Thursday, March 27, 2014

How Three Nephite Stories Came to Be Told

At the risk of being somewhat sensational...

 You might be curious to know how and when Three Nephite stories started circulating.  You’ll find the answer in this masters thesis paper by Marilynne Rich Smith called “A Mirror Brought byTruth: A Study and Comparison of the Folklore of the Wandering Jew and the Folklore of the Three Nephites.”  

You can read pages 182-242 of the paper specifically about Three Nephite stories.  In it we find that sermons by church leaders in 1850s, beginning with Parley P. Pratt, started the saints thinking about how they might encounter the Three Nephites.  Parley P. Pratt took passages of scripture from the Book of Mormon about how the Three Nephties could show themselves to whomever they wished and taught that they might be a means of giving miraculous help to the Saints in time of need.  Orson Pratt (an apostle at the time) called the members’ attention to the scripture verses about the Three Nephites and preached that the Three Nephites could come among the Saints once the Saints were prepared and worthy to receive them. (This meant an encounter with the Three Nephites would be considered something desirable and an informal sign of sanctity.) Orson Pratt, in underlining the importance of preaching the gospel, preached that the Three Nephites would prepare the wild tribes of Lamanites around them to receive the gospel.  John W. Taylor preached that the Three Nephites would be sent where the missionaries could not yet go, to prepare the minds of peoples to receive the gospel.   

In short, for over 50 years since 1855, members were reminded of the Three Nephites from time to time by talks (sometimes in conference) given by church leaders (and sometimes apostles).  These statements encouraged the members to look for visits by the Three Nephites, to look for ways that they were given miraculous help by them, and to look for ways that the Indians and other peoples were being prepared to hear the gospel by agents outside the church. The effect was that visits and help received that could not be explained by earthly means were attributed to the Three Nephites. 

One of the things I like about this thesis paper is that it shares some of the stories along with sources.  Incidents of folklore are pointed out, along with stories with actual sources, and analysis of patterns and what they mean for the Mormon people follows. Some of the stories seem a little..odd, but others are genuinely inspiring.

Overall, I like what these stories generally communicate about our beliefs about these mysterious men.  They convey that:
--We believe help comes from God, not just by comfort, intelligence, and help from mortals, but also from extra-mortal beings.
--We believe the promises of God can and do give mortals power over death, pain, and sorrow.
--We believe that God and his angelic messengers engage with the practical parts of our lives and guide others to our church.

 Today if you start telling Three Nephite stories, you are likely to get eye rolls, but the principle of looking for the hand of the Lord acting in our lives (in large and small ways) still stands.  President Eyring counseled us to write in our journals all we notice about the Lord's workings in our lives.

 Are the Three Nephites out there?  I believe they are; but the church puts little to no emphasis on that kind of thing because it can get too much in the way of doing the work of salvation.  Salvation is more lasting than sensation.  The Three Nephites will do their part; we still have to do ours. 


Unknown said...

It's funny you should bring this up, but my husband and I were talking about this today during FHE. We invited a neighbor who was recently baptized to share with us. We asked him if he had heard of the three Nephites and my husband told him some of the "lore " we had heard. Of course he looked at us "cross eyed" and chuckled. He then asked a really good question; he asked "Why were they chosen" So we went to the book of Mormon in 3rd Nephi and read their account. They were pure in heart. I have often thought of what it would take to make that kind of sacrifice. Would i have to be like the rich man, and sell all I have, leave behind all that is comfortable to do that.
I believe that there are 3 Nephites and also john the beloved. I don't know much of the "mythology" and Mormon lore about them, but I think a disservice is done if those stories aren't true.

Michaela Stephens said...

Asking "Why were they chosen?" is a good question for a new member to ask. The story about it indicates that it was a righteous desire they had with the intent to spend their time sharing the gospel. It's one of those amazing stories showing the possibilities of "ask and ye shall receive."