Park on McKay, 'Pacific Apostle: The 1920-21 Diary of David O. McKay in the Latter-Day Saint Island Missions'

David O. McKay
Benjamin E. Park

David O. McKay. Pacific Apostle: The 1920-21 Diary of David O. McKay in the Latter-Day Saint Island Missions. Edited by Reid L. Neilson and Carson V. Teuscher. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2020. Illustrations. xlvi + 314 pp. $14.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-252-05171-5; $110.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04285-0; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08467-6.

Reviewed by Benjamin E. Park (Sam Houston State University) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version:

In October 1920, David O. McKay, then a forty-seven-year-old apostle for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), received an audacious assignment: he was to travel the Pacific world and investigate the status of the church in Japan, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, and potentially even South Africa. Though the faith had sent missionaries to all these regions over the past half-century, McKay would be the highest authority in the LDS institution to ever visit these far-flung congregations, and his mission represented the faith’s growing concern with its global reach. The trip ended up taking an entire year, and McKay’s experience influenced the rest of his leadership career, most notably when he became president of the church three decades later.

Accompanying McKay was Hugh J. Cannon, an ecclesiastical leader from Salt Lake City who was assigned to serve as a secretary. Among Cannon’s duties was to keep McKay’s diary, which he did along his own record. (Cannon was particularly interested in keeping a good account because he hoped to write and sell a narrative of the historic trip upon his return.) Pacific Apostle, edited by LDS Church employees Reid L. Neilson and Carson V. Teuscher, reproduces McKay’s official diary, as kept by Cannon, and it provides an important insight not only to one of twentieth century’s most important Mormon figures but also to a number of poignant international tensions in an age of American Christian imperialism.

At the time of McKay’s call, the LDS Church had a half-million members, with a large majority of them residing in the Mountain West. Yet they also had a growing international population, and leaders had recently decided to cease their practice of “gathering” all believers to America, instead urging them to build the church in their own regions. They had even recently completed a temple in the Pacific, located in La’ie, Hawaii, the year before, in 1919. They were also dedicating considerable resources to educational programs across the globe, which necessitated this voyage.

McKay and Cannon first arrived in Asia, and immediately developed firm racial opinions. “Our first impression is that the Japanese are a far superior people to the Koreans,” McKay stated at one point (p. 42). “Poor old China! She is most certainly in a senile condition,” he mused at another (p. 53). He was especially dour about the church’s prospects in China, where he felt the people were too devoted to money and superstition to be receptive to their message. He did, however, enjoy learning more about Confucius.

Though the editorial introduction and footnotes do not say so, these reflections of Asian residents are indicative of a broader American suspicion toward what they believed to be “heathens” outside the Christian fold. Confronting these peoples and their beliefs, an increasing fascination during this age of imperialism, did much to reaffirm, challenge, and expand American religious organizations, including their humanitarian impulses. Scholars on this topic will find considerable material in this volume to digest within such a framework.

Though McKay’s impressions were much more positive when they made it to the Polynesian islands—no doubt, in part, due to the church being more entrenched there—they still reflected a staunch imperialist mindset. “America and the Church of Christ will truly make all nations one blood,” he prophesied after one patriotic gathering in Hawaii; “may God hasten the day when this is accomplished” (p. 80). Even as he described the Hawaiian people as “a lovable, kind-hearted, hospitable race,” he emphasized that they were “greatly in need of the Gospel.” He was also concerned that their “pure-bred Hawaiian [race] is being replaced by other more vigorous nations, particularly by the Japanese” (p. 101). Nation, race, and imperialism framed much of his reflections.

As he toured New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, and other nations, McKay continued his themes of racial humanitarianism, though he was frequently confronted with a series of issues. On some islands he was upset to encounter missionaries from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a domestic rival; on others, he was forced to deal with legal issues from governments rightly worried about the encroaching American missionaries. At the conclusion of the voyage, McKay urged church leaders to plan “more frequent visits” to all these remote locations (p. 278).

A crucial lesson from McKay’s mission concerned priesthood governance. The LDS Church had recently formalized a racial restriction in the early twentieth century that did not allow men with any African ancestry to hold the priesthood or women with the same genealogical marker to receive temple ordinances. Decades later, when he was prophet of the church, McKay recalled being first alerted to the problems with this policy while on this global mission, as he encountered faithful men and women who were, due to their race, relegated to a subordinate position.

Neilson and Teuscher’s editorial introductions and footnotes do a lot to add background to many individuals and events detailed in the diaries. They do have limits, though. Though there is extensive literature on America’s missionary efforts during this period, this volume neither references nor engages theories of imperialism or multiculturalism, instead presenting McKay’s trip in a parochial framework only relevant to Mormon historians. Further, editorial interpretations often verge toward devotion and hagiography, as when they say that it was “easy to overlook the fact that it was precisely in these meetings that McKay fulfilled his apostolic duty to serve as a special witness of Jesus Christ—listening, loving, testifying, and blessing audiences crammed into humble structures” (p. xxxviii).

Readers should also know that there is already another published volume that details McKay’s mission, also edited by Neilson: To the Peripheries of Mormondom: The Apostolic Around-the-World Journey of David O. McKay (2011), which is the account Cannon wrote upon the return of their trip but never published. Cannon’s account is far more polished than McKay’s diaries, though it lacks the private reflections and personal insight.

Pacific Apostle is a fascinating record that should prove quite useful to scholars of religious imperialism during the era, as well as historians of Mormonism seeking to trace some of the early seeds of the modern church’s most pressing issues of race and globalism.

Benjamin E. Park teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University. He is the co-editor of Mormon Studies Review and author of, among other works, Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (2020).

Citation: Benjamin E. Park. Review of McKay, David O., Pacific Apostle: The 1920-21 Diary of David O. McKay in the Latter-Day Saint Island Missions. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL:

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