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So who's 'apologizing' in Mormon apologetics?

Hugh Nibley was, without question, the foremost apologist for Mormonism during the second half of the 20th century. B.H. Roberts was almost certainly the greatest Mormon apologist of the first half.

Some might ask why professor Nibley felt any need to "apologize" for Mormonism. But, if they do, they misunderstand the word. Latter-day Saints don't use the term apologetics very often, so they can be excused for thinking it a trifle strange. But our Protestant and Catholic fellow-Christians use it a great deal; it has a long and honorable history, and it's solidly useful. As the unabridged Webster's dictionary puts it, apologetics is simply "systematic argumentative tactics or discourse in defense (as of a doctrine, a historical character, or particular actions)."

In a very real sense, anyone arguing for or against any position is engaged in apologetics, especially when such a person is defending a viewpoint against criticism.

That means most of us do "apologetics" pretty frequently, without knowing that we're doing it — much the way Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain was delighted to find out from his philosophy tutor that, completely unaware of it, he had been speaking prose all his life.

Evolutionists defend their theories against creationists; liberals defend their positions against conservatives; carnivores defend their views against vegetarians; atheists defend their atheism against the arguments of theists. (Fans of the Yankees have no defense.)

But the term apologetics is most often reserved particularly for religious issues, and it was on such questions that Hugh Nibley distinguished himself. He did so in a remarkably large body of writing — his collected works, published by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, number almost 20 volumes at this point — and with remarkable learning, insight and wit. Happily too, although he died very nearly five years ago, more volumes are on their way, including his final work, titled "One Eternal Round," on the Book of Abraham.

Why the need to defend? Attacks on the claims and character of Joseph Smith and on the restored gospel go back to, and beyond, the very beginning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Abner Cole, for instance, published one of the first printed criticisms of Mormonism in his Palmyra Reflector in September 1829 under the pseudonym of "Obadiah Dogberry, Esq." (The Book of Mormon wouldn't actually appear, and the church wouldn't actually be organized, for roughly another seven months.)

Subsequently, Cole stole the typeset at E.B. Grandin's press, where the Book of Mormon was being printed, and published the first few chapters of "Jo Smith's Gold Bible," as he called it. When Joseph Smith confronted him to point out that the text was protected by copyright, Cole grew angry and sought a fight. Joseph refused, but, plainly still hostile, Cole began shortly thereafter to publish a satire of the Book of Mormon, to which he gave the odd name "The Book of Pukei."

In February 1831, the prominent Scots-American preacher Alexander Campbell published an attack on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon titled "Delusions." By 1834, the first anti-Mormon book, Eber D. Howe's "Mormonism Unvailed" (sic), came from the press. These two items still stand in many ways as the spiritual and intellectual ancestors of virtually every anti-Mormon publication for the past 176 years — originality hasn't been a notable quality in such materials — and a swollen, turbid river of anti-Mormon books, pamphlets, films, newsletters, Web sites, seminars, lectures, sermons, Sunday school curricula, radio broadcasts, tabloids and television programs has flowed ever since.

"Though argument does not create conviction," the English theologian and philosopher Austin Farrer wrote, praising the great Christian apologist, scholar, and writer C.S. Lewis, "lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows that ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish."

Hence the need for defense. Hugh Nibley would have celebrated his 100th birthday on March 27. His legacy, however, continues, in his writings and in the many people whose lives he influenced — including a sizable contingent of scholars who seek to continue in the path he pioneered.

Daniel Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the author of several books, including a biography of Muhammad, and numerous articles on both Islamic and LDS subjects.

e-mail: daniel_peterson@byu.edu

More online

To read coverage of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute's weekly lecture series at BYU honoring the centennial of the late professor Hugh W. Nibley's birth, go to MormonTimes.com. Click on "Studies & Doctrine," then "doctrine discussions."