Hugh Nibley Will Never Happen Again

During my time as an undergraduate at BYU I noticed there were certain Latter-day Saint scholars that were looked up and aspired to by different groups. These were the days of Rough Stone Rolling when the “New Mormon History” seemed ascendent after a false labor with Leonard Arrington. Various Bushman acolytes aspired to follow in his footsteps and entered training in history, religious studies, or adjacent fields so that they could bring their formal training to Latter-day Saint related fields and become the kind of authority in Latter-day Saint issues that transcended the academy and had a direct bearing on the Church zeitgeist, much as Bushman did. 

Similarly, I had the sense that peak Nibley-ism had crested about a decade or so before my undergraduate years, with his acolytes similarly entering ancient languages and history to become the next Hugh Nibley, and while I’m not involved in the humanities I suspect that Eugene England had a similar effect in some circles, with people wanting to write the next landmark essay that was circled around Latter-day Saint intelligentsia. (As a social scientist we don’t really have an equivalent. Valerie Hudson probably comes closest, although there is the fun fact that one of the early Presidents of the American Sociological Association was a grandson of Brigham Young). 

Enough time has passed to see the results of such aspirations. Some have found very rewarding careers, but that original aspiration was and will probably continue to remain unfulfilled. There will never be another Hugh Nibley, Richard Bushman, or Eugene England for two reasons:

First, specialization. Hugh Nibley especially lived in the time of the generic scholar, when the human knowledge base was still small enough that an intelligent person with a lot of time could reasonably claim to be somewhat proficient in large swaths of human knowledge, and could therefore draw very high-level conclusions about society, god, and just about everything. While people now jeer at Hugh Nibley for drawing very overarching conclusions involving multiple disciplines, this was the norm in the environment that formed him. When the Joseph Smith papyri were found, Hugh Nibley underwent intensive Egyptological training in addition to his Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Shakespeare, and whatever else he was into. Now we have students who enter graduate schools just for Egyptology, Coptic, or Christian Theology. I doubt that James Faulconer knows as much about the particulars of early Christian theology as Robert Boylan, nor that Richard Bushman knows as much about Latter-day Saint history as Ardis Parshall. That’s not to demean Faulconer or Bushman but to credit Boylan and Parshall. Whatever subject you consider, no matter how narrow, there is a good chance somebody out there has spent a significant portion of their lives learning everything there is to know about that subject, which in the Internet age is quite a lot. There is simply no way that a renaissance man or woman can keep up abreast with enough fields to be able to speak with some kind of authoritative uber-scholar voice that we had in the past. 

Second, attention fragmentation: pre-Internet, the “marketplace of ideas” was controlled by a few publishing houses and journalistic outlets that acted as gatekeepers for new information. To be a well-read person you read the material that was glacially published by these outlets, because that is all there was. Consequently, those who passed by the gatekeepers were the natural intellectual high priests. Now there are many intellectual high priests. I’m not going to get into whether those “canonized” texts, whether in international relations, short fiction, or Latter-day Saint history, in fact merit their status, but I suspect that if there was a blind taste test canonized texts wouldn’t amount to much compared to what is being produced today. Similarly, with mainstream media entertainment collective attention was directed via a few gatekeepers with access to the means of production and dissemination of audiovisual content, whether via television or studio movies. With the advent of cheap film production technology, podcasts, and Youtube that power has been fractured. The Latter-day Saint intellectual landscape has been similarly fractured, with dozens of voices, and people can pick and choose which to stock their shelves with depending on their tastes. 

This may sound like I’m complaining and pining for a golden age. I’m not. I like specialization, it allows for accelerated progress when our particle physicists can focus on particle physics and don’t have to also spend time trying to read Newton in the original Latin. I know this makes me a rube, especially in some humanities circles, but I am sympathetic to the left-wing critique that the idea of a literary canon was often to privilege certain voices more than to reveal some deep insight about man, the nature, or cosmos that I couldn’t get just as (and usually more) easily elsewhere. 

Which brings me to point two; for the most part I like fractured attention. In my experience the people complaining that we’re not on the same page are pining for the day when they or people who thought like them got to choose what was on that one page. We now have rich, variegated intellectual traditions, and this allows for more of a free market of ideas than existed before whether you’re into Adam Miller, Interpreter, AML, or 19th century feminist Mormon poetry from Southern Utah. There is no one podium that has prominence (I suspect one of the reasons people are preoccupied with lobbying the brethren about General Conference topics is that there are so few other podiums nowadays that command more than a fraction of people’s passing attention). 

The turn towards multiple podiums not constrained by gatekeepers creates a much richer, varied landscape; there will never be a single Hugh Nibley-esque figure, there will be dozens, and this is a good thing.


15 comments for “Hugh Nibley Will Never Happen Again

  1. I think intellectual balkanization will accelerate socio-religious balkanization, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. I’ve seen a lot of trust between Church members undermined in the last five years.

  2. Stephen, you’re probably right, both that another Nibley/England/etc. won’t happen, and that there’s value in that. There are some painful costs, too, even if they are outweighed by the positive aspects.

    Another factor is how the Internet has reduced the relative value of subject knowledge, as Matt Yglesias puts it. You may have invested decades studying a topic and creating new knowledge in your field, but I can click around for 15 minutes and find a more highly credentialed expert in your field who disagrees with you, so there.

  3. “As a social scientist we don’t really have an equivalent. Valerie Hudson probably comes closest…”
    Armand Mauss anyone?

  4. I don’t disagree too much with the substance of this post. But a few things:

    1. Working in the academic world that Nibley traded upon to garner credence (and religious deference) from his faith community long ago taught me that Nibley was never, and I mean never, regarded in the slightest as anything but an oddball looney by his colleagues in the field, if they knew him at all. Those stories Mormons love to tell about other distinguished profs fawning over his brilliance? First, they are almost all certainly apocryphal. Don’t believe me? Run down the sources. Second, if anything like that did happen, it was from kind hearted souls too gentle to openly ridicule Nibley.

    2. Nibley contributed next to nothing to the academic enterprise. He didn’t leave any mark upon his field. He is not even a footnote to his era of scholarship. And this is not because he was the target of some sort of religious discrimination. He simply produced nothing of value to the academic community.

    3. Nibley’s greatest heritage, if you can call it that, is the Daniel Peterson, Jack Welch, John Hall, Stephen Ricks era of Mormon intellectuals. These guys got legitimate academic degrees (except for Welch) and went on to contribute only slightly more than Nibley himself did to their respective fields. Take your average associate professor and she alone will have more peer reviewed, academic publications than all of these guys’ careers combined. They too are non-entities in academia. Too harsh? Try dropping their names at an academic conference or, if you are a grad student, to your advisor. I speak from embarrassed experience (*shudder*).

    4. Nibley should have never received the accolades he did because he did nothing to earn them. Telling his Mormon audience what they wanted to hear, bending and misrepresenting evidence to do so, created an insatiable appetite among Mormons. When Nibley couldn’t slake their thirst, his intellectual offspring stepped up to whet those desires even more. And the hunger persists, if attenuated. These days the vestiges of Nibley’s contribution to the LDS world are best found in the reheated microwave pizza bites offered by Book of Mormon Central. The Nibley saga is a sad and cautionary tale.

  5. “nothing of value to the academic community” which implicitly, is the only thing that matters to the commenter above.

  6. Hi all, first of all, apologies to those for whom I delayed approving your comment. Still new at this and forgot that I’m in charge of approving comments. I remember commenting on blogs in the past and being perturbed when they got stuck in moderation, so sorry for the hypocrisy.

    @ Ben: Yes, the conflict is bad; my hope is that the intellectual balkanization will force people to think harder about where Christ is it’s less natural to just hitch your wagon onto a cultural figure or two.

    @Jonathan: I agree there are definitely cons, and I’m ambivalent about the decline of expertise authority. I roll my eyes at skeptics with the most progressive of them on certain scientific and social scientific issues, but on the other hand there are entire fields that have been built on p-value hacking and ideological presuppositions that fundamentally deserve to be ignored, no matter how fancy their titles are.

    @CWatts: Armand Mauss is another possibility (obviously, these sorts of things are judgment calls). On a personal note, he always struck me as a sincerely wise, unassuming person, and it’s sad that more laypeople did not get to know him or his writings.

    @Anon Cuz: Hugh Nibley’s legacy is a big enough topic for a whole other post, but very generally: I think we’d disagree on whether something only has value if it goes through a traditional scholarly journal. Hugh Nibley’s primary legacy, IMO, is that he legitimized belief in the historicity of the BoM/BoA in the eyes of those with an intellectual bent in the Church. Maybe you believe that was a bad thing, but nobody can deny that his influence in the Church exponentially outweighed whatever, ivory tower influence he might have had had he accepted the Berkeley position he was offered, kept his head down, and spent his life deciphering paleo-Hebrew and publishing in journals that nobody reads. Yes, some of his stuff hasn’t held up, but he received is PhD in 1938, show me somebody from back then whose stuff has all held up.

  7. @ Anon Cuz: I would take slight issue with your comments and agree to a certain extent with Stephen C. above. Take a look at the comments on NIbley in the FARMS Festschrift By Study and Also By Faith. There are contributions and accolades from non-LDS scholars at the top of their field, including Jacob Milgrom, Jacob Neusner (who contributed two essays!) James Charlesworth and others. NIbley is quoted positively in the 1 Enoch Hermeneia volume by George NIckelsburg, and I would cite you to the complete section on NIbley in the article published in Trinity Journal by two evangelical scholars called, “Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It”.

    Nibley’s claims regarding some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices, especially his observations about there being a consistent teaching of doctrine and rituals, were met with silence or scorn in the academic community. (An example is the brief description of the interchange in Church History in the response to Nibley’s 1961 article, “The Passing of the Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme,” Church History, 30/2, (June 1961): pp. 131-154. The article was reprinted in Compton & Ricks, op. cit., 1987, pp.168-208. A couple of responses to Nibley are described that criticize Nibley’s thesis as undermining all of what the respondent’s called “church history”. See, Louis Midgley, “Hugh Winder Nibley: Bibliography and Register,” pp. xv-lxxxvii, Lundquist, John M. & Ricks, Stephen D., By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of his 80th birthday (Volume 1) (Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS & Deseret Book, 1990) pp. xxxiii-xxxv.) His observations about Egyptian practices, which he first published as a translation and commentary on the Egyptian Book of Breathings in 1975, were treated in a similar fashion. (Nibley, Hugh W., The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyrus: An Egyptian Endowment, (Salt Lake City: UT, Deseret Book, 1975). A second edition, edited by John Gee and Michael D. Rhodes, with illustrations directed by Michael P. Lyon, was published in 2005 as Volume 16 in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. Gee’s Introduction to the 2d Edition indicates in general terms where the two editions differ (see pp. xix-xxiii).) By the time the 2d Edition was published three decades later, things had changed.
    “Nibley’s long work on comparative religion sensitized him to recognize certain ritual patterns, and thus he saw in the Book of Breathings an initiation text at a time when the only Egyptologists who thought that initiation existed in ancient Egypt were Walter Federn, Claas Bleeker, and Gertrud Thausing, who were definitely on the margins of the discipline. Since that time [three decades], the topic of initiation has become mainstream in the discipline, although some Egyptologists still dislike the term and the subject.” (p. xxii–Citations omitted)

    In The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, Nibley also took the original step of including excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [the Odes Of Solomon], an early Christian hymn known as the Pearl, the Pistis Sophia and quotations from an early Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem. He finished with a few extracts from the Gospel of Philip [one of the Nag Hammadi texts]. (pp. 459-532) Nibley points out that the Book of Breathings had its predecessors in, “the Egyptian funerary and temple texts that go back to the beginning” which he dealt with in the main text of the book and, “after it comes an equally impressive succession of early Christian and Jewish writings that move on down through the patristic literature to our own day.” In other words, using his comparative religion experience, Nibley placed his view of Egyptian initiatory rites in a direct line from an older history through early Christian practice to our day. Nibley’s readings of these documents and postulating their relationship to “ordinances” [rituals] are becoming more plausible in light of modern scholarship.
    Nibley was one of the first to view Egyptian funerary rites as “initiatory”. His additional view of the Pistis Sophia, the Books of Jeu, the Gospel of Philip and other early Christian finds as “initiatory rites” or “ordinances” as he called them, was also considered on the “fringes” when he first published them. Since 1997, however, modern scholars of these documents have moved in Nibley’s direction, as they did with the Egyptian example above. Erin Evans specifically identifies the Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu with Egyptian funerary rites and states that they are “initiatory” information passed to the living to prepare them for the afterlife. (Evans, Erin, The Books of Jeu and the Pistis Sophia as Handbooks to Eternity: Exploring the Gnostic Mysteries of the Ineffable, (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2015). Cf., Erin Evans, “Ritual in the Second Book of Jeu”, pp. 137-159, April D. DeConick, G. Shaw, & John D. Turner, Eds., Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Late Antique Literature, Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson, (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2013).) Hugo Lundhaug, has the same view of the Gospel of Philip. Lundhaug also, “shows how the text presents salvation and transformation through rituals and text, . . ..” (Lundhaug, Hugo, Images of Rebirth: Cognitive Poetics and Transformational Soteriology in the Gospel of Philip and the Exegisis on the Soul, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010); cf. Hugo Lundhaug, “Evidence of “Valentinian” Ritual Practice? The Liturgical Fragments of Nag Hammadi Codex XI (NCH XI,2A-E), pp. 225-243, Corrigan, Kevin & Rasimus, Tuomas, Gnosticism, Palatonism and the Late Ancient World: Essays in Honour of John D. Turner, (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2013).) Bas van Os specifically postulates that Philip is an initiatory rite. (van Os, Bas, Baptism in the Bridal Chamber: The Gospel of Philip as a Valentinian Baptismal Instruction, (Goningen, Netherlands: University of Groningen, 2007) available )

    While there are significant differences between Nibley’s Latter Day Saint interpretations and these recent efforts, modern scholars are closer to Nibley than to the long-established academic tradition of denying the initiatory aspects of these rituals. His writings are dated, but his theories are still in effect and growing in some circles.

  8. Steven C: I hope I didn’t hijack the meaning or comments of the OP, but I couldn’t let the blanket comments about NIbley go unremarked without pointing out that he’s still relevant, at least in the LDS community. I do agree that there is not likely to be another Nibley. Our age of specialization has its pros and cons, but Nibley was one of a kind. In addition to the multiple works on Nibley in the Collected Works and the Festschrift, I can’t recommend highly enough Boyd Peterson’s biography Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, and the new collection from Interpreter on Nibley, Hugh Nibley Observed. (Disclosure: I reviewed the book in Meridian Magazine here:
    ( )

  9. Nibley didn’t give a hoot about the “robes of academia” nor the business suits of the market.

    Nibley contributed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ by animating the modern world with temple motifs and by creating space to study and talk about sacred things. He taught us how to “read beyond the text.”

    Nibley was a scholar by happenstance: his “work” was expounding upon ordinances and covenants. I don’t measure an apostle by office, but by what he or she reveals pertaining to the kingdom of God. He was in every way consecrated in his work. He could have easily specialized and could have easily focused on some narrow field in order to cement his name among the rest of tombstone academics who rest the the field, but instead, in Nibleyesque fashion, he “let the dead bury their dead,” and followed the path that most served others and most served God.

    Cemetaries are full of academics whose lifework is buried with them. Nibley’s life and work is a template for the modern apostle-scholar and it continues to feed and nourish the congregation.

    If Hugh visited us today, what do you think he would say about the state of the CES and the BYUs and the billion-dollar treasury?

  10. We have a long ways to go to flatten our respect away from systems that promoted the celebrity of a few out to systems that celebrate gifts and talents of many. In the process, we’ll build Zion. Great post; thank you!

  11. Another living legacy of Nibley are his writings on leadership and affluenza. They are more relevant today than they were in his time. Today the Church and world cry out for inspired leaders, men and women with vision. The gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.

  12. The notion that specialization and salaried science have led to improvements is laughable. We’re surrounded by myopic layers of unobserved theories. Particle physics is just one example. Astrophysics is another. Give me Nibley’s generalism any day.

  13. While I was still a student at BYU, Nibley came up in a conversation with my mom (I forget the context). She mentioned that she had him for her religion class one semester. I honestly got excited and thought that she’d share how great his class was. I asked her about it and all that she could remember is how his socks rarely matched. That’s all she remembered about him. That’s my mom.

  14. It’s been alluded to above, but I think Nibley will never happen again because we as a culture have become so enamored with wealth and power that we wouldn’t tolerate someone calling us out on that the way Nibley did. Much of his “Approaching Zion” is way too extreme for today’s church culture.

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