Title: Hugh Nibley Observed
Editors: Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Shirley S. Ricks, Stephen T Whitlock
Publisher: Interpreter Foundation/Eborn Books
Genre: Biographical Essay Collection
Year Published: 2021
Number of Pages: 799
Binding: Paper; Cloth; ebook; Limited Leather
Price: Paper, $34.99; Cloth, $44.99; eBook, $19.99; Limited Leather, TBD
Reviewed by Andrew Hamilton for the Association of Mormon Letters
I discovered Hugh Nibley in the fall of 1992 while I was on my mission. I was in an Elder’s Quorum lesson in Del City, Oklahoma, where the discussion was getting intense. One man quoted Nibley believing that doing so would give him the upper hand. I was clueless so, I asked, “Who’s Hugh Nibley?” He replied, “Have you seen the EF Hutton commercials where everyone freezes after Hutton’s name is said and the announcer states, ‘When EF Hutton talks, people listen’?” I told him that I had. He replied, “Hugh Nibley is the Mormon EF Hutton.”
A few weeks later, I was shuffling through a stack of old Ensign magazines when I discovered a four-part series of articles that Nibley had authored on the atonement. I read them and was fascinated. The Christmas after I got home, I asked Santa for copies of Lehi in the Desert and Temple and Cosmos for Christmas. Thus began MY collection of Hugh Nibley books, articles, and recordings. Sixteen years after his death, Nibley still has “E.F. Hutton” status with many Mormons. His “Collected Works” are still in print with people who are willing to pay fifty bucks or more each for some volumes in the set. My personal favorite is Approaching Zion. It occupies a prominent place on my desk and I reference it frequently.
Over the years, fans who wanted to learn more about Nibley have been granted a few glimpses into his long and storied life. In the mid-1980s, BYU produced a film on Nibley called “The Faith of an Observer.” Almost twenty years later, Boyd Jay Petersen authored the biography Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life which was followed by the memoir Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, authored by Nibley and his son Alex. Now those who continue to be captivated by the life and works of “The Mormon E.F. Hutton” have been gifted a massive new book titled, Hugh Nibley Observed.
Hugh Nibley Observed is a collection of essays by family, co-workers, and friends of Nibley who had the opportunity to “Observe” his life. Due to their intimate contact with him, Observed is packed with all sorts of sweet Nibley Goodness. Within the pages of this book readers will encounter 40 essays by 34 authors, 210 illustrations, dozens of pages of notes, and enough facts, anecdotes, stories, and tall tales to keep them fascinated for a very long time. It is not unusual in a collection of essays for the quality of the contributions to vary, but that is not the case with Observed. All of the essays in this collection are outstanding. Each one is excellently crafted and packed with amazing details. Many of them are quite entertaining as well. The editors and authors involved in producing Observed include a “Who’s Who” of Mormon Scholars. All of them have done a fine job in their contributions to this volume.
Observed is divided into three parts. Containing only three essays, Part One, “Portraits,” is the shortest section of the book. The writings in Part One set up the collection and provide a “spiritual portrait” of Nibley (xvi). Part Two, “Nibley, The Scholar,” is made up of twenty-one essays that layout fascinating “perspectives on Nibley’s research” (xvi). The first thirteen essays in this section are transcripts, some of which have been expanded and updated, of lectures delivered at the 2010 “Nibley Centennial Lecture Series.” The second part of this section is called “The Scholarship of Hugh Nibley’ and provides a real treat for those who love the studies and works of Nibley. Part Three, “Nibley, The Man,” provides a very personal and intimate closure to the book. The first half of Part Three is called “Selected Tributes at the Passing of Hugh Nibley.” Here readers will encounter the transcripts of talks and tributes given at Nibley’s funeral and in celebration of his life. The final section of the book is named “Personal Stories, Perspectives, and Reminiscences.” In this section are five delightful essays that provide touching and fun glimpses into Hugh Nibley’s life.
The perfect description for Observed is within the pages of the book. The editors describe how the essays in Observed come together to form “a kaleidoscope of portraits, perspectives, and memories from family, friends, and colleagues” (xv). As a “kaleidoscope,” Observed provides readers with a captivating, colorful, and fresh portrait of the most enigmatic scholar to ever come out of Mormonism.
If I tried to “review” every contribution in Observed, you would spend more time reading my review than you will the book! Instead of doing that, I will tell you about a few of my favorite highlights. The third essay in Part One is a piece by Nibley himself called “An Intellectual Autobiography: Some High and Low Points.” I LOVED the peek into his life and personality that Nibley provided as he narrated these “high and low points.” Reading this made me a bigger fan of Nibley and reminded me why I love Approaching Zion so much. This autobiography let me see how humble Nibley could be and showed how much he believed in the concept of “Zion” – the idea that we should be of “one heart and one mind, and (have) no poor among (us)”. For example, Nibley writes about the time he spent among refugees in Greece at the end of his mission. While he was travelling, Nibley’s possessions were stolen. Even though his passport was recovered, Nibley’s greatest concern was for the state of the refugees. As he pondered on their plight he wrote:
By what right did I lay claim to affluence and security while all the people around me had none? How could a few rubber stamps place me in an exalted station? True, the stamps were only symbols, like money, but symbols of what? Hadn’t those others worked as hard as I? Worse still, what was I if my sacred identity depended on who somebody else said or believed I was? If a bored petty official had decided not to make some phone calls, I could have become a nonperson forever. Legal fictions had supplanted intrinsic worth and faith in God and man… (p. 41)
I love this expression on the “intrinsic” value of all humankind and the insight into how we so easily are led away from seeing the true importance of our brothers and sisters. Nibley touches on this same theme as he discusses his experiences in World War II. Of what he learned during this time Nibley writes:
What I saw on every side was the Mahan Principle in full force, that “great secret” of converting life into property—your life for my property, also your life for my promotion … I took my jeep all over western Europe and beheld the whole thing as a vast business operation. I well remember the pain and distress expressed at headquarters as the war wound down and twilight descended on brilliant military careers, high living, and unlimited financial manipulations; and how great was the rejoicing when the new concept of “brush-fire wars” was announced to the staff—a simple plan to keep the whole thing going, safely contained and at a safe distance. O peace, where is thy sting? The Mahan Principle was still in full force and remains so to this day. (p. 45)
Nibley was always concerned about people, especially the poor and the working class. He stressed the importance of the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. This is readily apparent in this autobiographical essay and in all of Observed.
Two of my favorite essays had the same basic subject. They were part Two’s “Nibley and Folklore” by William Wilson and Part Three’s “The BYU Folklore of Hugh Nibley” by Jane Brady. Many people have heard stories about Hugh Nibley and quite a few people have Hugh Nibley stories of their very own. But which ones are true? Which are myths? Are the “true” stories actually, factually true? Or are they “true” because we need them to be? Wilson writes:
We should remember what Church historian Leonard Arrington said that has helped me a lot. He said, “Just because something didn’t really happen doesn’t mean that it’s not true.” (p. 227)
After discussing what “folklore” is and the “Different Ways that a Story Can Be True”, Wilson shares many fun stories. Brady takes a similar approach. She describes how she has collected many Hugh Nibley stories. She states that she has divided these stories up into the following categories:
- Nibley as hero,
- Nibley as iconoclast,
- Nibley as eccentric,
- Nibley as Latter-day Saint spiritual guide, and
- Nibley as humble but vigorous defender of the faith. (p. 634)
Brady writes about how the stories she has gathered portray Nibley as everything from an “intellectual superman” for “Latter-day Saints to emulate” to “an iconoclast who attacks cherished beliefs and traditions” (p. 634). She states that “Nibley defenders assert that these beliefs need attacking because they are unnecessary customs which people follow blindly without realizing what they are doing” and then writes, “In this role Nibley comes very near to playing the classic folk-lore ‘trickster’” (p. 634). Continuing with the idea of understanding “truth” Brady writes:
In the process of telling … Hugh Nibley stories again and again, … the narrators transform the stories, probably unconsciously, into truthful and accurate indicators of their own values, attitudes, and needs. And this truthfulness may be more important, finally, than the factual accuracy of the stories—for we are inspired and moved to action not by what really happened but by what we believe happened. In this sense the stories are always true—true to the hearts, minds, and souls of those who tell them. (p. 636)
I love this idea that we tell stories about Nibley (or J Golden Kimball, or others like them) to learn more about ourselves and to inspire us to be better. Like Wilson, Brady then shares many pages of both funny and inspiring Hugh Nibley stories. I could go on and on about the fabulous essays in Hugh Nibley observed, but I hope that this taste has been enough to whet your appetite.
One of the things that I get paid to do is grade thesis statements written by college students and determine if their essays successfully answer those thesis statements. The thesis statement for Observed is in its very first paragraph. The editors state that the purpose of the book is to provide readers with:
a more full account of the story behind (Nibley’s) writings—their biographical, historical, literary, and scholarly contexts. … we hope that the fascinating, mostly secondhand accounts in this book will provide encouragement for (people) to read Nibley’s own works. (xv)
After spending the better part of six weeks digging and sifting through the stories, experiences, and insights in Hugh Nibley Observed, I give its thesis an “A” grade. The editors succeeded in what they set out to do. If you read this book, you will want to learn more about The man Hugh Nibley, the subjects he wrote on and cared so much about, and you will want to learn more about his love for Jesus Christ. I will close by saying that “When Hugh Nibley Observed talks, people should listen.”
A note for interested readers – more information on Hugh Nibley Observed can be found at https://interpreterfoundation.org/books/. This site contains purchasing options as well as links to blogs, videos, podcasts, and other information related to Hugh Nibley. The Interpreter Foundation website also plans on making a new Nibley Bibliography available at the end of May.
 Until some scandals that led to a buyout in the late ’80s, EF Hutton was, for many decades, one of the largest and most respected stock brokerage firms in the United States. Throughout the 70s and 80s, they ran TV commercials where someone would mention the name “EF Hutton,” everyone else on screen would freeze and listen attentively. The announcer would then state, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.”
 When I searched for “Hugh Nibley” on Deseret Book’s website, I got 51 results. Most of these were volumes in “The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.” Some were audio recordings, and a few were books referencing Nibley.
 Moses 7:18
 Hugh Nibley coined the phrase “Mahan principle.” It is based on a statement made by Cain in Moses 5:31 “Truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain.” Writing about this Nibley said, “The ‘Mahan principle’ is a frank recognition that the world’s economy is based on the exchange of life for property.” (“The Law of Consecration,” in Approaching Zion, p. 436). See also, Bowen, Matthew L. “Getting Cain and Gain.”
Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 15 (2015): 115-141, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/getting-cain-and-gain/, Accessed on 5-6-21
 The discussion of what Nibley stories are and are not true and the use of the Arrington quote remind me of a scene in the television series, Star Trek Deep Space 9. Engineer Miles O’Brien and Doctor Julian Bashir are discussing the Legend of Davey Crockett. One believes he died fighting, the other believes he must have surrendered. The Klingon Worf overhears them and states:
The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davey Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero’s death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.
I think that a similar statement could be made about the “truth” and folklore surrounding Hugh Nibley. The clip can be viewed here “Worf on The Legend of Davy Crockett”
 I am now forever going to have an image stuck in my head of Hugh Nibley as Loki, the Norse trickster god.