Daughter's Denunciation of Historian Roils Mormon Church

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

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.

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."

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