Q&A with Anne-Marie Wright Lampropoulos, author of A Vision Splendid: The Discourses of David O. McKay June 14 2022
We talked with Anne-Marie Wright Lampropoulos, author of our latest release A Vision Splendid: The Discourses of David O. McKay, about how studying the transcripts of McKay's discourses that her aunt kept while working as his private secretary gave her an appreciation for how the twentieth century prophet wove poetry and prose quotations into his speeches.
Q: The records your aunt, Clare Middlemiss, kept while working as secretary to President McKay are one of the great treasures of recent Mormon history. When did you decide to use them for a book and what directed you towards the topic of McKay's discourses?
A: I have been fascinated by my Aunt Clare’s work since childhood because of the way my family talked about her and her 35-year service with President McKay, and as the only woman to ever hold the position of private secretary to an LDS Church president. She gave my dad the vast collection of records she kept in her spare time, copious records consisting of thousands of pages of speeches, diaries, and scrapbooks. Her collection resided in a closet next to my bedroom after she passed away. My dad, Bob Wright, and his friend Greg Prince wrote an award-winning biography from Aunt Clare’s collection, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. As comprehensive as their book was, there was still so much more inside these records. As I read through McKay’s speeches, I noticed how much he relied on beautiful literature and poetry to relay his messages. Gleaning from this treasure trove of material, I have tried to capture the essence of McKay’s inspiration and the remarkable vision he had for the world and the Church he led. Much has been written about McKay’s life and tenure as a Church leader and prophet, but little has been written about his love of literature and his abundant use of beautiful poetry and prose in every address he gave. Study of his speeches provides interesting insight into how he spent his precious free time, the books and journals he read, and the sources he sought for inspiration and understanding.
Q: How did you decide what categories of McKay's discourses should be covered in A Vision Splendid?
A: As I read through the massive collection of McKay’s speeches, I immediately recognized distinct categories. Some of the speeches were official Church discourses, some of which had been published in various Church publications or covered in the media. But there were so many more that had never been heard or covered except by the people who were in attendance. These speeches were given in various settings, including Rotary Clubs, commencement exercises, building dedications, and my favorite, funeral services. Each category contained universal themes, but each category also contained different tones and messages as well, depending on the setting and the audience. It seemed logical to divide McKay’s speeches into four categories: Church Discourses, Dedications, Civic Addresses, and Funeral Sermons. These categories helped to organize and analyze McKay’s vast discourses and messages to audiences worldwide.
Q: What criteria did you use to select the three or four representative addresses published in full for each type of discourse?
A: From the tens of thousands of pages of material, I tried to select representative addresses for each genre that would give readers a genuine sense of McKay’s style and tone as well as the characteristic poetry and prose he used. No two speeches were ever the same, or even close, which is surprising given the immense numbers of speeches he gave. The discourses I chose to highlight portray good examples of the messages McKay thought were important and the unique way in which he chose to impart them to Church audiences, communities surrounding new temples and church buildings, civic groups, and mourners. Selected speeches were addressed to believers and non-believers, rural folks and city dwellers, Americans and world citizens.
Q: How do McKay's discourses help us understand his place in LDS history? What about his addresses was different from previous church presidents?
A: During his tenure as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, David O. McKay addressed hundreds of audiences as he presided over unprecedented growth of Church membership worldwide. McKay’s discourses were not typical for an LDS prophet. Many of the words McKay used were not his own – he gathered them from poets and authors, scientists and saints, patriots, and politicians whose words not only add interest and dimension to his discourses, but demonstrate his astoundingly broad interests, his keen intellect, and his desire and ability to glean wisdom from many sources. It is apparent that he read, studied, and memorized from a vast private library and then recited, shared, and extolled his treasures publicly. Pertinent literary passages helped him make sense of the world and helped his followers discover beauty and truth. McKay was much more likely to quote great literature than scripture in his addresses, which is in stark contrast to the speeches we hear from Church leaders today. His scriptural prowess was masterful, of course, but he seemed to favor the scholarly knowledge he gathered from poets, authors, orators, and statesmen when communicating from the pulpit. His messages are more spiritual than scriptural, more universal than Church-centric, making his appeal more broad and widespread. McKay’s sermons are more lofty and literary than both his predecessors and his successors, and it was his unique way of understanding and relating to people that formed the foundation from which he was able to build the burgeoning, worldwide church we have today.
Q: A Vision Splendid comes out almost exactly twenty years after your first book with Greg Kofford Books, A Bundle of Choices, which interviewed LDS women about how they balanced their options and priorities. Do you see any connections between your two books?
A: I believe women will always question or doubt their choices at times. With so many options available to them, the ability to choose is liberating, yet difficult. My two books are related in the sense that I see my Aunt Clare Middlemiss as a fascinating study of a strong, career-oriented woman who was a pioneer. As the only woman to ever hold the position of private secretary to an LDS Church president, I would have loved to interview her about the choices and sacrifices she made to be able to contribute to Church history like she did. I know she would have liked to marry and have children, but without her diligent record-keeping and dedication, we would not know nearly as much as we do about how President McKay made the decisions he did, what pressures he felt, and how the inner workings of the Church operated during a time of tremendous growth. These details and Middlemiss’s work reveal details that may be uncomfortable to some, but shed light on the reality of the time, documented and recorded for us to analyze and learn from. She dedicated her life to supporting President McKay and wanted the world to know of his ‘vision splendid’ for the world and the lasting legacy he made on the Church and the world.
Q: Do you have a favorite poem or quote that McKay's addresses introduced to you?
A: My favorite quote of McKay’s inspired the title of this book “A Vision Splendid.” In some of his discourses, McKay quoted a passage describing John Keats that could easily have been used to describe himself:
So long had his inner eye been fixed upon beauty; so long had he loved that ‘vision splendid,’ so long had he lived with it, that not only did his soul take on the loveliness of what he contemplated, but the very lines of the poet’s face were chiseled into beauty by those sculptors called ‘thoughts’ and ‘ideals.’
To me, this passage embodies McKay as a person, his sense of the world, his optimism for humanity, and his love of beauty and inspiring words and ideals. As he presided over tremendous growth of the Church, he imparted his love of loveliness everywhere he went to every audience he addressed. His vision splendid made a lasting impact on the Church and the world.