Revered LDS scholar Hugh Nibley dies at 94

Writer, researcher hailed as defender of faith, intellectual

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Hugh Nibley, 94, was an expert in ancient scripture and language and was revered by Mormons.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

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The man many consider to be the pre-eminent in-house scriptural scholar for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints died Thursday after a long life spent researching and defending the faith's canon.

Hugh Winder Nibley died Feb. 24, 2005, at his home in Provo of causes incident to age. He was 94.

Students of scripture unique to the LDS Church — including the Book of Mormon and the faith's Book of Abraham — have been influenced by Nibley even if they don't know him by name, according to fellow scholars at Brigham Young University, where he taught for several decades.

His extensive writings — including several full-length books, scholarly papers and doctrinal treatises incorporating the use of ancient languages in interpreting scripture — are to be published by the Foundation for Ancient Research in Mormon Studies (FARMS) at BYU and number 15 volumes.

"Hugh Nibley convinced the membership of the church and the world that the restoration (of the LDS Church) and the scriptures given to (church founder) Joseph Smith could be comfortably defended using the best scholarship of our times," said Noel Reynolds, director of FARMS.

"He inspired generations of Latter-day Saints in the defense of the restoration and those scriptures that flowed from it." Reynolds said Nibley recognized "the central importance of the Book of Mormon decades before most Latter-day Saints came to that recognition and dedicated an enormous amount of his scholarly effort to the exploration, explanation and defense of that book."

John Welch of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU said while Nibley's command of ancient languages, scholarly research and numerous writings have influenced generations of Latter-day Saints, his legacy for many students and admirers goes beyond that because he wasn't afraid to say what he thought. "He always wanted people to be thinking more about how they were acting and what they were thinking. In that way, he was was always challenging but always reassuring.

"He was never critical of the authority of the church or of the truthfulness of the scriptures or the brilliance of the gospel or the power of the temple," Welch said. "What he was critical of was our shortcomings in being the best we possibly can be. He could instill in a person a sense of enablement that we can really become a people of Zion and the children of God."

Though well-known to many Latter-day Saints, most of Nibley's work "was not known to outside scholars," Reynolds said. Yet when visiting academics would talk with him, most were "simply astounded at his control of ancient languages and ancient sources." Fellow BYU professor Truman Madsen liked to tell about one scholar's encounter with Nibley, quipping, "It's obscene that one man should know so much." He was born March 27, 1910, in Portland, Ore., to Alexander and Agnes Sloan Nibley, and attended public schools in Portland, Medford and Los Angeles. He graduated from high school at 17 and served a three-year LDS mission in Germany, with another short-term stint in the Northern States.

He earned a bachelor's degree in history at UCLA in 1934 and a doctorate in classics at Berkeley in 1938, after which he taught college at Claremont, Calif. He joined the Army in 1942, serving as a military intelligence officer with the 101st Airborne Division, landing at Utah Beach on D-Day. He married Phyllis Anne Hawkes Draper on Sept. 18, 1946, in the Salt Lake LDS Temple and began his career that year at BYU, teaching history, religion and languages.

Reynolds said Nibley came of age during a unique time in the history of higher education, when academics worldwide were extremely liberal, Communism saw its greatest success and "the exclusion of any kind of spiritual belief or thought reigned supreme. He was influenced negatively and positively by those and other influences of the times," and spent the bulk of his scholarly life using the tools of scientific research to explain the intricacies of LDS canon.

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