To anybody even passingly familiar with Latter-day Saint scholarship and historiography, Brigham Henry Roberts (1857–1933) needs no introduction. Those who may not be familiar with B. H. Roberts or his contributions can learn about him and his story from either his own autobiography prepared shortly before his death or Truman G. Madsen’s 1980 biography.1 In what is a gross injustice to the man’s legacy, many have probably only heard of B. H. Roberts as, allegedly, “a high-level Mormon General Authority [who] lost his faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon . . . after an in-depth study of the scientific problems with the Book of Mormon.” Shannon C. Montez, in her recent Master’s thesis, has written about “The Secret Mormon Meetings of 1922”; that is, a series of private meetings held with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between January and May of that year in which Roberts presented 141 pages of “difficulties” (“Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study”) he had enumerated with the historicity of the Book of Mormon at the prompting of a correspondence with a certain William E. Riter.2 Five years later, in 1927, Roberts wrote to another Church leader, apostle Richard R. Lyman, informing him of an additional study (“A Book of Mormon Study”) that he, Roberts, had drafted outlining “a possible theory of the Origin of the Book of Mormon that . . . in the hands of a skilled opponent could be made . . . very embarrassing [for the Church].”3 The theory, distilled in an abbreviated form for Lyman (“A Parallel”), posited that Joseph Smith drew from Ethan Smith’s 1823 (rev. 1825) A View of the Hebrews, something Roberts felt might be argued from the number of “parallels” between the two volumes.
These manuscripts remained unpublished until the 1980s. Their editor, Brigham D. Madsen, claims “the record is mixed” on whether Roberts “still retained his faith in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”4 The evidence Madsen offers for this claim is rather feeble,5 and additional studies demonstrate forcefully that, in fact, the record is not “mixed” on whether Roberts lost his testimony, but is in reality unambiguous that he did not.6 For this post, I will not rehash all of these arguments, but want to focus on just one way that we can determine whether Roberts lost his faith, as some claim. Said briefly: B. H. Roberts’ public sermons and his published works from 1922 to his death in 1933 prove, quite to the contrary of Madsen’s appraisal, that Roberts clearly did not abandon his faith. Short of discovering “The Secret Confessions of B. H. Roberts” that overturns this evidence, the documentary record on this point is clear. The mere existence of the manuscripts Roberts prepared do not in and of themselves constitute proof that he lost his faith. As Truman G. Madsen and John W. Welch have both argued at length, they can, and indeed most probably should, be viewed not as reflecting Roberts’ own views, but as something like a lawyer’s brief. The evidence I will present below reinforces this view.
B. H. Roberts’ General Conference Addresses Between 1922–1933
Between January 1922 and his death in September 1933, Roberts spoke twenty-one times in General Conference. (Or so by my count after going through the archived conference reports from those years.) Roberts did not touch directly on the Book of Mormon each time he spoke at General Conference, but whenever he did mention the Book of Mormon or the early events of the Restoration, he never once intimated any doubts or uncertainties about them:
- In the October 1922 conference, Roberts discussed the prophetic promises of the Book of Mormon concerning the land of promise and Zion in the latter-days. “The Lord made certain promises in ancient times concerning the land of Zion—North and South America,” Roberts said in his address. “That is the information we get from our Book of Mormon.”
- In the April 1923 conference, Roberts expounded on the title page of the Book of Mormon. “[N]otwithstanding all these testimonies of the New Testament scriptures,” said Roberts in his sermon, “God brings forth a new volume of scripture, the Book of Mormon, which we are learning to call the American scripture, the word of God to the ancient inhabitants of this land of America.”
- Six months later, in the October 1923 conference, Roberts focused some of his remarks of the Book of Mormon. “The great outstanding thing in the Book of Mormon is the fact of the visit of the Redeemer to the inhabitants of this western world, and the message of life and salvation that he delivered here; the Church which he brought into existence, the divine authority which he established here in the western world.” As Roberts went on to explain, “This is what makes the Book of Mormon of so much importance—it is a new witness for God and Christ and the truth of the gospel. These things being true, makes the advent of the Book of Mormon into the world 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.”
- In the April 1924 conference, Roberts used the Book of Mormon to combat what he feared were the creeping influences of secular biblical scholarship. Referring to Nephi’s “very great visions concerning the life and the mission of the Christ, before he came in the flesh” (1 Nephi 11–15), Roberts named “the Book of Mormon, the record of the Nephite people, and the revelations of God in this new dispensation, clearly recognized in the Doctrine and Covenants, and also in the Pearl of Great Price” as “records [which] would establish the truth of the record of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb of God” (that is, the New Testament).
- In the October 1925 conference, Roberts delivered an address in which he focused on “three great utterances constitute the message of ‘Mormonism’ to the world” on the nature of God and humankind’s relationship with the divine. “The first comes from a fragment of the teachings of the prophet Moses, found not in musty tomb or ruined temple, but revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith before this Church of ours was six months old [Moses 1]. The second comes from a revelation from God to him, in the year 1833 [D&C 93]. The third contribution comes from our Book of Mormon, and is the contribution of sleeping nations once inhabiting the American continents, a message through their prophet leader to the modern world, and a contribution to the modern world for its enlightenment. How splendid all that is!” (This talk would go on to be republished in January 1926.7)
- In the October 1926 conference, Roberts exulted over the recent purchasing of the David Whitmer farm. “I rejoice that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is gradually gathering into its control the sacred places where great historical events happened,” said Roberts at the time. In his remarks, which were republished later in the Improvement Era (see below), Roberts thrice referred to the Book of Mormon as a “translation” or having otherwise been “translated” by Joseph Smith, spoke at length on the importance of the Book of Mormon witnesses, and told of his experience interviewing David Whitmer in 1884.
- In the April 1927 conference, Roberts reported on his missionary work in the eastern United States. In his report, Roberts spoke of his interactions with a Messianic Jew and stressed the importance of the Book of Mormon (which he called a “translation”) as a witness to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ (see below). He expounded on the doctrinal importance of the book’s title page, which, he reminded his audience, was “not [Joseph Smith’s] composition” but rather was “engraven on the title page of the gold plates.” Regretting that he had “taken more time than [he] should have done” with his lengthy sermon, Roberts nevertheless considered “these matters of sufficient importance to have entered upon the record of this conference. . . . I cannot but regard the opening that has come to us in the Eastern States to furnish material by which we may approach our cousin Judah with the message of the Book of Mormon, as an opening of the way by the inspiration and power of the Spirit of the Lord.
- Later that same year, in the October 1927 conference, Roberts recalled “the pleasure” he took in “standing upon the summit of the Hill Cumorah in company with President [Heber J.] Grant.” He remarked, “Being there upon that height of land, which so splendidly commands a view of the whole surrounding country, I could not refrain from recalling the time when Moroni stood upon the crown of that hill with the evidence of the ruins of the civilization of his people about him.” Roberts continued, “And this warning, written in the Book of Ether, let me say, in closing, comes from the prophet of God who was also the historian of the great Jaredite nation, by abridging and translating their history into the Nephrite language. This warning comes, then, from the historian of one civilization that had perished about the Hill Cumorah; it came also from the same man who was a witness of the destruction of the civilization of his own people at the same place. I hold that he was competent to speak upon this question, and it is most fitting, and is one of the evidences of inspiration, in this Book, that one so competent to speak in warning should be chosen to be God’s mouthpiece in warning this great Gentile nation, holding dominion over the land in our day, to beware of their course lest they, too, forfeit their rights to the pride of place they occupy among the nations of the earth. For great as our nation is, it is not above the powers of destruction if it observes not the conditions upon which it may hold its position upon this land.”
- In a lengthy April 1928 conference address, Roberts spoke on the important teachings preserved in the Book of Mormon; teachings that, according to Roberts, “would have been lost to the world but for the bringing forth of the Nephite scriptures, the American volume of scriptures.” This included, most importantly, “the testimony of the scriptures of the western continents—the Book of Mormon—in relation to the resurrection of Christ. What a wonderful testimony that book contains for the thing that is celebrated this day throughout Christendom, namely, the resurrection from the dead of our Lord the Christ!” In this same sermon Roberts also gave his endorsement Anthony W. Ivins’ comments on the Book of Mormon—calling them “a very important contribution, not only to this conference, but to the literature of the Church”—and recalled his youthful debates with a sectarian critic of the Church in which he, Roberts, defended the book.
- In the October 1928 conference, Roberts expanded on “a number of the early revelations that were given in the Church about the time of its organization and the publication of the Book of Mormon,” including those which had been “given . . . to brethren who had rendered some assistance to the Prophet in bringing forth the Book of Mormon.”
- In an April 1929 conference address (the same address, mind you, that Brigham D. Madsen claims somehow shows signs of Roberts backsliding on his faith in the Book of Mormon), Roberts provided commentary on the ninth Article of Faith, which stresses the importance of ongoing revelation in the Church of Jesus Christ. Within this specific context Roberts began his sermon, “One of the things that has greatly delighted me in this conference has been the prominence given to the Book of Mormon and to the importance of it as a means of acquainting the world with that system of truth for which we stand. But the passage from our articles of faith just repeated reminds me that the Book of Mormon is only one out of very many things that may aid us in this work of making God’s message known to the world.” Roberts then related how as a missionary in the South he worked with a confused investigator who did not know how to make up her mind about the Book of Mormon because she was being fed anti-Mormon literature by her local pastor. (A tale as old as time.) But, Roberts related, once she gained a testimony of the Doctrine and Covenants, she was able to make up her mind about the Book of Mormon being inspired. Roberts concluded his anecdote by affirming, “The Book of Doctrine and Covenants stands unquestioned as to its authorship, and I wish to express a belief that there is evidence of inspiration in it equal to that of the Book of Mormon.” Incidentally, Roberts also took the opportunity in this sermon to affirm the value and inspiration of the Pearl of Great Price. “If the world but had the Pearl of Great Price, and the knowledge it conveys, it would shed a penetrating light upon all the scriptures that our Christian friends acknowledge, and make known the truth of God.” Contrary to Madsen’s bizarre misreading of this sermon, Roberts made it clear that “[t]he Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price are prized by [the Latter-day Saints] above all other books.”
- On the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Church, in the April 1930 conference, Roberts affirmed his testimony of the Restoration, in part, thus: “The Church of Jesus Christ has again, and for the last time, been set up and made the depository of God’s truth and the fulness of it and has been given the mission of proclaiming that truth and the fulness of it to every nation and kindred and tongue and people. . . . The Record of Joseph in the hands of Ephraim, the Book of Mormon, has been revealed and translated by the power of God, and supplies the world with a new witness for the Christ, and the truth and the fulness of the Gospel.”
- In his final address delivered before his death in the April 1933 conference, Roberts referred to the Book of Mormon as “that precious volume of scripture” which spoke of “[the] word of the Lord from the Nephite race” that America was a choice land (quoting Ether 13:2). “This is recorded in the Book of Ether,” Roberts remarked, “which Moroni translated and added to the compilation made by his father.” Besides this, Roberts drew his listeners’ attention to “two great prophecies in the Book of Mormon,” namely: (1) “the witness which the Book of Mormon bears to the divinity of the Christ, affirming that he is the Son of God, . . . affirming that he is the Savior of the world, and . . . bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel”; and (2) “prophecies concerning the great Gentile nation that should rise and which would scatter the children of Israel upon the face of the land, and yet, afterwards, be touched by the spirit of pity and concern which would lead them to seek the preservation of the inhabitants of the land; that the seed of Joseph, so wonderfully gathered here and developed into a multitude of nations, should not be utterly destroyed, but should be preserved, and that, too, by this great nation that should be such an instrument in scattering them in the earth.” These, Roberts affirmed, makes the Book of Mormon a “new American witness for God” and “one of the most valuable books that has ever been preserved, even as holy scripture.”
Keep in mind that these are Roberts’ General Conference addresses and sermons that specifically touched on the Book of Mormon. In other talks that he delivered in the 1920s and early 1930s (such as his October 1929 and April 1932 addresses), Roberts also spoke glowingly of both current Church leadership and Heber J. Grant’s prophetic predecessors.
B. H. Roberts’ Published Works Between 1922–1933
Roberts continued to publish (and republish) both books and articles in the last ten years of his life. Below are a selection of publications relevant to the present discussion.
In January 1924, Roberts published “Christ in the Book of Mormon: His Appearance on the American Continent” in the Improvement Era.8 The text had been prepared by Roberts for the “Cumorah Conference” on September 23, 1923, although it was not read by him on that occasion. As might be guessed by the title, the purpose of the article was to explore the Book of Mormon’s testimony of Christ’s appearance to the ancient Nephites and the prophetic teachings of Nephite prophets concerning Christ. Throughout the article, Roberts takes at face value the prophetic passages of the Book of Mormon concerning the coming of Christ, as well as the historical existence of the Jaredites and Nephites, the latter being deemed “the ancient people of America” by Roberts.9 He concludes by affirming,
Thus the risen Christ visited the Western world, made known himself unto them; made known to them God’s plan for man’s salvation; taught them the fulness of the gospel; organized his Church among them; and gave them the same moral and spiritual laws that he had given to the people of the Eastern lands—placed them in the way of salvation; and the Church, so established, reaped a rich harvest of souls through a golden age of some three hundred years; then came departure from the way of righteousness, apostasy from God, wreckage of civilization, anarchy, ultimate barbarism!10
One month after the appearance of “Christ in the Book of Mormon” in print, Roberts penned “Destruction of Ancient Nations in America.”11 In this piece, Roberts begins, “Two nations, with two distinct civilizations, occupied America in ancient times, and both had been destroyed before the arrival of the Europeans who came toward the close of the fifteenth century.”12 The two nations in question were the Jaredites and the Nephites of the Book of Mormon. The point Roberts wished to make by highlighting these two ancient nations was that the United States of America occupied a precarious position if it did not live up to the prophesies of Ether 2 and 3 Nephi 16. “And if that proud nation [the USA] will not observe these two things, then woe be unto it, for its doom is sealed, its fate is fixed. It will be destroyed, even as the other nations have been destroyed which occupied the land before it—the Jaredites and the Nephites.”13
During the October 1926 General Conference, Church president Heber J. Grant “announced that President Brigham H. Roberts, of the First Council of Seventy and of the Eastern States mission, had been ‘authorized to purchase, and had succeeded in purchasing, the Peter Whitmer farm, where the organization of the Church took place. The deal has been closed, and we are now the owners of the place where the Church was legally organized, April 6, 1830. The farm consists of about one hundred twenty acres of land.’”14 In his remarks on that occasion, as reprinted in the Improvement Era two months later, Roberts went on the record as “rejoic[ing]” over the acquisition because that sacred place could now be added to the Church’s other recently acquired historical sites. Roberts mused on “the conference that was held at the Hill Cumorah in 1923, celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the revealed existence of the Book of Mormon,” and “rejoice[d] that we have the Joseph Smith Farm, the farm on which the prophet toiled in his boyhood, and where some of the important revelations of God were given to him.”15 The acquisition of the Whitmer farm was also a cause for celebration, since, as Roberts put it,
It was to this home that the Prophet Joseph, his wife Emma and Oliver Cowdery, were brought by David Whitmer from Harmony, Pennsylvania, and were received as guests; and where the Prophet completed the translation of the Book of Mormon. As soon as it was completed, the prophet, by messenger, sent the glad word to his parents living at their home in Manchester township, and they with Martin Harris immediately repaired to the Whitmer home, where the prophet took the step necessary to obtain the testimony of the Three Witnesses. That testimony was received in a grove that then existed either on or near the Whitmer farm. . . . [T]there [they] supplicated the Lord with the result that they beheld the plates and the engravings thereon, and they heard the voice of God proclaim that the translation was true, and he commanded them to bear witness of it to all the world.16
“Ramah-Cumorah in the Land of Ripliancum”
In February 1928, the Church closed on a deal to purchase “482 acres of land, in addition to the 97.5 acres they already owned, which included almost all of the Hill Cumorah and much of the surrounding land.”17 A month later, Roberts published an article in the Deseret News on “the sacred depository of the record called the Book of Mormon.”18 The book he described as having been “engraven upon gold plates by the Prophet Mormon, who might well be considered the chief historian and compiler of historical records of the ancient Nephite people, descendants of the tribes of the house of Israel inhabiting America;” the depository as the “sacred hill both in ancient times and in modern days as the depository of many sacred Nephite and Jared records.”19 This “sacred hill,” Roberts argued, was the hill Cumorah of Mormon 6 and the hill Ramah of Ether 15. “How fortunate it is that the Church has possessed herself of so many of the sacred places connected with the coming forth of the new dispensation of the gospel in these last days!” Roberts enthused at the end of his article. This included “the birth place of the Prophet” in Sharon, Vermont, “the Smith farm near Palmyra, New York, where tradition retains clearly knowledge of the ‘Sacred Grove’ . . . and where the translation of the Book of Mormon began,” and now also “the Hill Cumorah . . . the sacred depository of the Jared and Nephite records, including the Book of Mormon gold plates given to Joseph Smith to translate for the enlightenment of the world.”20
Shortly after, in May 1928, Roberts published an article in the Improvement Era on missionary work.21 After referring to the First Vision as the beginning of “the work of God . . . in the dispensation of the Fulness of Times,” Robert went to discuss the importance of the Book of Mormon:
This revelation [i.e. the First Vision] was supplemented by the revelation of, and the bringing forth of, the Book of Mormon, by which a veritable cloud of new witnesses was brought forth to testify of the same truths as found in the Old and New Testaments, which, in the aggregate, make up the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially certifying to the resurrection of Jesus, and of all men; also setting forth the gospel as the power of God unto salvation. To the truth of this new volume of scripture God raised up three special witnesses, besides the first, lo whom was shown the original plates of the record by the power of God; to whom also God testified of the truth, and commanded them to witness it unto the world. Later also God commanded these three witnesses to search for and find other witnesses among the believing disciples of the new dispensation, even twelve, to become the Twelve Apostles of the new age of dawning faith, that they might be sent into all the world with the great message of the fulness of the gospel restored. And this was done.22
One of Robert’s final articles to appear in print before his death was a short appreciation for Joseph Smith.23 In it, Roberts categorized “three broad sources from which may drawn an account of the Prophet and Seer of the New Dispensation,” namely:
“First, the testimony of those who knew him and received him at his own full-face value of himself—his zealous disciples; Second, Those to whom he has an enigma—a mystery, that they confess themselves unable to solve; Third, His out and out opponents—his enemies; those who esteemed him more than a heretic, more than a false prophet, whom the world would be well served by being rid of, no matter how, and whose works they would utterly destroy—whom they would gladly see cast into hell!”
Where did Roberts place himself in these three categories? “Frankly I confess myself to be of the first class,” he wrote. In other words, he was
one who believes in him, accepts him as a Prophet of the Most High God, inspired as no other man has been inspired to establish God’s truth in the world; one who believes in him without reservation. To me he was a mighty spirit which made him one of God’s “great,” and “noble,” and “good” intelligences in his own right, by the very nature of him; he was perhaps, second only to the Christ, the Son of God, in that spirit estate preceding earth-life. To this spirit, great, and mighty, and strong, God gave in addition, authority and inspiration which made him of a quick and mighty understanding.
“There let him stand enshrined for me,” Roberts declared. “To me and for me, he is the Prophet of the Most High, enskied [sic] and sainted! So let him forever stand.”24
New Witnesses for God
Arguably, next to his History of the Church, Roberts’ three-volume series New Witnesses for God is his most important noteworthy and important scholarly contribution. The series made an impassioned, sustained argument for the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as, well, new witnesses for the living God’s reality and existence. The first volume in the series appeared originally in 1895 and made a case for the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith.25 The second and third volumes appeared fourteen years later in 1909 and focused on the Book of Mormon.26 Besides rebutting objections, Roberts put forth positive arguments for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and the inspiration of its translation.
New Witnesses for God was tremendously popular and stayed in print even after Roberts’ death in 1933. (The copy of the physical set I own was printed in 1950.) A second edition of volumes two and three of the series appeared in print in 1926. “This [second] edition,” wrote Roberts in October of that year in the preface, “is practically uniform with the first edition.”27 So evidently Roberts did not feel the need to make any substantial revisions to his argument for the Book of Mormon at that time despite the events of 1922. The first edition of all three volumes are available online (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3). Since the two editions are “practically uniform,” what readers encounter in the first edition of the series is going to be essentially the same in the second edition printed in 1926. Take a look at what Roberts was arguing for the Book of Mormon a good four years after he presented his “difficulties” to Church leaders in 1922. Note especially how he uses or discusses Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews in volume 3.28
Outlines of Ecclesiastical History
Another one of Roberts’ important contributions was Outlines of Ecclesiastical History. Originally published in 1893, Outlines had two stated purposes: first, “to sustain the position taken by the church of Christ in the last days,” namely, that the Christian world was in apostasy and a restoration was needed and indeed had been accomplished under Joseph Smith; and second, “to teach the principles of the gospel.”29 Like New Witnesses for God, this volume proved to be popular among Latter-day Saints. It went through five editions, the last of which appeared in print in 1927. Part IV of Outlines (“The Restoration of the Gospel”) is especially germane to our present discussion. In it, Roberts takes Joseph Smith’s canonical 1838 history at face value and retells the early events of the Restoration with nary a hint of skepticism. Speaking of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, Roberts writes (quoting from the fifth edition),
The angel informed Joseph of the existence of the Book of Mormon, a record engraven upon gold plates, giving an account of the ancient inhabitants of the American continent and their origin. He said, also, that it contained the everlasting gospel as taught by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants of this Western hemisphere. Deposited with the record was a Urim and Thummim, consisting of two stones fastened in silver bows, attached to a breast-plate. The Lord had prepared this instrument for the purpose of translating the record. A vision of the hill where the sacred plates were hidden was given to the prophet.30
Roberts goes on in this section to describe the Book of Mormon as a “translation” of an “ancient record.”31 It is, in his words, “an abridgment made from more extensive records kept by the ancient civilized people of America.”32 He highlights the testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses of the plates and gives an analysis of the structure and content of the Book of Mormon with the given that the book is both ancient and inspired and that readers can know this for themselves by applying the promise found in Moroni 10:4–5.33
Roberts prepared The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology (TWL)—his unpublished magnum opus—primarily between 1927–1928, but revisions extended well into 1932. Subjects explored by Roberts in this tome include:
philosophy, cosmology, astronomy, natural law, metaphysics, intelligence, pluralism, intergalactic communication, ethics, theology, revelation, prophecies about Jesus Christ, world religions, ancient civilizations, the Creation, paleontology, prehistoric man, the origin of Adam and Eve, the Fall, biblical history, the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ, baptism, the sacrament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the commandments of God.34
As Welch explains, “This work is significant as a formative effort to synthesize into one coherent whole all that Roberts considered to be main Latter-day Saint gospel doctrines, together with related implications drawn from anything else that was known about the cosmos, where we came from, why we are here, how God reveals truth to people on this earth, how people have fallen away from God’s light, and how the atonement of Jesus offers the way back to eternal life and exaltation.”35 How did Roberts treat the Book of Mormon in what was intended to be his comprehensive synthesis of Latter-day Saint theology? “The teachings of the Book of Mormon were still central to Roberts’s theological understanding and remained so throughout his writing of TWL.” Indeed,
Roberts maintained his faith in the Book of Mormon [in the course of writing TWL]. . . . He was firmly convinced of the truth of all the principles of the restored Church. . . . [In TWL] he frequently and unequivocally referred to the Book of Mormon in terms such as an “ancient” volume of American scripture (21, 152, 259) or as a book that “contains the revelations of God to the ancient inhabitants of America” (275).36
Comprehensive History of the Church
On the occasion of the Church’s centennial anniversary (April 6, 1930), Roberts revised and republished his articles that had appeared in the American Historical Magazine from June 1909 to July 1915. A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands as one of the most vital contributions in Latter-day Saint historiography.37 Although it is now superseded by such historical enterprises as the Joseph Smith Papers Projects, Comprehensive History of the Church is nevertheless a monument to Roberts’ historical acumen and an important milestone in Latter-day Saint historiography.
In what Roberts frankly acknowledged was, in part, an apologetic publication,38 the first volume in the six-volume series covered the early history of Joseph Smith and the history of the Church up to the Missouri Mormon War of 1838. Chapters 7 through 14 of the first volume narrate the coming forth, “translation” (Roberts’ consistent word), and publication of the Book of Mormon. What’s more, Roberts provides an analysis of the structure of the Book of Mormon (which he calls “an abridgement . . . of larger records of the ancient inhabitants of America”39), highlights the “witnesses to the divine origin of the Book of Mormon”40 (the Three and Eight Witnesses) and responds to anti-Mormon arguments made against them,41 and, for good measure, lists both “internal” and “external” evidences that he found compelling for the book’s authenticity.42 By “external evidences” Roberts means “the testimony of American antiquities” that demonstrate the book’s historicity.43 Roberts lists seven such categories of evidence (ruins in Central America, Native American lore and legends, etc.). “It is not insisted upon that the evidences which American antiquities afford are absolute proofs of the claims of the Book of Mormon,” Roberts concedes. But, he adds, they do demonstrate a “tendency of proof [that] is united with the positive, direct external testimony which God has provided in those witnesses [the Three and Eight Witnesses] that he himself has ordained to establish the truth of the Book of Mormon.” This “tendency of proof” was in Roberts’ view “very strong, and is worthy of most serious attention on the part of those who would investigate the claims of this American volume of scripture.”44
The “Falling Away”
Two years before his death, in 1931, Roberts published The “Falling Away”; or The World’s Loss of the Christian Religion and Church.45 The book consists of the published versions of sixteen discourses Roberts delivered between March 10 and June 30, 1929. As might be guessed by the title, this volume sought, like Outlines, to demonstrate the apostasy or “falling away” of the Christian world and the need for a restoration. Roberts’ fourteenth discourse covers the Restoration. In this section, Roberts describes various incidents that constituted the restoration of the gospel and includes both the First Vision and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon in this grand scheme:
The Book of Mormon was revealed and brought forth [as part of the recovery of the gospel]; the American volume of scripture, which revealed the knowledge that the gospel of Jesus Christ was had among the ancient Americans; that the resurrected Christ visited them and established his truth and church.46
“For my own part,” Roberts continued, “I thank God for [Joseph Smith’s] message. I am grateful that this cause of the New Dispensation into which I have put my heart.”47 The claims of Joseph Smith, Roberts declared, were “sustained by the facts and prophecies of scripture, by the testimony of history, [and] by the force of reason!”48
One year before his death, Roberts published Rasha—The Jew.49 The work emerged out of a series of articles Roberts’ wrote and published in the magazine Redeemed Hebrew in 1926.50 These articles were directed to “a fictional (or at least pseudonymous) rabbi named Rasha” and “reviewed key [Latter-day Saint] doctrines of deity, Christology, and the Book of Mormon as a new witness for the divinity of Jesus.” They were revised and republished in 1832 and “for several years [served] as a proselyting tract for use with Jewish prospects.”51
The portion of Rasha that interests us here is chapter five, which includes a twenty-page discussion on the Book of Mormon.52 In it, Roberts argued that the Book of Mormon fulfilled important prophecies about the scattering and gathering of the house of Israel. To punctuate the inspiration of the book’s prophecies, Roberts stressed its antiquity. For instance, referring to the prophecy in 2 Nephi 30:3, Roberts commented,
The latter part of the closing sentence making reference to the American Indians, descendants of the ancient enlightened Israelites whence they sprang, and among whom this prophet Nephi who is writing this Prophetic Page in about the sixth century before Christ, and revealed, and sent forth to the world by Joseph Smith, in March 1830.53
B. H. Roberts—Ex-Mormon Role Model?
The burden of proof now rests on those who wish to portray B. H. Roberts as a closeted unbeliever.54 The published and publicly spoken words of Roberts from 1922 to the time of his death in 1933 are emphatically not the whimpering of a distraught, unsure man racked with doubt. To be sure, Roberts privately expressed frustrations that he felt “stumped” with the Book of Mormon “difficulties” he encountered in his studies and that his concerns were met with either indifference or silence from Church authorities.55 But this is not the same as Roberts being a closet doubter. Not by a long shot. “Roberts’s deeply ingrained commitment to scholarship made him a ‘disciple of the second sort’ who was always open to new information and willing at least to entertain new ideas and suggestions,” observes Allen.56 “This did not mean that Book of Mormon ‘problems’ convinced him that the book was not what Joseph Smith said it was. It only meant that he was willing to look at every possible challenge while maintaining his long-time convictions.”57
At this point, let me take a moment to point out what should now be obvious. Despite John Dehlin’s best efforts to gaslight his audience, B. H. Roberts is not some ex-Mormon role model. Not only is there is no evidence that Roberts lost his faith in Joseph Smith or the restored Church of Jesus Christ, there is, as we’ve seen above, in fact abundant evidence to the contrary. After 1922 and 1927, Roberts repeatedly and publicly declared his testimony and argued for the inspiration and authenticity of Joseph Smith’s scriptural texts. So if Roberts did secretly lose his faith in 1922 or 1927, he lied about it and continued to publicly advocate for the divinity and historicity of the Book of Mormon, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith, and the inspiration of the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was, in this scenario, intellectually dishonest to the highest degree. Perhaps he was, as Dehlin ludicrously tried to claim about another eminent Latter-day Saint historian, merely in it for a paycheck and the social clout. After all, Roberts’ books continued to sell well during his lifetime and he remained a General Authority until his death. Perhaps after losing his faith pure avarice and narcissistic vanity motivated Roberts to continue writing and speaking positively for the claims of Joseph Smith. But is that the kind of person ex-Mormons want to gleefully claim as one of their champions and role models? Such a person is not a bold, brave truth-teller, but rather an intellectually bankrupt, morally decrepit impostor.
There is a much more parsimonious explanation for all this that does not require the absurd contrivances of barely literate podcasting hucksters. That explanation is that Brigham Henry Roberts was a faithful, committed Latter-day Saint throughout his life. He was not, as Brigham D. Madsen and other members of the mid-twentieth century Mormon intelligentsia have tried to portray him as, an Elias for the type of pseudo-Mormon historiographical and theological naturalism and skepticism that pervaded their own thinking. And he certainly was not, as Dehlin has tried to claim, “a high-level Mormon General Authority [who] lost his faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon.” To suppose Roberts was some kind of proto-Redditor who would have found an intellectual home among the likes of John Dehlin or Jeremy Runnells is the absolute pinnacle of nonsense.
As shocking as this might sound to bigots who suppose members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are nothing but unmindful, unthinking, uneducated, uncritical, and unaware simpletons, there has, in fact, been a rich intellectual tradition in the Church, with many Latter-day Saints who have asked hard questions while also remaining committed to their faith.
- Gary James Bergera, ed., The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1990); Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1980).
- Brigham D. Madsen, “Introduction,” in B. H. Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Urbana and Chicago, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 20–21.
- B. H. Roberts to Richard R. Lyman, October 24, 1927, in Roberts, Studies of the Book of Mormon, 59.
- Madsen, “Introduction,” 29; cf. “B. H. Roberts’ Studies of the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26, no. 3 (1993): 77–86.
- Robert’s April 1929 General Conference address that Madsen cites (“Introduction,” 29) does not in the slightest indicate that Roberts lost his faith in the Book of Mormon. See the discussion below.
- Truman G. Madsen, “B. H. Roberts and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 19, no. 4 (1979): 427–444; “B. H. Roberts and the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 7–32; “B. H. Roberts after Fifty Years: Still Witnessing for the Book of Mormon,” Ensign (December 1983); John W. Welch, “B. H. Roberts: Seeker After Truth,” Ensign (March 1986); Daniel C. Peterson, “Yet More Abuse of B. H. Roberts,” FARMS Review of Books 9, no. 1 (1997): 69–86; James B. Allen, “The Story of The Truth, The Way, The Life,” in B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, 2nd ed., ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1996), 687–691.
- B. H. Roberts, “God the Father’s Purposes in Creation,” Improvement Era 29, no. 3 (January 1926): 230–237.
- B. H. Roberts, “Christ in the Book of Mormon: His Appearance on the American Continent,” Improvement Era 27, no. 3 (January 1924): 188–192.
- Roberts, “Christ in the Book of Mormon,” 190.
- Roberts, “Christ in the Book of Mormon,” 191.
- B. H. Roberts, “Destruction of Ancient Nations in America,” Improvement Era 27, no. 4 (February 1924): 288–292.
- Roberts, “Destruction of Ancient Nations in America,” 288.
- Roberts, “Destruction of Ancient Nations in America,” 291.
- “The Peter Whitmer Farm,” Improvement Era 30, no. 2 (December 1926): 174–179, quote at 174.
- “The Peter Whitmer Farm,” 174.
- “The Peter Whitmer Farm,” 175–176.
- Cameron J. Packer, “Acquiring Cumorah,” Religious Educator 6, no. 2 (2005): 43.
- B. H. Roberts, “Ramah-Cumorah in the Land of Ripliancum,” Deseret News, March 3, 1928, section 3, p. viii; reprinted in A Scrap Book, Volume I, comp. Lynn Pulsipher (Provo, UT: Pulispher Publishing, 1989), 277–286, quote at 277.
- Roberts, “Ramah-Cumorah in the Land of Ripliancum,” 277.
- Roberts, “Ramah-Cumorah in the Land of Ripliancum,” 285–286.
- B. H. Roberts, “The ‘Mormon’ Missionary,” Improvement Era 31, no. 7 (May 1928): 547–551.
- Roberts, “The ‘Mormon’ Missionary,” 549.
- B. H. Roberts, “Joseph Smith—An Appreciation,” Improvement Era 36, no. 2 (December 1932): 81.
- Roberts, “Joseph Smith—An Appreciation,” 81.
- B. H. Roberts, A New Witness for God (Salt Lake City, UT: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1895).
- B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, II: The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: The Deseret News, 1909); New Witnesses for God, III: The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: The Deseret News, 1909).
- B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, II: The Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: The Deseret Book Company, 1909), 8.
- See for example chapter 32, section 3; chapter 34, section 7; chapter 39, sections 3 and 4.
- B. H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History (Salt Lake City, UT: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1893), v–vi.
- B. H. Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, 5th ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1927), 301.
- Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, 304–305.
- Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, 307.
- Roberts, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, 305–315.
- John W. Welch, “Introduction,” in Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life, xii.
- Welch, “Introduction,” xii.
- James B. Allen, “The Story of The Truth, The Way, The Life,” 690.
- B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, six volumes (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News Press, 1930). In this post I quote from the 1957 republication of the series done by the Church and Brigham Young University.
- Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:vii–ix.
- Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:114–115, quote at 114.
- Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:134–156.
- Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:150–156.
- Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:172–176.
- Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:173.
- Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:174.
- B. H. Roberts, The “Falling Away”; or The World’s Loss of the Christian Religion and Church (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1931).
- Roberts, The “Falling Away”, 181.
- Roberts, The “Falling Away”, 183.
- Roberts, The “Falling Away”, 185.
- B. H. Roberts, Rasha—The Jew (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company, 1832).
- Madsen, Defender of the Faith, 328.
- Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (Urbana and Chicago, Ill: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 173.
- Roberts, Rasha, 82–102.
- Roberts, Rasha, 83.
- This includes Montezt, “The Secret Mormon Meetings of 1922,” who does not adequately address the arguments of Madsen or Welch despite knowing about them (22n50, 72n169, 151–152), and who does not account for the evidence I have presented in this post.
- See for instance Wesley P. Lloyd, journal, August 7, 1933, reprinted in “Discussion with Bro Roberts Very Interesting,” in The Essential B. H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1999), 359–360. It is unclear where in his retelling Lloyd stops paraphrasing Roberts and starts inserting his own commentary or thoughts on the meeting and Roberts’ description of his unpublished manuscript. See the critical examination of Lloyd’s journal entry in Allen, “The Story of The Truth, The Way, The Life,” 688–691.
- The reference to “disciples of a second sort” comes from Josiah Royce (1855–1916), whom Roberts quoted approvingly. B. H. Roberts, “The Book of Mormon Translation,” Improvement Era 9, no. 9 (July 1906): 712; cf. Josiah Royce, “Introduction,” in John Fiske, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1902), xxxvii–xxxviii. See also the reflections in Terryl L. Givens, “Apologetics and Disciples of the Second Sort” (2019 Neal A. Maxwell Lecture).
- Allen, “The Story of The Truth, The Way, The Life,” 690.