For Hugh Nibley, the Book of Mormon is prophetic in every sense of the word. It is written by prophets and about prophets. It was foreseen by prophets and foresees our day. It is a book brought forth by prophetic gifts for prophetic purposes. It speaks forth in a clarion voice of warning with words of counsel to those who would survive the last days.
The articles in this volume, brought together under one cover for the first time, approach the Book of Mormon through a variety of prophetic themes. These essays speak out incisively on themes ranging from the prophecies of Ezekiel 37, and Nephi’s vision of Columbus, to internal and external evidences of the divine origins of the Book of Mormon, and jolting messages of things as they really are in the world around us and of things that must soon come to pass.
Many of these themes are familiar to readers of Nibley’s three main volumes on the Book of Mormon: Lehi in the Desert (1952), An Approach to the Book of Mormon (1957), and Since Cumorah (1967), appearing in volumes 5, 6, and 7 in these Collected Works. The essays in this volume are the remaining Book of Mormon articles and talks written by Nibley from 1953 to the present. These materials are presented in this volume in the order in which they were written, to give the reader a sense of Nibley’s consistent but diverse work on the Book of Mormon over the forty years since he joined the faculty at Brigham Young University. Most of these chapters have been previously published in scattered locations, but some appear here for the first time. Some are carefully developed papers; others are transcripts of talks; in some places they include unpolished exploratory notes.
Although these articles were not originally written to appear in a single volume, they cluster together naturally and without difficulty. Thus, while there is a bit of duplication among some of the chapters, each case approaches its subject matter from a distinctive, informative angle. Moreover, while each article was addressed to a different audience and was written for its own particular purpose, the entire volume is conceptually unified by the important methodological comments developed in chapter 3, “New Approaches to Book of Mormon Study.” The points raised there sensitize the reader to the fact that different kinds of evidence exist—internal, external, circumstantial—and that each kind must be accurately assessed and soundly employed. Furthermore, the assorted tasks, specific purposes, and challenges undertaken in these essays also justify the various approaches employed from one chapter to the next.
Nibley’s points are as relevant today as they were the day they were written. The topics he discusses, like forgery, or facile attempts to attribute Book of Mormon authorship to Joseph Smith, sound as current as this morning’s newspaper.
In 1948, Nibley wrote his first published statement on the Book of Mormon. It was a book review of Sidney Sperry’s Our Book of Mormon.1 This short review reveals more about Nibley than the book being reviewed. More than he or anyone else in 1948 could have known, his comments presage his own work on the Book of Mormon over the next forty years; for the virtues he saw in Sperry’s book, and the standards by which he judged it, are the ideals Nibley himself has consistently strived to attain in his own works. They are the standards by which it is fair to judge Nibley himself.
Nibley admired Sperry’s book for being “forthright, methodical,” one “that hues to the line and never flinches.” He praised a “refreshing directness” in an author who “raises and answers searching but simple questions one after another that surprise the reader by their obviousness and almost alarm him with the sense of his own ignorance.” He delighted in seeing “long-neglected lore . . . put on display, much of it for the first time.” He extolled the writer who does not “go overboard for any one theory, . . . [who] never temporises and never quibbles.” He admired one who avoids “the tricks and pitfalls of rhetoric . . . like the plague.” Above all, he found that a book about the Book of Mormon exercises its greatest fascination on the reader by drawing the reader “again and again” back into the Book of Mormon itself, for it is “a mighty revelation which we neglect at our peril.”
Nibley saw these things as strengths in the work of another. In the present volume, readers will unmistakably see Nibley at work on his own terms: forthright, methodical, refreshingly direct, searching but simple, surprising the reader with an obviousness that instills a sense of one’s own ignorance, utilizing many theories, speaking honestly and in search of truth, not of rhetoric, and, above all, drawing the reader again and again back into lengthy narratives of the Book of Mormon, a book we have still only begun to understand and must not neglect. It is a matter of great seriousness, one that we neglect at our peril.
As Nibley has said in a variety of ways, “The Book of Mormon should take priority. We need to make the Book of Mormon the object of serious study—superficiality is quite offensive to the Lord. We have not paid enough attention to this important book. The Book of Mormon is a witness of God’s concern for all his children, and the intimate proximity of Jesus Christ to all who will receive him. It is a wonderful guide in the present world situation. Learning is of immense value, and careful study of the Book of Mormon is of eternal value. Rather than wasting valuable time reading so much empty drivel, we should be studying things of the eternities.”
The present volume of essays takes all readers in this direction. Though one may revise, refine, challenge, reexamine, and rethink points from time to time in these essays, their lasting contribution is powerful. This is basically because Nibley takes the Book of Mormon seriously: textually, historically, doctrinally, and practically. For him, the Book of Mormon surely means what it says, and thus his pursuit of its meaning, in word and in deed, has been not a casual curiosity but a lifetime pilgrimage.
Nibley praised Sperry for his persistent campaign in behalf of the Book of Mormon as deserving “nothing but praise.” It is now fitting to return that compliment to Nibley himself. No one has made the Book of Mormon more an object of persistent, serious, and extensive study than he has. And no one sees more clearly than he does the need for this ongoing endeavor to continue.
This volume concludes the Book of Mormon component of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. The four Book of Mormon volumes in this series should be seen as a unit in order to understand the interrelated Book of Mormon insights of Nibley’s mind and spirit. These four volumes could not have been collected, checked, edited, and published without the dedicated work of Fran Clark, Stephen Callister, Gary Gillum, John Gee, Darryl Hague, Richard Hiltbrunn, Jack Lyon, Cie Mason, Darrell Matthews, Brent McNeely, Brenda Miles, Mari Miles, Phyllis Nibley, Don Norton, Stephen Ricks, and Jim Tredway. Funding to facilitate these publications has been generously donated by John S. and Unita Welch, Wallace E. and Patricia Hunt, Jr., Randall and Jann Paul, and others. Their dedicated efforts and support is gratefully acknowledged and appreciated.
John W. Welch
1. Improvement Era 51 (January 1948): 42.