This collection of quotations from Hugh Nibley was supervised and approved by his widow, Phyllis Nibley. We are pleased to post it in commemoration of the centennial of his birth.
On the Temple
The essential information for solving almost any problem or answering almost any question is all brought together in the scriptures, but it is not put together for us there. Learned divines for sixty generations have argued about that, and the vast bulk of their writings is eloquent witness to their perplexity. And this is where the temple comes in. Without the temple any civilization is an empty shell, a structure of custom and convenience only. The churchmen, posing with too much dexterity to accommodate their teachings to the scientific and moral tenets of the hour, present a woeful commentary on the claims of religion to be the sheet anchor of civilization and morality. Where is the unshakable rock, the ʾeven shetiyah? It is the temple.
Five days a week between three and four o’clock in the morning, hundreds of elderly people along the Wasatch Front bestir themselves to go up and begin their long hours of work in the temple, where they are ready to greet the first comers at 5:30 A.M. At that time, long before daylight, the place is packed; you can’t get in, so I virtuously wait until later, much later, in the day. Whatever they may be up to, here is a band of mortals who are actually engaged in doing something which has not their own comfort, convenience, or profit as its object. Here at last is a phenomenon that commands respect in our day and could safely be put forth among the few valid arguments we have to induce the Deity to spare the human race: thousands of men and women putting themselves out for no ulterior motive. There is a touch of true nobility here. What draws them to the temple? There is no music, pageantry, or socializing to beguile the time; none of us begins to grasp the full significance of what is going on, yet nobody seems bored. Why is that? I can only speak for myself, harking back to the subject of hints, those countless impulses with which our receptors are being bombarded by day and night. For thousands of years the stars have gone on sending us their hints, broadcasting unlimited information if we only knew it; now at last we are reacting to a narrow band of the informational spectrum, putting clues together in a way the ancients never did. But also we are beginning to suspect that there were times when the ancients reacted to another band of the spectrum which is completely lost on us. The temple, as the very name proclaims, is a place where one takes one’s bearings on the universe. What goes on there is confidential and must remain so until both the Mormons and the outside world are in a better position to understand it. Meanwhile, I write this almost fifty years to the day since the bewildering experience of my own endowment; I have just returned from the temple again where this day I made a most surprising and gratifying discovery. If I went to the temple five times and nothing happened, I would stop going. But I’ve gone hundreds of times, and the high hopes of new knowledge with which I go up the hill every week are never disappointed.1
We live in Vanity Fair today, and the temple represents the one sober spot in the world where we can really be serious and consider these things. It is my testimony that the gospel has been restored, and the Lord intends to fulfill his purposes in these days. And whatever we ask him for, he will give us. This I tell my family without any reservation whatever. I have never asked the Lord for anything that he didn’t give to me. Well, you say, in that case, you surely didn’t ask for much. No, I didn’t; I was very careful not to ask for much. We don’t want to be spoiled brats, do we? We ask for what we need, for what we can’t get ourselves, and the Lord will give it to us. Don’t worry. But he also wants us to get in and dig for the rest. So I pray and hope that the Lord may inspire and help us all to become more engaged—more involved—in the work of these latter days and visit the temple often and become wiser all the time, because he intends to give us more revelations through that instrumentality.2
On the Brethren
I spent a week with Apostle Spencer W. Kimball visiting his home stake in Arizona. We were gone ten days. We went by train in those early days. We came back to the old Los Angeles station, and in that part of Los Angeles, there were a lot of bookstores, which I knew very well. I bought a whole set, a very rare collection, of Alfonsus De Lingorio, the seventeenth-century Redemptorist writer on probabilism, a very valuable set of ten volumes. I barely made it back to the train by running across a lot. I jumped on the train, plunked down beside Brother Kimball, who was already on the train, and staggered into the drawing room, my arms full of the complete set, which I greatly valued.
As we sat talking about the books, Brother Kimball casually took an immaculate linen handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket, and, stooping over, vigorously dusted off my shoes and trousers. It was the most natural thing in the world, and we both took it completely for granted. After all, my shoes were dusty in the race for the train, and Brother Kimball had always told missionaries to keep themselves clean and proper. It was no great thing—pas d’histoire. Neither of us said a thing about it, but ever since, that has conditioned my attitude toward the Brethren. I truly believe that they are chosen servants of God.3
On the Terrible Question (What is after death?)
Joseph Smith had already stated the problem as clearly as anyone ever has and done what no one else has done in giving us the solution. “What is the objet of our coming into existence, then dying and falling away, to be here no more? . . . [This] is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night. . . . If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important subject.”4 And this is where religion has failed, turning to the social gospel and intellectual posturing to avoid the issue.
Joseph Smith not only states the problem, but he provides the prime clue to the answer on the same page: “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.”5 The answer must come from the outside, and that is recognized now. The term breakthrough that Eduard Meyer applied to the beginning of Christianity and Mormonism is today being widely used in theological journals to explain the divine origin of Christianity: It cannot be a human invention, our own imagining; to be real it must come from elsewhere. But of course the phenomenon is denied for modern times.6
The only person you try to impress is your Heavenly Father, and it is awfully hard because he can’t be fooled—not for a minute. I have always felt driven this way. The gospel is so wonderful. There is so much to find out. It opens the doors to so many things. It is sort of an obsession, a sort of personal thing. As long as you are going to be doing something, why not be doing something that hasn’t been done before.7
In a discussion on who and what preceded Adam and the various theories related to those ideas: “It is sad to think how many of those telling points that turned some of our best students away from the gospel have turned out to be dead wrong.”8
On the Scriptures
I’m getting deeper and deeper into the old study. I’m more and more sure of sources. I’ve been collecting some marvelous stuff on Joseph Smith recently. I could say my testimony gets stronger every day. These scriptures are true; they are real. As the literature expands and associations turn up, you realize that all scholarship is comparative scholarship. There is no end.9
“Search the scriptures,” said the Lord, “for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39). The words and deeds of prophets and of angels testify to the divinity of Jesus Christ; so likewise does the written record of those words and deeds. There are many reasons on which we cannot comment here for believing that God gave the miracle of writing to men as a means of keeping records through the ages. Writing is as marvelous and subtle a thing in its operation and in its effects as television. Here we have a means of transmitting not only the deeds but also the very thoughts of men through unlimited expanses of space and time—and this amazingly economical and efficient device has been in the possession of the human race from its very beginning. Writing was not devised by men as a tool to help them in their everyday affairs: successful businessmen have been illiterates, and there is ample evidence that writing was adapted to commercial uses only after such uses were found for it. If you bring together all the written records of man’s past, you will discover that the overwhelming mass of material is religious in nature, and that the primary purpose to which writing has been put through the ages has not been for business records and correspondence, in which writing is employed awkwardly and without enthusiasm, but for keeping a remembrance of God’s dealings with men. The specific purpose of writing, as the Egyptians put it, is to record the mdw ntr, the divine words.
We have skirted the fringe of speculation here for a moment only to recall to a generation that has forgotten to read the scriptures that the written word is one of the means chosen and established by God for communicating with his children. It is not the only means or the most direct means—to insist on that is a common fallacy of the sectarian world. A man who can convey his mind to others only through a written letter must be personally inaccessible to them either because of distance, death, or some other obstacle, and to say that God can speak to men no more clearly or directly than in written pages hundreds of years old is to impose upon him the most pathetic human limitations. Of course God can speak to men now as directly as he ever did, and the scripture is but one of his ways of speaking to them. It is a most effective way, however, and one that has peculiar advantages of its own. It overcomes time—the scriptures are the common meeting ground of all the prophets no matter how many centuries apart they may have lived; here they all speak a common tongue and bear witness to each other. The prophets constantly and characteristically quote each other; the New Testament everywhere quotes the Old; after the resurrection the Lord taught using the very words of Moses and the prophets and employing the scriptures for that purpose. He said that those who did not believe those prophets would never believe him.
As no one has a right to limit God’s capacity to speak to men with his own voice whenever and wherever he will, neither has anyone the authority to say that God may not, when he will, present his children with his word in writing by dictating scripture to his prophets, by bringing forth forgotten writings of the ancients, by guiding the work of an inspired translator, or in any way he chooses. We have said before that the test of the soundness of men’s hearts is their willingness to accept the message of a living prophet; the same applies to their willingness to accept God’s word in any form. So the Lord has told us through an ancient prophet how it is when men who reject the prophets because they already have dead ones are confronted with God’s written word: “Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible. Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews? Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? . . . Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also. And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure. And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another” (2 Nephi 29:6-9).
. . . What do we find in it? A wealth of doctrine embedded in large amounts of what is put forth as genuine historical material, not devotional or speculative or interpretive or creative writing but genuine historical fact, stuff that touches upon reality—geographical, ethnological, linguistic, cultural, etc.—at a thousand places. On all of these points the book could sooner or later be tested, as Joseph Smith knew. We cannot possibly deny his good faith in placing it before the whole world without any reservation. Aside from all other considerations it is a staggering work; its mass and complexity alone would defy the talent of any living man or body of men to duplicate today. Its histories are full and circumstantial; yet sober, simple, straightforward—there is nothing contrived, nothing exaggerated, nothing clever in the whole book. For a century and a quarter it has undergone the closest scrutiny at the hands of its friends and enemies, and today it stands up better than ever.10
Until the final returns are in, no one is in a position to make final pronouncements, and as long as science continues to progress, the final returns will remain at the other end of a future of wonders and surprises. In the world of things, we must forever keep an open mind, because we simply don’t know the answers. But we are not claiming that because science does not have the ultimate answers, religion does have them. What we do claim is that the words of the prophets cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity.11
I have a testimony of the gospel which I wish to bear. Again, as Brigham Young says, because I say it’s true doesn’t make it true, does it? But I know it is, and I would recommend you to pursue a way of finding out. And there are ways in which you can come to a knowledge of the truth.
When is a thing proven? When you personally think it’s so, and that’s all you can do. . . . Then you have your testimony, and all you can do is bear your testimony and point to the evidence. That’s all you can do. But you can’t impose your testimony on another. And you can’t make the other person see the evidence as you do. Things that just thrill me through and through in the Book of Mormon leave another person completely cold. And the other way around, too. So we can’t use evidence, and we can’t say, I know this is true, therefore you’d better know it is true. But I know it is true, and I pray our Heavenly Father that we may all come to a knowledge of the truth, each in his own way.
On the Gospel
I include acceptance of the gospel among the basic bodily functions like sleeping, eating, and breathing. They are not rational but spontaneous; without them we would die, but that is not why we engage in them. We eat, breathe, and sleep long before we are in danger of dying of hunger, suffocation, or exhaustion; if we had to have a rational explanation for doing those things before we were willing to invest any effort in them we would not be long for this world. The eye it cannot choose but see, l’âme pense toujours (but the soul always thinks), and as far as I can see, faith is inseparable from the awareness of existence. Existence, the Egyptians said, is a marvel compared with which all other marvels pale into insignificance: it is something not to be explained but accepted; and to accept it is to feel a surge of gratitude—to what, for what? We cannot shake off the wonder and delight of being, the indefinite prolongation of which is but a minor problem once we have got over the original obstacle—namely, the enormous odds against existing at all. Our reaction to being here must be a religious one, because the only principle of continued being is holiness. One cannot maintain an even level of folly. Each act is a step downward unless it is a righteous act, and the concept of righteousness cannot be divorced from the idea of holiness.
I have written too much and said too little. This is no religious philosophy at all. It is a situation in which I find myself: I am stuck with the gospel. I know perfectly well that it is true; there may be things about the Church that I find perfectly appalling—but that has nothing to do with it. I know the gospel is true.12
1 Hugh Nibley, “An Intellectual Autobiography,” in Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others and the Temple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 2008), 18–19.
2 Hugh Nibley, “The Meaning of the Temple,” in Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 38.
3 Hugh Nibley, “Criticizing the Brethren,” in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 444.
4 History of the Church 6:50, emphasis added.
5 History of the Church 6:50.
6 Hugh Nibley, “Not to Worry,” in Eloquent Witness, 193–94.
7 “Hugh Nibley: The Faithful Scholar,” in Eloquent Witness, 25–26.
8 Hugh Nibley, “Before Adam,” in Old Testament and Related Studies (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1986), 57.
9 Hugh Nibley, “A Conversation with Hugh Nibley,” in Eloquent Witness, 90.
10 Hugh Nibley, “The Book of Mormon as a Witness,” in The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 207–9, 211.
11 Hugh Nibley, “The Prophets and the Open Mind,” in The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 134.
12 Hugh Nibley, “Dear Sterling,” in Eloquent Witness, 146–47.
Hugh Winder Nibley (27 March 1910–24 February 2005) was a gifted writer, a prolific author, a first-class scholar, and, above all, a committed member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was educated at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley. He taught at the Claremont Colleges before World War II, at which time he served in military intelligence. He was then employed at Brigham Young University, where he influenced countless individuals through his classes, his writing, and his lectures. Professor Nibley was a gifted linguist (e.g., in Arabic, Coptic, Dutch, Egyptian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Old Norse, Russian, and other languages) and used those skills to contribute in numerous fields, including classics, ancient history, Mormon history, patristics, Book of Mormon studies, and Egyptology. The last volume in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (vol. 19), One Eternal Round, was recently released. Hugh Nibley and his wife, the former Phyllis Draper, have eight children.
See, additionally, Professor Nibley’s chapter in Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars.
Posted March 2010