Reviews – The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts

Brigham H. RobertsBYU Studies, Davis Bitton
Mormons now have a first-person narrative of a significant leader—a narrative that stands on the same level as the autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. Not just anyone who writes an account of his or her life will attract interest beyond the built-in audience of the immediate family. But when you combine a varied life extending over the turbulent decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a colorful personality and a vigorous writing style, the result makes for a good read.

Although Roberts never became president of the Church or a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, he touched the Mormon experience at so many points that his life provides a valuable vantage point for understanding the larger history. Here are some of the rubrics of his life: family conversion and immigration, growing up in a frontier environment, missionary work and defending Mormonism, polygamy, politics, the writing and editing of Church history, and tensions within the growing Church organization. In each of these areas, Roberts was a central, sometimes a noisy, figure.

Like the Pratt autobiography, this one followed a tortuous path before achieving publication. Written in the third person (a somewhat fashionable style since the success of The Education of Henry Adams), the manuscript was dictated in 1933 to his secretary, Elsa Cook, during the closing months of Roberts’s life. That typescript was retyped by daughter Georgia Roberts Livingston. It was the happy idea of Gary James Bergera to do the necessary comparison and collation of these two typescripts, change the third-person narrative to first person, and make corrections and some deletions, as fully explained in the editor’s introduction.

An appreciative foreword has been written by Sterling M. McMurrin, who has long been interested in Roberts. There is some nostalgia for the good old days here:

Where once he [Roberts] was easily the most interesting and exciting and stimulating person in its [the LDS Church’s] leadership, its most prolific writer, its chief theologian and historian, and its most capable defender, today his name is scarcely known to large segments of the membership of the church. He has been eclipsed by a deluge of writers of varying but lesser talent, many of whom lack even the grace to acknowledge their indebtedness to him. (vii)

McMurrin gives a judicious evaluation of Roberts’s strengths and weaknesses as a historian and as a religious thinker. With the intelligence and analytical powers to be always informative, McMurrin, like Roberts, is sufficiently opinionated to be provocative.

Like all autobiographies, this one is selective. Roberts narrates his life from the time of his childhood in England. The father and mother separated but were not divorced. Then the mother and an older sister migrated to Utah, leaving the boy behind to live with a couple who were Church members but “scarcely ideal people for honesty and right living” (10). At one point he ran away, a waif in London reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens.

In 1866 young Roberts, age nine, was sent with his sister Mary to rejoin their mother in Utah. His later memories of the ocean voyage and crossing the plains remind us of how far from idyllic the journey with its human interactions could be. In Utah the boy continued his insecure existence and, growing up, came close to abandoning the standards of his faith. All these experiences are interesting, even inspiring, as he overcame extraordinary obstacles to survive and excel.

As we follow Roberts through his year at the University of Deseret, his service as a missionary and then a mission leader in the Southern States, a mission to England, a term in the Utah penitentiary for polygamy, and participation in Utah politics, there is an abundance of detail. If he ran for the U.S. Congress in 1895, losing a close election and then finding himself in hot water with Church authorities, he explains he ran partly because the impression had been given during the constitutional convention of that year that to prohibit General Authorities from running for office would deprive the state of some of its best minds. If he argued in the convention against female suffrage, he explains he did so originally and primarily on the grounds that such an inclusion might lead to a veto by the president. The extension of suffrage, he argued, could easily be taken care of by legislative enactment after statehood. In telling of his election to Congress in 1898 and subsequent exclusion on grounds of polygamy, he explains why at the time it seemed not at all implausible that he might be allowed to serve. It is good fun to follow our hero through these stormy times, especially as he quotes from various editorials praising him and from some of his own speeches.

There are a few statements that might lead to misunderstanding. His description of the history of Joseph Smith (eventually published as the so-called documentary history) as “merely the publication of the daily joumal he [Joseph] kept during his lifetime” (221) may reflect Roberts’s own assumption, but, as Dean Jessee has carefully demonstrated, it is by no means an accurate portrayal of the original work. When Roberts describes his triumphant verbal victory over opponents such as Orson F. Whitney, he may of course be the soul of disinterested evaluation, but that is not very likely. Throughout, one discerns an assertive personality, determined to put the best face on the life and labors of one B. H. Roberts. Like all autobiography, to a greater or lesser degree, this is an apologia pro vita sua.

Roberts did not lack confidence. He explains how he came to write the six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Recognizing that he may have been a little strong in praise of his own achievement, he manages a feeble disclaimer: “This may seem like much vaunting of praise for the work, but undoubtedly it is the masterpiece of historical writings in the first century of the church’s history” (229). While smiling, we should probably admit that he was right.

But the biggest problem is that of omission. For practical purposes there is nothing here about Roberts’s family life, his wives and children. Some of the controversies in which he became embroiled are passed over briefly or simply ignored. Editor Bergera’s three-page afterward briefly and selectively summarizes the circumstances under which Roberts prepared two manuscripts regarding “difficulties” of the Book of Mormon for private discussion by the Quorum of the Twelve. In the same afterward, we get a brief narrative about the writing of the still unpublished “The Truth, the Way, the Life,” its review by a reading committee of the Twelve, and subsequent discussion regarding the age of the earth. Both of these encounters require (and have received) much more lengthy treatment for adequate understanding. It is not Bergera’s fault if Roberts failed to include something on these and many other topics in the manuscript, of course, but one wonders what Roberts might have done with his autobiography had he lived longer.

The final two chapters are concerned with his presidency of the Eastern States Mission (1922-27), remembered with loyalty and fondness by his missionaries to the ends of their lives, and his effort to defend what he considered the proper role and authority of the First Council of the Seventy.

For a more comprehensive life of Roberts, one still needs to read Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story, which, even with its adulation and omission of some controversial detail, remains the standard treatment. For some topics of interest, articles are the best resource. Other facets of Roberts’s life still deserve study.

Suffering severely with diabetes and other afflictions, increasingly morose and incapacitated, continuing to feel a kind of persecution or lack of appreciation from his brethren, Roberts did not much enjoy his last two or three years on earth. It is to his credit that he managed to avoid a spirit of bitterness. As it stands, his autobiography, with all its deficiencies, is a sprightly, personal account that touches many bases of Mormon history. B. H. Roberts was a grand old warrior and, as Brigham Young would have said, had the grit in him. Right to the end.

Church History, William C. Ringenberg
Should it be possible for a historian who is a member of the Mormon Church and also studies the church to be a critic of the church’s interpretation of its past? The New Mormon Historians answer yes, while the traditional Mormon historians are less certain. The church authorities hold even graver doubts as evidenced, for example, by the recent excommunication trial of former Brigham Young University historian, D. Michael Quinn. This current work is a noteworthy contribution to the developing progressive—or New Mormon—school of Mormon historiography.

Brigham H. Roberts (1857-1933) arguably was the leading Mormon apologist, intellectual, and historian during the second generation of Mormon leaders. He was also an independent spirit—frequently in intellectual conflict with his coreligionists, including the church authorities—and therein lies his attraction to the progressive historians. In his brilliant foreword to this book, Sterling M. McMurrin, long-time professor and administrator at the University of Utah, describes Roberts and the church as follows: “Roberts was the church’s great orator in . . . the days when the church both valued and invited argument and debate. . . . Since his death the church has suffered a steady intellectual decline in matters pertaining to theology, a decline accompanied by a growth or irrationalism and anti-intellectualism” (p. viii). Even apart from its role in the contemporary debate, this book is important in presenting the life—in the subject’s own engaging and forthright manner—of one fo the most neglected of the major figures in Mormon history.

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought
A visit to most any public or academic library in the state will reveal a substantial collection of books or pamphlets written by or about B. H. Roberts, one of the intellectual giants and General Authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most noted and recognized of his works are: A Comprehensive History of the Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and The Life of John Taylor, Third President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps less well known to the reader of LDS Church history and theology are Rasha—The Jew: A Message to All Jews, and Corianton, A Nephite Story. However, missing from book collections has been Roberts’s own autobiography. That is no longer the case. Editor Gary James Bergera has used two extant versions of B. H. Roberts’s autobiography to prepare this autobiography. Sterling M. McMurrin provides a foreword.

The autobiography’s twenty-six chapters cover such diverse events in Roberts’s life as his sorrowful separation from his mother and unpleasant early years spent with Church members in England until he was able to join family in Utah; to his strong views of how the First Council of Seventy should be called and organized within the Church priesthood structure. Roberts presents an honest view of his life, his feelings, and appraisals of his friends and associates. In addition to developing close ties with such Utah characters such as Ben Maynard and Alma “Al” Peterson, Roberts is forthright in his criticism of the way the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve direct and manage the Seventies.

Roberts believed that “history to be of any worth must not only tell of your successes but also of your failures or semi-failures” (p. 228). By Roberts’s own pen and honest editorial pen of Gary Bergera, this autobiography reveals the many successes and failures in Roberts’s life. Roberts admits to failures, including his first marriage. He confesses: “Among the foolish things done while attending school was to contract a marriage without any forethought or scheme looking to the maintenance of that relationship with dignity and reasonableness of successful negotiation with the consequences involved in such relation” (p. 70). All autobiographies should be so honest and forthright.

John Whitmer Historical Journal, John C. Olinger
One of the most colorful second-generation leaders of the LDS Church was Brigham H. Roberts (1857-1933). His autobiography provides a penetrating view of his life, beginning with his family’s conversion to Mormonism in England and ending with his missionary and political activities in Utah. Like many autobiographers, Roberts omits a number of significant events, such as “the deaths of two of his wives and his arguments with church officials” (254). These and other omissions are discussed in detail by the book’s editor, Gary James Bergera.

Roberts’s mother, acting on the advice of church leaders, went to Utah with part of the children while Brigham and a sister waited in England for their mother to send for them. In the meantime he stayed with a drunken Mormon in London and gained an education on the streets. His autobiography chronicles in detail his adventuresome sea voyage to America and barefoot trek across the plains to Salt Lake City. Unable to reunite with his mother because she had married a man with several children, he enrolled in Deseret University and earned the equivalent of a high school education.

Roberts embarked on a political career that was filled with controversy. His opposition to women’s suffrage brought him into conflict with the historian/poet Orson F. Whitney. He was elected to Congress but refused his seat because of his polygamist activities. In his autobiography he devotes great attention to his missionary activities. Historically, he is perhaps best noted for his recovery of the bodies of Mormon missionaries killed at the Tennessee Massacre.

It has been said that there are two types of Mormons: those who accept the church and its leaders without question and those who seek the truth wherever it takes them. Bergera places Roberts in the second category, stating that he had “internal struggles with his own faith, the struggles of a man who wanted to believe and yet be honest” (x).

Bergera uses this autobiography as a context for discussing the problems faced by Mormon intellectuals today. He states that since Roberts’s death “the church has suffered a steady intellectual decline among its leaders in matters pertaining to theology, a decline accompanied by a growth of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism. Perhaps a resurgence of interest in Roberts’s work will point toward a better future” (viii). Since all religion is inherently irrational to the scientific mind, the anti-intellectual stand of any church (including Mormonism) should be obvious. Joseph Smith’s visit from God and Jesus cannot be proved; it can only be taken on faith. Yet the diversity among Mormon leaders assures a continual conflict among the General Authorities over scientific and secular issues. Many of these leaders have tried to crush intellectual dissent.

Except for Bergera’s disappointing decision to transpose Roberts’s book from the original third person into the first person, he has done an excellent job of editing it and explaining its significance to readers who are interested in Mormonism or western American history.

The Provo Daily Herald
In the rough and tumble American west, Brigham H. Roberts (1857-1933) was among the most colorful.

But he was also an intellectual Mormon cleric. In The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts, just published by Signature Books, this controversial Mormon leader recounts his life in his own words, accompanied by a eulogy by Mormon scholar Sterling McMurrin and commentary by editor Gary James Bergera.

Roberts spent his adolescence in Rocky Mountain mining camps with outlaws and rowdies. He became firmly committed to Mormonism on his mission to Iowa where he served without purse of scrip, often deciding to go hungry rather than bear the humiliation of begging.

He served as mission president in Tennessee, where four Mormons were killed at a baptismal service in a Ku Klux Klan-like raid. He also ministered in England, where a police escort was required to protect him from mob violence when he made public appearances.

When Roberts returned from Europe, he ran for public office. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but was denied his seat because he was a polygamist. In many ways, Roberts reflected the sexism inherent in polygamy, spending only one or two weeks per year at home and resenting the burden of a family.

Bergera speculates that Roberts never recovered from the fact that his mother abandoned him for several years when he was young. Roberts lobbied against women’s suffrage when Utah’s constitution was drafted.

Roberts otherwise had progressive ideas for his day. He was opposed to prohibition. He believed that religious beliefs should be submitted to intense scrutiny, which led to his controversial examination of the historical claims of the Book of Mormon and his position that Adam was not the first human on earth.

He often locked horns with other church leaders over doctrinal and political issues. When Joseph Smith’s “King Follett Discourse” was edited from the History of the Church, Roberts had copies published and distributed at his own expense. He also accused his superiors of using their influence to damage him politically.

Despite the orthodoxy of Robert’s mid-life, his autobiography suggests a disillusionment with institutional Mormonism in old age. Roberts believed that his abilities were not appreciated by his brethren. He died fighting the effects of diabetes and depression.

Although this scrappy intellectual was most self-educated, Roberts graduated from the pioneer version of Utah’s first public university, and was well-versed in such authors as Eusebius, Gibbon, Emerson, Macaulay, and Darwin. His own publications included Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, and The Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Roberts’s autobiography was not published during his lifetime because he felt his life was “not of sufficient importance for a biography.” The original autobiography was recently donated by the family to the Marriott Library at University of Utah.

Utah Historical Quarterly, Melvin T. Smith
In the foreword to this book Sterling McMurrin focuses the reader’s attention on the key issues of B. H. Roberts’s life and identifies him as the primary intellect in Mormonism’s second generation. And though he was a man who lived much of Mormon history, Roberts’s own skills and materials were too limited for a definitive effort to explain Mormonism in its broad historical and intellectual setting.

Roberts wrote his Autobiography at the end of his long and illustrious life from the biased perspective of the best-informed student of Mormon history and theology anywhere in the early 1930s, as evidenced by his masterful A Comprehensive History of the Church. His Autobiography thus becomes a history of his history in the Mormon church.

For example, at the age of four years, Roberts was left in England with an abusive Mormon family when his mother emigrated to Zion; however, from them he learned how to survive in a hostile world. There he first heard his “soul voice,” and there he learned first of early Mormon history.

Roberts notes episodes of crossing the ocean, the trip west to the Missouri River, his barefooted trek to Zion, his reunion with his mother, and their abject poverty in the promised land. He would spend three youthful years in the Oquirrh mining camps before he came under a benign patronage that moved him toward his course in life as a scholar, church missionary, and leader.

Once Roberts learned to read, a new world opened to him. He briefly covers these watershed years, noting his studies, the powerful influence of John R. Park, and the impact of the challenging young peoples’ study group, a precursor of the YMMIA. Roberts emerged as a leader wherever intellect and logic came into play.

Readers simply become aware in his Autobiography that he is married. Family life and details seem too incidental for mention, though he notes the influence of Apostle Erastus Snow and his second wife on him, seeing therein for the first time in his life a loving husband and wife relationship. Roberts married a second wife soon afterwards.

Roberts’s first mission call to Iowa came in 1880. He soon moved to the Southern States Mission where he later served as acting mission president while still a very young man. It was he who retrieved the bodies of the three slain elders, including John Gibbs, who had first come to his attention on board ship en route to America. And who but one possessed with a sense of history would have thought to have his picture taken in the disguise he used to get through hostiles to retrieve the elders’ bodies? That picture graces the cover of his Autobiography.

Roberts elected to use the speaker’s podium to present his message. His public lectures and debates began his work of studying and writing to defend his own and his church’s beliefs. In a debate with Parson Alsop he first heard arguments made by Alexander Campbell against the Book of Mormon. Roberts would later write his own three-volume defense of that scripture in his New Witness for God. . . .

Poverty faced Roberts and his families always. Though he was offered non-church options for making a living he chose to write for church publications, and he accepted additional church callings. He was a Seventy. Proudly he saw his work as a missionary and mission president as a “divine” calling, and he guarded that definition for the Seventy vigorously.

While president of the Eastern States Mission he organized a centennial celebration of the visit of the Angel Moroni to Joseph Smith. He introduced new and better training to prepare his missionaries to preach the gospel, not, however, without challenges from fellow general authorities.

Roberts wrote at length on his political life. First was his part in the Utah Constitutional Convention where he argued against women’s suffrage within the Utah State Convention. He was also concerned with the role of church leaders in the political process, feeling that he had been victimized by it. To him the worlds of religion and politics were separated completely.

He also explained and defended himself as the polygamist denied his seat in Congress. His rejection was a bitter pill, so he took pains to note that responsible, respectable voices nationally had defended him.

Roberts continued his church writings. His study guide for the Seventies reflects his intellectual prowess but also his theological maturing. He felt keenly the need to present and defend Mormonism openly, logically, and rationally. He chose not to ignore problems he saw with claims some church leaders made for Mormonism. However, he was unable to sell his rational defense approach to fellow general authorities. He was a remarkable Mormon.

Roberts wrote his Autobiography as “sacred history.” That is, for him, God clearly participated in the affairs of mankind with the church of Jesus assigned a particular latter-day role. Roberts saw himself as an “instrument” guided by his “soul voice” to serve in his church and to keep God’s message to the world clear, rational, and defendable. This is the B. H. Roberts readers discover in this Autobiography. The private man, father, husband, and citizen must be discovered elsewhere.