Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony
by McKay V. Jones
Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933) was the most prolific and arguably the most effective defender The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had. Well-known for the Church histories he edited and wrote,1 Roberts continues today to be thought of as one of the Church’s premier “Defenders of the Faith.” In an effort to undermine and erode the confidence and beliefs of members of the Church, some critics try to portray Elder Roberts as having lost his faith in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon in his later years. The purpose of this paper is to explain the background and analyze the evidence relating to this claim, and to show that those making this claim consciously ignore or fail to deal with abundant and compelling evidence that refutes it. Others who make this claim may be ignorant of the details and evidence to the contrary, but it’s clear that Elder Roberts maintained his strong belief in the Book of Mormon and remained a powerful witness to its divine origins and historicity until he died in 1933. The emphasis some anti-Mormons place on alleging that Elder Roberts abandoned his belief in the Book of Mormon actually reveals just how intellectually bankrupt and ineffective attempts to discredit the Book of Mormon have been, leaving these critics to resort to portraying a prominent general authority as a closet-doubter as a means of raising doubts in people’s minds.
The controversy centers around three studies Elder Roberts made in the 1920s that examined potential attacks on the Book of Mormon.2 Interestingly, while anti-Mormons allege that these papers contain Roberts’ anguished doubts and disillusionment with the book of Mormon, the papers themselves are almost never quoted. Instead, critics overwhelmingly rely on the interpretations of Sterling McMurrin and Brigham Madsen that appear in the introductory material in Studies of the Book of Mormon, the title under which Roberts’ three studies were published.
Despite their abuse by anti-Mormon critics, Roberts’ manuscripts “Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study,” “A Book of Mormon Study,” and “A Parallel” do not record “Roberts’ personal struggle with his waning confidence in the Book of Mormon.”3 Claiming this intentionally or ignorantly does not consider Roberts’ own explanation of their purpose and intent, which is conveniently recorded in the material in Studies of the Book of Mormon. Those making this claim are unaware of Roberts’ explanations of these manuscripts, or worse, they deliberately ignore them. A thorough reading of the transcripts of Roberts’ studies in their context reveals that they were written, as Roberts said they were, to describe potential future lines of attack on the Book of Mormon in order to equip “future Defenders of the Faith” to respond to them, not as a frenzied cry for help from a man who had lost his faith in the Book of Mormon.
Nowhere, even in his unpublished manuscripts printed in Studies of the Book of Mormon, does Roberts intimate that “he became more and more disillusioned with the Book of Mormon,” that he “eventually concluded that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself — that he did not translate it from gold plates,” or that he “had to admit the evidence proved Joseph Smith was a plagiarist.”4 Such statements are irresponsible and have no support from Roberts’ own statements.
B.H. Roberts’ Own Explanation
B.H. Roberts requested a special conference of the General Authorities of the Church late in 1921 to discuss how the Church would respond to attacks on the Book of Mormon based on ethnological, scientific, historical, anthropological, and philological approaches. Roberts correctly anticipated the future influence of secular humanism and the effect it would have on people’s faith in the historicity of the scriptures, including the Bible. He requested the conference, not because of a crisis of faith, but because he felt that the Brethren needed to be made aware of potential future lines of attack and formulate a response. In his letter requesting the conference, Roberts explained:
I assure you that I am most thoroughly convinced of the necessity of all the brethren herein addressed becoming familiar with these Book of Mormon problems, and finding the answer for them, as it is a matter that will concern the faith of the Youth of the Church now as also in the future, as well as such casual inquirers as may come to us from the outside world.5
Ever concerned with how attacks on the Church affect “the faith of the Youth of the Church … as well as such casual inquirers as may come to us from the outside world,” Roberts outlined in “Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study” the difficulties that modern scientific consensus presents to certain Book of Mormon details. Page after page is spent quoting various authorities ad nauseum to show that modern scientists do not support Book of Mormon migrations, various domesticated animals, the use of iron or steel, or a Middle-Eastern origin for the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. It is clear that Roberts is simply cataloguing “for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con” what challenges academia will present to the Book of Mormon, and not assenting with their opinions. For example, he quotes John Fiske, a prominent author who dealt with science and religion, in a lengthy excerpt from his The Discovery of America, in which Fiske speaks condescendingly of those who still believe in the “Noachian Deluge.” Fiske describes the Americas as being inhabited “since the earliest Pleistocene times,” and Roberts comments:
It follows, of course, that if North America, as Mr. Fiske observes, ‘has been continuously inhabited by human beings since the earliest Pleistocene times, if not earlier,’ then man has been an inhabitant of North America from a period between 240,000 and 80,000 years ago.6
Both pro and anti-Mormons agree that this does not represent B.H. Roberts’ actual beliefs regarding the time frame of North American inhabitation, for he both rejected Darwinism and believed the scriptures to be strictly literal. “240,000 and 80,000 years ago” was far outside the time frame he believed in for the peopling of the world, let alone the Americas. Sterling McMurrin, in his biographical essay in Studies of the Book of Mormon, chides Roberts and the Mormons for their “inability to escape the yoke of a sometimes abject biblical literalism:”
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’ 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.7
“Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study” is simply a survey of anthropological, historical, geological, and scientific opinions that conflict with the Book of Mormon account which Roberts sought to bring to the attention of the General Authorities of the Church. He did not assent with them, but he correctly predicted that future attacks on the Church would attempt to make use of such testimony, and he sought to make the presiding authorities aware of them so that the Church would be better prepared to engage them. Roberts no more believed the criticisms of the Book of Mormon he raised than he believed the geological or evolutionary evidence he cited. His point was to highlight these future challenges to the Book of Mormon that would have to be effectively answered and dealt with.
Critics make much of Roberts’ “disappointment” with the results of the conference, but this disappointment wasn’t because “he came to realize he had spent a lifetime defending something which he now knew was a fraud,”8 but because to him the Brethren did not have the proper amount of concern over the potential of attacks along those lines. In his letter to President Grant following the conference, Roberts explained:
I just wanted the brethren to know that I was quite disappointed in the results of our conference, but not withstanding I shall be most earnestly alert upon the subject of Book of Mormon difficulties, hoping for the development of new knowledge, and for new light to fall upon what has already been learned, to the vindication of what God has revealed in the Book of Mormon; but I cannot be other than painfully conscious of the fact that our means of defense, should we be vigorously attacked along the lines of [these] questions, are very inadequate.9
This is not the expression of “abandonment” critics make it out to be. Roberts very presciently sensed that the Church needed to prepare itself to meet attacks “along these lines,” and this likely greatly influenced the work of later scholars such as Hugh Nibley, Sidney B. Sperry, and FARMS. His challenging questions that repeatedly pepper the copious quotations in the study are a challenge for the Brethren, not a frenzied cry for help:
We place our revealed truths in the Book of Mormon against the alleged facts resulting from the investigations of Ethnologists and Philologists and the deductions of their science, and calmly await the vindication we feel sure that time will bring to the Book of Mormon. Much could be said for the boldness and perhaps for the honesty of such an answer, but is the reasonableness or wisdom of such an answer equally apparent? It would certainly have no effect upon the educated class throughout the world. It would only excite ridicule and contempt in them. It would be the answer of fanatics prompted by, and only possible because of ignorance, they would say. What would be the effect of such an answer upon the minds of our youth? Our youth, already so willing to follow in so many other branches of learning the deductions of the sciences in their high school and college courses. Is silence the best answer? Is silence possible in such a questioning age as ours—-such an age of free inquiry? May the questions propounded to us be ignored? Would not silence be looked upon as a confession of inability to make an effective answer? Would not silence be a confession of defeat?10
What shall our answer be then? Shall we boldly acknowledge the difficulties in the case, confess that the evidences and conclusions of the authorities are against us, but notwithstanding that, we take our position on the Book of Mormon and place its revealed truths against the declarations of men, however learned, and await the vindication of the revealed truth? …What will the effect be upon our youth of such a confession of inability to give a more reasonable answer to the questions submitted, and the awaiting of proof for final vindication? Will not the hoped for proof deferred indeed make the heart sick? … Again I ask, is silence our best answer? And again the question comes, can we remain silent in our age of free inquiry? …These questions are put by me at the close of this division of the ‘study’ not for self-embarrassment, surely, nor for the embarrassment of others, but to bring to the consciousness of myself and my brethren that we face grave difficulties in all these matters, and that if there is any way by which we may ‘find wisdom, and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures’—-for I am sure that neither an appeal to the books written by men, nor even to the books of scripture now in our possession, will solve our present difficulties—then a most earnest appeal should be made to that source of wisdom and knowledge, and with a faith and persistence that will admit of no denial.11
If we cannot, what is to be the effect of it all upon the minds of our youth? What is to be our general standing before the enlightened opinion of mankind? Is silence to be our answer? Again will occur to thoughtful minds the difficulties attendant upon silence. In the last analysis of things silence would be acknowledgement of defeat. Silence in an age of free inquiry is impossible. An appeal to the old writers is of little value. The recent accepted authoritative writers leave us, so far as I can at present see, no ground of appeal or defense—-the new knowledge seems to be against us. To stand up and say to the modern world we place our revealed truth against all the evidence and deductions of your science, and await the vindication of new evidence yet to be discovered, is heroic; but is it, and will it be convincing? Most humbly, but also most anxiously, I await the further development of knowledge that will make it possible for us to give a reasonable answer to those who question us concerning the matters herein discussed.12
After the conclusion of the conference early in 1922, Elder Roberts wrote a more detailed study entitled “A Book of Mormon Study.” Its approach, as Sterling McMurrin observed, was different from Roberts’ previous defensive works:
In the heretofore unpublished manuscripts “Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study” and “A Book of Mormon Study,” [Roberts] treated the book [of Mormon] critically and forthrightly rather than defensively.13
This difference in purpose from his earlier writings has led critics to proclaim that these catalogues of possible future lines of attack represent Roberts’ actual statements of belief. This claim willingly or ignorantly ignores what B.H. Roberts said about this study. In a letter to President Heber J. Grant dated March 15, 1922, Roberts recounted the January conference and explained:
My answer was, however, that it was my intention to go on with the consideration to the last analysis. Accordingly, since the matter was already so far under my hands, I continued my studies, and submit herewith the record of them. I do not say my conclusions, for they are undrawn. In writing out this my report to you of those studies, I have written it from the viewpoint of an open mind, investigating the facts of the Book of Mormon origin and authorship. Let me say once and for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a ‘study of Book of Mormon origins’ for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it. I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it. While searching for the answers to the questions of Mr. Couch submitted through Mr. William E. Riter, I came in contact with the material here used, and concluded that while the subject was fresh in my mind to make it of record for those who should be its students and know on what ground the Book of Mormon may be questioned, as well as that which supports its authenticity and its truth… I am very sure that you will find the material herewith submitted of intense interest, and it may be of very great importance since it represents what may be used by some opponent in criticism of the Book of Mormon. [Emphasis added] 14
Roberts was primarily concerned with potential future attacks along these lines, and the Church’s response to them. The crux of the matter is his statement in the letter that he is “taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.” This is what made B.H. Roberts so effective in defending the Church and discomfiting its enemies: proceeding from an unshakable faith, he was able to engage attacks head-on, neither holding back nor avoiding potentially difficult issues. Yet, it is this frankness in acknowledging what could be said by an opponent that prompts critics to proclaim that his faith had been fatally shaken.
“A Parallel,” the third manuscript that critics claim records “Roberts’ personal struggle with his waning confidence in the Book of Mormon,” is an eighteen-page handwritten comparison of possible parallels between the Book of Mormon and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews.15 In a 1927 letter to Apostle Richard R. Lyman, Roberts explained:
I thought I would submit in sort of tabloid form a few pages of matter pointing out a possible theory of the Origin of the Book of Mormon that is quite unique and never seems to have occurred to anyone to employ, largely on account of the obscurity of the material on which it might be based, but which in the hands of a skilled opponent could be made, in my judgment, very embarrassing.16
Roberts states in the letter that his purpose in compiling “A Parallel” was to point out how “it could be urged that the [Smith] family doubtless had [View of the Hebrews] in their possession,” noting that the question of whether View of the Hebrews supplied the structural outline and some of the content for the Book of Mormon
may possibly arise some day, and if it does, it would be greatly to the advantage of our future Defenders of the Faith if they had in hand a thorough digest of the subject matter… Let me say also, that the Parallel that I send to you is not one fourth part of what can be presented in this form, and the unpresented part is quite as striking as this that I submit. [Emphasis added]17
Note carefully that Roberts does not express consternation that this theory is true, but that he is concerned about the future potential of such an approach by unfriendly critics. His aim is to provide “our future Defenders of the Faith … a thorough digest of the subject matter.” Although Roberts here plainly states his reasons for compiling “A Parallel,” and indirectly “A Book of Mormon Study,” these writings are cited by critics as evidence of his “waning confidence” in the Book of Mormon! The correspondence between Roberts and Church authorities is published with the transcripts of the studies, so critics who fail to deal with Roberts’ statements expose themselves to charges of carelessness, or worse, dishonesty. This point cannot be over-emphasized. At best, critics have pounced on this perceived opportunity to embarrass the Church and perhaps shake the faith of some, without checking to see if Roberts elaborated or clarified his purposes in writing the studies. However, one may legitimately question whether these critics were aware of Roberts’ statements and deliberately chose to suppress them so that their claims would seem more valid.
Anticipating, as he said, potential future attacks on the Book of Mormon, Roberts spoke for purposes of the study as a critic of the Book of Mormon. He was aware that this approach could be misconstrued or misused by enemies of the Church, as indicated by his comments in the correspondence transcribed in Studies of the Book of Mormon. Roberts told his daughter, Elizabeth Skolfield, that “A Book of Mormon Study” was “written for presentation to the Twelve and the Presidency, not for publication …” 18As with “Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study,” Roberts wrote many things in “A Book of Mormon Study” that are obviously not his views, but are given as possible future attacks. For example, he writes at one point:
“Ethan = Ether
In taking leave of the Jaredites and this Book of Ether, one word more, this name ‘Ether.’ Rather an unusual name is it not? I do not find it among Bible names nor in any list of proper names of the unabridged dictionaries so far consulted. Could it be that it was a variation made from the name ‘Ethan’ of Mr. Smith’s name–author of the View of the Hebrews? Ethan = Ether! Not impossible, at least; and the more likely since Mr. Ethan Smith in his View of the Hebrews, in the very pages describing the journey of his Israelites uses such a changing in words to get the northward journey of his Israelites established — as might readily suggest a change from ‘Ethan’ to ‘Ether,’ as follows: ‘The writer’ (Esdras) proceeds to speak of the region being called ‘Asrareth,’ [sic] or ‘Ararat.’ … ‘But Ararat, or Armenia, lay north of the place where the ten tribes were planted’ (p. 75), which amounts to this:
‘Arsareth’ [sic] changed to ‘Ararat.’
‘Ararat’ changed to ‘Armenia.’
Why not someone else, influenced by such a suggestion, have it —
‘Ethan’ changed to ‘Ether?’
Do not take the idea too seriously, however, it is merely a passing suggestion of a bare possibility.”19
In another place, Roberts quotes from View of the Hebrews as follows:
The Great Spirit offered Quetzalcoatl beverage which, while it rendered him immortal, inspired him with a taste for traveling, and with an irresistible desire of visiting a distant country called Tlapallan.
He then writes:
On the appearing of the Christ to the Nephites in the New World after his resurrection and departure from Jerusalem the first words he addressed to them were: ‘Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world; and behold, I am the light and the life of the world. And I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me [emphasis Roberts'] … Relative to ‘his taste for traveling,’ and ‘an irresistible desire of visiting a distant country,’ did it inspire the following incident in the life of the Book of Mormon Messiah? [then follows the excerpt from 3 Nephi dealing with Christ visiting his "other sheep, which are not of this fold."] … All this indicated intention of movement on the part of the Book of Mormon Messiah might well arise from Quetzalcoatl’s ‘taste for traveling’ and his ‘irresistible desire of visiting a distant country.’20
Does anyone really want to argue that Roberts seriously believed that Joseph Smith derived the Book of Mormon name “Ether” from “Ethan,” because Ethan Smith suggested that “Arsareth” became “Ararat” and then later “Armenia?” Or that he held the account of Christ visiting the Western Hemisphere recorded in the Book of Mormon to have been inspired by Ethan Smith writing that “The Great Spirit offered Quetzalcoatl beverage which … inspired him with a taste for traveling, and with an irresistible desire of visiting a distant country called Tlapallan?” Truman G. Madsen perhaps expressed it best when he said that “['A Book of Mormon Study'] 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 defense of a work already accepted as true, the manuscript was anything but a careful presentation of Roberts’ thoughts about the Book of Mormon.”21 Roberts’ probing examination of the Book of Mormon in “A Book of Mormon Study” is valuable to modern-day “Defenders of the Faith,” as it calls attention to difficulties that they should be prepared to engage and explain. In no case does it represent the frenzied admission that “the evidence proved Joseph Smith was a plagiarist.”22
The Roberts “Disillusionment” Claim Versus B.H. Roberts’ Words and Deeds
The claim that Roberts became disillusioned with the Book of Mormon is untenable in the face of B.H. Roberts’ actual writings and speeches, both private and public. This is especially true of the last decade of his life, the time period when Spencer insists that “he came to realize he had spent a lifetime defending something which he now knew was a fraud.” Sterling McMurrin, in his biographical essay in Studies of the Book of Mormon, concedes that:
Roberts’ ‘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 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. (emphasis added) 23
Brigham Madsen likewise comments that Roberts’ works were not those of a man who had lost his faith in the Book of Mormon, noting Roberts’ treatment of the Book of Mormon while serving as president of the Eastern States Mission from 1922 to 1927:
During the last six years of his life is there any evidence that Roberts still retained his faith in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, despite his critical examination of the origin of the book? The record is mixed. In his public statements he was still the defender of the faith. For example, at the semi-annual conference of the Church in April 1928 he was reported to have ‘defended the Book of Mormon as the word of God … [and] closed his address by bearing an impressive testimony to the divinity of the Church.’ And a year before his death in 1933 he penned an article for the Atlantic Monthly on ‘What College did to My Religion,’ in which he declared that God would ‘complete His work of the New Dispensation of the fullness of times. It will never be destroyed, nor its work be given to another people.’ But in a sermon in April 1929 he sounded rather enigmatic as he said, ‘I rejoice at the prominence given the Book of Mormon in this Conference. It is, however, only one of many means in letting God’s work be known to the world.’ He then ‘told of an experience where the Doctrine and Covenants was instrumental in converting a friend, after the Book of Mormon had failed’ … Finally, in a 1932 article, ‘Joseph Smith: An Appreciation,’ the fire and conviction of his youth came through as Roberts confessed his love and respect for Joseph Smith, as an admirer ‘who believes in him without reservation’… Whether or not Roberts retained his belief in the Book of Mormon may never be determined. In his last conference address of April 1933 he referred to the Book of Mormon as ‘one of the most valuable books that has ever been preserved, even as holy scripture.’ But in his ‘A Book of Mormon Study,’ Roberts presents an intense and probing evaluation of the possibility that…View of the Hebrews furnished a partial framework for Joseph Smith’s written composition… 24
While pursuing his investigations of the origins of the Book of Mormon in his spare time, he nevertheless ran a vigorous missionary campaign during the five years he was president of the mission. He established a mission school to ensure that his missionaries were well prepared to present the gospel message, and he sent them out into rural areas on ‘summer campaigns,’ away from their comfortable winter lodgings ‘in the spirit of adventure to extend our borders… Let there be no retreating, nor growing listless, nor weary in well doing. This is the heroic part of your mission. This is where you display manhood or prove that you have none…Be you brave and persistent, and remember, Emmanuel!’ …He used the Book of Mormon as a chief means of winning converts, announcing in one letter to his missionaries ‘that it has survived all the ridicule and mockery of those who have scorned it…and that its voice is testimony of the Christ as Eternal God.’ (emphasis added) 25
Critics’ meager treatment of the studies, which are supposed to reveal a tortured and doubting Roberts, instantly raises questions about claims about the studies, and this suspicion is strengthened by critics’ over-reliance on the opinions of cultural and nominal Mormons who don’t believe the official Church version of its origins. The introductory material in Studies of the Book of Mormon reveals the mindsets of McMurrin, Madsen, and critics who ultimately want the claims against Roberts to be true. While admitting that Roberts gave every indication that his belief in the Book of Mormon was as solid as it always had been, they refer to his Book of Mormon studies as evidence of his struggling faith in it; yet, they don’t go into any meaningful detail about specific examples from the studies that demonstrate this “disillusionment!” This is revealing: Book of Mormon critics shrug off too easily Roberts’ emphatic and clear explanations of his Book of Mormon studies and his unquestionable public support for the Book of Mormon, while selectively emphasizing perceived evidence of private doubt in the Book of Mormon.
The prominence, whether acknowledged or evident, critics give the introductory essays in Studies of the Book of Mormon demands special attention. In his pamphlet, James Spencer stresses that Studies of the Book of Mormon “is edited by two Mormon scholars,” and his intent is clearly to hint that “Mormon scholars” support his shocking allegations. No one familiar with his writings would classify Sterling McMurrin as an active, believing Mormon. 26 McMurrin insists in his biographical essay that Roberts had an unsophisticated view of Christian and Mormon origins, by which he meant that he accepted uncritically the orthodox explanations for both while failing to sufficiently acknowledge cultural and environmental influences. 27 Brigham Madsen, 28 Spencer’s other “Mormon scholar” who edited Roberts’ studies, notably misrepresents Roberts in his introduction in a manner that is difficult not to see as unintentional. Regarding B.H. Roberts, Madsen wrote:
For years he had felt “cribbed, cabined, and confined in Utah” and had once written a journalist friend, Isaac Russell in New York City, about being “hampered by the restrictions which our peculiar conditions impose on all such workers and which grows no better so far as I can see with the elapse of time.” He expressed his discomfort further and explained his own way of dealing with the problem by quoting from a letter he had received from another young friend who had left Utah for the East: “One of my objects, I might say, my chief object in leaving Salt Lake was that I might avoid if possible, causing pain to my friends and family by openly announcing my spiritual and intellectual independence and freedom from what had become bondage I could no longer endure.”29
As written, this supports the Madsen, McMurrin, and Signature Books’ view that Roberts was a dissident closet doubter who struggled under the stifling anti-intellectual hierarchy in Utah. However, the actual letters Roberts wrote to Isaac Russell are quite different from how Madsen portrays them:
If I were capable of envy I should envy you for two reasons; one is that you are young and your opportunities in a world wide field have come to you, it will be your own fault if you don’t make a great success of your life. You are to be congratulated, just now, that you are not cribbed, cabined, and confined in Utah.
Truly I was glad to hear from you and of your continued good fortune in journalism and the sense of freedom and achievement which your letter plainly exhibits. I congratulate you and assure you that you have no occasion to be envious of anyone in Utah laboring along the same lines but hampered by the restrictions which our peculiar conditions impose on all such workers and which grows no better so far as I can see with the elapse of time. But which on the contrary seems to be extending to those engaged in other pursuits. For instance: in a letter from one of our choicest young men, specializing in art work in the East, I have the following: “One of my objects, I might say, my chief object in leaving Salt Lake was that I might avoid if possible, causing pain to my friends and family by openly announcing my spiritual and intellectual independence and freedom from what had become bondage I could no longer endure.”
I was perfectly delighted with what you had to say on the Barry article …30
This desire to show that Roberts lost faith in the Book of Mormon despite the evidence highlights the dissonance of those who promote the “abandonment” claim, and the timidity with which they grapple with this evidence invariably follows their insinuations. For example, despite his demagogic pamphlet, James Spencer concludes:
What was the final resolution for Brigham H. Roberts? No one can say for sure. However, I am afraid for him. I fear that this giant intellectual, who could stand against the presidents of the Church and call the Apostles to task, committed intellectual suicide… We cannot be sure what his final conclusions were because he died before he could resolve these issues. However, the evidence indicates that B.H. Roberts was so steeped in the deception of Mormonism that he was unable to escape its spiritual hold.31
Anti-Mormons’ timid conclusions while claiming that Roberts lost his testimony are a tacit admission that this claim is not supported by the facts.
Evidence From the Last Years of Roberts’ Life
It is superfluous to attempt to exhaustively quote from B.H. Roberts’ talks and writings during the last decade of his life, in order to demonstrate that he repeatedly and forcefully testified of the truth of the Book of Mormon and its claimed origins. Anyone, friend or foe to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who actually has read his books, letters, articles and speeches from this period would concede that his works don’t contain a trace of dissonance or doubt in the divinity of the Book of Mormon; they are undisputedly supportive of the Book of Mormon as a divine record. Some prominent examples:
B.H. Roberts’ autobiography. A typescript of Roberts’ autobiography, entitled Life Story of B.H. Roberts, resides in the B.H. Roberts Collection of the Marriott Library of the University of Utah. It was published in 1990 by Gary Bergera (Signature Books) as The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts. This personal history was begun “eight or nine months before his death in September 1933,”32 so it is among the very latest of his works. This very interesting account is very supportive of the Book of Mormon and contains no traces of evidence that support the claim that his belief in the book was wavering at this time in his life.
The Truth, the Way, the Life. Written between 1927 and 1932, it is widely considered by scholars to be Roberts’ finest theological work. Roberts dictated that this work belonged to the Church, and all three drafts were given to the Church by the Roberts family upon his death in 1933. Broad and far-ranging in scope, it was an attempt by Roberts to crystallize the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into one work. Concerning how this work bears on the Roberts claim, John Welch wrote:
Those who might have hoped that this work would reveal a new side of Elder Roberts that championed organic evolution will be let down to find that he continued to reject, to the end of his life, all scientific or naturalistic varieties of evolution (239). Those who wished to see Roberts as a friend of abortion because he claims that the spirit does not enter the body until birth should note not only his limited scriptural authority for this proposition, as noted in the committee’s [Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency] comments (246-47), but also Roberts’s abhorrence toward abortion expressed twice in his chapter on marriage and family (548, 553) … In TWL, Roberts goes out of his way to identify the Book of Mormon as an ancient record written by prophets who lived long ago. He repeatedly reaffirms its divine origin and antiquity … Indeed, not knowing what we as editors would encounter in the manuscripts of TWL, I was surprised to find that TWL pointedly and repeatedly asserts the antiquity of the Book of Mormon. While such affirmative statements may seem unremarkable, it is precisely that routine orthodoxy that makes them so notable. Coming from one of the great intellects of the Church, whose view about the Book of Mormon supposedly became more intellectually sophisticated in his last years, these unequivocal statements will disappoint anyone who has imagined Roberts as a closet doubter or late-in-life skeptic. TWL especially reveals how Roberts felt about the Book of Mormon after he wrote his ‘Book of Mormon Study’ in 1922. That work identified several Book of Mormon problems and called urgently for further study. Some have seen ‘Book of Mormon Study’ as evidence that Roberts had changed his views on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but readers can now determine that Roberts did not waver in his belief because of that study.33
This work is also among the latest of Roberts’ works, as it was still being worked on in 1932.34 As a theological work, it also quotes from and treats the Book of Mormon as authoritative scripture.
Rasha the Jew: An Address to All Jews—This book deserves special notice, not only because of its publication date (1932, one year before his death), but also because of its background and contents. A former Jewish Rabbi who had converted to Christianity, Abraham Silverstein of Binghampton, New York, edited an evangelical Christian magazine entitled the Redeemed Hebrew. The magazine’s purpose was to convert Jews to Christianity, not unlike the modern “Jews for Jesus” movement. Mr. Silverstein printed a letter in the Redeemed Hebrew from “a highly learned and deeply spiritual Hebrew scholar” from Calgary, Alberta, Canada that argued, based on Old Testament scriptures, that Jesus Christ was not the Messiah. Promising to “select the best reply and publish it in separate form for wide distribution among all people at the price of cost plus postage,” the Redeemed Hebrew challenged its readers to refute the argument of “Rasha,” the pseudonym under which the letter was signed. Binghampton was a part of Elder Roberts’ jurisdiction as president of the Eastern States Mission, and the matter was brought to his attention. Elder Roberts’ reply was selected by Silverstein as the best response and was printed in the Redeemed Hebrew. Rev. Max Werthheimer, Ph.D. of Ohio, another Jew who had converted to Christianity, wrote a criticism of Roberts’ exegesis of Isaiah 26, which Roberts also responded to in the Redeemed Hebrew. Rasha the Jew is a collection of these articles, followed by Roberts’ testimony of the Restoration to the Jews.
This rarely mentioned book is a powerful witness of the divinity of the Book of Mormon and its importance to Jews in modern times. Roughly half of the 156 page book (Chapter Five: “A New Testimony for Jesus”) deals with the Book of Mormon. In the book, Roberts points out with relish that the prophecy in 2 Nephi 30:735 was prophetic of what was happening among Jews worldwide politically, socially, and spiritually; and that this prophecy, published in 1830, and Elder Orson Hyde’s dedication of Palestine in 1841 both preceded the Zionist movement. Roberts ended the book with this testimony:
“Rasha’, the Jew, and all Jews, my Message is before you:
Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, incarnated and manifested in the flesh.
Your Jehovah, incarnate is Jehovah-Christ of the New Testament and of the Book of Mormon.
Your Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled (Isaiah 26:19). Jehovah came in person to earth and received the “body” there predicted; he died and was buried, as there implied; but he rose again from the dead, and many of Israel’s saints rose with him according to Isaiah’s prophecy, and St. Matthew’s testimony of its fulfillment, and the ‘earth cast out the dead’ (St. Matthew 27:50-53).
The Jehovah of the Old Testament is the Christ of the New Testament; and Jehovah-Christ is the Savior of Israel, of the Jews, of all men. There is no other Savior of the Jews or of all men, Jehovah-Christ is sole in this.
A new Witness to these truths has been brought forth. The testimony of the ancient peoples of the western world is brought to you, ‘Rasha,’ the Jew, and to all Jews. The prophets and apostles of ancient America, your kinsmen, ‘Rasha,’ speak to you through this ‘American Volume of Scripture.’ Their testimony unites with the testimony of your own Old Testament prophets and seers. Their testimony unites with the testimony of the ‘Twelve Apostles of the Lamb’–the Apostles and Witnesses of the New Testament. The Lord has spoken, ‘Rasha,’ declaring new things and reaffirming old truths.
This is my testimony:
A New Dispensation of the old gospel is proclaimed. The Church of the Living God is again organized among men. Divine authority is here, and God’s message to Judah and to the whole world is:
Accept Jehovah-Christ as the Redeemer of the World.
Believe ye in the Gospel of the Christ as the power of God unto salvation.
Repent for the hour of God’s judgment is come.
Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
B.H. ROBERTS, President of the First Quorum of the Seventy and of all the Seventy, the Special Witnesses of God in the New Dispensation. (emphasis in the original) 36
The Wesley P. Lloyd Journal
In defending Elder Roberts against innuendo that he lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon in later life, a journal entry from one of his former missionaries in the Eastern States Mission must be considered. Wesley P. Lloyd spoke with his former mission president for three and a half hours on August 7, 1933, just forty-four days before Roberts’ death. His journal entry is used by anti-Mormons to insinuate that Roberts doubted the Church’s version of Book of Mormon origins at this point in his life. Here is the relevant portion of the entry:
The conversation then drifted to the Book of Mormon and this surprising story he related to me. That while he was Pres. of the Eastern States Mission a Logan man by the name of Riter persuaded a scholarly friend who was a student in Washington to read through and to criticize the Book of Mormon. The criticism that the student made was that at the time of the discovery of America there were fifty eight distinct languages in existence among the American Indians, not dialects but languages as different as English is from Spanish and that all human knowledge indicates that fundamental languages change very slowly whereas at the time of the Book of Mormon the people were supposed to have been speaking all one tongue. The student asked Riter to explain that proposition. Riter sent the letter to Dr. Talmage who studied it over and during a trip east asked Brother Roberts to make a careful investigation and study and to get an answer for the letter. Roberts went to work and investigated it from every angle but could not answer it satisfactorily to himself. At his request Pres. Grant called a meeting of the Twelve Apostles and Bro. Roberts presented the matter, told them frankly that he was stumped and ask for their aid in the explanation. In answer, they merely one by one stood up and bore testimony to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. George Albert Smith in tears testified that his faith in the Book had not been shaken by the question. Pres. Ivins, the man most likely to be able to answer a question on that subject was unable to provide the solution. No answer was available. Bro. Roberts could not criticize them for not being able to answer it or to assist him, but said that in a Church which claimed continuous revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary. After the meeting, he wrote Pres. Grant expressing his disappointment at the failure of Pres. Ivins to contribute to the problem. It was mentioned at the meeting by Bro Roberts that there were other Book of Mormon problems that needed special attention. Richard R. Lyman spoke up and ask if they were things that would help our prestige and when Bro Roberts answered no, he said then why discuss them. This attitude was too much for the historically minded Roberts. There was however a committee appointed to study this problem, consisting of Bros Talmage, Ballard, Roberts, and one other Apostle. They met and looked vacantly at one and other, but none seemed to know what to do about it. Finally, Bro Roberts mentioned that he had at least attempted an answer and he had it in his drawer. That it was an answer that would satisfy people that didn’t think, but a very inadequate answer to a thinking man. They asked him to read it and after hearing it they adopted it by vote and said that was about the best they could do. After this Bro Roberts made a special Book of Mormon study. Treated the problem systematically and historically and in a 400 type written page thesis set forth a revolutionary article on the origin of the Book of Mormon and sent it to Pres. Grant. It’s an article far too strong for the average Church member but for the intellectual group he considers it a contribution to assist in explaining Mormonism. He swings to a psychological explanation of the Book of Mormon and shows that the plates were not objective but subjective with Joseph Smith. That his exceptional imagination qualified him psychologically for the experience which he had in presenting to the world the Book of Mormon and that the plates with the Urim and Thummim were not objective. He explained certain literary difficulties in the Book such as the miraculous incident of the entire nation of the Jaredites, the dramatic story of one man being left on each side, and one of them finally being slain, also the New England flat hill surroundings of a great civilization of another part of the country. We see none of the cliffs of the Mayas or the high mountain peaks or other geographical environments of early American civilization that the entire story laid in a New England flat hill surrounding. These are some of the things which have made Bro Roberts shift his base on the Book of Mormon. Instead of regarding it as the strongest evidence we have of the Church Divinity, he regards it as the one which needs the more bolstering. His greatest claim for the divinity of the Prophet Joseph lies in the Doctrine and Covenants.37
Lloyd’s journal entry, in its entirety, chronicles a “busy and important day” for Lloyd, which included several private meetings, a family reunion, a trip into town, and his three and a half hour talk with Roberts, his former mission president. The entry describes his conversation with Roberts chronologically, with the following topics preceding the discussion of the Book of Mormon:
1. Roberts’ ordeal trying to get The Truth, the Way, the Life published by the Church. According to Lloyd, Roberts categorized former apostle Orson Hyde as “a more important and more qualified Apostle than Joseph Fielding Smith.” This portion of the entry ends with this comment:
“The battle, however, was tabled and his book remains unpublished but will be published under his own direction without Church backing if he can raise the money (He offered to resign).”
2. Roberts’ assessment of current missionary policies. Lloyd wrote that Roberts “said we were kidding ourselves in regard to its effectiveness, that the missionaries were too often going out apologetically and that our present mode of refusing to let Elders go into the field until they had a guarantee of financial backing was in opposition to the spirit of missionary work as Joseph Smith organized it.”
3. Roberts’ thoughts on Brigham Young, who, Roberts explained, “was not a logical man in the sense that Joseph Smith was logical and that our present authoritative dictatorship in Church government was an outgrowth of Brigham Young’s practice and that Joseph Smith was much more democratic.” Roberts also noted, according to Lloyd, that “when some good historian uncovers the real facts of his stand during the Johnston Army episode, some of his glory or fame will diminish.”
Discussion of these three topics accounts for almost half of the fifteen-page journal entry, with the Book of Mormon discussion accounting for the other half. This does not demonstrate that this was the proportionate amount of time spent discussing each topic; the amount of exposition Lloyd gives each topic shows the level of interest Lloyd took away from the meeting regarding these issues. Obviously, this long talk with his former mission president was interesting, to say the least.
But can critics really try to use this to demonstrate that Roberts was sharply critical of President Young? Or that he believed that the Church’s missionary program was grossly mismanaged? Why not? Roberts’ sentiments expressed second-hand through Wesley Lloyd do not negate overwhelming evidence to the contrary in Roberts’ written histories, for example, or in his discourses or conversations with people. B.H. Roberts was nothing if not brash, opinionated, combative, and even undiplomatic and untactful at times,38 and this image of Roberts is as evident as ever in this journal entry. Roberts’ negative comments here need to be seen in terms of the circumstances surrounding them. His comments about Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, are clearly related to the well-documented confrontation the two had over some of Roberts’ heterodox doctrinal opinions in his book. His comments about the “authoritative dictatorship” that he attributed to President Young and Young’s “undemocratic” nature are related to Roberts’ battle to have his book approved by the Church, and his frustration and bitterness with the administrative opposition to it. In particular, Roberts’ description of Elders Talmage, Ballard, and “one other Apostle … look[ing] vacantly at one another” is obviously an exaggeration by Roberts, who was disappointed by their lack of concern or inability to contribute. Even if these Brethren truly were as “stumped” as anti-Mormons would like to portray, they would have gamely given it more of a shot than to “look vacantly at one another” and not attempt an answer. It would be going too far, however, to use this journal entry to claim that Roberts felt that Brigham Young was corrupt or ruthless, or that he despised Elder Smith. Yet this is exactly what those seeking to undermine people’s faith in the Book of Mormon have been doing by portraying B.H. Roberts as a closet doubter: seizing on excerpts from this journal entry to give this impression, while ignoring the overwhelming evidence that refutes it.
It’s also unclear how much of what Lloyd wrote is a completely accurate representation of what Roberts said. Lloyd erroneously related in his entry that William Riter’s letter was sent “while he was Pres. of the Eastern States Mission,” and that “Dr. Talmage … during a trip east asked Brother Roberts to make a careful investigation” of the questions raised in the letter. As is well-documented, all of this happened before Roberts left for the Eastern States Mission, and given Roberts’ involvement in the studies and his presentations to the general authorities, it is highly unlikely that he could have been confused about when and how the letter was forwarded to him and where he was at the time. Lloyd was confused about this in his entry, and this makes one wonder if there are any other items in the entry that are not entirely accurate representations of what Roberts said and what his intended meanings were.
Roberts’ apparent statement to Lloyd that the Book of Mormon “needs the most bolstering” and is not “the strongest evidence we have of the Church Divinity,” even at face value is not a statement of unbelief in its divine origins. Who is there who believes more in the Book of Mormon than those today who work to “bolster” it by researching and publicizing evidences of its antiquity and origins? Recognizing that it needs “bolstering,” or solid evidences, in order to dispel the propaganda against it is not an expression of doubt or lack of faith. Similarly, stating that the “greatest claim for the divinity of the Prophet Joseph lies in the Doctrine and Covenants” is not an expression of doubt in the Book of Mormon, but an affirmation of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. To regard the Doctrine and Covenants as a more effective witness of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling than the Book of Mormon, though some might disagree, is not an expression of disbelief in the book. 39
As for Lloyd stating that in their conversation, Roberts “shows that the plates were not objective but subjective with Joseph Smith. That his exceptional imagination qualified him psychologically for the experience which he had in presenting to the world the Book of Mormon and that the plates with the Urim and Thummim were not objective,” the very language Lloyd uses to describe what Roberts said closely parallels I. Woodbridge Riley’s “psychological” theory of the Book of Mormon’s origin.40 “Roberts had already rejected the ‘subjective’ psychological explanation in 1909″41 in New Witnesses for God and A Defense of the Faith and the Saints, and using similar language to describe this explanation of Book of Mormon origins to Wesley Lloyd indicates, not that he now believed this view, but that he explained to Lloyd the challenges refuting such a view might potentially pose. There is no evidence to suggest that Roberts believed at the end of his life the arguments he had refuted throughout his life.
Just what kind of an effect could there be expected to be on a young man who heard his mission president discuss “revolutionary” studies that were “far too strong for the average Church member,” especially given the mood and direction of the preceding conversation? It’s no wonder, then, that Lloyd describes Roberts as “shift[ing] his base” 42 and “swing[ing] to a psychological explanation of the Book of Mormon,” given the “revolutionary” nature of what Roberts shared with him. It appears from this account that Roberts shared with Lloyd the Book of Mormon issues he felt that the Church needed to form a better response to, and Lloyd wrote his journal entry in a way that leaves the impression that this was Roberts’ view. Anyone maintaining that Lloyd believed that Roberts had lost his faith in the Book of Mormon would have to explain why Lloyd was unaffected by this, as evidenced by subsequent journal entries and the course of his life. Wesley P. Lloyd does not give any indication after this entry of any consternation or concern on his part that his former mission president and the senior President of the First Quorum of the Seventy had lost his testimony. 43 44
Perhaps the strongest evidence that B.H. Roberts’ studies of the Book of Mormon are not an expression of his disillusionment with it is the fact that he makes absolutely no attempt in the manuscripts to answer the difficulties raised in them. Page after page in the manuscripts catalogues sundry difficulties, some unspeakably lame, in the tone of a harsh critic, with no attempt to answer them in either study. Isn’t it odd that the great B.H. Roberts, ever skilled in dealing with sophisticated attacks on the Church, does not attempt to offer any solutions or possible answers to the difficulties mentioned in the studies? Why is that? Given what he himself said about them, and what we know from studying his works, it is clear that they were written to stimulate thought and discussion, not to attempt to answer them, just as he said they were. Isn’t it manifestly unfair to hold these writings up as proof that Roberts’ faith in the Book of Mormon was shaken, and doesn’t it speak to the weakness of the anti-Mormon position that so much effort has been made to score points off of the alleged shaken faith of Mormonism’s greatest defender? In the end, Roberts was exactly right about the course that anti-Mormon attacks on the Book of Mormon would take. This had less to do with his insight and prescience, though he had plenty of both, and more to do with the awe and respect that anti-Mormons had and have for Roberts, his work, and his knack for cutting to the core of issues and attacks. Anti-Mormons have naively concluded that if B.H. Roberts thought something was a potent attack, then that must be the avenue to pursue. 45 Attacks against the Book of Mormon have largely followed the course Roberts outlined as a potential future difficulty, and believers in the Book of Mormon have largely responded very well to the “parallelomania” approach of critics who strain to show 19th century parallels to the Book of Mormon. It is especially amusing when critics try to shake people’s faith by claiming that Roberts lost his, because those making this claim have read very little, if any, of his works, and most haven’t even read the studies they claim prove their claim!
An amusing aspect of the B.H. Roberts question is the idea of trying to prove posthumously that someone was a closet doubter or dissident. A weak case could probably be made either way for devoted partisans of any side of any issue. In examining his files and papers, the author of this article found the following verbatim items, written by himself:
… There is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. Ether mentions millions dead around Ramah, but there are no bones. Iron and steel would at least leave oxides. No coins have been found (Alma 11 chapter heading and verses 4-19 mention coinage). Nothing unusual has been found around Cumorah, despite a four lane road being built at its base and extensive construction by the Church. The Church refuses to officially endorse or sanction any specific archaeological theories …
Polygamy was practiced from about 1832 to after 1890. 1835 D&C (scripture until 1876), Tim. 3:1-3, BoM condemn. Publicly lied about its practice prior to announcement in 1852 and after the Manifesto.
|Fatal Changes in D&C|
|“Book of Commandments
|Doctrine and Covenants”
|Lectures on Faith removed in 1921|
Given unrestricted access to these files and papers, a case could be made that the author harbored tortured doubts regarding Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Church. This would be a false claim. The above does not represent the author’s views; rather, it represents some criticisms against the Church in the language critics couch them in, and in dealing with these criticisms, he thought it would be “greatly to [his] advantage…if [he had] in hand a thorough digest of the subject matter.” What person advocating a cause or position has not compiled what he thinks are his opponents’ strongest points, or at least points that need to be addressed? This is not a sign of wavering, but the necessary first step in disposing of an opposing argument. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see similar lists of strengths, deficiencies, and game plans anti-Mormons have made concerning their position and the Mormon position? Would selectively quoting from them out of context prove them to secretly believe that the Mormons are right?
Taken as a whole, the evidence does not support the assertion that B.H. Roberts lost his faith in the divine origins and translation of the Book of Mormon. In fact, examining all of the evidence in context exposes those who have sought to capitalize on this issue as either irresponsibly ignorant of key elements of the controversy, or purposely evasive and deceptive in concealing evidence harmful to this claim. Hopefully, this paper will equip people with the information and sources necessary to challenge this claim. Hopefully, it will also encouraging those who continue to claim that Elder B.H. Roberts lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon to reevaluate their failure (intentionally or ignorantly) to disclose vital information related to the question. Critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often simply ignore responses to their arguments without dealing with them, as if the responses had never been made, but this ceases to be practical or wise for them once the responses receive wide circulation and awareness. The “B.H. Roberts Question” is a good example of a claim that probably would never be made if it were confined to an honest examination of the facts.46
1 Interestingly, Roberts’ Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (six volumes) had an apologetic origin. In 1906, Roberts had responded to an acclaimed series of four articles in the American Historical Magazine that attacked the Book of Mormon along the lines of the different “Spaulding theories.” His four articles were so effective in refuting the Spaulding manuscript theories of the Book of Mormon’s origins that these theories essentially ceased from that point on to be advocated, and David Nelke, the editor of the magazine, asked him to write a history of the Church to be published in the magazine in installments. Roberts did this, with Church sanction, and the magazine, which changed its name to Americana at that point, went from a bimonthly to a monthly to accommodate the articles. This Church history, which was later published with updates up to the year 1930 as CHC, “ran through six years of the periodical, from July, 1909, to July, 1915, averaging about forty-two pages per month” (see the introduction to CHC, volume 1).
2These studies are published in Studies of the Book of Mormon (Brigham Madsen, ed. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books], 1992).
3James Spencer, “The Disappointment of B.H. Roberts: Five Questions That Forced a Mormon General Authority to Abandon the Book of Mormon,” (1991). This tract is used by many critics who claim that Roberts lost faith in the Book of Mormon.
4 The above three quotations are all from Spencer’s “The Disappointment of B.H. Roberts.” Despite Spencer’s strong claims, almost the entire pamphlet is a summary and rewrite of McMurrin and Madsen’s introductory essays that accompany the published transcripts of Roberts’ studies. Spencer himself gives few specific examples of Roberts’ crisis of faith from his studies, leaving the reader wondering if he has actually read the studies.
5 Letter to President Heber J. Grant and Counselors, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the First Council of the Seventy dated December 29, 1921. (Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 47).
6 Studies of the Book of Mormon, 79.
7 Ibid, xxviii and xxiv-xxv
8 Spencer, “The Disappointment of B.H. Roberts.”
9 Letter to Heber J. Grant dated January 9, 1922 (Studies of the Book of Mormon, 50).
10 Studies of the Book of Mormon, 94.
11 Ibid, p. 115
12 Ibid, p. 143
13 Ibid, p. xvii
14 Ibid, pp. 57-58
15 Sandra and Jerald Tanner, in their photocopied View of the Hebrews sold through their Utah Lighthouse Ministry, are at great pains to push “A Parallel” as indicating Roberts’ doubts. They photocopied Roberts’ marked-up copy (from the Roberts Collection, Marriott Library Special Collections, University of Utah), include “A Parallel” in the introductory material, and remark in the introduction that “a careful reading of ["A Parallel"] would seem to indicate that B.H. Roberts had lost faith in the Book of Mormon.”
16 Studies of the Book of Mormon, 59.
17 Ibid, p. 60. Letter dated October 24, 1927.
18 The letter dated March 14, 1932 is in the possession of John Noble Henchley (Studies of the Book of Mormon, ). Truman G. Madsen’s 1983 Ensign article contains the quoted excerpt.
19 Ibid, 187.
20 Ibid, 231-232.
21 Truman G. Madsen, ” B.H. Roberts and the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 19 (1979): 441. Quoted by Sterling McMurrin in Studies of the Book of Mormon, xviii.
22 Spencer, “The Disappointment of B.H. Roberts.”
23 Studies of the Book of Mormon, xvii-xviii.
24 Ibid, 29-30.
25 Studies of the Book of Mormon, 25.
26 One of his more notorious statements of belief concerning the Book of Mormon was “you don’t get books from angels and translate them by miracles.” (Quoted in Blake Ostler, “An Interview with Sterling McMurrin,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17/1 (1984): 25).
27 See Studies of the Book of Mormon, xxiii: “Roberts did not fully and properly examine and exploit the origins of Mormonism,” as well as pp. xii-xiv and xxiv: “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… He treated altogether too casually the large cultural forces that produced Christianity and its institutions… He seems to have known too little of Greek and Roman philosophy and their bearing upon Christianity…”
28 Madsen is described in the preface to Studies of the Book of Mormon as “widely recognized for his competence as a research scholar in American history.” It is also worth noting that the preface also informs the reader that “no one was more enthusiastic in his determination to see Roberts’ studies published than [Signature Book owner] George D. Smith of San Francisco, who has special competence as a student of Roberts and his writings. Mr. Smith was persistent in his encouragement of the publication and presented his own analytical synopsis of the manuscripts to the community of Mormon scholars.” FARMS scholars and other notable believing Mormon scholars were presumably not included in the “community of Mormon scholars” that Mr. Smith “presented his own analytical synopsis” to.
29 Ibid, 24.
30 From letters Roberts wrote to Isaac Russell, a young LDS man who was a journalist for the New York Times. The first excerpt is from a letter dated October 25, 1909; the second is from a letter dated September 9, 1910. Both letters are located in the Scott Kenney Papers, Marriott Library Special Collections, University of Utah. Copies are in the author’s possession.
31 Spencer, “The Disappointment of B.H. Roberts.”
32 Gary Bergera, The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books), 1990, p. xv. The original was dictated to his secretary Elsie Cook.
33 B.H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, the Life, John Welch, ed. (Provo: BYU Studies), 1996, xx, xxvi.
34 See Welch, The Truth, the Way, the Life, p. xxxv, footnote 3.
35 B.H. Roberts, Rasha the Jew: An Address to All Jews, (Salt Lake City), 1932, p. 86. 2 Nephi 30:7 reads: “And it shall come to pass that the Jews which are scattered also shall begin to believe in Christ; and they shall begin to gather in upon the face of the land; and as many as shall believe in Christ shall also become a delightsome people.”
36 B.H. Roberts, Rasha the Jew, pp. 155-156. Roberts noted in his autobiography that he had always felt a special duty to testify of the Gospel to the tribe of Judah since an incident in Rockford, Iowa on his first mission. A Jewish merchant’s skeptical brother had expressed his unbelief in the prophecies concerning the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, and the Jewish merchant and Roberts both had testified to him that this would happen. Roberts noted:
“After more than fifty-two years after that event, I can refer my intense interest in Judah and the part that Judah will take in the New Dispensation to that circumstance … [Rasha the Jew] completed the electrical circle that made me conscious that for fifty-two years I had been subconsciously working on the problem of Judah and his connection with the New Dispensation of the Gospel. Those who are anxious to understand how important this was in my life mission will be able to discern it from the scope of [Rasha the Jew], completed in December 1932.” (The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts, p. 98).
37 From Lloyd’s journal, entry dated August 7, 1933 (Wesley Parkinson Lloyd Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Box 1, folder 2, mss 2312). Spelling and minor grammar errors in the original have been corrected.
38 Roberts’ lack of tact extended even to himself, and one cannot always take his exaggerated, “cranky” statements at face value. In his autobiography, after conceding that “two things … stood out prominently” in his patriarchal blessing, Roberts describes it as “in the main … unsatisfactory and greatly disappointing.” (The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts, pp. 74-75). The “two things” were a special endowment of the gift of healing, and a prophecy that he would be delivered from the hands of his enemies. The entire autobiography strongly bears both of these out, and his blessing is a beautiful one that any Latter-day Saint would be overjoyed to have. Despite his pessimistic description, to claim that he actually thought it an inferior blessing is a stretch. One is left scratching one’s head over his assessment of his own blessing, but it is typical of his tendency to be hyper-judgmental and over-reactive.
39 James B. Allen notes in his essay in The Truth, the Way, the Life: “This statement hardly meant that he had lost faith in the book. Rather, his scholarly proclivities suggest that he meant exactly what he said: the Book of Mormon needed more ‘bolstering,’ more scholarly efforts to answer the questions he or others raised. Roberts also told Lloyd that ‘his greatest claim for the divinity of the Prophet Joseph Smith lies in the Doctrine and Covenants.’ If that is true, then there is just that much more evidence for the Book of Mormon itself, for the Doctrine and Covenants is replete with affirmations of the Book of Mormon.” p. 690 (see D&C 1:29; 3:17-20; 10:38-48; 19:26-27; 20:8; 24:1; 27:5; 33:16; 38:39; 42:12; 84:57; 98:32; 128:20; 135:1, 3, 4, 6).
40 I. Woodbridge Riley, The Founder of Mormonism (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1902). Riley describes “the Three Witnesses vision of the plates [as] ‘subjective hallucinations’ and … ‘subjective, not objective’ (Riley, The Founder of Mormonism, p. 226). Riley likewise speaks of the Prophet’s ‘subjective glass looking’ while translating the plates (p. 204) and claims that ‘Joseph’s condition, under the influence of his Urim and Thummim, was semi-hypnotic.’ ” (Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” FARMS Review of Books, volume 9, Number 1, 1997, p. 107.)
41 Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars, pp. 107-108. Roper notes here that “Roberts’ primary argument against this explanation was the testimony of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon who each handled the plates. Yet the 1922 study never addresses the issue of the witnesses or the objective reality of the plates—A significant omission if the study truly represented Roberts’ conclusions about the Book of Mormon. Obviously, it did not.”
42 “One who shifts his base does not abandon the battle but merely takes up a more defensible position until control of the battlefield can be regained. [John] Welch shows how Roberts ‘shifted his base’ by emphasizing the doctrinal evidences for the Book of Mormon as opposed to external evidences … with which Roberts had little experience.” (Matthew Roper, “Unanswered Mormon Scholars,” p. 108)
43 “The first bishop of the [Provo Seventh] ward was Wesley P. Lloyd. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He was an official at the BYU for quite a few years. He gave some speeches, which are located in the BYU Library. And he gave one of the annual Joseph Smith Memorial Sermons at the Logan Institute of Religion in the 1950′s.” (Letter from Daniel B. McKinlay to the author, February 8, 2002. In the author’s possession).
Another consideration is the effect that Roberts had on his missionaries in the Eastern States Mission, since this is the time period when he was supposed to be suffering from his nagging and corrosive doubts. His missionaries revered him with more than the usual esteem that missionaries have for their former presidents. Sterling McMurrin noted that “His grave is marked by a monument erected by missionaries who had served under him in the Eastern States Mission.” (Foreword to The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts, x), and Truman G. Madsen wrote in his 1983 Ensign article that “Roberts’ missionaries have had an annual reunion for more than a half-century.” Madsen interviewed over fifty of Roberts’ former missionaries and included some of these interviews in “B.H. Roberts after Fifty Years: Still Witnessing for the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, Dec. 1983.
James Allen quotes Roberts’ secretary, Elsie Cook’s letter to President Heber J. Grant two months after Roberts’ death (November 23, 1933): ” ‘He was inspiring in everything he did,’ she wrote, ‘in his speaking as well as in his dictating the several volumes of books I helped him with’ … She remembered that her patriarchal blessing promised her that she would find ‘hidden treasures.’ ‘What I have learned from this wonderfully intellectual and spiritually powerful [man], President, are the ‘hidden treasures,’ which I perhaps could not have had otherwise.” The Truth, the Way, the Life, p. 714. Letter located in the TWL Collection, Church Archives.
44 James Allen allows that: “It is certainly possible, however, that Roberts saw the implications of what he had written and spelled them out more clearly to Lloyd in 1933. But that is still not evidence that he accepted such conclusions.” (The Truth, the Way, the Life, 717.)
45 Keep in mind that Roberts was considering approaches that were “quite unique and never seem to have occurred to anyone to employ…but which in the hands of a skilled opponent could be made…very embarrassing,” and that he felt such approaches “may possibly arise some day.” It is extremely significant that no anti-Mormons until the 20th century had explored the View of the Hebrews parallels approach. View of the Hebrews enjoyed best-seller status, especially in the area where Joseph Smith was born and grew up, yet no one, including its author, Ethan Smith, ever commented on the “striking similarities” between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. This is even more significant given that Ethan Smith vigorously rejected the ideas of modern-day revelation and scripture in addition to the Bible:
(mockingly) “Here a new decision must be given from heaven … of which schismaticks [sic] have ever been exceedingly fond; to derive some new light … directly from heaven; as though decisions already given were insufficient.” (View of the Hebrews, [1825 edition] p. 20)
“We are to expect no new revelation from heaven. And the days of miracles are thought to be past. We probably must look for just such evidence, to exhibit to the world that people so long lost, as is in fact exhibited by the natives of America.” (View of the Hebrews, 168-169.)
Given that Joseph Smith’s fame far outstripped Ethan Smith’s, why did Ethan Smith not attack the Book of Mormon as a plagiarism of his book if the parallels between the two were so striking? And why did these “parallels” become an issue only after Roberts’ studies? Did anti-Mormons assume that Roberts’ studies are the best explanation of Book of Mormon origins after the Spaulding theories were discredited?
46 B.H. 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.” The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts, p. 168.