Sterling McMurrin – essay on B.H. Roberts

Sterling McMurrin – essay on B.H. Roberts

B. H. Roberts’ Studies of the Book of Mormon

Roberts, B. H. Studies of the Book of Mormon (Madsen, Brigham D., ed.), University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1985, xxxi+375 pp.

Brigham H. Roberts: A Biographical Essay, by Sterling McMurrin [Sterling McMurrin is E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. He received B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Southern California. Prior to joining the faculty of the University of Utah in 1948, he taught philosophy at the University of Southern California. His publications include A History of Philosophy (co-author), Contemporary Philosophy (co-editor), The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology, and Religion, Reason and Truth. He has authored numerous scholarly articles on philosophy, religion, and education.]. Pp. xiii -xxxi.

In one of the earliest scholarly studies of Mormonism, the Mormon philosopher E. E. Ericksen, influenced by the pragmatic principle that “institutions are made and ideals are formed in the process of adjustment,” treated the development of Mormon society, religion, and morals in terms of three successive eras.1 The first, to the death of Joseph Smith and the beginning of the westward movement, was a period defined especially by the conflict of the Mormons with their neighbors.2 The second, the era of the migration and colonization, was marked by the Mormons’ struggle against nature and their troubles with the federal government. The third, following the decline of the Mormon cooperative movement, Ericksen regarded as a time of internal institutional and social conflict and intellectual adjustment. It was in a sense a “scholastic” period, a time for defending the actions of the past, justifying the moral ideals, clarifying the religious doctrines, and constructing a rational philosophy in the light of modern scientific thought and democratic practice.

When allowance is made for the distortion in the description of the historical process that inevitably results from adherence to formulae of this type, Ericksen’s thesis is a valuable index to an understanding of Mormon thought and behavior. Today a fourth period might be added, extending from the close of World War II to the present, which has been and is being marked by the worldwide extension of Mormonism, a promised dissolution of its extreme parochialism, and the apparent beginnings of a genuine universalism. But it is Ericksen’s third era-the predominance of internal intellectual conflict and a “scholastic” interest and effort-that is of concern here, for the intellectual efforts of that era were dominated by Brigham H. Roberts.3 Indeed, the era itself effectively came to at least a temporary end with Roberts’s death in 1933.

From their beginning as a religious community, the Mormons have had a characteristically pragmatic American temperament, and the history of their institutions and practices exhibits clearly their responses to the political, economic, and natural forces that have affected them. From the financial crisis of 1837 that disrupted their first congregation in Ohio to the economic and social impact of the large-scale federal military installations established in Mormon country during and since World War II, the Mormons as a group have exhibited the social effects of external pressures and internal tensions.

But somewhat less obvious, thou evident to any careful observer, are the forces that have contributed to the molding of the Mormon mind, the beliefs and doctrine of the Mormons and the character of their intellectual life generally. Those influences range across a broad spectrum, from the hopes and expectations of Bible-believing Protestant dissidents, who looked daily for a restoration of the primitive gospel, and the enthusiasm of millenarian revivalists to the reverberations of the American enlightenment that joined with the natural optimism of the frontier to strengthen, if not actually induce, the Mormons’ life-affirming theology and irrepressible faith in the future. Other factors included the communitarian ideal and experimental attitude of nineteenth-century America, a revisionist Baptist theology that contributed to Mormon doctrine, and the symbolism and ritual of Freemasonry that are found even today in the temple cultus.

The mainstream of the religion, of course, was the watered-down Puritanism that informed the character of the foundation elements in American culture. Although Mormonism revolted against the traditional Christian absolutism, and even more strenuously against the Calvinist doctrines of original sin, divine election, predestination, and salvation by grace only, it was well within the Puritan moral tradition that was grounded in the belief that the proper vocation of man is to create the Kingdom of God. Despite their bout with polygamy, their love of the theater, music, and dance, and their eudaemonistic moral philosophy, the Mormons have been from their beginning essentially Puritan in their morals, committed to the virtues that were built by the English colonists into the basic moral structure of American life.

To recognize the multiple influences on the religious, moral, and intellectual character of Mormonism, or, indeed, to see the Mormon religion as a syncretic product of the cultural amalgam of nineteenth-century America, is not to disparage the creative endowments of the Mormon leaders. Joseph Smith, the charismatic founder of the movement, was remarkably independent in his thinking and possessed uncommon imaginative and intuitive powers. He broke with many facets of the established theological traditions and at least partially freed his followers from intellectual bondage to the past. His successor, Brigham Young, justly celebrated for his administrative talents, which saved the Mormon movement from dissolution and transformed an eschatological sect into a successful church, colonizing much of the American west in the process, had a far greater impact on the intellectual life of Mormonism than is commonly realized. It was especially under the leadership of Young that the basically Puritan characterof Mormonism was shaped and the distinctive doctrines made articulate.

Despite the practicality of the Mormon people, whose energies have been devoted primarily to utilitarian pursuits in cultivating the life of their religious community, from the beginning strong intellectual currents have animated and at times strengthened their culture. Mormonism has suffered and continues to experience incursions of anti-intellectualism, but the achievement of knowledge has always been a prominent Mormon ideal; and at least for the past century most Mormons have had a healthy respect for the virtues of reason. For the most part, they are firm in their insistence that religion should be reasonable and conscientious in their conviction that an honest pursuit of knowledge and a genuine respect for reasonableness not only will not discredit or refute the tents of the fatih, but also will clearly establish their truth and justify the claims of the Church. It was here in the domain of knowledge and reason that Roberts was the preeminent leader of the Mormons, committed to the vindication of Mormonism for the defense and edification of the Saints and a warning to the world.

The defense of the faith was an exacting task because the Mormon beliefs were always set forth with the dogmatic assurance of divine authorization. Not only the doctrinal views of the people but also their moral and spiritual ideals and often their social practices were grounded in a sincere belief in the revelation of the word and will of God as their source and sanction. Although believing Mormons, for the most part, have held that their religion requires no defense, in practice they have commonly made serious efforts to construct effective arguments in response to the critics of their religion and, incidentally, to strengthen the foundations of their faith. In a unique way the Mormons even today have tied their faith to their historical roots. They insist that the truth of their religion, the authority of their priesthood, and the divine foundations of their Church depend entirely on the factual truth of certain of their historical claims. The truth of two of those claims is held to be absolutely crucial. If Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son was not in fact an objective, veridical experience, and if the Book of Mormon was not brought forth, as Joseph Smith insisted, by the hand of God, in very fact an account of God’s involvement with ancient Americans descended from the people of ancient Judah, then the Church and its priesthood and Mormonism as a religion are abject frauds. This is the position in which the Church has, by its own official pronouncements, voluntarily placed itself. It has tied its faith to its own history and to the authenticity of its distinctive scripture, the Book of Mormon. It is a position that Roberts held and reaffirmed on many occasions.

There is something private, subjective, and inevitably elusive about theophanies. They cannot be repeated and cannot become public experience and knowledge and are therefore in a sense unarguable. But a book is something else-it is a public object. It can be printed and reprinted, translated and sold, placed on a shelf and read, read by whoever cares to invest the time and energy. Here in the Book of Mormon, a truly remarkable production for which strange claims were made, was something that demanded a reasonable and believable explanation. Did it or did it not have the origin claimed for it-gold plates, an angel, a miraculous translation, and all else?

As Mormonism’s most competent historian and leading theologian, as well as the most aggressive exponent and capable disputant in its leadership, Roberts quite naturally, and certainly very effectively, filled the role of chief defender of the faith. This, of course, entailed the defense of the Book of Mormon, the claims of its origin, the historical reliability of its narrative, its sometimes strange theology, and the necessity of its coming forth in the “last dispensation.” To this task he devoted much of his energy in his earlier years, producing numerous articles and eventually two substantial and, for the Mormons, landmark volumes in its support.4 He attacked its attackers and responded in detail to its critics, defended its literary style, argued endlessly on the basis of both external and internal evidence for its authenticity as a collection of historical documents, meticulously examined and defended the claims of those who were associated with its production, and justified its existence as a new witness for God with vigor and subtlety.

Of course, Roberts was not the first to undertake a serious defense of the Book of Mormon. He had the advantage of the arguments of the early Mormon apostle-philosopher Orson Pratt and others. But whatever the lasting value of Roberts’s work, it was the most effective defense of the Book of Mormon that had been produced, and certainly nothing more impressive has since been forthcoming, even though numerous writers have tried and today efforts are being made to prove its authenticity through such means as computerized word studies, to say nothing of extensive investments in archaeological research. Both by his Church histories and his studies of the Book of Mormon, Roberts, more effectively than any other person, made it possible for the generality of Mormons, at least those who were inclined seriously to raise questions and demand answers, to rest assured that their religious beliefs and distinctive scripture were firmly and securely grounded in historical fact. Certainly the acceptance of this new scripture, added as it was to the Old and New Testaments and the modern revelations, gave Mormonism both a firm confidence and a measure of increased strength.

In the closing passages of his New Witnesses for God, Roberts acknowledged that not all the difficulties and objections to the Book of Mormon had been removed. But, he wrote, “a little more time, a little more research, a little more certain knowledge, which such research will bring forth, will undoubtedly result in the ascertainment of facts that will supply the data necessary for a complete and satisfactory solution of all the difficulties which objectors now emphasize, and on which they claim a verdict against the Book of Mormon.”5 It is of considerable interest, therefore, that he returned to the analysis of the book some years later, in the 1920s, again examining its origin, its substance, its authorship, its literary style, and its historical authenticity. In two heretofore unpublished manuscripts, “Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study” and “A Book of Mormon Study,” he treated the book critically and forthrightly rather than defensively.

Roberts’s earlier study closed with the sentence: “Until this [the refutation of the positive evidences set forth for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon] is done, I shall hold that the mass of evidence which it has been the effort of the writer through these pages to set somewhat in order, is sufficient, both in quality and quantity, to fill the mind who pays attention to it with a rational faith in the Book of Mormon-the American volume of scripture.”6 But in “A Book of Mormon Study,” he found that much of the substance of the Book of Mormon was quite common in the thought and literature of Joseph Smith’s time and place, that a literary analysis does not support the authenticity of the book, and that Smith had the talent and creative imagination to have been its author. Whereas in his earlier work he occasionally found passages in Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews that were useful in his arguments for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity, he now found View of the Hebrews to be a serious threat to that authenticity, and in “A Book of Mormon Study” he devoted extensive space to his treatment of that threat.7

Roberts’s “A Book of Mormon Study” must speak for itself. But those interested in the author’s conclusions set forth in the manuscript should not neglect the statements affirming his belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon that appear in the letters that are a part of the record of the controversy that resulted from a reading of the manuscript by Church officials. The contrast of his manuscript, composed as an attempt to come to grips with a basic problem that he apparently believed would yield to scholarly analysis, with his affirmation, in the heat of controversy, of his faith that the objective foundation of Mormonism is not to be doubted raises the interesting question of what Roberts did in fact believe about the Book of Mormon in his latest years. That he continued to profess his faith in the authenticity of the book seems to be without question, despite the strong arguments and statements in his study that would appear to explicitly express a conviction that it is not authentic.

Roberts’s biographer, Truman G. Madsen, has argued in a paper published in 1979 that in “A Book of Mormon Study” Roberts was simply playing the role of the “devil’s advocate.”8 “The report,” according to Madsen, “was not intended to be balanced. A kind of lawyer’s brief of one side of a case written to stimulate discussion in preparation of the defence of a work already accepted as true, the manuscript was anything but a careful presentation of Roberts’s thoughts about the Book of Mormon or of his own convictions.”9

Madsen held that Roberts was employing an essentially pedagogical technique to bring attention to problems that should be faced by the Church and by students of the Book of Mormon. In this he had the support of Roberts’s letters, written in the context of controvers over his manuscript, but he did not adduce evidence for his interpretation from the manuscript itself.10 Although he quoted Roberts’s statement of faith in his March 15, 1923, letter to the present of the Church, Madsen did not provide his reades with any of the many crucial statements in Roberts’s study that appear to a typical reader to throw serious doubt on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, or at the least on Roberts’s belief in its authenticity.11 The Roberts study was not available to the general reader who might be interested in it, and, except for listing the issues with which the study was concerned, Madsen made none of its contents known in his paper. Roberts’s argument and conclusions were not mentioned.

In his authorized biography published in 1980, Madsen devoted comparatively little attention to Roberts’s views on the Book of Mormon, referring only to publications that had appeared prior to 1910.12 Although Roberts’s unpublished manuscript, “The Truth, the Way, the Life,” a summary of his religious and theological views, received an entire chapter, “A Book of Mormon Study” was not mentioned, nor was there any indication of the important and interesting controversy that it had generated.13

Perhaps the importance of “A Book of Mormon Study” lies not so much in the question of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as in the interest which many have in the personality and thought of Roberts himself, for he was intellectually the most eminent and influential of all the official leaders of the Church. And while Roberts apparently did not prepare the materials in this volume for publication, it is because he is such a key figure in the intellectual history of the Church that the record would not be complete without them.

Roberts lived during a crucial period for Mormonism. The original prophetic impulse was waning, the major feats of pioneering were accomplished, and the struggles with the federal government and their aftermath were taking a severe toll of human energy and threatening the economic and insitutional life of the Church. More than anything else, the Mormon Church needed the defenses that would justify its existence, establish its moral and intellectual respectability, and guarantee its own integrity. But there were additional problems that engrossed Roberts-the coming of statehood for Utah, the creation of a political life for the Mormon people, and the secular threat to religion that was carried largely by the new humanism, which enjoyed considerable support from the sciences. It was especially the debate on evolution that captured the attention of the Mormons after the turn of the century. Roberts seemed born to the task of meeting these challenges, and he engaged them with quite remarkable energy, dedication, and self-assurance.

The fundamentals of Mormon thought were quite firmly established in the Church’s first generation, but there was considerable confusion in the doctrines, which grew somewhat erratically from the pronouncements of the prophet, the impact of thoughtful converts, and the general experience of the people. It was a later generation, the generation of Ericksen’s scholastic period, which pulled the philosophical and theological strands together and brought some order out of the earlier chaos. It was the intellectual leaders of htis period, among whom Roberts was preeminent in both ability and influence, who not only shaped the outlines of a systematic theology, but also developed the perspectives that placed the Church as an institution within the framework of history and provided the Mormon people with the instruments for rationalizing and defending their beliefs and practices. Though perhaps less radical and less creative than the first, this generation was more reflective, more reasonable, and intellectually more responsible. The Church had already become defensive where before it had exhibited a quite admirable indepdence in both thought and action, and argument and scholastic justification had displaced the facile prophetic pronouncements of the first years. Something very important to Mormonism had been lost with the death of Jospeh Smith and the passing of those who had known him and were close to him and had been creators with him of the new faith and its rudimentary institutions. But just as inevitably, something was gained by their successors in the necessity for defining, explaining, and justifying the doctrine and exploring and exploitning its numerous entailments for both thought and action. Above all, a new intellectual vitality was gained by the “defense of the faith and the saints.”

In his private as well as public life, Roberts was a controversial figure. His autobiography, still unpublished fifty years after his death, though obviously unfinished, is a fascinating, moving story of a lonely child in England, left to shift for himself by irresponsible guardians after his Mormon-convert mother had migrated to Utah; his walking barefoot from the Platte River to Salt Lake City; a rough-and-tumble youth; his admirable struggle for an education; his fight with his Church to get into politics; his role in the struggle for Utah’s statehood; his dramatic losing battle with the U.S. Congress, which refused him his seat in the House because of his polygamy. The full story of his life will tell of his double struggle against the inroads of secularism in the Church and the anti-scientific bias of some of his ecclesiastical colleagues; of his battle as historian to publish an uncensored history of the Church; of his fight over doctrine and evolution; of his missionary controversies with the Christian sects; of his fight to get into action in World War I, when he was commissioned a chaplain above the age limit because of his demonstrated physical strength and abilities; of his endless battle with the critics of Mormonism; of his struggle to maintain the prestige and influence of his quorum in the central administration of the Church, the First Council of the Seventy, which since his death has been downgraded in the top councils of the Church; of his determination to make Mormonism intellectually respectable and acceptable; and of his internal struggles with his own faith, the struggles of a man who wanted to believe and yet be honest with himself and others.

Roberts belonged to the era of great Mormon oratory, and for almost half a century he was the Church’s great orator, in the days when the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City sounded and resounded with the voices of impassioned advocates and defenders, the days before the microphone and camera robbed the Mormon conferences of much of their character and vitality and inspiration, the days when the Mormon Church both valued and invited argument and debate. There was then a kind of intellectual openness about the Church which encouraged thought and discussion; its faith and confidence were firm and aggressive, and it was ready to take on all comers. Its leadership could justifiably boast a roster of impressive talent, but Roberts was at once its chief intellectual exhibit and its most competent advocate.

The high value that the Mormons in the first decades of this century placed on intellectual strength and achievement in matters pertaining to religion yielded a good return, for the thought and writings which issued from their ecclesiastical leaders, among whom were several persons of historical, scientific, and poetic ability, were a permanent impress upon the character of the religion and the Church. Of these Roberts was the recognized leader. Often in rebellion and conflict, he nevertheless commanded both the confidence and admiration of his colleagues and of the rank and file of the Church. His native intellectual powers, his wide and intelligent reading, his forensic skills, the forcefulness of his pen, his enthusiastic and even impetuous speech, and the sheer impact of his uncommon personality and physical bearing made him the intellectual leader of the Mormon people in an era when they both encouraged and prized serious inquiry in religious matters.

Since Roberts’s death half a century ago, the Church has suffered a steady decline in matters pertaining to religious thought, a decline accompanied by a growth of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism from which there is no clear indication of recovery in the foreseeable future. Some important sociological studies of Mormonism have been made, and an entire generation of competent historians have produced careful and reliable studies of the Church’s history. But comparatively little has been done in leadership circles in matters pertaining to morals, religion, and philosophy, except, of course, to enjoin Church members to accept the established doctrine and live lives of virtue. Notwithstanding a brief respite in the 1960s and 1970s, the Church has discouraged its best historians, and it has consistently resisted serious and competent thought in religion and philosophy. Perhaps a resurgence of interest in Roberts’s work will point toward a more productive future.

In general, Roberts’s prose style is rhetorical and dramatic. He was at all times the orator. He was lacking in certain capabilities possessed by some others among his colleagues in Church officialdom, whose writings also left important impressions on the Mormon mind. He did not have the precise diction, for instance, of his contemporary James E. Talmage, and there is little indication that he possessed the poetic talents of Orson F. Whitney. But both his oral and written words drew strength from his directness and enthusaism. He wrote as he spoke, and his written pages often read not as finely composed and polished sentences, but as though they were edited reports of extemporaneous statements-direct, often repetitive, somewhat personal, as though writer and reader were in conversation, sometimes careless in construction, but always to the point and effective.

Like his public address, Roberts’s writing was argumentative and polemical. He enjoyed nothing more than argument; indeed, he was at his best in a good fight. If there were no debate in sight, he would produce a battle by monologue. In the heat of controversy he always rose to the occasion, and it is not surprising that his most commendable theological piece, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity, certainly the most competent theological statement to come from a Mormon leader, was in its most important part a published debate, an argument with a Roman Catholic scholar set within the larger dispute on Mormon doctrine that aroused widespread public interest near the turn of the century.

Roberts’s strength as a historian resided especially in his intense historical consciousness, his quite spacious perspectives on history, his capacity for historical research and talent for narrative, his sense of personal involvement with his subject, his passion for it, and his sincere desire to be honest and open with his readers. His histories are not without bias and prejudice. They are clearly pro-Mormon and written with a vengeance. They are intended to justify the Mormon Church and bring credit upon it, but they are written with admirable honesty and sincerity, having the mark of a desire for objectivity even when it is not achieved. Often in his writings the Church comes out second best where a man of lesser character under similar circumstances would have found it easy to bring it out on top. In the preface of volume 1 of A Comprehensive History, Roberts wrote:

It is always a difficult task to hold the scales of justice at even balance when weighing the deeds of men. It becomes doubly more so when dealing with men engaged in a movement that one believes had its origin with God, and that its leaders on occasion act under the inspiration of God. Under such conditions to so state events as to be historically exact, and yet, on the other hand, so treat the course of events as not to destroy faith in these men, nor in their work, becomes a task of supreme delicacy; and one that tries th esoul and the skill of the historian. The only way such a task can be accomplished, in the judgment of the writer, is to frankly state events as they occurred, in full consideration of all related circumstances, allowing the line of condemnation or of justification to fall where it may; being confident that in the sum of things justice will follow truth; and God will be glorified in his work, no matter what may befall individuals, or groups of individuals.

In A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1930), Roberts composed for the historically minded and history-based Mormons a strong and carefully researched historical statement, laid out many of the fundamental issues and basic problems, and did so with courage and honesty. He had a large capacity for work, a fine sensitivity for the controversial, and a talent for research, comprehension, and synthesis. And while he wrote as he argued and debated, he achieved a measure of understanding admirable in a man who was personally living through the impassioned events that he described and who wrote as both a high official of the Church and as the author of its official history.

Though every historian, if he is to avoid confusion and frustration, must adopt a position from which he selects his materials, it is unfortunate that Roberts was so strongly inclined toward what may be called the “political” theme in his history. Perhaps he would have been untrue to his own political nature if he had done otherwise. But it is still disappointing to find so much of political and insitutional conflict and controversy and so little of cultural history in his work. Yet he was himself a man of action, and quite certainly he told the narrative where the action was.

Moreover, Roberts did not fully and properly examine and exploit the origins of Mormonism; and partly because of htis, the generality of Mormon people today, who depend so heavily unpon him for their historical interpretations, do not understand and appreciate the multiple forces that went into the making of their religion and the historical movement of their Church. The picture is altogether too simple and is too much affected by the strong desire to vindicate and justify the Church. In his Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, an early text first published in 1893, he mentioned very briefly such matters as the Jewish and Hellenistic backgrounds of Christianity. But here he was interested in making a case for the apostasy of the early Christian church, and for this he was able to draw on numerous able historians for his material. In his official Mormon Church histories-the seven edited volumes of the History of the Church, Period I, and his six-volume Comprehensive History-aside from brief references to the revivalism current in western New York in the 1820s and an account of Joseph Smith’s ancestry and family religious interests, he totally ignored the American intellectual and religious milieu from which Mormonism issued. “A Book of Mormon Study” partially atones for this serious defect, one that has had an effect on the thought of the Mormon people, who, for the most part, know little or nothing of the cultural and intellectual background of Mormonism.

Roberts’s treatments of Christian history were polemical and propagandistic. He treated altogether too casually the large cultural forces that produced Christianity and its institutions; and while his factual materials are in the main reliable, conforming at least to the opinions of some of the best histories of his time, much that he wrote on this subject is difficult to defend. He failed to grasp fully the character of early Hellenistic Christianity, to see its very beginnings in Paul as a departure from the Palestinian religion, and failed therefore, as did most Christian historians, to judge fairly the subsequent course of Christian thought and institutions. Nevertheless, he wrote intelligently, and though he depended excessively on secondary sources, the church historians, he set forth the main historical foundations upon which the Mormons have rested their case, the apostasy of the Christian church as the necessity for a restoration and the necessity of revelation as the basis of that restoration.

Roberts’s perspectives on history and his competence to treat some of the large problems in Christian history were due in part to his wide-ranging and intelligent reading. There was much that he neglected in intellectual history, through no fault of his own, for his formal education was at best very elementary. He seems to have known too little of Greek and Roman philosophy and their bearing upon Christianity, or of medieval philosophy and theology. But he profited much from such writers as Andrew White, John Kitto, John W. Draper, and Edward Gibbon. His works are well furnished with telling references to such greats as Johann Mosheim, Alfred Edersheim, Henry H. Milman, and Eusebius. Roberts read extensively in all of these, and in Ernest Renan, Sir william Blackstone, Thomas Macaulay, and an assortment of major philosophers, ancient and modern, when still a youth employed as a blacksmith-no mean accomplishment for one who first learned the alphabet at the age of eleven. He was acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Fiske, and William James, even though he neglected some of the major thinkers of his own generation in favour of second- and third-raters.

Roberts’s work indicates a rather broad acquaintance with both the Old and New Testaments and with Bible commentaries. Indeed, he was too dependent on such works as Bible commentaries and Bible dictionaries. In treating the history of religion, he was given to extensive quotations from secondary sources that were edifying to his readers but exhibited deficiencies in his own knowledge. However, he gave some attention to biblical scholarship and recognized the claims of “higher” or historical-literary criticsm. In an address, “Higher Criticism and the Book of Mormon,” published in The Improvement Era for June and July 1911, he said, “The Book of Mormon must submit to every test, literary criticism with the rest. Indeed, it must submit to every analysis and examination. It must submit to historical tests, to the tests of archaeological research and also to the higher criticism.” The thesis of this address, however, was that the Book of Mormon itself exhibited the errors of the higher criticism in certain of its well-established condlusions relative to the Bible, for example, the multiple authorship of Isaiah, which is contradicted by the Book of Mormon. Here and elsewhere, Roberts insisted, it is evident that the Book of Mormon in a very real way will save the truths of the gospel. Referring to passages describing Christ’s appearance in the Western Hemisphere, he concluded, “And that testimony of the gospel, its historicity and reality, contained in the Book of Mormon, shall stand against the results of higher criticism” (p. 786). A few years later, in “A Book of Mormon Study,” Roberts employed the principles of the higher criticism in his own analysis and critique of the Book of Mormon.

Nevertheless, partly because of the failure by Roberts to appreciate fully the findings of biblical scholarship, the Mormons even today are in general the victims of traditional patterns of biblical thought that often tie them to an outworn and intellectually frustrating scriptural literalism. Despite Roberts’s rather high level of historical and theological sophistication, he failed to distinguish effectively history from myth and legend in the biblical writings, accepting literally such accounts as the Garden of eden and flood stories of Genesis. There is no indication in his writings that the New Testament scholarship of his time, such as the analysis of the relationships that obtain among the synoptics or the impact of the early church on the character and substance of the Gospels, seriously affected his thought or scholarship.

It was in his studies of Mormon history that Roberts exhibited his research talents. Elsewhere he was very dependent on secondary sources, sometimes quoting so extensively from other writers that it is difficult to determine the limits of his own ideas. But this defect in scholarship was in some respects a boon to the typical Mormon who read Roberts’s writings, for here he was introduced to historians and occasionally philosophers, theologians, and sometimes scientists whose work otherwise owuld have remained unkonwn to him. It was one of Roberts’s great contributions to his people that he was determined to raise the level of their historical knowledge and religious thought, and he was remarkably effective in this effort. Many Mormon libraries today still include the works of Josephus, Eusebius, dRaper, or White because of his lesson materials that called for the study of these writers. His special responsibility as an official of the Church was to provide leadership in missionary activities, and he firmly believed tha tmissionaries should be adequately armed with knowledge for their task.14 He was not always supported in this conviction by his colleagues, who often preferred dependence on faith with a minimal concern for relevant learning.

As a historian, Roberts was not free from the dictates of theology, a serious weakness in any historian, but his work as theologian was strengthened by his sense o fhistory as well as by his historical knowledge. It was in part his historical consciousness that made him preeminient among the “official” Mormon theologians. He had remarkably reliable instincts for distinguishing the crucial elements, both theological and philosophical, in the intellectual foundations of Mormonism and was well endowed to treat those problems within a historical framework of large perspectives and vision. He was committed to the intellectual exploitation of the ideas which he found or thought he found in the pronouncements of the Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, and had a healthy respect for the religious thought that issued from others of the earlier generation of Mormon leaders, especially Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. He was not a creator of doctrine like Smith and Young, or even like the early Church leader Sidney Ridgon [sic], Mormonism’s chief tie with the Baptist tradition. And he was somewhat less original in his more technical thought than Pratt. Though he shared Pratt’s disposition for speculative metaphysics, he lacked his logical and analytical talent. There is no analytical piece among Roberts’s writings, for instance, comparable to Pratt’s “The Absurdities of Immaterialism,” the most impressive philosophical statement in the early Mormon literature. Roberts’s philosophical writings had a flamboyance and looseness about them that exhibit his lack of expertise when compared to the thought of his contemporary, W. H. Chamberlin. But Chamberlin was not a Church official, and he died at a comparatively early age. His work would have brought both credit and strength to Mormonism had he lived long enough to publish the results of his religious and philosophical thought. Chamberlin had studied with Josiah Royce at Harvard and Geroge Holmes Howison at Berkeley and had gained a good foundation in formal biblical studies at Chicago. Though he was in a position to bring to Mormonism the fruits of his labors, supporting its basic philosophy with the arguments of personal idealism, even in some Mormon academic circles he suffered considerable neglect, if not derision.

Like Mormon writers generally, in both his theological and philosophical writings, Roberts seriously neglected discussion of fundamental moral philosophy. This omission of an interest that should be basic to religion has had an effect to this day on Mormon literature. Roberts’s younger contemporary and admirer Ephraim E. Ericksen, professor of philosopher at the University of Utah, undertook to compensate for this lacuna in Mormon thought, but, like Chamberlin, despite his influence in academic circles, Ericksen did not enjoy the official status that was necessary to produce a large and lasting impact on Mormon thought.

Roberts’s most influential colleague among official Mormon writers was the scientist-apostle James E. Talmage. Roberts’s talents in treating doctrinal issues were perhaps less refined than those of Talmage, as were his literary abilities, but he was less legalistic and, on the whole, less literalistic than Talmage and had a more expansive intellect, a more creative style, and a far greater sensitivity to historical and philosophical issues. Although he lacked the equivalent of Talmage’s scientific education and knowledge, Roberts was more competent than either Pratt or Talmage in his grasp of the large implications of Mormon doctrine and was in a better position to achieve perspective on the place of Mormonism as a religious movement or social structure.

Roberts was not a theologian of the first order, as he was not a major historian. He was simply the best theologian and historian that Mormonism had in its first century. His main strength as a theologian for Mormonism was not in his capacity for theological dialectic or refinement or in any genuine originality for this discipline. It was, rather, in his instinct for the philosophical relevance of the Mormon theological ideas-this and his sense of history. His combination of temperament, talent, and interest brought breadth and depth to his thought, giving his work a profoundness that was uncommon among Mormon writers.

More than any other Mormon thinker of his time, Roberts sensed the radical heresy in Mormon theology, its complete departure from the traditional Christian doctrines of God and man, its denial of the divine absoluteness, and its rejection of the negativism of the orthodox dogma of the human predicament. In those matters he had a fine sense of what was entailed by the basic ideas already laid down by his predecessors, and he did more than any other person to set forth the full character of the Mormonism that followed inevitably from the theological ideas of Joseph Smith, from the doctrine, for instance, of the uncreated intelligence or ego and the denial of the orthodox dogma on the creation of the world. He reveled in the pluralistic metaphysics inherent in Mormon doctrine and saw its implications for the freedom of the will and its possible strengths in treating the problem of moral and natural evil. In this he felt some kinship with William James, but he often failed to follow through on the path that his best instincts had charted for him, in part, perhaps, because he lacked the technical equipment for doing full justice to his own ideas.

Roberts was not embarrassed by the unorthodox implications of the finitistic conception of God indicated in the teachings of Joseph Smith. He delighted in them, for they made room for a positive doctrine of man, genuine freedom, and an unfinished universe. He kept the discussion of the nature of God on a more defensible level than did most of the Mormon writers in theology, who commonly either failed to recognize the radical nature of the departure from orthodoxy or yielded to the naive extremes of anthropomorphism that compromised the very meaning of divinity.

At the turn of the century and for some years thereafter, the Mormons had difficult practical problems of their own, especially of an economic and political nature, which kept them well occupied, but their intellectual leaders did not escape the main controversy of the time, religion versus evolution. The evolution controversy reached the United States rather late, and it reached the Mormons a little later, but Roberts was in the thick of it, determined to make the case for orthodoxy by discrediting Darwinism. An early essay on the subject, “Man’s Relationship to Deity,” does him little credit, but it is important to the story of his work. It is interesting that his argument was not anti-scientific in spirit, an attitude that would have betrayed his confidence in the virtues of reason. The errors of Darwinism, he insisted, were not due to the scientists. They were the fault, rather, of the churches, whose nonsense regarding the creation and age of the earth had driven the scientists far from the truth in their efforts to find a ground upon which they could make sense.

Roberts’s own efforts to reconcile the findings of science with a liberalized biblical literalism were typical of the times and do not deserve serious attention today, but it should be siad in his defence that in later years he appears to have developed a somewhat greater sophistication in such matters. He was interested int he science-religion controversy and read quite widely int he field, but he ws better prepared to see the dispute in past centuries than to contribute importantly to it in the present. As in his treatments of Christian history and dogma, he quoted extensively from others but made no serious contributions to the subject.

On the whole, Roberts appears as a writer of uncommon good sense, determined to distinguish fact from fiction, history from legend, and meaningful doctrine from meaninglessness. But he had serious lapses, caused especially by his deficiencies in biblical scholarship and his inability to escape the yoke of a sometimes abject biblical literalism. In his final treatment of the problem of Mormonism and evolution, for instance-a problem that should have posed for him no really great difficulties, since the Mormon Church had not then and has not since taken an official stand against organic evolution-his thought was reduced at one point to the level of proposing that Adam and Eve were transplanted full grown from another planet. This piece of fantasy was part of his effort to come to terms with science by way of arguing for a race of pre-Adamites, humans who had been obliterated by some natural catastrophe.15 Despite such nonsense, Roberts’s instincts were generally good; in his later years especially he was a strong defender of science and scientific knowledge. But he knew too little of science and paid far too little attention to the work of really first-rate thinkers who were occupied with similar problems. His work on religion and evolution is less commendable than that of his colleague Talmage, or his contemporary Frederick J. Pack, a Mormon geologist who enjoyed considerable Church approval without holding high Church office.16

But above all, this should be said of Roberts-he was intellectually alive to the very last, a person whose later maturity increased not only is wisdom and the general quality of his thought but also his determination to find the truth about the things that for him mattered most. There is little doubt that if he had enjoyed ten more years and had been given full confidence by his ecclesiastical colleagues, very interesting htings would have come from his pen.

After his death in 1933, Brigham H. Roberts was aseriously neglected figure in the Mormon Church until very recently. Where once he was easily the most interesting, exciting, and stimulating person in its leadership, its most prolific writer, its chief theologian and historian, and its most capable defender, he has since been eclipsed by writers of varying but lesser talents, many of whom lack even the grace to acknowledge their indebtedness to him, and some of whom seem never to have heard of him. The resurgence of interest in Roberts’s work and the reissue of some of his writings are therefore fortunate. His name should be kept very much alive by those who are interested in the intellectual life of Mormonism, who have any attachment to its robust and romantic past, or who have genuine concern for the ideas and institutions that have the substance and strength of Mormonism.

Brigham Henry Roberts was born in Warrington, Lancashire, England, March 13, 1857, one of six children of benjamin and Ann Everington Roberts. Both of his parents converted to the Mormon Church, and in 1862, while he was still a child, his mother left his father and emigrated to Utah, placing him in the custody of somewhat irresponsible guardians in England. In 1866, under the auspices of the Church and accompanied by his sixteen-year-old sister, Mary, he made the journey to Utah to join his mother, who had settled in the village of Centerville, now a suburb of Salt Lake City.

Roberts suffered an unhappy childhood in England, and his early years in Utah were difficult, always in poverty or near-poverty. But from an early age he was adventurous and hardworking-as a miner, a blacksmith, and a ranch-hand. As a youth he read widely, especially the historians, and eventually, despite severe financial difficulties, he studied at the University of Deseret, the predecessor of the University of Utah.

Roberts served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the central and southern states from March 1880 to May 1882 and again in the South in 1883 and 1884. He married two women, Sarah Louisa Smith in 1878 and Celia Dibble in 1884, and in 1886 was arrested on a federal charge of unlawful cohabitation. He evaded the law, however, and left for England, again as a missionary, on the day following his arrest. In 1888 he returned to Utah and was ordained a member of the First Council of the Seventy, one of the general governing bodies of the Mormon Church. In April 1889 he surrendered to the federal court on the pending charge of unlawful cohabitation and served a term of several months in the Utah territorial prison. He married a third wife, Margaret Curtis Shipp, in April 1890.

Although much involved in theological, biographical, and historical writing, Roberts entered territorial politics, serving in the Utah constitutional convention in 1895. His involvement in politics resulted in considerable difficulty between him and some of his less liberal ecclesiastical colleagues, but in 1898 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as the Democratic candidate from Utah. Because of his polygamy, however, he was denied his seat by the Congress.

In 1917 Roberts was appointed chaplain by the First Utah Field Artillery and served in France under the command of General John Pershing. He returned to Utah in 1919 and resumed his duties as a Church leader, becoming the senior member of the First Council of the Seventy in 1924. From 1922 to 1927 he was president of the Eastern States Mission of the Church, with headquarters in New York.

Over a period of several decades Roberts was heavily engaged in writing and preaching and, allowing for a brief respite duirng his prison term and his period of military service, in ecclesiastical duties. He was not infrequently appointed to represent the Church on special occasions, when an exhibit of its finest forensic talents was considered important, if not crucial. In sheer volume his literary output exceeds anything produced by a Mormon Church leader before or since.

Roberts died in Salt Lake City at the age of seventy-six on September 27, 1933, from complications related to diabetes.


1. E. E. Ericksen, The Psychological and Ethical Aspects of Mormon Group Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922; reprint, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1975). The reprint edition has an introduction by Sterling M. McMurrin.

2. References to the Mormons, Mormonism, the Mormon Church, and the Church are to the people, beliefs, and instituitons of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has its headquarters in Utah. I do not mean to include in these categories other groups and institutions that are a part of the Mormon movement and tradition.

3. In commenting on Roberts in this essay, I have drawn freely on “Brigham H. Roberts: Notes on a Mormon Philosopher-Historian,” which I wrote as an introduction to a 1967 reprinting of Roberts’s early volume, Joseph Smith the Prophet-Teacher (Princeton: Deseret Club of Princeton University), first published in 1908.

4. Volumes 2 and 3 of New Witnesses for God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909).

5. Ibid., 3:559.

6. Ibid., 561.

7. A separate and brief manuscript by Roberts comparing Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1825 ed.; orig. publ. Poultney, Vt.: Smith & Shute, 1823) with the Book of Mormon, commonly referred to as “A Parallel,” was published in the Rocky Mountain Mason (Jan. 1956) by Mervin B. Hogan (“A ‘Parallel’: A Matter of Chance versus Coincidence”). “A Parallel” is reprinted in this volume.

8. Truman G. Madsen, “B. H. Roberts and the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies, 19 (1979): 427-45. In this article Madsen’s quotations from Roberts’s statements on the Book of Mormon are almost exclusively from Roberts’s earlier period, prior to his work on “A Book of Mormon Study.”

9. Ibid., 441.

10. See the section of this volume on “B. H. Roberts’s Correspondence Related to the Book of Mormon Esays.”

11. Regarding the date of the “1923 letter,” see note 65 in the section of this volume entitled “Introduction.” Brigham Madsen is of the opinion that his letter was probably originally dated 1922.

12. Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980).

13. Several months after the present volume, including this essay on Brigham H. Roberts, was sent to the publisher, Madsen published in an official magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints an article entitled “Brigham H. Roberts after Fifty Years: Still Witnessing for the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Dec. 1983. In this article Madsen gave attention to the Roberts manuscripts, “Book of Mormon Difficulties,” “A Book of Mormon Study,” and “A Parallel,” which are the substance of this volume. Madsen called attention to the basic problems and questions that Roberts raised in his “A Book of Momon Study,” but he didn ot provide his readers with any information on Roberts’s views and conclusions on the problems that were set forth in the manuscripts.

14. Roberts was a member of the First Council of the Seventy, one of the three governing quorums of the Mormon Church.

15. This aberration appears in Roberts’s late unpublished work, “The Truth, the Way, the Life,” written in the 1920s.

16. See Frederick J. Pack’s Science and Belief in God (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1924). Pack was professor of geology at the University of Utah, as Talmage had been in earlier years.

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