There is a great story on pages 55-56 in “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism” in which Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee were moving to excommunicate Sterling McMurrin for his unorthodox beliefs. When President McKay heard about it, he phoned McMurrin and asked for a private meeting. In that meeting, McKay was never critical nor disapproving. He told McMurrin: “They cannot do this to you! They cannot put you on trial!” and that if they did, he (the President of the Church) would be McMurrin’s “first witness”.
McMurrin said: “I should have been censured for being such a heretic, and here President McKay wasn’t even interested in raising a single question about my beliefs, but simply insisted that a man in this Church had a right to believe as he pleased. And he stressed that in several ways… It was really a quite remarkable experience, to have the President of the Church talking in such genuinely liberal terms.”
I love that story. It makes me really love and respect President McKay. Would that we could have more members like him today.
Author Greg Prince later elaborated on that experience on a Mormon Stories podcast. He said that during that same visit with Sterling McMurrin, President McKay asked a series of rhetorical questions such as “What is it that a man must believe to be a member of the church? Or what is it that a man is not allowed to believe to stay a member of the Church?”
He didn’t answer either question, but they’re good rhetorical questions. This was in 1954 when McMurrin told McKay that it looked like they were going to try to throw him out of the Church. McKay said that if they do “I will be the first witness in your defense”, and when word of this got out the excommunication charges were dropped. That’s some serious compassion from the President of the Church. And apparently he was as tolerant of those on the far conservative side as he was of those, like McMurrin, on the liberal side. Very cool example of pitching a big tent and welcoming everyone in.