Sunday, February 24, 2008

Nephi Sees Conditions Leading to Latter-day Events (1 Nephi 13, Part I)

Listen now!As the vision continues, Nephi is shown many of the things which, to him, were new and amazing. To those of us living in the U.S., they are now part of our national lore and cultural history. These things at which Nephi marvels as future and strange events are things we now take for granted and even struggle to teach effectively in our schools. This begs the question: Which is of more benefit in our learn exclusively from our history, or to look to prophets to guide us so as to avoid pitfalls of the future?

The answer as provided by the Book of Mormon is that we should do both.

First, Nephi sees the many nations and kingdoms of the earth. In those nations were living those that the angel refers to as "the Gentiles". To Nephi, who was part of the house of Israel, this would have meant that they were all people outside the covenant and lineage he had come from.

Next, Nephi is shown that the Gentiles create a great church, one that is opposed to God's purposes and aligned with Satan's purposes instead. Nephi sees that this church puts in bondage, persecutes, tortures, and kills people who believe in God.

The temptation here is to immediately wonder which "church" is meant by what is shown in the vision, but we must be careful not to engage in presentism (distorting historical analysis by applying our own present-day biases) to interpret scripture. The purpose of this vision was not to single out any one denomination or even any one religion. No such entity is specifically named. All this scripture points to is "a great church".

The angel clarifies what is meant. This church is a metaphor for any organization of the world that seeks to use its power to gain power over God's people, to corrupt them in any way, or to destroy them physically and/or spiritually. He also states that it is the "church of the devil", meaning that the devil is the founder of it, and that its motivation is pride and to get the glory of the world. The fact that it is lumped into one great church is meant as a convenience in addressing its influence in the world rather than an attempt to single out any one group of individuals having a particular religious belief.

Now we get to the really interesting part, for we learn that Nephi sees "many waters" that divide his and his brothers' seed from the Gentiles (obviously these are the Atlantic and Pacific oceans). Then, he sees a man who is influenced by the Holy Ghost to set out on the waters "even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land."

Stop for a minute and think about who Nephi is seeing. Who in our own history books "first" arrives on our continent and "discovers" the people living there? Why, it's Christopher Columbus, of course.

In the next verse, we learn that other Gentiles followed suit and arrived in the Americas in "many multitudes" and began to smite the seed of Nephi's brothers who remained, scattering them--which we, in hindsight, see as having been done in three ways: geographically, culturally, and spiritually.
14 And it came to pass that I beheld many amultitudes of the Gentiles upon the bland of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were cscattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.
15 And I beheld the Spirit of the Lord, that it was upon the Gentiles, and they did prosper and aobtain the bland for their inheritance; and I beheld that they were white, and exceedingly fair and cbeautiful, like unto my people before they were dslain.
16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld that the Gentiles who had gone forth out of captivity did humble themselves before the Lord; and the power of the Lord was awith them.
Again, beware presentism. It is the norm today to vilify Columbus and those Europeans who followed them by viewing their motives and doings through the lenses of multi-culturalism and political correctness. No one should or can deny truthfully that what happened to Native Americans was a travesty and caused pain and suffering and near extermination of entire tribes and full extermination of others.

But, now we are reading history through the eyes, minds, and hearts of people whose descendants they were and who have a prophetic and divinely inspired explanation (not an excuse) as to why such horrible things would have happened to their seed. Remember that an earlier portion of Nephi's vision is replete with a fratricidal war of equal proportions perpetrated by the Lamanites against the Nephite people and eventually among the Lamanite people themselves.

Nephi explains to us in this and later writings that the Lamanites were reaping the consequences of actions previously sown. The lesson that Nephi, and later Moroni, teach us is that the Book of Mormon is meant to show the Gentiles that they are little different from the Lamanites, Nephites, and Jaredites. The Gentiles will be under equal condemnation and consequence from God if they do not repent of their sins (including the intentional killing and scattering of the Lamanite nations) and turn to Him while living in the promised land.

In the next post, 1 Nephi 13, Part II, we will analyze Nephi's vision of the Revolutionary and other Gentile wars and events in the Americas. We'll also look at Nephi's vision and interpretation of the development and influence of the modern-day Bible (no, it didn't just fall out of the sky one day as a single, chronological volume and land on Emperor Constantine's throne or Martin Luther's pulpit).

In 1 Nephi 13, Part III, we'll look at the additional books of scripture that God authorized to be written and how both the Bible and other books of scripture support each other in testifying of Christ in all the world...not just in Jerusalem.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Nephi Sees the Fate of his People (1 Nephi 12)

Listen now!Nephi's vision continues as he is shown his own descendants and the descendants of Laman and Lemuel numbering as many as the sands of the sea. Their cities are also numerous. But he is disturbed to find that they are in constant battle with one another. He sees a mist of darkness accompanied by lightning, thunder, earthquakes, and destruction of many wicked people and cities.

At the end of this destruction and mayhem, he sees the Lamb of God (the Messiah) descending and showing Himself to the righteous who were spared from the destruction. He calls twelve disciples in the land of promise, who, Nephi is told, would be set apart to minister to Nephi's posterity. They are to be subordinate to the twelve apostles who would be set apart in Jerusalem at the time of the coming of the Son of God. The twelve in Jerusalem will judge the twelve from the New World when the Messiah comes the second time.

Three generations of people after the visit of the Messiah pass before Nephi's eyes, all of them living in righteousness. A part of the fourth generation also lives in righteousness, but not without conflict. Quickly, the people begin to forget what they had been taught and start to have wars with each other again.

It is at this point that the angel explains to Nephi the meaning of the "filthy water" and the "mists of darkness" in Lehi's dream. The filthy water is symbolic of the depths of hell and the mists of darkness are the temptations of the devil, blinding them and leading them away from the right path to perish and be lost.

The meaning of the large and spacious building is also given as the pride and "vain imaginations" of mankind. Notice that the filthy water is between the building and the tree of life as a gulf that separates mankind from God. When people complain that God doesn't hear them, or they claim that God does not exist, it is because they stand mocking and prideful in the great and spacious building rather than eating of the fruit of the tree (believing in the Messiah). They are separated from the knowledge and belief in God by the sins of pride, ambition, hatred, apathy, sensuality and licentiousness, and desires of the flesh which the filthy river (the depths of hell) represents.

To Nephi's horror, he sees his own descendants defeated and exterminated by those of his brothers, Laman and Lemuel, because of unbelief and rejection of God by Nephi's seed. Then he sees that Laman and Lemuel's descendants fully populate the land, engage in their own wars of mutual destruction, and dwindle in unbelief.

The next (and last) verse of 1 Nephi 12 is one of controversy whenever it is encountered by those outside the Church. It is even hard to take by some inside the Church who choose to view it out of context with actual doctrines, policies, and practices. Verse 23 says:
And it came to pass that I beheld, after they had dwindled in unbelief they became a adark, and loathsome, and a bfilthy people, full of cidleness and all manner of abominations.
Some point an accusing finger to this verse and say, "There! See how the Mormon church is a racist church, equating skin color with evil!" It is tempting in today's political climate to simply fold our arms and nod in agreement without making an effort to find out more. Upon further analysis, however, it's not that simple.

First, one has to reconcile the above scripture with what is found in a later chapter. 1 Nephi 17:33-35 (emphasis added) states:
33 And now, do ye suppose that the children of this land, who were in the land of promise, who were driven out by our fathers, do ye suppose that they were righteous? Behold, I say unto you, Nay.
34 Do ye suppose that our fathers would have been more choice than they if they had been righteous? I say unto you, Nay.
35 Behold, the Lord esteemeth all aflesh in one; he that is brighteous is cfavored of God. But behold, this dpeople had rejected every word of God, and they were ripe in iniquity; and the fulness of the wrath of God was upon them; and the Lord did curse the land against them, and bless it unto our fathers; yea, he did curse it against them unto their destruction, and he did bless it unto our fathers unto their obtaining power over it.
Therefore, we learn that God judges us by our actions, not by the color of our skin.

W. John Walsh, a Mormon apologist (one who answers critics), wrote a very good article on the subject of racism as perceived by those outside our faith:
One of the favorite techniques of anti-Mormons is to falsely say that the Lamanites were cursed with dark skin. They falsely say that Latter-day Saints believe that there is something inherently wrong with someone because he has dark skin. By the dictionary definition of racism, this idea is certainly racist. However, it is not a Latter-day Saint teaching and stands in direct opposition to the Book of Mormon (the keystone of our religion): "... [Jesus Christ] denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God ...(2 Nephi 26:33)

According to President Joseph Fielding Smith,

"The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord and the Lamanites becoming a "loathsome and filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.'' The Lord commanded the Nephites not to intermarry with them, for if they did they would partake of the curse." (Answers to Gospel Questions, Vol. 3, p.122)

The dark skin given to the Lamanites was simply a physical characteristic to distinguish the Lamanites and Nephites and to keep them from intermarrying. Skin color has no moral significance one way or the other. Why were the Nephites commanded not to intermarry with the Lamanites? For the same reason that Latter-day Saints today are counseled not to date or marry nonmembers of the Church. Latter-day Saints who are married to nonmembers do not enjoy full Church participation, especially temple marriage. Furthermore, their children are far less likely to be faithful members of the Church.
Any reading of the Bible will show that this was certainly not the first time the Lord had made a distinction between one people and another people and commanded that they should not mix or intermarry. The Jews of Palestine were constantly reminded not to intermarry with the native Canaanites, regardless of their skin color, because doing so would have also mixed their differing theologies and put the cohesiveness of the Jewish people in jeopardy. Indeed, whenever they disobeyed this commandment, apostasy (falling away from God) always came, followed by the Jewish nation being conquered and made captive by foreign nations. The promises God was trying to make with them were of no effect when they disobeyed the commandment to not combine with other nations because those promises were contingent on their being part of a faith united in both doctrine and lineage.

Therefore, to reject the Book of Mormon on the grounds that God would never exclude one group of people from His promises at the expense of another is to reject the Bible on the same grounds as well.

To wit, at another point in the Book of Mormon, we will read how the tables turned and how the Lamanites became the more righteous of the two groups. The Nephites became the more wicked part. Therefore, we see that evil is not defined by the color of one's skin, but by one's attitude towards the commandments of God. Obedience to God ensures blessings. Disobedience ensures loss of blessings.

This topic is important and much too broad to cover in this simple blog post. Indeed, multiple blogs could be devoted to the subject. For further reading, see:
  • President Gordon B. Hinckley on Racial Intolerance, April 2006 General Conference
  • 1978 Official Declaration,
  • "Mormonad" denouncing racism, from LDS Church youth magazine The New Era.
  • Race Relations,
  • The Genesis Group, (unofficial web site)
  • Topic Search: Racism, (unofficial web site)
  • Black Mormon Homepage, (unofficial web site)
  • Black Mormon History 101, (unofficial web site)
  • Experiences of African-American Church Members,
  • Four Who Serve, Ensign Magazine, February 1992 (emphasis added)
    Robert Stevenson was baptized on 8 February 1972. After being discharged from the army in 1973, he considered himself just another LDS student when he enrolled at Church-owned Ricks College that fall. In 1975 [three years prior to the Official Declaration] he went on to study at Brigham Young University, where he made news when he was elected student body vice-president. After the election, a New York Times reporter asked him what it was like to be a black person at a white university. “I don’t know,” Brother Stevenson replied, “because I’m not a black person at a white university. I’m a Mormon at a Mormon university.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Nephi Sees the Vision of Lehi (1 Nephi 11)

Listen now!Nephi's desires to see and hear what his father saw come to fruition in Chapter 11. Not only does Nephi experience the same vision, but he is also given the meaning or interpretation of each of the elements shown.

What you're about to read is one of the most profound moments of the Book of Mormon. In beautiful metaphor, Nephi is shown the coming of the Son of God. He is taught the meaning of the tree, the fruit, the rod of iron, the fountain of living waters, the river of filthy water, and the great and spacious building.

In this and subsequent chapters (11-14), Nephi also beholds, in a continuation of the vision, the future of his descendants in the promised land (the American continents), the death, resurrection, and visit of the Savior to Nephi's people, the fall of his people, and the building of a great and abominable church. Finally, he sees the coming of the Gentiles to the Americas, their prosperity, and their role in ushering in the Second Coming of the Lord.

As Nephi sat pondering what Lehi had seen, he was "caught away" onto a high mountain. The Spirit asked him, "What desirest thou?" to which Nephi responded, "To behold the things which my father saw". The vision was opened to him only after he affirmed that he would believe what the Spirit was about to reveal.

This is the kind of faith we must all attain to, and is a major theme of the Book of Mormon--to accept on faith that which we haven't yet seen or that which we are about to hear from the Lord. Latter-day Saints (members of the LDS faith) practice this kind of faith each time they attend church meetings or general conferences.

The Spirit then shows Nephi the tree, which was precisely as Lehi had described it. Nephi is then asked again what he desires. He responds that he wants to know the meaning of the tree. Next he is shown Jerusalem, then Nazareth, and then a beautiful virgin.

The heavens open and an angel asks Nephi what he sees and whether he understands the condescension of God. Nephi responds that he knows that God loves His children, but that he doesn't know the meaning of all things. The angel teaches Nephi that the woman he sees is to be the mother of the Son of God "after the manner of the flesh". In other words, the Son of God would be born on earth, to a virgin, in a body of flesh and blood, and live among men.

"Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?"

Nephi immediately understood that it was the love of God, being the most desirable of all things.

The angel rejoices, saying "Yea, and the most joyous to the soul." Nephi then sees people falling down at the feet of the Son of God and worshiping Him. The rod of iron or the word of God, leading to the fountain of living waters and the tree, which represent simultaneously the love of God and the Son of God, appears and Nephi understands their meanings. The angel confirms that these symbols represent the condescension of God.

Nephi sees a prophet, John the Baptist, baptizing the Son of God and preparing the way for His mission on earth. He sees the Holy Ghost descend on the Son of God as a dove before He begins his preaching. He sees the multitudes rejecting Him and the calling of the twelve apostles.

The Son of God heals the sick and afflicted, casts out evil spirits, is judged by the world, crucified, and slain for the sins of the world. The people persecuting and rejecting the Son of God are the very same people who are found in the great and spacious building of Lehi's dream.

The angel makes note of this, saying, "Behold the world and the wisdom thereof; yea, behold the house of Israel hath gathered together to bfight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb."

Nephi looks again and sees that the pride of the people in the building is great, such that they would not repent and turn to the Son of God. Rather, they stood mocking Him. The building they were in falls in an exceedingly great and dramatic way.

The angel speaks again, saying, "Thus shall be the destruction of all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, that shall fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb."

Right: Modern-day edifice of the "great and spacious" kind, meant only to illustrate the concepts discussed in 1 Nephi 11. LDS artwork depicting Lehi's dream can be found here.