SALT LAKE CITY — Although the Mormon Church is one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing Christian denominations, members of the faith often take a defensive stance toward the outside world. “Mormons of every stripe are obsessive about their image,” historians Richard and Joan Ostling noted, “deeply concerned that their church appears to outsiders as a ‘cult.’ “
In the ongoing effort to enhance the church’s image, no Mormon played a bigger role than Hugh Nibley, the multilingual teacher and scholar whose books, laden with footnotes and laced with quotations from ancient texts, make a meticulous argument that Mormon scripture reflects historic truth.
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But this spring, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been rocked by a furious attack on the beloved historian — an attack that comes from his daughter, Martha Nibley Beck.
In an explosive memoir, Beck, 42, says that Nibley was a pedophile who abused her as a child while chanting ancient Egyptian prayers. She also says that her father’s history books were fictional and that the extensive footnotes for which he was famous were simply made up.
Beck’s mother and her seven siblings have angrily denounced the book, “Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found my Faith,” saying she is either lying, deranged or both. Nibley’s fellow historians in the field have rallied to his defense, arguing that his scholarly work is reliable.
The family notes that the bitter controversy made for a sad conclusion to Nibley’s life. He died in February, at the age of 94, as his daughter’s book went on sale. In his last months, his other children say, he forcefully denied Beck’s charges of sexual abuse and of academic misconduct.
The impact extends far beyond the Nibley family. Much of Utah — with 73 percent of the population Mormon, it is the closest thing America has to a one-church state — has been stunned by the attack on a revered defender of the common faith. Internet chat rooms, radio talk shows and letters-to-the-editor columns have been flooded with commentary.
“It’s just a terrible thing for a community to go through,” said Andrew Ludlow, a church member and a senior at the church’s premier school, Brigham Young University. “I don’t think there’s ever been a Mormon scholar more admired, or even loved, than Hugh Nibley. To see him attacked like this — attacked by his own daughter — is almost unbelievable.”
Dan Wotherspoon, editor of the independent Mormon magazine Sunstone, says the book has aggravated divisions within the Mormon world.
“Martha’s book clearly has energized those who want to justify their own struggles with the church,” he said. “The buzz around this book is huge, and it’s primarily negative. She says a lot of things in there that anyone who lives in Utah will just know is wrong. But it has struck a chord with folks moving in her direction, out of the faith.”
The Latter-day Saints church is an intensely American faith. Founded in the 1820s by a New York farm boy named Joseph Smith, it says the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. The church uses the Judeo-Christian Bible alongside scripture of its own, primarily the Book of Mormon. This text says that Jesus Christ came to America after his resurrection to preach to the Indians. Nonetheless, the Salt Lake City-based church has seen its fastest growth overseas. The church says it operates in 170 countries, and more than half its 12.3 million members live outside North America.
Beck, a therapist and self-help columnist, said in an interview that she did not write the book “to punish my family or the church.” The book was primarily designed, she said, to be “therapeutic for the author.” She writes that “protecting the Mormon Church by keeping dark secrets . . . would isolate me in a life of smothered rage.”
In “Leaving the Saints,” Beck says that she suffered for years from anorexia, anger and despair, and had frequent suicidal impulses. When she and her former husband, John C. Beck, were teaching at Brigham Young in the 1990s, she believed that church authorities stalked her, tapped her phone and threatened her.
One day, in her late twenties, Beck writes, her brain “seemed to erupt like a volcano” and she suddenly had a memory of her father abusing her in her bed when she was 5. She subsequently remembered other abuse that she said lasted until she was 8. In an interview, she said these memories were the reason for her unhappiness and mental problems.
Beck, a mother of three, says that an obstetrician who examined her as an adult found vaginal scarring, but concluded it came from giving birth. She says a therapist told her that if she was abused by her father, her three sisters would have been abused, as well. The sisters say this did not happen.
Beck argues that such negative evidence makes her more convinced her memory is accurate.
“The peculiar details of my memories had at first made me doubt myself — they were so weird — but in the end, reinforced my conviction that I hadn’t unconsciously made something up,” she writes in her book.
Beck writes that she was in the frozen-foods aisle of a grocery store when a scholar in a tweed coat, whom she does not name, came up to her. He told her that Nibley’s 15 history books were fictional, and that 90 percent of his footnotes were made up. On hearing this charge, she says, “I felt noticeably, physically stronger.”
In an interview, Beck said the charges against her father’s scholarship came from the man in the grocery store, and “not as a result of my own investigation.” She cited articles by historians, including other Mormons, criticizing one of Nibley’s books.
One of the historians Beck cited, Kent P. Jackson of Brigham Young, said he has studied Nibley’s work and challenged some of his conclusions. “But I never found the slightest hint of falsification or making things up,” Jackson said.
Jackson said that he does not believe any scholar actually made the charge cited in Beck’s book. “In my opinion, the man in tweed in the grocery store is a fictional character that she made up,” he said.
Beck writes in the book that parental sexual abuse is more frequent in Mormon families than in the general population; she says this is so because, until the 1890s, the church endorsed the practice of polygamy. In an interview, she said it is “absolutely impossible” to find statistical data on comparative rates of abuse. She said that when she talks about her book on radio or television, she almost always hears from other Mormon daughters who say they, too, were abused.
In the controversy here surrounding Beck’s attack on her father, her critics have pointed out that parts of the book are clearly fictional.
Beck writes, for example, that she was initially afraid to see a therapist named “Rachel Grant,” because the name reminded her of a former Mormon president, Heber J. Grant. At another point, she says she had a vision that a woman whose name contained the letters “D” “N” and “A” would help her through a crisis. Shortly afterward, she says, her cousins “Diana” and “Miranda” knocked on her door.
Beck said in an interview that she made up the names of the three women. She said the rest of the book is true.
Her siblings focus on various turns in Beck’s life that she does not mention in the book. While “Leaving the Saints” repeatedly discusses Beck’s sex life, the book does not mention that Martha Beck, now divorced, is a lesbian.
In 1990, Beck and her husband co-wrote a book, “Breaking the Cycle of Compulsive Behavior,” which argues that homosexuality is a choice — an “addiction” that can be “overcome” through will power. Martha Beck now lives with a woman in a relationship she calls “more than platonic.” She said she no longer believes that homosexuality is a choice that can be overcome.
Beck said that her sexual orientation would seem to be appropriate to mention “in a book about sex and sexual secrets.” But she decided to leave it out, she said, because “that will be another book.”
Church members are also angry that Beck jokes about aspects of the Mormon faith; for example, she refers to the religious garments that Mormons wear in their temples as “holy long johns.”
But the main complaint about “Leaving the Saints” is that Beck has targeted one of the most admired of all the Latter-day Saints.
“Books by apostates from the church, they come along all the time,” Wotherspoon, of Sunstone Magazine, said. “But an attack on Hugh Nibley — to call Hugh Nibley a pedophile and a liar, with no evidence to back it up — of course that is going to hit the Mormon community like an earthquake.”