Hugh Nibley has entered the Mormon historical imagination as a defender of the orthodox faith, a crusader for belief in ancient origins for the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, a progenitor of FARMS and current Mormon apologetics. This is indeed an accurate sketch of one dimension of Nibley’s Mormon thought, but there was more to the man. A second facet, less often recognized but still fairly widely known, involves Nibley’s commitment to social reformism, economic equality, and even pacifism. A popular, and worthwhile, introduction to this component of Nibley’s thought can be found in his Approaching Zion.
There is a third side to Nibley’s thought, a side that is less often remarked upon and far more radical in the context of Mormon culture than the first two. Nibley on occasion issued surprisingly direct, scathing criticisms of the governing ethos of Mormonism. He attacked the legalistic nature of Mormon culture, and the leadership that nurtured such a culture. His speeches and writings contain moments in which he denounces the uncharismatic leadership of 20th-century Mormonism and even implicitly calls such religious leaders to repentance.
Let me offer two examples. The first is from a 1973 lecture that Nibley gave at BYU, later reprinted in the collection, What is Zion? Joseph Smith Lecture Series 1972-73.
…the worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status-symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, and necklaces, LSD and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock, come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich, respectable, immovable… We want to be vindicated in our position and to know that the world is on our side as we all join in a chorus of righteous denunciation; the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.
Other pointed critiques of Mormon leadership appear in Nibley’s classic 1983 speech, Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift (also available in Dialogue 16 (4): 12-21).
“If you love me,” said the greatest of all leaders, “you will keep my commandments. “If you know what is good for you,” says the manager, “you will keep my commandments and not make waves.” That is why the rise of management always marks the decline, alas, of culture. If the management does not go for Bach, very well, there will be no Bach in the meeting. If the management favors vile sentimental doggerel verse extolling the qualities that make for success, young people everywhere will be spouting long trade-journal jingles from the stand. If the management’s taste in art is what will sell–trite, insipid, folksy kitsch–that is what we will get. If management finds maudlin, saccharine commercials appealing, that is what the public will get. If management must reflect the corporate image in tasteless, trendy new buildings, down come the fine old pioneer monuments.
That Nibley is here criticizing Mormon leadership is evident from several cues. The reference to young people reciting doggerel from “the stand,” and the comment about “tasteless, trendy” architecture replacing “fine old pioneer monuments” use language cues that are really only at home in Mormonism. But where in Mormonism do policies about music in meetings, decisions about devotional art, approaches to public relations, and decisions about architecture originate? The truly radical nature of the critique thus becomes apparent.
In the closing of the talk, Nibley refers to a heroic past, “before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management…” Superficially, this is a criticism of American academic and business culture. In light of the talk’s prior critiques of the highest Mormon leadership, however, it is hard to read this remark without seeing in it more radical ramifications.
Nibley was no one-sided ranter, of course. The “Leaders to Managers” speech combines these denunciations of uninspired Mormon leadership with apparently sincere and serious reference to the religious thought of Spencer W. Kimball. Like other thoughtful Mormon dissidents before and since, Nibley’s complaints are best appreciated in perspective. In this case, the perspective yields a vision of a life devoted to faithful Mormonism, combined with a recurrent, if sometimes subtle, tragic lament regarding a leadership that had lost the inspiration of the Spirit and instead become sinfully obsessed with superficial appearances.