Hugh Nibley: Mormon Dissident

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.


  1. I’ve often heard people say that he was allowed to say those things because he was also providing reassurance to believers that they had not believed for nothing. I think Nibley was a disciple in many wonderful senses, and his broad indictment of corrupting influences on Mormonism was part of it. I suspect that JNS is hoping to get his criticism higher up the food chain than he probably meant it, but this seems a reasonable discussion. I get the sense that Nibley was most upset with BYU and middle bureaucracy and its influence on local politics rather than an indictment of the governing quorums as post-prophetic, but there is certainly room to think of him as calling on all of Mormonism to catch the prophetic vision. One wonders whether Nibley felt himself prophetic in that same sense (that’s how he talks about ancient and modern prophets most often).

  2. Sam, I’m not sure. By 1983, correlation was well under way and final authority for decisions about music, art, architecture, poetry, and so forth was substantially centralized in the hands of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. So Nibley’s speech would seem to centrally implicate them as managers rather than leaders. I can’t imagine, after all, that he didn’t know who made the decisions.

    Nibley certainly had an Old Testament-prophetic mode and voice, didn’t he? One thing that continues to impress me about the man is how culturally productive his work was. He laid much of the groundwork for FARMS/FAIR-style apologetics in Mormonism, but also for many of the critical perspectives that have been published in Dialogue and even Sunstone in the last two decades. It’s unclear to me whether there’s any spot on the spectrum of intellectual Mormondom that doesn’t owe the man a tremendous cultural debt.

  3. I admire him a great deal. My little brother became buddies with him (just called up from the East Coast and wanted to chat, and Nibley was an eager discussant), and I once dropped in on him at random to debate JSJ’s KFD interpretation of Gen 1:1 when I was visiting Utah on a research trip. He was ever curious and in love with words. It’s sad that he’s gone.

    I’m thinking of his responses when the governing quorums contacted him. He seems to have been their loyal servant. I’m also thinking of his significant discomfort with eg Wilkinson and others. I don’t get the sense that the governing quorums felt that they had been criticized. an interesting question though.

  4. I like this line:

    He attacked the legalistic nature of Mormon culture, and the leadership that nurtured such a culture.

    Are Mormons following in the erroneous footsteps of the Israelites who created so many extra rules for how to live their lives that they suffocated their pure religion?

  5. Chris I says:

    Are Mormons following in the erroneous footsteps of the Israelites who created so many extra rules for how to live their lives that they suffocated their pure religion?

    See “The Unwritten Order of Things,” Elder Boyd K. Packer, address given at BYU’s Marriott Center, 15 October 1996.

  6. Thomas Parkin says:

    I think “dissident” is the wrong word; seeing that, broadly speaking, he was in deep agreement with the church. Moments and areas of disagreement, however meaningful and deep, don’t alone, I think, make you a dissident. If so, I’m a dissident – and that’s absurd. (Unless you allow those moments and areas to define you and, sort of, posess you, or become your identity.) I suppose if one thinks of the church as primarily a cultural project, then Nibley was a dissenter from that. If the church is primarily a spiritual project, then Nibley was a capital L loyalist. And so the authoritative ground from which he could speak where many “dissenters” are constrained.

    The Leaders to Managers bit has had a very profound infuence on the way I think and conduct myself both as a business owner and within the church. Probably more so than any other bit outside the scriptures or spoken by an apostle.

    #4. Yes, I’d say. We are moving beyond that, aren’t we?


  7. Thanks for sharing that Chris. I haven’t seen that particular talk before.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    If anyone didn’t have a chance to read my Sunstone In Memoriam piece on Nibley, you can find it here.

  9. I think both Nibley, and the leadership itself had to recognize that the powers making this decision were not a monolith. For every person prone to rules and literalism you find a Hugh B. Brown, or yes, even a Spencer W. Kimball, who I think truly was a disciple of Christ.

    His criticisms are certainly aimed at an element within Mormonism and as a warning against something that should be plain to all of us. No one is in more danger of becoming as the pharisees than the religion that carries the banner of truth.

    While there is an interplay between these two elements throughout the church, I know that both can be found at all levels of leadership. I agree with Sam that you are making too pointed a reference to the highest levels. This is a problem at every level and I think he could only aim as far as the reach of his voice. As long as the moderating element refuses to give in completely to the conservative element, I think this is a conversation that will continue in the church and can only be healthy. It can of course be frustrating when some people seem so very hard of hearing, however.

  10. The thing about Nibley is that he focussed his social criticism on trends and movements, but never on individuals (not entirely true, but close enough if all you read are the collected works). Therefore, he criticized ideas that he found unhelpful, but never named names. And, when reading Nibley, it is always helpful to consider yourself on his side, whether or not you actually are.

    I personally believe that Nibley’s work as a social critic is far more insightful and influential than anything he ever wrote as a Mormon scholar. Certainly we encounter more quotes from “Zeal without Knowledge” than from “Lehi in the Desert.” In part, this is because his OT/NT/BoM/PGP/Church-related scholarship is very much a product of its own time. His social criticism, for better or for worse, remains current.

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Whether or not the current LDS leadership has indeed “become sinfully obsessed with superficial appearances,” there is little question that many Churchmembers interpret and prioritize Mormon norms regarding appearances in a sinful and obsessive way.

    Aaron B

  12. Aaron Brown says:

    I remember an ultra-orthodox religion teacher of mine at BYU commenting on how overly-“radical” Hugh Nibley was becoming in his old age. He said this in the context of lauding Nibley’s scholarship on temples, but he left little doubt that he thought Nibley had crossed the line at times. I have always interpreted his comments as disapproval of Nibley’s criticisms of the top LDS leadership. So I suspect JNS is on to something –certainly some at BYU have interpreted Nibley’s targets just as JNS has.

    Aaron B

  13. Give it up, J. Nibley was a tool.

  14. DKL, I don’t like “No, Ma’am, That’s Not History” any more than you do.

  15. One problem, when considering Nibley’s social criticism, is that he lived in a bit of a gilded cage. That is he never had to run a business. His career was reasonably safe. While I’ve not read his biography yet (it’s sitting here beside me) he didn’t have much by way of practical church leadership callings. So it was easy to make these pronouncements when not struggling with the realities of management.

    Don’t get me wrong, much of what he says resonates strongly with me. But he also often struck me as the kind of idealist one often finds in an university environment.

    Now the one caveat is, of course, his military service. But I’ll admit that often I find his view of Church structure insufficiently pragmatic and his view of the realities of human nature a bit off as well.

  16. HP/JDC: I personally believe that Nibley’s work as a social critic is far more insightful and influential than anything he ever wrote as a Mormon scholar.

    I think both are about on par. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. While Nibley’s scholarship is often dated and he came out of that era of structuralism that often missed nuance in preference to the “big picture” it really isn’t as bad as many make out. Most of the problems though one might identify in his apologetics appear equally in his social or political writings. Indeed both might be called a kind of apologetic I suppose.

  17. A tool…?

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    I think he meant “tool” as in “instrument,” MCQ. An “instrument in the Lord’s hands,” or something similar. DKL is always fawning over Nibley, like a screaming schoolgirl at a NKOTB concert. It’s almost cute.

  19. Here’s Wiktionary’s definition of the word tool. I’ll leave it up to the reader to guess which definition I’m referring to.

  20. LOL, Aaron Brown. That’s very funny.

  21. Great essay, Kevin.

  22. Kevin,

    Great tribute to Bro. Nibley. Thanks for the link. I was unaware or had forgotten about all these tributes in Sunstone, as it has been many years since I have subscribed. I intend to read them all. One of the major regrets of my time at BYU was not availing myself of Hugh Nibley.

  23. JNS:

    I think Boyd J. Peterson, Bro. Nibley’s biographer (and of course son-in-law) somewhat supports your statement:

    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.

    He softens the language a bit by referencing Nibley’s comments as “unsolicited suggestions” but, I think the point is essentially the same:

    An unpublicized but increasingly important fraction of his scholarly energies throughout the decade went to special assignments from the General Authorities, whose trust in him was steadily increasing. Individually or collectively, they consulted Hugh for information a bout a particular topic or solicited his views on a current issue . . .

    This increasing confidence Hugh had earned with the General Authorities also allowed him to offer unsolicited suggestions when he felt them might prove useful . . .

    Hugh’s long-standing commitment to the Church and repeated attempts to defend the faith gave him a great deal of latitude to express his opinions with the Brethren.

    See Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, Boyd J. Peterson, pp 306-07.

    Thanks for this post. I’m a big Nibley fan, for many of the reasons you have outlined in your post.

  24. I guess I was hoping for a little more enlightened position from you DKL. Calling someone of Nibley’s stature a “tool” says more about you than it does about him. It makes you look like a dipstick.

  25. MCQ, it’s not your place to expect enlightenment from me. And since Nibley’s stature is exactly what I’ve repudiated repeatedly in my comments all over the bloggernacle for many years, it’s a just silly for some newb to come along and try to lecture me about the consequences.

  26. Not expecting, DKL, just hoping. Not lecturing; my comment was only two lines. Sorry to have disturbed your eminence. Go back to your repeated repudiating.

  27. anothernonymous says:

    For someone who for the second half of the 20th century could well be ascribed as the leading defender of the faith, I found it odd that his name wasn’t mentioned during the general conference immediately following his passing. Meanwhile, we always hear in conference announcements of the passing of “prominent” church members, most of whom I had never heard of. Maybe by prominent they mean one who was prominent in authority (i.e. general authority) or the spouse of the same.

  28. “Newb” DKL?

    Come on. This isn’t a forum for discussing World of Warcraft tactics or something.

    Let’s raise the dialogue a little.

  29. MCQ: Sorry to have disturbed your eminence.

    Now you’re talking my language. I am a generous eminence, so I forgive you.

  30. Any further comments that are as off-topic as the DKL skirmish above will be deleted. Thanks for playing!

  31. Matt Steiner says:

    I enjoyed the In Mermoriam piece which I had not previously read. I started reading some of Nibley’s writtings about 15 years ago while in law school. While I am a Nibley novice, his views neverthelss have been a positive influence on me. I have always felt that a strong abiding testimony of the restoration, the Book of Mormon, and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith are the underlying foundation for all of Nibley’s work. No matter what he is teaching he often reminds us that testimony is all that really matters and that without testimony of and faith in Christ our knowledge is vain at best. In every talk he seems to undergird his commentary, criticism, and explanations with a firm testimony of God’s plan. I respect him for his apparent ability to enhance knowledge with testimony and testimony with knowledge. I also respect his ability to critically comment on society and culture while still embracing, and enjoying life within that culture. I have always felt like he has a real love, respect, and loyalty to the prophets of the restoration. He seems to support the prophets in their callings and the Church as being Christ’s regardless of the imperfections exhibited by the members and their human leaders…including himself.

  32. Hey Stein! Nice to see you here. Newbs unite!

  33. Being somewhat familiar with the context in which the speeches JNS refers to were given, I would have to agree that they were clearly criticisms of policies entacted at the highest levels of Church government. And Nibley was certainly not the only the only person then (or now) to complain about a lot of these points. What strikes me most, however, is to compare the relative output of Nibley and the other critics. Nibley’s criticisms were both effective in influencing many and unchallenged by the hierarchy because they came in the context of a substantial body of work defending and promoting the restored gospel and church. I have often wondered that if the independent publications of the day (especially Dialogue) had bothered to try to show more balance by publishing some (or any) scholarship that was positive that their negative criticism might not have provoked the reaction from the hierarchy that leaves intellectual discourse among Mormons so constrained and ineffective today.

  34. JWL, Dialogue has in fact published a great deal of positive scholarship. To some extent, the journal is constrained by the perception among many BYU faculty members that they are not allowed to publish there — but even so, a substantial portion of the journal’s contents have been and continue to be faith-building. Your perception of a lack of balance is probably common, but I’m not sure it’s really an accurate assessment of the reality of the independent Mormon journals.

    To stick to the theme of this post, it might be noteworthy that Hugh Nibley himself published more than once in Dialogue.

  35. I think the difference though is that Nibley had a reputation for defending the church, wheras Dialog as a whole doesn’t. So this enables Nibley to criticize in a fashion others might not. A modern example would be Dan Peterson making some criticisms of some policy.

  36. Re: #34 — Over its entire history Dialogue did publish a lot of positive scholarship, including Nibley. However, there was a period not long after Nibley gave the speeches referred to in your post where Dialogue took a decidely negative turn (more recently shifted back to a broader perspective). My point is that had the Dialoue editors in that time period followed Nibley’s example of criticizing from a stance of faith, many negative consequences might have been avoided.

    Re: #35 — Probably the best example I can think of how one can successfully criticize and change traditional Church views if one comes from a proven stance of faith is the increasing broad acceptance of the FARMS promoted limited geography model of the BoM.

  37. What an interesting post this is. This is my first visit to this website, a friend sent me the link.

    Brother Hugh is one of my dearest friends. His last words to me a very short time prior to his passing in his front room upon his sick bed were to the effect “Remember, we will still be friends”. I don’t quite know how to articulate the overwhelming feelings that come to mind and heart as I read and ponder the comments posted. I feel that the subjects at hand cover such a vast array of our faith that it may not be possible to satisfy the desire to expound and reason them out fully or in any significant degree here on this board. I am certain that Brother Hugh is interested in this post and from where he is is fully aware of its contents.

    Here are some of my thoughts, please bear with me as I tend to get going and do not do too well with grammar, the spirit flows quicker than my ability to organize it according to the preference of the nobles and when I go back to rewrite much of that inspiration is tainted: Hugh Nibley’s prime directive was and is Truth. The heart of all his efforts were fundamentally directed to that end. The comment regarding the Church not mentioning his passing in conference is nullified by the fact that at his funeral were Elder Jeffery Holland and Dallin Oaks along with several other general authorities including Merrill Bateman. They were not there because they had to be and their talks expressing a great veneration for his works were plainly evident. Upon the subject that eludes to Brother Hugh being disaffected in any degree regarding the Church is absolute conjecture. This matter of “dissident” must be properly defined and understood. In my opinion the Truth is never a form of dissent but really a matter of milk and meat. I recommend we all read “Adventures of a Church Historian” by Leonard Arrington, in it the battle of Management VS. Inspiration proves to be the main theme. No one that I intimately know including a great many of our dear brethren leading the Church were so committed to the spirit of the Truth. The power of his words only resonate Truth with Truth, intelligence cleaving unto intelligence. I am not advocating that he is great in and of himself, he would be the first to admit himself “less than the dust of the earth”. He loved to be proven wrong about something because that to him meant that he could at last be corrected for the sake of truth. (Being liberated from a lie, “The truth shall set you free”) Brigham Young said that we ought to love the truth because there is no error in it – this is the heart of Brother Hugh’s mission. It is a prophetic mission I firmly believe. He told it how it is and did not reserve! Hugh’s famous comments regarding “Graduating in the robes of Satan’s priesthood” was not a joke. As I see it, Man has not power to intellectualize the gospel but only prove himself (individually) that he is worthy to progress into higher and higher realms of understanding or light and truth – until the perfect day as we learn in the D&C. Our agency is the only real asset we posses and as Hugh said the best we can do with it here in our mortal probation (even to the envy of Angels) is to “Forgive and Repent.”

    About Hugh being disaffected with the church leaders: The Brethren have their stewardship and stand accountable to it just as you stand accountable for your stewardships. Hugh recognized that and devoted himself to the mission that Heavenly Father ordained him to perform. He called a spade a spade. Elder Packard once told us that the Church leadership wags the tail of the dog but the Church membership wags the Dog.

    As I see it, each of us must come to the place where we are in harmony with the eternal unchangeable principle that Truth is the ultimate end and that never the means to obtain it is justified by such else freedom and progression are ever stalled. Satan has not intelligence but superior knowledge in effect he chose not to graduate the 3rd grade where we using our agency can cleave unto intelligence or the Glory of God and progress as long as we so desire. Why do you think humility is the only grounds upon which we have right to qualify for true advancement? There are two intelligences, the one greater than the other and I God am more intelligent than them all”. Without a higher intelligence we cannot be corrected (changed) and taught or added upon. The more you learn is ever the more you come to realize that you don’t know and how insignificant you ever stand before God. Grace for Grace, Line upon Line – even God himself followed this pattern and his Father and His ever into the eternities of the past of no beginning. We must ever realize that the concepts of Freedom and Security are opposed at their very root! Our only hope to truly become great and one with God is to enter into his holy way which is and always has been and ever will be reverence, humility and obedience.

  38. Jacob, thanks for your thoughts. Truly fascinating remarks; I’m really glad you visited the post.

    On one point, I should clarify. You say, “This matter of ‘dissident’ must be properly defined and understood.” Indeed. I certainly don’t mean the word as any kind of pejorative. Instead I’m using it here to point out that Hugh Nibley violates current Mormon stereotypes about those who criticize the highest leaders of the church. In fact, many dissidents violate those stereotypes, and criticism has never been the same as evil-speaking. One can be a dissident in the sense of expressing serious dissent with a policy — or even the overall direction of church leadership, as in the leaders vs. managers speech! — without being disaffected; Nibley reminds us of that, but it’s a lesson we should apply to others, as well.

  39. Post #6


    As a fellow biz owner, I’m curious about how Nibley’s ideas have changed how you run your business?

  40. Chris Jones says:

    Fascinating. I’ve been a fan of Nibley’s works for a lifetime and, on the whole, never sensed any sort of spirit of “inappropriate” dissent or criticism of the “Lord’s anointed”. There always was an acknowledgement of the divinity of the mission of the church and the Kingdom apparent in his work. Yet, because of that devotion to the larger picture, as has been pointed out,and because of his brillance and undisputed devotion to seeking scholarly Truth within the context of his testimony, he could play the critic from time to time publically…and do it in a fashion that was helpful. I viewed his commentary at times as a highly effective foil to the oddities of social norms growing out the LDS subculture. Often, the eclesiastical leaders I’ve known have welcomed his commentary and appreciated the penetrating insights Hugh could articulate like no other. His observations often needed to be said, but only he could say them in a an oddly irreverent fashion that still felt credible and somehow “appropriate” to the subculture. (To be fair, I have the distinct advantage of never having to deal with living in the religious-cultural milieu of Northern Utah / Provo since college. He will be missed, indeed.

  41. CS Eric says:

    I had the experience of being in one of Nibley’s Pearl of Great Price classes, and came off with two main impressions: first, the entire thing was over my head; and second, when Nibley taught Pearl of Great Price, he was teaching the endowment ceremony. I both loved and feared his class. I am certain he graded on a curve, otherwise I would not have received the B grade from it.

    I literally ran into him a couple of years later in downtown Salt Lake City. I had driven up there to go to Pres Kimball’s viewing, and as I walked back to my car, I nearly knocked over an old man, who, because of his worn and mismatched clothes, I believed at first was homeless. It was only when he looked up at me as we made the awkward apologies for the near miss that I realized it was my old professor, Bro Nibley.

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