18 comments for “A Hypothesis for Columbus Day

  1. Roger, me too. Sometimes I forget how bad some passages of the Book of Mormon sound until I read them out of the blue like I just did. Serious question–have any of you ever had a colleague or friend who is sensitive to the history of race read the Book of Mormon? Most of my friends are humanities academics, and I have to admit that it makes me shudder to imagine what they would think of me as a person and a scholar if they read that passage!

    To the OP, I think it’s very likely that the verse refers to any number of individuals. I also think it’s possible that it was Joseph Smith’s specific and culturally-conditioned interpretation of a general feeling from the spirit that God’s hand is present in history.

  2. I like this reading better than the idea that it’s referring to Columbus. de las Casas seems like a much better alternative. That said, the passage is so vague that it could mean almost anybody.

  3. Willa,

    I’m with you. As an academic who is mainly friends with other academics, it’s my fervent hope that my friends never read the Book of Mormon. It’s an odd position, I must say, to be a faithful member but to be ashamed of and embarrassed by a lot of things our leaders and scriptures say.

    And, again to the OP, It could be anyone. Does anyone know the history of Columbus being attached to this passage? It seems not at all clear to me and I’m wondering if there’s been an assertion made over the pulpit, which is the only thing I can think of that would give such supposed credence to an impossibly vague description.

    And last thing, an honest question, no snark intended: Have folks heard of the book on Columbus by President Hinckley’s son? It apparently argues that Columbus was a man of great faith, doing God’s work and that he was indeed the man referred to in 1Nephi 13:12. I can’t think of a single creditable historian who would make the argument that Columbus was a great religious visionary and man of God. The atrocities he perpetrated on Hispaniola are fairly well documented and were bad enough that the monarchs removed him from power. I have not read Hinckley’s book. Has anyone and does it mention/address such atrocities? Just sort of curious.

  4. It would seem out of place if Nephi wasn’t a bit racist. I have no problems sharing the BOM with my academic colleagues. I would just hope that they can think hard (perhaps with my help) about how one might square Nephi’s racism with him still being a prophet.

  5. Willa: I have read passages from the Hinckley book and it seems to rely on outdated and sloppy scholarship, and that’s the kindest way I can put it. It would seem the author began with a premise and then attempted to present only those things that support it and ignoring all the rest. Contrast this position to the well-documented position on Columbus presented in Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. Your use of “atrocities” could not be more accurate.

  6. larryco_on,

    Thanks for your response. One wonders why a fair amount of Mormon writers tend to veer towards hagiography rather than away from it. With our emphasis on the truth and avoiding idolatry and all that, you’d think we’d be less likely to whitewash stuff rather than more likely. Interesting.

    And to John: It’s an old conversation and I don’t want to threadjack, so I’ll just say that I question any church leader’s authority if racism is a fundamental part of their makeup. If communing with God and receiving revelation can’t mitigate one’s prejudices, then I don’t know what can; hence, I would suggest, the importance of relying on our own conscience and revelatory experiences rather than anyone else’s. No offense meant to you or to folks who have other perspectives.

  7. How good does a person have to be for the Spirit to move upon them? What if they get worse after that? If we can answer that question correctly, I think we can be open to an interpretation of Columbus or someone else, saint or sinner.

  8. Back to the original question…

    That verse 14 closely follows verse 12 suggests Columbus as a more likely candidate than de las Casas. But it also puts Columbus into a less favorable light than is implied by verse 12 alone.

  9. There does at least appear to be an implication that whomever the subject is, he was the first to cross the many waters. That is, “he went forth upon the many waters” (where others did not). And he went “unto the seed of [Nephi’s] brethren”. So a limited-geography model would suggest that Leif Erikson isn’t a possibility (althouth other models would not rule it out). A limited-geography model might also suggest that Columbus didn’t meet Nephi’s seed either, so it could be talking about somebody else, but the implication that the person being spoken of here was the first to cross the “many waters” confounds that somewhat.

    Nephi’s identfiying criteria seem to be:
    1) He was separated from Nephi’s brothers’ descendents.
    2) He was “wrought upon” by the spirit.
    3) He went to the promised land where Nephi’s brothers’ descendants lived (insert assumptions about BoM geography here).
    4) Other gentiles followed, implying that the person in 1-3 was the first.
    5) Lots of gentiles arrive, God’s wrath poured out on Nephi’s brother’s descendents. Possibly implying that 2 and racial violence aren’t incongruent. Of course, this is really the crux of issue.

    One of the interesting questions that comes out of this is this: what model of Book of Mormon geography is Nephi using? Are Nephi and Joseph Smith using the same model?

  10. larryco_on, thanks for your input on the book. It was like you read my mind as I’d been wondering all day if anyone had assessed Hinckley’s scholarship. When I read in his bio online that he was a mathematician and businessman, I had my doubts as to its rigor.

  11. I would like to nominate Cabeza de Vaca for this verse. There are several advantages to this choice. First, he made first contact with a large variety of Native American people, so statistically he is the most likely guy. Second, because he was in such bad shape for most of his trip, his description of his travels is impossible to map out. This makes him the unfalsifiable choice. Third, you have him seeing the Atlantic, the Pacific, and later discovering Iguazu Falls, one of which could well be the “many waters”. If that’s not lots of water I don’t know what is. Fourth, he was revered by a bunch of Native Americans as a religious leader. Getting warmer. Last, he was friendly to the natives and we know that all people who are led by the spirit are nice. The verse doesn’t have him being cruel, just the others who came later.

  12. Nearly a twenty years ago, several of my LDS students (I taught high school history at the time) came to me with the idea that Las Casas or other figures may fit the 1 Nephi 13 description better than Columbus. If teens in an A.P. history class can speculate on this, it may not be such a radical idea!

    Also, remember that 1 Nephi 13 has been misinterpreted before by going for a absolute historical interpretation, most noticeably by Elder B. R. McConkie with his explanation of the “great and abominable church.” So we should be leery about any historical absolutes derived from scripture, especially those derived from a mythological Columbus plugged into a 6th century B.C. narrative.

    “12. 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.”

    I don’t think this describes Columbus. Columbus never saw peoples who current LDS scholars would connect with descendants of BofM peoples. And the tone implies that this figure is helpful to Lehi’s descendants. Las Casas fits.

    “13. And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.”

    The “out of captivity” is significant. These are not Conquistadors. (It helps if you listen to Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” while reading this.) I believe that Nephi’s vision and description is more thematic than chronological.

  13. 1 Ne 13:14 Many gentiles… but the “wrath of God” (what does that mean?) “is upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.” Heaven’s hand is stayed in helping native peoples. Why? It does not say that their oppressors are superior. In fact, it feels to me like these gentiles (in general) are like the Assyrians were to Israel.

    1 Ne 13: 15 is more of an observation. “White” could fit any European group immigrating to North or South America.

    1 Ne 13:16 says that God’s power is with those humble souls who had “gone forth out of captivity.”

    vs.17 could refer to anything from the American Revolution to the many Latin American Revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

    vs. 19 seems to clarify that it is not all Gentiles, but those who had “gone out of captivity were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.”

    vs. 20-23, I would venture to guess is the Bible, but all European groups including Jews carried a version of the Bible with them.

    Those are my thoughts. I don’t see proclamations of “Manifest Destiny,” a description of the American Revolution, or even an allusion to the Founding Fathers setting up a Protestant nation. I don’t see a tight chronology. I do know that some General Authorities have seen it that way. I see trends, so I think this vision is best viewed with a “soft focus.”

  14. Celebrating Columbus Day always seems synonomous with celebrating the extinction of the Arawaks/Taino people. Just not a joyous occasion really.

  15. Several of our early Church presidents held the racist ideas of their times and yet we (or, I think, at least most of us) who read this board) believe in their prophetic calling. In my own lifetime I have sustained men as prophets, seers, and revelators, who have held ideas that I believed to be racist. I have disagreed with them in these views, but don’t feel I can counsel the Lord about whom he chooses to be his mouthpieces on earth. Racism has been an unfortunate thread in the tapestry of human culture through almost all ages of the earth. The Book of Mormon is written from the Nephite perspective, and if they held racist ideas towards their brethren the Lamanites, which at times they seem to have held, should we be surprised?

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