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Revered LDS scholar Hugh Nibley dies at 94

Writer, researcher hailed as defender of faith, intellectual

Published: Saturday, Feb. 26 2005 1:51 p.m. MST

Hugh Nibley, 94, was an expert in ancient scripture and language and was revered by Mormons. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News) Hugh Nibley, 94, was an expert in ancient scripture and language and was revered by Mormons. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News)
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.
Over the years he became widely known for his writings on LDS scripture, many of which were regularly published in church magazines. He also lectured widely and wrote a number of books, one of which, "An Approach to the Book of Mormon," was used as a lesson manual for LDS men in the 1950s.
In 1973, he became the first director of the newly formed Institute for Ancient Studies at BYU and helped the library acquire an extensive religious studies collection. He received numerous awards from his colleagues, including Professor of the Year in 1973, Distinguished Service Award in 1979, an honorary doctorate in 1983 and the Exemplary Manhood Award in 1991.
Nibley officially retired from BYU in 1975 but continued to teach until 1994. While his students saw a scholar so immersed in his thoughts that at times some wondered whether he ever worried about his appearance, those closest to him saw more than a love for classical phrases or ancient mysteries.
"He was always so excited about any new idea—he welcomed insights that might come from children or freshmen in college as well as from the most erudite of scholars," Welch said. "He was truly no respecter of persons in that regard."
During a visit last Christmas, Welch found his friend reading a new book on astronomy in which he had written a lengthy list of questions. "When I get to the other side, these are the questions I want to know the answers to," he confided. "That's the kind of inquisitiveness that's always been so invigorating to his students," Welch said. "A conversation with him was always an electrifying baptism in the waters of ideas and ideals." His son, Alex, said Nibley may not have shown it on the outside, "but he was a deeply humble man . . . He loved to show that he knew stuff, but at the same time he was truly a humble man, a very complex man . . . He enjoyed (public acclaim) but never felt worthy of it."
Alex Nibley said he never viewed his father as primarily an intellectual but "one of passion, emotion and spirit. He was a deeply spiritual person," who also could be playful and "was just a lot of fun. He was great with little children. Some Saturday mornings he would shake us awake early in the morning. We'd pile in the station wagon with a loaf of bread and bunch of bananas and take off into the mountains or canyon country." "He was constantly looking at the mountains and clouds and fields as we drove. He was the most curious person I've ever known, even right up to the end."
Nibley idolized his grandmother as the core spiritual foundation childhood, and at the end of his life became "just extraordinarily affectionate" toward his wife, Alex Nibley said. "A couple of times he had a buzzer by his bed to call her at any time. He called her in more than once in the middle of the night, and when she would come running in, he'd say, 'I just wanted to tell you how beautiful you are.'"
Bedridden for the past couple of years, Nibley was able to communicate with his family until recent weeks, his son said.
Seven of his eight children have rallied around him in recent weeks with the news that one daughter, Martha Nibley Beck, has written a memoir dubbed "Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith." It details what she said are "recovered memories" of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and is set to be published next month.
Alex Nibley declined comment Thursday on the book, referring to a statement the family issued on Tuesday saying the book "is false" and contains "countless errors, falsehoods, contradictions and gross distortions" that "misrepresent our family history, the basic facts of our lives, our family culture, the works of our father and the basic principles" of the LDS Church. It says allegations that Nibley abused her and the family covered it up are "not true."
The LDS Church has also characterized the book as "seriously flawed in the way it depicts the church, its members and teachings."
At least two future books by or about Nibley are in the works, one by Alex Nibley on his father's military service to be released this fall by Shadow Mountain Publishing and another by Nibley himself.
Reynolds said Nibley took 15 years to write his "magnus opus," to be called "One Eternal Round."
"It is completed and will take several years to be edited and published. It's the culmination of his life's work and focuses on Facsimile 2 in the Book of Abraham," Reynolds said. Facsimile 2 is a diagram Latter-day Saints believe is of ancient origin. Nibley believes it is a "guide to the universe," and such diagrams were sometimes placed at the head of Egyptian mummies. Nibley is survived by his wife; his children, Paul Nibley, Thomas Nibley and Zina Petersen, Provo; Christina Mincek, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.; Michael Nibley, Washington, D.C.; Alex Nibley, Salt Lake City; Rebecca Nibley, Eagle Mountain; and Martha Beck, Phoenix. Funeral services are pending.


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com

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