Note: When the Interpreter Foundation published its latest tribute to Nibley, several writers and editors, me among them, along with Nibley’s children, were asked to contribute a personal tribute. The 2021, 800-page volume is appropriately titled Hugh Nibley Observed.) I wrote a modest five pages, titled “Hugh Nibley and Me,” but what follows is what I could have written.

Probably no "academic" in the Church has more influenced my life than Hugh Nibley. I put the word academic in quotation marks, because Nibley himself had little respect for most of the university crowd, the academics, including even reservations about the BYU religion faculty, whom he sometimes referred to as "paid clergy." Following his service in the U.S. Army, he joined the BYU faculty in 1946 at the invitation of John A. Widtsoe, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, himself formerly a president of both Utah State Agricultural College (later Utah State University) and the University Utah.

Most readers of Hugh Nibley know that he literally died during surgery when he was in his mid-twenties; but few know the complete story of what happened to him in that life-after-death experience. Hugh tells how quickly he learned, during that experience, all the math he had neglected to learn. But another story, not widely known, was related to me by his daughter Zina, who was once a colleague of mine in the Department of English. During that experience, the young Nibley received a clear message from heaven that if he chose to return to life, he must devote his gifts to the kingdom.

Nibley began writing for the Improvement Era (which preceded The Ensign) in a brief article in 1948, "The Book of Mormon as a Mirror of the East," followed by a series of articles beginning in 1950, later titled, in book format, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites. I myself turned sixteen in December, 1950, about the time I began reading Church books seriously. Nibley's articles simply fascinated me, and from that time, I seriously collected and read everything I could put my hands on that Nibley wrote. Though I was not remotely of the mental or scholarly stature of Nibley, he seemed to be answering the questions about the restored gospel that I myself entertained, for example, what's going on with the Book of Mormon?

In 1957, at the direction of President O. McKay, Nibley's book An Approach to the Book of Mormon became the Melchizedek Priesthood manual, and I obtained a copy of that bright orange paperback while I was on my mission in Limoges, France (one could then order Church books through mission headquarters in Paris).

Over the years since, I have met a number of young Church scholars, and non-scholars, who also owe to Nibley their allegiance to the gospel.

During the 1954 fall school year, before I left on my mission, I attended the first of Nibley's three-quarter classes on the early Christian church, earning an A on Nibley's final exam (his only exam in the class), and of course an A in the course. He was at the registration table when I went to get a class card to register for his winter quarter class, and he paid me a memorable compliment: "You certainly aced my final exam." I had diligently sought out and read some of the sources he had cited in his lectures.

I remember well his response to a frequent question students asked him: "What will be on the final exam?" to which he responded, "Ye gads, you are in this class to satisfy your curiosity, not mine." Indeed, I was in his class to satisfy my curiosity.

I listened to his KSL radio broadcasts The World and the Prophets, between March 7 and October 17, 1954. Decades later, when we gave to Nibley the page proofs of those lectures to review and update as necessary, his remark was, "It's all more true now than it was when I gave the lectures." And he added a few chapters to the book beyond his original radio lectures.

When I returned to BYU following my mission to Belgium and France, I began, as several other Nibley fans did, to enroll in, or at least sit in, his classes.

Nibley was also largely responsible for reviving attention to the Book of Mormon, which had lain unappreciated for decades, in the face of criticism by non-Latter-day Saint scholars, and even Church members, including many in the scholarly community. (This neglect of the Book of Mormon by Church members has been well documented in an article by Noel Reynolds in an issue of BYU Studies.)

Nibley's advantage as a scholar of the ancient world was his knowledge of foreign languages, especially those in which early Christian history was recorded, notably both classical Greek and Latin, and later by scholarly finds, notably the Nag Hammadi Christian library, located in Egypt. I'm told he read both English and French at age five, and became well known as a prodigy. His daughter also related to me a story of his extraordinary intellect.

The Stanford-Binet intelligence test (IQ=Intelligence Quotient), developed in the early 20th century; measured IQ on a Bell curve scale, average being 100 at that time, and 140 and above the genius levels. Having heard of the Nibley child prodigy, advocates of the popular test arranged to test him. Results were that his score hovered around 200, and he was invited to respond to one more question, which, depending on whether he answered the question correctly: if correctly, he would measure above 200; if not, his score would be under 200.

The question: "What is the meaning of the word mosaic?" And Nibley did not respond. He later complained, "I didn't know whether they wanted Mosaic Law, or Mosaic art."

Largely to get the young Nibley's nose out of books, he was called in his teens to a Latter-day Saint mission in Germany. Following his mission, he traveled to Greece, where he studied Classical Greek and learned Modern Greek.

He also learned early to read the Icelandic sagas in their original language (which he later said were uninspiring—all repetitive in violence, none genuinely instructive) and also read many other modern and ancient European languages, in which ancient-world scholarship was written or researched. He eventually studied Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages in which biblical languages were recorded. Later in life, as the significance of Egyptian religion emerged, he returned to the classroom to study Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as the evolved forms of that language, Demotic and Coptic, key languages to better understanding of the successive stages of much of the history and thought of many cultures of the ancient Near Eastern world.

He published early, but upon realizing that getting published was all but a routine challenge, he turned his efforts to research and writing that supported the Restoration of the Gospel. At one point, he was invited, apparently by some of the "Brethren," to assess the criticism of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which research, laborious and repetitive (he lamented), resulted in his volume The Mythmakers, expressed in one of several contrasting "voices" he mastered easily, not a common ability among scholars

At one time, the most prominent scholar of the Enoch corpus was invited to lecture at BYU, where he was surprised to address an audience of several hundred on such an ancient and esoteric subject as Enoch. Usually, a handful of graduate students and faculty showed up at his visits as a scholar to various campuses.

Following the scholar's remarks, several students, including me, surrounded Nibley in the old step-down lounge of the Wilkinson Student Center, near where the lecture had taken place. "What was the professor trying to say?" the students queried. Nibley responded something to the effect that he, Nibley, could have accomplished the same research on Enoch is a couple of years, whereas the visiting professor had devoted his life to that task.

Nibley paused briefly, then added, "Oh, I know what the professor was after—he was after one of those obituaries that scholars yearn for. You know, a long bibliography of publications, recognition by other scholars, a list of scholarly publications, and so on. That's what he's after."

Nibley was modest in the extreme, very much aware of the limitations of his own scholarship, and spontaneously appreciative of the opportunity to explore the flood of ancient apocryphal and other ancient documents that had come forth in companionship to the restoration of the gospel, including of course the Book of Mormon (perhaps his sharpest focus for years), followed by his interest in anything Egyptian.

I usually tried to stay out of his way, given the demands on his time by his research and popularity among students and readers (housewives and even bright teenagers), in spite of the complaint, even among many scholars, that they couldn't understand him. I once met Nibley at the top of the stairs leading to the Richards Building (whose swimming pool he frequented regularly after heart surgery). "What's new?" I asked him.

"I just received a paper from a female undergraduate student, and she discovered something very significant in the Book of Mormon that I had never recognized."

Nibley had a profound respect for the General Authorities, all the while recognizing their human limitations. He never questioned the President of the Church, while sometimes generalizing about the predictable weaknesses of all our other very human Church leaders.

He spelled out this reverence for prophets in two long chapters in volume 4 of his Collected Works, The Ancient State, "Three Shrines: Mantic, Sophic, and Sophistic," and "Paths That Stray: Some Notes on Sophic and Mantic," some 170 pages that contrast knowledge obtained directly from heaven through the Mantic channel, and that generated by humans, the Sophic. Nibley sometimes mentioned that these pages represented his most important insights.

I became more directly involved with Nibley's scholarship when the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S.) undertook to assemble and publish all his writings (eventually 19 volumes). F.A.R.M.S. in its early days was simply poor, able hardly to afford a part-time secretary, let alone editors, so I volunteered to edit and write the forewords to two of his volumes, Approaching Zion (vol. 9, 1989) and Temple and Cosmos (vol. 12, 1992). I also did cursory edits, not as a formal assignment, in several other volumes. Later I teamed up with Shirley Ricks, another editor, to edit and compose a foreword to Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints (vol. 13, 1994).

And there's an interesting story related to the foreword to that latter volume. When I joined the BYU faculty in 1967, I learned that Nibley had recently finished reading everything he could find that Brigham Young had written. I phoned Nibley and reminded him that he had once said in a class, "I feel like a mental midget to the side of Brigham Young."

"I said that?" he asked.

"Yes, I heard you say it."

"Well, it's true."

"Can I quote you in our foreword?"

"Yes, but only if you put it in boldface."

It appears in boldface on page x of the foreword.

I myself had just finished reading all Brigham Young's discourses in the 26 volumes of the Journal of Discourses. The volume Approaching Zion addresses mainly the themes of the nature of "gifts," as well as what Brigham Young said about "How to Get Rich" (the title of chapter 7). I phoned Nibley and asked him why he had not included Brigham Young's typically plain counsel on the subject (paraphrasing): "Just keep your dish right side up. Don't you try to fill it. Just let the Lord fill it if He chooses to. If you try to fill it, you will lose your soul."

"I guess I overlooked that quote," Nibley apologized.

That volume turned out to be one of the most widely read of all Nibley's volumes, because it touched on one of the most common failings of Latter-day Saints: "the desire to fill their own dishes." Nibley was no friend to the school of business.

Nibley sometimes mildly protested that so many people, and so many dollars, were involved in publishing those 19 volumes: collecting the material, editing it, locating and producing visuals, spot-checking sources, and finally sending it to the press. I was sitting by him at one of the regular pizza parties we had when a new volume came off the press. While paging through his latest volume, he remarked, "Who'd have ever thought that all this stuff would ever be printed?" Stuff was one the words he often used to refer his writings related to his extensive scholarship.

Nibley's main advantage as a scholar of the ancient word was that he read so many of the documents in their original languages, not through often suspiciously construed translations. And he read widely, even voraciously. He became aware of the common stories (myths) and rituals of peoples and nations worldwide, and recognized the same patterns in our contemporary world—the periodic revelations which God endowed honest peoples everywhere, at all points in history; followed by rejection of those covenants--an inevitable rejection, including our own dispensation, as the Book of Mormon warns, though such a complete falling away from the covenant this time will be preceded by the coming of the Lord (see D&C 38:39).

One of Hugh Nibley's most conspicuous gifts was his just plain humility, a rare quality among scholars: he knew what he didn't know, but also what he did know; yet he was passionate about adding to, and even testing, that knowledge, regardless of its source. He acted charitably toward scholars of all academic disciplines, though a story is told that at one time he retaliated to allegations when a group of BYU geologists challenged his scholarship: "I read your journals. Do you read mine?!"

The well-known Latter-day Saint philosopher Truman G. Madsen, Harvard trained, said it well: "No one knows what Nibley knows."

Full Citation for this Article: Norton, Don (2023) "Hugh Nibley in My Life," SquareTwo, Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2023),, accessed <give access date>.

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