So I figured I’d follow Matt’s lead and post my MHA paper (in 2 parts) here. Since I already blogged my intro previously–on Joseph Fielding Smith’s reading of Darwin–I’ll skip that and proceed right into the Roberts library:
The B. H. Roberts Memorial Collection is housed in the Church Archives, in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City. This intact collection, included as a part of the B. H. Roberts Collection, contains over 1,300 items, including most of B. H. Roberts’s personal books, his own published writings and those of many of his colleagues, many of the periodicals he subscribed to, and several pamphlets he collected. The collection is valuable not only to document what Roberts read, but, because of his active habit of writing in his books, through this collection we can learn and document how he read. Roberts read with a pencil in hand, scribbling notes in the margins of his books. He was an active reader, engaging the authors he read, marking where he disagreed, making summary notes, indicating quotes he intended to use in his writings, and making observations from his own distinctively Mormon point of view. He sometimes even wrote notes as though he were aware he would some day have an audience, making marginal notes that seem more like journal entries. “Finished Reading this book (first time) May 27th 1908 at Great Falls Montana,” he wrote on the final page of his copy of Ernst Haeckel’s The Wonders of Life: A Popular Study of Biological Philosophy. It is almost as if he knew-had the arrogance to assume-that some future college student would have nothing better to do than sit in the archives thumbing through his books to see what he wrote in the margins. B. H. Roberts, the historian, seemed to have a sense that he was making history simply by reading, as long as he recorded where and when he did it.
Like Joseph Fielding Smith, Roberts read Darwin. Also like Smith, he had some disagreements, though far fewer and far less acidulous. But unlike Smith, he found some material he could reconcile with a Mormon view; even, perhaps, vindicate it. In one Darwinian passage he though the might have discerned biological support for that peculiar Mormon institution: polygamy. Where Darwin explains that natural selection assures to “the most vigorous and best adapted males the greatest number of offspring” and that “sexual selection will also give characteristics useful to males alone, in their struggles or rivalry with other males,” Roberts notes in the margin: “Would not this then be a favorable argument for polygamy-since only the superior males will be able to maintain their positions in that order[?]”
Roberts’s reading was profoundly influenced by his Mormon background and the cosmological worldview it bestowed upon him. Where an author’s generalizations ran counter to Mormon scriptural examples, he steered the authors aright (as wrong as that may be)-or at least noted exceptions-in his marginal notes. When John W. Draper, in his History of The Intellectual Development of Europe, for example, asserted that that changes in human skin color were the result of a slow, cumulative evolutionary effect, Roberts noted: “Not so with the cursed Lamanites.” (See Matt Bowman’s comments here–last paragraph of post.)
Roberts often read with an eye not only for exceptions or contradictions that his Mormon lens allowed him to discern, but also for fundamental truths, as indicated by resonance with Mormon principles or scriptures. For example, Lehi’s maxim that there must be opposition in all things emerges almost as a leitmotif running through much of Roberts’s marginalia. Where William James, discussing Hegel’s dialectic, observes in A Pluralistic Universe that “the ethical and the religious life are full of…contradictions held in solution”-for example, “the way to certainty lies through radical doubt”-Roberts notes: “What is this but Lehi’s = The must needs be opposition in all things B. of M.”-a doctrine Roberts identified as “the Antithesis of things” (99). He makes similar notes in the writings of John Fiske and other philosophical works. In Joseph Alexander Leighton’s Typical Modern Conceptions of God, again in a chapter on Hegel, after underlining the phrase “Contradictions belong to the heart of things” Roberts wrote at the bottom of the page: “Contradictions=Lehi’s ‘necessary opposition in all things II Nephi ii”.
(to be continued)