B. H. Roberts after Fifty Years: Still Witnessing for the Book of Mormon


B. H. Roberts after Fifty Years:

By appreciative readers, Elder Brigham Henry Roberts has often been called the “great defender” of the Book of Mormon. In 1909 he quoted Rev. John Watson, “Were a parchment discovered in an Egyptian mound, six inches square, containing fifty words which were certainly spoken by Jesus, this utterance would count more than all the books which have been published since the first century.” 1

If this statement is true, he urged, then the fifty pages of the “Fifth Gospel” (his description of 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon 2 ) are a “Christian treasure.” 3

In the century and a half since the Book of Mormon was translated it has had no more prolific or articulate or systematic advocacy than that of B. H. Roberts. As I have elsewhere shown, 4 during more than fifty years he approached the book from at least ten different perspectives and wrote well over 2,500 pages of expository, literary, and historical analysis. At least a third of this writing was in response to real or potential criticisms of the Book of Mormon. Given his background, that is one of the quiet miracles of Latter-day Saint history.

B. H. Roberts was born in 1857 in Wolverhampton, England, of itinerant and soon separated parents. His convert mother emigrated to Zion when he was five years old, leaving him in the care of foster parents. When he was ten he too reached Utah and moved from one mining camp to another, remaining illiterate until his mid-teens. His only formal schooling was one year at the University of Deseret.

Yet this man became the author of the 3,400-page Comprehensive History of the Church (1930), the editor of the seven-volume “documentary” History of the Church (1902–1932), and the author of the three-volume New Witnesses for God (1909), which he regarded as “the fullest treatise on the Book of Mormon yet published.” 5 This, he said in retrospect, was his “finest work.” 6 He authored, in addition, more than fifty tracts, articles, and pamphlets revolving around the Book of Mormon, its origins, its content, its meaning, its purposes, and its power as a sacred document.

As a young missionary in the southern United States, B. H. Roberts was exposed to a notorious debater in Lebanon, Tennessee, “Parson Alsup,” who made public announcement that the Book of Mormon was “of no more worth than last year’s almanac.” A debate followed. Its focus was pre-New Testament knowledge of Christ. A large audience attended. After three days Alsup withdrew, claiming no victory. Thereafter the young elders began baptizing converts and soon established a branch of sixty persons. At one point in the debate, the parson threw out the jibe that in contrast to the Bible, which is full of wisdom sayings and proverbs, there is not one such sentence in the Book of Mormon. Elder Roberts arose and said he could think of only one at the moment: “Fools mock, but they shall mourn.” (Ether 12:26.) 7 So much for wit. But what he yearned to communicate over the years was at another level. It was the power of Christ’s love that shone through every line of every chapter. This, he said, was “one of the sweetest messages of God unto man.” 8

In 1888, after two missions to the Southern States and another to England, where he served as assistant editor of the Millennial Star, B. H. Roberts became a member of the First Council of the Seventy. For forty-five years he saw himself as an “especial witness” to teach, to write, to travel, to advocate. The Church was fortunate, as one of his colleagues observed, to have such a “great warhorse.” 9 Whenever a learned assault on the Church descended, the first question was, “Where is Roberts?” He loved a challenge—“Let them bring forth their strong reasons.” (D&C 71:8.) “I do my best work under pressure,” he observed to one of his missionaries, John Emmett. 10 His life’s work was to face the assaults of the learned and of extremist sectarians. The Book of Mormon was at the center of that effort.

Elder Roberts’s view of the Book of Mormon made him a particularly powerful advocate. He saw clearly that the Book of Mormon is a revelation of the being of God, but more vital, of the kind of being God is. The Christian world has taught over and over that Christ is like God. But since the second century A.D. the creeds, trapped in Greek categories, have officially denied that God is like Christ. God in these traditions is “utterly other”—immaterial, absolutely transcendent, and infinitely distinct from man. But B. H. Roberts saw that the Book of Mormon reauthenticates and clarifies the biblical witness. He wrote, “The ground had to be cleared of the theological rubbish that had accumulated through the ages, that the living rocks might appear, on which God should found his church in very deed.” 11

Other essential, clarifying doctrines of the Book of Mormon that he cherished include:

1. The atonement of Christ as an eternal necessity, eternally balancing justice and mercy. This in contrast to the sectarian view of the catastrophic fall and total depravity of man—which is found in curious juxtaposition with the sectarian doctrine of Ultimate Reconciliation—that all men, though unworthy, will ultimately be saved. 12

2. Man’s divine purpose in life: a joy that reaches all heights and all depths—as opposed to the view of mortal life as punishment and the body as a prison to be escaped. 13

3. The doctrine of freedom and merit—“Behold ye are free” (Hel. 14:30)—as opposed to predestinationism. 14

4. Person-to-person, face-to-face, one-on-one communion with Jesus Christ—as opposed to the concept that “to know God is to know him as unknowable.” 15

One of B. H. Roberts’s “personal treasures” in the Book of Mormon was its substantiation of earlier dispensations, tying all of them together into one grand and vast whole. He loved the scope of the word “comprehensive.” By it he meant coherence and majesty, “the unity of truth,” of all God’s purposes with respect to man and the cosmos. 16

Thus, Roberts was able to testify in a general conference in 1906 that he saw the Book of Mormon as “the greatest literary event of the world since the writing of the Decalogue by the finger of God, and bringing it forth by the great Prophet Moses; or the collection and the publication of the testimony in the New Testament that Jesus is the Christ; that he is the resurrection and the life of men; the greatest event since the recording of the Sermon on the Mount, or the summary of the law of Christ: for the Book of Mormon is supplemental to all this, the necessary part to a consistent whole which manifests the mercy and the justice of God in providing these great things of the gospel for the men of the Western world, as well as to men in the Eastern world.” 17

In this spirit, Elder Roberts prophesied four remarkable, hope-giving things concerning the Book of Mormon:

1. That the gospel, as taught in purity and power in the Book of Mormon, would “fix the world’s standards of philosophical thought and ethical action in ages yet unborn.” 18

2. That it would one day appeal to the learned. Elder Roberts said that when men “will stop sneering at such human elements as may be in it and will examine once more its teachings upon the great theme of salvation through the atonement of the Christ, they can indeed find wisdom and philosophy and truth in its doctrines.” 19

3. That it would “endure every test, and the more thoroughly it is investigated, the greater shall be its ultimate triumph.” 20

4. “So long as the truth respecting it is unbelieved [the Book of Mormon] will remain to the world an enigma, a veritable literary sphinx, challenging the inquiry and speculation of the learned. But to those who in simple faith will accept it for what it is, a revelation from God, it will minister spiritual consolation, and by its plainness and truth draw men into closer communion with God.” 21

In the pages of the Millennial Star, the Contributor, and the Improvement Era, of which he was for many years editor, Elder Roberts confronted such questions as the mode of translation of the Book of Mormon, the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon, and similarity of language in the Book of Mormon to King James terminology. Even some detractors have said that in his efforts as a defender of the Church, B. H. Roberts was possibly the “fairest controversialist” of his time. 22

In the half-century since his death in 1933, many of the countertheories he confronted have simply disappeared or been refuted. But recently the effort by antagonists to reduce the Book of Mormon to the mind of Joseph Smith has taken a new tack. The claim is made (in some anti-Mormon tabloids) that toward the end of his life, B. H. Roberts found insuperable difficulties with the Book of Mormon and even that he lost faith in it.

This mistaken notion arises from an interesting study he undertook by assignment in 1922 and described as “awful”—a scissors and paste compilation of data that began with several linguistic problems that had been brought up by a Mr. Couch of Washington, D.C. 23 (He confronted some of these and still other problems in the third volume of his New Witnesses for God in chapters dealing with “Objections to the Book of Mormon.” 24 ) After talking with Elder James E. Talmage and later with Elder Richard R. Lyman, he gathered, under assignment, three sets of material: (1) problems of language and anachronisms; (2) attempts to explain the Book of Mormon in terms of Joseph Smith’s environment or his imaginative mind, or both; and (3) comparison of certain passages in a manuscript by Ethan Smith entitled View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Out of this study grew a lengthy manuscript in three basic parts: a 140-page section entitled “Book of Mormon Difficulties”; a 285-page section entitled “A Book of Mormon Study”; and an 18-page document simply called “A Parallel.”

The circumstances surrounding this undertaking are best expressed in his own words. Exactly ten years after this research, on 14 March 1932 (a year and a half before his death), Elder Roberts wrote to his former Eastern States Mission secretary, Elizabeth Skolfield. She had inquired about pre-Book of Mormon theories of the origins of Indians. Elder Roberts wrote:

“I am forwarding you with this mail an introductory chapter to a work of mine which is in typewritten form under the title ‘Book of Mormon Study.’ It makes 435 pages of typewritten matter. It is from research work I did before going to take charge of the Eastern States Mission [in May 1922]. I had written it for presentation to the Twelve and the Presidency, not for publication, but I suspended the submission of it until I returned home, but I have not yet succeeded in making the presentation of it, although a letter of submission was made previous to leaving the E. S. M. [in 1927]. I have made one feeble effort to get it before them since returning home, but they are not in a studious mood.” 25

From New York, where he was mission president, Elder Roberts had sent the entire 435 pages to President Heber J. Grant and the Quorum of the Twelve on 15 March 1923. In a cover letter, he wrote:

“In writing out this my report to you of those studies, I have written it from the viewpoint of an open mind, investigating the facts of the Book of Mormon origin and authorship. Let me say once for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a ‘study of Book of Mormon origins,’ for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it. I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.”

A few years later, after he returned home, Elder Roberts sent a letter to Elder Richard R. Lyman (dated October 24, 1927) in which he wrote, “Such a question as that may possibly arise some day and if it does it would be greatly to the advantage of our future defenders of the faith if they had in hand a thorough digest of the subject matter.”

In these letters and in the manuscript itself one may discern Elder Roberts’s motives in collecting the material and attempting to present it to his brethren. He was anxious to prepare present and future generations for anticipated criticisms. And he was seeking help from those with “greater knowledge” or from “collective wisdom.” 26 He hoped that the Brethren could bolster his own work, which had continued at length. At some points in the manuscript he suggests that earnest prayer on certain matters would be appropriate. 27 After some suggestions, the burden was essentially returned to him and (according to his secretary, Elsa Cook) he did not have opportunity to present all his material orally. 28 “The helpers were very few,” he said, four years before his death, 29 but he had promised further research on these topics, and he had kept his promise.

In sum, B. H. Roberts justified his work and his desire to present it on the ground that “it may be of very great importance since it represents what may be used by some opponent in criticism of the Book of Mormon.” 30

His study has been used and abused. The anti-Mormon press has cited segments of B. H. Roberts’s writings as unanswerable admissions that the Book of Mormon was a product of the “rather unsophisticated” mind of Joseph Smith. 31

This is a classic example of a text without a context becoming a pretext—a pretext that has required such shameless tactics as manipulation of dates (in one publication, the date of Elder Roberts’s letter to President Heber J. Grant has even been torn off), suppression of his letter stating that the conclusions expressed in the three manuscripts are not his, and the omission of his statement that he had investigated the questions with the idea that they “may possibly arise some day” and that “future defenders of the faith” should therefore have a “thorough digest” on hand. Above all, critics have been careful not to mention Elder Roberts’s herculean efforts to vindicate the Book of Mormon subsequent to his 1922 study. All this will secure them fame for ingenuity. But what of honesty?

An examination of B. H. Roberts’s Book of Mormon activities, public and private, from 1922 when his “problems” study was complete until his death on 27 September 1933, reveals that every week of every month of those eleven years B. H. Roberts was preparing, writing, presenting, and publishing materials on the Book of Mormon. He delivered hundreds of sermons and wrote dozens of articles and tracts. 32 In the same decade he reprinted many of his books, including additional segments which relate to the Book of Mormon (volume 3 of his New Witnesses series, 1927, 33 and his Comprehensive History of the Church, 1930), and completed his unpublished manuscript “The Truth, the Way, and the Life,” 1931. 34 In addition, a cloud of witnesses, including some three hundred of his full-time missionaries and other close confidants, have left letters and journal accounts of his conversations, his prayers, and his testimonies concerning the book. 35 Only days before diabetes took his life he offered his last charge and testimony to a long-time friend: “You accept Joseph Smith and all of the scriptures.” 36

Let us here turn to a mere outline of the matters Elder Roberts considered in his 1922 study. He begins by addressing problems of linguistics (fifty-eight pages). The core issue is how to explain the great linguistic variation of the native races of North and South America within the limits of the Book of Mormon chronology. Next he deals with what seems to be some Book of Mormon anachronisms: mention of horses, asses, oxen, sheep, swine, iron and steel (thirty-seven pages). Then he turns to the origin of the native races and their culture (forty-eight pages).

In the second segment of the study, about 170 pages, Elder Roberts poses the question of “literature available to Joseph Smith as a ground plan for the Book of Mormon” and the question of whether Joseph Smith possessed sufficient imagination to produce the Book of Mormon based upon the “common knowledge” folklore of his time. 37 Here he also deals with elements in Ethan Smith’s volume View of the Hebrews, including “miscellaneous” parallels between Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. 38

Through another 114 pages he traces similarities between the Nephite and Jaredite migrations, confronting problems of the Jaredite sea voyage, and addresses questions of the Nephite temple, of kings, of things miraculous that supposedly “test credulity,” of the seeming stereotype antichrists Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor, and of conversion stories “with the strong implication that they have their origin in one mind.” 39 He then tackles questions about war chieftains, methods and principles of war, and the Jaredite war of extinction. Throughout, in anticipation of criticisms, he asks—as the serious student, even the disbeliever—Is this history or a “wonder-tale”? 40

As Mission President

During the five years Elder Roberts presided over the Eastern States Mission (1922–1927) the Book of Mormon was at the center of his ministry. “Try to put a Book of Mormon in every home, even if it is used just to prop open the door,” he instructed his missionaries. Over and over he related unusual ways people had encountered the book and become converted to Christ. 41 At breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the mission home he told of the power of the book in his own life. Milo Marsden remembers how often he said, “I have come to know the book is true in two ways: exhaustive study, and earnest prayer.” 42

Mark Allen, who was his secretary even after Elder Roberts’s release in 1927, recalls, “I received the impression he was gallantly attempting to ‘save’ the Book in the same singular manner in which he had defended the faith in numerous other ways. His faith in the divinity of the book was strong, but he agonized over the intellectual problems in justifying it.” Allen, aware of Elder Roberts’s republication of volume three of his New Witnesses for God, says that Elder Roberts was “uneasy with attempts to build a case out of trivial coincidence and gratuitous parallels.” 43 A more fruitful approach, Elder Roberts taught his elders, lay in searching out the deep spiritual and moral message of the book as it related to the larger body of religious truth in the Bible and the modern prophets. 44

“Whenever he spoke of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith a special power attended his words.” 45 That spirit, he insisted, was his ultimate sanction. In his summary statement on the authenticity of the book, he wrote again in 1930, “It has an atmosphere about it, a spirit, that bears witness of its truth. 46

For the specifics of certain arguments against the Book of Mormon, B. H. Roberts himself had some answers. But serious archaeological, anthropological, and literary studies since his time (conveniently summarized by Hugh Nibley 47 and John L. Sorenson 48 ) have provided much more evidence substantiating the Book of Mormon as an ancient document.

To package what he thought could be potential arguments against the Book of Mormon, Elder Roberts puts in the mouths of “some future opponent of the Book of Mormon” four assumptions. Let us name them and then point out ways they have been dissolved by scholarly research.

1. The assumption, attributed by some to the Book of Mormon, of a common linguistic origin out of which came the great variations in language and language dialects apparent in the Americas.

2. The assumption of “literature available to Joseph Smith” and of “common knowledge” in the New York area as a “ground plan” for the Book of Mormon.

3. The assumption that Joseph Smith had a “sufficiently vivid and creative imagination” to produce such a work as the Book of Mormon.

4. The assumption of “striking parallels” between Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon.

1. Language. The notion that all languages in the Americas have their origin in one mother language is uprooted by contemporary archaeology and anthropology. In fact, the Book of Mormon itself forbids the assumption. There is no mention in the book of continent-wide expansive populations and no mention of its peoples descending from one “race,” as even some Latter-day Saints have argued. (On the Contrary, see 2 Ne. 10:21.) The habitants described sometimes expand and sometimes diminish to near extinction, but such statistics as are mentioned suggest comparatively small numbers. B. H. Roberts himself suspected that the three groups chronicled in the Book of Mormon (Jaredite, Mulekite, and Nephite) do not account for all the remnants of American civilization—and languages—in the Western Hemisphere. His study considers the possibility that the Nephites and the people of Mulek “occupied a very much more restricted area of the American continents than has heretofore been supposed.” 49

2. The Assumption of “Common Knowledge.” Fawn M. Brodie and Thomas O’Dea conclude that Joseph Smith simply “squeezed” his New York environment and out came the Book of Mormon. O’Dea offers no convincing cause-effect connections but simply ascribes the idea to “common sense.” 50 Brodie just dogmatizes that similarities to Ethan Smith (unspecified) are so striking as to make belief in coincidence impossible. 51

Like anything else under serious study, the Book of Mormon cannot be tested against one selective context; it must be checked against many. These contexts sooner or later are the acid test. Such tests have been made, and a consensus is emerging among students of the Book of Mormon on the patternistic or characteristic traits of the cultures the Book of Mormon claims to represent. For example, Richard L. Bushman has shown that the Book of Mormon does not resemble common monarchical beliefs in western New York in the nineteenth century. 52 On the other hand, a number of scholars have shown that the Book of Mormon does reflect specific culture patterns of the Middle East and Mesoamerica. Hugh Nibley has traced hundreds of such patterns for the Middle East context—the world of the Jaredites and Lehi in the desert. The test tightens if we only consider details that could not have been known by anyone in the nineteenth century, let alone by Joseph Smith—for example, that the name Alma was a male name in the pre-Christian Middle East. 53

The bottom line? That culture to which the Book of Mormon narrative is most similar is likely the root of the narrative. And enough striking parallels exist between the Book of Mormon and the cultures it claims to represent to rule out coincidence. There are at least 150 cultural patterns in Mesoamerica which anthropologists and archaeologists have found in common with the Book of Mormon since it was published and about which Joseph Smith could not have known. 54 It is hardly a rational explanation to say “he just guessed right.”

3. Creative Imagination. Some critics have argued that since Joseph Smith’s vocabulary can be traced in the book, the book, rather than just the words used, must be the product of his mind. But the argument falters on a point of logic. That the Prophet translated the book using his own vocabulary is understood and has been insisted upon from the beginning. What must be demonstrated is that Joseph Smith is the sole author of the Book of Mormon, writing it without access to ancient records. No one has yet been able to manage that. And it is difficult to imagine how sufficient data from his environment and from the recorded product of his own mind could ever conclusively establish that he did.

Today, those who insist Joseph Smith invented the book have had to use a new tack. As the complexity of the Book of Mormon has become more apparent, they have had to ascribe to the Prophet literary skills he did not possess. They can thereby toss off the unresolvables in the book as the product of genius instead of accepting Joseph’s own story.

In the meantime, new tools and new research have brought the language question into new focus. First, research on literary styles, now systematically analyzable through computers, has led to “word-print” studies. They confirm what the Book of Mormon claims: There are many literary styles in the Book of Mormon. 55 Moreover, recent studies show that central sections, including historical narrative, are in the 1-2-3, 3-2-1 chiastic literary pattern characteristic of many Old Testament poet-prophets. 56 (The American Heritage Dictionary defines chiasmus as “a rhetorical inversion of the second of two parallel structures, as He went to the theater, but home went she.”) Not only are there passages of the book that are chiasms, but Noel Reynolds has recently shown that the entire substructures of 1 and 2 Nephi are chiastic. 57

Confronted with these and a host of similar studies, some biblical students have begun saying that Joseph Smith was apparently adept not only in Hebrew but in Hebrew styles. That won’t do. Joseph Smith’s first exposure to the Hebrew alphabet occurred more than five years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, the existence of chiastic structures in the Book of Mormon was recognized only recently. B. H. Roberts didn’t know of them, and neither did Joseph Smith.

4. Ethan Smith Parallels. Are there “striking parallels” between the Book of Mormon and Ethan Smith’s 1823 novel, View of the Hebrews, a fictional account of Israelites from the lost Ten Tribes who migrated to the Americas after the destruction of Jerusalem? Elder Roberts confirmed for his missionaries that any such parallels are abstract, even empty. Aside from the claim of Hebraic backgrounds, only two specific similarities occur: Ethan Smith quotes Isaiah at length and refers to the Urim and Thummim. But textual analysis shows independent sources for the two books. 58 And now it turns out that some of Joseph Smith’s variant readings of Isaiah differ from the King James Version in much the same ways that the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated 150 B.C., and other early texts differ from it. 59

In 1843 Joseph Smith mentioned Ethan Smith as an example of one writer who took seriously Old World connections to the Americas. 60 But Ethan Smith contended that the American Indians descended from the Lost Tribes. That is not what the Book of Mormon claims. As B. H. Roberts wrote in 1932, “Early authorities on Indian antiquities assigned to the Indians a Hebrew origin by claiming they were descendants of the Lost Tribes, [but] that, of course, you remember, is not the Book of Mormon attitude. While assigning to them Israelitish origin it nowhere claims that they are the Lost Tribes, but instead in the main are derived from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh with a slight infusion of the tribe of Judah through the advent of the people of Mulek who came from Jerusalem at the destruction of the family of Zedekiah, an account of which you may read in the Book of Mormon.” 61 And, Elder Roberts might have added, if the emptiness of these purely circumstantial “parallels” is so plainly evident, how much more significant is the lack of parallels between Ethan Smith’s book and the spiritual content of the Book of Mormon.

Ethan Smith published a book on revelation in 1833, endorsed by several ministers in New York and Massachusetts. He also republished View of the Hebrews, revised and enlarged, in 1835. 62 Both books were published long after the Book of Mormon began circulation. If critics can claim that Joseph Smith was aware of Ethan Smith’s novel, it surely can also be claimed that Ethan Smith was aware of Joseph Smith’s. And if Ethan Smith suspected or even wished to charge that the Book of Mormon plagiarized or purloined from his work, why didn’t he? Obviously, the work of these critics gets tougher and tougher to sustain.

Just before his death in September 1933, Elder Roberts was visited at his office by a long-time friend, Jack Christensen. He placed on Elder Roberts’s desk a second edition of the Ethan Smith volume. During the conversation, B. H. Roberts spoke of his Book of Mormon studies and then gave Christensen his considered judgment: “Ethan Smith played no part in the formation of the Book of Mormon.” In fact, Elder Roberts said that in central ways the Ethan Smith melange of fact and fiction was incompatible with the Book of Mormon claims. At the end of the conversation, Elder Roberts locked his eyes and said, “You accept Joseph Smith and all the scriptures.” Wrote Christensen, “I never felt anything more powerfully in my life.” 63 Three weeks later, B. H. Roberts was dead.

The Fourth of the Three Witnesses

Thus, in a way which might have appealed to Elder Roberts’s great sense of irony, history repeats itself.

In the original fever of denunciation against the Latter-day Saints, it was said that the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon “later denied their testimony.” That ridiculous claim still remains in some encyclopedias. But meticulous and thoroughgoing study shows otherwise. 64 Likewise in the case of B. H. Roberts. For those who attempt to reduce Elder Roberts’s total life effort in sustaining the Book of Mormon to a final position of disillusionment or rejection, the wish has become the father of the thought. But they have chosen the wrong man. In the face of countertheories, which he presented more clearly than their present advocates, he was to his death absolutely sure the book was a revelation of God.

That brings us back to the spiritual test. Plausibility—but not certainty—regarding a sacred book’s claims may be argued on factual and logical grounds. But if one has not read the book prayerfully, he has not read it carefully. One may read to gather pebbles for critical slingshots. Such persons, if they are of Jewish or Christian persuasion, would take a dim view of those who refuse any spiritual approach to Exodus, or to the seventeenth chapter of John. Thus, we come to B. H. Roberts’s lifelong conclusion: Men under constraint of evidence are rationally obligated to recognize that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are at least credible. It remains for God, and God alone, to forge their light and power into the souls of men. Then the books may become instruments for meeting the Christ. And when one has been embraced by the King Himself and is feasting at the banquet table, do questions remain about the letter of introduction?

It was Roberts’s joy, as also his burden, to inject into the religionists of his time the hope of a possibility—few were ready for the actuality—of other creditable manuscripts which shed light on Christ’s life and ministry and which open the windows of a heretofore closed and radically misunderstood canon, the Bible. Hence his favorite term for the Book of Mormon and especially for 3 Nephi—“a fifth gospel.” How hesitant, even now, official Judaism and Christendom have been to consider this claim of new scripture. But how difficult that posture is becoming in light of new manuscript discoveries that answer their own criteria and which began, as Joseph Smith said they would, in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Happily, the texts of the Middle East peoples have come forth with resounding impact ever since. 65 The historical credentials of these resource materials are equal, and in some cases superior, to the credentials of some of the books of the Bible. They are leading toward a revolution of perspective which Elder Roberts and his colleagues defended almost in vain.

Elder B. H. Roberts to his last breath was a faithful witness of the most superb contemporary witness for Christ of them all—the Book of Mormon. In his own notebook he wrote in red ink the Prophet Joseph Smith’s statement that “a man would get nearer to God by abiding by Book of Mormon precepts than by any other book.” He believed that. He testified of it. He sought to live it.

[photo] Photography by Michael Schoenfeldt

[photos] Photos courtesy of the Church Historical Department

[photo] Elder Brigham H. Roberts with missionaries, about 1924, while he was president of the Eastern States Mission.

[photo] President Heber J. Grant presided at a special meeting held in the Sacred Grove on 23 September 1923. Pictured in this photo are (from left) Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, Elder Rudger Clawson, President Grant, Sister Augusta W. Grant, Elder James E. Talmage, and Elder Brigham H. Roberts, president of the Eastern States Mission. (Photo courtesy of the Church Historical Department.)

[photo] In September 1923, a conference of the Eastern States Mission was held at the Joseph Smith, Sr., farm near Palmyra, New York, in celebration of the one-hundredth anniversary of the appearance of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith, Jr. As mission president, Elder B. H. Roberts directed the conference and the arrangements for the celebration. In this photograph of the flag raising ceremony, Elder Roberts is seen in the center foreground, looking back at the camera. (Photo courtesy of the Church Historical Department.)

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    New Witnesses for God, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), Forewords.

  2.   2.

    See Defense of the Faith and the Saints, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), pp. 373–99.

  3.   3.

    In Conference Report, Oct. 1910, pp. 36–37.

  4.   4.

    Truman G. Madsen, “B. H. Roberts and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 19 (Summer 1979), pp. 427–45.

  5.   5.

    B. H. Roberts to Charles W. Nibley, June 10, 1908. Letter in archives, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  6.   6.

    This, according to one of his missionaries, Milo S. Marsden, was said in the mission home in Brooklyn in 1927 after the “customary prayer in the living room.” (In a letter to the author, July 10, 1983.)

  7.   7.

    The debate affected all his subsequent writing on the Book of Mormon. See Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith, The B. H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), pp. 126–28.

  8.   8.

    In Conference Report, April 1916, p. 138.

  9.   9.

    The expression was used by Joseph Hyde, who inscribed a book thus, and by Orson F. Whitney, his contemporary and a member of the Council of the Twelve. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., spoke of him as a “great crusader.” (See Madsen, Defender of the Faith, p. 382.)

  10.   10.

    Dr. John Emmett, later of the Mayo Clinic, recalled this comment during an interview with the writer, 16 December 1967. Emmett was secretary in 1926–27 to B. H. Roberts in the Eastern States Mission.

  11.   11.

    See Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 1:371–91.

  12.   12.

    Of the Atonement, Roberts wrote that it “is a doctrine, in modern times, peculiar to ‘Mormonism;’ or, to speak more accurately, to the New Dispensation of the Gospel revealed to Joseph Smith; and is derived almost wholly from the teachings of the Book of Mormon.” (See The Seventy’s Course in Theology, vol. 4., Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1911, pp. 113–14.)

  13.   13.

    See, for example, Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, vol. 20, no. 23–716, pp. 435–38. Also “The Affair in Eden: The Fall of Man, More Book of Mormon Philosophy,” Deseret News, July 7, 1928.

  14.   14.

    See his Seventy’s Course in Theology, vol. 4 (1911); Improvement Era, Aug. 1921, pp. 911 ff; and Improvement Era, March 1910, pp. 432–40.

  15.   15.

    See Douglas C. Macintosh, The Problem of Religious Knowledge (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940), p. 19.

  16.   16.

    See, for example, Improvement Era, March 1933, pp. 259–62. “Mormonism,” he said in his climactic discourse, is not “one of the broken lights” of God but a world movement “for the completion of God’s purposes” whose second century would be greater than its first. (In Conference Report, April 1930, pp. 46–49. Also in volume 6 of the Comprehensive History of the Church, chapter CLXXXIX.)

  17.   17.

    In Conference Report, October 1923, p. 91.

  18.   18.

    In Conference Report, April 1906, p. 65.

  19.   19.

    In Conference Report, April 1911, p. 60.

  20.   20.

    Improvement Era, 9 (1906), p. 436.

  21.   21.

    New Witnesses for God, 3:406.

  22.   22.

    S. H. Goodwin, Mormonism and Masonry (Washington, D.C.: The Masonic Service Association of the United States, 1924), p. 70.

  23.   23.

    Mr. N. E. Riter had written a letter to Elder James E. Talmage and attached Mr. Couch’s questions to it. Roberts received the letter from Talmage in late 1921.

  24.   24.

    Chapters 44–48.

  25.   25.

    B. H. Roberts to Elizabeth Skolfield, 12 March 1932, in possession of John Noble Henchley.

  26.   26.

    See his manuscript “Book of Mormon Difficulties,” introductory pages 1–4, BYU Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library.

  27.   27.

    Ibid., p. 103.

  28.   28.

    Elsa Cook to Truman G. Madsen, April 27, 1967. Besides Elder Richard R. Lyman and one other person, a scholar from Salt Lake City, she knew of no others who before Roberts’s death had read his “parallels” study.

  29.   29.

    In Conference Report, October 1929, p. 90.

  30.   30.

    B. H. Roberts to President Heber J. Grant and the Quorum of the Twelve, March 15, 1923.

  31.   31.

    Wesley P. Walters, The Journal of Pastoral Practice (Summer 1977), pp. 121–52.

  32.   32.

    Roberts’s tracts included a five-part series titled “Why Mormonism” and another five-part series titled “The Lord Has Spoken.” These were written during the first year of his presidency in the Eastern States Mission (1922–1923).

  33.   33.

    Roberts wrote his daughter, Georgia, in 1927 that it had been “arduous work” for him to reissue and in some cases supplement his New Witnesses series. Comparison of his earlier editions with this later one show few changes. The hard work was in proofreading. One change involved greater attention to the title page of the Book of Mormon as a revelation and not a publisher’s addition. “The Book of Mormon is the only book in the world,” he told his missionaries, “whose title page is authored by God.” See the foreword to his 1927 edition of New Witnesses for God.

  34.   34.

    His Comprehensive History of the Church, published in 1930, includes a new chapter on the events of the Cumorah conferences and the acquisition of historical sites relating to the Book of Mormon (Volume 6, chapter CLXXXVIII.) For his doctrinal analysis of the Book of Mormon in his manuscript “The Truth, The Way, The Life,” see Truman G. Madsen, BYU Studies 15 (Spring 1975), pp. 259–92.

  35.   35.

    Roberts’s missionaries have had an annual reunion for more than a half-century. More than fifty have responded to requests for anecdotes. They are individualistic but uniform accounts of Roberts’s Book of Mormon testimony and advocacy, many of which bear on the question of Roberts’s continuing witness of the Book of Mormon.

  36.   36.

    Interview with Jack Christensen, 25 April 1979.

  37.   37.

    B. H. Roberts, “A Book of Mormon Study,” BYU Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Part I, subpart I, pp. 5–6.

  38.   38.

    Ibid., Part I, subparts II–IV, passim.

  39.   39.

    Ibid., Part II, subparts I–I.

  40.   40.

    See, e.g., ibid., Part II, subpart I, p. 14.

  41.   41.

    VaLois Chipman to Truman G. Madsen, July 12, 1983.

  42.   42.

    Milo Marsden to Truman G. Madsen, July 10, 1983.

  43.   43.

    Mark Allen to Truman G. Madsen, July 20, 1983.

  44.   44.

    Many of Roberts’s missionaries have written of his view of the role of external and internal “evidences” of the Book of Mormon. “All other evidence is secondary compared to the testimony one gains through faith of the Holy Spirit. It comes to the sincere mind as a personal revelation” (Milo Marsden to Truman G. Madsen, July 10, 1983) ancillary to the powerful promise of Moroni of the witness of the Spirit.

  45.   45.

    La Von B. Clark to the author, August 2, 1983.

  46.   46.

    Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:175.

  47.   47.

    Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1952); and Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967).

  48.   48.

    John L. Sorenson, Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early History and Archaeology, 139 (December 1976), pp. 1–9.

  49.   49.

    “Book of Mormon Difficulties,” p. 58.

  50.   50.

    Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 24.

  51.   51.

    Fawn M. Brodie says “it may never be proved” that Joseph Smith saw the Ethan Smith volume. But she adds, “The striking parallelisms between the two books hardly leave a case for mere coincidence.” See No Man Knows My History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957), pp. 46–48.

  52.   52.

    Richard L. Bushman, BYU Studies 17 (Autumn 1976), pp. 3–20, reprinted in Book of Mormon Authorship, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1982), pp. 189–211.

  53.   53.

    Alma has been thought to be a Latin and perhaps a female name. The Dead Sea Scroll fragment which records the name as a male name udrf in 150 B.C. is on display in the Shrine of the Book museum at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

  54.   54.

    John L. Sorenson of Brigham Young University will soon publish the results of his twenty year study which clearly point in this direction.

  55.   55.

    Alvin C. Rencher, Tim Layton, and Wayne A. Larsen, BYU Studies 20 (Spring 1980), pp. 225–51, reprinted in Book of Mormon Authorship, pp. 157–88.

  56.   56.

    John W. Welch, “A Study Relating Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon to Chiasmus in the Old Testament Ugaritic Epics and Greek and Latin Authors,” masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 1970.

  57.   57.

    Noel B. Reynolds, Book of Mormon Authorship, pp. 53–74.

  58.   58.

    See Spencer J. Palmer and William L. Knecht, BYU Studies 5 (Winter 1964), pp. 105–13.

  59.   59.

    See Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, pp. 130–31.

  60.   60.

    See Times and Seasons 3 (June 1842), pp. 813–14. See also Bruce D. Blumell’s comment in Ensign, Sept. 1976, pp. 84–87.

  61.   61.

    B. H. Roberts to Elizabeth Skolfield, March 15, 1932.

  62.   62.

    Blumell, p. 86.

  63.   63.

    Interview with Jack Christensen, April 25, 1979.

  64.   64.

    Roberts dealt with the Witnesses in his New Witnesses series. Richard L. Anderson has gathered far more documentation to show that claims of denial are fictitious; see Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981).

  65.   65.

    It is said that Joseph Smith himself anticipated the world’s mockery of the Book of Mormon and was comforted by the promise, “Joseph, I will make the earth bear record of it.” (Young Woman’s Journal vol. 11, 1900, p. 168.) The accumulation of materials that some are now saying should be included in the biblical canon refers not only to portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library discovered in the 1940s, but also to the continual discoveries of many-language documents which can be dated as early as the first century B.C. and up to the third century A.D. These provide sometimes tenuous but sometimes authentic glimpses of beliefs common to that era and of the life and times of Jesus Christ. R. H. Charles compiled some of these materials in his two-volume work on the pseudepigrapha. In our time, so many more books and fragments have accumulated that James H. Charlesworth, head of the Pseudepigrapha Institute at Duke University, will publish twice again as much material (2,000 pages) in his forthcoming Doubleday series. See James H. Charlesworth, in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, p. 130.