Bearing false witness with footnotes—the D. Michael Quinn way.

Michael Quinn is a well-known (though now excommunicated) Mormon historian. He has been faulted by some for often misrepresenting his sources, and a review once evaluated the first chapter of his book Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power  and found several distortions.

I confess that I have often checked Quinn’s references, and often found them wanting.

I ran onto yet another “wonderful” little example recently.

In his volume Extensions of Power, he writes of late Church President David O. McKay:

“a First Presidency secretary acknowledges that [David O.] McKay liked his ‘celebrity status’ and wanted ‘to be recognized, lauded, and lionized’” (363)

The footnote gives as a source:

Francis Gibbons, David O. McKay: Apostle to the World, Prophet of God (Deseret Book 1986), 347, 263.

Now Gibbons was a secretary to the First Presidency. But, upon seeing this I was immediately suspicious. Why? For two reasons:

  1. I have learned by sad experience to be suspicious of everything Quinn claims that strikes me as a bit off, particularly if it is being used to malign or criticize a Church leader; and
  2. Francis M. Gibbons has written a number of books on Church leaders. These are not, by any stretch, books that are critical or “warts-and-all” biographies. They are almost hagiographical.

Now, you can debate about whether these sorts of biographies are really the best way to go (I don’t think it is) but that isn’t the point here—the point is that Quinn is appealing to these pages in Gibbons’ book to accuse McKay of craving celebrity status, wanting to be recognized and praised and all the rest.

So, let’s look at the source. Here are the relevant entries from the book:

[263] The encroachment on [McKay’s] private life that celebrity status imposed…as something President McKay adjust to with apparent difficulty. He was essentially a modest, private person, reared in a rural atmosphere, who at an early age was thrust into the limelight of the Mormon community. And as he gained in experience…as wide media exposure made his name and face known in most households, he became, in a sense, a public asset whose time and efforts were assumed to be available to all. This radical change in status was a bittersweet experience. To be recognized, lauded, and lionized is something that seemingly appeals to the ego and self-esteem of the most modest among us, even to David O. McKay. But the inevitable shrinkage in the circle of privacy that this necessarily entails provides a counter-balance that at times outweighs the positive aspects of public adulation. This is easily inferred from a diary entry of July 19, 1950….The diarist hinted that it had become so difficult to venture forth on the streets of Salt Lake City that he had about decided to abandon the practice. For such a free spirit as he, for one who was so accustomed to going and coming as he pleased, any decision to restrict his movements about the city was an imprisonment of sorts. But the only alternatives, neither of which was acceptable, were to go in disguise or to ignore or to cut short those who approached him. The latter would have been especially repugnant to one such as David O. McKay, who had cultivated to the highest degree the qualities of courtesy and attentive listening.

It was ironic, therefore, that as the apostle’s fame and influence widened, the scope of his private life was proportionately restricted….

Everywhere he traveled in Australia, or elsewhere on international tours, President McKay received celebrity treatment. Enthusiastic, cheering, singing crowds usually greeted him at every stop, sometimes to the surprise or chagrin of local residents. A group of well-known Australian athletes, about a flight to Adelaide with President McKay’s party, learned an embarrassing lesson in humility. Seeing a large, noisy crowd at the airport, and assuming they were the object of its adulation, the handsome young men stepped forward to acknowledge the greeting [348] only to find that the cheers and excitement were generated by the tall, white-haired man who came down the ramp after them (emphasis added).

It takes a certain talent to transform an account that praises McKay as a “modest, private person,” (whose privacy and personal convenience suffered because of how unwilling he was to appear rude or short with anyone) into an “admission” that McKay “liked” his celebrity. The original line cited by Quinn that deals with being “recognized, lauded, and lionized” is obviously intended to point out that such things are a danger to anyone because they appeal to the ego, and everyone would be tempted by them—but it is likewise clear that Gibbons does not think that McKay succumbed to that temptation.

So, Quinn has taken a section intended to praise McKay and point out his humility, and turned it into a criticism of McKay that makes him appear arrogant and proud.

It is really hard to think that this is accidental, or built on a misreading.

Instead, Quinn seems to count on the fact that few people will bother to check his footnotes. He has a note, and it is to a work by a secretary to multiple First Presidencies, so I suspect that most people wouldn’t believe that Quinn would have the sheer chutzpah (to say nothing of the dishonesty) to misrepresent it.

So, this is yet another exhibit for why I tell people—read Quinn if you like, but double check every citation that strikes you as funny.

You’ll be surprised what you can learn.