Any study of history must be tempered with a healthy dose of context. It is not fair to impose 20th century standards on 15th century actions, for example, or judge events of the 1930s by attitudes of the 1990s.
Context is what the BYU Studies team hopes to bring to the life and times of B.H. Roberts by now publishing his final manuscript.Roberts, a charismatic and popular LDS general authority from the time he was called as one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1888 until his death in 1933, was one of the foremost scholars and thinkers of his time. He is probably best remembered for his "Comprehensive History of the Church," published in 1930 and still considered one of the best treatments of the subject. Many of his other articles, books and pamphlets were read, published and used as study materials by various Church organizations. But the work that Roberts considered his magnum opus was not released during his lifetime.
"The Truth, The Way, The Life," or TWL as it is called throughout the introductory essays, was an ambitious undertaking. The list of topics dealt with (as compiled by John W. Welch in his introduction) includes 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, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, baptism, sacrament, Sermon on the Mount and the commandments of God.
Roberts attempted to reconcile science and religion, to provide definitive answers for the faithful and compile a unified work that would serve as a reference manual.
It was a noble attempt, but it did not entirely succeed. The problem, points out Welch, is that Roberts was right on many points, wrong on some and obsolete on others. His theories on status and fate of what he called pre-Adamite races, in particular drew criticism from other leaders of the church. What it came down to was that neither side would alter its views, and TWL went unpublished.
So, why bring it out now? "TWL is to Roberts' lifework on doctrinal topics what his `Comprehensive History of the Church' is to historical studies," notes Welch. "Although TWL's style and content are in some respects seriously dated, the work as a whole is engaging, imaginative, energetic and interesting in many ways."
He also points out: "Those readers who will likely be most excited by this publication are scholars or students particularly interested in the intellectual history of the Church. For them, this work is a gold mine. Detecting the real issues that Roberts is addressing (his problems are not always our problems, and his problems are not always readily apparent), sorting out the internal coherence and extensive interrelatedness of his arguments, hearing the cadence of his rhetoric (often this work must be read aloud to be understood - it is oratory on paper), noticing the limits of his logic (his frequent assertion of things that are "un-doubtedly true," and his fluid shifts from logic into emotion), and discovering many other fascinating exercises in analysis and appreciation will challenge even the most astute reader of this work."
Along with Welch's introductory essay, a number of other essays show exactly the kind of mining that can take place. Contributing authors include Davis Bitton, Gary Layne Hatch, Doris R. Dant, Truman G. Madsen, David L. Paulsen, William E. Evenson, William J. Hamblin, David Rolph Seely, Andrew C. Skinner, Richard C. Roberts, Michael D. Rhodes and James B. Allen. They analyze various aspects of TWL, such as Roberts' use of rhetoric; his attitudes toward women; and the science, theology and philosophy expressed in his work.
One of the essays of most interest to the general reader is Allen's recounting of the story behind TWL, and it seems as if this one would work better leading off the introductory section, rather than at the end of it.
A bit more on the tenor of the times - the political, intellectual and scientific climate of the 1920s - would also have been nice. This is touched on briefly in Welch's essay, but could have been expanded.
But overall, the essays do a pretty good job of setting the stage for TWL itself, enabling the reader to proceed with more insight and more care and perhaps a bit of caution.
TWL has many fine points - the faith, the sincerity, the eloquent passages, the wide range of interests we have come to expect from B.H. Roberts. But perhaps its greatest value more than a half-century later is that it shows the evolutionary process of thought, the ongoing search for reason and truth, the dynamic rather than static approach to doctrine that is sometimes missed when you are in the middle of it, but can be clearly viewed when you step outside and take a look. TWL lets us do that.