Ever since my mission I have had a long fascination with the literature and personalities surrounding Book of Abraham studies. One of the most enigmatic of these was a man named James Edward Homans, who wrote under the pseudonym R[obert] C[harles] Webb, with the title “Dr.” (although he did not in fact possess a Ph.D.). He was not LDS and never joined the Church, but he wrote three books and numerous articles defending the Church, both with respect to the Book of Abraham and on other matters. For the time period in which he wrote (during the first half of the 20th century, he was one of the Church’s most eloquent defenders.
Some of the questions I have had in my own mind about him are as follows:
- Who was this guy? Where did he come from?
- Why didn’t he join the Church? Did Talmage intentionally instruct the missionaries to stay away from him, as the Tanners claim, because he was of more use to the Church as a non-Mormon than a Mormon?
- Was he a hired gun, as I believe the Tanners also claim? Or did he get involved solely on his own motion, as the early articles suggest?
There really is no good published literature on Homans, but my friend, Matt Roper, did his senior paper in the history department at BYU on him and is the expert on this subject. I have often encouraged Matt to dust off his paper and publish it, and he thinks he will someday. In the meantime, here is a taste concerning this fascinating character, based on Matt’s research:
Homans was a professional writer. He was Episcopalian. His father was a minister as was his brother Rocklyn. He was “connected” in a number of ways with several of the 1912 Egyptologists who were also Episcopalian. Homans, however, was conservative in his views of the Bible and Jesus. He really believed there was an Abraham, for example, and that Jesus was really resurrected and so forth. There are a number of things he wrote under his own name that expressed his personal views on these issues and his concern over the liberalization of his church and Christianity in general. Some of this comes out in his R.C. Webb stuff published in the Improvement Era.
He was a Harvard graduate and studied at Harvard Divinity school for about two years, but decided he did not want to be a minister and became a professional writer writing for magazines like Colliers Weekly and so forth. Later he published many books under a variety of pseudonymns. Critics’ allegations aside, Matt has found no hard evidence that he was ever “hired” by the Church to write on the Book of Abraham stuff or Mormonism. In fact, when his first articles appeared in the Deseret News they were accompanied by the statement that he had done these totally on his own without the Church’s encouragement. He had visited Salt Lake back in 1910 to do research on an article dealing with Mormonism and Joseph F. Smith had Talmage take him around and show him anything he wanted, including the tithing records. [Imagine that happening today!]
Homans was apparently impressed and when he learned through his Episcopalian connections that Spalding was going to attack the Book of Abraham he let Joseph F. Smith know about a year before the thing broke. This seems to have given Homans a little time to research the issue. He published two of his three books on Mormonism through his own publishing outfit and a third through Deseret News Press in 1936–Joseph Smith as a Translator. Matt’s view is that he published the Book of Abraham stuff in 1912-13 on his own to tweak the nose of his fellow churchmen whose liberalism and secularization of his church he despised. He published other articles though and may or may not have been paid. Matt thinks he was friendly to the Church, but he doubts he was converted. He liked to smoke and this was a time when the Church began to reemphasize the Word of Wisdom.