I learned today that Joseph Fielding McConkie passed from this part of mortality into the next. I pay a small tribute to him as a friend and teacher.
When Gaye and I arrived in Seattle in September 1973 we found a place to live, got settled into our apartment and the University of Washington Student Branch, and began the rigors of dental school. It was a challenging time, but it was also a time of growth and exploration.
Our student branch met at the LDS Institute of Religion, immediately adjacent to the Health Sciences Complex where the hospital, medical school, dental school, and many other related science research and teaching activities were conducted. The new director of the Institute was Joseph F McConkie. With a name like that we expected, and it was quickly apparent, that we had an instructor who was a cut above the ordinary. He had a PhD, he invited us to play basketball with him and others at the institute, and he invited us to attend a class to be held on campus, under the umbrella of LDSSA. Because that is a student organization recognized at the school, we were allowed to schedule a classroom during the lunch break. We would sing a hymn, have a prayer, and then a discussion led by Br McConkie. The format of the class for the first year was simply: What are your questions? He would proceed to answer questions and help us learn how to ask more questions.
For the next four years we held that weekly class at the Health Science Complex. It was not always Br McConkie who led the discussions. Others of the Institute faculty heard of the exciting discussions we were having and they wanted to participate, so they would get their chance to rotate in as teacher. But the discussions were never as enlivening and enlightening as they were when Joseph led them. That is because Joseph was teaching us how to ask questions.
In 1977 we finished our dental school training and prepared to head out into the world. Some of us went into the military. Some went into private practice. Some went for more training. Joseph headed back to BYU. He was invited to come back there by some of the Department of Ancient Scripture or Religion or whatever it was called because they needed him. Some wanted someone who was expert in Greek. Others thought it was important to have someone trained in Hebrew. The spokesman who won wanted Joseph because he was trained and expert in the Doctrines of the Restoration.
Joseph had written a few books before and during his tenure at UW. He wrote more at BYU. But his main contribution to CES, and to my life in particular, was his unmatched ability to get his students to think beyond the level of Gospel scholarship and thinking where most of the adults in the Church stop. He showed us how to ask inspired questions. They were not questions about what color Nephi's hair was or whether the boat of travelers had stopped anywhere along the way to take on fresh water as they journeyed to the Land of Promise. No, they were questions that led us to search deeply into the spiritual messages of the scriptures. They were questions that led to more questions, and in the process brought me to the point of realizing that the Gospel is not an academic exercise. It is given to us for our blessing and it is to be applied. Joseph said he was just trying to get us to learn to study for our own selves, to gain our own testimonies, and to become the kind of workers in the Kingdom that were needed to prepare families and societies for the Second Coming.
The result of my study with Joseph was to enter a life-long search for personal connection with God through faith in Jesus Christ, repenting, making and honoring the baptism covenants, seeking and receiving the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, and then being committed to stay engaged on the path, understanding the teachings of ancient and living prophets, and endure to the end. That model of enduring was not to just somehow finish, it was to accelerate. Joseph taught by example as well as by his unmatched scriptural knowledge that being solidly anchored in the mainstream of the Church with the teaching of the Brethren as the guiding beacon is the safe place to be. It is also the most interesting, challenging, stimulating place to be.