Community Voices: 100 Years of Hugh Nibley

On March 27th, we celebrated the 100th birthday of Hugh Nibley. The Nibley family held a family reunion and we got to see most of the East Coast contingency that we usually see only at funerals, so it was a party. And a good one at that. When Nibleys get together there is talking, loud talking, and much boisterous laughter, and amazing desserts. The Famous Nibley Apple Pie with the Certified Whole-Wheat Crust is only exceeded in greatness, in my opinion, by the lemon meringue pie, made with lots of real lemons and all their fruity bits. The only downer was that the guest of honor didn’t make it, at least not in the flesh. Although I did sometimes sense him guffawing at the political jousting and witty one-up-man ship and looking oh-so proud of his children. Hugh loved being around his family when they’re having fun, particularly when they aren’t taking themselves too seriously. And Nibleys seldom take each other too seriously.

The Nibley children are all passionate, articulate, and very kind. It’s a wonderful family to have been adopted into. Seriously, I have the best brothers- and sisters-in-law in the world, and my mother-in-law is amazingly kind and has treated me like one of her own from the time I first met her in 1983. Hugh was the most unique person I ever met. I first met him when Zina invited me over for dinner at the Nibley house. We had been talking about marriage and thought it was time to see what each of us was going to have to put up with if we went through with it. Zina’s mother was kind and welcoming, if a bit quiet; Hugh was socially awkward; he never stopped talking but didn’t seem to know what to say. It was charming because I felt like he was as nervous to meet me as I was to meet him. The legends about Hugh Nibley could not escape me, as I grew up in Utah valley, but the writings of Hugh Nibley had. I really didn’t know who he was or what all the fuss was all about. Seemed like a very nice, awkward, man, who was quite intelligent, but I wasn’t really sure why people were so impressed by him.

As I began introducing my new fiancée to friends and ward members, the first question they would usually ask was whether she was related to Hugh Nibley. Then, hearing the affirmative, they would launch into some Official Hugh Nibley Folklore. I heard stories about him parachuting into Greece during World War II while speaking classical Greek (not true), about how he would leave the car at school and walk home (true), about how he would launch into a joke told in German during his class and wonder why no one ever laughed (probably true). Occasionally, we’d get Hugh telling war stories during family gatherings, and the true stories were even more amazing than the folklore. The Hugh Nibley stories motivated me to seek out the man behind the legend. I began devouring his published works, digging up mimeographed (that was the technology of the day!) copies of old talks he had written, and I began to collect letters he had written to his friends and family. And what started out as a little family history project, transformed into a full biography of the man and his life’s works.

Nibley was interested in everything–ancient history mostly, but his focus was on comparing cultures and looking for similarities in the way we do things across the world’s cultures. His approach was similar to that of Mircea Eliade and the more popular Joseph Campbell. Hugh plowed through the historical record using his tremendous linguistic skills, making connections between rituals, personal names, themes, and genre that supported Mormon truth claims about the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and the Temple. Much of his work was apologetic in tone–marshalling the sources to defend the church from attacks already made on it.

But there was another side of Hugh Nibley, the social critic. Eugene England called him the finest lay prophet (as opposed to officially called) in Mormondom, but saw him as destined to live a life similar to Cassandra, the ancient prophetess doomed to speak the truth and have no on listen. Sadly throughout Hugh’s life this may have been true. Despite the very evident ways Hugh helped set the Church on the track of taking more seriously the words and ideas contained in the Book of Mormon and Books of Moses and Abraham and the temple, there were few members who read his social commentary and thought “He’s right, I need to sell my big house and give the money to the poor and become a school teacher, which has always been my passion.” But there were a few here and there, who read Nibley, changed their lives in ways he hinted at (Nibley was always more descriptive of Zion than prescriptive of the route you should take to get there, largely, I believe, because he recognized that there are as many ways to consecrate your life as there are lives to be consecrated).

Hugh called on us to create Zion and flee from Babylon, leaving us to contemplate what parts of our lives is Zion and what are Babylon. “Babylon and Zion cannot mix in any degree. A Zion that makes concessions is no longer Zion,” Hugh wrote. But in a more cutting way, he reminded us that, “Every step in the direction of increasing one’s personal holdings is a step away from Zion.”

Hugh urged us to be responsible environmental stewards, helping us begin creating a Mormon ethic of environmental stewardship. “Man’s dominion,” Hugh wrote in a classic essay that first appeared in the New Era, “is a call to service, not a license to exterminate.” But Hugh’s social responsibility was local as well as global. He fought for stewardship of the BYU Campus grounds, calling the presidents’ office every time the chain saws began cutting down and killing healthy trees on the south side of campus. He called on Provo residents to have greater respect for pioneer homes and buildings and not place the idea of “development” above our historical and cultural past. And he joined the chorus of latter-day prophets from Joseph Fielding Smith and Spencer W. Kimball, to abandon the practice of killing innocent animals during the annual hunting seasons so popular in the Western States.

And having served in the European campaign during World War II, landing on Utah Beach on D-Day, parachuting into and spending 70 bloody days in the muddy fields of Holland, witnessing the break out at the Bulge, and visiting the death camps of the Nazis, Hugh became an outspoken advocate for peace. “‘Renounce’ is a strong word,” Nibley argued, “we are not to try to win peace by war, or merely to call a truce, but to renounce war itself, to disclaim it as a policy while proclaiming (that means not just announcing, but preaching) peace without reservation.” Not a popular stance to take at BYU during the Cold War.

While I am a fan of the whole Nibley, I believe his social commentary holds up even better today than his apologetics. Don’t get me wrong, I was energized by Since Cumorah and Lehi in the Desert. However, there will most certainly be many new scholars will come along behind Hugh and explore the mines he opened. There will be more discoveries and more evidence brought to light even as some of Nibley’s leads turn out to be down shafts with little good ore. On the other hand, there have been many lives changed by reading Nibley’s social criticism. His writing has done what all great literature can do: It provokes us to see a new world, a better world, an attainable world, and it hints at the means necessary to take the road toward that promised land. I believe more people are heading Nibley’s prophetic warning today than there were ten years ago and many lives are being transformed in positive ways.

So perhaps Gene England was only half right: Hugh Nibley was our greatest Mormon lay prophet, but only temporarily a Cassandra whom no one listened to. Maybe he was a lay prophet who is best accepted by later generations. Lots of prophets, both lay and institutional, are like that.

I miss you, Hugh. I miss your lack of fashion sense (one suspender and a crushed fedora). I miss your fidgeting when you’d let me give you a ride in the car and I went down an alternate street that you hadn’t planned on me taking. I miss the potion magic you would concoct in the blender (although the mackerel and kidney bean shakes are not a smell I will ever need to smell again). I miss the passion you had about the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and the Temple. I miss the way you could get up in front of a crowd and in the middle of a cogent argument take a side tour, digressing until half your audience wondered whether you were ever coming back and the other half left wondering if they had just missed some central point that made sense of all this digression. I miss the way you could tie a serious argument about ancient political customs in Greece with the Beavis and Butthead. I miss how you would watch the Muppet Show regularly as well as Benny Hill. And I miss the fact that you consistently frightened the local Provoans by putting up a sign for the Democrats in your yard. I loved the way you did your home teaching every month and attended the temple once a week and taught Gospel Doctrine and never served in a bishopric or stake presidency. You were absolutely not a stereotypical Mormon! And we could sure use more of your kind right now. And thanks for giving me your dog tags. I know that was your way of saying that you approved of how the book turned out, and I hope the next time we see each other we’re both more comfortable acknowledging emotions and I can say in a little more direct way how much I’ve loved you. Thank you.

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10 Responses to Community Voices: 100 Years of Hugh Nibley

  1. Ed Snow says:

    Nice piece Boyd. I’m reading One Eternal Round right now and it’s great to hear Hugh’s familiar voice in a fresh manuscript, his Shakespeare quotes and frequent horse laughs and snorts. It’s my hope Mormons will always be reading Nibley for the same reason people still read Gibbon–for his writing style, creativity, observations and personality, even if his scholarship becomes dated (which it will, no doubt–read BH Roberts at his apologetic best today and you wonder … why did they care about half of the points he is raising back then?).

  2. boyd says:

    Ed, nice points. I can only add that Hugh himself agrees with you on the dated scholarship issue: “I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven’s sake, I hope we are moving forward here. After all, the implication that one mistake and it is all over with—how flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four fifths of everything I put down has changed, of course. That is the whole idea; This is an ongoing process, and I have some interesting examples of that…The two rules to follow here are 1) to ask the right questions, and 2) to keep looking”

    What is surprising, however, is how many things he got right, how he surveyed so much of what is Mormon Studies today, how many paths he opened for others to pursue. One of Hugh’s footnotes has often the basis of another scholar’s dissertation.

  3. Wonderful post, Boyd. I really enjoyed it. What a teacher he was (and is still, for anyone who reads him).

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Though a tribute to a man I never new personally and only read peripherally, this post left me with tears in my eyes. Boyd, you reminded me of how deeply I cared for my own father-in-law, Lester Norman Downing, who taught Ed Psych there at BYU, and how grateful I feel to have known him well. Thank you for that. God bless the entire Nibley family.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I enjoyed the great tribute, Boyd! Thanks.

  6. Ronda Walker Weaver says:

    Very nice tribute Boyd, and quite sentimental – I like that in you.

  7. Melinda W. says:

    I read your biography of Hugh Nibley and enjoyed it very much. I never did manage to plow through any of his gospel scholarship (I’d get two-thirds of the way through a book and then bog down), but I’ve read many of his essays on social issues more than once. This post was a good tribute to him.

  8. Charmayne Warnock says:

    I loved the tribute to Hugh Nibley. I never had the luxury of seeing him cross BYU campus although he was legend and I was always on the lookout for a disheveled, scholarly looking man that might be him. He was a man ahead of his times so it’s not surprising that he be a temporary Cassandra.

    Also, I’m excited to have discovered this website. I was getting really bored reading the newspapers with the same dismal articles and even more bored with Facebook and forwarded mass emails. Now I have something interesting to read.

  9. Th. says:

    .

    Charmayne, don’t miss AMV either: http://motleyvision.org

  10. Charmayne Warnock says:

    Thanks for the link. I’ll have to share these with my book group and writers group.

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