Top 10 LDS ‘Intellectuals’

Published: Friday, June 10 2011 3:12 p.m. MDT

In 1969 Leonard Arrington asked 50 prominent Mormons to identify the “five most eminent intellectuals in Mormon history.” The following list is taken from his list first published in the LDS journal Dialogue. If you disagree with the list feel free to send me emails with your own list. Email: HBoyd@desnews.com
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ed in az
cave creek, AZ

Jack H Adamson
Henry Eyring

Tucson, AZ

Other then Nibley, Michael Ash quotes little to none of these men's work. Interesting view the J. Smith was an intellectual giant, I thought he was an ignorant farm boy.

Ronald Fox
North Salt Lake, UT

How about Karl Mazer

Orem, UT

I would add, in addition to those already mentioned:

Bruce McConkie

Joseph Fielding Smith

Dallin Oaks

Boyd Packer

Gordon Hinckley

Ezra Taft Benson

New Yorker
Pleasant Grove, UT

Joseph Smith may have started an ignorant farm boy. We all come into this worldly experience ignorant. As a result of gazing into heaven for quite a bit longer that five minutes, his grasp of everything from theology to physics became profound. Joseph Smith was truly a "Renaissance man, also called Universal Man, Italian Uomo Universale, an ideal that developed in Renaissance Italy from the notion expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (140472), that 'a man can do all things if he will.'" (quote from Encyclopedia Britannica)

Joseph Smith was a Universal Man in his person, but a Prophet by his calling. We can only imagine what he might have been if he had been schooled by academia instead of by angels. Thankfully, that was not his calling, but rather he gave his life serving his Lord and his fellow man.

Jimmy James
Salt Lake City, Ut

ed in az:

I completely second the thought that Henry Eyring should be on that list. The guy came super close to winning a Nobel Prize for his work in Chemistry and is just absolutely brilliant. I believe Elder Oaks referred to him as the greatest Mormon scientist. And the thing I like about Henry Eyring the most is that whereas other "intellectuals" seem to complicate the gospel, he simplified it.

I've said it on the message boards before, but I'm willing to bet that most people who leave the LDS church for "intellectual" reasons, haven't read and or understood the basic principles contained within Henry Eyring's books "The Faith of a Scientist" or "Reflections of a Scientist".

Clearfield, UT

Neal A Maxwell, Hugh B. Brown and Bruce R. McConckie. All had great intellect.

Salt Lake City, UT

Why the use of quotation marks around the word "intellectual?"

Isn't that the equivalent of calling these men "allegedly smart?"

Glad to see McMurrin and Bennion on the list.

Atlanta, GA

I'm not sure how this list was compiled, other than "Let's find Mormons who once taught at a school."

Joseph Smith was an incredible figure in modern American theology; calling him an "intellectual" is a stretch. An intellectual is one who obtains a living from his intellect, and not simply an educator. Talmage, Widtsoe, and Nibley are all fantastic examples. Parley P. Pratt? How did he beat out Oliver Cowdery?

Richard L. Bushman is an inexcusable omission- he has done more for the positive portrayal of Mormon academics than perhaps any person living. Truman Madsen seems like a more reasonable candidate than Orson Pratt, as well. Among current GA's, I could go for Elders Holland or Oaks.

Plus, I find it ironic that an article on Latter-day Saint intellectuals has so many typographical errors. The "Univeristy of California"? " "Reading, writing and the restored gospel *become* Roberts passions."

Who writes these things, anyways?

Harwich, MA

Taylor: Ezra Taft?

Lowell Bennion is the only one that belongs on the list.

The Caravan Moves On
Enid, OK

LOVE Parley P. Pratt!

That guy is truly an unsung hero of the Restoration of the Lord's Gospel!

Solid as a rock, he was.

The Caravan Moves On
Enid, OK

@ Doctor | 6:32 p.m. June 10, 2011

Joseph Smith started out intellectually as a humble farm boy but died possessing great intellectual knowledge and wisdom. That's what happens when the Spirit of God lives within you for decades.

I once had the false assumption that Joseph Smith was a poor businessman based on a quote I had read only to find that the one who said that statement only meant that Joseph was too soft-hearted and kind to make money as his primary goal of being in business, not that he didn't have the academic intelligence to succeed. I've since read MANY sources that claim that every single thing Joseph told others to do in business related matters led to their financial succes IF, repeat IF, they followed what he counseled them to do.

Ephraim, UT

Cleon Skousen.
Although I grew up with the idea that he should be viewed with some suspicion, after having read some of his stuff, I am impressed.

A.F., UT

Lists are never perfect, but this one and the order of ranking seems a bit ridiculous. IMO, it seems to be thrown together without really properly weighing the body of work compiled by each man. That would take some time and perhaps a little "intellect." As it stands, this list is only slightly above pulling names out of a hat.

Sterling Heights, MI

Why not come up with many more lists. The intellectuals of Business, The intellectuals of Medical Science, the intellectuals of Religious and Scriptural Studies,and on and on and on.I know those who were listed may have touched on some of these areas but we would call attention to many many more great minds in the church.Especially the "greats" in our current society. There are many. One should not have to be dead in order to achieve "Intellectualhood".

Harwich, MA

Agreeing with Skousen and Nibley can get you onto shaky ground with the Church these days.

Slippery Treasure
Murray, UT

Interesting article. This is the first time that I've ever heard anyone, even the Mormon Church, refer to Joseph Smith as an 'intellectual.' I guess just as long as one puts that phrase in quotation marks, we're OK.

Cedar, UT

Isn't this an exercise in vanity? Depending on the definition of "intellectual" the list would expand or contract. If we believe what is stated in the scriptures we are told that those who qualify for celestial glory will know all things. Therefore, everyone who qualifies for that reward will be far more intellectual than anyone listed on the lists, at least in this life. If only viewed from the mortal perspective, then the only measure of intellectualism would be one's renown, which is a pretty poor determinant.

Orem, UT

I suspect "intellectual" is in quotes for two reasons:
1) It is rather loaded in LDS culture, frequently having the implication that the individual is in danger of excommunication.
2) The various definitions of "intellectual" have somewhat different nuances, ranging from "possessing mental capacity, especially to a high degree" (under which Joseph Smith qualifies) to "conveys the general notion of a literate thinker" (under which Joseph Smith, at least as a youth*, does not qualify).

*Though later in life, as Truman G. Madsen illustrated, Joseph Smith became much more literate, ranking as one of the best students at the School of the Prophets.

Sanpete County, UT

I would heartily agree that Henry Eyring needs to be on the list. Certainly NOT Cleon Skousen, as someone suggested above - his "grasp" of actual history is tenuous, at best, and ridiculed by authentic historians, at worst.

Orem, UT

Several commenters asked how the list was created. The opening statement answers that. It was created in 1969 by asking "50 prominent Mormons" to name the five most eminent intellectuals in Mormon history.

I'm guessing the order of the list was created by the number of times that individual was mentioned, rather than by their accomplishments. It's interesting to note that only three of the 10 were still alive in 1969, so even then dead individuals were given more weight than living ones.

I would love to know who the "50 prominent Mormons" were. I bet quite a few of our modern nominations were in that group of nominators.

Heidi T.
Farmington, Utah

Truman Madsen would be one of my strong choices. I enjoyed the list and think narrowing it down to ten would be very difficult.

Utes Fan
Salt Lake City, UT

Placing Hugh Nibley at #8 is questionable. He deserves to be much higher on the list.

Santa Ana, CA

Where's Eliza R. Snow!!!


What about Philo T. Farnsworth?

Portland, Oregon

One might consider that the number is simply that, and not a reflection as to the degree of "intellectualism" that person achieved. My reasoning is that of all mentioned, Joseph Smith, Jr., was by far the most intellectual of all, having been given his knowledge and wisdom regarding Mormonism directly from a heavenly source, and his place in the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Earth. All other achievements of mortal men pale in comparison.

St Louis, Missouri

I would add Sidney Sperry to the list. His work, though not prolific, is well within the accepted guidelines for defining an intellectual.
A couyple of other honorable mention candidates could be:
Milton Backman and Hyrum Andrus.

New Yorker
Pleasant Grove, UT

What about Truman Madsen? I took a BYU philosophy class from him in the 1960s and thoroughly enjoyed his insights and love of Stan Kenton. From then until he died, he continued to pursue knowledge avidly and has made some significant contributions.

Kaysville, UT

I'd add Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, Cal Rampton and Oscar McConkie.

The only way Cleon Skousen or Ezra Taft Benson would ever get on my list is if you make it the top 5,000 intellectuals. Even then Skousen would be a hard fit.

Centerville, UT

A couple of other typos in the names of elite universities. It should be: Berkeley and Johns Hopkins.

Hulen Clark
Robeline, LA

Like every body else,I have my own opinion on who should be on the list. I would like to have seen Brigham Young mention. After all look what he accomplish as Prophet of the church. Thank You.

Bountiful, UT

So, to make this list apparently all you have to do is teach at the University of Utah? Not much of a standard is it? Makes me think of youth soccer or little league where everyone gets a trophy, even the last place team. Makes the point of having a trophy kind of meaningless.

Dallas, TX

Sadly no women - probably a matter of history and culture.

But what is more troubling is that among the current generation of young Mormon women (20-35) there are some very educated and talented thinkers.

But we haven't in the church figured out what to do with them so they are wondering in the wilderness when they could be contributing mightily, if we just created space for them to flourish in our culture.

Harwich, MA

Being "smart" or "educated" does not make one an Intellectual. Look up the definition.

Red Headed Stranger
Billy Bobs, TX

When I was younger, I thought these "lists" were authoritative, somehow conveying some sort of scientific rigor. Then I realized that someone (probably a journalist) just "made it up". It really isn't "news" although it is an easy way to provoke thought.

That having been said, any list of "Mormon 'Intellectuals'" that does not contain Neal A. Maxwell is severely lacking to the point of being invalid.

Richard Bushman was another very poor oversight. Also, what about Eliza R. Snow?

Herriman, UT

Henry Eyring not on the list? He would have won the Nobel Prize if it had not been for religious bigotry. Also, where is Skousen?

Shelley, ID

J. Reuben Clark.

west bountiful, utah

Joseph Smith was a true prophet of god!

James B. Young

Roberts, Ericksen, McMurrin, Eyring: absolutely yes.

McConkie, Benson, Smith, Nibley, Skousen, Joseph F. Smith: absolutely not.

Brigham City, UT

Interesting to see Roberts listed at #1 since he had doubts about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

I would include Dr. Michael Quinn in the top 10.

Pleasant Grove, ut

Just for fun--(and come on people, just because someone (Nibley) says something you don't agree with doesn't mean they are not scholars...and if they saomething you do, that doesn't mean that they are.)
10 Leonard Arrington
9 Truman Madsen
8 BH Roberts
7 Eliza Snow
6 Richard L Bushman
5 J Ruben Clark Jr
4 Hugh Nibley
3 Henry Eyring
2 Orson Pratt
1 Joseph Smith, Jr.--my sense of "intellectual" is using your intellect. I think he more than passes. None of the above are using anything other than God-given gifts, so why does revelation not count? The D&C make it clear that Joseph had to struggle through philosophical and psychological issues like we could never imagine to get the training he did. Amazing.


I'm not so sure I would place Orson Pratt so high on the list, however I do believe he deserves a place. My top ten of Mormon Intellectuals, considering that each held a significant place in their own time, would be (but I must admit a bias toward historians as I am one):

10. Leonard Arrington
9. Orson Pratt
8. Truman G. Madsen
7. Hugh Nibley
6. B.H. Roberts
5. James E. Talmage
4. John A. Widstoe
3. Henry Eyring
2. Richard Bushman
1. Joseph Smith, Jr.

Pleasant Grove, ut

Love the list Onandagus. Would like to see more people create an entire 10 like this--the readership's collective opinions would maybe show some interesting modern tendencies. More lists, please...

Glendora, CA

Ken Jennings!

American Fork, UT

Many good suggestions for additions or alternatives. I'd like to add Gene England, Jr. Taught at Stanford, St. Olafs, the U, the Y, and UVSC. Thoughtful and failthful.

Danbury, CT

First, let's define "intellectual". Is Academic experience the main criterion? There are a lot of academics (most?) who can't run an organization. I'd like to see a list which has half the people listed who are still alive.

Aussie Teacher

How is Joseph Smith an intellectual? What did he write on his own? What intellectual treatise did he write.
Surely if he wrote the BofM wfrom plates and the Doctrine and Covenants from revelations from God and Christ,then They are the intellectuals, not him!

As far as I am aware everything he produced is supposed to have been from revelations-so he can't be an intellectual. A plagarist perhaps!

Huntsville, UT

Being an Intellectual can mean excommunication. Don't ever forget the "September Six".

John Harrison
Sandy, UT

Inexcusable exclusions:
Harvey Fletcher (Millikan stole his Nobel Prize)
Eugene England
Henry Erying
Juanita Brooks
Eliza R. Snow
Richard Bushman
and I would guess that Bushman himself would argue for the inclusion of Fawn Brodie.

Cedar Hills, UT

The Prophet Joseph Smith is #3?? HA! What?? The man who communed with Jehovah- who had more pure revelation than any man in earth's history with the exception of Jesus Christ himself? Read the Doctrine and Covenants and then ask yourself if anyone even comes close to the Prophet Joseph. These other men are mere children compared to Joseph Smith and his Mt Everest sized mountain of knowledge.

Cedar Hills, UT

My man Neal Maxwell. Not sure about his academic pursuits, but he could turn an insightful phrase with Shakespearean aplomb.


My list:
10 - Sterling McMurrin
09 - George Boyd
08 - Henry Eyring
07 - Harvey Fletcher
06 - Louis Midgley
05 - Mike Ash
04 - Chase Peterson
03 - Lowell Bennion
02 - Daniel Peterson
01 - Joseph Smith

I think this is a fair assessment, and think a new poll should be taken, accounting for the great work done at NAMIRS.

The Judge
Kaysville, UT

I guess the writer of this column is not an intellectual. It's not "John Hopkins" university. It's Johns Hopkins, named after a Quaker railroad baron named, not John Hopkins, but Johns Hopkins. Come on, D'News. Hire an editor.

Ernest T. Bass
Bountiful, UT

Stirling McMurrin and BH Roberts are tied at #1. Nobody else should be on the list.

Ernest T. Bass
Bountiful, UT

Also, McMurrin was an agnostic even though he never left the LDS church. David O. MacKay put an end to a potential court.

salt lake city, UT

Interesting list for 40 years ago. Let's update it, and I know we can find some women to add.

Idaho Falls, ID

Holy cow, Talmage is #1. No brainer.

Bountiful, UT

Brigham Young is highly underrated. Given the great things he revealed he deserves to be high on this list. Given that he credited Joseph Smith for the great knowledge he had Joseph Smith deserves to be at the top of the list. There are many little known doc trines revealed to Joseph Smith that are lost for the most part to the church and the world
All matter has consciousness and therefore life. Life as we understand it is a pattern that has existed eternally it was not created. In accordance with this the earth was seeded by the gods life was not created what the bible
Says about mankind being children of the gods is to be taken literally. God or Elohim is plural and we are partpart of that plurrality. Joseph SmithSmith intended this church to be a church of people of great understand but the LES people were not ready for much of the higher knowledge he tried to teach. However knock and it can be opened. If people will ask and knock all knowledge can be accessed.

Kearns, UT

I'd put Hugh Nibley way ahead of Sterling McMurrin. Kingon Skousen wouldn't make my top 20. Joseph F. Smith would be in my top 10.

Provo, UT

The list should include Arthur Davis Hassler, Lehi native, who became the most respected fresh water biologist or Limnologist in the world. Professor at the University of Wisconsin, the successor to Berge and Juday he trained more leaders in Limnology who have lead the way in fresh water research for over 65 years.

Magna Ute Fan
Magna, UT

Its interesting to me that some take issue with Joseph Smith being on this list. I once saw a documentary about him. There was a non-LDS professor (Jan Shipps, I think), who had spent her life studying Mormonism. When she was asked how she would explain Josephs long list of accomplishments, she replied that he was clearly a genius.

Irony Guy
Bountiful, Utah

With all respect to Arrington, Parley Pratt was likely more "intellectual" than his brother Orson, if you take into account Parley's groundbreaking and original thinking. Orson was more of a magpie, collecting insights from his reading but not as good a writer or thinker as his older brother. BTW, Nibley is by far the number-one genius of Mormonism, other than the Prophet Joseph himself.

ed in az
cave creek, AZ

Philo Farnsworth should get a look..

ed in az
cave creek, AZ

1969 is a long time ago.. How about the top 20 of the last 75 years?

Iron Queen

Does it seem weird to anyone else that there are no women on this list? Do female intellectuals even exist in the church today? If so, who are they? Seriously, I cannot think of one, let alone ten. Anyone?

New York, NY

Joseph Smith was more than a intellectual, he was a genius.

Springville, UT

I'm confident that the ONLY possible reason Joseph Smith, Jr. is not #1 on this list is that church members (who were the ones being polled) are more likely to think of Joseph as an inspired prophet rather than consider him an intellectual, which many in the church would see as an unimportant attribute - almost an insult, along the lines of "when they are learned they think they are wise."

But if you don't believe he was a prophet, you have to recognize him as an intellectual if you have a shred of intellectual honesty yourself. If you could poll the several true intellectuals who are independent of the church and unbiased about it, I'm sure that they would agree with Shipps and say that Joseph Smith was an intellectual of the highest order - one who changed the world with his religious and philosophical genius. Only a dozen or less Americans who were not President have had such a significant influence on the world. I heard as much from an historian at the Smithsonian who had been part of the group (committee, I presume) who had outbid the church to acquire the best surviving sunstone from the Nauvoo temple.

Houston, TX


My understanding of why people took Joseph to be intelligent has more to do with his wisdom (something that even the very young and ignorant are capable of yielding) than pure intellectual capacity.

As a counter example, Nibley was super intelligent in a scholary sense. His knowledge of the gospel was unmatched, but for all of his gifts he lacked a mature level of wisdom, which explains his absurd social commentary.


Alex G. Oblad held patents on processes to create high octane fuel and foams that are still used in beds, couches etc as well as the absobant material in baby diapers. He taught at the U for almost 30 years and he was a dean of the school of fossil fuels.

Look him up....and I may be biased because he was my grandpa.

Concord, CA

How did the Dnews not include me on the list? Fail article

Long Lost America
Salt Lake City, UT

Although B.H. Roberts was a very intelligent writer in his official capacity for the Church, I am extremely ashamed and disappointed that the Deseret News puts him on this list, let alone giving him the top spot ahead of Orson Pratt and Joseph Smith. His later works are cited by anti-Mormons for apostacizing later in his life. The very idea of a top 10 "intellectual" list implies that the author feels he is qualified to judge what is most intellectual. The process in and of itself is offensive. The forgotten teachings of Joseph Smith dwarf the combined works fo all of these men put together, including the brilliant writings of the Pratt brothers.

In My Humble Opinion
South Jordan, UT

Joseph Smith an intellectual?

Self taught in Hebrew, Greek and perhaps other languages.

Set the pattern (following the design of Cincinnati), of cities being laid out in square blocks.

Inspired architecture magnificent in its day.

Moved tens of thousands in his day, millions since, to action.

Whether taught by God or self-taught, Joseph comprehended issues and proposed philosophies and solutions superior to theologians, politicians, sociologists, city planners, health and medical experts from his generation up to and beyond ours.

Woods Cross, UT

Two problems with this discussion:

1. Being an honorable person, a good leader and/or holding a high priesthood office does not equate to intellectual attainments or contributions. The case for being an intellectual can readily be made for Joseph Smith, Joseph F. Smith and the Pratt's. But Ezra Taft Benson and Gordon B. Hinckley?

2. Cleon Skousen, while celebrated by some on the extreme political right, did nothing as far as serious scholarship. Even conservative intellectuals do not take his work seriously, to say the least.

Roy, UT

I would define intelligence as not only the sure handed grasping of the stick, but in the weilding of it to great works and effectively influencing others to do the same. Not just to know, or be able to discuss, but to do. That's why I like Parly P Pratt on the list, and I would add Brigham Young, David O. McKay.

Salt Lake City, UT

I think G. Homer Durham belongs on every list of Mormon intellectuals.


Hugh Nibley, Truman G Madsen, Henry Eyring, Neal A Maxwell, in no paticular order.


Any women intellectuals?

Port Alice, B.C.

Eliza R. Snow for the women

Saint George, UT

James Taft Fredette

Calgary, Alberta

How tiring.
I read an enjoyable article on some very intelligent men and reflected on some of their books which I have read and then was foolish enough to think that some of the comments on it would also be intelligent. These are some of the most petty, critical and self serving that I have read in a long time. Some of the commenters actually seem to think that they are as intellectual as the list. They are certainly not the only intelligent people in the church, Give them all the honor they deserve.

John Pack Lambert of Michigan
Ypsilanti, MI

The fact the list was created in 1969 probably explains several omissions, such as that of Madsen, Maxwell, Oaks and Bushman.

Joseph Smith began as an ignorant farm boy but he clearly developed into an intelectual.

I would also think David O. McKay would have a place in this list.

John Pack Lambert of Michigan
Ypsilanti, MI

The claim that Roberts had doubts about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is false. He wrote material on problems with it because he fully believed it was true and that the best way to spread this knowledge was to deal with the problems raised by its opponants. He clearly continued to testify of the Book of Mormon until the end of his life.

Daniel Peterson and William Hamblin would be in the running in my book, but since this is a 42 year old list, I am not surprised they are not on it. Emiline B. Wells is also an intelectual who is worth considering.

John Pack Lambert of Michigan
Ypsilanti, MI

Oner question is what are we measuring. How influential the intelectuals were, or how much they effected Mormon thought. If we are measuring the later Joseph Smith has to lead the list, and Joseph Fielding Smith and Ezra Taft Benson can not be excluded for the top 20. Richard Lloyd Anderson might well make the top 20. Robert J. Matthews is also a major figure who can not be forgotten, and the same could be said for Noel Reynolds. Among other things the fact that an apostle mentioned a teaching of Reynolds in General Conference probably adds some weight.

John Taylor might also be a top 20 contender. Some of his works were quite seminal.

John Pack Lambert of Michigan
Ypsilanti, MI

The general definition of intelectual is someoen who makes their living from pursuits related to the mind. I would say in some ways, if we mean intelectuals who happen to be Mormons, Stephen R. Covey should be on the list.

In theory all general authorities can be counted as intelectuals. Also all educators, editors, writers, advertising executives and arguably poets as well.

Some others expand the definition to those who gain their fame from intelectual pursuits even if they are not gaining their income from such.


To Doctor:

Your comment about Joseph Smith smacks of your ignorance, not his. This article isn't about any person's beginnings, but their achievements over their lifetime. Certainly you are "smart" enough to grasp this.


My favorite LDS author without a close second is M.Catherine Thomas author of Spiritual Lightening. Her insights and ability to teach remind one of C.S. Lewis. While I am sure she would be embarrassed to be called an intellectual to me she is brilliant and inspiring.

Murray, UT

John Widstoe wrote a book in 1939 called "The Word of Wisdom - A modern interpretation." It captures all of the scientific evidence proving the WOW was inspired and includes many principles of health most of us still don't understand today. It's a great read, if you can find a copy.

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