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MormanityFrom The Truth, The Way, The Life: The Truth about the Way B.H. Roberts Viewed the Book of Mormon at the End of His Life
by Jeff Lindsay
Critics often claim that a famous LDS general authority, intellectual, and prolific defender of the faith, B.H. Roberts, lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon after investigating its weaknesses, including evidence that it was a modern creation based on other works available in Joseph Smith's day.
This conclusion is based on writings from the early 1920s in which he explored the arguments that critics might make. Though incisively written and developed at length, he clearly explained that this was a case of playing devil's advocate to help the Church prepare for future challenges and did not reflect his personal beliefs:
Let me say once and for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine.
This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a “study of Book of Mormon origins” for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it.
I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it. (Letter to President Heber J. Grant dated March 15, 1922, as cited by McKay V. Jones, "Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony," FAIRMormon.org, emphasis by M.V. Jones.)
His personal beliefs after that exercise can most accurately be gauged by his magnum opus, The Truth, The Way, The Life, a book which he spent many years preparing and which summarized his lifetime of learning and experience in matters of faith and theology.
This book was unpublished at his death because he refused to tone down some sections related to evolution (the existence of "pre-Adamites") that worried other leaders in the Church.
Now that the book has been published, though, we can evaluate where he stood on the Book of Mormon, and the result is unquestionable and undeniable: he firmly believed it was an ancient record of a real people in the ancient Americas, preserved on gold plates, delivered to Joseph Smith through the ministry of an angel, and translated by the power of God by a true and living prophet.
The Book of Mormon in his view was a powerful witness of the reality of Jesus Christ and contained a powerful, "thrilling" account of his visit to the ancient Americas.
Those who claim B.H. Roberts secretly lost his testimony do not know B.H. Roberts and have ignored his statements about his devil's advocate Studies of the Book of Mormon, and more importantly, have ignored his subsequent magnum opus. To perpetuate the claim that he lost his testimony is now inexcusable.
Here are some excerpts from Robert's crowning work, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1996).
From my perch here in China, I only have access to the Kindle edition and so my reference to page numbers is problematic. Where page numbers are given, I have found statements from others citing the passages; please let me know if any are in error.
Excerpts from B.H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life
In Chapter 47, "Renewal of 'The Way," Roberts examines various witnesses, ancient and modern, of the Restoration. He treats the Book of Mormon as a genuine witness from an ancient people, with no hint of a decayed testimony. (On Kindle, this section begins about 64% through the book; p. 469 ff.)
The second vision of the New Dispensation: The Book of Mormon revealed. Three years after this first revelation an angel of God named Moroni was sent to the Prophet to reveal the existence of an ancient volume of scripture known as the Book of Mormon, a book which gives an account of the hand-dealings of God with the people whom he brought to the continents of America from what we now call the “Old World.”
(a) The Jaredites. The first colony came from the tower of Babel at the time of the dispersion of the people from the Euphrates Valley; they were called Jaredites, after their leader, named Jared. They occupied the land located in the southern part of Central America and founded a nation which existed for about sixteen centuries, and then were overwhelmed at last in a series of wars which ended in their complete destruction, on account of their great wickedness. This about 600 b.c.
(b) The Nephite colony. It was about the time of the destruction of the Jaredites that a small colony was led from Jerusalem, under divine guidance, to the western continents, where they too developed into a great people and into national life.
This colony was made up of Israelites of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, and later augmented by a second small colony made up of Jews. They continued in occupancy of the land — chiefly in North America — until about 400 a.d.
Then came their destruction because of their rebellion and wickedness against God. They lost touch with faith and righteousness until their civilization was overthrown, and they survived only in the tribal relations such as existed at the advent of the Europeans.
(c) Summary of the book and its translation. This record discloses the hand-dealings of God with these ancient people through the prophets and teachers God sent unto them, and also gives the account of the visits of the risen Christ to them, the introduction of the fulness of the gospel by his ministry, which established a true church of Christ in the western world, with all the principles and the ordinances of the gospel necessary to salvation. Therefore it contains the fulness of the gospel.
In this record God has brought forth a new witness to the truth of the things whereof the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament and the New also bear witness. Thus an angel came bringing the everlasting gospel which is to be preached to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.
This American volume of scripture, God’s new witness to the old truths of the everlasting gospel, Joseph Smith was commanded to translate, and was given the power and means by which he could translate the unknown language of these ancient American peoples.
The “means” provided was a “Urim and Thummim.” This consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow, a divine instrument used in ancient times for obtaining knowledge from God. This instrument for translation was found with the gold plates on which the above record was engraven.
Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, and through a century now, it has been published to the world. It is translated into fifteen of the world’s languages.
Here Roberts is unequivocal. There is no struggle to find faithful words to spin something he doesn't believe in. There is no trace of vague statements about what Joseph "felt" or "imagined" his writings might reflect, no suggestion that he applied his imagination to craft inspiring stories, no equivocation about finding uplifting power in inspired fiction.
Joseph was visited by a real angel, was given a genuine record from an ancient people, and was given divine power to translate. The result is scripture, authentic ancient scripture from ancient prophets and a powerful witness of Christ.
Earlier in the text, Roberts has this to say about the Boo of Mormon's witness of Christ (about 54% through, according to Kindle; p. 395):
The testimony of the Book of Mormon. Also in the Book of Mormon is given a most dramatic and soul-thrilling testimony to the resurrection of the Christ by the appearance of the risen Redeemer to a multitude of people in America, shortly after the resurrection of the Christ; for to the people of America, no less than to the people of the Eastern hemisphere, did God give assurances through their ancient prophets from time to time of the existence of his gospel and of its power unto salvation; and lastly the risen Christ came to them to assure them of the verities of the plan of salvation and especially of this feature of it, the resurrection from the dead, by his own glorious appearance among them, and his quite extended ministry among them.
Here the resurrected Christ according to the Nephite record, descended out of heaven and appeared to the multitude, proclaiming himself to be the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world; and the multitude blessed the name of “the Most High God,” “And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him” (3 Ne. 11:17).
Assurance of the resurrection. No incident in the gospel history is more emphatically proven than this great truth, the resurrection of the Son of God, and the promise of the resurrection of all men.
The Nephite record is part of the evidence that makes the resurrection of Christ one of the most "emphatically proven" truths in the scriptures. This is not the thing that a closet doubter would write, especially a frank and strong-willed man like B.H. Roberts.
Other statements from Roberts again support his appreciation of the Book of Mormon. For example, regarding the sacrament prayers in the Book of Mormon, he writes (53% through the book):
These prayers of consecration, are the most perfect forms of sacred literature to be found. So perfect they are that one may not add to them or take ought from them without marring them.
He then explores at length the meaning and the power of the sacrament prayers. Clearly, he finds the literary value of these items in the Book of Mormon to be extraordinary. His previous ramblings about the weak-minded author of the poorly crafter Book of Mormon fraud have no place in his personal beliefs.
This is a man who finds intellectually satisfying beauty in the Book of Mormon, a man who shows no doubt when he declares: "More consistent is it with right reason — which is but intelligence in action — to accept the light-giving and inspiring thought of the ancient American Scripture — the Book of Mormon..." (23% through; p. 165).
Further insights can be found in the editor's remarks from John W. Welch (emphasis mine):
Indeed, not knowing what we as editors would encounter in the manuscripts of TWL [The Truth, the Way, the Life], I was surprised to find that TWL pointedly and repeatedly asserts the antiquity of the Book of Mormon. While such affirmative statements may seem unremarkable, it is precisely their routine orthodoxy that makes them so notable.
Coming from one of the great intellects of the Church, whose views about the Book of Mormon supposedly became more intellectually sophisticated in his last years, these unequivocal statements will disappoint anyone who has imagined Roberts as a closet doubter or late-in-life skeptic.
TWL especially reveals how Roberts felt about the Book of Mormon after he wrote his “Book of Mormon Study” in 1922. That work identified several Book of Mormon problems and called urgently for further study.
Some have seen “Book of Mormon Study” as evidence that Roberts had changed his views on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but readers can now determine that Roberts did not waver in his belief because of that study. In TWL, Roberts describes the miraculous coming forth of the Book of Mormon in strong, straightforward, traditional terms.
For example, he says:
Three years after this first revelation an angel of God named Moroni was sent to the prophet to reveal the existence of an ancient volume of scripture known as the Book of Mormon, a book which gives an account of the hand-dealings of God with the people whom he brought to the continents of America from what we now call the “Old World.” (469)
In addition Roberts affirms that “Joseph Smith was commanded to translate, and was given the power and means by which he could translate the unknown language of these ancient American peoples” (470). TWL contains several statements that necessarily assume the antiquity and literal truthfulness of this ancient American scripture.
For example, Roberts speaks literally of the words that the resurrected Jesus spoke “to the assembled Nephites to whom he appeared on the Western Continent” (482–83; compare 388, 389). Indeed, Roberts believed that “no incident in the gospel history is more emphatically proven than this great truth, the resurrection of the Son of God” (395), and he used as his key witness the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the Nephites (395).
TWL often identifies Book of Mormon prophets by the centuries in which they lived. Lehi, Roberts says, lived “before the birth of Christ, early in the fifth [sic] century, b.c.” (401).
Roberts identifies a prophecy in the book of Alma as “one written near the close of the second century b.c.” (401). Moreover, Roberts goes out of his way to describe the book’s authors as “ancient.”
He calls Lehi “an ancient American Prophet” (75). He cites “revelations of God to the ancient inhabitants of America” (275). He calls the book “the American volume of Scripture,” written by “the old prophets of the ancient American race” (259; see also 21, 152, 263, 275, 427, 445).
He also treats many Book of Mormon passages as the unique, authoritative source of revealed knowledge on important topics. He takes joy in drawing attention to doctrines “derived almost wholly from the teachings of the Book of Mormon” (444). He extols it as a masterful work. Of a Book of Mormon reading he exclaims, “how beautifully clear this principle of purity in thought is set forth” (501).
There is more to say about the relevance of Ethan Smith as a modern source for the Book of Mormon and the other arguments that Roberts considered, but there is one thing we can say with confidence: he did not lose his testimony of the Restoration and the Book of Mormon through his brief investigation into areas of potential weakness in the test.
However, in 1933, Wesley P. Lloyd met with B.H. Roberts, who was Lloyd's former mission president, and then wrote a lengthy journal entry that critics use to argue that Roberts felt the Book of Mormon was not historic and that the plates were just a "subjective" creation of Joseph Smith.
The critics' use of this journal entry is unjustified, as McKay V. Jones explains in detail in "Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony," FAIRMormon.org.
The Wesley Lloyd Journal entry appears to be summarizing what Roberts had argued in playing devil's advocate, calling attention to weaknesses in need of more buttressing. Roberts had expressly rejected the subjective theory before and there is no evidence that he had now been swayed by it.
If Roberts actually mentioned it in that conversation, it would have been in the context of restating the challenges yet to be faced in defending the Book of Mormon — and his position was clearly and long had been that of one that believed in Joseph Smith as a prophet.
Lloyd shows no indication then or later of worrying that Roberts had lost his testimony. Roberts, like many of us apologists, recognized that there are weaknesses and points of attack that demand attention and defense.
Calling for further research, analysis, and even revelation to resolve a current apparent problem is not the same as abandoning faith. Roberts certainly did not abandon the Book of Mormon, and turned to it as an authentic ancient record translated by a real prophet of God when he prepared his great final work on theology, The Truth, The Way, The Life.
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