Cover image via Deseret News.
Hugh Nibley was a pivotal influence on my early life and subsequent direction—and not only on mine. He was one of a kind. “Don’t be like anybody else,” he famously said. “Be different. Then you can make a contribution. Otherwise, you just echo something; you’re just a reflection.” Part of what made him unique was his absolute devotion to the Restored Gospel, coupled with his striking indifference to almost everything that would distract from it. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord,” he once said, “than mingle with the top brass in the tents of the wicked.”
That devotion, which focused his remarkable intellectual gifts, allowed him to make enormous contributions to Latter-day Saint thought and literature, particularly on his preferred themes of the Book of Mormon, the temple, and the building of Zion.
But Hugh Nibley died near the end of February 2005. He’s been gone, now, for very nearly eighteen years. And that means, of course, that an entire generation of Latter-day Saint students are now arriving in college and serving as missionaries who weren’t even born during his lifetime. They can be pardoned, I suppose, for being unfamiliar with his voice.
At his death, moreover, Nibley was almost ninety-five, and he had been seriously ill for some time. Further, he hadn’t published a new book for over two decades, although he continued to produce intriguing articles well into the 1990s. Happily, too, in its massive series of the “Collected Works of Hugh Nibley,” the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and its BYU-based successor organization, the pre-2012 Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, continued for some time to issue not only new editions of his previous books but new collections of his articles and lectures. Some of these lectures and articles hadn’t previously been published; some had been published but had been otherwise difficult to find.
Another fact to keep in mind is that Professor Nibley’s last books – for example, “The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment” (1975) and “Abraham in Egypt” (1981)—and his last years of public lectures frequently made very complicated on arguments. They were, furthermore, so erudite and they drew on such a wide array of sources that were unfamiliar to most ordinary readers that many in the audience were no doubt left impressed, yes, but also frankly intimidated.
For some, therefore, he became something of an icon, an almost superhuman hero of folktales. Unread, perhaps, but revered at a distance, and famous for his exploits and eccentricities, real or imagined.
Among some Latter-day Saints—I count myself one of their number—tales about Hugh Nibley were eagerly told and retold, to some extent rather like those about the colorful swearing General Authority J. Golden Kimball (d. 1938). When a nephew once told “Uncle Golden” that he had heard a new anecdote about him, Elder Kimball responded “I’ll bet the damned thing isn’t genuine. Seems like all the stories told these days are about either me or Mae West.”
Hugh Nibley became something of a legend because here was a person with an extraordinary mind and encyclopedic learning who nonetheless had a deep and simple faith in the Lord and in the Restored Gospel. A couple of representative quotations from him will illustrate that latter point:
“We recognize what is lovely,” he said, “because we have seen it somewhere else, and as we walk through the world, we are constantly on the watch for it with a kind of nostalgia, so that when we see an object or a person that pleases us, it is like recognizing an old friend; it hits us in the solar plexus, and we need no measuring or lecturing to tell us that it is indeed quite perfect. It is something we have long been looking for, something we have seen in another world, memories of how things should be.”
What really counted with him? Surprisingly, much as he valued learning, it was not learning or cleverness that he most highly esteemed. He himself was both extraordinarily learned and remarkably clever, but his sense of humor was almost always self-deprecating. A near-death experience in his early years had shown him that knowledge will be far easier to attain in the next world than in this one. No, he discovered, what really matters in this life is learning to forgive and learning to repent.
“Who is righteous?” he asked. “Anyone who is repenting. No matter how bad he has been, if he is repenting he is a righteous man. There is hope for him. And no matter how good he has been all his life, if he is not repenting, he is a wicked man. The difference is which way you are facing. The man on the top of the stairs facing down is much worse off than the man on the bottom step who is facing up. The direction we are facing, that is repentance; and that is what determines whether we are good or bad.”
Stories abounded about Professor Nibley wearing mismatched socks, absentmindedly forgetting where he was going, breaking into song (perhaps from a Wagnerian opera) in order to answer a question from the audience, losing himself during a lecture in a remembered passage of Homeric Greek or in an image on the screen from an ancient Egyptian papyrus. And these tales were by no means entirely mythical; I myself personally observed such instances—including every single one of those that I just mentioned.
And his memory for what he actually cared about was indeed prodigious. Once, many years ago, when we were both students, a friend and I—the friend a former missionary companion who later became a faculty colleague back at BYU—had decided to commit some classic poems to memory. I don’t remember why. And I also don’t remember why we chose John Milton’s “Lycidas” as the first such poem that we would memorize. (It’s not the easiest, shortest, or most straightforward poem in the canon.)
We were sitting in the old Ancient Studies reading room in BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, and I had been reciting the poem while my friend checked me against the published text. I was about thirty lines into “Lycidas” when my mind went blank. I stopped. I backed up several lines and tried again, hoping that sheer momentum would carry me beyond the point where my memory had failed me. But it was no use. Suddenly, the door opened and Hugh Nibley entered en route to his office, which was, at that time, located adjacent to the Ancient Studies reading room. Hearing me trying to remember the next portion of the poem, he paused, helpfully recited the next five or six lines, then entered his office and shut the door behind him without offering any other comment. I was left wondering why ordinary mortals such as myself even bothered.
It’s understandable that many in Nibley’s audience may have been intimidated and, accordingly, that they might have written his lectures, books, and articles off as “over their heads.” But it’s unfortunate. Not only because Hugh Nibley had a lot of important things to say but because he was actually a fine writer with a very sharp wit. (His writing included articles and a manual for the general membership of the Church.) Among his books, that wit is probably best displayed in the material that, in 1991, was gathered together in Volume 11 of his Collected Works, “Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales About Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.” I recall, from the first time that I read “The Myth Makers,” which is now part of “Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass,” being worried about those who were sitting around me: I found myself laughing out loud so often that I feared they might think that I had lost my mind.
Some very good materials have been made available to help to preserve and maintain Hugh Nibley’s legacy. I’ll mention just three of them: “Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley,” a nearly hour-long video, filmed partly in Egypt, that is now available at no charge online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xw_0_zZDVE); Gary P. Gillum, ed., “Of All Things! Classic Quotations from Hugh Nibley” (2010); Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Shirley S. Ricks, and Stephen T. Whitlock, eds., “Hugh Nibley Observed” (2021). And a pair of fascinating biographies have also appeared: “Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life,” by Boyd Jay Petersen (2002), and “Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D.: Memoirs of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle” (2006).
And then, of course, and first and foremost, there are the Collected Works themselves. Although, inevitably, some of the materials contained in them are dated and require either revision or updating, they are always interesting, challenging, and though-provoking. And, very often, in a faith-promoting way. My own father came to membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, fairly late in his life, when casual reading in one of Hugh Nibley’s books caused him to wonder pretty much for the first time whether the claims of Joseph Smith and the Restoration might not be true after all. I was privileged to baptize my father on the very evening that I was set apart as a full-time missionary.
Among the many volumes of Nibley’s Collected Works, one has always ranked high among my favorites: Now Volume 3 in the series, it is titled “The World and the Prophets,” and it was originally published in 1954. I like it both because of its subject matter and because of its readability.
Its readability probably reflects its origin: “The World and the Prophets” is based upon a series of thirty weekly lectures, typically in the range of about fifteen minutes in length, that Nibley delivered for the general audience of Salt Lake City’s KSL Radio between 7 March and 17 October 1954. The radio lectures bore the overall title “Time Vindicates the Prophets.” They were apparently given in answer to some who, then as now, challenged the right of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to call themselves Christians.
In the lecture series “Time Vindicates the Prophets” as in the book “The World and the Prophets,” Hugh Nibley points out the striking similarities between the doctrines, practices, and institutions of Latter-day Saint Christians and those of the early Christians. And he describes how Christ’s ancient church changed from an organization with inspired prophets into a thoroughly different institution built upon the learning of men.
Once, in 1990, not too many years after having commenced my teaching career at Brigham Young University, I spent a post-doctoral summer in Berkeley, California, part of it without wife or family. Driving alone across the Bonneville Salt Flats, through Wendover, Elko, and Winnemucca, and on through Reno, I chose to listen to cassette-tape recordings of the entire series, which had only recently become available. I finished listening, almost literally, just as I pulled into the parking lot of the place where I was to stay. I had thoroughly enjoyed them.
All thirty recordings are available immediately and at no charge in the Complete Bibliography for Hugh Nibley (CBHN): https://interpreterfoundation.org/bibliographies/hugh-w-nibley/lectures/. I commend them to you both as very valuable and accessible in and of themselves and as windows into the mind and personality of one of the most interesting Latter-day Saints that the Kingdom has yet produced. What else did Hugh Nibley care about? He cared about bearing testimony. And the newly wide availability of the lectures in his series “Time Vindicates the Prophets” will help him continue to do that. Maybe, though, you should allow yourself more than just one or two sittings to listen to all of them.
Annette AntonelliNovember 14, 2022
Thank you for inspiring me to study the things this man taught. I’m looking very forward to learning.