A popular claim among some critics is that B.H. Roberts, the great LDS General Authority, lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon. This is based on studied ignorance of Elder Roberts. Yes, he prepared a work to show what arguments could be weighed against the Book of Mormon, but it is clear that he believed it and simply wanted to explore what positions the critics could take. His works and his words throughout his life show that he had a deep testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon. For details, please read “Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony by McKay V. Jones.
6 thoughts on “B.H. Roberts: No, He Did Not Lose His Testimony!”
I’ve heard this argument several times, from both sides. Let me ask you a couple of questions. First, let’s suppose hypothetically that B. H. Roberts had lost his belief in the Book of Mormon but not in the basic principles of the gospel. Might it not then make sense for him to disguise his disbelief in an effort to maintain his influence and try to accomplish as much good in spreading the basic truths of the gospel as he could in his remaining years? How would we, on the basis of the public record, be able to distinguish between this hypothesis and the hypothesis that he was still a believer in the Book of Mormon?
Second, why does it matter? People usually care about Roberts’s Book of Mormon analysis because they have been persuaded by his (sincere or devil’s-advocate) arguments against the book. I don’t think anyone stays in the church or leaves because of Roberts’s personal reputation.
Third, have you read Roberts’ Book of Mormon material? If a prima facia case needs, for some reason, to be made that he lost his faith, the harsh and severely negative remarks he makes about the Book of Mormon would seem to make that case.
I don’t think anyone ought to leave the church over B. H. Roberts. Nor should people make up their minds about the Book of Mormon on the basis of his writings. But, to the extent that his belief is an important issue to someone, I think some humility about our lack of historical omniscience is in order. We don’t really have any way of knowing what the man thought. And he’s dead, so he can’t tell us either.
When I first heard the claim and saw the argument that B. H. Roberts had lost his faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I seriously entertained the possibility that it might be true. Since then, I’ve come to doubt it rather strongly, for a number of reasons. For one thing, Roberts was outspoken and blunt to the point of pigheadedness. I find it very difficult to picture him pretending to believe in notions that he actually believed to be false. To choose just one example of many, he refused to modify his final manuscript, “The Truth, the Way, and the Life,” as requested by the First Presidency, choosing rather to leave what he regarded as his magnum opus unpublished than to make the proposed changes. And yet . . . That very manuscript (now finally published in two different posthumous editions) repeatedly refers to the Book of Mormon in terms that make it very difficult to imagine that its author did not view the Book of Mormon as truly ancient. Moreover, he made a number of statements, as pointed as the English language seems capable of being, insisting that the controversial Studies of the Book of Mormon, which are often argued to reveal his disbelief, do not represent his own views. And, finally, he bore strong testimony of the Book of Mormon, including its historical authenticity, right up to his death.
Why would it matter? It wouldn’t, really. It would be sad if he had lost his faith in the antiquity of the Book of Mormon, but it wouldn’t in and of itself say anything at all about the truth or falsity of the Church’s claims. Critics of the Church like the possibility because of its potential shock value to believers.
“If a prima facia case needs, for some reason, to be made that he lost his faith, the harsh and severely negative remarks he makes about the Book of Mormon would seem to make that case.”
This is precisely what gives away the fact that Roberts was doing what he had insisted he was doing in “A Book of Mormon Study.” Those who insist that his negative remarks and tone in the private study reveal the real doubting Roberts overlook the fact that his tone is too biting, shrill, and caustic to actually be an expression of tortured and painful doubt. He doth protest too much, way too much. In overdoing it in the sneering manner of a harsh critic, he plainly shows what he had insisted all along: he was trying to show what could be said by sophisticated critics using an “environmental” approach (i.e., that Joseph Smith used extant sources and environmental influences to craft the Book of Mormon). Some examples of this:
“In the first place, there is a certain lack of perspective in the things the book relates as history that points quite clearly to an undeveloped mind as their origin. The narrative proceeds in characteristic disregard of conditions necessary to its reasonableness, as if it were a tale told by a child, with utter disregard for consistency.”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, 251.
“Is it not pertinent to ask, is this statement from a great historical document, by one who knew Solomon’s temple through all his boyhood and young manhood, or is it a reckless statement of an undeveloped mind that knew not what he was saying—which?”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, 261.
“Thus the Nephite Christian triumphed over the stickler for the law of Moses, the Anti-Christ. I ask judgment upon this story as it stands. Is there not about it a certain “raw”ness? A certain amateureness? In conception and handling the work of a boy—an undeveloped mind? . . . So passed away Nehor, the Anti-Christ. The story is somewhat different from that of Sherem in its viewpoint, but in the end confession of error by the Anti-Christ, an ignominious death, the triumph of the orthodox faith, the same amateurish spirit characterizing the narrative.”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon; 266, 267.
“Beautiful story of faith! Beautiful story of mother-assurance! Is it history? Or is it a wonder-tale of a pious, but immature mind?”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, 273.
“Also, there was a break in these epistles, in the usually accepted philosophy governing in Nephite warfare—viz., and roughly—be good and you will win wars.”
— Studies of the Book of Mormon, 274.
““Surely,” someone will say, “this is dramatically heroic enough to satisfy the wildest desire of a pious boy of fervid imagination.” Also written clumsily enough to justify the thought that it was written by one ignorant of English composition.”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, 276.
“And now, I doubt not . . . some will be led to exclaim—and I will set it down for them—“Is this all sober history inspired written and true, representing things that actually happened? Or is it a wonder-tale of an immature mind, unconscious of what a test he is laying on human credulity when asking men to accept his narrative as solemn history?”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, 283.
Such phrases as “undeveloped mind” “wonder-tale,” shocking as they may sound to readers who don’t expect this from Roberts, grow monotonous after a while, he uses them so much in “A Book of Mormon Study.” Then why did he overdo it to this extent? I think the answer is obvious: he overdid it precisely BECAUSE he wasn’t expressing his true sentiments.
Another consideration that hasn’t been discussed is the fact that Roberts made no effort in “Book of Mormon Difficulties” and “A Study of the Book of Mormon” to address the issues he raised in them. Critics insist that this is because they were unanswerable, and they explain his failure to attempt an answer in the studies as evidence of his corrosive doubt.
LDS apologists, on the other hand, point out that the lack of a response to the difficulties he raised is in keeping with his stated purpose for the studies:
—To compile “for the information of those who ought to know everything about it, pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it.”
—To point out “a possible theory of the Origin of the Book of Mormon that is quite unique and never seems to have occurred to anyone to employ, largely on account of the obscurity of the material on which it might be based, but which in the hands of a skilled opponent could be made, in my judgment, very embarrassing.”
—To bring to the attention of the Brethren approaches “that will concern the faith of the Youth of the Church now as also in the future, as well as such casual inquirers as may come to us from the outside world.”
—To compile such a collection of anti-Mormon approaches because “our means of defense, should we be vigorously attacked along the lines of [these] questions, are very inadequate.”
—And of course, “Let me say once and for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a ‘study of Book of Mormon origins’ for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it. I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it . . . it represents what may be used by some opponent in criticism of the Book of Mormon.”
There is a perfect example of Roberts’s modus operandi in his studies that is very interesting in light of the current DNA and the Book of Mormon debate. In his one-sided “lawyer’s brief” studies, he repeatedly insists on the assumption that the Book of Mormon peoples extended from Canada into South America, and that there were no other peoples in the Americas when Lehi landed. These are the exact assumptions that modern critics insist that the Book of Mormon demands, and they are indispensable in their DNA claims against the Book of Mormon. Without these assumptions, the DNA claims fall impotent to the ground.
“It should be remarked that there was contact with no other people that would influence the character of Nephite and Lamanite language than this national literature of the Jews” (i.e., the brass plates).
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 65, from “Book of Mormon Difficulties,” January, 1922.
“The Book of Mormon compels us to believe [Hebrew] was the language
brought to America by the colonies of Lehi and Mulek—and which, so far as we are informed by that record, was the only source of American languages.”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 75, from “Book of Mormon Difficulties,” January, 1922.
“Can we answer that the Nephites and the people of Mulek—really constituting one people—occupied a very much more restricted area of the American continents than has heretofore been supposed, and that this fact (assumed here for argument) would leave the rest of the continents–by far the greatest part of them say—to be inhabited by other races, speaking other tongues, developing other cultures, and making, though absolutely unknown to Book of Mormon people, other histories? This might account for the diversity of tongues found in the New World, and give a reason for the lack of linguisitc unity among them. To this answer there would be the objection that if such other races or tribes existed then the Book of Mormon is silent about them. Neither the people of Mulek nor the people of Lehi or after they were combined, nor any of their descendants ever came into contact with any such people, so far as the Book of Mormon account of it is concerned. As for the Jaredites they are out out of the reckoning in this matter, as we have already seen, since their language and their culture, as active factors, perished with their extinction. Any beyond them, so far as a more ancient possession of the American continents is concerned, by previous inhabitants, we are barred probably by the Book of Ether statement that the people of Jared were to go “into that quarter where there had never man been,” and nowhere is there any statement or intimation in the Book of Mormon that the people of Jared ever came in contact with any other people upon the land of America, save for the contact with the last survivor of the race with the people of Mulek, which does not affect at all the matters here under discussion. Then could the people of Mulek and of Lehi, being such a people as they are represented to be in the Book of Mormon—part of the time numbering millions and occupying the land at least from Yucatan to Cumorah, and this during a period of at least a thousand years—could such a people, I repeat, live and move and have their being in the land of America and not come in contact with other races and tribes of men, if such existed in the New World within Book of Mormon times? To make this seem possible the area occupied by the Nephites and Lamanites would have to be extremely limited, much more limited, I fear, than the Book of Mormon would admit us of assuming.”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, pp. 92-93, from “Book of Mormon Difficulties,” January, 1922.
“Throughout their long occupancy of the land—about sixteen hundred years from their arrival a few years after their departure from Babel to the coming of Lehi’s colony, early in the sixth century B.C.—there is no mention or assumption of their coming in contact with any other people, or of there being any other people in the land.”
—Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 117, from “Book of Mormon Difficulties,” January, 1922.
HOWEVER . . .
In his response to William Riter in February 1922 (one month after presenting his study to the Brethren), he said the following:
“Moreover, there is the possibility that other peoples may have inhabited parts of the great continents of America, contemporaneously with the peoples spoken of by the Book of Mormon, though candor compels me to say that nothing to that effect appears in the Book of Mormon. A number of our Book of Mormon students, however, are inclined to believe that Book of Mormon peoples were restricted to much narrower limits in their habitat on the American continents, than have generally been allowed; and that they were not in South America at all.”
—Letter to William E. Riter, February 6, 1922. Studies of the Book of Mormon, pp. 53-54.
Here is one concrete example where Roberts was obviously holding back in his studies and not attempting to answer the difficulties he raised. He thus intentionally underemployed/ignored the possibility of a limited geography setting in his “devil’s advocate” studies, when he obviously was not only aware of such an approach, he felt that it was the best explanation for the attendant difficulties of insisting on a hemispheric model. Hence his inclusion of it in his response to Riter.
He was of course able to offer answers to the issues he listed and discussed, even if some might have been lame or less-effective. The fact that he offered none at all should be seen as evidence that these studies were not “best-effort” apologetics.
Plus, this shoots down the notion that the limited geography explanations are a recent invention by apologists in response to the DNA criticisms. This was written in 1922!
I’ll shut up for now. I’ve never heard those who insist that Roberts lost his testimony address these points, and would be very interested in any comments on them.
Very valuable comments, McKay. Thanks!