In 1932, LDS Church authority and theologian B.H. Roberts resigned himself to never seeing his magnum opus published during his lifetime. He died a year later, and drafts of his controversial treatise on Mormon theology sat in the LDS Church archives - until Friday.
Two versions of Elder Roberts' "The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology" rolled off the presses this week. Neither version is an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Both are priced at $25.95, and each contains theories of pre-Adamites and other material that created heated debate among LDS Church hierarchy in the late 1920s. Over the years, tales of the controversy created a certain theological and historical mystique in the manuscript - although some of Elder Roberts' scholarly sources and theories are now outdated and of little consequence.
The 800-page books were the topic of conversation Friday in the halls of the Olympia Hotel, where the Mormon History Association is holding its annual gathering through the weekend.
"People are excited to see it," said John Sillitoe of Benchmark Books, which was selling the version published by Smith Research Associates, a Mormon history research concern in San Francisco.
"Each provides a different source for the scholar," said Ron Dixon, a California attorney clutching a copy of the Smith version and an order form for the version published by BYU Studies, which publishes Mormon historical documents and a quarterly magazine from Brigham Young University.
Elder Roberts, considered one of Mormondom's most noted intellectuals, was a self-taught theologian and a prolific writer. "The Truth, The Way, The Life" was his final masterpiece, merging his religious convictions with scientific knowledge of the day. The massive treatise focused on the importance of divine revelation, God's plan of salvation, the life of Jesus Christ, Christian character and ethics, mixed with cosmology, paleontology, intergalactic communication and other topics.
Coming out more than 60 years after it was written, the book's controversial history has sustained a certain mystique in the previously unpublished manuscript.
Elder Roberts was a member of the church's First Council of the Seventy for 45 years. According to an essay BYU history professor James Allen wrote for the BYU Studies version, when Elder Roberts was released as president of the Eastern States Mission in 1927 he requested a six-month leave, during which he dictated the unprecedented volume.
"I hope to incorporate within its pages a full harvest of all that I have thought and felt and written through the nearly fifty years of my ministry, that is, on the theme of the title," he wrote to his church superiors in a letter suggesting his work be used as a priesthood instruction manual.
But a reading committee appointed among the church's Council of the Twelve found problems with some of Elder Roberts' positions. The most divisive issue was Elder Roberts' belief that the Earth was populated by pre-Adamites - a civilization destroyed by a cataclysmic event followed by the arrival of Adam and Eve to "replenish" the earth.
Elder Roberts' chief critic was Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who became president of the church in 1970. Neither would back down from his view, and the church's governing First Presidency declined to adopt either man's position.
"Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the church," the First Presidency wrote.
Elder Roberts said removing any of the objectional parts of his book would destroy "the very genius and purpose of my work," so it never was published by the church. During the dispute, he threatened to publish his work privately but never followed through. Following Elder Roberts' death in September 1933, his family gave the 2,500-page manuscript, consisting of three drafts, to the church, along with his personal library.
Versions of how, why and when the manuscript was released for publication this year vary. But according to interviews with editors and writers involved in the separate printings, the first publishing request among the current players was made by BYU law professor John Welch in the mid-1980s. He was working on a book about Roberts' studies of the Book of Mormon.
In 1992, a copy of the third draft of the manuscript was donated to the University of Utah library by U. law professor Edwin Firmage. He received the copy from his grandfather and former counselor in the church's First Presidency, the late Hugh B. Brown.
It was a dream come true for research librarian, historian and B.H. Roberts buff Stan Larson, who worked in the library's special collections section. "I had heard about it all my life, and when the opportunity came I worked on it in all my spare time - at lunch, at home, on the bus," he said.
Larson presented his proposal to publish the book at a Roberts family reunion last July. There were no objections, he recalled. But some in the family preferred a church-published version rather than private version, said grandson Richard Roberts, a history professor at Weber State University, who contributes an essay in the BYU Studies version.
"A few in the family wanted it to be more accepted by the church, so we approached the church, and it went from there," he said, noting other Roberts' descendants backed Larson.
Meanwhile, Welch was appointed editor-in-chief of BYU Studies in 1991 and continued pushing for church permission to publish the manuscript. His request was granted in August.
Although the copyright to the BYU Studies version belongs to the LDS Church, the book is not a church publication, Welch said.
Both Welch and Larson described their roles as editors, trying to preserve what Elder Roberts wrote while helping readers understand the context in which the book was written. It was a monumental task, illustrated in both volumes by extensive footnotes, bibliographies, indices and with essays from noted historians and scholars explaining Roberts and his times.
BYU Studies is also making available - for $175 per set - facsimilies of Elder Roberts' three original drafts of the book.
"This kind of complete publication breaks new ground in the world of church documentaries," Welch said, referring to the facsimiles.
Both editors anticipate a period of comparisons and critiques of the two versions.
"It will be interesting to have the benefit of several independent assessments of this extensive theological work, and a double honor for Elder Roberts," Welch said.