Critics of the Book of Mormon persistently claim that B.H. Roberts, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ most prolific writer and arguably its most effective defender, abandoned his belief in the Book of Mormon and the Prophet Joseph Smith during the last decade of his life. The foundation for this claim is three studies of the Book of Mormon that Elder Roberts wrote in the early 1920s. This claim has been repeatedly and effectively refuted, but critics continue to make the claim without responding to the problems that plague it. This is very revealing of the manipulation and suppression of details, facts, and statements necessary to make many claims and accusations against the Church.
Serious Problems with Critical Claims
Critics who claim that B.H. Roberts lost his faith studiously avoid some major problems with such a position. The following sections detail the problems they fail to address.
B.H. Roberts’ Own Statements Concerning the Purpose of His Studies
B. H. Roberts clearly explained why he wrote his Book of Mormon studies: to provide a survey of perceived future challenges that Book of Mormon defenders would have to meet. He wrote that these studies did not represent his beliefs, and he indicated that they might be misunderstood or misused. This fact, fatal to the claims that Roberts’s faith was severely shaken or abandoned, is universally suppressed by those who claim that they demonstrate his loss of faith! These are the same critics who complain the most about the Church’s alleged manipulation and suppression of its history.
The Content of the Studies
Critics rarely quote from the several-hundred page studies themselves, which are supposed to demonstrate his abandonment of faith. Instead, they by and large rely on essays by Sterling McMurrin and Brigham Madsen that promote this view. The studies themselves, upon examination, contain some arguments that Roberts definitely didn’t believe, some of which are extremely weak. For instance, Roberts mentions archaeological and anthropological evidences that directly opposed his own verifiable views on evolution, the Flood, and other issues that he held. Even the critics would acknowledge that these were not representative of his views. Other arguments in these studies are so weak that no one would actually claim that Roberts was really troubled by them. It is clear that his Book of Mormon studies were a catalogue of potential criticisms that he felt needed to be more effectively addressed, but it is equally clear that he didn’t feel that they were insurmountable or even troubling. He was concerned about individual perceptions of the Church’s inability to answer these criticisms, and he presciently anticipated the direction that Book of Mormon criticisms would go in the future.
B.H. Roberts’ Public Statements and Behavior
Roberts’s public talks, letters, books, articles, private conversations, and actual deeds during the last decade of his life are overwhelmingly supportive of the historicity and divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Many of these were written, published, or delivered during the last year of his life. Critics claim that Roberts maintained a public façade of faith while privately suffering from gnawing doubt, but on what evidence? To do this, they must resort to unfounded historical psychoanalysis without proof, a really unenviable position to defend. As Roberts wrote in 1933 (the year of his death), when critics are “confined to statements of facts against the Mormon church, [their] power is greatly reduced.” 1
Missionary Testimonies Concerning B.H. Roberts
The testimony of the missionaries who served under him witnesses of the tremendous spiritual impact he had on them, particularly concerning his testimony of the Book of Mormon. He served as president of the Eastern States Mission from 1922 to 1927, the very time he is supposed to have had a crisis of faith. His missionaries were profoundly affected by his testimony of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration. A journal entry of Wesley P. Lloyd, one of his missionaries, while complicating the picture somewhat, still does not demonstrate that Elder Roberts had lost his belief in the Book of Mormon.
Elder Roberts’s studies remain today a valuable tool for “defenders of the faith.” He correctly predicted the prominence that future critics would give scientific evidence and possible nineteenth-century influences and parallels. While anyone, even a general authority, could conceivably abandon one’s faith, to claim this without foundation and while ignoring valid objections to it is shameful, especially when a preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly refutes it. The manufactured controversy over “The B.H. Roberts Question” reveals the manner in which critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints selectively choose and suppress information in order to create a false impression when presenting their version of Church history.
For a more in-depth treatment of this topic, see my longer FAIR article, entitled Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony.
1 The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts, Gary Bergera, ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990) p. 168.