This year marks the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery to the Western Hemisphere. This voyage is, without question, one of the most significant events in the history of mankind - an event of such magnitude to justify providential guidance and aid.
Columbus' history-making journey to America opened the door to a flood of exploration, colonization, missionary work and fortune-seeking. But, more important, it was fulfillment of prophecy uttered more than 2,000 years earlier and established Columbus as a forerunner to the restoration of the gospel.Some six centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Nephi recorded what he saw in vision:
"And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land." (1 Ne. 13:12.)
Some years later, Nephi's father, Lehi, prophesied ". . . that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord. . . .
"Wherefore, I, Lehi, have obtained a promise, that inasmuch as those whom the Lord God shall bring out of the land of Jerusalem shall keep his commandments, they shall prosper upon the face of this land; and they shall be kept from all other nations, that they may possess this land unto themselves. And if it so be that they shall keep his commandments they shall be blessed upon the face of this land, and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever.
"But behold, when the time cometh that they shall dwindle in unbelief, after they have received so great blessings from the hand of the Lord . . .
"Yea, he will bring other nations unto them, and he will give unto them power, and he will take away from them the lands of their possessions, and he will cause them to be scattered and smitten." (2 Ne. 1:6, 9-11.)
These two prophecies include three important considerations:
America was to be protected from interference from other nations until after the descendants of Lehi had rejected the Messiah and had dwindled in unbelief.
When the people had become unrighteous, the Lord would bring other nations, led by "a man" on whom the Spirit would work.
The Lord would give these Gentiles power over the unrighteous seed of Lehi and He would take away from them their lands.
Nephi's prophecy does not mention Columbus by name as being "the man" he saw in vision. It wasn't until 1879 that Christopher Columbus was referred to as the man among the Gentiles. Elder Orson Pratt of the Council of the Twelve did this in a footnote as he published a new edition of the Book of Mormon with references and annotations. (From radio address given by Nephi L. Morris, July 1, 1928, printed in the Deseret News, Saturday July 7, 1928.)
Several modern-day prophets have testified that Columbus was guided by the Spirit, fulfilling Book of Mormon prophecy.
President Ezra Taft Benson stated in 1976 that "God inspired `a man among the Gentiles' who, by the Spirit of God, was led to rediscover the land of America and bring this rich new land to the attention of the people in Europe. That man, of course, was Christopher Columbus, who testified that he was inspired in what he did." (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 577.)
President Spencer W. Kimball, as a member of the Council of the Twelve, also gave testimony that the Lord directed Columbus. He said in 1950 that the Lord "inspired a little boy, Christopher Columbus, to stand on the quays in Genoa, Italy, and yearn for the sea. He was filled with the desire to sail the seas, and he fulfilled a great prophecy made long, long ago that this land chosen above all other lands, should be discovered. And so when he was mature, opportunity was granted him to brave the unknown seas, to find this land . . . and to open the door, as it were. . . ." (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 427.)
The Lord prepared Columbus for his great mission on earth long before he made his discovery. Columbus was an ardent student of the Bible. He had great religious faith. He had a deep testimony of a personal and living God.
One gains an insight of his character from a couple of paragraphs he wrote in a letter to his son Diego just before embarking on his last voyage:
"I command and charge you to be very devote in giving the tithes of all the monies you shall have, be they from rents, or from any other source, give in service of our Lord to the poor and needy, and to relatives, before others; and if there are none where you are, set it apart to send it to them; if you do this, you will never lack what you need, because Our Lord will provide.
"I commend you that you honor all the people with whom you come in contact and that you treat them well from the greatest to the least, because they are people of God Our Lord. He will honor you, and will make you prosper, if you honor His people; and if you mistreat any one of them, Our Lord will mistreat you; and He will afflict you, if you afflict anyone. Therefore, be merciful, and be assured that He will be merciful to you." (Coleccion d Doecumentos para la Historia de Costa Rica relativos al Cuarto y Ultimo Viage de Cristobla Colon, p. 14.)
Historians are not at a loss for references by Columbus which boldly declare that the Lord directed him in his great undertaking. His journals and other personal writings are replete with such statements. Referring to his first voyage to America, he once stated:
"Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with the radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Holy Scriptures, by a most clear and powerful testimony . . . urging me to press forward? Continually, without a moment's hesitation, the Scriptures urged me to press forward with great haste." (The Libro de las profec'ias of Christopher Columbus, p.105.)
The anticipation and drama that builds during the first voyage is almost unparalleled in human history. Inasmuch as he sailed into the unknown, with the crew on the verge of mutiny in the final days, it is apparent that every decision he made was crucial to the success of his expedition.
In The Geographical Conceptions of Columbus, (p. 43), George E. Nunn asserts that Columbus "did not make a single false move the entire voyage."
Before 1492, other navigators had tried unsuccessfully to explore westward from the Azores Islands (800 miles off the coast of Portugal). Although the Azores were the western-most islands known in the Atlantic, Columbus chose to deviate from this course, sailing from Palos, Spain, on Aug. 3, 1492, to the Canary Islands (off the west coast of Africa). From there, he launched his voyage into the vast unknown.
In so doing, he successfully caught the trade winds coming from the northeast, and avoided the headwinds which flow from the west, in the vicinity of the Azores. This route "is still followed by all sailing vessels as the best possible from any part of Europe to North America." (The Geographical Conceptions of Columbus, p. 51.)
Nunn suggests that Columbus' success was the result of "an application of reason to knowledge." Columbus, however, gives credit to the Lord. Even though he was a successful seaman and an accomplished navigator, he said, "Our Lord opened to my understanding (I could sense His hand upon me), so that it became clear to me that it was feasible to navigate from here to the Indies. (Christopher Columbus' Book of Prophecies, p. 178.) Columbus always referred to America as the Indies.
Columbus experienced relatively easy sailing during his entire outward voyage; had it not been so, he likely would not have reached America before his crew mutinied. There was one occasion, however, on Sept. 23, when the sea became calm, and they were stalled for part of the day. In Columbus' journal, he noted that the crew, which had not seen land for 14 days, began to complain that since there were no heavy seas in the region, the wind would never blow hard enough to return to Spain.
Soon thereafter the sea mysteriously rose without wind, astonishing the crew. Columbus considered this a divine miracle. He said, "The high sea was very necessary to me [a signT which had not appeared except in the time of the Jews when they left Egypt [and complainedT against Moses, who took them out of captivity." (The Diario of Christopher Columbus' First Voyage to America, 1492-1493, p. 41.)
After he left the Canary Islands, Columbus only changed course twice. The first was on Oct. 7. Until that time, he had been sailing due west for four weeks. Then he notes in his journal that a great multitude of birds passed over, going from north to southwest.
Bartolome de Las Casas, the man who transcribed Columbus' journal, wrote, "For this reason the Admiral decided to abandon his W. course, and to turn the prow W.S.W." (Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, p. 61.)
Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Admiral of the Ocean Sea, claims that if he had not changed course, "the voyage would have taken a day longer." This extra day would have been critical because two days before landfall, the crew threatened mutiny and thereafter, every day at sea heightened their anxiety.
The other time the Admiral changed course was after sunset on Oct. 11, just a few hours before he sighted land on Oct. 12, 1492, the day now observed as Columbus Day. For no apparent reason, Columbus gave orders to change direction from west-southwest back to the original course of due west. Had he continued on the west-southwest course, he would have missed the island of San Salvador and likely ended up on the deadly reefs off the coast of Long Island (in the Caribbean.) (Admiral of the Ocean Sea, I, p. 295.)
"God gave this man the keys to the awesome seas, he and no other unlocked the darkness," wrote Bartolome de Las Casas in History of the Indies. (p. 35.)
After exploring the islands of the Caribbean for three months, Columbus prepared for the return trip to Europe. The Admiral's chosen route for his homeward journey is yet another example of his being inspired of God. He did not return to Spain by the same sea passage that carried him to America. Instead, he sailed northeast and caught winds coming out of the west that would take him back across the Atlantic to the Azores. Once again, Nunn asserts that Columbus' navigational decisions were remarkable: "So much has been said about his discovery of America that it has been lost to sight and thought that he also discovered both of the great sailing routes in the North Atlantic. (Geographical Conceptions, p. 50.)
With no prior trans-Atlantic sailing experience, how did Columbus enjoy such good fortune on both legs of the trip? Morison, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Columbus, declares, "there can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement." (Admiral of the Open Sea, p. 65.)
Columbus not only believed that the Lord inspired him on his first voyage, but was also convinced that the Holy Scriptures prophesied of his great enterprise. During the last years of his life, he was working on a manuscript that he never finished, entitled Book of Prophecies. This work includes a collection of prophetic passages, especially from the Book of Isaiah, which he believed pertained to his expedition.
Columbus made four voyages to the New World, lasting eight years and three months in a 12-year period (August 1492 to October 1504.) He commenced his first journey at age 40 and completed his fourth journey at age 53. His first voyage took only seven months; the other three exploratory journeys lasted about 21/2 years each.
Columbus died in 1506, 19 months after completing his fourth journey. His last words were, "Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit." (Columbus: The Great Adventure: His Life, His Times, and His Voyages, p. 248.)
Columbus possessed many less-edifying qualities that have been exploited by historians. From his letters, it is known that he yearned for gold and power, and he seldom forgot or forgave an injury. But he was also a man of vision and conviction, and was inexhaustibly energetic and almost unbelievably brave, burning with curiosity, and ever-active in his friends' interests.
There are those who question the credit given to Columbus for discovering America. These critics claim that others came to this part of the world before he did.
But none of these earlier explorers fulfilled prophecy. Nephi did not say that Columbus would be the first to come to America. Nor did he mention the time of his journey. But he did prophesy that the "man among the Gentiles" would open the doors for the permanent colonization of this continent. Only Columbus fulfilled Nephi's prophecy.