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19th Century Biography Latter-day Saint History

B. H. Roberts and Utah Politics in the Early 1900s

“I realize that my book on B. H. Roberts is not the last word on the man, just the latest.”

B H. Roberts is an important public figure in the history of the Church. As the author of numerous works about Latter-day Saint theology and history, including the Comprehensive History of the Church, his influence on Latter-day Saint thought is difficult to overestimate. In this interview, John Sillito discusses the life and legacy of Elder Roberts, drawn from his biography, B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena.

In later years, Roberts would argue that he had not engaged in “wanton” disregard of Church leaders, or disrespect of the Church itself, but rather attributed his actions to his belief that there was confusion at the time in terms of the Church hierarchy’s view respecting seeking or holding political office.

Why is B. H. Roberts important to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Even though B. H. Roberts has been dead for nearly ninety years, he was a major figure in Mormonism as a writer, theologian, historian, missionary, general authority and politician.

While many of his works are seldom quoted, and out-of-print, his two multi-volume compilations: History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period 1: History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and the Comprehensive History of the Church, remain important reference sources. Other writings are still important too.

Moreover, Roberts may represent for many Church members an example of someone who was simultaneously involved with his faith and the world around him.


Why does John Sillito focus specifically on the public life of B. H. Roberts?

For a number of reasons. Primarily, my book examines B. H. Roberts as a public person because other scholars have looked at his role as a historian and theologian. Moreover, there is a family history, written by my late colleague Richard C. Roberts, that provides useful details of his home life, his wives and children, and ancestry.

The book cover of B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena by John Sillito
“B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Political Arena” covers the entirety of the Latter-day Saint intellectual’s life while focusing on his role as a public figure.

Roberts was active not only as a political candidate, but also as an exponent of the Utah Democratic party. Roberts was viewed by many as a fair and impartial observer, and on more than one occasion arbitrated local labor strikes. He served in government as a member of the administration of Gov. Simon Bamberger, and also was a Chaplain during World War I.

At the same time, his public career included widely reported public lectures and sermons where he covered both secular and religious topics. He was a skilled and persuasive orator who could sway an audience. Indeed, as the title of my book suggests, his was clearly a life in the public arena, though obviously there were other aspects of his life as well.

At the same time, because of the considerable press attention focused on his election to Congress in 1898, and the efforts to have him expelled from that body, Roberts was probably the best-known Latter-day Saint in the country. The episode was followed widely in the press, and Roberts became a household name throughout the country.


Why is B. H. Roberts identified as being “controversial and problematic”, both in his lifetime and today?

On various occasions, B. H. Roberts took positions that were at variance with those of other Church leaders. Often these revolved around political issues, with Roberts as an outspoken Democrat at a time when the Latter-day Saint leadership was becoming increasingly Republican. While there was an active Democratic party during his adult life, Roberts often found himself confronted with the fact that Republicans controlled state and federal offices for much of that period of time.

Similarly, at times he could be difficult to deal with and inflexible—even alienating close friends and colleagues. Additionally, Roberts opposed the Woodruff Manifesto, refusing to vote to sustain it, though he indicated he later reached an accommodation with that decision.

At the same time, his theological and historical views have caused controversy for many observers, primarily since his death.

Author John Sillito lectures on his book, “B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena,” at Benchmark Books.

Much of that revolves around the publication in 1994 of two different versions of his posthumous major work The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology. Each of those volumes contain commentaries on the work itself and on Roberts.

Another important work was Studies of the Book of Mormon, edited by Brigham D. Madsen. Again, my work does not examine these questions. Those interested in these issues will find several works that can help them to better assess the “controversial and problematic” aspects of the man.


Why is B. H. Roberts is often regarded as “the foremost intellectual in Mormonism”?

Although he was basically self-educated, B. H. Roberts read widely in history, literature, political economy and religion. During his lifetime, he was arguably Mormonism’s “foremost” intellectual. Since then, as other Latter-day Saint thinkers have emerged, often well-trained in graduate school, there may be others who would have a claim on that title.

Foremost is a difficult status to define. One might ask who was the greatest hitter of all time? Many factors—the era of play, the nature of the game, the skill of the pitching, etc.—would have to be considered to decide who was “foremost.”

Still, without doubt, B. H. Roberts was an important Latter-day Saint intellectual voice in the first three decades of the 20th century.


Why did B. H. Roberts and other Latter-day Saint missionaries experience open hostility in the Southern U.S.?

It was a combination of factors. First and overwhelmingly, there was the issue of plural marriage—with many Southerners (a) viewing that practice as constituting immoral behavior, and (b) convinced that missionaries were converting women to take them to Utah to become plural wives.

There was an additional factor. Many Southerners felt that whole families of converts, including extended families, would be relocated in Utah, thus impacting the local population.

Beyond that, Southern preachers—both lay and professionally trained—focused their sermons and attacks on Latter-day Saint theological views. In short, they argued that the Mormonism was not Christian.

B. H. Roberts debated many of these preachers during his time in the Southern States mission, as did many other missionaries, and these debates were widely reported both in the South and in Utah as well.

There were several incidents of violence in the Southern States over the years. Perhaps the best-known surrounds the murder of two missionaries—William S. Berry and John H. Gibbs—at Cane Creek, Tennessee, in 1884. Roberts, disguised as a tramp, recovered their bodies and made arrangements to return them to Utah.

Ironically, this activity received considerable press attention throughout the nation and made Roberts a well-known figure while still in his twenties.

Interestingly, in 1906, Roberts (accompanied by George Albert Smith) was sent on a special mission at the request of the First Presidency to visit several states in the East and South. They instructed B. H. Roberts to make it clear, especially as he visited in the South, that the Church did not practice plural marriage, and that they wanted converts to remain in their home areas, not relocate to Utah.


What reasons did B. H. Roberts give for his reluctance to sign the political manifesto?

B. H. Roberts believed he had received permission from Church authorities to run for Congress in 1895. After the election, as Church authorities criticized his political activities, Roberts said that while he was aware that his actions had not met with uniform approval, he felt he had good reasons to take the course he did, and would not apologize for his actions.

I think it is also fair to say that he suspected some of this criticism was motivated for partisan reasons by several Republicans in high positions. Ultimately, he accepted their views and changed his course.

Thus, while still believing he had undertaken his political actions honestly and in good conscience, he supported the “political manifesto” issued at the April 1896 general conference. Basically, it held that before accepting any position that would interfere with performing ecclesiastical duties, leading Church officials should apply to the proper authorities to determine whether it was possible to function in both positions.

In later years, Roberts would argue that he had not engaged in “wanton” disregard of Church leaders, or disrespect of the Church itself, but rather attributed his actions to his belief that there was confusion at the time in terms of the Church hierarchy’s view respecting seeking or holding political office.


Did B. H. Roberts seek additional wives after the 1890 Manifesto?

That is a good question. B. H. Roberts never wavered in his claim that he had married his third wife—Margaret Curtis Shipp—in April 1890. Most scholars doubt that claim, though estimates of the marriage year very from 1891 to 1894.

Unfortunately, there is probably no existing documentation to prove or disprove his claim. Roberts said the marriage was performed by Daniel H. Wells, who died in March 1891.

As noted above, Roberts struggled with the Manifesto and did not vote to sustain it. While he said he had reached an accommodation with it, he told a meeting of Latter-day Saints in Colonia Diaz, Mexico in 1893 that plural marriage was “a correct principle and will remain on the earth somewhere, and the sun will shine on it forever.”

At the same time, it is clear that B. H. Roberts took a plural wife in October 1884, when he married Celia Dibble. All students of Roberts accept that second marriage, and the time frame surrounding it.

Still, Roberts could be disingenuous on the subject. A month after the marriage to Celia, for example, when asked by a reporter if he believed polygamy to be “legally, morally and theologically right” he responded that he did. But when asked by the reporter if he practiced it, he replied, “Not literally or personally.”


How did B. H. Roberts remain active in politics after being unseated by the U.S. House of Representatives?

While Roberts considered running for office on a couple of occasions, he ultimately decided against it. No doubt he thought such a candidacy might open old wounds. Primarily he used his oratorical talents as a surrogate speaker for the Democratic party throughout Utah, and occasionally in adjoining states.

He was a strong defender of President Woodrow Wilson, and fully agreed with his views on World War I, and the need for a postwar peace keeping organization known as the League of Nations. As a result, he campaigned widely in Utah in support of the League, though most Utahns opposed the treaty which would have enabled the United States to become a member of the body.

B. H. Roberts, shown here as an old man in military uniform, served as a chaplain in France during World War I.
B.H. Roberts served as a chaplain with the 145 artillery in France during World War I. Credit: Signature Books

How did B. H. Roberts improve Latter-day Saint missionary work while serving as president of the Eastern States mission?

Even before going to the Eastern States, B. H. Roberts believed that missionaries were being sent to the field lacking a real understanding of gospel principles, as well as an ability to speak forcefully and logically in their defense. Once he became Eastern States mission president he instituted “mission schools” which were week-long training classes where missionaries not only studied scriptural and gospel topics, but worked on public speaking, grooming and appearance and other issues.

In their reminiscences, many missionaries who served under B. H. Roberts frequently identify these sessions as fundamental to their success in the mission field, and essential to their future Church activities. They saw him as a firm but loving taskmaster.


What was the most painful thing that John Sillito had to cut from the final draft of his B. H. Roberts biography?

That is hard to say. Any biographer likes to believe that whatever was discovered about his/her subject is both fascinating and essential. There were some details about his early life and his first missions to Tennessee that needed to be cut.

I turned in to my editor a very lengthy manuscript. These details may have some relevance to future scholars, both of B. H. Roberts himself and his times. Ultimately the final draft of the manuscript, and my research papers will be held at Weber State University’s Special Collections department, and will be open for research.

At the same time, I realize that my book on B. H. Roberts is not the last word on the man, just the latest. I have no doubt that he will continue to be a subject of scholarly examination in the years ahead.


If John Sillito could be there for one moment in B. H. Roberts’s life, what would it be?

That is a tough and a very good question to consider. I think if I had to choose it would either be his speech in congress defending his right to serve, or his speech to the 1916 Democratic convention in support of Simon Bamberger, who ultimately became Utah’s first—and so far, only—Jewish governor.

I had the opportunity to interview another Utah Governor, Herbert B. Maw, many years ago about the 1916 speech. Maw was a delegate at the convention and told me it was one of the most amazing speeches he ever heard, and that it clearly swayed the delegates to Bamberger.

Indeed, either of these speeches would have to be considered as historic. Beyond that, they would have been examples of Roberts at his oratorical finest!

At the same time, if I had the chance to ask Roberts one question, it would be: “When and where did you marry Margaret Curtis Shipp, and who performed the ceremony?” It would be fascinating to know for sure!

John Sillito

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Further reading

Brigham Henry Roberts resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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