The Book of Mormon begins with Lehi—his vision of the destruction of Jerusalem, his family’s journey in the wilderness, and their voyage to America. But because his son Nephi wrote the narrative, we often do not realize father Lehi’s dominant role as prophet and patriarch in the heaven-directed exodus because Nephi is giving us an account of his own proceedings, his own “reign and ministry.” (1 Ne. 10:1.) Thus Lehi, the man whose actions started the magnificent saga of the people in the Book of Mormon, remains shadowy, his personality much less clearly defined than that of Nephi, Jacob, or other major figures in the scripture.
Lehi is a great prophet. The experiences he had in fulfilling the mission God gave him parallel those of other prophets. He shows the devotion, the openness to the Lord’s will, and the determination to follow the Lord’s direction that we look for in the ideal of a prophet. In answer to earnest prayer, Lehi is dramatically called to prophesy through a vision of a pillar of fire. Like Zephaniah and Jeremiah, he prophesies of the doom of his nation, and like many Old Testament prophets he predicts the coming of the Messiah. He is rejected by those who hear him, his life is endangered, and like Abraham and Moses he leaves his homeland to establish a new nation.
But Lehi is more than a “typical” prophet. And despite the fact that we do not have much information about him we can discover Lehi himself gives one key to his character. When Sariah, supposing that her sons have “perished in the wilderness,” accuses Lehi of being a “visionary man.” Lehi agrees: “I know that I am a visionary man; for if I had not seen the things of God in a vision I should not have known the goodness of God, but had tarried at Jerusalem, and had perished with my brethren.” (1 Ne. 5:24.)
Dreams and visions dominate Lehi’s life; he is called by the Lord in a vision in which he sees Christ and the twelve apostles (1 Ne. 1:6–14.) In another prophecy he foretells the Babylonian captivity, the ministry of the Messiah, and the preaching of the gospel to the gentiles. (1 Ne. 10:3–14.) Even the journey into the wilderness was commanded in a dream. (1 Ne. 2:1–3.) In other dreams Lehi was commanded to send his sons back to Jerusalem to obtain the plates of Laban and later to persuade Ishmael and his sons and daughters to join them. (1 Ne. 3:2–4, 1 Ne. 7:1–2.)
Lehi does not distinguish between dreams and visions—he begins his report concerning the tree of life by saying, “Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision.” (1 Ne. 8:2.) He is indeed a “visionary man.”
Lehi was not the only prophet of his time whose name the Old Testament has forgotten. Nephi says that just prior to his father’s call “there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.” (1 Ne. 1:4.) These were among the messengers of God that the Bible tells us were “mocked,” their messages “despised,” and themselves “misused.” (2 Chr. 36:16–19) No prophet who sees beyond the immediate situation to the fall of a nation is ever popular with the people of that nation; and most of the time, unfortunately, he is ignored.
Of the many prophets who spoke for the Lord at that time, most went into captivity with the Jews or made some accommodation with the Babylonians. Lehi, however, was stopped by the Lord in the middle of his prophetic career in Jerusalem and told to leave. Apparently he never wavered. His reliance was on the Lord alone, and he turned from a dangerous and important task to pursue an even more dangerous and important task. No longer would he try to change a nation. Now he would create one; he would raise up a righteous people for the Lord.
Lehi’s family had always been important to him, but now his entire calling focused on his children and their children. His own sons and daughters were his mission, with no distractions. And suddenly the role of patriarch and the role of prophet became one role. It was for the benefit of “his seed” that he was commanded to send his sons for the plates of Laban (1 Ne. 5:19), and when he asked Ishmael and his family to share the journey, he was choosing the mothers who would help shape his righteous progeny. (1 Ne. 7:1–2) And at the end of his life, when he learned in a vision that Jerusalem had been destroyed, he did not mourn for the city he had loved and served so well. Instead he reminded his children that they lived in “a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands.” (2 Ne. 1:5.) He had been a prophet to his family, and he was satisfied. (2 Ne. 1:14–15.)
A “visionary man” sounds like someone who is impractical to us; a dreamer seems unsuited for tasks demanding decision, strength, and directness. But Lehi’s dreams were not daydreams. They were the word of the Lord to one of the Lord’s few children faithful and strong enough to obey him in all things. It was no weakling who led his strife-torn family through the wilderness. Nephi makes it clear that no matter how close he himself came to the Lord, the revelation that dealt with where the family should go came to Lehi. The Lord spoke to Lehi “by night, and commanded him that on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness.” (1 Ne. 16:9) The “ball of curious workmanship” that directed them on their way appeared before Lehi’s tent. (1 Ne. 16:10.) When Nephi’s bow broke and he made another to keep the group alive, he went to his father to find out where he should go to get meat. (1 Ne. 16:23–26, 30–31.) And though the Lord spoke to Nephi to command him to build a ship (1 Ne. 17:8), Lehi received the Lord’s direction to enter it and begin the voyage. (1 Ne. 18:5.)
Lehi was too righteous a man to resent Nephi’s emerging leadership. He rejoiced that one of his sons was following the Lord so faithfully. Nephi had his father’s complete trust when, “being stricken in years, and having suffered much grief because of their children, [Lehi and Sariah] were brought down, yea, even upon their sick-beds. … They were brought near even to be carried out of this time to meet their God.” (1 Ne. 18:17–18.) It must have been a comfort to Lehi to watch his godly son direct the ship the rest of the way to the promised land, and when he saw Nephi stop the wind and calm the storm, he knew that the Lord had provided a leader for the next generation. (1 Ne. 18:21–22.) He counsels his other sons, “Rebel no more against your brother, whose views have been glorious, and who hath kept the commandments. … He hath not sought for power nor authority over you, but he hath sought the glory of God, and your own eternal welfare. … And it must needs be, that the power of God must be with him, even unto his commanding you that ye must obey.” (2 Ne. 1:24–25, 27.)
Yet even while Nephi gradually assumed leadership, Lehi remained as the patriarch until his death. Despite all the quarrels and struggles within the family, the family members did not split up until after Lehi died. (2 Ne. 4:12–13, 2 Ne. 5:5.)
Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Lehi was a prophet known only to his children; but through them he influenced nations for thousands of years. In his words to his children he also speaks to us: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.” (2 Ne. 1:20.) He explains a cardinal principle of progression: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.” (2 Ne. 2:11.) Then he applies this principle to the fall of man: “If Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden,” and he and Eve “would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.” (2 Ne. 2:22–23.)
Lehi was a strong man, not because he relied on his own wealth, power, or talents, but because he relied completely upon the Lord. From his earliest vision to the end of his life, Lehi expressed that confidence. His greatest joy in life came from the works of God, and he exclaimed, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” (1 Ne. 1:14.)
Though by following the Lord Lehi tasted suffering many times in his life, he had a greater reward than many who outwardly seem more successful and content. Just before his death he said, “Behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love.” (2 Ne. 1:15.) He followed his visions all his life, knowing that the giver of those dreams would eventually give him eternal life, where with those of his family who would follow him he could taste the white fruit of the love of God forever. (1 Ne. 8:11, 13, 16, 1 Ne. 11:21–22.)