Hugh Winder Nibley
March 27, 1910
Portland, Oregon, United States
|Died||February 24, 2005 (aged 94)|
|Occupation||Scholar, historian, author, professor|
|Employer||Brigham Young University|
Hugh Winder Nibley (March 27, 1910 – February 24, 2005) was an American scholar and an apologist of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) who was a professor at Brigham Young University (BYU) for nearly 50 years. He was a prolific author, and wrote apologetic works supporting the archaeological, linguistic, and historical claims of Joseph Smith. He was a member of the LDS Church, and wrote and lectured on LDS scripture and doctrinal topics, publishing many articles in the LDS Church magazines.
Nibley was born in Portland, Oregon, and his family moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1921, where Nibley attended middle school and high school. Nibley served an LDS mission in Germany, where he learned German. After his mission, he attended University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he graduated in 1934. He received his PhD from University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley) in 1938. He taught various subjects at Claremont Colleges until he enlisted in the United States Army in 1942, where he was an intelligence officer.
Nibley became a professor at Brigham Young University (BYU) in 1946, where he taught foreign languages and Christian church history. He continued to study Egyptian and Coptic, and became the figurehead of the Institute for Ancient Studies at BYU in 1973. During his professorship, Nibley wrote articles for scholarly publications and for official LDS Church publications. Nibley published multiple series of articles in the Improvement Era as well as An Approach to the Book of Mormon, which was the lesson manual for Melchizedek priesthood lessons in 1957. Nibley also published a response to the Joseph Smith Papyri as well as other articles on the Pearl of Great Price. In addition to Nibley's church publications, he also published social commentary, often aimed at LDS culture. Nibley's work is controversial. Kent P. Jackson and Douglas F. Salmon have argued that the parallels Nibley finds between ancient culture and LDS works are selective or imprecise. Nibley's defenders like Louis C. Midgley and Shirley S. Ricks argue that his parallels are meaningful.
Hugh Nibley's son Alex organized a documentary on Hugh entitled Faith of an Observer. Hugh Nibley's complete works were published jointly by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and Deseret Book. Around the time of Nibley's death in 2005, his daughter Martha Beck published a memoir where she claimed to have recovered repressed memories of Nibley sexually abusing her. Family members and some book reviewers of Beck's memoirs considered her claims to be false.
Early life and education
Hugh Nibley was born in Portland, Oregon, son of Alexander ("El") Nibley and Agnes Sloan. Among their other sons were Sloan Nibley, Richard Nibley, and Reid N. Nibley. Their father Alexander was the son of Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the church. Alexander's mother, wife of Charles, was Rebecca Neibaur. Rebecca was the daughter of Alexander Neibaur, one of the first Jewish people to convert to Mormonism. Alexander Nibley served as mission president of the Liège Conference.
In 1917, Nibley's family moved to Medford, Oregon, where his father started to manage his father's sugar beet company. The next year at age eight, Nibley was baptized into the LDS Church. The family returned to Portland after the sugar beet factory failed in 1919. In 1920, the principal at Nibley's elementary school gave all of his students an IQ test. After seeing Nibley's high scores, the principal decided to privately tutor Nibley. Nibley's parents employed a music tutor and a French tutor for their children as well.
Nibley's family moved to Los Angeles in 1921, where Nibley's father participated in the burgeoning real-estate market and was part of Los Angeles's high society. Nibley attended Alta Loma Middle School from 1921 until 1923. He graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1927, where he was friends with John Cage. Nibley was particularly interested in astronomy, art, and English. In order to see through his telescope unimpeded, he cut off his eyelashes. His interest in literature led him to study Old and Middle English, German, Latin, and Greek. He spent the summer of 1925 working in a lumber mill. In 1926, Nibely's poems appeared in the Improvement Era and The Lyric West. That same year, his family moved to a mansion, and Nibley spent six weeks alone in the wilderness near Crater Lake. Nibley took part and excelled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). The summer he was 17, he attended Brigham Young Academy's Aspen Grove summer school.
Nibley's parents were worried about his social development and felt that an LDS mission would help him have more contact with people. In November 1927, Nibley received his temple endowment, studied at the Salt Lake Mission Home to serve an LDS mission in Germany until 1929. He spent his first three weeks in Germany learning German in Cologne with other missionaries. After his mission, he received special permission to visit Greece for six weeks to contact other members of the LDS Church there.
After his mission, Nibley majored in history at the still new UCLA. He also studied Latin, Greek, and Spanish and graduated in 1934 summa cum laude. Nibley's grandfather, Charles, and his brother, Philip, died in 1931 and 1932 respectively. In June 1933, Nibley used his knowledge of shorthand and typing when he served a short-term mission in the northwestern states as the mission stenographer. He returned in time to start his PhD at UC Berkeley in September 1934. In the 1936–1937 school year he received a fellowship that would have covered his tuition and housing. Nibley's father asked him to loan the money to him and did not repay it. He found a job translating Latin, but because his funds were severely limited, he moved from the expensive International House to a cheap apartment, where his neighbors spoke Arabic. His dissertation "The Roman Games as a Survival of an Archaic Year Cult" was accepted and he graduated in 1938.
Teaching at Claremont and military service
Nibley volunteered to teach at Claremont Colleges, and he taught without pay for the 1939–1940 school year, living frugally. The next year he was probably hired as an instructor, and taught history, social philosophy, modern European history, humanities, U.S. history, history of education, Greek, and German. He taught alongside scholars fleeing from Germany, including Thomas Mann, and once co-taught a class with retired professor Everett Dean Martin. He acted as a secretary when prominent intellectuals spoke at the Committee on War Objectives and Peace Aims. He studied more languages, including Irish, Babylonian, Russian, Italian, and Spanish. He sought out native speakers when possible to converse with. He resigned from Claremont in June 1942. Nibley's parents separated after they lost most of their money and had to sell their mansion in 1941.
Nibley enlisted in the United States Army for World War II in 1942. He completed weather observation school in March 1943 after he finished basic training. His commanding officer recommended him for officer training, and he attended military intelligence training in the United States Army Intelligence Center in western Maryland. He completed intelligence training on June 2. In August he started attending the second Order of Battle course. Before leaving for Europe, he courted and proposed marriage to Anahid Iskian, but she refused. Nibley became a Master Sergeant along with his fellow Order of Battle graduates. After an OB training in Hyde Park Corner, he was assigned to help compile information on German officers for the June 1944 Order of Battle Book. He instructed officers and other men in the 101st Airborne Division about the German Order of Battle. He was part of the Utah Beach division during the D-Day invasion, and landed by glider at Eindhoven as part of Operation Market Garden. Nibley gathered intelligence on German war movements from civilians, documents, and POWs. He was the only survivor of OB team #5. He visited Dachau concentration camp a few days after its liberation.
After being discharged from the army, he went camping near Hurricane, Utah. Improvement Era hired him as a managing editor, and he wrote a detailed response to Fawn M. Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith. The response, entitled No Ma'am, That's Not History positioned him as a defender of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and impressed general authorities in the LDS Church. Dale Morgan, a historian who advised Brodie while she wrote the biography, found Nibley "intoxicated with his own language." Stanley S. Ivins criticized No Ma'am for misrepresenting Brodie. Juanita Brooks stated that Nibley's zeal caused him to "make some statements almost as far fetched as [Brodie's]."
While living in Salt Lake City, Nibley improved his Russian by insisting that he and his Ukrainian roommate only speak Russian. Nibley promised to pay his roommate one cent for every mistake he made in Russian and two cents for every English word he spoke.
Professor at BYU
Apostle John A. Widtsoe recommended Nibley to BYU President Howard S. McDonald, and he became a professor of religion and history at BYU in 1946. He taught courses in Greek and Russian alongside Christian church history his first year. He arranged for the purchase of over five hundred volumes on the early Christian church for the BYU Library; these volumes now make up the library's Ancient Studies Reading Room. He also acquired volumes in Old Norse from the Icelandic community in Spanish Fork. He was promoted to full professor in 1953. Nibley considered leaving BYU to work at the University of Utah, but J. Reuben Clark proposed a few projects that Nibley could only work on at BYU. Wilkinson agreed that the university would finance two trips to university libraries per year for Nibley and Nibley stayed at BYU. However, this university did not finance two library trips a year for Nibley. Nibley published in Western Political Quarterly, Western Speech, and Jewish Quarterly Review in the 1950s.
For the 1959–1960 school year, Nibley taught at UC Berkeley as a visiting professor in humanities. He studied Egyptian with Klaus Baer, a brand-new faculty member. Nibley was the only student in the Coptic class after several weeks, and one of two students in the Egyptian class. UC Berkeley offered to employ him as a full professor at a higher salary than what he made at BYU. Nibley decided to stay at BYU, and requested to stop teaching language classes. When Nibley returned to BYU, religion faculty were debating on whether a class on the Book or Mormon or on fundamental LDS Church doctrines should be the required religion class. The debate disillusioned Nibley, and when asked to give a prayer at the June 1960 graduation exercise, he started it by saying, "We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood." He published "The Passing of the Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme" in Church History in 1961. The article listed forty ways that the church established by Christ had fallen into apostasy. Robert M. Grant argued that Nibley had taken statements from church fathers out of context, though he admired Nibley's work. Other scholars commented on the article, but Nibley did not respond. Nibley published articles in Revue de Qumran, Vigiliae Christianae, and Concilium: An International Review of Theology in 1965, 1966, and 1967, respectively. For his 1966–1967 sabbatical, he studied Egyptian at the University of Chicago with Klaus Baer and John A. Wilson. He was offered a position to teach at the Clarion State College, but refused.
In 1973, BYU president Dallin H. Oaks convinced Nibley to be the director of the Institute for Ancient Studies at BYU, with an assistant director to take care of the administrative aspects of the institute. Retiring from a staff position in 1975, he continued working as a professor emeritus until 1994. He maintained a small office in the Harold B. Lee Library, working on his magnum opus, titled One Eternal Round, focusing on the hypocephalus ("Facsimile 2") in the Book of Abraham.
Notable students of Nibley include, Krešimir Ćosić, Avraham Gileadi, John Gee, and Benjamin Urrutia. After befriending Nibley's daughter Christina, Krešimir Ćosić came to Hugh Nibley with questions about the LDS Church. Nibley taught and eventually baptized Ćosić, continuing their gospel discussions until Ćosić graduated in 1973.
Social and political viewpoints
Nibley was an active Democrat and a conservationist, pacifist, and anti-materialist. He was strongly opposed to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. Approaching Zion, volume 9 of his collected works, contains his essays on culture, where he critiqued capitalism and socialism, and endorsed the law of consecration. In a 1973 speech entitled "What Is Zion? A Distant View," Nibley mentioned the sometimes dogmatic application of the BYU's honor code, particularly the hairstyle and dress standards. Nibley further criticized LDS culture in his 1983 speech "Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift" for encouraging students to please their superiors and "not make waves," which Nibley argued was a sign of a decline in culture. In a later interview, Nibley stated that Rex E. Lee and faculty in the school of management hated the speech. Nibley felt that students were more concerned about their appearance than their studies. In his 1975 speech, "Zeal Without Knowledge," he worried that students were overly focused on suffering through church meetings than being genuinely spiritually exercised.
Collaborations with the LDS Church
In 1957, Nibley's book An Approach to the Book of Mormon was the LDS Church's official lesson manual for Melchizedek priesthood lessons. The book drew parallels between events in the Book of Mormon and ancient Near Eastern traditions. In an essay on Mormon historiography, Marvin S. Hill argued that many of the parallels between ancient culture and the Book of Mormon "seem as much American as they do ancient" though Hill does not go into further detail. That year, Nibley received many letters with questions about religion from members who read his book. He compiled reports on various topics to answer frequently asked questions from readers and to inform general authorities. After the manual was published, he was frequently gave speeches to local church congregations. In reviewing the third edition, published in 1988, William J. Hamblin stated that while Nibley's explanation of ancient Near Eastern culture was accurate, he drew anachronistic parallels that weakened his other, stronger arguments. Hamblin also stated that Nibley ignored significant differences between Near Eastern cultures and occurrences in the Book of Mormon.
Nibley published several series in the Improvement Era about the Book of Mormon for a general LDS audience. In 1954, Nibley discussed the circumstances around the early Christian apostasy in a series of thirty talks on a weekly devotional on KSL in 1954. He wrote a series for the Improvement Era on the same topic in 1955, and other series on the Jaredites and Book of Mormon criticism in the late 1950s. He wrote another series on the Book of Mormon in the Improvement Era titled Since Cumorah, which was published as a book in 1967. The book received some critical attention. In BYU Studies, Alexander T. Stecker found Since Cumorah was a "stimulating" introduction to "many problems," but one that overburdened its readers with "irrelevant facts" and lacked a bibliography. In Dialogue, Louis C. Midgley praised Nibley's application of Book of Mormon concepts to current politics. A member of the Community of Christ, Robert Mesle, wrote in a review of the book that Nibley's lack of criticism towards the LDS Church prevented Nibley from being sufficiently critical, describing Nibley's work as "trite and naïve."
In 1961, Nibley published The Myth Makers through Bookcraft. In the book, Nibley countered anti-Mormon assertions about Joseph Smith in the style of a classical apologist. Once again, general authorities were impressed with Nibley's writings, and when Irving Wallace's The Twenty-Seventh Wife was published, they asked Nibley to write a response. Nibley enthusiastically studied historical material about Brigham Young. He published Sounding Brass: Informal Studies in the Lucrative Art of Telling Stories about Brigham Young and the Mormons, which addressed not only the claims in Wallace's book but many other claims about Brigham Young. The book includes the satirical chapter "How to Write an Anti-Mormon Book (A Handbook for Beginners)". In an essay in Historians and the Far West, Thomas G. Alexander stated that Sounding Brass sarcastically points out obvious flaws in a form of "intellectual overkill." Alexander stated that orthodox Mormons would appreciate that the book bolsters their point of view, but that historians would prefer a more detailed treatment of events.
In 1967, the LDS Church acquired the Joseph Smith Papyri. The First Presidency asked Nibley to respond to the papyri. In 1975, Nibley published a translation and commentary of the papyri. In it, Nibley argued that the text of the papyri from the Book of Breathings was connected to the LDS temple ceremony, the Endowment. Nibley continued to write about Abraham, publishing Abraham in Egypt in 1981. He focused on showing that Joseph Smith's writings in the Pearl of Great Price were inspired and derived from ancient texts. Marvin S. Hill criticized Nibley for comparing the Book of Abraham to records from hundreds of years after Abraham; Louis Midgley criticized Hill for misunderstanding Nibley's argument, which was to compare the Book of Abraham against existent parallel literature that was unknown to Joseph Smith. In a 1982 review published in Dialogue, Eric Jay Olsen stated that Nibley's eclectic approach in Abraham in Egypt was overwhelming in its citations of obscure sources. Olsen criticized Nibley's selection of examples that supported his arguments.
In 1985, church leaders were contemplating changes to the temple endowment and asked Nibley to write on the "history and significance of the endowment" for them. In 1986, Nibley read one essay on the temple to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in a special church meeting inside the Salt Lake temple, with another, longer essay on the history of the endowment given for support material. The essays were reprinted in other books, but without specific references to the temple endowment ceremony.
Scholarship and criticism
Evangelical scholars Mosser and Owen called Nibley the "Father of Mormon Scholarly Apologetics." William J. Hamblin, a colleague at BYU, said, "Nibley's methodology consists more of comparative literature than history." In his 1988 review of The Complete Works of Hugh Nibley Vol. 1 in BYU Studies, Kent P. Jackson criticized Nibley for lacking sources, using sources selectively, and using sources out of context. Jackson argued that Nibley's early research was his weakest, and that some should not have been published in his collected works. In response, Louis Midgley defended Nibley's methodology, and wrote that Jackson denied the possibility of comparative studies, since all historical scholarship "involves selection among alternatives."
Eugene England's review of Since Cumorah and Approaching Zion, volumes 7 and 9 of Nibley's collected works, identified Nibley as a Cassandra figure. England noted that Nibley's social commentary on preserving the environment, avoiding war, and against Prosperity theology often went ignored. England praised Nibley's clear prose and witty satire, identifying the absence of the speech "Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift" as a major flaw in the volumes.
In a 2000 issue of Dialogue, Douglas F. Salmon examined Nibley's comparative method, focusing on his series of articles on Enoch written for the Ensign titled "A Strange Thing in the Land: The Return of the Book of Enoch." Salmon noted that some of the parallels Nibley found between the Pearl of Great Price and ancient texts were extremely selective, and others were imprecise, inconsequential, or misrepresenting sources: "parallelomania". Salmon concluded that appropriate parallels must discuss the ancient work's language, culture, and context. In response, Hamblin stated in The FARMS Review of Books that even though Nibley had made a few errors, that was not cause to dismiss his entire argument about the Pearl of Great Price's parallels ancient texts about Enoch. Hamblin accused Salmon of ignoring what FARMS researchers have said about the methodology of parallels, and of erroneously finding errors in Nibley's research.
In Jerald and Sandra Tanner's Salt Lake City Messenger, Ronald V. Huggins wrote that Nibley "modifies his quotations to artificially render them more supportive," and provided several examples in 2008. Shirley S. Ricks wrote a response in The FARMS Review of Books. Drawing on the experience of the people who checked Nibley's footnotes, she explained that editors or typists could introduce errors. She stated that some of Nibley's published work was not intended for publication, like his speeches, and that fact-checkers had to supply footnotes on their own. Ricks, along with "defenders of the faith" at FairMormon, assert that while Nibley's arguments could be overly-aggressive, and his footnotes could have errors for many reasons, Nibley did not fabricate his sources. Addressing Huggins's criticisms directly, Ricks argued that Nibley's translation style could be more poetic than literal, and that Nibley saw translation as a commentary in itself.
Nibley's magnum opus, One Eternal Round, was published as volume 19 of his collected works in 2012, with additional writing by Michael D. Rhodes. Gary P. Gillum, the ancient studies librarian during the time Nibley worked at BYU, reviewed the book in BYU Studies. Gillum summarized the book as a "comprehensive look at Facsimile No. 2." Nibley and Rhodes argue that parallels between Egyptian religion and "Joseph Smith's explanation of Facsimile No. 2" are not convenient selections but major theological themes in both Egyptian and LDS religion, thus providing support for the authenticity of Joseph Smith's revelations.
Egyptologist John Gee, a student of Nibley and current fair Mormon apologist, wrote that "Nibley has a tendency to use myth for history and to flatten the chronology of sources from a variety of periods to create his historical portrait."
From 1982–1984, Hugh's son Alex Nibley organized the filming of interviews with Nibley to use in a documentary about his life called Faith of an Observer. Sterling Van Wagenen was a producer. It was premiered at Hugh's special seventy-fifth birthday celebration at BYU. After John Welch organized FARMS, he and Deseret Book agreed to co-publish a collected works of Hugh Nibley. The first volume was published in 1986 and fourteen volumes were printed by 2002. FARMS also published a two-volume Festschrift in honor of Nibley's eightieth birthday. When the Ancient Studies Reading Room in the Harold B. Lee Library was relocated in 2001, it was renamed the Hugh Nibley Ancient Studies Reading Room. Alex Nibley later edited Hugh's World War II memoirs, published in 2006. He gave the materials for his final book to FARMS in the fall of 2002, which was published in March 2010 as commemoration for what would have been his 100th birthday. His obituary reported that he was fluent in 14 languages.
Nibley was a Mormon folk legend during his lifetime, and frequently members of the LDS Church told fantastic stories about him. Boyd Peterson, Nibley's son-in-law and biographer, recounted common folk stories in an article for Sunstone. In one folk story, Nibley's colleague Klaus Baer inscribed a verse from the Book of Mormon in sandstone in Egyptian hieroglyphs while hiking. Nibley did report that Baer inscribed sandstone with Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the text was common Egyptian graffiti. In another folk story, Nibley shouted quotes from The Illiad to convince Greeks he was friendly while parachuting there during World War II. This story is not based on factual events. Stories of Nibley's absent-mindedness are common to academic folklore, though some may be inspired by real events. In one story, Nibley refers a student to read a book, and after the student finds out it is in German, complains that he cannot read it. Nibley replies, "So what? It's a small book." Such stories have not been verified, but their existence provides evidence for Nibley's status as an intellectual cultural icon within Mormonism.
Nibley met Phyllis Draper at BYU prior to teaching his first classes there. They married in September 1946 and had eight children. Nibley died on 24 February 2005 in his home in Provo, Utah, at the age of 94.
Martha Beck's claims
Nibley's daughter Martha Beck published Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith in 2005, describing her departure from the LDS Church, and claiming in 1990 she had recovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse by her father. The allegations received national publicity. Nibley had long been aware of the allegations and denied them. Beck's seven siblings responded saying the accusations were false. Boyd Petersen, Nibley's biographer and son-in-law, also rejected Beck's claims. In his response to Leaving the Saints, he points out other inconsistencies and instances of hyperbole in the book. In a review of Leaving the Saints in Sunstone, Tania Rands Lyon finds similar inconsistencies in Beck's book, noting that Beck originally intended it to be a novel but changed it to an autobiography at the direction of her editor.
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- ——; Gillum, Gary P.; Norton, Don E.; Welch, John W. (1986). Old Testament and Related Studies. 1. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. ISBN 0-87579-032-1. Archived from the original on 2017-01-31.
- ——; Ricks, Stephen D. (1986). Enoch the Prophet. 2. Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. ISBN 0-87579-047-X.
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[t]he worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status-symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, and necklaces, LSD and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock, come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich, respectable, immovable. [...] We want to be vindicated in our position and to know that the world is on our side as we all join in a chorus of righteous denunciation; the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.
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"If you love me," said the Greatest of all leaders, "you will keep my commandments." "If you know what is good for me," says the manager, "you will keep my commandments, and not make waves." That is why the rise of management always marks the decline of culture. If the management does not go for Bach, very well, there will be no Bach in the meeting; if management favors vile, sentimental doggerel verse extolling the qualities that make for success, young people everywhere will be spouting long trade-journal jingles from the stand; if the management's taste in art is what will sell--trite, insipid, folksy kitsch--that is what we will get; if management finds maudlin, saccharine commercials appealing, that is what the public will get; if management must reflect the corporate image in tasteless, trendy new buildings, down come the fine old pioneer monuments.
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