Who Was Hugh Nibley? ⎜ Part 2 ⎜ Part 3 | Part 4 ⎜ Part 5 ⎜ Part 6 ⎜ Part 7 ⎜ Part 8 ⎜ Part 9
This is the first of eight weekly blog posts published in honor of the life and work of Hugh Nibley (1910–2005). Each week our post will be accompanied by interviews and insights in pdf, audio, and video form — some short and some longer.
Today, April 1, is not only April Fool’s Day (an irony Hugh Nibley would appreciate), but also the eleventh anniversary since the appearance of the nineteenth and last volume of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, entitled One Eternal Round. This book was Hugh’s master work, decades in the making.
This series is our way of celebrating the availability of a new, landmark publication entitled “Hugh Nibley Observed.” It is available today in softcover, digital, and audio versions, and, in May, a beautiful hardback edition. The book contains many never-before-told anecdotes and stories that weave together Nibley’s life and scholarship. We hope it will not only delight and inspire old friends already familiar with Nibley’s work but also many new friends who may have heard stories about the man but have never read anything by or about him.
Our theme today revolves around the question: “Who was Hugh Nibley?” For links to this week’s text, audio, and video features, see below.
Who was Hugh Nibley?
For starters, Nibley was arguably the most brilliant Latter-day Saint scholar of the 20th century. Just ask a sampling of his non-Latter-day Saint colleagues:
- “Hugh Nibley is simply encyclopedic. Though I do not agree with his views I hesitate to challenge him; he knows too much.”
—Jacob Geerlings, classicist and historian, University of Utah
- “He knows my field better than I do, and his translations are elegant.”
—Mircea Eliade, history of religions, University of Chicago
- “He struck me as a first-rate intellect.”
—Jacob Neusner, Bard College, scholar of Judaism and one of the most published authors in history
- “Revelation is not a puppet affair for Mormons. … ‘Do we have a right to tell God his business?’”
—Klaus Baer, Egyptology, University of Chicago
- “Spoke sixteen languages tolerably well and [his] nodding linguistic acquaintanceship included twice that number.”
—George Bailey, World War II intelligence school classmate
- “There are two geniuses in the western states—myself and Hugh Nibley.”
—Francis D. Wormuth, political scientist, University of Utah
- “It is obscene for a man to know that much!”
—George MacRae, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School
Nibley was sometimes one of the harshest critics of Brigham Young University, yet one of the Church’s most faithful and loyal advocates:
- “Hugh is above the fray … because his commitment is so visible and has been so pronounced and so repetitively stated that that’s not even the issue. So then we get on to, ‘What is Hugh saying?’”
—Neal A. Maxwell, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
- “I have respected him highly for his great scholarship and for his quiet and humble manner. He knows what he is saying, but he does not shout it.”
—Gordon B. Hinckley, former president of the Church
- “During all of the more than fifty years I have known Hugh Nibley, I have been edified, inspired, and motivated by his many writings. I count myself among his foremost admirers and devoted friends.”
—Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency
- “One thing that he has that I would give anything to have is the gift of absolute faith. … He has it. I don’t.”
—Paul Springer, longtime friend
- “He is one of a kind—it is a very good kind.”
—Boyd K. Packer, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
People liked Hugh Nibley because he was not afraid to say things that we wish we could say, to espouse unpopular causes, to thumb his nose at fashion, or to buck the crowd:
- “He’s impatient with mediocrity, he’s impatient with irrelevance, and to the casual eye, that may be seen as eccentricity, when in fact I think it’s a reflection of his deepened discipleship.”
—Neal A. Maxwell, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
- “The rumpled hat and baggy pants were his own version of the monk’s cassock, a sign not that he didn’t care, but that he knew the danger of caring too much.”
—Alex Nibley, son
- “Few students can talk coherently about their first class from Brother Nibley.”
—Robert K. Thomas, former academic vice president of BYU
- “No one knows what he knows, and that of course also is a problem with knowing him.”
—Truman G. Madsen, philosophy, BYU
- “Does he still talk so fast that no one can understand what he’s saying?”
—Sloan Nibley, Hugh’s brother
- “Sometimes I think I don’t know him at all.”
—Phyllis Nibley, Hugh’s wife
- “If God had wanted my lawn mowed, he would have made grass differently!”
—Hugh Nibley, irate when ward members arrived to help clean up his yard
In his academic life, his discipleship, and his personal life, there has never been anyone quite like Nibley—and probably will never be again.
For more information about “Hugh Nibley Observed,” visit https://interpreterfoundation.org/books/
“The Faith of an Observer”
If you have never seen “The Faith of an Observer,” the entertaining and uplifting biographical video of Hugh Nibley’s life, you are in for a treat. Though the film has been available for many years in an online version made from an old videocassette, for the first time we are posting a much improved digital version.
Of great importance for those who want to follow Hugh’s rapid-fire speaking style, this is the first version to contain English subtitles. English, at least, except for the parts where he suddenly breaks into spontaneous German, Arabic, or Egyptian …
A pdf transcript of the film and audio files of the video are also available below for download.
Listen to an audio recording of “The Faith of an Observer”:
Listen to an audio recording of the short version:
Download short audio recording
Bradshaw, Jeffrey M., Shirley S. Ricks, and Stephen T. Whitlock, eds. Hugh Nibley Observed. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2021.
Nibley, Hugh, Brian Capener, and Alex Nibley. 1985. The Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley (Film transcript). In bhporter.com. http://www.bhporter.com/Hugh%20Nibley/The%20Faith%20of%20an%20Observer%20Conversations%20with%20hugh%20Nibley.pdf. (accessed January 17, 2018).
Petersen, Boyd Jay. Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2002.
Back in 1965-66 I was blessed to take my freshman Book of Mormon classes from Dr. Nibley. It was equal parts educating and bewildering!
I can’t wait to get my copy!
I took a class from Dr. Nibley in 1972. It had to do with the Book of Abraham and at the time he was writing his book on the Joseph Smith Papyri, which came out in 1975. I recall Dr. Nibley saying the first day of class, “If any of us were really serious about this subject, we wouldn’t be here. We’d be over in the library doing research.” Can’t say I learned a lot, though at the time I was still the kind of student who wants to be spoon-fed. Without bothering to start from the basics, Dr. Nibley talked a lot about the Egyptian religion and the Egyptian gods, mostly just reading from his manuscript. If you could interrupt him and ask a question, he would often free associate and for a few minutes things were more interesting. Then one day he came to class and announced there would be a final exam, said he had forgotten all about it up to that point. So we took the final exam and when grades came out I got a “P” for passed. The next time I saw Dr. Nibley on campus and I stopped him and asked him about the grade. He said that he had given normal grades but someone in the administrative offices had changed them all to “P”s. So I went over there and asked someone about that and they told me that they did that because Dr. Nibley gave everyone in the class an “A” and consequently an A grade from him was meaningless. Good class, nonetheless. I’m glad that at the time he could get away with being himself and not bothering to fit in to some idealized teaching standard. Years later when I taught at BYU there much more bureaucratic concern about teacher accountability, maybe in some cases justifiably so.
Darn it, Jeff: I fret as yet that HN Observed is not available in iBooks. Wondering if maybe that is in the works.
Cheers, brother! 🙂
Why was he a critic of BYU?
Hugh was a harsh social critic generally, and quite cynical. Intellectually, Hugh was a product of the rigorous University of California system (UCLA and UC Berkeley).
He had seen the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and was in the thick of some of the hardest fighting in Europe during World War II as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. He was among the first Americans to see Dachau.
Hugh considered BYU to be somewhat backward, the students too much like sheep. He thought the BYU focus on dress and grooming standards to be silly. He told one of his brilliant student assistants that he would never speak to him again if he got his graduate degree at BYU.
To capsulize then, Hugh Nibley was a Liberal. He was a close associate of the godfather of the Liberal/“Progressive” movement in the Church, Eugene England, and wrote the forward in his book, Dialogues with Myself. His alleged comment to the brilliant BYU student may well have been tongue-in-cheek. Your other drive-by allegation about Nibley’s thinking that dress and grooming standards being silly is silly in itself. I was in the military; there are strict “grooming” standards there as well, and for very good reason. Hugh was a standout scholar, and defended the keystone, but I do not worship at his feet.
What a tremendous project to publish! Too many of today’s up and coming “scholars” aren’t familiar with Nibley’s work and don’t really know who he was and how much of an influence he had. His promotion of study of the Book of Mormon in the 1980s and 90s was probably second only to that of President Benson. I hope this book gets the attention it deserves and is a hot seller. We need Nibley’s faith and loyalty and knowledge to again counter some of the other subtle sorry influences creeping into BYU and other locations today, that are so unhelpful.
My brother and I used to leave Sacrament meeting in the BYU Cougar Theater ten minutes early and run down the street to Hugh Nibley’s ward where he was one of two gospel doctrine teachers. We could usually tell whether he was teaching that day or not by whether there were a bunch of tape recorders and mics set up on the table at the front of the room. I would poke my head in the door, and if there were six or eight recording devices on the table, we knew he was teaching that day. He usually came a little late to the packed class and would just start talking. What he talked about also usually had nothing to do with whatever was in the manual or even what scriptures were supposed to be covered. But no one cared or corrected him. I figured I usually understood about a quarter of what he was teaching. I hope I would understand more now, three and a third decades later.
I was eventually able to obtain a set of every book Hugh Nibley wrote (before the FARMS reprints), all in first edition with dust jackets and all signed by Nibley. And those who have seen Nibley autographs in books know he could be creative in how he signed.
I recommend people buy and read this new book.
I tried to take his Pearl of Great Price class the semester he decided to retire. I was disappointed when I received the notification letter saying the class was being cancelled. But I guess it may have helped my GPA. 🙂
One day I visited Nibley’s office to get a book signed. There was another student present that I did not know. Nibley took occasion to sit us down and tell us that some relative of his, I do not remember whom, had very recently flown to Israel. The jet his relative was flying in had been shot at and hit by a terrorist’s missile that had put a hole somewhere in the plane, but had not knocked it down or damaged it further. Hugh’s comment was that that incident did not make the news. He might have slipped a minor cuss world in while telling the story, which was a chuckle. And I got my book signed. Quite the character.
I had just one class from Dr. Nibley, a seminar on Enoch, back in the later 1970s when he was deep into researching what would be presented first as a series of articles in The Ensign and then as one of the Collected Works volumes. The only exam in the class (upon which our entire grade depended) was the final, where we had to write an essay responding to the statement: “As a social scientist, I cannot take the Book of Moses seriously.”
When I stopped by his office a week or so later to pick up my graded exam, he gave me what I’m sure was a standard caution not to be disappointed if the grade was low “because a lot of you students apparently didn’t understand what I was asking for.” I was all the more tickled then to discover I had gotten an A. I remain prouder of that than any other grade I received during my undergrad studies at BYU.
Great story, Bruce!