Nephi, the founder of a civilization

The Book of Mormon reveals Nephi as the founder of Nephite civilization. Because his father, Lehi, died shortly after they reached the promised land, it fell to Nephi to establish the religious and political traditions that came to distinguish the Nephites from the Lamanites over the next millennium.

Because of the record keeping that Nephi inaugurated, we have access to considerable detail about Nephi's teachings in these areas. He explained his principal purpose in these records toward the end of his writings: `For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do." (2 Ne. 25:23.)A secondary purpose in these writings was closely linked to this one. Nephi's position as ruler was always a bone of contention for the Lamanites, and for apostate Nephites over the centuries. But Nephi's political position was also linked to his belief in Christ. For it was the Lord that appointed him to "be a ruler and a teacher over his brethren." But already, in his own days, the Lamanites had formulated their contrary tradition which described Nephi and his successors as usurpers.

In his small plates, Nephi unites these two purposes in a single thesis statement, saying: "Behold, I Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance." (1 Ne. 1:20.) By the time Nephi undertakes the writing of the small plates, his people have been in the promised land for around 20 years. They have already had wars with the Lamanites, and the Lamanite rejection of both Christ and Nephi is clearly established. First Nephi is carefully written to prove this thesis to his people and their descendants for centuries to come. Nephi and his people are chosen by the Lord because of their faith and His mercies. They will be delivered by His power.

The six basic stories Nephi relates demonstrate this thesis time and time again, showing us one dimension in which Nephi's thesis is true. The same general pattern emerges in each of the following:

  1. The murmuring of Laman and Lemuel as the family leaves Jerusalem. (1 Ne. 3:2-15.)
  1. The return to Jerusalem for the brass plates. (1 Ne. 3:2-5:16.)
  1. The return to Jerusalem for Ishmael and his family. (1 Ne. 7:2-22.)
  1. The incident of the broken bow. (1 Ne. 16:9-17:6.)
  1. The building of the ship. (1 Ne. 17:7-18:4.)
  1. The crossing of the sea. (1 Ne. 18:5-25.)

Each of the above brings with it a divine command given to the prophet Lehi, or to Nephi. In each case, Laman and Lemuel murmur, rebel and threaten Lehi or Nephi directly, often with severe physical injury or death. Resolution of these conflicts results from a demonstration of divine power, and the faithful fulfil the original divine command. Usually, the story ends describing the submission or repentance of Laman and Lemuel, and Lehi or Nephi forgives them.

In these stories, Nephi proves his thesis by showing how the Lord repeatedly delivered him and his father from life-threatening situations through some manifestation of divine power that made them mighty in these situations. The point is clear the Lord often looks out for the faithful and protects them from evil, according to their faith.

The second dimension in which Nephi develops his thesis is prophecy. Nephi focused early on the prophecies of his father, and in seeking to understand them, received the same visions his father had received – in addition to numerous other personal revelations. He found the prophecies of Zenos and Isaiah to be equally valuable in reinforcing his thesis. For all of these pointed to a future day, when the long history of apostasy and the triumphs of evil in the world will come to an end.

Although every dispensation until then will finally end in apostasy and scattering of the believers, there will be one final restoration of Christ's gospel that will not fail. Rather, it will sweep the earth and the Lord will "

makeT bare his arm in the eyes of all the nations." (1 Ne. 22:10-11.)

And in that day the members of the church of the Lamb of God will be few in number and surrounded by the threatenings of a wicked world. The mother of abominations will gather multitudes to fight against them. At that time, as Nephi foresaw, the power of the Lamb of God will descend upon the saints of His church, "and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth," arming them with "righteousness and the power of God in great glory." (1 Ne. 14:12-14.)

Prophecy was an important dimension in which Nephi's thesis can be proven. It shows that God truly is in control. And in the final analysis, the faithful will be blessed, despite the enormous sufferings and evils that will occur in the world throughout its history.

In the small plates, Nephi returns four times to the discussion of these particular prophecies to explain how it is that even though the Lord has made this great covenant with the house of Israel from the time of Abraham down to the present, and even though Israel is repeatedly scattered throughout the world and throughout every nation – "upon all the face of the earth," the time will come when the Lord will fulfil that covenant and bring Israel back to Him. And it will be through the power of this great restoration of the gospel, in which the Book of Mormon itself will play a central part. God will triumph in the end; the righteous will be redeemed in glory; and the powers of darkness will be forever banished or destroyed. Indeed, the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those He has chosen, to make them mighty, even unto the power of deliverance.

But there is still a problem. For Nephi does not deny that the evil times he recounts will produce great suffering and persecutions of the righteous, even unto death for untold thousands. So while his prophecies prove the thesis true for the world in general, what about each person in particular? Will every faithful person truly be delivered by God's power? To show that God's deliverance is universal, Nephi closes his writings with a discussion of the third dimension of his thesis, the saving power of Jesus Christ that will be extended to all who receive and follow his gospel.

In this dimension, Nephi teaches that through the atonement of Christ, all who come unto Him can be delivered from death, hell, and the devil – the true enemies of God's children. While the Lord's servants may be required to suffer many afflictions in this life – and are certainly not spared from all pain and suffering – the repentant will be delivered completely from their sins through the mighty power of Jesus' atonement.

So there is one dimension in which Nephi's thesis is universally true, without any exceptions. And of course, this is the main sense for which the thesis is intended. All men and women can come unto Christ and find deliverance from their sins and the powers of evil which might have claims on them – no exceptions.

The revelations received by Lehi and Nephi taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that appears to have gone far beyond what they had learned from the Jews at Jerusalem. They both saw visions which took them six centuries into the future and made them witnesses to Christ's baptism and ministry. (1 Ne. 10-11.) Furthermore, as Nephi's second account of this vision makes clear, while Nephi was having this vision he heard the voices of the Father and the Son explaining its doctrinal implications. (2 Ne. 31.) Through their visions and immigration to a promised land, they became the founders of a new dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, or, as Nephi often termed it, the "doctrine of Christ."

It is in his closing chapters of the small plates that Nephi focuses most intently on the gospel or the doctrine of Christ. Only then does he inform the reader that these teachings were actually given to him by the voices of the Father and the Son, repeating the same principles to him in turn, that he might have no question about this basic teaching. And that we might have no question, Nephi begins and ends his summary of this teaching by telling us that he is presenting the doctrine of Christ. (See 2 Ne. 31:2-21.)

According to the word or promise of God, all who enter this gate in the prescribed manner will receive a gift from Him, even the Holy Ghost. This blessing is described to Nephi as "the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost," which enable men to "speak with the tongue of angels," and brings "a remission of sins," providing the convert with a witness of the Father and the Son. (2 Ne. 31:13, 17-18.)

While it is typical of the Nephite prophets to introduce repentance first in their teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Nephi understood clearly no one can even enter the gate in the way he has described except by "unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save." (2 Ne. 31:19.)

And just as faith is required to enter into the path that leads to eternal life, so must all who have embarked on that course continue faithful throughout their lives with "a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men." (2 Ne. 31:20.) All who endure to the end filled in this manner with faith, hope and charity, will receive eternal life. But those who do not "endure to the end in following the example of the Son of the living God . . . cannot be saved." (2 Ne. 31:16.)

So while God is generous in offering salvation from sin and the evils of mortality to every person, following the example of Jesus Christ is the only way to receive that blessing. For "there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen." (2 Ne. 31:21.)

Nephi has demonstrated the truthfulness of his thesis in three ways. God can deliver the faithful from their enemies in the normal course of their lives. He will also bring to pass the final defeat of evil in the world and the triumph of righteousness. But most important, by obedience to His gospel, every human being may receive eternal life, being delivered forever from his own sins and all the effect of evil in this world. No wonder Nephi labored diligently to write, to persuade us and his posterity to believe in Christ. For it is by His grace that we are saved, after all that we can do.

  • Noel Reynolds, president of the BYU First Stake, is a professor of political science at BYU and president of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies.