The Return of 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. Roberts did the same with Nelson.

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)

2 Responses to The Return of the B. H. Roberts Cabal

  1. I’ve used materials by and about all four men on Keepa because their writings resonate with me. I discovered Pack and Nelson on my own; at least, I don’t recall their names ever coming up in the standard church histories, but only in the materials I’ve found by poking around on the shelves and in the early magazines. I’m reading an NLNelson book right now.

    They’re evidently pretty cool in my view, too.

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