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.”[i] 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.
Over a period of four years Nibley worked his way through the stacks of the nine floors of the UCLA library, book by book, stopping whenever something caught his eye.[ii]
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[iii]
- “He knows my field better than I do, and his translations are elegant.”
—Mircea Eliade, history of religions, University of Chicago[iv]
- “He struck me as a first-rate intellect.”
—Jacob Neusner, Bard College, scholar of Judaism and one of the most published authors in history[v]
- “Revelation is not a puppet affair for Mormons. … ‘Do we have a right to tell God his business?’”
—Klaus Baer, Egyptology, University of Chicago[vi]
- “Spoke sixteen languages tolerably well and [his] nodding linguistic acquaintanceship included twice that number.”
—George Bailey, World War II intelligence school classmate[vii]
- “There are two geniuses in the western states—myself and Hugh Nibley.”
—Francis D. Wormuth, political scientist, University of Utah[viii]
- “It is obscene for a man to know that much!”
—George MacRae, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School[ix]
In his prayer at a BYU Commencement, Nibley opened by saying, “Father, we stand here garbed in the black robes of the false priesthood to heap upon us the honors of men.”[x]
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 commitments 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[xi]
- “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[xii]
- “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[xiii]
- “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[xiv]
- “He is one of a kind—it is a very good kind.”
—Boyd K. Packer, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles[xv]
“I am much too old to try to impress anyone else”[xvi]
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[xvii]
- “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[xviii]
- “Few students can talk coherently about their first class from Brother Nibley.”
—Robert K. Thomas, former academic vice president of BYU[xix]
- “No one knows what he knows, and that of course also is a problem with knowing him.”
—Truman G. Madsen, philosophy, BYU[xx]
- “Does he still talk so fast that no one can understand what he’s saying?”
—Sloan Nibley, Hugh’s brother[xxi]
- “Sometimes I think I don’t know him at all.”
—Phyllis Nibley, Hugh’s wife[xxii]
- “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/
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 …
Here are excerpts from the film:
Here is the film in its entirety:
A pdf transcript of the film and audio files of the video are also available for download.
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.
[i] J. M. Bradshaw et al., Hugh Nibley Observed.
[ii] Photo ibid., 56. See p. 42 for the story.
[iii] Ibid., 391.
[iv] Ibid., 428.
[v] Ibid., 450.
[vi] Ibid., 390.
[vii] Ibid., 725–26.
[viii] Ibid., 388–89.
[ix] Ibid., 469.
[x] See ibid., p. 93.
[xi] H. Nibley et al., Faith, 1.
[xii] B. J. Petersen, Nibley, back cover of dust jacket.
[xiii] J. M. Bradshaw et al., Hugh Nibley Observed, 596.
[xiv] H. Nibley et al., Faith, 1.
[xv] B. J. Petersen, Nibley, back cover of dust jacket.
[xvi] J. M. Bradshaw et al., Hugh Nibley Observed, 127.
[xvii] H. Nibley et al., Faith, 1.
[xviii] J. M. Bradshaw et al., Hugh Nibley Observed, 557.
[xix] Ibid., 405.
[xx] H. Nibley et al., Faith, 2.
[xxi] Ibid., 1.
[xxii] Ibid., 2.