Autobiography of B.H. Roberts


A first-person narrative of a Mormon leader, historian, and maverick.

March, 1990

SKU: 1-56085-005-1 Categories: , , Tags: , Author: Gary James Bergera, Sterling M. McMurrinProduct ID: 1289


In this exciting and readable autobiography, one of the most colorful figures of the American frontier recounts his poverty-stricken childhood, his rowdy adolescence in Rocky Mountain mining camps, his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Congress, and his stormy career in one of the leading councils of the Mormon church. Polygamy, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and separation of church and state occupy center stage in the unfolding drama of Brigham Henry Roberts’s controversial life.

The story-book adventures of Roberts’s life made him a household name during his lifetime. His impassioned speeches incited riots, his reasoned writings defined and codified religious beliefs, and his candid disclosures of Utah history brought him both respect and censure. He is best remembered today as a largely self-educated intellectual. Several of his landmark published works are still in print more than fifty years after his death. His life story, told here in his own words and published for the first time, may well stand as his greatest, most enduring achievement.

For many today, B. H. Roberts is the quintessential Mormon intellectual of the twentieth century. But his theological writings came late in life and his historical views were more subjective than definitive. His autobiography, on the other hand, is a forthright account of the events and acquaintances that contributed to his unique faith and intellectual independence. Troubled by the memory of being abandoned as a child, and of the abusive care of quarreling and intemperate foster-parents, he survived a stormy youth of poverty and neglect. He describes his nearly ten years as a missionary to the southern United States, his subsequent tenure as an outspoken member of the First Quorum of Seventy, his public opposition to women’s suffrage, and his controversial bid for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Mormon polygamist.

Gary James Bergera is managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation in Salt Lake City, former managing director of Signature Books, and former managing editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He is co-author of Brigham Young University: A House of Faith, editor of Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts, Statements of the LDS First Presidency, and companion volumes of Joseph Smith’s Quorum of the Anointed, 1842-1845, and The Nauvoo Endowment Companies, 1845-1846 (also co-editor) and On Desert Trails with Everett Ruess, and a contributing author in The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith, Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue, and The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism. He is also the recipient of a Best Article Award from the Mormon History Association.

Sterling M. McMurrin was E. E. Ericksen Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and History Emeritus at the University of Utah until his death in 1996. He was formerly a professor of education, academic vice president, and dean of the graduate school at the University of Utah, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, a Ford Fellow in philosophy at Princeton, U.S. Envoy to Iran, and United States Commissioner of Education. He authored Education and Freedom; The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology and its companion, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion; Religion, Reason and Truth: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion; and Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better; co-authored Contemporary Philosophy: A Book of Readings; A History of PhilosophyMatters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin on Philosophy, Education, and Religion; and Toward Understanding the New Testament; and contributed to The Autobiography of B. H. RobertsMemories and Reflections: The Autobiography of E. E. Ericksen and The Truth, The Way, The Life, An Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B. H. Roberts.

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6 reviews for Autobiography of B.H. Roberts

  1. Davis Bitton, BYU Studies

    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.

  2. William C. Rigenberg, Church History

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. John C. Olinger, John Whitmer Historical Journal

    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.

  5. 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.

  6. Melvin T. Smith, Utah Historical Quarterly

    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.

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