“Nephi, a Universal Man,” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 65
Nephi was that rare combination: a great prophet who is also a founder of a nation. As prophet, he succeeded his father Lehi as spiritual leader in ancient America and laid the groundwork for the heights of righteousness later achieved. As ruler of a new nation, he was so beloved of his people that when “he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people,” the people insisted on calling his successors “second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth.” (Jacob 1:9–11.) And his influence was so great that for a thousand years the people called themselves Nephites. Near the end of that millennium, Mormon took pride in declaring himself to be a descendant of Nephi. (Morm. 1:5.)
Like Enoch, Moses, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young, Nephi led his people to physical safety, organized them into a new society, and stood at the head of a unique era in scriptural history. Like Enoch, Moses, and Joseph Smith, he received panoramic visions and great spiritual powers, including a visitation by the Lord. (1 Ne. 2:16; 2 Ne. 11:2–3.) And like Joseph the son of Israel, his righteousness provoked his rebellious older brothers to try to kill him. (See Gen. 37:18–20; 1 Ne. 7:16, 1 Ne. 16:38; 2 Ne. 5:4.) Yet, like all of God’s prophets, Nephi courageously carried out the will of the Lord, doing that which he was directed to accomplish.
Familiar with his spiritual stature, however, we sometimes fail to recognize that Nephi was one of the “universal men” of this world’s history, a person of multiple talents and skills. He led the establishment of a major civilization in the “new” world (2 Ne. 5:6, 10–11, 13); he possessed the intellect, skills, insight, and leadership capacities that class him among the great colonizers of all time. We do not usually apply the term “pioneer” to him, but we should. Indeed, in that way, as in others, he seems to identify with Moses at several points in his writing. (1 Ne. 4:2; 1 Ne. 17:23–47.) This analogy seems especially fitting, for both men not only were great colonizers but also were men of great spiritual capacity: both saw visions and both wrote scripture that had great impact on their own as well as other civilizations.
Not only did Nephi personally refine the ore, design the shape, and make the metal plates on which he wrote, but he was also a skilled craftsman in a dozen other areas. (1 Ne. 19:1.) When his steel bow broke, he made one of wood. (1 Ne. 16:23.) Taught by the Lord, he smelted ore, fashioned metal tools, and built a ship of “exceeding fine” workmanship. (1 Ne. 17:16; 1 Ne. 18:1–4.) In the promised land he established a city, built a temple “after the manner of the temple of Solomon,” and taught his people to build buildings and to work in wood, iron, copper, brass, steel, gold, silver, and precious ores. (2 Ne. 5:15–16.) For the defense of his people he made weapons, with the sword of Laban for a model. (2 Ne. 5:14.) And in a land where the Lamanites became an “idle people” who subsisted on hunting, Nephi caused his people to be industrious and to labor with their hands. (2 Ne. 5:17, 24.) All this he managed in virgin wilderness, without any help from a civilization base.
We have no portraits of Nephi, but we know he was large and powerful (1 Ne. 4:31), an excellent hunter (1 Ne. 16:31–32), uncomplaining despite pain and hardship. A skilled warrior, he was “a great protector for” his people, wielding “the sword of Laban” in their defense. (Jacob 1:10.) Even as a youth he overpowered Zoram, a mature man. (1 Ne. 4:31.) Yet despite his strength he did not use force as an argument with his brothers, relying instead on spiritual means. (1 Ne. 3:28–29; 1 Ne. 7:16–18; 1 Ne. 16:24, 38; 1 Ne. 17:48, 52–54.) And even when commanded by the Lord it was a great struggle for him to bring himself to kill another man. (1 Ne. 4:10.) This powerful combination of spirituality and personality coupled with his physical impressiveness must have made his impact extraordinary.
Imagine a man with the mantle of a prophet, an athletic man who appears to be able to do anything and make anything, and who seems to possess supreme self-confidence, having been “highly favored of the Lord.” (1 Ne. 1:1.) In the face of frequent and stiff, even murderous, opposition, he would characteristically meet it with steel resistance. Fearless, he answered doubters with the words, power, and success that the Lord gave him. In modern terms, he was unflappable and unstoppable.
These personality traits also emerged in his teaching style. His approach was frank, direct, even blunt. “My soul delighteth in plainness,” he acknowledged (2 Ne. 31:3), and he minced no words in his prophecies of the latter days (see 2 Ne. 28; 2 Ne. 29; 2 Ne. 33). When his rebuke roused a keen sense of guilt in his brothers, they protested, “Thou hast declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear.”
Nephi answered that “I knew that I had spoken hard things against the wicked according to the truth; … wherefore, the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center. … If ye were righteous, … then ye would not murmur because of the truth, and say: Thou speakest hard things against us.” (1 Ne. 16:1–3.)
We’ve seen this kind of intense confrontation before; it is the eternal conflict between good and evil. Personalities and family rivalries are involved, true enough, but they do not mask a polarity so vivid that it attains classic proportions. The Book of Mormon stage sees another act of the drama that began with Lucifer’s struggle to overcome Christ and continued as Cain opposed Abel. Satan’s agents in every dispensation have tried to bring down the servants of the Lord. Laman and Lemuel had more than a normal case of sibling rivalry; their struggle was as much with truth and their own consciences as with Nephi.
Just as Abel’s righteousness aroused Cain’s hatred, so did Nephi’s righteousness arouse the hatred of Laman and Lemuel. The record indicates that Nephi spoke up when his brothers’ doubts and complaints seemed to interfere with the work of the Lord. Though Laman and Lemuel attacked Nephi, saying, “We will not that our younger brother shall be a ruler over us” (1 Ne. 18:10), it was not his wish to be their ruler. In fact, when Laman and Lemuel, shaken by the power of God, fell down before Nephi and were about to worship him, he protested, “I am thy brother, yea, even thy younger brother; wherefore, worship the Lord thy God, and honor thy father and thy mother.” (1 Ne. 17:55.)
Nephi’s purity, his father’s love for him, and his closeness to the Lord must have been a constant irritation to Laman and Lemuel as they compared themselves to him and always found themselves lacking. They were often humbled: by an angel (1 Ne. 3:29), by their own consciences when Ishmael’s wife and a daughter and a son pleaded with them (1 Ne. 7:19–20), by the words of the Lord written on the Liahona (1 Ne. 16:27), by the voice and power of God (1 Ne. 16:39; 1 Ne. 17:54–55), and finally by a storm at sea. (1 Ne. 18:13–16.) But their memories were short, and humility was never strong enough in them to drown out their pride. They rebelled again even more quickly than they had “repented.”
Nephi’s crystal purity and sterling character set a clear standard for his apparently proud, indulgent, and less energetic brothers. He was a mirror they preferred not to look at, for he reflected their true natures back to them with merciless clarity.
But to explain the whole drama as a mere personality clash is assuming too much—the counters are cosmic, the scope eternal. Let’s view the situation in terms of both psychology and theology. Human personality is influenced by both theological and psychological principles. Our personality is an offshoot of how an eternal free agent (an intelligence, spirit, and soul) deals with doctrine (eternal law). Thus, like all of us, Laman and Lemuel were born with some personality predispositions developed in the preexistence. We cannot attribute their reactions to Nephi’s righteousness only as sibling rivalry. Nor can we interpret Nephi’s staunchness as self-righteousness or arrogance toward his brothers. Nephi, in his direct manner, accused them: “Ye are murderers in your hearts. … Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God.” (1 Ne. 17:44–45.) The conflict takes place on a grander scale. It is the human, mortal expression of a contest between right and wrong. The opposing forces are magnified here until the differences are unmistakable. I have often thought that Nephi was inspired to document this opposition in detail as a lesson to all mankind. The perfection of his character was a necessary element in the story. It helps to heighten the drama and thereby make the Lord’s message to us strong and clear. How else but through a Nephi and a Laman and a Lemuel could this message be told so well?
There is another virtue in Nephi’s character that has always been compelling to me. He did not emotionally cut off his brothers; that is, he seems not to have held grudges. Love followed rebuke and exhortation. We sense some of his sorrow when his brothers rejected the invitation to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ. “I did frankly forgive them all that they had done,” he says of his early life (1 Ne. 7:21), and years later he wrote, “I pray continually for them by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them.” (2 Ne. 33:3.)
Because of both plainness and love, Nephi possessed a remarkable ability to persuade those he instructed—if they desired righteousness. It was Laman’s and Lemuel’s failure, not Nephi’s, when they turned away from the Lord. Numerous others chose righteousness under Nephi’s influence, established his program on the new continent, and “loved Nephi exceedingly.” (Jacob 1:10.)
As to Nephi’s mind, it is apparent that he was an intelligent person, clear in exposition and lucidly logical, as we see from his theological interpretations of the olive tree and the tree of life. (See 1 Ne. 15.)
For me, one of the tenderest revelations of Nephi’s personality comes in the special relationship between him and Lehi. While their beliefs and messages were the same, their personalities were surely different. Both are prophets of heroic proportions, but it is enlightening for fathers and sons of our day to note that Nephi, despite his precociousness, was totally obedient to his father. He observes every rule of decorum in relation to his father’s patriarchal role. He believes all that his father declares and seeks his direction before launching into his inspired enterprises. At the same time, Lehi has high regard—even deference—for Nephi, recognizing true greatness in his son. Here we have an exemplary standard for all fathers and sons, one that has not been obscured at all by the centuries, but which is made even more relevant in our time by the dissolution of proper love and authority in many modern families.
Ultimately. Lehi bestows blessings of the greatest magnitude upon Nephi. As he blessed his sons just before his death, Lehi told them: “It must needs be that the power of God must be with [Nephi], even unto his commanding you that ye must obey. … And now my son, Laman, and also Lemuel and Sam, and also my sons who are the sons of Ishmael, behold, if ye will hearken unto the voice of Nephi ye shall not perish.” (2 Ne. 1:27–28.)
It might have seemed to Laman and Lemuel that their father loved Nephi more than he loved them, but like the Lord, Lehi was no respecter of persons. He made it clear to them that if they had sought the Lord as diligently as Nephi did, they would have deserved and received as many blessings. (2 Ne. 1:27–29.)
Nephi’s unusual spiritual endowment may be measured by looking at the special gifts, messages, and powers that he received. As with Joseph Smith, he obtained spiritual knowledge at an “exceeding young” age and was given a preview of his destiny. (1 Ne. 2:16–22.) Like the Prophet Joseph, he had “great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me.” (1 Ne. 2:16.) Also, the Lord “spake unto me, saying … ye … shall be led to a land of promise … [and] thou shalt be made a ruler and a teacher over thy brethren.” (1 Ne. 2:20, 22.) He knew his divine calling even before he received the brass plates of Laban.
There then followed a series of revelations and dispensations of power to Nephi that place him among the great prophets of all ages:
“I am filled with the power of God, even unto the consuming of my flesh.” (1 Ne. 17:48.)
“If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them.” (1 Ne. 17:50.)
“And after I had prayed the winds did cease, and the storm did cease, and there was a great calm.” (1 Ne. 18:21.)
“Behold, he hath heard my cry by day, and he hath given me knowledge by visions in the nighttime. …
“My voice have I sent up on high; and angels came down and ministered unto me.
“And upon the wings of his Spirit hath my body been carried away upon exceeding high mountains. And mine eyes have beheld great things, yea, even too great for man; therefore I was bidden that I should not write them.” (2 Ne. 4:23–25.)
It is not easy to attempt an assessment of the length and breadth of this great man’s faith, a faith so strong that ordinary characteristics seem obliterated by an overwhelming heavenly influence. Most of us can’t imagine being transported to the tops of mountains, or shocking our enemies by pointing a finger at them, or seeing 2,600 years into the future, but Nephi’s faith was sufficient for these physical wonders as well as the visitations, voices, and visions we most frequently associate with the prophetic calling.
Indeed, Nephi’s faith is so singular that our Latter-day Saint culture has been greatly influenced by his example. Our congregations sing of “Nephi, seer of olden time.” (Hymns, no. 186.) When we want a scripture on faith (and works) we turn to what has become a classic statement by Nephi, probably declared during his teens: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7.)What greater message to modern youth than to know that the young can receive such spiritual influences. The Lord spoke to Nephi in his youth, saying: “Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy faith, for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.” (1 Ne. 2:19; italics added.)
The Lord can and will speak to us as well. If we can exercise faith as did Nephi and obtain a similarly humble “lowliness of heart,” then we can have strength to face our problems as he did—and few in history have had greater problems than he.
Imagine, for example, how incredibly unreal and even depressing it would be to an ordinary person with no experience or tradition of seafaring skills to see the great waves of the ocean for the first time and to be told to cross the mighty deep. Nephi, however, had the faith to obtain a vision of what was possible and then to pursue that vision without hesitation before incredible obstacles. He found ore deposits and mined and smelted the ore, fashioning his own metal tools for shipbuilding. His brethren began to complain and taunt him. After subduing his brothers’ opposition, he returned to building a ship “after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me.” (1 Ne. 18:2.)
Completing this ship was, however, just the beginning of difficulty. Each step of crossing the ocean and establishing a civilization in the promised land was fraught with both physical and spiritual trial. Only an extraordinary human being could have retained his equilibrium and faith in the face of such opposition. Reading Nephi’s account is a good antidote for depression, self-pity, and loss of faith, for the magnitude of his difficulties tends to make our own seem more manageable. Indeed, his success may stand as a witness against us if we do not cope with our simpler trials, particularly when he informs us so frequently that the Lord was the source of his succor and strength.
Not only did Nephi exercise complete faith, but his faith was correctly fixed upon Jesus Christ. When we read on the title page of the Book of Mormon that its purpose is to convince “Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD,” and then turn to the books of Nephi, we find this promise fulfilled in some of the most vivid testimonies of the Savior in all of sacred writ. Among these is the panoramic vision given to Nephi of the Savior’s mission on earth. (See 1 Ne. 11, 12.) His closeness to the Lord and the spirit of testimony he radiates vivify his account.
In my opinion, there is nothing more powerful in these first 107 pages of the Book of Mormon than Nephi’s continuing testimony of Jesus, that he “is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.” I recall very clearly how some years ago, as a young college student investigator, I read and reread these challenging testimonies. My initial approach had been skeptical, even cynical, and I wrote critical remarks along the margins as I read, commenting upon the weaknesses in logic, grammar, and philosophy. When I came to those last two pages (2 Ne. 33), however, I was stunned by the power of Nephi’s words. They seemed to penetrate my brain and scatter my previously systematic, critical thoughts. I could not avoid the impact of his words. It was almost as physical as if Nephi were using his shock technique on me, pointing his finger and shaking my mind. I read his words again and they seemed to grip me. Briefly and involuntarily, a sweet feeling came over me that later I recognized as having been the Spirit of Christ, the witness of his reality and his loving closeness.
After a healthy dose of repentance, I was baptized; and since baptism I have reread that chapter perhaps a hundred times. There, in a few words, we have the fulness of a true testimony written by an old man who had been in the demanding and involving service of the Lord for fifty-five years. Nevertheless, his witness there is as strong as or stronger than anywhere else. Here again his pure character permits the Lord to speak through him to our own age. There is no way to capture the feeling of this chapter by quoting only part of it, so I commend it to all readers for an unusual experience of edification and renewal. I commend it especially to nonmembers, particularly those of Lamanite descent, for I think Nephi’s heart was drawn out powerfully to them as he wrote with his mind fixed in vision upon the latter days. If ever there were spiritual power in the written word, it is here. I feel that my own knowledge of Jesus Christ was magnified immeasurably by this message. It prepared me, during those college days, for spiritual enlargement as I continued to read and pray. The feelings Nephi’s writing brought into my own life, the life of one man, demonstrate why these golden writings were made, preserved, and brought forth.
It seems to me that Nephi was remarkable, head and shoulders above most of mankind in his vision and his achievement. Thus, he comes across almost as a superman. But we should note the profound expressions of his humanity when he laments his weaknesses:
“O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.” (2 Ne. 4:17–18.)
In this poetic lamentation, Nephi spontaneously discloses another self, a self with weaknesses, a self that is not apparent anywhere else in his writings. This openness is profoundly encouraging to readers like me who hope to improve but are so dazzled by Nephi’s perfection that we simply doubt our capacity to bridge the gap. Nephi gives just enough of his own struggle to give us hope that we can achieve self-mastery, too. Some might wonder what “hidden iniquity” prompted this confession; I tend to think that he had none, but rather regretted anger against his enemies and strength-slackening because of his afflictions. In light of his ability to literally will himself into righteousness under extremely adverse conditions, these modest vulnerabilities, serious to him, only add to his stature in our eyes.
So we have in Nephi the almost complete human being—prophet, teacher, ruler, colonizer, builder, craftsman, intellect, writer, poet, military leader, father of nations, son, husband, and physical powerhouse. Measured against mankind, he belongs where he is, in the company of the greatest men of every age. He was incomparable, a universal man who chose to be the Lord’s servant above all else. Few have spoken so well in behalf of one age and to another:
“And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; … for they are the words of Christ … and they teach all men that they should do good.
“And I pray the Father in the name of Christ that many of us, if not all, may be saved in his kingdom at that great and last day. …
“I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come.” (2 Ne. 33:10, 12–13.)