My brothers and sisters, there was a power in those words, a power as real as THE POWER OF THAT VOLCANO ON WHOSE BRINK WE STOOD, SCARCE TWELVE FEET FROM THE MOLTEN LAVA. Yes, there was a power greater, by far, than that of the volcano and more lasting; and God has blessed me.'
"[Note that Cox says that they stood on the 'brink' of the volcano but nowhere in the account is there any indication of anyone having ventured down onto any ledge or balcony within the crater itself].
"(Roscoe C. Cox, from official report of the 120th Semi-Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [2 October 1949], p. 166, published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at: https://archive.org/stream/conferencereport1949sa#page/n165/mode/2up)"
Poster "FD" continues:
"Cox's retelling of the event is significant in that it, also--along with two other retellings of the story (by McKay and Cannon) cited in Steve's post--contradicts the account of Sister Virginia Budd (Jacobsen) as related by Claire Middlemiss.
"Back in November of 2010 when Steve and I originally posted our research findings on RfM, I included the General Conference account given by Cox; however, I used a source which may not have been completely reliable. Along with the erroneous date which I gave in my post for the General Conference, the last paragraph with important details was missing. Also, just a few days after I posted my research, I found that the link to the questionable source was (intentionally?) broken. My original research (with the broken link) is found here: http://exmormon.org/phorum/read.php?2,36809,36809#msg-36809
"Periodically, I have looked for a reliable link to Cox's General Conference address and at last I have found one: an actual optical scan of the OFFICIAL General Conference report published by the Mormon church, itself. Finally, I can be at peace."
("A Third Witness Contradicts Miraculous Details of McKay Volcano Visit," posfed by "Fetal Deity" on "Recovery from Mormonism" discussion board, 25 October 2013, emphasis added, at: http://exmormon.org/phorum/read.php?2,1061177,1061817#msg-1061817
Below is additional evidence that the McKay volcano story is more fiery fiction than it is factually founded:
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
What accounts for such major discreancies in the accounts?
Could, for instance, 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. (And, of course, the contradictions in the various versions of the story, as graphically pointed out by RfM poster "FD," constitute serious threats to the story's basic credibility).
Then, there's 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,” write about the long and close relationship between Middlemiss and McKay. Book reviewer Gary James Bergera, in “Sunstone Magazine,” lays out the basics of that relationship, describing Middlemiss 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“ [Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 2005, 512 pp.], 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 exaggeratingly-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--especially if it involved (for faith-promotional sake) keeping him from falling into a volcano?
Edited 9 time(s). Last edit at 10/25/2013 07:06AM by steve benson.