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The Works of Hugh Nibley: How A Professional Development Project Lasted 25 Years

Written by Gary Gillum


As I worked on this presentation I’ve had to humbly realize that it really began with my conversion to the Church in 1969. I know that the Lord had prepared me for this work with Brother Nibley, because over the years I’ve tried to figure out if somebody else could have done what I’ve done with Nibley. I don’t say this in a boasting manner – but humbly – that not unlike working with my huge family, this is another ‘life project’ the Lord had prepared me for and has sustained me through. It definitely was a mere seed in the beginning, for although I was interested in Nibley, I never expected to be involved with him for 25 years.

Nibley was, from very early on, involved in environmental issues here in Utah. And, of course, he also had a global perspective on how the environment should be treated. He was also a Democrat, another reason for his being photographed with Robert Redford. At this particular time they were embroiled in a situation in Provo Canyon. But Nibley was also involved with some editorials concerning the MX missile crisis back in the 80’s.

One of Nibley’s favorite places to go was the Hopi reservation, which is right in the middle of the Navajo Nation.

Most of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who have been down there have been anthropologists and others. The Hopi ignore them, because many of them treat the Hopi as if it were a primitive culture that needed to be studied. But Nibley would visit to know more about their sacred writings and religious rituals, and he had been offered a glimpse of those. Incidentally, this is one of those things that Nibley will not talk about very much. He will talk about the Hopi tribe and some of their beliefs, but these sacred writings, he has given only some hints of the substance of these writings.

Nibley’s resumé lists thirteen languages. I don’t think anybody knows for sure how many languages he knows, there’s also the question of fluency. Some people have said that he can read as many as 25 languages, and that’s very possible. He’s been known to learn a language in one semester, just by reading a book between his house and campus.

In the 1980’s I had asked Brother Nibley, when I was getting a little closer and more comfortable with him, how his perspective was so much wider and broader and deeper than most of us. He mumbled something about his ancestors, and the fact that one of his relatives knew Joseph Smith really well. I was never satisfied with that answer, until I learned later that when he was still living in California he had had a Near Death Experience. That, to me, said a lot. But in addition to that, he’s just had a remarkable sense of the eternal, if you will.

He’s as old as President Hinckley, 93. He’s also the same age as Mother Teresa and Jacques Cousteau. I figured that out a few years ago and wondered who was going to outlive whom. So now it’s down to President Hinckley and Dr. Nibley.

Many of you know that he served in the army as a sergeant, which is really kind of ridiculous since he had a PhD. But at least the Army put him in intelligence. In the beginning of the war he was required to interrogate German prisoners. He very quickly decided that his ethical standards didn’t allow him to do that because he felt that German soldiers were only doing their duty to their country, just like our soldiers were to our country. The Army transferred him to Order of Battle. And to this day, I’m not sure to what extent he was involved with D-day and the invasion of Normandy, but I think it was a great deal. I know that he was sent as an observer to see what worked and what didn’t work with the invasion.

Nibley was ready to go to the invasion and at the last minute one of his commanding officers decided he wanted to go over in one of the gliders. So he ordered Nibley off the glider and put himself in it. Nibley then had to hit Utah beach in one of the landing craft, and then on a Jeep with his typewriter, Book of Mormon and a few other things. In fact, I have never seen him so animated as when he told me about that experience. It was quite a thing, even though to him war is a very sad and a sorrowful thing – and downright stupid.

And speaking of Nibley as an observer at war, an issue of BYU Today once had an article on Nibley’s life. Here is a little glimpse into his life. In the interview he was asked, “What would people be surprised to know about Hugh Nibley?” “That anyone so insignificant should be noticed by anybody at all.” “That’s your view of yourself?” “Yes, a completely insignificant individual. As I say, I wanted to creep underneath the sofa and be an observer. I’ll watch. I remember the day World War I broke out. Imagine that. I was playing under the table and I took it all in. My dad at the table with a newspaper and explaining it all. I was four years old, but I got the whole situation from under the table. That’s being an observer. Being very small, very out of the way, not to be noticed.”

Here’s another choice quote. “Have you heard the talk concerning who the next Hugh Nibley in the Church will be?” That’s the worst kind of question you could ask Hugh Nibley. “Oh, that would be the absurdest thing in the world anyone to discuss. That is utter nonsense. I haven’t done it yet. For heaven’s sake, don’t talk that way until I’ve done something.” This is in 1990, by the way. “But I don’t feel completely ashamed, because there are some things I know I would do if I had the chance. But I’m nowhere having done it yet. I don’t want to give up on it yet, so hang on, I’ll take my pills and do my exercises.”


Hugh Nibley has published over 20 books and 200 articles on many different themes.

Taking the Gospel Seriously

In a lot of his writings, you can’t help but get the feeling, and he said it himself, that you can either take the gospel seriously, or yourself seriously; you can’t do both at the same time. And that’s something to think about.

The Eschatological Man

Nibley tells the story of a man who goes to a doctor to find out why he has this or that pain, and discovers that he has six weeks to live, because he has this very invasive cancer. Well, like any of us would do, we would change our perspective pretty quickly, wouldn’t we? And we would start doing some things that had a higher priority in our lives than what we had been doing. We’ll that’s what this man does. Six weeks goes by. Two months goes by. Two and a half months goes by. And then he gets a call from the doctor, who says, “Oh, we had your file mixed-up with somebody else’s. And you’re healthy. You’re as fit as a fiddle.” Well, the eschatological man, rather than going back to the way his life had been before decides, “I can see what my priorities in life should be; I am going to continue with that.” Nibley has used this time and time again to show us how there are things that should take higher priority.

Temples in Egyptian Christianity

This is an obvious one. Hugh Nibley was one of the first scholars to show the similarity between Egyptian temples and our own temple ceremony. The reprint of the 1975 book, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: an Egyptian Endowment is going to be published very soon. (One of the source checkers told me yesterday that they’re getting towards the end.) The new volume will be very nice because it will have some updated drawings.

And then we have the works of Abraham and the Pearl of Great Price. The book that he’s been working on for the last fifteen years is calledOne Eternal Round. Its concern is the facsimile number two in your Pearl of Great Price. He has found copies of these facsimiles in museums all over the world. He hasn’t gone there himself, but, for instance, one of the BYU professors who went over to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg was asked to look for these hypocephali. (These hypocephali are an ‘under the head document’ — that’s what you’re buried with so that you can get across to the other world after you’re dead.) And this particular person said that there were many examples of Hypocephali in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, many of them very much like the one we have in our Pearl of Great Price. The Coptic Museum in Cairo also has numerous copies. So this has been a theme of Nibley’s for many years.

Work we must, but the lunch is free

This was actually the name of a talk that he gave in Salt Lake to the Cannon-Hinckley Club. He feels that the Lord has given us a life to live here, and we need to work, and he gives us all that we need to sustain our lives while we’re working. Too many of us, however, are out there trying to see how much more lunch we can acquire, rather than realizing that for all of us the lunch is free. Again, a question of priorities.

Leaders and Managers

We all know that leaders are more effective than managers. In fact, if you look in the business world you see more and more corporations going to that model. This theme is based on personalities in the Book of Mormon, from King Noah to Moroni.

Sophic and Mantic

Sophic and Mantic are two Greek words that basically talk about reason and revelation and how most of us, whether it’s in education or daily lives, or many other things, will use reason and not revelation. Of course, we here at BYU believe that many people do receive an education ‘by study and also by faith.’ Dr H. Curtis Wright, who was one of my graduate professors in library school, and also a friend of Hugh Nibley over the years, has written a paper where he has expanded this theme to Judaism, using the horizontal and the vertical model — that many religions today are horizontal, while ours is vertical, by reason of the fact that we do communicate with Heavenly Father and have continuing revelation.

The Nephite Disease

We’re all familiar with this theme through the Book of Mormon. We get prosperous and cocky and arrogant, and before we know it, we’ve lost our blessings, become humble and teachable, and end up starting all over again. He has felt many times that we’re in that situation today.

Multi-disciplinary Study and Education

Nibley has never been the kind of person who wanted to specialize. He can’t stand that, and frankly, one of the reasons I became a librarian was because librarians are generalists and multi-disciplinary. Nibley felt that we can learn a lot more from each other if we can accept other disciplines and, in fact, sometimes even use diverse disciplines together with our own – or at least having some rudimentary knowledge of them.

The History of Christianity

There is one volume of the collected works where Nibley looks at the early church fathers and shows what their perspective of Jesus Christ and the early church were. In fact, the original talks were on the radio in the 1950’s. His criticism of early Christianity is the basis for his commencement address in 1983 in the Marriott Center. He prefaced his remarks by referring to a prayer he gave at a devotional in the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse in 1965:

“Twenty three years ago today, if you will cast your minds back, on this same occasion, I gave the opening prayer, in which I said, ‘We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood.’ Now, many have asked me since then whether I really said such a shocking thing. But nobody has ever asked what I meant by it. Why not? Well, some knew the answer already, and as for the rest, we do not question things at the BYU. (Laughing and applauding) Well, I didn’t expect that.”

Elder Maxwell and FARMS

Elder Neal A. Maxwell appreciated Nibley’s meekness and unqualified devotion, as well as his intellectual genius. Elder Maxwell once said, “Isn’t it wonderful that the Lord didn’t put him in the Middle Ages in some monastery working with ancient texts, and we’d have lost his genius?”

One of the reasons why Elder Maxwell has been such a friend of FARMS is because of Nibley’s involvement with the foundation of FARMS from the very beginning. Without Nibley’s writings, FARMS really wouldn’t have had too much substance to begin on. Yet FARMS made it possible for 14 volumes of his collected works to be published.

Seven years studying for the Ministry qualified me to eventually become the Religion and Ancient Studies Librarian. I would never have guessed that I would become involved with such a man.Exposure to Hugh Nibley Callout

Preparation for Working with Hugh Nibley

Improvement Era CoverI studied for seven years for the Lutheran ministry. My education included languages (German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew), ancient and classical history, Biblical theology and world religions. I also read Hugh Nibley’s article entitled “The Unknown Abraham” during my investigation of the Church.

As I was investigating the church in 1969 my fianceé gave me this 1969 Improvement Era article on the Pearl of Great Price, “The Unknown Abraham.” It was this article that, in addition to my spiritual testimony of the Church, helped in my conversion. This was my first exposure to Hugh Nibley, in January 1969, and the final words of this particular article provided me with “a direction completely unfamiliar to biblical tradition.” I guess I was a curious rebel enough that I wanted to learn about things outside of the Biblical canon that really interested me. Something told me that I needed to watch this man – an unknown Nibley writing about the unknown Abraham. And of course, this is the topic of the book he’s working on right now, One Eternal Round.

Indexing Nibley’s Writings

In 1977 Howard Kempton and Truman Madsen suggested that I compile an index and bibliography for Nibley’s works so that other scholars and researchers could have access to his sources. He has used thousands of sources in so many different languages that we felt that that was necessary. I had barely begun my career at the BYU Library and was wondering how I could serve the academic community, as well as professionally develop myself at the same time. In 1979 I proposed such a project and decided to index all of Nibley’s writings. At this time there were close to 20 books and 200 articles. As I began to collect, read and index his writings, I realized that this was something that I wasn’t going to be able to finish unless I made it fun. As a reader most of my life, one of the things that I’ve been doing is underlining favorite passages, or nowadays I’ll put a post-it note at the top of the page so I can refer back. (I’ve even indexed novels like Tolstoy’s Anna Kareninaand War and Peace.) FARMS source checkers like Naomi Gunnell have been using my bibliography and index for over two decades now. I also came up with a three letter abbreviation for all of Nibley’s writings, and that has been the standard which FARMS and researchers have used. But what made it all fun was getting together all of these quotes.

Quoting Nibley

The Nibley quote book was first published by Signature Books in 1981. As I continued to index Nibley’s works I added newer quotes. Consequently, in 1993 Desert Book and FARMS published a second edition, Of All Things! Classic Quotations from Hugh Nibley. Both books have been a lot of fun, and I’ve been surprised by the number of library patrons, friends and colleagues who have said, “Oh, I have your book.” I’ve also started a new book called As Far as That Goes, after one of Nibley’s favorite expressions when he’s talking about something.As Far as That Goes is a book of the most telling quotes that Nibley has used in his books – other scholars who have given him ideas for some of his writings – and whom Nibley has quoted. From the very beginning, as I was indexing Nibley’s works, I obviously wanted to get together as many things as I possibly could so that I could index everything. So I placed an ad in the Y News, BYU Today and some locations, and the things started pouring in. Some had taped his Gospel Doctrine class and little-known lectures. FARMS and the Library Archives have most of these materials now.

Abraham in Egypt

The last volume of the collected works is Abraham in Egypt. I have to say that if somebody were to ask me to list the five things I was most proud of accomplishing during my 30-some years here at the BYU Library, it would be editing this book. Because of the challenge of it, I can’t think of anything else that exercised my comfort zone, and put me many times over it. There were 2,391 footnotes in the book, and it took me a span of 15 years to get through it. This is a new edition of an earlier one that was published in 1981 that had a lot of mistakes in it, from the publisher, as well as, dare I say it, Brother Nibley. We all have our weaknesses, and Nibley liked to use footnotes, but sometimes he wasn’t as careful as he needed to be with footnotes, and I’ve been very merciful with him on that, because I understand how difficult that is. Some of the source checkers understand that too. (Curtis Wright calls it “the boringly bothersome business of bibliography.”)

FARMS Involvement

Two of these volumes, The World and the Prophets and the one on the Old Testament, I was able to co-edit with Don Norton, Stephen Ricks and others, and that was a lot of fun. And then I indexed several of the other volumes. I have also assisted FARMS and source checkers in several other volumes and done some other things with FARMS. And that’s been a very rewarding spin-off for me.

I was asked to write a preface for a new edition of Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless that will be published by Covenant Communications, and I didn’t expect that to come. And so I’ll soon be working on that.

I was involved in a Dialogue interview with Nibley, Mary Bradford and Curtis Wright, in the 80’s.

The LDS Speaker’s Quotebook, includes many entries from my Of All Things. In fact, they use my name in the table of contents instead of Nibley’s, and I took them to task on that. And they said, well we promise that in the next edition that we’ll take care of that.

Naming The Ancient Studies Library

Rebecca Everett Standing with Hugh NibleyLast fall the university quietly named the Ancient Studies Library on the 5th floor after Hugh Nibley, calling it the Hugh Nibley Ancient Studies Room. I’ve been working on that for about 10 years, trying to go through the right channels and discussing it with various people. Thanks to Randy Olsen, Julene Butler, FARMS and many others, we were able to pull it off, and President Bateman was able to give a nice little talk on the occasion. I’ll show you a couple of other things here: The portrait and the mummy case. The portrait of Hugh Nibley is located in the Ancient Studies room. Obviously this is Nibley to the right. Rebecca Everett is to the left. She happens to be my sister-in-law. We had a lot of common interests, including Nibley- we both had started reading Nibley about the same time. She had mentioned to me in an e-mail how she had been doing some portraits of famous people, like Ansel Adams, who photographed Yosemite and places like that. She said it would be wonderful to do a portrait of Hugh Nibley someday. I responded how we didn’t have any money, but that the library like somebody to do a portrait of Hugh Nibley. She e-mailed me back with the most excited e-mail I have ever seen. “Oh my gosh, really, can I really do it?” And this is the result of it. It’s really a marvelous work, and this slide really doesn’t show it justice. You can see here the outlines of the Jerusalem Temple and Herod’s Temple. The portrait depicts a very typical Nibley.

The Mummy Case

Mummy Case ThumbnailThe Mummy case was made by a friend of mine, Jeff Kulesus, who lives in Virginia, who sent me photographs. He asked whether BYU or FARMS would like to purchase it. And I said, “well, can you at least donate it, or partially donate it?” He did the latter, and had it boxed up and it arrived about two days before the naming of the room. We carried the eighty-five pounds up to the ancient studies room. And we’ve enjoyed it ever since. Here’s a detail from it. My friend Jeff actually used the original methods for doing a mummy case, from doing research from Egyptian, he’s an amateur Egyptologist. The only difference was that he used his local newspaper, rather than papyrus. But it’s not a typical mummy case where you can open it and find the mummy inside. It’s solid newspaper. But very well done, and on all sides of the mummy case. It doesn’t have any of it unfinished- even the underneath portion is finished.


Pat Ward is Hugh Nibley’s secretary. She’s allowed me to make archival copies of Nibley’s letters over the years, and her predecessors have allowed me to do that, too. For a short time, I served as Nibley’s amanuensus, answering several detailed letters when he wasn’t able to. I felt extremely uncomfortable doing so, because there were personal items in some of them. But the letter that really did me in was a letter from the architect of the Nashville Temple, in which he sent actual drawings of his ideas for the Nashville Temple and wanted Nibley’s input. I wasn’t able to get Nibley to give any input, so I basically gave my own answers. This was very fascinating to me, but I wondered how the architect felt: “Who’s this country bumpkin answering for Hugh Nibley?” But this experience showed me how difficult it is to try to write a letter in behalf of somebody else.

As I have been collecting Nibley’s writings, notably his correspondence and some other things, I’ve been working with Boyd Petersen, who is one of Nibley’s sons-in-law, on a database inventory of these items. I’ve input 1100 items so far. There are separate sections on personal papers, published manuscripts, unpublished manuscripts, even letters from other people to him. And I have cross-referenced these to his letters (and the reverse, as well).

Sesquicentennial Lecture Series: 1978

Some of you may remember the Library’s sesquicentennial lecture series 1978. We asked Hugh Nibley to be one of the speakers. His topic was “How Firm a Foundation! What Makes it So?” We also had Orson Scott Card and a few other participants for the series. I was asked to introduce Nibley. I was glad to be able to say, “Here’s a man who needs no introduction: Brother Nibley.” Now that has to be the shortest introduction on record!

Faith of an Observer

Faith of an Observer was a video that was produced in the late 1970’s about Nibley’s life. I was asked to be a researcher and a production committee member. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most inspiring movie, outside of the Temple, that you can see.

Exemplary Manhood Award

I was really humbled to be asked to speak at his Exemplary Manhood Award banquet in the Wilkinson Center. This was in the 1980’s. That was an interesting occasion. Also I’ve spoken about Nibley a couple of times for the Speaker’s Bureau here at BYU.

Finding Books for Hugh

I wish I could remember how many reference questions I have answered – at any of the number of reference desks I have worked in at this library. And many of the patrons are trying to find a book for somebody, and the computer says it’s there but it’s not, and you know the whole story… But I don’t remember a time when Hugh Nibley has asked me to find a book for him when I haven’t succeeded! And it’s always been fun. “You must know where everything is in this library, because I have looked and looked and looked.” He remembers the colors of books, but he doesn’t remember call numbers. I can’t say that I do either.

Nibley and I had a relationship that many people don’t know about. When he and I would get together, we would most often talk about music. It so happens that my wife, Signe, plays in the Utah Valley Symphony – and so did Phyllis, until just a few years ago. At a concert Nibley would always sit downstairs in the Provo Tabernacle on the right hand side. He would be reading voraciously until the concert began, then he was all ears and all heart and all eyes with the music that was being played. (Most of the time.) He really loved music. And in fact, he does play the piano, somewhat.


Descripton of Microfilming ProjectDr. S. Kent Brown of the Ancient Studies department received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to microfilm ancient manuscripts in Egypt and Israel. Once those manuscripts were microfilmed, they needed to be inventoried, and it took a person that knew about 12 different ancient languages to be able to do that inventory. That person was William Macomber. Some of us here still remember Bill on the 6th floor inventorying many pieces of these microfilms and the items that are on it: everything from Ethiopic and Arabic to Amharic and some of the other languages that most of you have probably never heard of.

A few years later a Coptic Orthodox group in San Diego, the St. Shenouda Center for Coptic Studies, had invented a software program where all of these languages, plus about six or seven others could be used in a word processing fashion so that we could come up with a better inventory than one which was just a transliteration. There were 4000 pages that I had to reformat with this new software program, as well as proofread and print. (That was another project that took me to the limit of my comfort zone.) After that, I was asked to try to locate these microfilms whenever we got requests from other scholars – for example, a researcher from the Sorbonne in France. We now have service missionaries digitizing these films so that they can eventually be mounted on our library Website.

Nibley Expert

Whether I’ve wanted to be or not, many people, both on and off campus acknowledge me a Nibley expert, wanting information on various things having to do with Nibley. Boyd Petersen, Nibley’s biographer, and I are often on the phone and e-mail, because he knows I have some sources he doesn’t.

It was also interesting to discover that my Nibley quote book, Of All Things, was one of the 50 most-used LDS Palm Pilot formatted books. I was able to download it from Ldsworld.com. I’ve also been interviewed a few times by The Daily Universe, and the book, Colloquium: Essays in Literature and Belief, quotes me several times.

Being so closely associated with Hugh Nibley over the years has also enabled me to write a Festschrift article – or for those of you who don’t know German – an article in honor of Hugh Nibley’s life. My contribution happened to be “Repentance also Means Rethinking.”

I’ve been working with Curtis Wright on collecting his papers. In his own unique way he’s also been a scholar and a genius. Truman Madsen has asked me if I would do a quote book of his writings, and I’ve started collecting materials for a Chauncy Riddle quote book as well.

The editors of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism asked me to write articles on “Bible Dictionaries,” “Christology,” and “Creeds.” The only way that was possible was for me to have had a growing reputation from my work with Nibley.

I’ve already mentioned my association with FARMS, which is now under the umbrella of ISPART (the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts), BYU Studies, and the Kennedy Center. The latter association has made it possible for me to teach graduate classes in ancient Near Eastern studies from 1980 to the present. I have felt, in this particular area especially, that I didn’t really have the academic training for it, but because of my work with Nibley and all the sources, it made me an able bibliographer to teach ancient Near Eastern students about the library and even to help with their theses. That has been a real challenge, but rewarding as well.

Future Projects

Future Projects ListTwo of these have come about just this summer. I’m continuing the inventory for the Archives, and I was delighted to discover that my particular way of doing the inventory was all right with the university archivists, despite my lack of archival training.

The other day I was asked if I could help edit the extra footage from the earlier documentary,Faith of an Observer. The documentary ended up 59 minutes long, but there were many more hours of interviewing. I was also approached recently by an acquaintance who informed me that KBYU-TV was doing a new documentary on the life of Hugh Nibley, and they want me to be involved. Finally, during Winter semester of 2003 I’ll be teaching an Honors class on the works of Abraham and Hugh Nibley.

Bottom Line

The bottom line of this presentation is this: I think it’s easy to see how my involvement with Hugh Nibley and his various disciplines has made me a much more effective reference and research librarian in my particular fields of religion and ancient studies. But it’s also made me grateful to be able to serve and become intimately acquainted with one of the greatest minds in the Church. I’m grateful to the library administration for allowing, some say requiring us, to pursue professional development goals and for the opportunity to serve with other people throughout the University. That’s been a wonderful thing. Thanks go especially to Sterling Albrecht, and to Dean Larsen, Doug Bush, Randy Olsen, Susan Fales, Julene Butler, Cali O’Connell and many students and faculty for your support. Thank you.

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