Marginal Dialogues: The B. H. Roberts Memorial Library

By May 30, 2008

 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)

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. THanks for this. I would be interested in more. Perhaps Roberts was arrogant, but he was right wasn’t he? 🙂

    Comment by Eric Nielson — May 30, 2008 @ 10:35 am

  2. aye, he was, he was…at least on assuming people would read his books: I’m not so sure about the Darwinian polygamy or the skin color bit (an understatement), but as Matt points out, they point to some great tensions and seeming contradictions in such complex figures as Roberts.

    Comment by stan — May 30, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  3. Thanks Stan, for this tour of Roberts’ library. Do you see yourself picking up on Matt’s suggestions in a future article?

    Comment by David G. — May 30, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  4. Fun stuff, Stan. Did Roberts happen to mark when he read the Draper book in which he made the note about Lamanites? Though I don’t know a lot about it, I know there are issues that have been debated over Roberts’ view of the Book of Mormon. Have you run into much else in the marginalia that give you a sense of how he felt about the BoM?

    Comment by Jared T — May 30, 2008 @ 11:23 am

  5. I enjoyed your presentation, Stan. Is BH Roberts marginalia going to be an ongoing project for you? I have been dabbling in a project for the last half-year or so, that would likely be greatly impacted by this sort of stuff. I wasn’t sure when I would get it done, but your presentation has gotten me off my duff a bit.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 30, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  6. Excellent stuff. Thanks, Stan. And I definetely think you should expand this into a larger article.

    Comment by Christopher — May 30, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

  7. thanks y’all. Yes, my delusional brain plans to do an article or a second thesis on this as well as forty other topics. Sleep and eating just seem to keep getting in the way. Perhaps ginko biloba would help. And yes, when I do finally get around to it, I will incorporate Matt’s suggestion–and hopefully his revision of American Protestant history will be done by then so I can quote it.

    Jared: not sure on the date there; he didn’t always mark it. Interesting point though. Perhaps other clues like quotes in publications or drafts could establish a chronology of his readings, where he doesn’t mark it in his books.

    J: how off-the-duff has this tipped you? and why so? I’m curious. And what’s your BH project/angle, if you’re willing to disclose online? (thesis preempters may be lurking so any discretion is understood)

    Comment by stan — May 30, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

  8. stan, we all know you don’t sleep, so you’re not pulling any wool over our eyes. I think I have seen you eat though…

    Comment by David G. — May 30, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  9. I was hoping to post it this weekend, but the MMM book just arrived in the mail…

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 30, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

  10. Off topic, and can be disregarded by everyone else, but J. peaked my interest: MMM just arrived? I thought it wasn’t coming out till July/August? Do you have some secret connection?

    Comment by Ben — May 30, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  11. I’m jealous. When will academic presses realize that the JI is the premier LDS academic blog?

    Comment by David G. — May 30, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  12. 9-10: Yeah, I read that and burst out at one of the staff members that the book was out! He got a puzzled look and said, “But I just finished the index.” Then I realized J. must be talking about a review copy, probably of the page proofs.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — May 30, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

  13. Thanks for solving the mystery, Ardis.

    And now back to Stan’s marginalia.

    Comment by Ben — May 30, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

  14. hee hee.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 30, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  15. […] it’s definitely my “best of” list and not just a list of academic styled posts. How B. H. Roberts read others. Marginalia on various academic issues from Robert’s […]

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  16. I have to say that dropping that info (so subtle!)is not very Christian of you Stapley. It reminds me of my best friend when I was five, who was spoiled rotten and would always come to my house right from the toy store to show off his newest Star Wars acquisition.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 30, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  17. Excellent stuff, to be sure. Keep it coming. As a novice I ask if you were able to access the books relatively easily.

    Comment by BHodges — May 30, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

  18. BH: it was actually quite difficult at first because nobody could find the catalogue. Eventually they found it. Only a part of it has been put onto the online catalogue so far. If you ask for the hard copy they will get it out of the filing cabinet. In the BYU Studies version of TWL, there is a bibliography of the collection in an appendix in the back.

    Comment by stan — May 30, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

  19. B. H. Roberts sounds like my kind of reader. Was he also a deconstructionist, or did he just like pointing out binaries, or is there enough evidence to tell?

    Comment by Liz — May 30, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

  20. He was a Cartesian so it’s hard to do deconstruction and be Cartesian at the same time.

    Comment by Clark — May 31, 2008 @ 10:32 am

  21. So, um, Stan, when you get that paper done, I know an editor who’d love to talk to you… 🙂 (She might even nag you to hurry up and do it!)

    Comment by Kristine — May 31, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

  22. Thanks, stan.

    Comment by BHodges — June 2, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  23. […] Marginal Dialogues: The B.Clark: 8 Lectures in 7Paul Clark: Book Review: House ofPaul Clark: 8 Lectures in 7Kristine: Marginal […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Marginal Dialogues, Part 2: B. H. Roberts’s Reading, continued — June 2, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

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

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