Nephi, a Universal Man

By Allen E. Bergin

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    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 the Nephites 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.

    Character and Personality

    Being 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 himself somewhat 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 another civilization.

    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.)

    Just as Abel’s righteousness aroused Cain’s hatred, so did Nephi’s righteousness arouse the hatred of Laman and Lemuel.

    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 while, when 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.”

    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.

    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.)

    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 role 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.


    Nephi’s unusual spiritual gift 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 gifts of power to Nephi that place him among the great prophets of all ages:

    “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 we most frequently associate with the prophetic calling.

    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 people in history have had greater problems than he.

    Nephi’s Testimony of Christ

    Not only did Nephi exercise complete faith, but his faith was centered upon Jesus Christ.

    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.

    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 non-members, 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.

    Universal Man

    It seems to me that Nephi was remarkable, far above most of mankind in his vision and his achievement. Thus, he conveys to me the image of being 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 Nephi is 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.)