Marginal Dialogues: B. H. Roberts Memorial Library, Part 2

By June 2, 2008

Roberts frequently noted where he saw resonance between his readings in philosophy ands science and the Doctrine and Covenants or other Restoration scripture. He underlined Herbert Spencer’s statement that “The non-existence of space cannotby any mental effort  be imagined” and wrote next to it: “There is no Kingdom where there is no space-there is no space where there is no Kingdom Jos. Smith.” He identified the “persistence of force” that Spencer spoke of and which Fiske echoed as “Joseph Sm’s ‘Spirit'” (Fiske, Outlines, 144). Where Ernst Haeckel declared that “all matter is psychic” Roberts clarified by noting that “‘psychic’=spirit.” Where Fiske described the aggregation of matter into worlds Roberts noted that the “Same truth set forth in Bk of Abraham.” With a similar impulse to that which John A. Widtsoe demonstrated in his Joseph Smith as Scientist, in which he argues that Smith had preempted modern science with his revealed truths, Roberts seems to have sought vindication of Smith’s revelations by pointing out everywhere he saw them corroborated in modern works of science and philosophy.

If there was one dominant quest in Roberts’s reading, it was a quest to define truth. He noted definitions of many terms throughout his readings: monism, pantheism, science, metaphysics, and so forth, but nothing seemed to draw his attention like truth. “Deff of Truth” is probably the most recurring phrase in his marginalia, emerging as even more of a leitmotif than Lehi’s “opposition.” He seemed to favor Herbert Spencer’s description of truth in his writings, particularly in Seventy’s Course and TWL, but probably marked more definitions of truth in his reading of William James than anyone else. Still, the superior definition in Roberts’s estimation, against which he measured all other definitions-often quite explicitly in his book margins-was Joseph Smith’s definition in D&C 93, which Roberts summarized for James in Pragmatism: “Truth is Knowledge of that which is, has been or will be’ Jos Smith.”

If Roberts took serious note of William James’s truth definitions, he was perhaps even more profoundly influenced by James in his description of the Mormon conception of intelligences. Though Roberts’s use of the term “intelligences” clearly comes from Latter-day revelations and from Joseph Smith’s teachings, in laying out the characteristics of these “eternal, self-existing entities,” Roberts borrows heavily from James-more so than from any other source. His characterization of intelligences as entities capable of generalization, ratiocination, and the perception of a priori principles appear to have come primarily from his reading of James and he cites passages from Psychology and Pragmatism in laying out these characteristics (Seventy’s Course, 2-4).

In other instances Roberts apparently saw such striking resonance with Mormon themes that he wondered if James had read from Mormon scripture or other Mormon writings (James did own some Mormon books, given him by Benjamin Cluff). In the margins of Pragmatism, for instance, next to a passage in which James poses a hypothetical dialogue between a finite creator and potential participants in that creation (humanity), Roberts wondered, in pencil, “Did James read the Council in Heaven?” Further on, where James suggests that some might reject an offer for participation in a dangerously free world, Roberts notes in the margin, “Sons of Perdition.” Thus, he not only sees resonance with Mormon thought, he also fills in the gaps. At other times he offers correction. His marginal notes reveal a very imaginative reading, through a uniquely Mormon lens, and a dialogue with the author, with whom James dialogues as both student and teacher. Roberts’s own language in describing the premortal council even took on very Jamesian vocabulary.

Thus, while, as previous examples have shown, Roberts’s Mormonism affected the way he read science and philosophy, his readings in science and philosophy also affected his understanding and his explication of Mormon theology. In addition to William James, who not only influenced the way he talked about intelligences but also premortality and agency, the influence of Roberts’s philosophical reading on his own philosophy is perhaps most evident in his reading of Herbert Spencer. Roberts often spoke of his desire to systematize Mormon thought by alluding to Spencer. Gospel truth was comprised of many truths in a disorderly state, Roberts taught, scattered throughout the historical record where they “await only the mind of some God-inspired Spencer to cast them into synthetical form.” As Roberts attempted to systematize these truths, Spencer appears to have been his model and his volumes of Spencer’s writings were his tutors in the art of synthesis.

Roberts’s first attempt at systematizing Smith’s scattered “truth gems” was an essay titled “Mormonism a System of Philosophy,” which was published in the Americana magazine in 1911. Later, when the essay was republished as a part of the Comprehensive History of the Church in 1930, he identified this system as “New Dispensation philosophy” or “eternalism.” [1] The essay begins with a definition of truth, asserting the supremacy of the Joseph Smith’s canonized definition, from Doctrine and Covenants 93, the substance of which is then restated in the more expansive “language of Herbert Spencer.” From truth Roberts moves directly to a description of the universe, quoting a passage from D&C 88 that establishes the universality and eternality of space and, as Roberts interprets it, the ubiquity of matter in space. Curiously, Roberts wrote this same scripture twice in the margins of his personal copy of Spencer’s First Principles in sections that assert a similar concept, which Spencer dwells upon in the second and third chapters of his book. From the get-go, Roberts appears to be outlining his personal system using Spencer as a model or at least as a sounding board for his ideas. He continues in the same vein, not always quoting Spencer but outlining ideas and often using language-such as “evolution and devolution,” “Progress,” “perpetuity of force”-that are noticeably if not exactly Spencerian.

Roberts does not always agree with Spencer. In asserting the self-existence of intelligence Roberts contradicts Spencer, which, again, he did in the margins of First Principles, where he commented that Spencer’s reasoning was weak on this topic, and further, that “Self Existence is proved when we can prove that it…is that which…can exist by no other.” Thus, even where Roberts is not following, he seems to be responding to Spencer. It appears then that the contours of Roberts’s systematization of Mormonism naturally evolved out of his marginal dialogue with Spencer’s First Principles.

This essay was only a prelude, however, to Roberts’s much grander attempt at systematization. The Truth, The Way, The Life, Roberts’s masterwork, was begun sometime during his tenure as president of the Eastern States Mission. The work was compiled primarily during a six-month period in 1927 during which Roberts secluded himself in his New York apartment. The work is largely drawn from his previous writings, organized into one impressive volume.

Again, one can discern an imaginary dialogue with Spencer, or contra Spencer. Whereas Spencer divides his book into two sections, “the Unkowable” and “the Knowable,” to demonstrate the limits of human knowledge, Roberts spends the entire first section if his book, The Truth, demonstrating that we can not only discern the existence and nature of the Unknown from what we know, but ultimately, we can gain a sure knowledge of the Unknown through revelation. Reasoning from what we know can create a basis for our faith in the revelations of God, and from such revelations we can know the answers to “the Whence, the Why, and the Whither of human existence.” There is no unknowable to the believer. Revelation obliterates all such boundaries. Thus, while Roberts moved beyond his methodological mentor by venturing into the Unknown, Spencer’s influence is still evident, in both the shape of The Truth, The Way, The Life, and in frequent citation.

1. B. H. Roberts, “History of the Mormon Church, Chapter LV, The Prophet’s Work-Mormonism a System of Philosophy,” Americana, October 1911, 993-1019.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is great. Thank you.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 2, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

  2. I love this stuff.

    Ps- Don’t confuse “the Unkowable” with the “unkolobable.”

    Comment by BHodges — June 2, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  3. unkolobable: what a great neologism! Is that an original BHodgism? What is an example of something that could be kolobulated? or perhaps a better question: what couldn’t?

    Comment by stan — June 2, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  4. […] 2008 MHA presentation, which he kindly published at the Juvenile Instructor (part 1 and part 2) is a wonderful study into Robert’s theological […]

    Pingback by Splendid Sun » A Textual History of the KFD, Part II — June 5, 2008 @ 4:50 pm


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