Remembering Hugh Nibley

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.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

12 thoughts on “Remembering Hugh Nibley

  1. I have never heard the term “wadjet eye” before though I think I know what symbol is being spoken of. I guess I’ll have to keep aware of any references to this in the future or start looking for scholarly citations on the matter. Thanks for this post.


  2. It’s the all-seeing eye of Masonry and 19th century Mormon symbolism. Nibley discusses it a lot as a symbol of the resurrection. If I recall from Yate’s book, the Rosicrucians picked it up from various Renaissance rediscoveries of Egyptian art, hermetic texts and neoPlatonic text. It still carries with it a lot of the meaning.

  3. Brother Doctor Nibley’s daughter may have accused her father, because to confront the actual molester may have been too terrifying. Her father is a more safe figure and she feels a need to express her rage.

  4. Jeff,

    It is a shame that Martha Becks book is published now. Bad timing all the way around. I was up until midnight finishing it. As to the molestation, only Hugh and his daughter know for sure (and her mother probably has an incling one way or the other).
    As for her spin on the church, it was pretty much dead on with what i experience in my 30+ years as an active LDS. It seems interesting that any church historian who publishes what they have found in their reasearch that casts any shadow of doubt on the church’s version it’s own history is either ex-d or disfellowshipped. Yet when someone like Paul Dunn is proven to have made millions of dollars telling lies to us, we make him an Apostle Ameritus???? Seems a little whacky to me.

  5. I think you mean that disgruntled former Mormons or Mormons that were excommunicated are more likely than active Mormons to challenge the Church’s views. Beck, Quinn, and others aren’t out of the Church because the Church cracked down on someone for reporting historical or scientific research.

    People who are openly hostile to the Church or who break critical commandments and refuse to repent may sometimes remain as members for long periods of time before the Church takes any action, if action is ever taken. Others are held accountable for their actions more quickly. But simply publishing results of historical research in good faith or having a difference of opinion does not lead to disciplinary action in any cases I’m familiar with.

    And for those members who openly deny the Restoration and teach against the core doctrines of the Church, one wonders why they are so anxious to stay on as members.

  6. Interesting anecdote about Nibley. I’m glad you made that point. While there are many who were inspired by Nibley in the classroom, many more that I have spoken with found him to be a very poor teacher who cared little about his audience’s understanding (or, perhaps more correctly, he simply couldn’t comprehend they weren’t understanding). Reading Nibley’s books are truly a joy, but even they are obtuse and non-linear, drenched with his unique jocularity and sarcasm, making them difficult initially to get through. I think we have to honestly classify him as one of those who was a brilliant scholar, writer and researcher but not a great teacher. Unfortunately, there are many like that at BYU. BYU remains primarily an undergraduate institution; very few individuals in any given class are going to focus on that professor’s line of work. Why shouldn’t BYU focus more on creating excellent teachers than distinguished researchers? As more and more academics specialize in areas that become more and more removed and remote from the core areas of their fields, they become more at risk of forgetting their audience. I don’t mean to imply professors shouldn’t challenge their students or that they should serve everything on a silver platter, but few benefit from professors that simply love to hear their own voices or who truly care little for their audience.

  7. Most impressive site! Its nice to see someone “calling it as they see it.”
    Regarding Beck…is Harvard selling PhDs on eBay? How is her book being viewed as having historical or scientific research in it? Self hypnosis to recover hidden memories? Beck should promote her book on Jerry Springer instead of Oprah.

  8. Jeff,
    Actually I was refering to Quinn. Beck wasn’t a Historian and definately is not pro Mormon.
    Quinn was one of the prominent church Historians who published what he believed to be acurate and true, based on his research. Prior to being disfellowshipped in Dec. of last year he never spoke poorly of the church leaders.
    If you read his latest publication, you will discover that the church history we are taught from the time we are born is a far cry from what actually took place. Much of his writing comes from records sealed up in the Church Vaults unavailable to you or I. I believe he was heartbroken by his disfellowship, and believes that the truth is the truth and that a true testimony will stand up to the truth. I don’t believe he was disfellowshipped for breaking any commandements.
    And yet, Paul Dunn, who blatently and admittedly lied to us for years and made fortunes from his books and tapes was made an Apostle emeritus. Could you help me come to grips with that – I’ve been struggling with that one for a long time and the recent Quinn thing really bothers me.
    Thanks – D D M

  9. DDM,

    I don’t know what you mean by Apostle Ameritus. Paul Dunn was not an apostle. He was given “emeritus” status from his calling as a Seventy, which means “retired from active service.”

    Paul Dunn manifested a character weakness in his exaggerations. His heart, however, was always in the Kingdom. I do not believe any objective assessment by those who knew this dear man or who have studied the whole of his life and service would conclude malice. He unquestionably devoted his life–notwithstanding his penchant for stretching the truth for the sake of a good story and a dramatic teaching moment–to service to the Church he loved. Via indescribable humiliation he paid dearly for his distortions of story.

    It’s hurtful to me that someone would use the word “lies” with regard to Paul Dunn’s story telling. While that word is technically correct for the situation, the word carries with it a spirit of unkindness and harshness of judgment. (I hope my own shortcomings will be judged and described in the larger context of who I am and with some degree of charity.) We can speak fact without employing mean-spirited words.

    D. Michael Quinn on the other hand has been a mischief maker for years. His penchant is to beat-up on the brethren (particularly President Benson) and other devoted and promiment people in the Church (song writer Evan Stephens, for example). Quinn is unquestionably a gifted researcher, but his distortions, his leaps from facts to unwarranted conclusions and his egregious judgements unsubstantiated by the copious associated endnotes, deny legitimate scholarship. He is clearly a researcher with an agenda. This agenda has cost him dearly: his membership in the Church, his marriage, his teenager son (who committed suicide in Provo Canyon), his reputation among objective scholars of Church history and sociology, and his allegiance to opposite-sex attraction.

  10. I remember taking Hugh Nibley’s Book of Mormon class as well as his Gospel Doctrine class at the Provo 9th Ward, where he taught New Testament straight out of the Greek.

    I came to Utah, after my mission, inspired by Nibley’s books, which I read voraciously. I was thrilled when I got into Nibley’s Book of Mormon class, but soon disappointed that so little of what Nibley said could be understood through his whisper-like mumblings, even with a lapel-mic on. My impression of the experience was that this was a spectacle, an old man rambling to himself while hero worshippers sat at his feet. I spent most of the rest of that semester in the BYU Library, reading on my own.

    Imagine my surprise the following semester (I married a day after finals) to find him teaching Gospel Doctrine in the Provo 9th. It was again a sideshow, with Nibley lecturing to a rapt audience of hero worshippers, none of whom I ever saw engaging him in any discussion. Nibley spoke. We listened. That was it.

    My wife and I gave up our seats at the show to attend the other Gospel Doctrine class, which was not quite the spectacle, but which at least offered us the opportunity to participate. I think the world of Hugh Nibley and am glad that he was there to inspire me, as much as others, but there comes a time when hero worship must yield to something else – call it individual growth. Nobody can chew your food for you, nor does anybody – no matter how impressive – have all the answers.

    I regret that Nibley has been targeted by his daughter for what must be outrageous lies, but the slanders come with the fame, and Nibley was a “rock star” of Mormon apologetics. For me, that wasn’t enough. Like all great rhetoricians, his theories made the most sense the less able you were to critically inspect the package.

  11. “Outrageous lies”?!! How would you know? It’s “he said/she said” at this point and therefore indeterminable by us, the outsiders. But if Martha is speaking the truth, how dare you accuse her of being a liar? You simply do not know the truth, so stop having an opinion! I would like to know if you’ve read her side of the argument.

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