“B. H. Roberts,” Church History Topics (2022)
“B. H. Roberts,” Church History Topics
Brigham Henry Roberts (1857–1933) was a missionary, scholar, theologian, historian, and Seventy who wrote and compiled many books, including the first multivolume history of the Church and a theology series for Quorums of the Seventy. Roberts contended with critics of the Book of Mormon, affirming that the truth of the book could withstand rigorous academic scrutiny. His scholarship earned him the reputation as a “defender of the faith.”1
Born to an impoverished family in Lancashire, England, Roberts suffered a childhood he later described as nightmarish and tragic, due partly to his father’s propensities toward gambling and alcohol.2 Life improved somewhat after his parents joined the Church, but his mother, Ann, decided to separate from his father and travel to Utah Territory to join the Latter-day Saints there. Because of her economic situation, Ann was unable to bring all her children, leaving the young Roberts in the care of a local family in 1862. In 1866, Roberts departed England to rejoin his mother and was baptized the following year.
Roberts served several missions, including tours in the Southern and Eastern States Missions. He returned to the Southern States Mission as its mission president in 1883. Missionaries at the time faced violent antagonism in the southern United States. In 1884, William S. Berry and John H. Gibbs were shot and killed by a masked mob in Tennessee in what became known as the Cane Creek Massacre. As acting president of the mission, Roberts was tasked with recovering the slain bodies of these missionaries and securing their transportation back to Utah for a proper burial. To protect his identity, he disguised himself by shaving his facial hair and wearing frayed clothing.
Like many Latter-day Saint men in the late 1800s, Roberts served time in prison for having practiced plural marriage in Utah. After five months in prison and his release in 1889, he became active in politics and served in the 1895 constitutional convention in Utah, where legislators debated a proposal to the United States Congress for statehood. Roberts opposed women’s suffrage despite the convention voting in its favor for fear the president of the United States at the time would refuse to certify the proposed constitution with suffrage included.3 After Utah was granted statehood, Roberts ran for office in the Democratic Party and was eventually elected to the House of Representatives in 1898. Due to lingering national suspicions about the Latter-day Saint practice of plural marriage, the United States Congress denied Roberts his congressional seat.4
Roberts notably served as president of the First Council of the Seventy from 1887 until his death in 1933, during which time he wrote several influential works. He considered his ambitious effort to reconcile all his religious thinking and scientific understanding, The Truth, the Way, and the Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, his magnum opus. But when readers in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles debated some of his assertions about the age of the earth, organic evolution, and eternal progression, Roberts decided not to revise or publish the draft. His historical works, however, were published by the Church. His edition of the seven-volume History of the Church and his six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church became staples of Latter-day Saint historical writing for the rest of the 20th century.