Scholar advances to next great stage

Admirers, family pay tribute to 'eccentric' professor

PROVO, Utah — Hugh W. Nibley, the iconic professor whose voluminous research, writings and lectures on ancient scripture influenced generations of scholars in the Church, was honored March 2 by family, friends and admirers at what Elder Dallin H. Oaks called "his graduation exercise from mortality."

Brother Nibley, 94, died Feb. 24 at his Provo home of causes incident to age.

Elder Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve, who presided and spoke at the funeral in the Provo Tabernacle, was one of four General Authorities seated on the stand, all of them current or former presidents at BYU, where Brother Nibley spent the bulk of his career. The others were Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Merrill J. Bateman of the Presidency of the Seventy and Elder Cecil O. Samuelson of the Seventy, current BYU president.

Elder Holland read a message to Brother Nibley's widow, Phyllis, and their family, from the First Presidency. "Throughout his long and fruitful life, Brother Nibley demonstrated his love for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon," the First Presidency wrote. "He will be long remembered for his scholarly research and his varied contributions to religious studies. We are confident that your family members will take comfort in the quality of his life and the memory you share of his abiding love for his family and his testimony of the gospel."

The presidency expressed gratitude for Brother Nibley's service as a missionary and in the various auxiliaries of the Church, noting that his book, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, was at one time part of the Church's official curriculum. "We also acknowledge with gratitude his significant leadership at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies," they added.

In his address, Elder Oaks recalled that he was a student of Brother Nibley at BYU in 1954, saying, "His impact on my intellectual horizons was enormous."

"Professor Nibley was the first eccentric I ever met, and his example gave me a lifelong appreciation for the wonderfully diverse way our Creator distributed talents and spiritual gifts. As I experienced his incredible brilliance and knowledge, I also observed his humble indifference to appearance and other worldly things. He sometimes came to class with trousers and coat that did not match, and he often wore the two-buckle combat boots that were standard issue to the foot soldiers of World War II, then recently concluded."

Elder Oaks said funerals should focus on the future as well as the past. "The work of the man we honor here makes it easy for us to focus on the future," he said. "The nature of his historical inquiries caused Hugh Nibley and his students to think of the big questions, those mighty matters that have greatest meaning for the future. That is what we do in temple worship, a major preoccupation of Brother Nibley's scholarship. "

In embracing the truths of scripture, Brother Nibley "changed the way Latter-day Saints think about many things. For that proposition I need only cite a few of many examples, including his Approach to the Book of Mormon, which many of us studied in our priesthood classes in the 1950s, and such other classics as his Improvement Era series, 'Lehi in the Desert' and his inspiring advocacy of the Restoration in The World and the Prophets."

Elder Oaks described Brother Nibley's lecture style as "short bursts of unfinished fragments, as if he were always hurrying on to the next step, always in search of something more important than the present. He dealt with the present, but his principal concerns were always with what was timeless. Now he has broken the barrier of time and hurried on ahead. Now he has experienced some of the things he always sought. For those of us who considered ourselves his students, he is still leading the way."

Also speaking at the funeral was John W. Welch, a BYU law professor who was a close friend of Brother Nibley and a colleague in the founding and leadership of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies. He spoke of Brother Nibley's "articles of faith," among them, that he believed in the Godhead. "He rejected Augustine's speculative creation and trinitarian theology, commenting wryly, 'Here, certainly, is a place where revelation would have been helpful.' "

Brother Welch said his friend believed men will be punished for their own sins and not Adam's transgression. "He saw to the depths the Plan of Salvation and wrestled to the ground the terrible questions of where we came from, why are we here and where are we going."

Seven of the Nibleys' children spoke in turn, each giving tender tribute to and sometimes sharing humorous memories of their father.

"Oh, how I loved my father!" exclaimed Rebecca Nibley. "He was my hero. He was the smartest, funniest, wittiest, wisest, silliest, man I knew."

Zina Nibley Petersen said, "I've always known that he never doubted that death was the next great, and infinitely better, state of his existence than this life." She said he probably regretted that he wasn't there physically to "put the fun back in funeral. So I'll do a little bit for him." With that, she donned her father's rumpled fedora, to the delight of the congregation.

Paul Nibley said his tribute and final gift to his father was the coffin in which his body was laid. Constructed of Douglas fir, redwood and pine, it was replete with symbols that bespoke his father's academic career and immense knowledge.

Among those presenting musical selections was Brother Nibley's brother, Reid, renowned in his own right as a piano soloist.

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