Hugh Nibley: The Faith of an Observer

Hugh Nibley in 2000.

Hugh Nibley in 2000.

If you have not been able to tell, one of my top role models and mentors is Dr. Hugh Winder Nibley, former BYU professor and highly esteemed LDS scholar.  He was and is still considered the foremost LDS scholar and apologist of this century, and perhaps of all time.  And he was a genius.  Once at a Biblical Society meeting the Jesuit scholar George MacRae, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, heard Hugh expound lengthily on a Greek text without notes including sporadically quoting thirty lines of the original, for which MacRae covered his face and confessed – “It is obscene for a man to know that much1.  Hugh Nibley passed away in 2005 at the age of 94.

A a couple decades ago a film documentary was produced about Hugh.  Son-in-law Boyd Petersen notes:

During the early stages of FARMS, Jack Welch began to consider producing a documentary about Hugh’s life and work.  Jack felt that a good production could be done for the modest sum of about five thousand dollars.  The idea took on a life of its own, led to hundreds of hours of personal interviews with Hugh, his family, friends, associates, and consumed a budget of a quarter-million dollars.  Welch approached Hugh’s son, Alex, who had studied at the American Conservatory Theater and was working at Sundance on what would later ecome the Sundance Film Institute.  Alex liked the idea and talked it over with his supervisor at Sundance, Sterling Van Wagenen.  Soon they added a cinematographer named Brian Capener to the team.  As they began to plan the film, Alex hoped it would show the more conversational side of his father.  “I wanted to show the public part of what I saw in private,” stated Alex.

Although Alex had informed Hugh about the project, Hugh didn’t fully appreciate that the project would actually become a reality until Paul Springer wrote him giving “broad hints and well-justified jibes.”  Needless to say, Hugh was furious: “What in hell is going on?  Charles (Alex) is being maddeningly uncommunicative.  Here I was, sinking into the grateful obscurity of a somewhat benign old age, and this thing breaks loose.  I must put a stop to whatever Charles is up to.  I did not settle in and for the suffocating obscurity of Provo to attract public notice.”2

But cooperate he did, and the documentary became a profound success.  I think far too many people inside the Church and out have ignored the weighty contributions of the scholarship and faithful example of Hugh Nibley.

You can watch the full documentary “Faith of an Observer” by clicking this link.

Also, Nibley’s newest book Eloquent Witness is said to have a transcript of this video.

  1. Truman Madsen in Hugh Nibley, On the Timely and the Timeless, x-xi. []
  2. Boyd Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 374-375. []


  1. Posted July 30, 2008 at 11:30 am | Permalink


    I love the MacRae quote, and I have often thought the same thing for years and years. The rest of us must function on poor memories, poor multi-language skills, and insufficient time to do our meager studies. So, indeed, there is something extraordinary about the one-of-a-kind Nibley.

    I am grateful for the video, even if Nibley was uncomfortable with it. He was interested in scholarship NOT fame. But, for the rest of us, it is nice to have a scholar to look up to… way, way up.

  2. Posted July 30, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Nibley, along with John Welch, seemed to consider Approaching Zion as Nibley’s most important work (or book since they are all collections of many works). His blistering critique of capitalism and greed is one of my favorite pleasures.

    I once took a faculty seminar at UVSC with Boyd Petersen. He mentioned that there seems to be those that like Nibley’s temple writings and those that like his social/political/economic writing, but few people fall into both categories. I, for one, put myself in both categories. I am an apoligist for the gospel, but I am not a defender of all things Mormon and American. That is how I view Nibley.

    One reason he did not like all of the attention was because he thought Mormons should think and research for themselves rather than contantly quote Nibley.

  3. Posted July 30, 2008 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    mentor? This usually implies a direct relationship. Please explain.

  4. Posted July 30, 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink


    I also consider “Approaching Zion” one of Nibley’s best books, if not the best. I’ve read it twice, and want to read it again. It is packed full of good counsel, insight, wisdom, truth, and unabashed critique of the evils of our day. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. As far as constantly quoting Nibley all the time, I confess that I have the same problem he did:

    I’m no expert. . . . I have to keep quoting documents all the time and letting them speak for me, because I don’t know any of this stuff. (Gillum, Of All Things!, transcript of interview by Louis Midgley, “Nibley the Scholar,” 8.)


    I believe the term mentor can mean more than just personal, direct, physical tutelage. It can also mean a trusted counselor, guide, and adviser. In pouring over and studying Nibley’s work over many years, and applying many of the things he taught into my life, I feel that I have been mentored by him. I feel closer to him, with a stronger connection, than the generic terms of teacher, professor, or author do justice. He has counseled the way I live my life. He has helped guide my decisions. He has advised me as to the right order of the gospel. His arguments strike a cord deeply in me, as I think they have in many others. I think the term mentor comes close to describing this kind of relationship.

  5. Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    I have loved Sterling’s film about Hugh since I first saw it at BYU when it was premiered. I obtained a VHS copy as soon as it was available and have shared it with a lot of friends. Those viewings eventually led to at least one baptism. Hugh was glad for that and he sent a short piece to be read at the service giving his testimony.
    I taught at BYU in the art department in the 1980s and would often crash his Pearl of Great Price and Book of Mormon classes. On one occasion the Honors Program who sponsored the class passed out leaflets before class warning all of us interlopers that we were not welcome unless we had registered for the class. When Brother Nibley came in he looked at one of the notices and, snorting in his unique way, asked that all of them be passed to him as he needed some more scrap paper for note taking. He then announced for the benefit of the Honors Program types present that if they persisted with this harrassment he would take the class off campus and then jumped right into his lecture.
    I would also count myself as one who likes Hugh’s temple writing and his social/political/economic writings. I am particularly keen on his writings on our relationship to “the environment”. After reading your response to the Pixar film Wall-E I am curious how you feel about Hugh’s writings on the topic. Where is the line between our stewardship over creation and the “religion of environmentalism”? Do you consider Dr Nibley’s social, political and economic writings liberal , moderate or conservative? I have sat in the audience as he delivered keynote addresses at gatherings of both the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance Fall Roundup and The Sunstone Symposium, both organizations considered by most to be liberal on social, political and economic issues.

  6. Posted July 30, 2008 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your comments Joseph. I wish I could have attended one of Nibley’s classes. That would have been a truly singular experience. Although I do have some videos.

    About Nibley’s environmental writings, sermons, and views, I think he lived in a very different time than the one we live in today, and I don’t think he would agree today with the extremism of environmental “protection.” This is what I said on another blog:

    I don’t believe Nibley was part of the “modern” environmental movement. Most of Nibley’s environmental concerns were stated in the 70s and 80s…, at a time when the world, and especially our nation and Nibley’s local Utah Valley community, had no regard whatsoever for the environment (e.g. Geneva). At that time, there was absolutely no one who was standing up for our stewardship of the earth. Nibley took that stand. Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme today.

    I have no qualms about taking care of the earth… I believe we will be held accountable for our stewardship of the earth at the judgment bar. But I don’t believe the extent to which people, especially politicians, deem to take away our rights, freedoms, and property, and go to other immoral extremes, to promote so-called environmentalism. It isn’t right.

    And it isn’t in concert with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I plan to write a post on the subject of the difference between our stewardship of the earth and the religion of environmentalism at some point. I do believe there is a difference, but the differences are sometimes very subtle. Much of what we see today of so-called environmentalism I believe to actually be a particularly destructive strain of Chicken Little-ism. There is no “global crisis.” The environment is not being utterly destroyed. The sun is not going to burn a hole through the Earth. The oceans aren’t going to re-flood the Earth again (note that God made a covenant that this would never happen again). We aren’t going to destroy the planet through our garbage waste. Etc., Etc. I think the people who preach these lies don’t have the best interests of the environment or humans in mind. They stir up the emotions of the masses into a hysteria that we are doomed for destruction so they can use us. It is all very cunning and crafty, with much use of flattery and seemingly convincing arguments. But I don’t believe it. Yes, I believe we should take care of our environment, but in a much different way, and to a much different extent than that which is being promoted by the environmental activists. For one, it includes a worship of God and a place for man on Earth and in its environment as opposed to a worship of the Earth and the extreme minimalization and suppression of man’s interference in nature. After the Fall, mankind was not sent to live outside nature; on the contrary, he was sent into the world, to work the land, to enjoy and use the resources of nature, and to subdue the dark and dreary world for the sake of the betterment of mankind.

    I don’t think I would label Nibley’s social, political and economic writings either liberal, moderate or conservative. I think he ranged over the entire spectrum of right to left depending on the subject. I believe he taught what he believed was right as it related to the gospel. He didn’t care how the world categorized that view. As he said in an interview I recently read:

    …you only have to look about you to realize that the gospel is one thing and [politics] is another. It is reasonable to suppose that man departed from the first teachings and instructions and refused by his disobedience to be governed by them. He formed laws as best suited to his own mind. And though man won’t admit that, it is a second best – it’s a poor second best. (Interview with Hugh Nibley by Louis Midgley, BYU Forum Assembly, May 21, 1974.)

    Hugh Nibley believed that the law of consecration was the true order of God, the law of the Celestial Kingdom and the law which would bring again Zion, which ruled out consideration of all other man-made systems and temporal classifications.

  7. Posted July 31, 2008 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your response Bryce. I look forward to your coming post.
    My sad conclusion is that neither major political party has balance in their approach to environmental stewardship. I am reminded of Nibley’s oft used comment about what he called “the devil’s dilemma”. It goes like this; “You have freedom to chose in this world. What will it be, cigarettes or cigars, communism or capitalism, etc?” In every case neither man made system or product really fits God’s plan for us. The left as you have pointed out is extreme and tries to paint humankind out of the picture. The right favors industry at the expense of human and planetary health issues. I am amused at tee shirt slogans of young lefties that say “save the planet”. The planet does not need saving nearly as badly as we do. It is our home that is being polluted beyond usabiliy. It is us who are in danger of suffocating in our own waste. The earth will clean herself up just fine after we have poisoned ourselves out of a home. She is designed to do so and, except for fulfilling the measure of her creation, would be better off without our presence. Of course being the provider of our bodies she would rather endure our bad behavior and help us on our eternal progression than be free of the trouble that we are. She , like us, awaits the return of our creator to help us fix the mess we have made of things both spiritually and physically. I feel justified in personifying the earth based on Moses 7: 48–49. In that respect she is the “mother of men”. This does not constitute earth worship but an acknowledgment of scriptural truth. We worship the true and living God but reverence the earth as his footstool and our physical source.
    Long story short; if Al Gore and the environmental extreme are the false prophets of environmental doom then Dick Cheney and his band of secret energy advisors are the counterpart on the right. God help us if either gets their way.

  8. Posted July 31, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Thanks Joseph. I actually used the same quote from Nibley in the followup post on WALL-E on Millennial Star.

    I don’t believe that we are suffocating in our own waste, that we will poison ourselves out of our homes, or that our Earth would be better off without our presence. After all, this is where we are going to be for eternity (D&C 103:7). Earth is our eternal home. It was created precisely for our presence on it, forever. I think these are some of the lies the environmentalism movement has so cunningly convinced the general populace into believing, at the expense of the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. They would have us believe that we are an animal species whose population has run a muck, and must be kept in check on the Earth. Any interference of man in nature is evil, they say. While the gospel teaches us, “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves” (D&C 104:17).

    I take a much more moderate view of environmentalism in comparison with the current liberal fanaticism. Should we take care of the Earth? Yes. Should we try to reduce waste and pollution? Yes. Should we be prudent in our use of the Earth’s resources? Yes.

    I agree that capitalism isn’t any better. May the kingdom come! And quickly.

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