"One Peep at the Other Side":
Hugh Nibley's Life of Faith
by his son-in-law, Boyd Peterson
Hugh Nibley was one the "leading Mormon intellectuals"
of the late-twentieth century.
He has always maintained, however, that
a true testimony of the gospel comes,
not through argument,
but through the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.
"Imagine a successful businessman who, responding to some persistent physical discomfort, pays a visit to a friend of his - a doctor. Since the man has always considered himself a fairly healthy specimen, it is with an unquiet mind that he leaves the clinic with the assurance that he has about three weeks to live. In the days that follow, this man's thinking undergoes a change, not a slow and subtle change - there is no time for that - but a quick and brutal reorientation."(1)This reorientation takes the businessman from a world obsessed with career, status, and material possessions to a world obsessed with nature, knowledge, family, and personal salvation. "His values [have become] all those of eternity, looking to the 'latter end' not only of his own existence but of everything and everybody around him," continues Hugh. "In a word, his thinking has become eschatological."
Later, after another series of tests, doctors determine that the man's diagnosis was wrong: "He may live for many years." Nevertheless, he does not revert to his former perspective. "This," he says, "is no pardon. It is but a stay of execution. Soon enough it is going to happen. The situation is not really changed at all."(2)
The description of "eschatological thinking" is consistent with the way Hugh has lived his life. He has been as unconcerned with the transient and worldly as he has been obsessed with the permanent and celestial. Furthermore, the source of Hugh's eschatological thinking is, I suspect, similar to that of the businessman's thinking in his parable. In fact, a dear friend of mine who had been given his own "sentence of execution" by a medical doctor assured me prior to his death that Hugh's description of the change in thinking that occurs when one confronts imminent death "is so real that Nibley must have experienced something similar to have written this."(3)
What Hugh had experienced was his glimpse of life after life when he stopped breathing during an appendectomy during Christmas holidays in 1936.(4) Penniless and struggling with a crisis of faith, Hugh's doubts about the afterlife were dramatically and instantly resolved by this experience. "My land," he exclaimed, "I could no more doubt that than I could doubt that I am here now."(5) Hugh's life was permanently reoriented, just like that of the businessman in his parable.
Two years after the experience, Hugh expressed this certainty in a letter to his Grandmother Sloan, only a few weeks after the death of her youngest son, Hugh's uncle Edgar.(6) Hugh wrote: "It makes precious little difference whether we work on this side or the other - we are all engaged in the same project." Hugh felt that his uncle had passed the test of mortality and that his talents were better suited to work on the other side of the veil.
"All the worthy ones who leave us now are those whose condition has so overshadowed their abilities, whose great usefulness has been so vitiated by the exigencies of a profoundly corrupt system, that their lives had become virtually a bondage."(7)Hugh wrote a similar letter some forty-nine years later to the widow of his former Egyptian teacher, Klaus Baer:
"To take this segment of existence, a temporary quarantine for testing purposes, for the whole reality, is to throw away the untried gifts and unlimited capacities that we know are in us, which is the height of absurdity. If so, it can only be a carefully contrived absurdity, and that is really absurd."(8)Hugh's life-after-life experience so changed his view of death that it became, not the ultimate end, but the ultimate miracle. "To come out on the other side of the wall intact - THAT will be a miracle. But a miracle which I confidently expect," Hugh wrote his missionary son in the late 1970's.(9) This perspective not only left Hugh calm about death, but caused him to view each day of life as a divine gift.
This reorientation, as rare and strange as it may seem, is one that all individuals should make after accepting the gospel, Hugh argues:
"Anyone who has accepted the Gospel should be a wholly different type of being from one who has not - as well as from the nature of his former self. To be buried in the water and born again changes everything. Granted that every experience changes us for life - the acceptance of a celestial order of existence is something that goes far beyond the normal accretion of experience.Not only was Hugh's perspective about life and death greatly affected by the experience, but he also developed a renewed vision about the purpose of life. While from a very early age Hugh has been unconcerned with, even suspicious of, wealth, this attitude deepened. And Hugh's concern about careers was greatly reduced.
In the same letter he wrote to his grandmother upon the death of her son, Hugh reaffirmed that the true "subject for tears" is not the "fortunate" one who, like his uncle, dies in a state of righteousness but rather those who found "strength and solace" in their purchasing power and "whose [material] property is their whole sanctification and authority." Presciently, he foresaw that they would soon be "giving their lives (and especially where they can, other people's lives)" in a vain effort to save their vanishing treasures.(11) Hugh's words here hauntingly predict the U.S. entry into World War II three years later and foreshadow the disillusioning discoveries he would make after the war about U.S. corporations doing business with the Germans.(12)
Having planted his loyalties firmly in the world of eternity, Hugh was thereafter suspicious of the credo that we must live "in the world but not of the world." As he wrote to a friend who was going through marital problems, "Common ground does not exist" between the two worlds. "As the Scriptures keep repeating over and over again: we must all choose between This World and That World, and there is no compromise possible." Furthermore, neither world can understand the other world but sees the other as an oddity. Hugh continued:
"What Phyllis and I just cannot understand is the state of mind of far more than 99% of our fellows, who are firmly convinced that we live for this life only, and therefore should make the most of it, seeking the pleasures of things and the honors of men. But of course we are the freaks in this, so much so that we have learned . . . to be rather cautious in how we express our real sentiments and in whom we confide. We are in the eyes of society the dangerous ones who should be put under observation."(13)
"I was told that the Holy Ghost directs the investment of one's talents where they will do the most good, not necessarily in the individual's own opinion but in the vast providence of God."(14)One of the earliest records of this battle between his will and God's will is found in his missionary journal. While visiting the city of Heidelberg, Hugh wandered around its great university, confiding to his diary: "Since visiting Heidelberg I haven't got the school idea out of my head." He does not elaborate about the "school idea." Likely he was tempted in considering whether to matriculate there upon completing his mission, since his parents had encouraged him to think about attending a European university. However, he reproached himself for even mulling over the idea: "I am not humble - I haven't even faith enough to trust my education to the Lord."(15)
Hugh did develop that faith, and no better example exists than the story of his courtship of Phyllis. After several serious relationships and an engagement, Hugh was still unmarried when he was hired at BYU. Counseled by Elder John A. Widtsoe to find a wife, Hugh confidently asked Elder Widtsoe to "work it out with the Lord" while, on his part, he promised to marry the first woman he met at BYU.
That woman was Phyllis Draper, and they married only months after they met. In many ways they were not well matched. Phyllis was sixteen years younger than Hugh and came from a very different background.
But almost fifty years after their marriage in a letter to a son, Hugh expressed gratitude that he had followed the Spirit's promptings in selecting his wife. He testified that faith had held them together and that he expected faith to sustain them:
"As the world's worst business man I have been royally ripped off (Provo is the place for that). Only your mother saved the day. We were told by a No. 1 Social Psychologist (who achieved glory in the East) that we were a badly matched couple. He was right, of course, but we are perfectly matched on one thing - we have always seen absolutely eye to eye on the Gospel. Nothing else matters - I love her more every day."(16)Hugh has been keenly attuned to the promptings of the Spirit in less dramatic, but just as important ways. In each project he has undertaken, he has always sought guidance from the Lord. In some cases, he has rearranged his priorities to accommodate a prompting:
"I had certain projects all planned out for the summer, but the Spirit has been urging me to do other things, and that with such irresistible force that I have been devoting every bit of time to projects I would not have considered on my own. But I am being blessed and abetted in these strange researches which I am certain will have a telling impact somewhere."(17)Hugh has always taken the advice he gave to one person that, when seeking direction we shouldn't "bother the authorities," since we can "go all the way" to the top:
"Ask for the direction of the Holy Spirit everyday and learn to recognize its whisperings. Then you will know exactly what steps to take and all the rest. Not but what you will have to walk by faith "in fear and trembling," because that is the way we are tested. But do not hesitate to do it that way. The Lord will guide you and in time you will find that our present-day Babylon will be but a distant memory."(18)Hugh has always maintained that while direction from the Lord does provide great comfort, it does not remove challenges or free us from pain. Pain is just as much a part of life as joy. When one of his best friends was going through an emotional crisis, Hugh wrote him sympathetically that
"Life IS tragic - almost unbearably sad from beginning to end because the things of this world have a way of lousing everything up. But prayer is better comfort than liquor, and an occasional revelation is the best of all. We are our own jailers and if we know whom to trust we can break out from time to time. Let's do."(19)The key to living peacefully amid the clamor of life, according to Hugh, is to "cultivate a sort of bio-feedback with the Spirit." Then, he states, "you can walk as calmly and confidently as if all the uproar and confusion of compulsory moving-day were behind us all." Hugh continues:
"When the Saints were driven . . . out of Nauvoo in the middle of night and the dead of winter, Joseph appeared to Brigham and said to him repeatedly just two things: "Tell the Saints to get the Spirit of the Lord," and "Don't be in a hurry!" On the few occasions when I have been willing to take that advice seriously I have flourished like the green bay tree - the rest of the time has been a struggle, and no need for it."(20)From my perspective as someone who joined the Nibley family as an adult, I have observed Hugh carefully. My conclusion is that he has been more attentive to the promptings of the Spirit and more obedient to those promptings than anyone I know.
This sensitivity has given him much joy, but it has also required him to tune some things out entirely. As he advised one individual:
"Let the Spirit be your guide from hour to hour, do what it tells you and do not concern yourself with other things. This is my advice to everyone else. There are vitally important issues which concern us all but to which I pay no attention unless so directed by the Spirit.In addition to direction, however, Hugh has asked the Lord for special "gifts" to help him in his life.
"So I ask the Lord to give me - simply as a bonus, unearned and unmerited, a special favor - this gift and that gift, because these things at present are simply beyond my reach. And according to faith it is done."(22)Asking for such gifts, Hugh believes, is not a burden on the Lord, but is actually what He wants us to do. Thus, it is irresponsible not to ask freely.
In a 1982 address, Hugh remarked that most members of the Church ask for only one of the spiritual gifts promised in the scriptures: the gift of healing. God is willing to grant us many others, but "we rarely ask for these gifts today - they don't particularly interest us."(23) Hugh "feels very strongly" that, paraphrasing Moroni 7:26, "whatsoever we ask in faith, believing, will be granted."
His personal witness is: "The Lord will grant me anything I ask for; he's done it again and again. And I only ask for things that I can't acquire by my own efforts."(24) Being granted such gifts does not excuse us from work, in Hugh's perspective. "They leave us free to do the real work. The instrument is given to you; it is up to you to show what you can do with it."(25)
The Divine Church
As Led Through Imperfect Mortals
"I have been reading the autobiographies of those around the Prophet Joseph - Heber C. Kimball, Brigham, Parley P., Wilford Woodruff, etc. Nothing is more exciting reading, because any critical student is forced to admit that those things they all talk about REALLY HAPPENED.Hugh's testimony of contemporary Church leaders has been a result of his personal associations with them from an early age, beginning with his grandfather, Charles W. Nibley. First the Presiding Bishop and later a counselor in the First Presidency to Heber J. Grant, C. W. frequently visited Hugh's family both in Oregon and California, usually accompanied by other Church leaders. During those visits Hugh witnessed first-hand their imperfections.
Hugh could not be disillusioned by the actions of Church leaders because he was never illusioned to begin with. He knew they were human.
Yet he also heard his grandfather tell inspiring stories about his encounters with Brigham Young.(27) He saw a compassionate Joseph F. Smith personally nurture the needy and grief-stricken during his visits to Oregon. And he came to respect the variety of talents, interests, and pursuits of Church leaders. As a BYU faculty member, Hugh accompanied at least three General Authorities to stake conferences where they encouraged parents to send their children to BYU. His first-hand experience with Spencer W. Kimball, then an apostle, showed him the conscientious and unpretentious attitude of men whom Hugh came to see as servants of the Lord.
But it was not because of the leaders that Hugh gained a testimony that the Church is true. In fact, Hugh made no bones about it that he found the Church to be true in spite of the humans involved in its management.
Hugh's friend Paul Springer eventually investigated the Church, was baptized, and then fell away after being offended by his bishop. Hugh responded bracingly to the disillusioned Springer:
"Didn't you know that Mormons are as dumb as other people? They are not stupider only because that is impossible. Have you perchance never heard of Gov. J. Bracken Lee - not a Mormon, thank God, but elected by them? Need I say more? This is the Lord's work, buster, and if it were not I would give it three years to survive at the outside."(28)Hugh knows that, like other churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints is led by imperfect people, but unlike other churches, it has revelation, additional scripture, and authorized ordinances:
The things in which the Mormon Church resembles and sometimes excels other churches could be dispensed with and never missed. But the prophetic mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the scriptures and the ordinances are worth everything the world has to offer - without them the Church would be nothing at all. . . . It is the everlasting gospel from eternity to eternity and the only plan by which mankind can be saved here and hereafter.(29)
Repenting and Forgiving
Salvation depends on the "only TWO things that human beings can do well; and for the blessed opportunity of exercising those peculiar talents they are envied by the angels. Those two things areWhether we are engaged in repenting and forgiving determines, according to Hugh, whether or not we are righteous. As Hugh stated in the address he delivered at the funeral of his friend Don Decker, who taught at Ricks College just prior to his death:
"Who is righteous? Anyone who is repenting. No matter how bad he has been, if he is repenting, he is a righteous man. There is hope for him. And no matter how good he has been all his life, if he is not repenting, he is a wicked man. The difference is which way you are facing."(31)Furthermore, repentance is an ongoing process that continually calls on us to rearrange our will with God's. In a letter to his son, Alex, Hugh dealt with the specific problem of how to repent:
On that the Word of the Lord is clear and specific: They shall "repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forever more." Call upon him for what? For instructions on what to do. He will surprise you by sending you from time to time ever greater light and knowledge, things you never had supposed.
Faith and Joy
Hugh has continually taken stock of the world around him and has not been naive about its problems. But peace can be found in the midst of the worst trouble. Hugh has been very successful in this endeavor. "In this world ye shall have tribulation - that is the word," wrote Hugh in 1993. "Everybody always on the edge, the rich as apprehensive as the poor. What an arrangement! But I have never been happier."(35)
In another letter, Hugh wrote that, even during times of distress,
"we have nothing to worry about. We are perfectly free to have joy and rejoicing without limit whenever we are ready, enjoying to the fullest the faith that brushes aside every dark and foreboding cloud of gloom, the hope that leads us on with never a moment's boredom since we are always seeing something wonderful ahead, and above all, the luxury of charity towards all."(36)The key to his "joy and rejoicing" is faith. In poetic language, Hugh described the joy he has experienced:
How can one express the surge of emotion that comes out of the earth and swoops down from the sky whenever the plan of life and salvation and all that it implies - the endless vistas of joy and excitement, of an expanding spirit and ever-widening identity - is suddenly brought to one's awareness as if from some forgotten adventure in the bosom of time? To me it happens three or four times a day, and then I can say with Brigham Young, I feel that my bones will consume within me if I don't do something about it.(37)The result of such joy is thanksgiving. As Hugh wrote to his son in 1980,
"I want to burst with joy and gratitude all the day long as I feel and see the workings of goodness and mercy on every side. Most delightful of all is to know that [God] loves every other creature just as much as he does me - that being so, what a tumultuously joyful condition awaits us after the present miseries have been corrected!"(38)In May 1978, Krister Stendahl, an eminent professor of New Testament studies, visited BYU to deliver a paper comparing the Sermon on the Mount to the account in Third Nephi.(39) During his visit to Provo, Stendahl had several conversations with Hugh. In one of these encounters, Hugh mentioned to Stendahl that he agreed with Joseph Smith's statement that, "No man was ever damned for believing too much."(40) Hugh recalls that these words were "the only thing I said that angered him in several days of conversation." Hugh later clarified his position:
It was no abdication of reason, I insisted, because 90% of what we believe today as scientifically established will probably turn out to be wrong, as it has ever in the past; in which case we should all be damned now for believing too much. Stendahl would rest his faith on certainty, whereas mine begins with uncertainty - the awareness that we do not know everything.Hugh's trusting and obedient relationship with our Heavenly Father resulted from a reorientation of his life. He has tuned out worldly concerns of career, status, and material things, while maintaining a clear focus on the things that matter most: knowledge, nature, family, and repentance. As he stated in a letter to Paul Springer, probably in alluding to his life-after-life experience: "One peep at the other side of the veil and this show looks too cheap for anything."(42)
1. Hugh Nibley, "The Way of the Church" Mormonism and Early Christianity, edited by Todd M. Compton and Stephen D. Ricks, Vol. 4 in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books/FARMS, 1987), 302-3. [back]
2. Ibid., 305, 304, 306-7. [back]
3. Jeff Hardyman, Response to Boyd Petersen, "The Clown of the Professions: Hugh Nibley and Scholarship," Sunstone Symposium, 9 August 1997, transcript in my possession. [back]
4.< Hugh Nibley, "Faith of an Observer," 220. [back]
5. Ibid., 227. [back]
6. Edgar Lloyd Sloan, Hugh's grandmother's eleventh and youngest child, died September 12, 1938 at age thirty-six. [back]
7. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Margaret Violet Reid Sloan, 4 October 1938. [back]
8. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Miriam Reitz Baer, n.d., ca. June 1987; photocopy in my possession courtesy of Mrs. Baer; emphasis Nibley's. [back]
9. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, n.d., ca. 1979; emphasis Nibley's. It begins "How were we to know." [back]
10. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, n.d., ca. 1980. It begins "From your last letter." [back]
11. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Margaret Violet Reid Sloan, 4 October 1938. [back]
12. For a scathing critique of U.S. business involvement in World War II, see Charles Higham, Trading with the Enemy: An Expose of the Nazi-American Money Plot, 1933-1949 (New York: Delacorte, 1983). [back]
13. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Paul Springer, n.d., 1957. [back]
14. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, n.d., ca. 1980. It begins "From your last letter." [back]
15. Nibley, Missionary Journal, 15 April 1929. [back]
16. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 28 August 1993. [back]
17. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 27 June 1980. He was then working on his as-yet-uncompleted One Eternal Round. [back]
18. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Craig F. Kinghorn, 14 April 1980. [back]
19. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Paul Springer, 29 April 1957. [back]
20. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, n.d., ca. 1980. It begins "On the matter of letter writing." [back]
21. Hugh Nibley, Letter to William Clark Bartley, 14 April 1980. [back]
22. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, n.d., ca. 1980. [back]
23. "Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free," Approaching Zion, edited by Don E. Norton, Vol. 9 of The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book/FARMS, 1989), 234. [back]
24. (No interviewer identified), "Hugh Nibley in Black and White," BYU Today, May 1990, 41. [back]
25. Hugh Nibley, "Gifts," Approaching Zion, 101. [back]
26. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 22 October 1979. [back]
27. See, for example, the story Hugh recounts about Brigham's black leather chair in "Educating the Saints," Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, edited Don E. Norton and Shirley S. Ricks, Vol. 13 in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Books/FARMS, 1994), 307. [back]
28. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Paul Springer, n.d., 1954. [back]
29. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Carol Turner, 3 February 1980. [back]
30. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 1 April 1979. Although the topic of forgiveness seldom figures in Hugh's writings, I have never seen him hold a grudge, even when he has, by any measure, been badly treated. In fact, he actively tries to turn such experiences to good. [back]
31. "Funeral Address," Approaching Zion, 301-2. [back]
32. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 22 October 1979. [back]
33. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 1 April 1979. [back]
34. "Nibley the Scholar," BYU forum, 21 May 1974, transcript, 3. [back]
35. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 28 August 1993. [back]
36. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 1 April 1979. [back]
37. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, n.d., ca. 1980. It begins "On the matter of letter writing." [back]
38. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Charles Alexander Nibley, 27 June 1980. [back]
39. Krister Stendahl, "The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi," in Reflections on Mormonism, edited by Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 139-54. This event was part of BYU's first Religious Studies Symposium, held in March 1978. [back]
40. Joseph Fielding Smith, ed. and comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 374. Krister Stendahl was dean of the Harvard Divinity School and a New Testament scholar of international renown. He presented a paper, "The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi," at BYU's first Religious Studies Symposium in March 1978, printed in Reflections on Mormonism, edited by Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1978), 139-54. [back]
41. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Miriam Reitz Baer, n.d., ca. June 1987; photocopy of original in my possession courtesy of Mrs. Baer. See also Hugh's account in "The Meaning of the Atonement," Approaching Zion, 601. [back]
42. Hugh Nibley, Letter to Paul Springer, 2 February 1964. [back]
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