A Priesthood Manual for Backward Ten-Year-Olds

A toddler Hugh Nibley smiling

Hugh Nibley about one century ago

Happy Birthday Hugh Nibley, born March 27, 1910

No, we haven’t forgotten or given up. Sidetracked a little by other activities. But we have some new and, we hope, interesting postings coming up. Thank you to those of you have ever so gently prodded us to continue these posts.

Excerpt from a letter to Paul Springer

March 28, 1956

I have run into difficulties on the present [Melchizedek priesthood] lesson-manual: the committee wants something for backward ten-year-olds and they have a perfect right to it, only I keep telling them that I am not the guy to do it.* Accordingly I may get let out of this assignment, and instead of going to the Coast this spring take the usual time in the summer. Only I don’t know yet. Meantime I am working my head off on a dozen projects…

Our household as it grows larger is becoming ever more and more of an enclave, a foreign colony, in the midst of Provo. For one thing the lack of TV marks us as queer to the point of defiance; the program of serious literature** which has kept the kids amused all winter, and the wild informal “jaunts” we take whenever the weather allows  have set people to wondering if we are quite all right. My religious rantings serve to balance the books, but still people are disturbed and someday there may be some sort of showdown. Abdera without Aristotle, that is Provo. 

Thank God for Phyllis, who thinks exactly as I do on all essentials. Perhaps what should worry us is not that the world is going to pot, but that it may take too long in doing so. Well let’s make the most of things, after all, we have eternity to go and endless surprises ahead. I’ll let you know what the committee decides.

Nur Geduld.

[*The priesthood manual HN mentions here was, chapter by chapter, rejected by the publication committee with the comment that it was “over the heads” of the priesthood holders. The rejections were subsequently overruled by President David O. McKay, reportedly with the comment, “If it’s over their heads, let them reach for it.” That manual became An Approach to the Book of Mormon, still read today almost six decades after HN expected to be fired from the job of writing it.

**Don’t let him fool you. The program of “serious literature” to which HN refers here consisted largely of Mad Magazine, Nancy Drew and Edgar Rice Burroughs. ]

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World War II Memories: I lied Until I Even Cheered Myself Up

[Letter to Sloanie Nibley, May 17, 1945, from Heidelberg, Germany]

Dear Mother,

You mentioned in your last that I had never told you anything about my activities.  Come to think of it, I haven’t.  Of course not: your old Hugh isn’t one to go around sinking ships.  But now that it doesn’t make much difference whether ships are sunk or not I might as well ring off a bare chronicle of events as noted down in my little red appointment book, just to let you know what’s been going on all this time.

The latter part of November and early December[, 1943] were passed in barracks of the South Staffordshire regiment near Lichfield. The place was called Whittington Barracks — very cold, dark and stony, with a 150-years deposit of coal smoke and Empire tradition. Incidentally, the more you see of this sort of being that clearer it becomes that the Empah is nothing but a cheeky bit of window-dressing; top to bottom, it is pure eyewash. This impression was first borne upon me, however in the British War Office, where I worked alone on a little project for a few weeks in December and January.

The little book says I reached the HQ of the 101 on an unbelievable dark and stormy night, Jan 21.  We lived in tents without light or heat on top of a very windy hill with gliders tied down all around us. The mud was pelagic, the food unspeakable vile and very scarce ( at the foot of the hill a negro supply company lived on chicken and ice cream, but we never saw any of that unless we had some excuse to visit them).

I was quickly informed of what the role of the division was to be in the invasion, namely to spearhead the whole operation, landing 4 hours ahead of anyone else, and after being sworn to undying secrecy set about wising everyone up on the strength, disposition and honest intentions of the Germans.  To get this information we had to break all the rules of priority and procedure (this was the first Order of Battle team ever to work with a division) and became adept at falsification and intrigue, plain and fancy gate-crashing and advanced prevarication.

Since our undertaking was to be something unique in its kind a great many practice runs had to be gone through — after each one things looked blacker: it is fantastic how many things there are to go wrong in an airborne operation; everybody was worried to pieces, and I was wistfully envious of the simple linesmen who had no idea what they were in for. I gave lots of lectures to all the units about the German army, and the questions the boys asked on those occasions called for all the comfort I could give them — I lied until I even cheered myself up.

The other member of the team artfully managed to get himself transferred, after months of string-pulling, just before the invasion, but my luck was almost as good.  They had me down as No. 2 man in No. 1 glider when a lone unescorted Jeep called for a driver and I was told to take it in seaborne. The murderous British Horsa gliders were used in the invasion with disastrous effect: the crowd in my glider were all banged up and captured, my Lieutenant was never heard from again.

We sailed from Bristol on June 4 and on the sixth were off Vierville.  My fate seems always to have been first in line.  Our ship headed the convoy and as if that were not enough our party was to be the first ashore when contact was made with the division.  The ship was bombed repeatedly but never hit.  I stood at the head of the rope bladder for half an hour and then went down to the LCT without orders. Presently the very spot where I should be waiting was hit by an 88 and half a dozen tankmen blown up; the chaplain with whom I had been talking was wounded.

When we put in for shore the 88s tried hard to stop us first landing in front and then behind.  The ship was sunk.  This sort of thing goes on and on.  Who should be our naval artillery liaison man but one of my old Claremont pupils? after a lot of noise and excitement we moved into Carentan against the protest of the Germans who repeatedly tried to overrun our very thinly held position. Came the big storm and we found ourselves cut off from any support; it was what the British call a very sticky time.

On July 13 we went back to England: that was running back for another try.  A period of frantic preparation followed.  The objective would be chosen, the whole operation rehearsed, everyone resigned to fate and all set for the take-off, and then would come word that Patton had already reached the place, or was so near it that we would not have to go in.  This happened again and again and was very trying.

Finally the fantastic Holland operation, which everybody saw would be a bust unless the British commander acted his age: he gave a speech which set an all-time high for silliness and failure to grasp the most elementary aspect of the situation. The first flight went late on Sept 17 and the pilots came back with the worst possible news; terrible weather, murderous flack and waiting for us in the landing zone a division of German tanks.  But it was too late to turn back — regardless of weather we would have to make a try for it at dawn the next day.

Again I was No. 2 man in No. 1 glider on the right — the one the Germans always try for: our tow plane was the only one with a bathtub — a new and very secret device which the enemy was dying to get hold off; it was called a bathtub because it was a huge, bulky underslung affair that nobody could miss and the pilot said the Jerries would give anything to shoot it down.  With this cheering prospect we took to the air and of course I became very sick as I always do in a glider.

There was an old piece of armor plate lying on the floor and out of curiosity I wondered how it would be to sit on: just as I slipped it on my little chair with a characteristically witty remark it absorbed three machine-gun bullets while another went between my feet. This particular escape became proverbial in headquarters company.

The Dutch campaign was touch and to go with our people scattered all over the land and surrounded and outnumbered most of the time.  The other member of the team was run over by a tank while he was bringing in our jeep and the Lieutenant was wounded, but he stayed on the job — otherwise I would have had to do everything single-handed as in Normandy.  But I was pretty good at Dutch, which meant a lot of extra work and extra excitement of course.

On Nov. 27 we were back in training again, getting all steamed up for another operation. It was not a pleasant atmosphere and people started committing suicide.  Then came the breakthrough (exactly as I predicted weeks ahead) while the same day I got an order to come to Paris.  Which should it be, Bastogne or Paris?  Without regret I chose Paris, for with the order came a team which was to relieve me.  I showed them the ropes and they took over: both were killed the next day.

After Paris came Luxembourg where the big boys at Army Group insist that the breakthrough took them totally by surprise: an unpardonable state of affairs. At that exalted level no one ever thinks of anything but his career and they are worlds removed from the war — spend all their time the pinning decorations [on] each other, the Lord knows for what. After Luxembourg Belgium for a few weeks and then Paris again.  Paris becomes a terrible habit.

For the past month I have been in Heidelberg, which has not been scratched by the war.  Mannheim and Ludwigshafen have simply ceased to exist.  The weeks with the 6th Army Group have been delightful: we live in sumptuous quarters and have a club that makes the pavilions of the Golden Horn look like something on the wrong side of the tracks.  What the future holds is up to nobody.  All I control is my own mental process, which simply ignores the army, and that is all the power I ever want to have.

Hereafter when anything important transpires I will be allowed to let you know immediately.  Meanwhile we are moving with unerring compliance to prophecy straight into the Next War: nobody seems to believe even half-heartedly that the peace is permanent. We never will learn that there is no point to being clever: every sharp operator in Europe has walked right into his own trap.

If we know what’s good for us we won’t tangle with the Russians — ever: in one week the German break-through in the Ardennes had us scraping the bottom of the barrel, though we were dealing with less than a third of the German Army.  Unlike other armies the Russians have an unbelievable capacity for learning; unhampered by pride or tradition they have a positive veneration for truth and never seem to be able to learn enough; their vitality is fabulous, and their birth-rate is simply out of sight.  I think the Lord has big things in mind for them.



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Nibley’s Plan to Leave BYU for his Career

[From an interview in 1983 on the subject of academia]

Then there was the time I was at Chicago [on sabbatical leave] and I decided, well, I’ll look for another job. And so I did, and I got a good offer at Pennsylvania – it was Clarion College in western Pennsylvania, a very good school, belonged to the University of Pennsylvania.

They had a special dinner for me. I didn’t realize it was special. Afterward the dean [of] the College of History, he told me. They offered me far more than I was getting at BYU. We met in the hall after dinner, and he said, “You realize we had lobster tonight. That’s the first time we’ve had it in years. That means you’re a very special guy. They’re offering you so much?” And I told him and he says, “You can get three times that much. Just ask them, you’ll get more than that.” So I had it fixed.

I wrote to the family and they blew up…They didn’t like that at all, moving to western Pennsylvania. Well, western Pennsylvania was gorgeously beautiful country, as you know it’s beautiful country around there, but I would miss the mountains terribly. And I wrote to the brethren, I wrote to Brother [Marion G.] Romney and he said, “Please, that would be a disaster. That would be the worst thing that could happen. Come back on your terms,” and so on. And [BYU President Ernest L.] Wilkinson agreed. He was rather upset and so forth. Ernie and I, we really went round and round on numbers of occasions.

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Hugh Nibley on Fatherhood

Group photo of the Hugh Nibley family

Hugh Nibley, center, casts a skeptical eye on his role as father of a burgeoning tribe. The baby (Rebecca) seems to have doubts as well. The rest are straight from the Family Home Evening Manual.

[Letter to Paul Springer]

June 1956

Dear little bodybuilder,

The weirdest weather: three days ago the Springer Thermometer and Hygrometer registered 107 and nine resp. in the office, and the next day the mountains were covered with snow! The worst is the assorted pollens that crowd the air and get everybody snuffling and spitting and tweezing. I revert to my former thesis: IS this a habitable planet? Marginal at best.

It seems that the former and still owners of our house had planted an around-the-year catalogue of bulbs and whatnot, so that every morning we get up to find some new botanical confection throwing off waves of passion; it is like living in a forcing-house or the late Dr. Fu Manchu’s conservatory. We dare not stop watering for a minute lest our neglect blight some floral rarity found only in the steaming depths of Sumatra. At the same time phone beats out the canonical hours with urgent requests from restless committees wondering where the next two lessons are or what became of pp. 74 and 103 of the footnotes.

Don Decker dashed off to Alaska to make some money over the summer and his family plumped in on us on Friday – only for a short stay, but now it is 8 (eight) 8 kids around the house, all but one under seven (7) seven years of age, though the presence of a couple of gabbing dolls (their parents) does keep things somewhat in hand. Just the same I know now what it used to be like, even barring the Edwards [sic] Act, and you can have it! [Probably refers to the Edmunds Act of 1882.]

Then there is a little matter of bills. It is true, everybody in California is loaded and certainly deserves to be happy as that is the law in California. But it is also true that some poor suckers are paying for it. I never knew there could be such a difference in standards of living. All in all, S.F. Seems like something that happened in the preexistence or before the Fall – very far away and too good to be true. Here we are prepared for the worst because we already have it. The days since I got home have been an unbroken series of interruptions, the nights and unbroken festival of footnotes. We decided against taking the family to Seattle: I am taking Paul alone instead. The reasons for this great decision are painfully obvious. The baby has been having the measles but never for a moment gave up enjoying himself – the picnic is for him the life, especially after 2 A.M. …

Along with that, though poverty keeps me off many a sucker list, the nature of my writings has brought me into direct and heated correspondence with every crackpot in the country. I do take the kids out into the canyons and the sagebrush for overnight jaunts, but it always Ends with Mikey howling his head off if he doesn’t go, and then crawling into my sleeping bag in the middle of the night to kick the stuffing out of the bag and me. Still it is the one advantage of living here that one can escape into real wilderness without any difficulties at all. In spite of the furiously hot days the nights have been very cold (all last week the humidity stayed below 20) so we have been searching out the red-rock country and the pink sands, where nobody goes in summer and nobody can go in winter, even to hunt for lost cattle. I am beginning to acquire a perverse love for unwashed vagabondage in colored dirt – a touch of Bedouin defiance, you might say, that could lead to serious results. There is no danger of desertion here, since the kids are getting it worse than I am, but what if I we should sever all ties with society? That would be like having no TV – you might as well be dead.

What brings me back to earth is the good old B.M., the book that really tells you what goes on in the world. At this very moment without any preliminary roar or even the slightest trace of foreboding sultriness the frame of my glasses has suddenly and quietly come apart, broken right in two. That Means 8 bucks in the morning. That is what I get for writing letters on the Lord’s day.

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A Vast and Admirable Intelligence Dedicated to Wanton Destruction

Roguish caricatures of German soldiers singing, "Today, Germany is Ours; Tomorrow, the Whole World. Underneath a bold caption reads, "OH YEAH?"

An anti-German poster produced in America during World War II.

[Letter to Paul Springer. This letter was written during a time of solitude when Nibley went Zion Park and spent several weeks alone with nature following World War II. The earlier writings he refers to are letters he wrote from Germany during the occupation in which he harshly excoriated the German people, among whom he had previously worked as a missionary.]

Salt Lake City, “various dates,” 1946


Emerging from the lost world of the Utah-Arizona boundary country I find another of your notes awaiting me at the Hurricane post-office. They had given up hope of ever seeing me again and were on the verge of burning it; I hope now that they have learned a simple lesson — Nibley always comes back. It is a terrible blow to learn, as I do by inference, that things I wrote you long ago in a black and somewhat hysterical mood, are being preserved. For what? How much do you want? I assure you the tension, suspicion, and sheer despair that filled the air of Heidelberg were at times simply unbearable. Everybody was flying off the handle, but I was particularly miserable because I knew the fundamental excellence that lay beneath the rubble-heaps of folly and ruin, and that a vast and admirable intelligence was being dedicated to wanton destruction.

Why must the Germans behave that way? I was walking behind an elderly couple in the woods one day as they discoursed on Hitler. He was nothing but an Abenteuer, they decided, a sordid opportunist — and they might have known it all along, fools that they had been, for couldn’t anyone see that he had dark hair instead of blond!

My adolescent thinking was all cast in the German mold, and that I do not regret; it is the Germans themselves who have not been true to their great tradition — you have no idea how sterile and immoral the Nazi mind was, or do you? They were tactless and incorrigible and played right into the hands of the real perennial war-makers – their bad manners were their undoing, but I knew all along that in the field of geopolitics and trouble-making they were strictly second-string. Stop me, my sweet, before I get too specific.

I have been moving around like mad. Going to be stuck in Salt Lake for the summer. I am an editor, no less. Also doing quite a bit of hack writing. But when the leaves begin to fall I shall repair to Provo, for Brother Brigham’s celebrated academy has charms that make the blandishments of Claremont seemed positively repulsive by comparison…

The solitude of the desert did much to alter my weak and impressionable mentality…Right now I am finishing up one of my pretentiously documented studies, and desperately fear that the final touches will require a flying visit to Berkeley, in which case I hope to have a glimpse of your rude but noble countenance in the not too utter future and experience the benign offices of that delicious counter-irritant whom the world knows as your devoted, if misled, wife. Try to carry on until then, with the assurance that old Nibs will back you up every time you try to go forward.

Love & kisses (free trial package),


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Hugh Nibley’s World War II Diary

Pages from a small appointment book with notes scrawled in shorthand with an occasional word in cursive.

Pages from Hugh Nibley’s diary from June 4-10, 1944 including an entry for the D-Day landing.

[Post by Alex Nibley]

When we were working on his World War II memoirs, Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, I sat down with Dad for several hours and read through his diaries of 1944 and 1945. I had made high-resolution scans of the diaries, so we could look at them up close without a magnifying glass. I put a video camera on us to pick up what he said, and he read each of the diary entries day by day.

His common way of writing in the diaries is Gregg Shorthand with occasional words in his distinctive style of cursive. He had told me that he had used code to write at times, since he was not supposed to be keeping a diary. I’m not sure whether this was a formal regulation for intelligence operatives like him or just something he worried about. One of the things he had been trained to do as an Order of Battle team member was to go through the diaries of captured German soldiers looking for intelligence, and I know he worried about the reverse happening to him if he were captured since at times he was privy to extremely sensitive information about the Allies’ plans.

As we read through his diaries together, we discovered several entries that were written in his secret writing, which turned out to be a combination of German words written in Arabic script.

The video of the sessions where we deciphered his diaries is currently packed away in archives and we don’t currently have a digital version of the video, so I’m not sure what all these entries say. Here are the entries from these pages as we deciphered them for Sergeant Nibley PhD:

June 4: Sail past Lundy Island. We are the leading ship. [The invasion army had been waiting on their ships for days at this point, hundreds of thousands of men in thousands of ships just waiting for favorable weather for the landing.]

June 6: D-Day. Pass the Bill of Portland and land across vast masses of flak in the morning. A ship next to us goes down in about 8 minutes. [Nibley’s landing was on Utah Beach. The ship next to him that went down so fast was most likely the USS Corry.]

June 8: Still

June 9: Plane drops 2 great mines and ruins my jeep.

Can anyone out there figure out the other entries?

Update: Okay, let’s make it a contest! The person who submits the most convincing interpretation of the diary entries here for June 5, 7 and 10 will win a free CD set of the audio book version of Approaching Zion. You have until noon Saturday, June 1 MDT to submit your entries. Since we don’t have access to Hugh’s interpretations (and he wasn’t sure himself about what he’d written in a lot of cases), we have no way of determining the accuracy of the submissions, so we will judge based on how convincing they are. Subjective? Yes, somewhat. So convince us that this is the first time subjectivity has influenced interpretations of Hugh Nibley’s writing.

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Hugh Nibley on the Power of Positive Thinking (sort of)


[Unpublished notes, undated]


Where one is in a vulnerable position, it is always wise to accentuate the positive and eschew the negatives. Can’t we do away with negatives entirely? I think we can. To call a person an unspeakable cad is negative; consider rather the story of the Speakable Cad:


It was a describably beautiful morning as the speakable cad finished a sipid breakfast and thoroughly gusted with the clement weather began his variable custom of a morning stroll to the firmary. His ruly hair was kempt, for he was a couth and solute person, a transigent soul, and withal a man of effable ertia, possessing counted millions, his digency the reward of an ept and dolent nature.

As he walked along haling the air his satiable curiosity was attracted by the fantile games of expressably energetic neighbors’ children; for a while he watched their imitable antics, fatuated by their bound skill, and, when they called to him, dignantly smiling at their sufferable souciance and solent manners. At the sight of his brother coming along the street, however, he bosomed himself, for though a man of bridled passions, this daunted gentleman had a superable like for his brother, an iquitous and nocent fellow, but withal transigent enough to face the world with givings.

Though his brother was a man of tegrity, and peccably attired, his comfiture was at once apparent, and at the sight of it the speakable Cad’s composure remained tact, for he was ured to the putable stories that had been earthed about his brother. The evitable result of his knowledge was an exporable dain for his genuous brother’s firmity.


At this point the story threatens to become UNpleasant — even negative — so we must stop it.


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