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Truth stimulates gospel scholar: Hugh Nibley regards teaching as 'pure missionary work'

Conversing with Hugh Nibley is not an experience to be taken lightly. The venerable historian approaches philosophical matters with the boldness and skill of a surgeon approaching a scalpel for the thousandth time.

And he doesn't shy away from pounding on the table for emphasis.A case in point is when Nibley, 79, is discussing the Book of Mormon, and he explains how a certain confusing passage will often become startlingly clear.

"Suddenly," he declared recently, hammering his fist, "you'll have something pop out as the only answer to a very important question. I mean it hits you with that sort of effectiveness.

"And the Book of Mormon is packed with things like that," he emphasized. "It just knocks you off the Christmas tree, and it will stun you for days."

So will Hugh Nibley.

For more than 40 years, the preeminent gospel scholar has been sharing his brilliant insights with gusto, writing articles from 1948 to 1970 for all but six issues of the Improvement Era, the forerunner to the Ensign. These writings and others on ancient scripture have been combined into 20 volumes.

A Nibley protege, Dr. Jack Welch, founding president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S.) and editor of Nibley's collected works, said his former teacher is driven by a desire to proclaim the gospel.

"Here's a man with the intellectual skills and innate genius that could have taken him anywhere in the world," Welch said. "But he has always been more interested in being a `door keeper' in the House of the Lord, than mingle with the top brass anywhere else."

Nibley eschews the trappings of ambition, success ladders and wealth. Rather than seek professional success, Nibley sought to stay in his office in the Harold B. Lee Library, where he continues his research and reading. He was reluctant to be interviewed, suggesting that the Church News "wait a few years until I do something." This sincerity is genuine, friends say.

But conversing with Hugh Nibley is no easy task. His mind is filled with such a vast data bank of information that he startles the listener with scholarly insight, and then overwhelms with complex analysis. He moves from one point to another and from subject to subject with great rapidity, both fascinating and frustrating the listener.

"That's why I'm such a poor teacher," he explained. "I talk much too fast, and I can't slow down no matter how much they plead with me."

But he loves to teach, calling it pure missionary work. And missionary work is "sort of an obsession" for Nibley. He can't help but bring up the gospel when working with his peers.

"You just can't get the gospel out of my system," he explained.

If not for his experiences as a full-time missionary in Germany, Switzerland and Greece, he might have become an astronomer. It was there that he became interested in history.

"I saw many of the people's ideas about the past were totally cockeyed, and scientists were a dime a dozen," Nibley remembered. He then devoted himself to studying historical records, and graduated summa cum laude from UCLA, later receiving a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.

His education did much to prepare him for his scholarly research of the Book of Mormon, but other events also opened doors to the work that was to be ahead. While teaching at Claremont College in California before World War II, he befriended a learned Arab.

As a youth, his friend had traveled with Bedouins. He provided Nibley with first-hand insight into Middle Eastern wars and desert customs, and taught him proficient Arabic as well.

A similar occurrence helped him become fluent in Russian. During World War II, he had been a liaison for the military with the Russians. Back in Salt Lake City after the war, he was interested in pursuing his study of the language, but could find no one with whom to practice.

One day, Nibley related, he was standing on a street corner, and a man said hello. "Then he started to speak to me in Russian," recalled Nibley.

The man, a Ukranian, was looking for a place to stay, and it so happened so was Nibley. They decided to stay together, with Nibley offering to pay the man's rent if he would speak only Russian. Nibley also agreed to pay 2 cents for every word of English he used and 1 cent for every Russian mistake.

"He kept very careful track of that," Nibley noted with a twinkle. "And I learned Russian very rapidly."

Later, while teaching at BYU, he felt prompted to go back to Cal-Berkeley and study Egyptian. Within a week, Nibley received a letter asking him to spend a year at Berkeley as a visiting associate professor in classical rhetoric. He moved his wife, Phyllis, and their family of eight children to the Bay Area of California.

Classical languages are still a fascination for the near-octogenarian. Last year Nibley began studying a 570-page book on Late Egyptian grammar as his "bed-side reading," and claims it was "the biggest excitement I've had in a long time."

Recently, he's also launched into a serious study of the Book of Mormon, something he hadn't done for years.

"I found this sudden drive to get back into it," he explained. "And it all came back with a rush. I know it now better than I ever did before. I am just beginning to get a glimmering of how really great it is, and what a miraculous piece of editing it is."

The ability to search spiritual terrains and discover the wealth hidden beneath the surface is Nibley's special gift, said Welch. Nibley's research on the Book of Mormon is filled with insight "that the rest of us don't have the data bank to uncover."

As Nibley shares his Book of Mormon research with a new generation of readers, he hopes they realize "that it's true and that we're not kidding, that there's real substance behind all this, and that Joseph Smith did not make all this up.

"The gospel is real," he declared.