The B. H. Roberts Cabal…….

The 19th century produced some prominent thinkers in Mormonism. But the 20th century also had its share. One particular group (I use the term in a loose sense) was what I choose to call the “B. H. Roberts Cabal.” Roberts himself was not entirely self taught, but he trolled the waters of intellectualism in his day and in some respects sought to show Mormonism consistent with or even ahead of the science and philosophy of the times.

Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933) was a general authority, a member of by far the most colorful group of LDS church authorities, from its inception in 1835 until it became enfolded into the correlated church in the 1970s: the presidency of the Seventy. A fascinating group from the start, they seemed to go their own way. Seven presidents for one (usually non-existant) quorum. The unusual bureaucracy seemed to cultivate some real individualists.

Roberts’ church assignments at the opening of the 20th century included getting the “History of Joseph Smith” published in book form. In the process, Roberts found a number of reasons to stir the theological pot of Mormonism. Along the way, Roberts found his own theological ground and shared it in a number of ways with other Latter-day Saints. In the process, Roberts gained an informal theological following among some public Saints. This group, never really meeting as a formal organization as far as I know, but clearly following Roberts’ lead on cosmological/theological issues included

1. Nels Nelson (1862-1946). A BYU professor, Nelson had a wide ranging mind and was a devoted follower of BYU legend Karl G. Maeser. Nelson found Roberts’ explanations of the whys and wherefores of Mormonism to his liking (and v. versa) and found occasion to repeat them in his own speeches and publishing.

2. F. J. Pack (1875-1938). University of Utah geologist, Pack found Roberts’ attitudes toward science refreshing and his theology optimistic. Pack received his Ph.D. degree from Columbia in mining engineering. Pack was a long-time advocate for strict obedience to the Word of Wisdom and was one of the first to question whether Mormons should drink Coca Cola(!) That right there makes me wonder about him.

3. John A. Widtsoe (1872-1952). Born in Norway, Widtsoe was educated at Harvard and Gottingen. His specialty was scientific agriculture. Widtsoe taught at Utah State University, Brigham Young University and the University of Utah where he was president of the university from 1916-1921. Widtsoe became an LDS apostle in 1921.

Nelson, Pack and Widtsoe gave informal Mormon firesides and other gatherings where many of Roberts’ theological views on Mormon cosmology were interwoven in the discussions. This group had no real contact with each other in terms of purposeful theological discussion and teaching. They just shared many of the same ideas. And people pointed this out many times in letters (often critical of one idea or another) and personal interactions.

The dynamics of this group are interesting, and they all more or less shared a bit of modernist – anti-fundmentalist bent. The files of Widtsoe and Roberts have these wonderfully interesting letters from Idaho and Arizona from Latter-day Saints who were trying to make sense of science and theology and more especially the Robertsian views of Joseph Smith’s ontological claims. Widtsoe did this wonderful “institute” -like class at USC post 1921. What a great idea.

It was a time similar in many ways to the early 19th century, when science was viewed by many American Protestants with a friendly eye, as kind of a co-conspiritor in bringing the Millennial era to pass.

So what’s the point? Mainly that these guys played some role in how Latter-day Saints viewed some of the funeral sermons of Joseph Smith. The B. H. Robers cabal. I like it.

This group created a back-water of opposition which survived well after they were all dead. At my uncle’s funeral 15 years ago, his son-in-law, an ex-seminary teacher, made a point of taking a swat at the Roberts’ cabal and their shared cosmology. That makes them pretty cool in my view. (grin)

About these ads

9 Responses to The B. H. Roberts Cabal…….

  1. I have had at least one post about each of these men at Keepa — although I’ve never thought of them as a “group” (not sure I like the word “cabal”), I must like ‘em too!

  2. W. V. Smith says:

    What can I say Ardis, great minds think alike?

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Excellent stuff. I thought it was intriguing that in his last years when reflecting on the men he had worked with in Church service, President Hinkley singled out Widtsoe. As a scientist, I can’t help but look back with fondness on the time when Talmage, Widtsoe, Lyman and others were called to the Apostolate.

  4. Matt W. says:

    I thought it was Widtsoe’s Wife, the dietician, who started the Coca-Cola proscription..

    I’ve always been curious of what personal interaction Widtsoe and Roberts had.

  5. Jacob J says:

    The passing of this cabal seems to me to mark the end of an era in Mormonism as the B.H. Roberts cabal was replaced by the Joseph Fielding Smith II cabal.

  6. W. V. Smith says:

    J., Jacob, I think we shall never see their like again, in the sense that such soaring flights of interpretation are now left to what may be the only heir. The bloggernacle. (grin)

  7. W. V. Smith says:

    Matt, Pack was pretty early in his thing about coke. Around 1904 or 5 I think.

  8. BHodges says:

    Fun post, thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers

%d bloggers like this: