Hugh Nibley Book Of Mormon Assignment Of Contract

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Twenty-three years ago on this same occasion, I gave the opening prayer, in which I said: “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood.” Many have asked me since whether I really said such a shocking thing, but nobody has ever asked what I meant by it. Why not? Well, some knew the answer already, and as for the rest, we do not question things at the BYU. But for my own relief, I welcome this opportunity to explain: a “false priesthood?”

The Explanation

Why a priesthood? Because these robes originally denoted those who had taken clerical orders, and a college was a “mystery” with all the rites, secrets, oaths, degrees, tests, feasts, and solemnities that go with initiation into higher knowledge.

But why false? Because it is borrowed finery, coming down to us through a long line of unauthorized imitators. It was not until 1893 that “an intercollegiate commission was formed to draft a uniform code for caps, gowns, and hoods” in the United States. Before that there were no rules—you designed your own; and that liberty goes as far back as these fixings can be traced. The late Roman emperors, as we learn from the infallible Du Cange, marked each step in the decline of their power and glory by the addition of some new ornament to the resplendent vestments that proclaimed their sacred office and dominion. Branching off from them, the kings of the tribes who inherited the lands and the claims of the Empire vied with each other in imitating the Roman masters, determined to surpass even them in the theatrical variety and richness of caps and gowns.

One of the four crowns worn by the emperor was the mortarboard. The French kings got it from Charlemagne, the model and founder of their royal lines. To quote Du Cange:

When the French kings quitted the palace at Paris to erect a Temple of Justice, at the same time they conferred their royal adornments on those who would preside therein, so that the judgments that came from their mouths would have more weight and authority with the people, as if they were coming from the mouth of the prince himself [the idea of the Robe of the Prophet, conferring his glory on his successor]. It is to these concessions that the mortar-boards and the scarlet and ermine robes of the chancellors of France and the presidents of Parlement are to be traced. Their gowns or epitogia [the loose robe thrown over the rest of the clothing, to produce the well-known greenhouse effect], are still made in the ancient fashion. . . . The name “mortar-board” is given to the diadem because it is shaped like a mortar-board which serves for mixing plaster, and is bigger on top than on the bottom. [Charles Du Fresne, Sieur Du Cange, Glossarium ad Scriptores Mediae et Infimae Graecitatis (Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck u. Verlagsanstalt, 1958; Unveränderter Abdruck der 1688 bei Anisson, Joan. Posuel u. Claud. Rigaud in Lyon erschiehenen Ausgabe)]

But where did the Roman emperors get it? For one thing, the mortarboard was called a Justinianeion, because of its use by the Emperor Justinian, who introduced it from the East. He got his court trappings and protocol from the monarchs of Asia, in particular the Grand Shah, from whom it can be traced to the khans of the steppes and the Mongol emperors, who wore the golden button of all wisdom on the top of the cap even as I do now; the shamans of the north also had it, and among the Laplanders it is still called “the Cap of the Four Winds.” The four-square headpiece topped by the golden tassel—“the emergent flame of Full Enlightenment”—also figures in some Buddhist and Lamaist representations. But you get the idea—this Prospero suit is pretty strong medicine—“rough magic” indeed! (See Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 5, scene 1, line 51.)

There is another type of robe and headdress described in Exodus and Leviticus and the third book of Josephus’ Antiquities, i.e., the white robe and linen cap of the Hebrew priesthood, which have close resemblance to some Egyptian vestments. They were given up entirely, however, with the passing of the temple, and were never even imitated again by the Jews. Both their basic white and their peculiar design, especially as shown in the latest studies from Israel, are much like our own temple garments. This is not the time or the place to pursue a subject in which Brother Packer wisely recommends a judicious restraint; I bring it up only to ask myself, ”What if I appeared for an endowment session in the temple dressed in this outfit?” There would be something incongruous about it, of course, even comical. But why should that be so? The original idea behind both garments is the same—to provide a clothing more fitting to another ambience, action, and frame of mind than that of the warehouse, office, or farm. Section 109 of the Doctrine and Covenants describes the function and purpose of the temple as much the same as those of a university: a house where all seek learning by study and faith, by discriminating search among the best books (no official list is given), and by constant discussion—diligently teaching “one another words of wisdom”; everybody seeking greater light and knowledge as all things come to be “gathered in one”—hence university.

Both the black and the white robes proclaim a primary concern for things of the mind and the spirit, sobriety of life, and concentration of purpose removed from the largely mindless, mechanical routines of your everyday world. Cap and gown announced that the wearer had accepted certain rules of living and been tested in special kinds of knowledge.

What is wrong, then, with the flowing robes? For one thing, they are somewhat theatrical and too easily incline the wearer, beguiled by their splendor, to masquerade and affectation. In the time of Socrates the Sophists were making a big thing of their special manner of dress and delivery. It was all for show, of course, but it was “dressing for success” with a vengeance, for the whole purpose of the rhetorical brand of education which they inaugurated and sold at top prices to the ambitious youth was to make the student successful as a paid advocate in the law courts, a commanding figure in public assemblies, or a successful promoter of daring business enterprises by mastering those irresistible techniques of persuasion and salesmanship which the Sophists had to offer.

That was the classical education which Christianity embraced at the urging of the great St. Augustine. He had learned by hard experience that you can’t trust revelation because you can’t control it—the Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and what the Church needed was something more available and reliable than that, something, he says, commodior et multitudini tutor—“handier and more reliable for the public”—than revelation or even reason, and that is exactly what the rhetorical education had to offer.

At the beginning of this century scholars were strenuously debating the momentous transition from Geist to Amt, from Spirit to office, from inspiration to ceremony in the leadership of the Early Church, when the inspired leader was replaced by the typical city bishop, an appointed and elected official—ambitious, jealous, calculating, power-seeking, authoritarian; an able politician and a master of public relations—St. Augustine’s trained rhetorician. At the same time the charismatic gifts, the spiritual gifts, not to be trusted, were replaced by rites and ceremonies that could be timed and controlled, all following the Roman imperial model, as Alfoeldi has shown, including the caps and gowns.

And down through the centuries the robes have never failed to keep the public at a respectful distance, inspire a decent awe for the professions, and impart an air of solemnity and mystery that has been as good as money in the bank. The four faculties of Theology, Philosophy, Medicine, and Law have been the perennial seedbeds not only of professional wisdom, but of the quackery and venality so generously exposed to public view by Plato, Rabelais, Molière, Swift, Gibbon, A. E. Housman, H. L. Mencken, and others.

Leadership vs. Management

What took place in the Greco-Roman as in the Christian world was that fatal shift from leadership to management that marks the decline and fall of civilizations.

At the present time, Captain Grace Hopper, that grand old lady of the Navy, is calling our attention to the contrasting and conflicting natures of management and leadership. No one, she says, ever managed men into battle. She wants more emphasis in teaching leadership. But leadership can no more be taught than creativity or how to be a genius. The Generalstab tried desperately for a hundred years to train up a generation of leaders for the German army, but it never worked, because the men who delighted their superiors, i.e., the managers, got the high commands, while the men who delighted the lower ranks, i.e., the leaders, got reprimands. Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace. For managers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men and team players, dedicated to the establishment.

The leader, for example, has a passion for equality. We think of great generals from David and Alexander on down, sharing their beans or maza with their men, calling them by their first names, marching along with them in the heat, sleeping on the ground, and first over the wall. A famous ode by a long-suffering Greek soldier, Archilochus, reminds us that the men in the ranks are not fooled for an instant by the executive type who thinks he is a leader.

For the manager, on the other hand, the idea of equality is repugnant and indeed counterproductive. Where promotion, perks, privilege, and power are the name of the game, awe and reverence for rank is everything, the inspiration and motivation of all good men. Where would management be without the inflexible paper processing, dress standards, attention to proper social, political, and religious affiliation, vigilant watch over habits and attitudes, and so forth, that gratify the stockholders and satisfy security?

“If you love me,” said the Greatest of all leaders, “you will keep my commandments.” “If you know what is good for me,” says the manager, “you will keep my commandments, and not make waves.” That is why the rise of management always marks the decline of culture. If the management does not go for Bach, very well, there will be no Bach in the meeting; if management favors vile, sentimental doggerel verse extolling the qualities that make for success, young people everywhere will be spouting long trade-journal jingles from the stand; if the management’s taste in art is what will sell—trite, insipid, folksy kitsch—that is what we will get; if management finds maudlin, saccharine commercials appealing, that is what the public will get; if management must reflect the corporate image in tasteless, trendy new buildings, down come the fine old pioneer monuments.

To Parkinson’s Law, which shows how management gobbles up everything else, he added what he calls the “Law of Injelitance”: Managers do not promote individuals whose competence might threaten their own position; and so as the power of management spreads ever wider, the quality deteriorates, if that is possible. In short, while management shuns equality, it feeds on mediocrity.

On the other hand, leadership is an escape from mediocrity. All the great deposits of art, science, and literature from the past on which all civilization is nourished come to us from a mere handful of leaders. For the qualities of leadership are the same in all fields, the leader being simply the one who sets the highest example; and to do that and open the way to greater light and knowledge, the leader must break the mold. “A ship in port is safe,” says Captain Hopper, speaking of management; “but that is not what ships were built for,” she adds, calling for leadership. True leaders are inspiring because they are inspired, caught up in a higher purpose, devoid of personal ambition, idealistic, and incorruptible.

There is necessarily some of the manager in every leader (what better example than Brigham Young?), as there should be some of the leader in every manager. Speaking in the temple to the temple management, the scribes and Pharisees all in their official robes, the Lord chided them for one-sidedness: They kept careful accounts of the most trivial sums brought into the temple, but in their dealings they neglected fair play, compassion, and good faith, which happen to be the prime qualities of leadership. The Lord insisted that both states of mind are necessary, and that is important: “This ye must do [speaking of the bookkeeping] but not neglect the other.” But it is “the blind leading the blind,” he continues, who reverse priorities, who “choke on a gnat and gulp down a camel” (see Matthew 23:23ff). So vast is the discrepancy between management and leadership that only a blind man would get them backwards. Yet that is what we do. In that same chapter of Matthew, the Lord tells the same men that they do not really take the temple seriously while the business contracts registered in the temple they take very seriously indeed (see Matthew 23:16-18). I am told of a meeting of very big businessmen in a distant place, who happened also to be the heads of stakes, where they addressed the problem of “how to stay awake in the temple.” For them what is done in the house of the Lord is mere quota-filling until they can get back to the real work of the world.

Moroni and Amalickiah

History abounds in dramatic confrontations between the two types, but none is more stirring than the epic story of the collision between Moroni and Amalickiah—the one the most charismatic leader, the other the most skillful manager in the Book of Mormon. We are often reminded that Moroni “did not delight in the shedding of blood” and would do anything to avoid it, repeatedly urging his people to make covenants of peace and preserve them by faith and prayer. He refused to talk about “the enemy”—for him they were always “our brethren,” misled by the traditions of their fathers; he fought them only with heavy reluctance, and he never invaded their lands, even when they threatened intimate invasion of his own; for he never felt threatened, since he trusted absolutely in the Lord. At the slightest sign of weakening by an enemy in battle, Moroni would instantly propose a discussion to put an end to the fighting. The idea of total victory was alien to him—no revenge, no punishment, no reprisals, no reparations, even for an aggressor who had ravaged his country. He would send the beaten enemy home after battle, accepting their word for good behavior or inviting them to settle on Nephite lands, even when he knew he was taking a risk. Even his countrymen who fought against him lost their lives only while opposing him on the field of battle—there were no firing squads, and former conspirators and traitors had only to agree to support his popular army to be reinstated. And, like Helaman, he insisted that conscientious objectors keep their oaths and not go to war even when he desperately needed their help. Always concerned with doing the decent thing, he would never take what he called unfair advantage of an enemy. Devoid of personal ambition, the moment the war was over he “yielded up the command of his armies . . . and he retired to his own house . . . in peace” (Alma 62:43), though as a national hero he could have had any office or honor. For his motto was, “I seek not for power,” and as to rank, he thought of himself only as one of the despised and outcast of Israel. If all this sounds a bit too idealistic, may I remind you that there really have been such men in history, hard as that is to imagine today.

Above all, Moroni was the charismatic leader, personally going about to rally the people, who came running together spontaneously to his “title of liberty,” the banner of the poor and downtrodden of Israel (Alma 46:12-13, 19-21). He had little patience with management and let himself get carried away and wrote tactless and angry letters to the big men sitting on their thrones “in a state of thoughtless stupor” back in the capital. And when it was necessary, he bypassed the whole system; he “altered the management of affairs among the Nephites,” to counter Amalickiah’s managerial skill (Alma 49:11; emphasis added). Yet he could apologize handsomely when he learned that he had been wrong, led by his generous impulses to an exaggerated contempt for management, and he gladly shared with Pahoran the glory of the final victory—the one thing that ambitious generals jealously reserve for themselves.

But if Moroni hated war so much, why was he such a dedicated general? He leaves us in no doubt on that head—he took up the sword only as a last resort: “I seek not for power, but to pull it down” (Alma 60:36). He was determined “to pull down their pride and their nobility”—the pride and nobility of those groups who were trying to take things over (Alma 51:17). The “Lamanite brethren” he fought were the reluctant auxiliaries of Zoramites and Amalickiahites, his own countrymen. They “grew proud . . . , because of their exceedingly great riches,” and sought to seize power for themselves (Alma 45:23ff). Enlisting the aid of “those who were in favor of kings . . . those of high birth . . . supported by those who sought power and authority over the people” (Alma 51:8), they were further joined by important judges who had many friends and kindreds (the right connections are everything) plus almost all the lawyers and the high priests, to which were added “the lower judges of the land, and they were seeking for power” (Alma 46:4). All these Amalickiah welded together with immense managerial skill to form a single ultraconservative coalition who agreed to “support him and establish him to be their king,” expecting that “he would make them rulers over the people” (Alma 46:5). Many in the church were won over by Amalickiah’s skillful oratory, for he was a charming (flattering is the Book of Mormon word) and persuasive communicator. He made war the cornerstone of his policy and power, using a systematic and carefully planned communication system of towers and trained speakers to stir up the people to fight for their rights, meaning Amalickiah’s career. For while Moroni had kind feelings for the enemy, Amalickiah “did care not for the blood of his people” (Alma 49:10). His object in life was to become king of both the Nephites and Lamanites, using the one to subdue the other (see Alma 46:5). He was a master of dirty tricks, to which he owed some of his most brilliant achievements as he maintained his upward mobility by clever murders, high-powered public relations, and great executive ability. His competitive spirit was such that he swore to drink the blood of Alma, who stood in his way. In short, he was “one very wicked man” (Alma 46:9), who stood for everything that Moroni loathed.

It is at this time in Book of Mormon history that the word management makes its only appearances (three of them) in all the scriptures. First there was that time when Moroni on his own “altered the management of affairs among the Nephites” (Alma 49:11) during a crisis. Then there was Korihor, the ideological spokesman for the Zoramites and Amalickiahites, who preached that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius [ability, talent, brains, and so forth], and . . . conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime” (Alma 30:17; emphasis added). He raged against the government for taking people’s property, that “they durst not make use of that which is their own” (Alma 30:28). Finally, as soon as Moroni disappeared from the scene, the old coalition “did obtain the sole management of the government,” and immediately did “turn their backs upon the poor” (Helaman 6:39; emphasis added), while they appointed judges to the bench who displayed the spirit of cooperation by “letting the guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money” (Helaman 7:5). (All this took place in Central America.)

Such was the management that Moroni opposed. By all means, brethren, let us take “Captain Moroni” for our model, and never forget what he fought for—the poor, outcast, and despised; and what he fought against—pride, power, wealth, and ambition; or how he fought, as the generous, considerate, and magnanimous foe—a leader in every sense.

(Even at the risk of running overtime I must pause and remind you that this story of which I have given just a few small excerpts is supposed to have been cooked up back in the 1820s somewhere in the backwoods by some abysmally ignorant, disgustingly lazy, and shockingly unprincipled hayseed. Aside from a light mitigation of those epithets, that is the only alternative to believing that the story is true; nobody made it up, for the situation is equally fantastic no matter what kind of author you choose to invent.)

Some Leaders

That Joseph Smith is beyond compare the greatest leader of modern times is a proposition that needs no comment. Brigham Young recalled that many of the brethren considered themselves better managers than Joseph and were often upset by his economic naiveté. Brigham was certainly a better manager than the Prophet (or anybody else, for that matter), and he knew it, yet he always deferred to and unfailingly followed Brother Joseph all the way while urging others to do the same, because he knew only too well how small is the wisdom of men compared with the wisdom of God.

Moroni scolded the management for their “love of glory and the vain things of the world” (Alma 60:32), and we have been warned against the things of this world as recently as the last general conference. But exactly what are the things of the world? An easy and infallible test has been given us in the well-known maxim “You can have anything in this world for money.” If a thing is of this world, you can have it for money; if you cannot have it for money, it does not belong to this world. That is what makes the whole thing manageable—money is pure number; by converting all values to numbers, everything can be fed into the computer and handled with ease and efficiency. “How much?” becomes the only question we need to ask. The manager “knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing” (Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, act 3), because for him the value is the price.

Look around you here. Do you see anything that cannot be had for money? Is there anything here you couldn’t have if you were rich enough? Well, for one thing you may think you detect intelligence, integrity, sobriety, zeal, character, and other such noble qualities—don’t the caps and gowns prove that? But hold on! I have always been taught that those are the very things that managers are looking for—they bring top prices in the marketplace. Does their value in this world mean, then, that they have no value in the other world? It means exactly that: such things have no price and command no salary in Zion; you cannot bargain with them because they are as common as the once-pure air around us; they are not negotiable in the kingdom because there everybody possesses all of them in full measure, and it would make as much sense to demand pay for having bones or skin as it would to collect a bonus for honesty or sobriety. It is only in our world that they are valued for their scarcity. “Thy money perish with thee,” said Peter to a gowned quack (Simon Magus), who sought to include “the gift of God” in a business transaction (see Acts 8:9-24).

The group leader of my high priests quorum is a solid and stalwart Latter-day Saint who was recently visited by a young returned missionary who came to sell him some insurance. Cashing in on his training in the mission field, the fellow assured the brother that he knew that he had the right policy for him just as he knew the gospel was true. Whereupon my friend, without further ado, ordered him out of the house. For one with a testimony should hold it sacred and not sell it for money. The early Christians called Christemporoi those who made merchandise of spiritual gifts or Church connections. The things of the world and the things of eternity cannot be thus conveniently conjoined, and it is because many people are finding this out today that I am constrained at this time to speak on this unpopular theme.

Avoid the Latter-day “Arm of Flesh”

For the past year I have been assailed by a steady stream of visitors, phone calls, and letters from people agonizing over what might be called a change of major. Heretofore the trouble has been the repugnance the student (usually a graduate) has felt at entering one line of work when he or she would greatly prefer another. But what can they do? “If you leave my employ,” says the manager, “what will become of you?” But today it is not boredom or disillusionment, but conscience that raises the problem: To “seek ye first financial independence and all other things shall be added,” is recognized as a rank perversion of the scriptures and an immoral inversion of values.

To question that sovereign maxim, one need only consider what strenuous efforts of wit, will, and imagination have been required to defend it. I have never heard, for example, of artists, astronomers, naturalists, poets, athletes, musicians, scholars, or even politicians coming together in high-priced institutes, therapy groups, lecture series, outreach programs, or clinics to get themselves psyched up by GO! GO! GO! slogans, moralizing clichés, or the spiritual exercises of a careful dialectic, to give themselves what is called a “wealth mind-set” with the assurance that (in the words of Korihor) “whatsoever a man [does is] no crime” (Alma 30:17). Nor do those ancient disciplines lean upon lawyers, those managers of managers, to prove to the world that they are not cheating. Those who have something to give to humanity revel in their work and do not have to rationalize, advertise, or evangelize to make themselves feel good about what they are doing.

In my latest class a graduating honors student in business management wrote this—the assignment was to compare oneself with some character in the Pearl of Great Price, and he quite seriously chose Cain:

Many times I wonder if many of my desires are too self-centered. Cain was after personal gain. He knew the impact of his decision to kill Abel. Now, I do not ignore God and make murderous pacts with Satan; however, I desire to get gain. Unfortunately, my desire to succeed in business is not necessarily to help the Lord’s kingdom grow [a refreshing bit of honesty]. Maybe I am pessimistic, but I feel that few businessmen have actually dedicated themselves to the furthering of the church without first desiring personal gratification. As a business major, I wonder about the ethics of business—“charge as much as possible for a product which was made by someone else who was paid as little as possible. You live on the difference.” As a businessman will I be living on someone’s industry and not my own? Will I be contributing to society, or will I receive something for nothing, as did Cain? While being honest, these are difficult questions for me.

They have been made difficult by the rhetoric of our times. The Church was full of men in Paul’s day “supposing that gain is godliness” (1 Timothy 6:5) and making others believe it. Today the black robe puts the official stamp of approval on that very proposition. But don’t blame the College of Commerce! The Sophists, those shrewd businessmen and showmen, started that game 2,500 years ago, and you can’t blame others for wanting to get in on something so profitable. The learned doctors and masters have always known which side their bread was buttered on and have taken their place in the line. Business and “Independent Studies,” the latest of the latecomers, have filled the last gaps, and today, no matter what your bag, you can put in for a cap and gown. And be not alarmed that management is running the show—they always have.

Most of you are here today only because you believe that this charade will help you get ahead in the world. But in the last few years things have got out of hand; “the economy,” once the most important thing in our materialistic lives, has become the only thing. We have been swept up in a total dedication to “the economy,” which like the massive mud slides of our Wasatch Front, is rapidly engulfing and suffocating everything. If President Kimball is “frightened and appalled” by what he sees, I can do no better than to conclude with his words: “We must leave off the worship of modern-day idols and a reliance on the ‘arm of flesh,’ for the Lord has said to all the world in our day, `I will not spare any that remain in Babylon’” (”The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976, p. 6). And Babylon is where we are.

In a forgotten time, before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management, these robes were designed to represent withdrawal from the things of this world—as the temple robes still do. That we may become more fully aware of the real significance of both is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hugh Nibley was professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University when this commencement address was given on 19 August 1983.

© Brigham Young University. All rights reserved.

See the complete list of abbreviations HERE

At first light on 6 June 1944, the first of many allied landing craft began hitting the beaches of Normandy. At Utah Beach, twelve men dangling from one of the emerging jeeps cheered their driver on as they surged up from beneath the surface of the chilly English Channel waters. That driver, an army intelligence officer with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of California at Berkeley, was none other than Hugh W. Nibley, age 34.

While preparing for the invasion, Hugh had visited several antiquarian bookstores in London—walking out with armloads of Arabic and Greek literary treasures. He had also, on the sly, slipped a copy of the Book of Mormon into one of the fifty-five pockets in his regimental intelligence corps fatigues.

“It was right there at Utah Beach,” Hugh still vividly recalls, “as we were a couple of feet under water, that it really hit me—how astonishing the Book of Mormon truly is. It had never occurred to me before, but all I could think of all that day was how wonderful this Book of Mormon was.”1

Judged by any standard, the Book of Mormon is nothing ordinary. So it seems only right that possibly the most illustrious scholar yet to have investigated the Book of Mormon should have become fascinated with it in no ordinary way. Since Utah Beach, Hugh Nibley was never again the same. Nor was Book of Mormon scholarship.

Hugh Nibley’s extensive contribution to Book of Mormon studies is a monument of dedication and ingenuity. It needs to be approached from several angles.

The most apparent is in terms of sheer volume. He was over forty (older than the Prophet Joseph was when he was martyred at Carthage) when his first book, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites, appeared in 1952. But since that time, he has added a dozen significant articles and two other major works on the Book of Mormon to his list of publications—on numerous other subjects—which now numbers over 150.2 Although he recently celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday, he continues to add to that number yearly.

Lehi in the Desert broke new ground. Hugh’s broad range of knowledge about the ancient Near East, and especially his fluent Arabic, enabled him to reconstruct the cultural background of men like Lehi and Nephi and to read between the lines in the Book of Mormon to identify evidences of the world in which they lived. Few scholars had even thought of seeing such things.

Elder John A. Widtsoe acclaimed this book even before it was off the press: “This study has been done in such a manner as to make real and understandable these early peoples, and to make them living persons to those of this day, thousands of years removed. … The book could not have been written except with vast acquaintance with sources of historical learning. It has been written also under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. … For this reason this book, which becomes a powerful witness of the Book of Mormon, becomes also doubly precious to the leaders of the latter-day faith.” (See foreword to Lehi in tile Desert and Tile World of the Jaredites, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952, pp. v–vi.)

The method of this book, as Hugh once explained it, is “simply to give the Book of Mormon the benefit of the doubt.” If the reader is at least willing to indulge the assumption that Lehi lived in Jerusalem around 600 B.C., what he will find in the Book of Mormon itself will be remarkably consistent with what we know about that period of history from a secular standpoint.

The kinds of ancient Near Eastern facts and observations Brother Nibley included in Lehi in the Desert cover such points as language, literature, archaeology, history, culture, and politics. Here are a few samples:

“Egyptian literary writings regularly close with the formula iw-f-pw ‘thus it is’, ‘and so it is.’ Nephi ends the main sections of his book with the phrase, ‘And thus it is, Amen.’ (1 Ne. 9:6; 1 Ne. 14:30; 1 Ne. 22:31.), (Lehi in the Desert, p. 18.)

“[I] was once greatly puzzled over the complete absence of Baal names from the Book of Mormon. By what unfortunate oversight had the authors of that work failed to include a single name containing the element Baal, which thrives among the personal names of the Old Testament? … It happens that for some reason or other the Jews at the beginning of the sixth century B.C. would have nothing to do with Baal names. … ‘Out of some four hundred personal names among the Elephantine papyri, not one is compounded of Baal.’ … It is very significant indeed, but hardly more so than the uncanny acumen which the Book of Mormon displays on this point.” (Lehi in the Desert, pp. 34–36, including a quote from the late J. Offord.)

“When [Lehi] dreams of a river, it is a true desert river, a clear stream a few yards wide with its source but a hundred paces away (1 Ne. 8:14) or else a raging muddy wash, a sail of ‘filthy water’ that sweeps people away to their destruction. (1 Ne. 8:32; 1 Ne 12:16; 1 Ne 15:27.) In the year 960 A.D., according to Bar Hebraeus, a large band of pilgrims returning from Mekkah ‘encamped in the bed of a brook in which water had not flowed for a long time. And during the night, whilst they were sleeping, a flood of water poured down upon them all, and it swept them and all their possessions out into the Great Sea, and they all perished.’ … One of the worst places for these gully-washing torrents of liquid mud is in ‘the scarred and bare mountains which run parallel to the west coast of Arabia.’ … This was the very region through which Lehi travelled on his great trek.” (Lehi in the Desert, pp. 49–50.)

“When Ishmael died on the journey, he ‘was buried in the place which was called Nahom.’ (1 Ne. 16:34.) … The Arabic root NHM has the basic meaning of ‘to sigh or moan,’ and occurs nearly always in the third form, ‘to sigh or moan with another.’ … At this place, we are told, ‘the daughters of Ishmael did mourn exceedingly,’ and are reminded that among the desert Arabs mourning rites are a monopoly of the women.” (Lehi in the Desert, pp. 90–91.)

This excerpting of intriguing and stunning details and insights could go on at great length, but Lehi in the Desert is easily available. (It was in print for almost thirty years.) In spite of its age, and notwithstanding all of the subsequent research which this book itself has largely inspired, Lehi in the Desert should still be standard reading for anyone seriously interested in studying the Book of Mormon.

The durability of the legacy of this early pioneering research is probably proved no better than by the fact that Hugh Nibley himself has never stopped experiencing the thrill and romance of the desert imagery and Arabic intrigue which he found in the early chapters of the Book of Mormon. He still rates these discoveries as his most important contributions to Book of Mormon research.

He never wearies of telling how the Arab students, to whom he taught the Book of Mormon at Brigham Young University, reacted favorably to cultural elements contained in this book of scripture. Sometimes their reactions were not even to be anticipated. For example, as the class one day read the account of Nephi’s slaying of Laban, they became skeptical. It turned out that their interest was not in what had justified Nephi’s slaying of Laban—an extraordinary act in the mind of most Westerners—but why he had waited and debated so long!

What kind of price tag can ever possibly be placed on the value of knowledge like this? To Brother Nibley in these early years, the real payoff for his research came in the form of the ammunition it provided against the critics of the Book of Mormon. His parting shots in Lehi in the Desert drive this point home: “There is no point at all to the question: Who wrote the Book of Mormon? It would have been quite as impossible for the most learned man alive in 1830 to have written the book as it was for Joseph Smith. And whoever would account for the Book of Mormon by any theory suggested so far—save one—must completely rule out the first forty pages.” (P. 139.)

But it soon became obvious that this research was not simply destined to be involved in limited skirmishes. As his studies broadened, Nibley’s results began coming from yet other directions.

In 1957, his second book, entitled An Approach to the Book of Mormon, became the Melchizedek Priesthood course of study for the year. President David O. McKay knew it would be difficult for many good Saints to understand, but he also knew it would do them good to reach a little to comprehend this significant material. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith encouraged “all the brethren holding the Melchizedek Priesthood” to take “a deep interest in these lessons, which sustain the record of the Book of Mormon from [a] new and interesting approach.”3

Nibley’s approach here was basically the same as before, but the work now drew upon an even broader array of ancient contexts as settings for the Book of Mormon: Egyptian, Greek, Persian, and Hebrew. The details became more and more amazing.

For example, Lehi’s life and times were analyzed not only in connection with the ways of the desert, but also alongside his worldwide contemporaries, men whom Nibley calls “the titans of the early sixth century.” (An Approach, p. 39.) These included Solon, the great lawgiver-poet of Athens, Thales of Miletus, and other great religious founders such as Buddha, Confucius, Lao-tzu, and Zarathustra. This was an axial period in history—one which “clearly and unmistakably” left its stamp upon the political, economic, and religious traditions of the whole world. (An Approach, pp. 42–43.) Lehi found himself right at home in this innovative crowd of great dreamers and doers.

Nibley showed that Lehi was a representative man in terms of his political and economic dealings. Lehi’s probable experiences in world travel and commercial dealings with Egypt, and his possible connections with the Phoenician city of Sidon and the overland trade routes of the desert and the Fertile Crescent are consistent with the fact that Lehi was a man of considerable means, a man intimately familiar with the Egyptian language as well as the ways of caravan travel. (See An Approach, pp. 36–74.)

Nibley also explored broad patterns of ancient religious practices, showing how they relate with considerable insight to particular texts in the Book of Mormon. For example, the recurring “flight of the righteous into the wilderness” was a noteworthy practice. Lehi’s flight from Jerusalem, and Alma’s departure to the Waters of Mormon, are consistent with a repeated pattern of bands of people going out into the wilderness to live in righteousness. The same pattern is seen in the histories of the Jewish desert sectaries, the Rechabites, and the Dead Sea community at Qumran. Even the followers of John the Baptist, the children of Israel in the Sinai, and the Latter-day pioneers fled into the wilderness and followed an identifiable pattern of life and beliefs. “At last enough of the hitherto hidden background of the Old and New Testament is beginning to emerge to enable students before long to examine the Book of Mormon against that larger background of which it speaks so often and by which alone it can be fairly tested.” (An Approach, p. 145.)

Particularly striking was Brother Nibley’s detection and discussion of the vestiges of Old World ceremony and ritual in the Book of Mormon. The ancient Near Eastern year rite festival was an annual event at which the king called his people together, gave an accounting of his actions, placed the people again under obligation to abide by the law, prophesied, acclaimed all men equals, proclaimed them the children of God, and recorded their names in the registry of life. Such elements of the typical ancient year rite are readily discernible in several Book of Mormon assemblies, particularly that of King Benjamin in chapters 2 through 6 of the book of Mosiah. [Mosiah 2–6]

“There can be no doubt at all,” concludes Dr. Nibley, “that in the Book of Mosiah we have a long and complete description of a typical national assembly in the antique pattern. The King who ordered the rites was steeped in the lore of the Old World king-cult, and as he takes up each aspect of the rites of the Great Assembly point by point he gives it a new slant, a genuinely religious interpretation, but with all due respect to established forms. …

“The knowledge of the Year Drama and the Great Assembly has been brought forth piece by piece in the present generation. One by one the thirty-odd details … have been brought to light and … [are] now attested in every country of the ancient world. There is no better description of the event in any single ritual text than is found in the Book of Mosiah.” (See An Approach, chapter 23, especially pp. 255–56.)

Some of Brother Nibley’s favorite finds, although coming from a later period and from Iran, were three tales which cast light upon Captain Moroni’s actions in Alma 46. The first tells of a blacksmith named Kawe, who took his leather apron and placed it upon a pole as a symbol of liberation in the fight he led against Dahhak, “the man of the Lie and king of madmen.” Like Moroni’s Title of Liberty raised against the unscrupulous Amalickiah, Kawe’s banner in Isfahan became the national banner and a sacred emblem of the Persians for many centuries. (See An Approach, p. 176.)

The other two tales were collected in the tenth century A.D. by Muhammad ibn-Ibrahim ath-Tha’labi, a Moslem scholar who gathered legends about many ancient Biblical figures. He preserved one account “not found anywhere else,” about the coat of Joseph, telling how it was torn, how a remnant remained undecayed, and what that meant. This lore is preserved nowhere else—nowhere, that is, except in Alma 46:23–25, which also records the ancient tradition about a remnant of Joseph’s coat which was preserved undecayed, and explains its significance. “Such things in the Book of Mormon,” states Nibley, “illustrate the widespread ramifications of Book of Mormon culture, and the recent declaration of [William F.] Albright and other scholars that the ancient Hebrews had cultural roots in every civilization of the Near East. This is an acid test that no forgery could pass; it not only opens a window on a world we dreamed not of, but it brings to our unsuspecting and uninitiated minds a first glimmering suspicion of the true scope and vastness of a book nobody knows.” (See An Approach, pp. 177–80.)

Powerful, jolting ideas like these become commonplace in the pages of An Approach to the Book of Mormon. Clearly, to generate all this from scratch was the task of no common man. Hugh Nibley was ideally suited and prepared to see these wide-ranging connections and implications. His training spanned the worlds of Greece, Rome, Arabia, and beyond. His keen sense of contrast bridged the worlds of the East and the West. And his eclectic and omnivorous consumption of knowledge was coupled with a nearly flawless recall of virtually anything he had ever learned. These tools of a scholar gave him the ability to see the Book of Mormon against a background so vast that no one before had ever even surveyed it.

Of his accumulation of knowledge, the story is true that in doing his doctoral research he pulled every potentially relevant book in the UCLA library off the shelf to see what bearing it might have on his work. Of his depth of knowledge, one scholar quipped recently in exasperation, “Hugh Nibley is simply encyclopedic. … I hesitate to challenge him; he knows too much.”4 Of his memory, I am a witness: we were talking a few months ago and he began quoting Greek lyric poetry to me—line after line—lines he had studied forty-seven years ago.

It was inevitable that with this warehouse of knowledge—coupled with shoeboxes full of notes written on 3″ by 5″ scraps of colored paper—Hugh Nibley would continue to produce a steady stream of additional papers about the Book of Mormon. In 1967, the third of his major volumes on the Book of Mormon appeared. Since Cumorah is a mixed assortment of studies developing themes which were present with Nibley from the beginning: (1) his disdain for the so-called scientists or scholars whose dogmatism or authoritarianism preclude them from taking the Book of Mormon seriously; (2) his view of the Book of Mormon as an accurate reflection of the religious worlds which produced the books of the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Apocrypha; (3) his quest for words, phrases, poetry, or narratives which particularly elucidate our understanding of the words of the Nephite prophets; (4) his rejection of charges that things mentioned in the Book of Mormon are anachronistic; (5) his urgent belief that the book speaks to our day, and that we will be condemned to repeat the true-to-life errors of the Nephites if we do not take the message of this sacred record seriously and repent.5

Many of the specific topics treated in Since Cumorah either already were or soon became the subject of individual articles. His treatment of the Liahona in the light of the Arabic use of arrows or pointers to cast lots and make decisions was preceded by his article, “The Liahona’s Cousins.” (See Since Cumorah, pp. 283–96. See also Improvement Era, Feb. 1961, p. 87.) His comparison of early Christian accounts about the forty-day ministry of Jesus among the Apostles after the Resurrection and the account in 3 Nephi of his ministry to the people of Nephi was later expanded into a much more detailed listing of parallels in his study, “Christ among the Ruins.” (See Since Cumorah, pp. 198–207. See also Ensign, July 1983, p. 14.) His thoughts about “good people and bad people” grew into his more recent reflections on “Freemen and Kingmen in the Book of Mormon,” in which he articulates a creed that epitomizes the life Hugh Nibley himself has lived. In his typically candid analysis, Nibley sees the Freemen of the Book of Mormon as being “not militant; they made war with heavy reluctance; they were non-competitive, and friendly, appealing to the power of the word above that of the sword. … In their personal lives they placed no great value on the accumulation of wealth and abhorred displays of status and prestige, e.g. in the wearing of fashionable and expensive clothes. Eschewing ambition, they were not desirous or envious of power and authority; they recognized that they were ‘despised’ by the more success-oriented King-men.” (See Since Cumorah, pp. 373–444. See also “Freemen and Kingmen in the Book of Mormon,” typescript, p. 18, available from FARMS. See footnote #2.)

In several other articles, Brother Nibley likewise continued his quest for greater refinement and further elaboration of particular points. As Hugh describes this process: “The Book of Mormon is particularly amenable to comparative study—there are thousands of very extensive comparisons. With numerous comparisons there is a need for better information—always— … and we have hardly scratched the surface. Learning is cumulative. All we have to show for our existence is our awareness. Faith can bring things back into remembrance—it is the Holy Ghost which brings things to mind. … I like a more lavish picture.”

“Of course,” he recognizes, “what we are dealing with are just possibilities. Parallels are just that. But after so many extensive ones, that’s what hits you hard, the case becomes quite compelling.”

What, then, can one say to summarize the contribution of Hugh Nibley to Book of Mormon scholarship? Here are ten things which stand out to me:

1. He has made us look more carefully at the Book of Mormon. “We need to make the Book of Mormon an object of serious study. Superficiality is quite offensive to the Lord. We have not paid enough attention to the Book of Mormon.”

2. He has shown us that the Book of Mormon stands up well under close scrutiny. By looking carefully at the Book of Mormon, by reading between the lines, by examining each significant word or phrase in this book closely, we repeatedly find that there is always more there than meets the eye.

3. He has taught us to be surprised at what this marvelous book contains. Time after time he remarks how perfectly obvious something should have been to him long before it was—it was there right under our noses and nobody saw it. “Some subjects I studied for years without it occurring to me for a moment that they had any bearing whatsoever on the Book of Mormon.”

4. He has proved that the Book of Mormon is comfortably at home in the world of the ancient Near East, reflecting details that were not known and in many cases not knowable at the time the book was translated in 1829. As a book containing eternal truths, it is also, of course, at home in other generations. But anyone seeking to explain the book away must deal in all of the evidence, not just selections out of context.

5. He has opened further doors. Although he has not walked down every hallway, he has gone along opening doors which others will have to walk through for many years to come. Most of his hints have an uncanny way of proving to be vital clues. For example, the work he began in analyzing the philological roots of nonbiblical Book of Mormon names is being pursued by others.6 Points he made about Arabic oath-taking in relation to the oath given by Nephi to Zoram in 1 Nephi 4:31–35 [1 Ne. 4:31–35] have become the basis of solid studies.7 A passing reference to the use of tents in his discussion of the year rite festival in An Approach to the Book of Mormon (p. 247) has become the spark for a thorough treatment of the impressive correlations between the ceremony of King Benjamin and the typical ancient Israelite feast of tabernacles.8

6. He has challenged us. “The Book of Mormon,”he says, “is a debatable subject. … If we do not accept the challenge we will lose by default.”

7. He has never lost sight of the spiritual significance of the book. “Above all it is a witness to God’s concern for all his children, and to the intimate proximity of Jesus Christ to all who will receive him.”9 Despite Hugh’s knowledge, he knows that any scientific method is, by nature, limited. He knows that no ultimate proof of the Book of Mormon will be given. “The evidence that will prove or disprove the Book of Mormon does not exist.” (Since Cumorah, p. viii.) In his mind, scholarship simply sets the stage for the ultimate question. Once a person comes to the explicit realization that neither he nor she nor anyone else can explain how all this got in the Book of Mormon (and there may be arguments for, and contentions or predispositions against—but so many amazing details simply cannot be explained away by human fiat), then the person is at last at the point where he must turn to God in order to find out if these things are indeed true. “All that Mormon and Moroni ask of the reader,” Nibley says, “is, don’t fight it, don’t block it, give it a chance!” (As quoted in Gary P. Gillum, comp., Of All Things! A Nibley Quote Book, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1981, p. 93.)

8. He has spoken candidly about the book’s relevance to our day. “I intend to take Moroni as my guide to the present world situations.” (Of All Things, p. 86.) “In my youth I thought the Book of Mormon was much too preoccupied with extreme situations, situations that had little bearing on the real world of everyday life and ordinary human affairs. What on earth could the total extermination of nations have to do with life in the enlightened modern world? Today no comment on that is necessary.” (Of All Things, pp. 86–87.) “In the Book of Mormon, the very questions which now oppress the liberal and fundamentalist alike, to the imminent overthrow of their fondest beliefs, are fully and clearly treated. No other book gives such a perfect and exhaustive explanation of the eschatological problem. … Here you will find anticipated and answered every logical objection that the intelligence and vanity of men even in this sophisticated age has been able to devise against the preaching of the word. And here one may find a description of our own age so vivid and so accurate that none can fail to recognize it.” (Of All Things, p. 87.)

9. He has put the book into an eternal, urgent perspective. “The Book of Mormon should take priority. We have not paid enough attention to the Book of Mormon. This is very urgent!” While earlier generations should not be overly criticized, since many of the documents and discoveries elucidating the Book of Mormon have only recently come to light, there is now indeed an enormous amount of work crying out for us to do. A sense of pressing need to see that this work is done is one indelible stamp left on many by the legacy and influence of Hugh Nibley.

10. In all of this, he has changed us. Since Hugh Nibley, we as a people are not the same. We are warned but reassured; and we are fed, but still must plow.

Surely there are many ways and numerous reasons to read the Book of Mormon. Some days I read it for the doctrines of Christ, some days as a source of practical wisdom, and some days to contemplate the personalities of the prophets whose messages fill its pages. But other days, I read it for Hugh Nibley and the way he has taught me to read it—as a living testament of an ancient covenant people who knew the Lord and tried to follow his guidance centuries ago here on the American continent.

Show References


  • John W. Welch, father of four, serves as bishop of the BYU Thirty-sixth Ward and is a law professor at the Brigham Young University law school.

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