LDS historian Nibley dies at 94
Not many Mormon scholars could get away with lambasting the faithful for their excessive materialism, their fondness for the military and hunting, or their kitschy church art and still remain a favorite son. Fewer still could be a mentor to church defenders and LDS social critics at the same time.
And almost no other Mormon thinker could offer Homer's Odyssey as a bedtime story to his children, simultaneously translating the original Greek into English.
But that was Hugh Winder Nibley.
Nibley, credited with launching the scholarly examination of Mormon scriptures, died Thursday at his Provo home weeks before his 95th birthday.
"He charted the map of Mormon studies, laying out the foundation for what scholars will be looking at for the next century. He inspired an entire generation of scholars," said Nibley biographer and son-in-law Boyd Peterson, who is married to Nibley's youngest daughter, Zina.
And no wonder. Nibley's prodigious scholarly output - hundreds of essays, 15 books and scores of articles in academic and LDS Church publications - is almost unmatched among Mormon writers.
Nearly to the end, Nibley could recite long passages from Shakespearean tragedies, Wordsworth poems and arcane texts that span several millennia and continents.
He had a deep disdain for the slavish conformity he felt grips many Latter-day Saints. Yet he maintained an unquestioning loyalty to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its leaders and scriptures.
"He was true to the highest canons of scholarship he had learned at Berkeley, but he was also guided by his faith," said Noel Reynolds, director of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), which was built on Nibley's work.
In earliest childhood, it became clear to Nibley's parents, Hugh Winder Nibley and Agnes Nibley, that their child had unusual gifts.
Nibley's score on his first intelligence test was so impressive his principal told the 9-year-old boy: "If you fell asleep for nine years and woke up, you'd still be ahead of everybody else."
After graduating from high school at 17, Nibley served a three-year LDS mission to Germany. He earned a history degree in 1934 from the University of California at Los Angeles and a doctorate in classics four years later from the University of California at Berkeley.
In 1942, he joined the Army where he served in military intelligence, eventually landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944 - D-Day.
He married Phyllis Anne Hawkes Draper on Sept. 18, 1946 in the Salt Lake LDS Temple and soon began his career at BYU, where he taught history, languages and religion.
"As a scholar, Hugh was able to make important contributions in numerous fields: classics, ancient history, Mormon history, patristics, Book of Mormon studies, and Egyptology," wrote John Gee, Egyptologist and editor for Nibley's yet-to-be-published book, One Eternal Round, on FARMS' Web site. "He insisted on reading the relevant primary and secondary sources in the original and could read Arabic, Coptic, Dutch, Egyptian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Old Norse, Russian and other languages at sight."
As his books Since Cumorah, Lehi in the Desert and Abraham in Egypt attest, Nibley was equally adept at using his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Greece, Rome and the Near East to find parallels that lend credence to LDS scriptures. His study of Egyptian in the 1960s made Nibley the ideal candidate to defend the Book of Abraham, part of the Mormon canon found in The Pearl of Great Price.
Nibley also had a quick, and sometimes biting, wit that sounded like a Mormon Oscar Wilde. A die-hard Democrat in conservative Utah County, he spoke out on controversial and unpopular topics like the futility of loyalty oaths in the midst of the McCarthy hearings and the Vietnam War.
Through the years, Nibley became legendary as the quintessential absent-minded professor, so focused on his work that he forgot to eat, or to match his shoes. He wore frumpy hats and secondhand suits and sweaters and he raised eight children in the same modest house, where he lived for more than 40 years. His office was stacked high with notecards, his attention riveted on the project at hand.
But it would be wrong to see Nibley only in terms of his scholarly contributions, says son Alex Nibley, who is working on a documentary and book titled Sergeant Nibley Ph.D.
"He was an intellectual, but I never believed that was the core of the man," Alex Nibley said Thursday. "He was a man of passion and enormous affection, really a man of love, a man of spirit who was enormously generous with his time and knowledge."
In the past decade, Hugh Nibley was accused by his daughter, Martha Nibley Beck, of sexually abusing her as a 5-year-old. In her forthcoming memoir, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Beck also attacks her father's scholarship and caricatures the LDS Church, BYU and her siblings.
In a phone interview from her home in Phoenix, Beck said she felt her father's presence for two hours Thursday morning.
"He was so beautiful, full of love and joy," Beck said. "I hope I can live the rest of my life to honor his memory, as paradoxical as that seems."
Nibley denied the allegations and this week all seven of Beck's siblings signed a statement condemning the book as riddled with "countless errors, falsehoods, contradictions, and gross distortions [and] misrepresents our family history, the basic facts of our lives, our family culture, the works of our father and the basic premises of [the LDS Church]."
Beck is not planning to attend her father's funeral Wednesday at 1 p.m. in the Provo LDS Tabernacle. "I think it would be a huge distraction," she said.
Nibley's family and friends hope nothing will divert attention from Nibley's life and faith.
"Pure love and pure spirit, that is the core of the man I knew," Alex Nibley said. "Much more than the great author and lecturer."
Books by Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley
* No Ma'am That's Not History
* Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites
* Approach to the Book of Mormon
* Since Cumorah
* Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri
* Sounding Brass
*Abraham in Egypt
* Approaching Zion
* Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints