By Study and Also by Faith  >  A Doorkeeper in the House of the Lord

A Doorkeeper in the House of the Lord

A Doorkeeper
in the House of the Lord

W. Welch

Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

tribute to Hugh Nibley on his seventy-fifth birthday, presented in the
Wilkinson Center, Brigham Young University, preceding the premier screening of
the motion picture
The Faith of an Observer: Conversations
with Hugh Nibley.

The last person in the world who is
interested in celebrating Hugh Nibley’s seventy-fifth birthday is Hugh Nibley.
He has never asked for such a thing; he avoids recognition like the plague. In
complete candor, he faithfully describes himself as follows: “I have
always been furiously active in the Church, but I have also been a
nonconformist and have never held any office of rank in anything. I have
undertaken many assignments given me by the leaders, and much of the work has
been anonymous: no rank, no recognition, no anything. While I have been
commended for some things, they were never the things which I considered most
important. That was entirely a little understanding between me and my Heavenly
Father which I have thoroughly enjoyed, though no one else knows anything about
it. . . . I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord than mingle
with the top brass in the tents of the wicked.”

Many similar words come to mind as
others try to describe him. His life is a rare combination of faith and
scholarship, of teaching and research, of orthodoxy and eccentricity, of rigor
and homily, of spontaneity and tedium, of anonymity and legend, of an
intimidating genius with a genuine humility. “Who is Nibley?” many
visiting scholars have asked.

He is sincerely comfortable thinking of
himself as a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord. He loves the temple and the
gatherings of the Saints and would rather be there than anywhere else. His
scholarly and religious endeavors over the past four decades have posted him at
important portals through which Mormon generations will pass for years to come.
His prolific writings have distilled the comings and goings of millennia of
human traffic. With a watchman’s panoramic vision, he sees the span of social
and intellectual developments from Enoch and Abraham, to Peter and Paul, to
Joseph and Brigham. He paces the halls of human knowledge, sometimes charting
the territory with great detail, other times simply unlocking doors that lead
down passageways others will be exploring for years to come.

Hugh Nibley was born March 27, 1910, in
Portland, Oregon. He was perceptive and preceptive from the beginning. His
experiences in the natural environment of pristine Oregon awakened in him an
enduring sensitivity to mankind’s stewardship over the earth. Memorizing much
of Shakespeare led him inexorably to the study of Old English, then Latin, then
Greek, then Arabic, and on and on. For Hugh Nibley, one profound thing has
always led to another.

After serving in the Swiss-German
Mission and carrying out a special assignment in Greece, he completed his A.B.
in history at UCLA, graduating summa cum laude in 1934. Although he was born
into wealth, the family fortune evaporated in the Great Depression, leaving
Hugh to struggle for books and graduate-school tuition. He was a university
fellow at the University of California at Berkeley (1936-1937), where he earned
his doctorate in 1938, studying with such luminaries as the great Semitist
William Popper. His dissertation, entitled The
Roman Games as the Survival of an Archaic Year-Cult,
was composed in three

Following an appointment as lecturer in
social philosophy at the Claremont Colleges in Pomona, California, and after
several intense years of service as an army intelligence noncommissioned
officer in World War II, he dedicated his promising academic career to the
service of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the behest of
John A. Widtsoe, Hugh Nibley joined the history faculty at Brigham Young
University in 1946, leaving — as Robert Thomas has put it — the “‘glory
that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome’ [for] the modesty that was

He and his wife, Phyllis, became the
goodly parents of eight fine children. Their home has been a haven. Its doors
have always been open to numerous students and family friends. Their family
life has been filled with music, lively discussions about drama and literature,
archaeological excursions, the arts and sciences.

He was promoted to the rank of
professor of history and religion in 1953. His academic career has been
punctuated with a visiting professorship at Berkeley (1959-1960), where he
lectured on ancient rhetoric and studied Coptic; with a trip to Jordan in 1964,
where he examined the Dead Sea Scrolls; and with advanced studies in Egyptian
at the Oriental Institute in Chicago in 1966.

His publications over the past forty
years cover a wide range of topics, including ancient history, politics,
classics, education, science, Egyptology, early Israel, the Apocrypha and
Pseudepigrapha, Christian origins, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price,
temples and temple worship, Church history, society, and the gospel. Though he
considers it spiritually irrelevant, most of his nearly two hundred titles are
classics. A good synopsis of his academic interests can be gleaned by scanning
a few of these titles, which include No
That’s Not History (1946);
“The Arrow, the Hunter and the State” (1949); Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites (1952); The World and the Prophets (1954); An Approach to the Book of Mormon (1957); “Christian Envy of the Temple” (1959-1960); “How to
Write an Anti-Mormon Book” (1962); “The Expanding Gospel”
(1965); Since Cumorah (1967); “Brigham
Young on the Environment” (1972); “What Is Zion?” (1973); “Beyond
Politics” (1974); The Message of the
Joseph Smith Papyri:
An Egyptian
(1975); “The Early Christian Prayer Circle” (1978); “Patriarchy
and Matriarchy” (1980); Abraham in
(1981); and “Work We Must, but the Lunch Is Free” (1982).
All the while, he has carried on voluminous correspondence, magnified his
distinctive calling in life as Church teacher and speaker, and has been a major
contributor to Church magazines over the years — often on short notice
and under considerable pressure from publication deadlines.

 His works are characterized by several
unmistakable traits. He harbors an urgent sense of placing immediate priority
on eternal values. He knows that the door is about to close, that time is
running out, that money is not worth it, that the extreme situations involving
total extermination of nations in the Book of Mormon are relevant for our day
— and for him all these realizations trivialize many pedantic projects
and issues. He is relentless in his examination of documents and in providing
abundant documentation. His curiosity is inexhaustible. He still feeds his
memory a steady diet of vocabulary cards. Discoveries constantly amaze him. His
writings often draw parallels or offer new characterizations that others have
failed to perceive. His interests are usually ahead of their time. He
incisively exposes the shortcomings of scientific absolutism and the
fundamental flaws of gospel detractors and zealots. His works are typically
bold and daring, challenging but reassuring, resourceful and creative,
innovative if not revolutionary, sensitive and insightful.

Still, he does not take himself at all
seriously. Repenting and giving thanks are the things he thinks he does best.
He sees his learning as forever tentative, incomplete, and accumulating. Once
discovered, his innovative insights are so painfully obvious that it is hard
for him to see why he had not noticed them before. He willingly describes
himself as a buffoon, and from time to time as a frustrated fiction writer,
waiting for the real scholarship to begin.

As a university community and as a
people, we owe an immeasurable debt to Hugh Nibley for his unique contributions
to our lives. His work has changed us all. “Few students can talk
coherently about their first class from Hugh Nibley,” observed his former
academic vice-president. For many, it has been viewed as a necessary “rite
of passage,” while for others it was an electrifying baptism in the waters
of ideas and ideals. Hugh Nibley’s manner of speech — tempered hyperbole
— instills an extraordinary sense of vitality. His unfailing
encouragement to students to satisfy their own curiosity — not his
— is the kind of faith that has moved many inert cerebral mountains.

 In a word, Hugh Nibley is no ordinary
doorman. But then, as far as that goes, he doesn’t stand by ordinary doorways