John Sillito’s B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena (book review)

In traditional Christianity, there are significant figures known as the Early Church Fathers who are noted as influential Christian theologians and writers who established the intellectual and doctrinal foundations of Christianity as we know it today.  While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still a form of Christianity and is indebted to these early Christian thinkers, Mormonism is its own movement and I’ve often pondered on who we would consider to be the Church Fathers (or Parents) of the Latter-day Saints.  Certainly many of the presidents of the Church fall in this category—all three Joseph Smiths, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff among them.  Beyond that, however, who would be considered a part of that category?  Certainly Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, Eliza R. Snow, James E. Talmage, and Bruce R. McConkie stand out as candidates.  Emmaline B. Wells and John A. Widtsoe come to mind as well.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone who has been reading my writing for a bit, however, that the first candidate I would suggest is B. H. Roberts.

Over the course of the almost 90 years that have passed since his death, Elder Brigham Henry Roberts (1857-1933) has received the high praise of being called Mormonism’s most eminent intellectual,[1] the best officially accepted theologian that Mormonism has known,[2] one of our most important historians,[3] and the most prolific and most effective defender of the Church.[4]  Imagine my delight, then, to find that the most significant biography since Truman G. Madsen’s 1980 Defender of the Faith was recently published by Signature Books.  John Sillito’s B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena is a solid, well-written and well-researched biography.  It covers Roberts’s life chronologically, from his rough childhood in England and Utah to his early missions, his involvement in politics in Utah, his election and unseating from the U.S. House of Representatives, his time as a chaplain in WWI, and his service as a mission president in the eastern United States.  Throughout, the biography has a strong focus on “his actions and activities, and how that involvement made him such an important public figure.”  As such, however, it doesn’t try to function as a comprehensive biography of Roberts and doesn’t provide “a thorough chronicling or his theological views and thought,” discussion about the development of the First Council of the Seventy during his tenure in that office, or his private family life.  Instead, it aims to “provide much new information on him and his public life.”[5]  And it does a splendid job of achieving that goal.

I learned a lot about B. H. Roberts and the context of his life by reading this biography.  And that’s not an insignificant statement—I’ve been working on a topical quote book of Roberts’s thought off and on over the last decade and have been working on reading everything I can find that has been written about him or by him during the time.  While I still have a decent amount of ground to cover, I knew a lot about B. H. Roberts going into reading B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena.  Some of the things from Sillito’s biography that I learned more about were a lot of context for the persecution of Mormon missionaries in the Southern United States during Roberts’s time serving there, a deeper understanding of his several conflicts with other Church leaders (particularly Joseph F. Smith and Reed Smoot), and his involvement in politics in Utah after being rejected by the House of Representatives.  Sillito’s admiration for Roberts shines through, but he also isn’t uncritical, and the biography doesn’t shy away from pointing out the darker side of B. H. Roberts.  For example, Sillito notes that Roberts could be “overbearing, petty, and at times disagreeable,” giving a particularly startling example during his congressional campaign where he called Utah governor Heber M. Wells, “craven and a son of a bitch” after Wells had publicly criticized him, which led his friend J. Golden Kimball to observe that: “The spirit Roberts manifested was from hell.  He was bitter and malicious.”[6]  I did enjoy some of the more humorous stories too, though, such as a time when he was preaching towards the end of his life and became so animated that his upper dentures became dislodged and flew into the air, only to be caught and returned back to his mouth with barely a pause in his sermon or a time when he lost his temper about having to use a newly-installed microphone and tried to take it out with his cane mid-sermon.  While it is a “warts-and-all” biography (at least within the scope of what the biography covers), it helped me to understand Roberts more fully as a person and I appreciated its candor and lack of defensiveness about the main subject.

The biography is very well researched.  Footnotes are held at the bottom of each page, giving information about the sources being referenced as well as about the different people that are mentioned throughout the volume.  It draws on a variety of sources, from newspapers to journals of people around him throughout his life to letters written by B. H. Roberts (I found the quotes from letters to his mother to be particularly illuminating about his inner thoughts), and much more.  I will say appreciated being able to glance down to the bottom of the pages to learn more about the various figures that were being introduced as well as to see where the information was coming from.  I admired the level of thoroughness that went into the research and writing of this book.

While Sillito’s work is superior in its level of detail in the areas it covers and in its lack of apologetics,  I can’t say that it will replace Truman G. Madsen’s Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story. (Frankly, though, I don’t think it was intended to take that place.)  Madsen’s work is more comprehensive, covering Roberts’s family life, theology, church offices, etc. while Sillito’s biography does not go into details in those areas.  Where it does focus,  however,  it knocks it out of the park.  One can walk away from A Life in the Public Arena with a good grasp of the life and significance of B. H. Roberts and it is a very important contribution to the study of the subject.

All told, I highly recommend picking up a copy of John Sillito’s B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena to add to your library.  This is particularly true if you are interested in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the turn of the twentieth century, B. H. Roberts as an individual, or the political history of Utah.  While not a comprehensive account of B. H. Roberts’s life, it is a valuable contribution to understanding the actions and life of one of Mormonism’s most significant figures.

 

Updated 8 Dec. 2021

Footnotes:

[1] See Stan Larson, “Intellectuals in Mormon History: An Update,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Fall 1993): 187-189.

[2] See Blake T. Ostler, “An Interview with Sterling McMurrin,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Spring 1984): 38.

[3] See Craig Mikkelsen, “The Politics of B. H. Roberts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9, no. 2, p. 26.

[4] See McKay V. Jones, “Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B. H. Roberts Lost His Testimony,” FAIR, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/archive/publications/evasive-ignorance-anti-mormon-claims-that-b-h-roberts-lost-his-testimony.

[5] John Sillito, B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2021), x-xi.

[6] Sillito, 313.

4 comments for “John Sillito’s B. H. Roberts: A Life in the Public Arena (book review)

  1. Thanks for this review.

    What sources would you recommend for those interested in learning about the other aspects of BH Robert’s’ life, particularly his theology and its influence on the church?

    Also, could you say more about Madsen’s biography for those of us who aren’t familiar with it? Is it a must read if I read this new biography first?

  2. Great questions. You don’t have to read the Truman Madsen biography (Defender of the Faith) to enjoy this one or to walk away from this one with a good grasp on B. H. Roberts’s life, but Sillito has written with a more specific focus than Madsen. So, Madsen does more to talk about Roberts’s theology, historical work, family life, etc. and I wouldn’t say that this biography replaces Madsen’s work as a comprehensive biography. A particular area where the Madsen one is weaker, however, is that it does have a bit of a devotional bent to it, so gets defensive about Roberts and the Church at times and engages in apologetics while the Sillito biography doesn’t pull punches.

    The other major volume beyond the Madsen and Sillito biographies I’d recommend for getting to know Roberts is Brigham Madsen’s The Essential B. H. Roberts, which provides selections of his writings with some introductory work.

    Beyond that, most of what he wrote is public domain and available online, so you could dive into stuff like Mormon Doctrine of Deity, Seventy’s Course in Theology, Outlines of Ecclesiastical History, the Gospel, etc. There are also two published versions of his theological magnum opus, The Truth, the Way, the Life, both of which have some great essays included in the publications from which to learn more about Roberts.

    And he was quite important as a historian in the Church, so the Comprehensive History of the Church is his magnum opus in that area and worth reading.

  3. I updated the post to speak a little more about Madsen’s work. Thank you for the request.

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