Part 1 ⎜ Part 2 ⎜ Part 3 | Part 4 ⎜ Part 5 ⎜ Part 6 ⎜ Part 7 ⎜ Part 8 ⎜ Part 9
This is the second of eight weekly blog posts published in honor of the life and work of Hugh Nibley (1910–2005). The series is in honor of the new, landmark book, Hugh Nibley Observed, available in softcover, hardback, digital, and audio editions. Each week our post is accompanied by interviews and insights in pdf, audio, and video formats. (See the links at the end of this post.)
In an eloquently written chapter of Hugh Nibley Observed, Marilyn Arnold highlighted Nibley’s profound disappointment that most people don’t share his deep love for the Book of Mormon:
He alludes to it ironically as “the Book Nobody Wants,” allowing as how the world acts “as if the Book of Mormon were being forced on [it] against its will.” Then he adds an ironic comment that is pure Nibley: “Only the practiced skill and single-minded determination of the learned has to date enabled them to escape the toils of serious involvement with [the Book of Mormon].”
What did Nibley mean by “the Book Nobody Wants”? I got a taste of that as a young missionary in France when I learned how difficult it was to find readers for the Book of Mormon in one of the most highly educated and literate countries of Europe. Instead, some of them were eager to tell me fantastic tales like the one about the young girls who were duped by the missionaries into following them to Salt Lake City. There, according to the version I heard, they were locked up in one of the towers of the Salt Lake Temple until they were finally able to jump out of the tower into the Great Salt Lake and swam to safety.
In sharp contrast to the general indifference to the Book of Mormon I experienced on my first mission, I remember how the near monthly orders for hundreds of copies of the Book of Mormon made by my wife in the office of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Kinshasa mission were constantly on backorder from Frankfurt. In Kinshasa, Kathleen and I couldn’t walk anywhere without someone noticing our missionary name tags and wanting to talk about Jesus or ask us for a Bible. I hadn’t anticipated such great interest in the Book of Mormon in the heart of Africa — after all, I had not thought this was “their” story in the same way it was the story of many indigenous groups in the Americas and the Pacific islands. But we soon found out we were mistaken: the stories of continual violence, wars, and conflicts, endemic corruption, government leaders on the take, Gadianton robbers and assassins, courageous Christians, life-changing visions from heaven, and the Gospel being preached to the poor and poor in heart were indeed their stories, too — and it struck them to the heart to read them. After having lived in the Congo, many of the Book of Mormon stories became daily reality — as they are becoming reality in too many parts of the world.
I will never forget how glad we were, after a new shipment of copies of the Book of Mormon finally came in, to share one with a very humble (but characteristically biblically educated and literate) parking lot attendant in our compound who eagerly took it to read during his night shift. The next morning when we saw him, he burst out with an uncontainable enthusiasm, “I can’t believe how much I learned from Alma about what happens to people between death and resurrection!” Though this contrast did not diminish by one whit my great and eternal love for the many devoted French members and friends we cherish, it further increased my admiration for the spiritual inclination of the Congolese people. They immediately recognized there was a treasure of infinite worth hidden in the Book of Mormon, and they wanted to know more about what God had spoken.
Which brings us back to Hugh Nibley, to whom the Book of Mormon was also a treasure of infinite worth. He often found himself tired of all the focus on the history of the Book of Mormon, the shape and weight of the plates, the admittedly miraculous method of its translation, the myriad details of its publication, and also, unfortunately, the efforts to impugn the character of its translator. What he wanted people to pay attention to was the contents of the book itself. We must not, as Elder Boyd K. Packer warned us, admire the box and while forgetting the pearl that it holds inside.
Fittingly, one of Nibley’s most well-known parables, with application to the Book of Mormon, teaches us the way, and the only way, one can reliably test whether a diamond is real:
A young man once long ago claimed he had found a large diamond in his field as he was ploughing. He put the stone on display to the public free of charge, and everyone took sides.
A psychologist showed, by citing some famous case studies, that the young man was suffering from a well-known form of delusion. An historian showed that other men have also claimed to have found diamonds in fields and been deceived. A geologist proved that there were no diamonds in the area but only quartz: the young man had been fooled by a quartz. When asked to inspect the stone itself, the geologist declined with a weary, tolerant smile and a kindly shake of the head. An English professor showed that the young man in describing his stone used the very same language that others had used in describing uncut diamonds: he was, therefore, simply speaking the common language of his time. A sociologist showed that only three out of 177 florists’ assistants in four major cities believed the stone was genuine. A clergyman wrote a book to show that it was not the young man but someone else who had found the stone.
Finally an indigent jeweler named Snite pointed out that since the stone was still available for examination the answer to the question of whether it was a diamond or not had absolutely nothing to do with who found it, or whether the finder was honest or sane, or who believed him, or whether he would know a diamond from a brick, or whether diamonds had ever been found in fields, or whether people had ever been fooled by quartz or glass, but was to be answered simply and solely by putting the stone to certain well-known tests for diamonds. Experts on diamonds were called in. Some of them declared it genuine. The others made nervous jokes about it and declared that they could not very well jeopardize their dignity and reputations by appearing to take the thing too seriously. To hide the bad impression thus made, someone came out with the theory that the stone was really a synthetic diamond, very skillfully made, but a fake just the same. The objection to this is that the production of a good synthetic diamond 120 years ago would have been an even more remarkable feat than the finding of a real one.
As Nibley’s scholarship consistently demonstrated, both in its strengths and in its shortfalls, conducting real and comprehensive tests for the Book of Mormon as an authentic, ancient record is, generally speaking, a more rigorous and challenging process than testing hypotheses about whether its origin has a purely nineteenth-century explanation. To fully appreciate the Book of Mormon, we must come to understand the many rich details hidden in its inspiring stories, details that have been deliberately included to bless the lives of those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Though often entertaining and inspiring, Nibley’s voluminous Book of Mormon writings are not always light and facile fare. But, as President Russell M. Nelson reminded us: “The Lord loves effort.” Nibley recounts:
Years ago when I wrote the 1957 priesthood manual, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, the committee turned down every chapter. But President [David O.] McKay overruled the committee on every chapter. He said that if it’s over the brethren’s heads, let them reach for it. He left every chapter just as I had it. The committee fumed at the mouth and protested, “We can’t have it!” President McKay turned right around and said, “We jolly well can have it! Let them work at it a little.”
In his chapter from Hugh Nibley Observed, Richard L. Bushman notes that prior to Nibley’s telling of the Snite parable, “Nibley makes a remarkable statement”:
We have never been much interested in “proving” the Book of Mormon; for us, its divine provenance has always been an article of faith, and its historical aspects by far the least important thing about it.
Bushman asks: “What can he possibly mean when he says he has never been much interested in ‘proving’ the Book of Mormon? How can a man who dedicated his life to that endeavor say he is not much interested?” The answer is, of course, that Nibley’s testimony “arises in another realm, the realm of faith.” Though Nibley rejoiced in the truths unearthed through scholarship and the deeper understanding of scripture doctrine and events such knowledge brings, his personal witness of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, the most precious gift it delivered to his soul, came to him by means of divine revelation.
A Conversation about Hugh Nibley with Jack Welch
We hope you will enjoy the video interviews of John W. “Jack” Welch embedded below, which you can view in either long or short form. Keeping with our Book of Mormon theme this week, Jack has been a firsthand participant in some of the most important Book of Mormon research. In addition, as the catalyst that led to the formation of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) in 1979, no one is in a better position than Jack to tell the stories of its beginning, and the important role of Hugh Nibley in the organization and its publications, including the nineteen-volume Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.
What Was Hugh Nibley Thinking About When He Landed His Jeep on the Beach on D-Day?
In addition, this week’s Insight content is also focused on the Book of Mormon. A short video entitled “What Was Hugh Nibley Thinking About When He Landed His Jeep on the Beach on D-Day?” is embedded below, along with a more complete podcast and pdf transcript that are available for listening or download.
Listen to an audio recording of “What Was Hugh Nibley Thinking About When He Landed His Jeep on the Beach on D-Day?”:
Benoit, Pierre. Le Lac Salé. Paris, France: Albin Michel, éditeur, 1921.
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.
Decoo, Wilfried. “The image of Mormonism in French literature: Part 1.” BYU Studies 14, no. 2 (1974): 1-15. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/byusq/vol14/iss2/4. (accessed April 3, 2021).
———. “The image of Mormonism in French literature: Part 2.” BYU Studies 16, no. 2 (1976): 265–76. ttps://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/byusq/vol16/iss2/5. (accessed April 3, 2021).
Jones, Joy D. “An especially noble calling.” Ensign 50, April 2020. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2020/04/14jones?lang=eng. (accessed April 3, 2021).
Lawrence, Gary C. 2011. She jumped from the Temple into the Great Salt Lake. In Meridian Magazine. https://latterdaysaintmag.com/article-1-8603/. (accessed April 3, 2021).
Nibley, Hugh. 1976. “Nibliography.” In Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple, edited by Stephen D. Ricks. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 17, 46-50. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2008.
Nibley, Hugh W. An Approach to the Book of Abraham: Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1957.
———. 1952. Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 5. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1988.
———. 1967. Since Cumorah. 2nd ed. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 7. Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), 1988.
Packer, Boyd K. “The cloven tongues of fire.” Ensign 30, May 2000, 7-9. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2000/04/the-cloven-tongues-of-fire?lang=eng.
I see that BYUSQ has just issued a new April number. It includes an article by Frederick and Spencer titled, “Remnant or Replacement? Outlining a Possible Apostasy Narrative.” (A worrisome title.) It contains this sentence: “This well-known way of narrating early Christian apostasy owes its origins and developments to the efforts of, primarily, three authors: B. H. Roberts (in Outlines of Ecclesiastical History and The Falling Away), James E. Talmage (in The Great Apostasy), and Joseph Fielding Smith (in Essentials in Church History). . . . In many ways, this trio’s conceptualizations still inform how Mormons think about the apostasy.”
I beg to disagree; I don’t think most modern members have either heard of or read any of these books, though they had influence on the doctrine of apostasy in the church. But where is mention of Nibley fine works? Did the authors not know, or chose to ignore, Nibley’s The World and the Prophets; his Mormonism and Early Christianity; and especially his Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity.
Why were these tremendous works by Nibley not acknowledged for the influence they had on teaching about the apostasy from the ancient sources themselves? It is because they teach the same traditional apostasy narrative we have always known, that is correct and accurate, and hence deflates such attempts to explain away the great apostasy. (And why is BYUSQ still using the word “Mormons”?)
So I again strongly recommend this new book about Nibley and that younger readers spend time with his collected works.
Why do they need to cite Hugh Nibley? Is there some rule we don’t know about that you always need to cite Nibley? I am quite confident they know about Hugh Nibley and his works. Elder Tad Callister also wrote a book about the apostasy, as did Elder Alexander Morrison, Kent Jackson, Noel Reynolds, Barry Bickmore among a field of others, they weren’t cited either. Does it matter? no.
Point well taken, James. Hugh Nibley was a Liberal leaner. He was an associate of the godfather of the Liberal-‘Progressive’ movement in the Church, Eugene England, and wrote the forward to his book, Dialogues with Myself. Nibley’s view that dress and grooming standards at BYU were silly is silly in itself. I was in the military; there are strict grooming standards there as well, and for good reason. Hugh was an illustrious scholar, and thankfully defended the keystone, our keystone prophet, and the Book of Abraham, but I do not believe in scholar-worship.
Glen, Having read widely in Nibley, I agree that in some few small matters he was left-leaning, but in his larger body of scholarly work, he was a great defender of the Kingdom and orthodox doctrine; he was loyal to the Brethren and they used him a lot because of it. Forget his little preface to the England book (that few remember anyway) and read his books defending the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price and Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; they are treasures indeed.
Nibley was loved and appreciated by President Hinckley, Elder Holland, Elder Maxwell, Elder LeGrand Richards, and many others of the Brethren; they knew him to be mainstream in most things, like the gospel itself. His work still protects our standard works today by its vastness, breadth, brilliance, and fine spirit. This is why there is such a difference today between the old FARMS that promoted Nibley’s wonderful work that informed so many so well, and NAMI.
Excellent points, Dennis. Thank you. 🙂
James, there is a rule, or at least an academic standard, that when you write about a subject you should let the reader know that you are aware of the main arguments and authorities that have written on that subject. And Nibley was one of the greatest of the authorities on the apostasy, as those who have read the works I cited know. So yes, you should know about that rule or standard.
You have gone further than I did in pointing out other fine authors of works on the apostasy that should also have been cited by these authors. Why did they not? Because those former authors confirm and solidify a narrative that these new authors are trying to “challenge” and replace. That is the other point of my post.
And yes, it matters to those who understand that the Church’s narrative is the correct narrative–or we have no church; no need for a first vision; no need for revelations/Book of Mormon; no need for priesthood restoration, and so forth. And Nibley masterfully defended all of this. So yes, you need to cite him or you look like a fool that doesn’t know his stuff. And you should probably also cite the other authors you mention because it does matter.
Dennis, can you cite your source for this academic standard? I was just reading from President Oaks’ leadership summary and he cited President Kimball’s 1977 talk about the leadership of Jesus but he too didn’t use Hugh Nibley’s classic 1983 talk about leaders to Managers-the fatal shift. Surely to goodness Pres. Oaks’ knows about Hugh Nibley and i’m quite sure he knew about that talk but he never used it. Frederick and Spencer use a quotation that contains interesting word that you missed or ignored which is why your response is garbled, the word is “conceptualizations”. It isn’t about the authors of those conceptualizations, which point you drive home that “most modern members” don’t know about Talmage, Roberts etc. but the narrative or conceptualization they portray. I hope people understand the apostasy but whether those conceptualizations come from Nibley, Roberts, Talmage, whoever I don’t know that whether people think about who it comes from. I don’t know how you would even know how members know the source of how they know about the apostasy anyways. Did you take a poll? So you missed the point on that front.
You said an interesting part of your statement about why didn’t cite any of the listed authors that I cited. I don’t know if you know books work but people get sources, hopefully original sources and for all I know these people I listed all used the same sources, it would be ridiculous to write a book that uses Talmage that used source X, it would be better to write a book that uses a source he uses, so for all I know they used them in the sense that they used the same sources, but I don’t know that they were trying to make the same points as Talmage. You don’t want to rewrite a book, you want to add to our knowledge of the subject, uses new sources that they didn’t have access to or may have used incorrectly, which can happen.
You use the phrase “challenge” and replace”-that’s a good thing. People want the truth, if not then Roberts, Talmage et al wouldn’t have written their books would they? They were challenging and replacing old ideas or ideas from other churches, what does an author in the Church think about this subject. You said that my list of writers is “fine” so it sounds like you know what books they wrote about the apostasy so no, I won’t give you a list of the titles, do you own homework-I did.
-Dennis Horne-I thought your name sounded a bit familiar and it does, if this isn’t you I apologize but are you the author of “I know he lives” about 13 accounts of latter-day Apostles? I have that book and I checked, If you are then you never once cite the following books that you think should happen otherwise he is a “fool and doesn’t know his stuff”
“Mighty men of Zion-General Authorities of the Last Dispensation” by Lawrence R. Flake, also by the same author, “Prophets and Apostles of the last Dispensation” and “Acts of the Modern Apostles” by Wilburn Talbot” Why did you not once cite any of these sources? Why not? Are you unaware of them? Why didn’t you put this “academic standard” that you know so much about that you said earlier in your reason for writing your own book? You know that when you point the finger at someone be aware that their are three pointing back at you. Do you know your stuff? because it doesn’t sound like it all
In 1960 was assigned as the home teacher to the Hugh Nibley family. What an adventure! What a family! Got a call several days before Thanksgiving from sister Nibley. Hugh had gone to buy a turkey and he came home carrying the turkey but no car. So I went car hunting, found it at local market keys in the ignition. Years later as a BYU assistant professor we would walk across campus and we would discuss Utah Lake and its Biology. He would start the conversation exactly where we had left off. His keen insights and questions became research projects for several of my grad students. He even told me the tale of how he got married. Loved him, respected him and knew he was a true genus.