There are some Book of Mormon figures whom we glimpse only briefly, whom we can never know well, but who intrigue us immensely because that brief glimpse seems to show us the tip of a remarkable iceberg. Nephi, the grandson of Helaman, is such a figure for me. He moves very quietly onto the scene and backs very quietly out of it, but he is no ordinary record-keeper. This is the man who was the spiritual leader of the Nephites at the time of the birth of the Savior and during the Savior’s ministry on the American continent. This is the man who wrote the account that Mormon abridged as Third Nephi, one of the most powerful sections of the Book of Mormon. So great was his faith and so vigorous his spiritual power that he raised his brother from the dead and communed regularly with angels.
Rereading Third Nephi, I have become more and more aware that perhaps our only real access to Nephi’s character is through Mormon’s perception of him as Mormon reads and abridges Nephi’s record. I think Mormon must have been impressed with Nephi because he keeps interrupting his narrative to pay respect, either directly or indirectly, to the earlier prophet. (See, for example, 3 Ne. 7:15–16 and 3 Ne. 8:1.) Since we can, in effect, know Nephi only secondhand, it seems important that we try to look through Mormon’s eyes, try to see Nephi as Mormon saw him. Careful study of Mormon’s abridgement confirms in both subtle and obvious ways that Mormon knew he had encountered a remarkable human being.
I have often wondered, in reading between the lines, if Mormon might have been a little reluctant to cut and summarize Nephi’s account. It appears that at times he prefers to omit parts of the account rather than attempt to shorten it. Speaking of Nephi’s ministerings, for instance, he says, “And all of them cannot be written, and a part of them would not suffice, therefore they are not written in this book. And Nephi did minister with power and with great authority.” (3 Ne. 7:17.)
Even in making rather casual references to the record, Mormon adds extra praise for Nephi: “And now it came to pass that according to our record, and we know our record to be true, for behold, it was a just man who did keep the record—for he truly did many miracles in the name of Jesus; and there was not any man who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus save he were cleansed every whit from his iniquity.” (3 Ne. 8:1.)
As an English teacher, I am perhaps doubly sensitive to language, and I cannot help feeling that Nephi was a gifted writer. Whether Third Nephi is largely composed of Mormon’s words as inspired by Nephi’s record or consists of direct quotations from that record, the language is often eloquent and vivid. One of the most moving passages in all scripture is the description in Third Nephi of the multitude’s response to the prayer Jesus offered in their behalf:
“And after this manner do they bear record: The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father;
“And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.” (3 Ne. 17:16–17.)
Interesting as these kinds of observations are, it is nevertheless Mormon’s perception of Nephi’s great spiritual stature that really stirs our minds and hearts. More concerned about the well-being of his people than about himself, strong in spirit and will, Nephi kept a record chiefly to bear witness to the divine ministry of Jesus among the Nephites. Moving chronologically through Third Nephi, we become more and more aware of Nephi’s spiritual magnitude, largely, I think, because Mormon was keenly aware of that magnitude. It is somewhat difficult to get even a limited understanding of Nephi’s character because there is so little direct description of him and there are so few explicit references do his activities. I find, however, that as I read Mormon’s account, a picture of a dynamic spiritual leader takes shape because the few statements Mormon does make resound through my mind as I read the book of Third Nephi.
We first hear of Nephi when we are told, simply, that his father (also named Nephi) “had departed out of the land of Zarahemla, giving charge unto his son Nephi, who was his eldest son, concerning the plates of brass, and all the records which had been kept, and all those things which had been kept sacred from the departure of Lehi out of Jerusalem.” (3 Ne. 1:2.) Apparently the elder Nephi just disappeared—no one knew where (3 Ne. 1:3)—and the younger Nephi was instructed to keep the Nephite records. This was at the time when the faithful were watching for the prophetic signs that would signal the birth of the Savior into the world. The believers were getting a bit anxious and the unbelievers were happily insisting that the time had passed when the prophecies were to have been fulfilled. The unbelievers even set a day by which time the chief sign, a night without darkness, had to come or the believers would be executed. It is at this point that Mormon gives us our first indication of Nephi’s spiritual strength. In great sorrow over the wickedness of his people, Nephi went to the Lord in prayer. We often cite the example of Enos, who prayed long and earnestly, but we might point to Nephi as well. He “bowed himself down upon the earth, and cried mightily to his God in behalf of his people. …
“And it came to pass that he cried mightily unto the Lord, all the day; and behold, the voice of the Lord came unto him.” (3 Ne. 1:11–12.)
After praying fervently all day long, Nephi heard this beautiful and loving reply: “Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.” (3 Ne. 1:13.) The signs were indeed manifest, and Nephi was blessed thereafter with abundant success, baptizing and performing works of righteousness, in spite of Satan’s increased efforts. (See 3 Ne. 1:22–23.)
The next several chapters in Third Nephi deal principally with political and social events and problems, and it is not until chapter seven that we get further confirmation of Nephi’s powerful ministry. The people had divided into tribes and grown wicked, stoning the prophets and casting them out. In spite of what must have been immense personal danger, Nephi “went forth among them in that same year, and began to testify, boldly, repentance and remission of sins through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (3 Ne. 7:16.) Mormon reports that when Nephi did this the people “were angry with him, even because he had greater power than they,” power so great, says Mormon, that it is was not possible for his hearers to disbelieve his words. (3 Ne. 7:18.) Even his enemies were affected by his spiritual might and were forced, in spite of themselves, to acknowledge in their hearts that he spoke the truth.
At the beginning of his brief account of Nephi’s ministry in chapter seven, Mormon gives a quick summary of Nephi’s spiritual experiences—a list impressive not only for the deeds themselves but for the matter-of-fact, simple way the acts are described. Mormon speaks of Nephi as “having been visited by angels and also the voice of the Lord, … having seen angels, and being eye-witness, and having had power given unto him that he might know concerning the ministry of Christ.” (3 Ne. 7:15.) One line of Mormon’s description of Nephi is particularly moving: “So great was his faith on the Lord Jesus Christ that angels did minister unto him daily.” (3 Ne. 7:18.) We can scarcely imagine what it would be like to receive daily ministerings from angels; to have that kind of faith and to be that close to the Lord is almost incomprehensible to most of us. Yet through Nephi’s example we come to understand that such a life pattern is indeed possible for human beings.
The performing of miracles in the Savior’s name seems not to have been uncommon for this mighty prophet. Mormon’s sketchy list in verses 19 and 20 of chapter seven probably gives only a bare suggestion of the nature of Nephi’s spiritual power: “And in the name of Jesus did he cast out devils and unclean spirits; and even his brother did he raise from the dead, after he had been stoned and suffered death by the people.
“And the people saw it, and did witness of it, and were angry with him because of his power; and he did also do many more miracles, in the sight of the people, in the name of Jesus.” [3 Ne. 7:19–20]
This passage is highly significant, revealing so much more than it actually says. We sense a gripping drama behind the rather matter-of-fact note that Nephi raised his brother after the brother suffered death by stoning. We sense the mood of the times, the great cloud of danger under which Nephi and his family must have lived constantly. The wicked could not tolerate a man among them who was so strong in faith that he could, through the power of the priesthood, restore the dead to life. So courageous was Nephi that, knowing of the people’s great anger, he still moved among them openly performing miracles and preaching the gospel. And in spite of fierce opposition, he made such an impression on some that they repented and were baptized. (See 3 Ne. 7:21–22.) He also ordained a number of men to the ministry, and they, too, went about baptizing the repentant. (See 3 Ne. 7:25–26.) Thus, it would appear that Nephi faithfully directed the work of the church, helping to keep faith in the Savior alive in the New World during the Savior’s earth life in the Old World.
It is significant, too, that when the Savior appeared to the people of Nephi, the more righteous of whom were spared in the great destruction that followed the crucifixion, he singled out Nephi and called him to come forth. Clearly, the Lord knew his servant. It was to Nephi that Jesus gave the first responsibility for bringing souls to their Savior. Before calling any others to the ministry, Jesus called Nephi and set him apart. Four verses describe that event:
“And it came to pass that he spake unto Nephi (for Nephi was among the multitude) and he commanded him that he should come forth.
“And Nephi arose and went forth, and bowed himself before the Lord and did kiss his feet.
“And the Lord commanded him that he should arise. And he arose and stood before him.
“And the Lord said unto him: I give unto you power that ye shall baptize this people when I am again ascended into heaven.” (3 Ne. 11:18–21.)
Of the twelve then called by the Savior, only Nephi is named in Mormon’s account at this point in the record: “And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words unto Nephi, and to those who had been called, (now the number of them who had been called, and received power and authority to baptize, was twelve). …” (3 Ne. 12:1.)
Significantly, Nephi was also the first among the group to be baptized, and it was he who baptized the other disciples whom Jesus had chosen. (3 Ne. 12:11–12.)
Those baptisms marked a glorious event, for after the ordinances had been performed, Nephi and the others were so filled with the Spirit that they seemed to be encircled by fire. Angels came, and then the Savior himself, in what must have been one of the most thrilling spiritual events ever experienced by mortals. At the climax of that event, Mormon reports that the Lord’s “countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof.” (3 Ne. 19:25.) Clearly only a man of great spiritual strength could have presided over the church at such a time.
The Savior’s appearance in the New World initiated a period of peace and righteousness that must have brought great joy to a person like Nephi. And it is with the Savior’s final departure that the Book of Mormon account of Nephi concludes. We learn further only that he passed on the records to his son, also named Nephi. (See heading 4 Ne. 1:1)
And so ends our brief acquaintance with this Nephi. I believe that certain men are indeed chosen to lead the Lord’s church at particular times in history. The fact that Nephi, grandson of Helaman, was chosen to be its head during the time when the Lord himself came to earth and selected his prophet gives a strong indication of where that man should stand in our esteem. And even though our knowledge of Nephi is somewhat tentative, gathered as it is from the few clues Mormon gives us about him, we can scarcely doubt the quality of his leadership or the immensity of his faith.