reviews – The Truth, The Way, The Life

An Elementary Treatise on TheologyJohn Whitmer Historical Journal, Alma R. Blair
Interest in B. H. Roberts and his writings has grown during the last several decades. This carefully edited volume of Roberts’ interpretation of Mormon theology will add to that interest and help historians better understand Roberts and his contributions to Mormon thought. The Truth, The Way, The Life has no startling new revelations about Roberts’ theology, but it was completed near the end of his life (he died in 1933), and he considered it his greatest work. Most of us have known him as a historian, authoring the Comprehensive History of the Church and editing the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We now have easy access into his mature theology, available in one volume for the first time.  The editor, Stan Larson, has shown considerable skill and restraint, giving footnotes with intelligent comments on the text, information on how Roberts’ contemporaries reacted to various points, and excellent references to articles and books on B. H. Roberts. There are also notes on how the present text differs from earlier manuscript versions—perhaps more than the average reader may need, but helpful to the scholar. Of especial value are the two introductory essays: Sterling M. McMurrin, “The Mormon Theology of B. H. Roberts,” and Erich Robert Paul, “B. H. Roberts on Mormonism and Science.” The Editor’s Introduction adds important information about the various stages in the writing of the manuscript and an exciting account of the controversy the work engendered when Roberts submitted it to church authorities in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The correspondence between Roberts and the authorities is included in the Appendix. The bibliographies are significant, listing many of Roberts’ writings and important secondary references.

Roberts’ theology is, for the most part, orthodox Mormonism. There is little here to raise questions about his “faithfulness” as there has been over his views on the Book of Mormon. Yet there is enough heterodoxy in it that the church did not print his offering and use it as an instructional text for the church priesthood elders and seventies as Roberts had intended. Late twentieth-century scholars may have other complaints. Nevertheless, within his frame of reference, Roberts’ arguments are usually carefully developed and the reader is treated to a more complete analysis of Mormon thought than is typical in the official literature.

In addition to writing a theological text, Roberts wanted to demonstrate that religion—true religion—and science did not need to be at war, but were complementary. Had Roberts’ text been adopted there might have been less stress in the Mormon church over the issue as a generation became used to the idea of a science-religion partnership. He spent considerable time discussing the cosmology of the day and ancient and non-Christian religions. Roberts felt free to include new scientific information as it became available and his tone toward other religions was relatively open. It was in his specific applications that Roberts ran afoul of the church authorities.

The most serious problem found by the committee assigned by the Council of Twelve to evaluate The Truth, The Way, The Life centered around Roberts’ attempts to reconcile the ancient history of the earth and the appearance of hominids as revealed in science with the traditional Christian interpretations of the first two chapters of Genesis. Roberts accepted, and detailed, the geologic and anthropological findings of the day. He argued that humans and civilizations reached far back before the traditional Christian “beginning of the earth” set as 4004 B.C. He also saw the discrepancies in Genesis—one account putting the creation of man at the end of God’s creation, the other at the beginning. To solve these puzzles Roberts posited a pre-Adamic development of the earth during long geologic times, with hominids appearing about 300,000 B. C., which was ended by some cataclysmic event and the world wiped clean of all traces of life. Adam then was transported to this world, he contended, as a “transfigured” mortal (essentially physical) from another world, to start life again. This preserved the scientific understanding of the earth’s “evolution” or “development” in stages and explained the riddle of the two Genesis stories.

The committee objected to his characterizing Adam as a “transfigured” being placed on a desolate earth and to making the concept of “pre-Adamites” into a doctrine never accepted by the church authorities, not substantiated in the temple ceremonies, and not found in the revelations of Joseph Smith. Despite the rejection of this part of his theory, the authorities may have been pleased that Roberts did not stray into a Darwinian interpretation of mankind’s origins. He allowed for “development” in the pre-Adamic time, but held that since Adam all species have reproduced their own kind with no mixing of or evolvement of one species into others. Other objections by the authorities included Roberts’ view that God might progress in his knowledge, Roberts’ setting a time when the pre-existing spirit unites with the body, and his analysis of divorce.

In most other areas Roberts gave strong support to traditional Mormon doctrine concerning the Atonement, nature of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, plurality of gods, marriage, including polygamy, the role of human agency in salvation, etc. His strengths are in his blending of Mormon scriptures, logical reasoning, and the science of his day. Also, his attempt to make a case for a moral/spiritual interpretation of all aspects of knowledge, including science (for instance, “law” binding the physical universe, God’s nature, and human salvation together) deserves more attention than can be given here.

However, Roberts’ conclusions, and particularly his methodology, are not easily reconciled with recent scholarship outside the Mormon tradition or to much presently within it. There are times when he did not give opposing views in science or religion a full hearing. Typically, as demonstrated in the example given above, Roberts did not utilize the tools of Biblical criticism available at the time and took most scripture as literally true. For instance, he was aware of the idea that Genesis 1 and 2 were held by many scholars as two separate mythical accounts of creation which need not be reconciled absolutely, but he persisted in seeing them as truly historical. This tendency is somewhat startling given his historical experience.

It does not seem likely he was tailoring his remarks to a more conservative audience since he refused to change various parts in order to get his work published. The answer partially lies in his acceptance of revelation as the paramount way of coming to knowledge. Where the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, Doctrine and Covenants, or reports of statements by Joseph Smith seemed clear Roberts did not feel he could, or should, vary from them or challenge them. Where there was no revelation, or where there was ambiguity, he felt free to elaborate, even invent. His position was akin to the early Scholastics. That is, although he used science and argued for its validity, it was always in the context of its support of “revealed truth.” He never allowed science to stand on its own or seriously challenge revelation. His disagreements with the authorities were that they did not properly understand the revelations—not that revelation itself could be wrong. It is a fine line, still in dispute.

Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Kent E. Robson
What are the greatest books ever written within Mormonism? Without question, one would name Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage. Alternatively, one might think of Evidences and Reconciliations by John A. Widtsoe, The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball, or A Marvelous Work and A Wonder by LeGrand Richards. Gospel Doctrine by Joseph F. Smith might be mentioned because of its use in priesthood lessons, or The Seventy’s Course in Theology by B.H. Roberts used for five years in priesthood classes but now hard to find. There are others, of course, but these are important sources—they are continually used and considered relevant.

To a great extent, these books are examined and considered to be sources of doctrine. We don’t define them as scriptures, but many of them are important for their doctrinal and theological implications. Because of that, we don’t even ask when they were written. To some degree, they are timeless.

To the above list, we should now add this wonderful, mature treatise by B.H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life. This is a book that should be in the hands of all members of the church and should be used regularly by them. After all the books written by Roberts for the church, this is his most mature and most polished treatise on the essential doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is also the way Roberts viewed his work, and as a member of the seven presidents of the seventy, his views carried enormous weight. I believe they should still be given enormous credence.

Furthermore, I believe Roberts was essentially right. This book should be used alongside of The Articles of Faith (and others), and should never again be neglected. There is only one section of chapters that is controversial, and that can easily be skipped by members as speculative. It is tragic that others did not feel that members of the church are intelligent enough and capable of discrimination, so that this wonderful book might not have been held back for over sixty-five years. Many have said the work is outdated, but would we say that Jesus the Christ is outdated just because it was written so long ago? Surely not! As John Welch says in his introduction, this work is an “encyclopedia” (xvi). It surpasses the new Encyclopedia of Mormonism in its brevity, clarity, and profound insight into issue after issue. This is a book that must be referred to time after time, and used by all serious members of the church. My only disappointment has to do with how long it has taken this book to be published.

The fact that two different publishers and editors have brought the book out now is wonderful, for it helps to indicate the enormous interest that this treatise generates. That it has not been previously reviewed in these pages only indicates the enormity of the importance of the work and the fact that the two editions together exceed 1,300 pages of subtle complexity and interesting discussion. Also, two of the commentators of the work, Sterling M. McMurrin and Erich Robert Paul, are now deceased, and this represents an immense loss within Mormonism.

Introductions in the Stan Larson version take up 67 pages. They include forewords by Thom D. Roberts and Leonard J. Arrington and then the superb essays by McMurrin and Paul. Although McMurrin is discouraged with the “biblical literalism” of Roberts, he concludes that “B.H. Robert’s high level of sophistication as a historian, his sagacity as a philosopher, has profound insight as a theologian [and] his commitment to the worth of scientific knowledge” mark his work as bringing to the world a serious “inquiring into the nature and meaning of Mormonism” (xxiii-xxv). Paul focuses on Robert’s views about science, and in item after item his views still stand, for example, on the indestructibility of “matter-energy.” Here we see that Roberts was in a line of Mormon scientist-philosophers—theologians that included Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde and that had almost died out before McMurrin and Paul.

Here Roberts has many important things to say that can be largely lost on those interested solely in history. In this way, Roberts’s work is profoundly distinguished from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism with its largely historical emphasis. (There are some exceptions in the encyclopedia.) A superb introduction is provided by Stan Larson and it is careful, accurate and detailed. It also describes an attempt to work together with John Welch, but Welch decided against a joint effort.

Welch has provided about 207 pages of introduction in his volume and emphasized that Roberts is one of the “great intellects of the Church” (xxvi). Davis Bitton is too dismissive, but Truman Madsen, with his deeper understanding of theology, etc. is more laudatory, for example, when he discusses Robert’s views on “Spirits and Intelligence” (lxxxiv, for example). David L. Paulsen also appreciates and understands Roberts’s importance as a theologian, has important discussions of Externalism and Causality, and has understood the pivotal importance of the problems of evil and how Mormons may address it. There are also criticisms of Roberts by scientist Evenson, but his work contains important confusion and inadequacies, for example, when he talks of “beautiful and consistent mathematical theories.” (cxix) Kurt Godel showed us in 1931 that all mathematical theories are complete only if they are inconsistent, and consistent only if they are incomplete. James B. Allen publishes an extremely important account as to why and how Robert’s work was not previously published. All in all, these essays are an important introduction to this vitally critical work.

Finally, little can be written in a review of this wonderful and important treatise. Let me draw attention to one example to illustrate the importance of this publication. In chapter 2, for example, Roberts describes man “as existing” (22, Larson, 29, Welch). This is important, for we see that man is not “created” as other denominations claim, and this makes it possible to seriously claim that man is free or has “free agency” (24, Larson, 31, Welch). Roberts is addressing something most critically important here and he picks it up in chapter 8 when he talks of the “Eternity of Intelligences” and says that “intelligences are eternal—are among the uncreated things—and the indestructible things” (81-83, Larson, 81-83, Welch).

This one example alone shows the sophistication and depth of Roberts, and his insight should continually guide our understanding of Mormonism.