Hugh Nibley passed away on Feb. 24. He will be greatly missed. I had the privilege of being in his ward when I was in graduate school at BYU. It was the Provo Ninth Ward, meeting in a building on 700 North and about 600 East. He was a warm and witty man. He was called as the Gospel Doctrine instructor for the ward, but needed some time off to keep up with all the demands on his time, so somehow I was called as his assistant. He would teach about every other Sunday, and I would when he didn’t. I had the most fun when he was teaching, of course.
When Hugh Nibley taught Sunday School, you might not be surprised to know that he did not always strictly follow the manual, although he often did cover the section of the scriptures that we were presumably studying that week. One of my strongest memories is when, in the midst of covering the Old Testament, he chose to give a lecture on the meaning of the wadjet eye – the stylized Egyptian eye found on Facsimile 2 in the Book of Abraham (see the upper right-hand corner, Figure 3 – the eye is to the left of the orb above the seated god). The richness of ancient Egyptian concepts associated with that symbol are beautifully consistent with Joseph Smith’s statement that Figure 3 is associated with the “grand Key-words of the Holy Priesthood” and with divine authority. It was a fascinating lesson, filled with one scholarly citation after another read from handwritten cards or notes regarding what the experts have said about this symbol. The lesson began vigorously as Nibley jumped into the topic and continued at top speed for the rest of the lesson. Unfortunately, he never bothered to point out what and where the wadjet eye was, and several people in front of me were whispering among themselves trying to figure out what on earth he was talking about. I had read some of his writings and could benefit somewhat from the actually fascinating lesson, but those who didn’t already know what the wadjet eye was were left in the dark. I don’t think he ever looked up to take questions, and I was too shy to interrupt. I guess I should have said something. So much for being a helpful assistant!
Sadly, he passed away as Martha Nibley Beck unleashed a book with some of the wildest and most unbelievable accusations you could imagine against this saintly man. All her other siblings have joined together to provide a firm and convincing defense of Brother Nibley.
Brother Nibley’s writings laid a foundation for LDS apologetics, showing Mormons and the world that there are many powerful evidences supporting the claim of authenticity for the Book of Mormon and other LDS texts. Even more importantly for me, he provided a context to help Latter-day Saints appreciate the rich and ancient nature of the LDS Temple, greatly adding to the value of the experience there.
Somewhat like Joseph Smith, Hugh Nibley’s name is being had for good and evil all over the world – but his legacy was one of great good, in spite of whatever weaknesses he had as a person or as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. The weaknesses I saw were actually symptoms of unbalanced strength and excessive focus. Would that these were the worst weaknesses of all the Lord’s people.