Are the three Nephites funny?

A few months ago, we had a mysterious stranger coming to our ward. He had a heavy beard and was not Finnish, although he spoke the language passingly well. He knew all about the church and had scriptures, but said he was not a member — he referred to himself as a ‘friend of the church.’ He kept conversations short and was polite but firm in response to the advances of the missionaries.[1]

In a ward council meeting, we were talking about him, speculating a little about his situation. I made a joke: ‘I think he’s one of the three Nephites.’ A few people laughed, but one of the older members asked, basically, what I was talking about. Except those who had served missions (with American companions), few members had heard of the Three Nephites ‘being spotted,’ as it were.

Of course there is loads to be said about the Three Nephites tales. References to the three Nephites being around and communicating with church leaders (JSJ, BY) were more common and printed in church publications in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth century. On the other hand, the only reference I could find to the three Nephites in modern times on lds dot org was this:

‘Note: Stories often circulate about the three Nephites who were translated. Members of the Church should be careful about accepting or retelling these stories. You should not discuss them in class.’ (Lesson 42: “This Is My Gospel”, Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, 185)

I had a missionary companion who told three Nephite stories third and fourth hand with hushed enthusiasm. (He also had a fascination for Bigfoot, fwiw.) But at BYU and in my family, cheeky shots at the three Nephites were fair game.

Are the three Nephites funny? As wanderers of the earth, do they have a place in our doctrine today? Have ironic references to them replaced their faith promoting role among younger members of the church? Is there anything else that was once doctrinal that is now an ironic cultural marker?

—————————————————————————————–

[1] In the end it turned out he was a Swede who had been excommunicated for some time and came to Finland for work for a few months at a time. Nice chap.

Comments

  1. I would think, after 1600 years, they would probably have learned at least the most rudimentary forms of modern humor. :)

    I think that they are not known to us at the moment. Certainly if I were immortal, I would probably keep that a secret. Think about it, if it gets out, the whole world will know until, well, not the day I die, now will it? I would never get peace and quiet. Each generation would want to meet the immortal.

  2. These appear to be an interesting permutation on stories of cursed immortals, refracted through Biblical traditions about John the Evangelist. Fascinating that we have taken the curse (Wandering Jew, Flying Dutchman, vampires) and turned it into a mystical blessing.

    For earliest Mormons, these Nephites were a part of the doctrine of translation, a proof of God’s proximate power over mortality. They seem to have brought someone like Elijah and placed him on earth instead of heaven. Fascinating.

    I’m speaking in terms of the use of the stories, not the veracity of the BoM. I have no quibble with the BoM; I’m just interested in how we use the scripture stories in our religious and personal lives.

  3. And Matt Bowman has done some fascinating work on Bigfoot as cursed immortal, though he situates it in Cain folklore. He also has a great paper coming out on raising the dead, which plays into these themes quite well.

  4. The problem here seems to be the search for universal standards of truth and doctrine. The 3 Nephites are real and intervene regularly for some members. This may have a positive impact on their faith and belief in a God of miracles. For others it is simply a story in the Book of Mormon teaching a symbolic princible.

  5. …do they have a place in our doctrine today?

    I think so. I wrote this earlier this week, reflecting on the role the account of them played in my spiritual development.

  6. Absolutely, they can be funny. Part of my family lore is that there was a gentleman who grew up in a small town in Sanpete Co., but left when he was fairly young. Later, as an old man he returned, donned something of a costume and walked around pointing his bony finger at people and saying things like, “I know you….” then telling them things of the past. Part of this story as that people thought he was one of the three Nephites. Great fun.

  7. The Three Nephites are pure comedy in my family because everyone we have ever heard talk about them (random ward members, youth Sunday School teachers, susbstitute Seminary teachers–you know the kind) have had questionable sanity and generally the Three Nephites in these stories seem concerned with trivial matters.

  8. It would be interesting to ask Burt Wilson, retired English prof and expert on Mormon folklore (and also a returned Finnish missionary, incidentally) how much folklore is extant in non-English LDS communities, how much of it is adopted from American LDS culture, how much of it indigenous.

  9. I think an assumption can be made that the Three Nephites are funny because their names were Larry, Curly, and Mo.

  10. By far, the best anecdote that I have ever heard about the Three Nephites comes from a friend of mine back home. While serving his mission in France, he had risen to the level of district leader. One morning, the sister missionaries in his district came to meeting late. They excitedly told the district that one of the sister missionaries had gotten a flat tire and two gentlemen who were distinctly ‘Lamanite’-looking came from out of nowhere and helped her to fix the flat tire. After being helped, the two men apparently vanished. One of the sister missionaries got it into her mind that they had been helped by the Three Nephites. My friend summed up her story perfectly however. “Sister Smith, you’re saying that you got a flat tire and that the Three Nephites came and fixed it for you, except that there were only two of them and they were Lamanites?”

  11. John Mansfield says:

    It probably depends on our experience with them. Any with first-hand experience likely don’t think of the three Nephites as funny. My feelings about them are strongly formed by listening to an extended first-hand account by someone, now deceased, who said he had such an experience. This person was a Pueblo Indian who had several encounters with a stranger who taught him things that prepared him to learn the gospel from missionaries soon after. This brother said that when he was set apart later by Spencer Kimball for stake missionary work to other Indians, he told Elder Kimball of his experience, and Elder Kimball told him that the stranger was one of the three Nephites. Since hearing this story, I’ve thought the three Nephites are pretty sacred.

    For me, this was sound testimony because: 1) The witness was credible. This brother was a respected member of the stake and of his community with a long history of service. 2) The story made sense and was unsensational. Preparing an Indian to receive the gospel is the most probable purpose I can imagine for the three Nephites to continue ministering. 3) Identification of the stranger as a Nephite was brought up well after the event by Elder Kimball. Now, if I hadn’t heard this account myself, and were only receiving it second-hand, as you are from me, then it wouldn’t count for much, and the best I would have is Moroni’s claim that the three Nephites ministered to him and his father, which was a long time ago. That opens the field for funny jokes.

  12. What JM just said. I think many of the stories are flat-out hilarious – like the 2 Lamanite Nephites fixing the tire. Obviously, there is selective and creative application occuring quite often. However, I also know very credible individuals whose stories make total sense, like what JM detailed.

  13. John M #11. This is a true first hand account from my mission of what may have been a “3 Nephite story”

    I had an investigator “Maria” in the country of Namibia who had a similar story about a white guy showing up one day unannounced telling her he was sent from God and teaching her about the BOM and telling her to travel 400 miles to Windhoek to find the Elders. He did weird things like show up out of nowhere and disappear suddenly according to her.

    On her journey she ran into another man from her tribe named “Ephraim” no kidding. He was a Pentacostal minister and had found a copy of the BOM and had been preaching from it at church.

    She said that Ephraim was glowing a bit when she ran into him so she asked him if he had heard of the BOM. He said yes and that he was heading to Windhoek to find out where the book came from.

    So they traveled together to the capital. Ephriam knew a family in Windhoek that they could stay with. He did not know that this family had a baptismal date and was being taught.

    Needless to say the whole group of them. The family, Ephriam and Maria were all baptized.

    I know its a wierd story. But who was the white guy up on the Angola border who was appearing to Maria?

  14. I haven’t heard the three Nephites talked about in church for some time, except in the occasional third- or fourth-hand account of the sort described in this post. My question is whether Latter-day Saints, in general, still believe that the three Nephites are just wandering around among us, with their true identities concealed, occasionally popping up to do a good deed or minister to a prophet?

  15. When I was at BYU, I got hit by a truck while riding my bike. I landed out in the middle of a lane on State Street and when I opened my eyes there was this guy with blond spikey hair, 10 earrings in each ear and a bull ring that was pulling me out of the road. By the time the police got there, he was gone. I was working at the MTC at the time and was out of work for a bit but the story had gotten back to the missionaries through my friends that worked there and a few of them bore testimony in their little meetings that I had been saved by one of the three Nephites. That Brown Shimai was alive because of one of the 3 Nephites. The piercings, according to them, were so that he could blend in and help people in need.

    So there you have it, a first hand account of one of the 3 Nephites. I would have taken a picture if I had known.

  16. PaulWright says:

    “Is there anything else that was once doctrinal that is now an ironic cultural marker?”

    Yes, and they include the lion’s share of truth claims that distinguised Mormonism: literal Israelite bloodlines a Patriarch could identify, eternal plural (but only for men) marriage, Lamanite identity of Amerindians and thus the true story of the inhabitants of this hemisphere, the historicity of the Book of Mormon (Dallin Oaks in essence called the FARMS dogs off that project), that black men were unworthy of the priesthood, the replication of ancient temple rituals, the corruption of ancient scripture (the Dead Sea Scrolls suggest otherwise) — the list goes on. Our ancestors could not have imagined the Church’s later turn toward mainstream Christianity.

  17. Our ancestors could not have imagined the Church’s later turn toward mainstream Christianity.

    Sigh.

    Anyone thinking that historicity is a non-issue didn’t watch the PBS special or read the interviews associated with it. People are always projecting their current situation on the eternities, our early pioneers were no different. The Church claims to be “living.” I believe that it is, but life requires growth and change.

  18. Aaron Brown says:

    “Certainly if I were immortal, I would probably keep that a secret.”

    Seems logical, but every now and then, I suspect one of the Three Nephites just can’t keep it in anymore, and he gives in to the urge to reveal himself to those with eyes to see.

    For example:

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/?author=60

    Aaron B

  19. Aaron, did you used to have many piercings?

  20. Third Nephite says:

    Please address us by our given names, as we revealed them to Oliver Huntington: “Jeremiah, Zedekiah, Kumenonhi.”

  21. S. P. Bailey says:

    Only one of the three Nephites is truly funny. The other two strictly do stale observational schtick.

  22. Here’s the test:

    Three nephites walk into a bar

    “Ouch” they say.

    nah, not that funny…

  23. Two Nephites walk into a bar. The third one ducks.

    That’s funny.

  24. Mark Brown says:

    amri:

    . . .this guy with blond spikey hair, 10 earrings in each ear and a bull ring . . . The piercings, according to them, were so that he could blend in . . .

    In Provo?!?!?

    Now that’s funny!

  25. Still Confused says:

    I know a Canadian member who believes in all honesty and with fervor that the Sasquatch sitings are in fact the Three Nephites. He has lots of mystical tales to that effect.

  26. John Mansfield — I’ve never heard a credible 3N story before — thanks for sharing.

    Other notes:

    Some friends and I had plans to start the 3 Nephites Project while at BYU. We were going to roam around campus at night in groups of three with feathers in our hair or some such thing, offering to help people. We were going to work out some interesting ‘Nephite’ words to say to each other. But there was a sort of ‘take back the night’ movement going on at the time, and we decided it was a bad idea. (Another idea was to wear all white, carry a sword and follow sister missionaries around for a day.)

    And isn’t there something funny about Kolob?

  27. Steve Evans says:

    Norbert, there’s nothing funny about Kolob. The queue at the Kolob DMV takes forever.

  28. Steve, when you’re there, though, it only seems like a day.

  29. Steve: You should apply for “celestial service” the line is really short, and they give you spa treatments and premium chocolates while you wait.

  30. “Norbert, there’s nothing funny about Kolob. The queue at the Kolob DMV takes forever.”

    “Steve, when you’re there, though, it only seems like a day.”

    LOL! Mormon “inside jokes” like this are awesome. Can you imagine how long it would take to explain the humor in this latter comment to your average non-Mormon?

    Anyway.

  31. Aaron Brown says:

    Amri,

    Yes, I used to have many piercings, but after Gordon B. Hinkley prohibited multiple piercings, he met with the 3 of us and asked us to comply. So I removed them.

    It was a fun meeting. John the Beloved was there. And Bigfoot. And Yeti.

    Aaron B

  32. Steve M. 30-

    Half the time it would take to explain to a BYU co-ed?

    :P

  33. I’M one of the three Nephites. And so’s my wife.

  34. Aaron:

    1) Thank you for pulling me out of the road.
    2) You are honorable for taking out your earrings. Elder Bednar wants to give a talk about you but has been prohibited as you are only allowed to be talked of in the walls of the temple. (please forgive me)
    3) Poor Cain, he’s a wanderer but he always gets left out.
    4) If you had stopped the truck before it hit me, I would think you were really something.

  35. Amri and Aaron,

    I think Aaron’s claim is suspect. After almost 2000 years, you’d think they would try to get there on time. Unless Aaron was in line at the Kolob DMV, in which case he may just have lost track of the time.

  36. John Mansfield says:

    One of the funny things about the three Nephites is that Mormon is forbidden to name them, yet he did name all of the twelve disciples.

  37. John,
    That’s to prevent us from being able to google them and find out where they live.

  38. Norbert, judging by the comments I’d have to say that your questions was answered in the affirmative. Any opposed may make it manifest by the same sign.

  39. I have always wondered about these guys.. I remember hearing the story about them and from then on wonder if I have or ever will meet them. I think it would be awesome to live that long, just to witness first hand everything going on here. And I can imagine them being somewhat humorous, but still humble and quiet.

  40. walkinginthewoods says:

    when I was a young woman my branch president told my family what WE then thought was a 3 Nephite or John the Beloved story . . .

    it was something that had happened to him and to a number of other people in the branch (who were no longer living there by the time I arrived) when the first building in our area was erected.

    This was long ago, when branch members had to come up with the money for everything; the members did the building also–

    They needed help with the wiring; they “thought” they might have enough money for it, but they weren’t really sure, and they were discussing it–whom should they call, etc., when a man drove up in a truck and asked if they needed help with wiring; he helped them, ate with them, worked quietly and left wiring that was worthy of inspection; he drove away, and the branch president wrote down the license plate number, and when he called the county courthouse to find out who had that license number so he could pay the man, there was no such number–
    the man had refused pay–but my branch president had been disturbed by that–

    I remember being disappointed that this “translated being” hadn’t asked how the church was doing or . . . how were things in Salt Lake or–how was missionary work going. He hadn’t used “Mormon jargon” which was important to me back then, as an LDS teen in an isolated backwater.

    In spite of his being a disappointment to my Mormon identify, I think I believed he was a translated being. My branch president didn’t imply that he was. He was very matter of fact about it; he didn’t speak much about it; he told the story to my family once–

    But then that branch president wasn’t dramatic about anything; he was a man of very few words, and he also was a convert with no intermountain west connections–

    I believed the electrician was a translated being.

    Now I think that if a translated being were to drive around helping with electrical wiring he wouldn’t talk about Salt Lake or BYU sports or . . . any of the other cultural icons that were important to me at that time; he would be a person who learned things to help people–now and again maybe even LDS people, if they were humble enough, not a person who was *into* the current culture of the church–

    back then that was the one thing that bothered me–

    I have changed a lot.

    Why would a stranger do this? Why wouldn’t he give his name? The branch had gotten big enough to build a building because of an influx of people to a business that later moved away, taking most of the branch members with it; the branch became tiny again, but there was this nice building, or we thought it was nice at the time; now we realize it was just another little LDS cooky cutter building–which was better than renting a meeting place in the VFW hall.

    I never thought it was funny, not that part of it. There was nothing else mysterious about the man, other than that he always changed the subject when asked his name–and he had just worked steadily; he hadn’t asked questions, and he hadn’t answered them.

    My former branch president did not claim the electrician was a translated being, either; he just thought of it as a nice thing that had happened. I suppose that when things like this happen . . . they aren’t to be talked about; someone might thing the wrong thing?

    The branch president had cared deeply about getting that little phase one building completed; he saw “that” as his mission.

    Is the joke that a translated being would care about helping build a character-less building?

    Is the joke that a translated being would be driving around in a pick-up full of electrician’s equipment?

    I haven’t told many people about this, because I haven’t wanted to be laughed at; maybe that is all right.

  41. I always wondered what it would be like to be a 3 Nephite. Do they have a bachelor pad in Hong Kong somewhere for a home base? Does John the Beloved live with them to round out the sleeping arrangements? Do they have a message board? “Dudes: I’ll be in Chile today. Earthquake. Peace out, Pacumeni.”

    I didn’t find this out until a couple years ago, but our first ancestors who joined the church (Perrys) did so as a result of a 3 Nephites story. Since there are about a bajillion Perry descendents out there now, maybe someone can correct me as to the details…

    The Perry family lived out in the boonies on the frontier, and one day a traveler dude showed up. He ended up staying the night with them, and he pulled a puppy out of his sack for the kids to play with, and… a book! He showed it to the family and they talked about it, and told them that when they found another copy of it they should check it out. I believe the Book of Mormon hadn’t been published yet at this time. And in the morning when everyone woke up he was gone… *and* the door was still locked from the inside. So, that’s why I’m a Mormon. Go 3 Nephites.

  42. walkinginthewoods, no one is laughing at you, I hope.

    I think we need to understand the differences between the two trains of thought here. First, there could very well be real experiences folks have had with the 3 Nephites, but they are not the sort of thing that one would expect to be written up in the Ensign or Church News. As you and others have described, these would be personal spiritual experiences, and are shared with great care, if at all. On the other hand, there are the Urban Legend variety of 3N sitings, which has mostly been discussed here. Let me give an example shared by a former GA (infamous curve-ball thrower Paul H. Dunn, IIRC).

    Apparently, as a newly assigned High Councilor in Southern California, he arrived late to a sacrament meeting and walked up and sat on the stand. Only after the sacrament was served, did he realize he was in the wrong ward, and got up and left as unobtrusively as possible.

    Later, sitting in on another meeting, someone related the story of the mystery visitor to a ward in that stake, and that the speculation was that he was one of the 3 Nephites. That a GA would share a story like that is indicative of the humor aspect of the urban legend variety of 3 Nephite stories. I heard a lot of them growing up in the sixties, always third or fourth hand. I’ve pretty much discounted the ones I heard, as they had all the earmarks of an urban legend. I don’t discount the possibility, even in our day, of their real activity, but I am challenged to understand just what role they might play in our church.

    One hears theories that they are doing missionary work to the lost 10 tribes, or similar kind of obscure work that takes them out of the mainstream experience of church members.

    That being said, I wonder who signs their temple recommends?

  43. bbell #13:

    But who was the white guy up on the Angola border who was appearing to Maria?

    Historically, white guys hanging around the border regions of Angola are CIA.

  44. Questions of historicity and proximity aside, I am deeply inspired by the Book of Mormon account of the Three Nephites.

    Jesus turns to the twelve Nephites and asks them what they desire. Nine tell him that they desire to teach the gospel for the remainder of their lives and then quickly ascend to heaven. Jesus tells them that they are blessed for this desire. The remaining three are embarrassed to express their desire, but Jesus discerns that they would like perpetually to teach the gospel without dying. He then tells them that they are MORE blessed for this desire.

    As I interpret this account, Jesus is affirming that God is a God of life. Jesus is affirming that death, with hell, is an aweful monster, to use Nephi’s phrase. More blessed are those who would, if possible, live for Christ than those who would die for Christ.

    I see this passage as being particularly pertinent to our time when we are learning, through modern science and technology, how to extend and enhance life. There are some who are arguing that it is not moral to extend human life indefinitly. There are others who see such possibilities as means of deliverance from Nephi’s aweful monster. Will we, with the Three Nephites, be more blessed if we make use of the means provided to us? Or shall we sit upon our thrones, supposing that God will deliver us despite our apathy? Perhaps desire for life, expressed in our actions, will bring the prophecied Day of Transfiguration, as it did for the Three Nephites.

  45. This is all good stuff. It could be developed into a series for cable, or maybe even Fox. On the next “Twinkling”… A woman on the run from her abusive husband falls for Gideonha, as Mordecai and Chikchika wonder, is this the end of the Three Nephites?” *sigh* It makes me wonder if edgy, cliff-hanging drama will survuve mortality.

  46. 40. Why would the three nephites ask about the church or BYU sports? They aren’t Mormons.

  47. In addition to electrical expertise, did you know that the Three Nephites are master typesetters?

    During a 2004 visit to EB Grandin’s Print Shop in Palmyra, NY, a church missionary told me and my wife that, while working on the Book of Mormon order, Grandin and his workers would often awake to find that the previous night’s work, which they had left undone, had been completed.

    According to the senior missionary, this happened routinely, allowing the Book of Mormon to be printed at a breakneck pace.

    With a smile, and in a hushed tone, she then said, “Who else but the Three Nephites would be interested in the Book of Mormon being finished as soon as possible.”

    On a related note, if anyone out there happens along one of the Three, please get a hair or tissue sample. I’m curious if their DNA has Jewish or Asian genetic markers; if Asian, it’d sure help out the apologists and others…

  48. Kyle et al,

    Do you think it would be possible/probable that the Three Nephites would become members of the Latter-day Church? Or would that become too complicated when someone found out their confirmation date was 03/18/0016 B.C.?

  49. Do you think their membership record numbers are:

    000-0000-0010

    000-0000-0011

    000-0000-0012?

    And when their recommends are scanned for entrance to the temple, do you think the bar code reader can decode their primitive Nephite technology, or does it freak out and cause a scene?

    If so, how embarrassing that must be for them!

  50. I wonder if any of them have been married? Seems to me like sometime they would be… but on the other hand I’m sure they wouldn’t become involved so as not to be exposed… hmmm

  51. Neal Peters says:

    The Three Nephites certainly have a sense of humor, and to be honest, it’s rather twisted and sadistic. How do I know this? Surely they get a real bang every time I attempt to relate a humorous Three Nephite anecdote to a non-member. By the time I’ve relayed enough historical background to adequately explain who the Three Nephites are, any humor in the story is long gone.

  52. Erm…

    I have never heard of the 3 Nephites. Are they supposed to still be on earth if they’re making appearances, funny or otherwise?

  53. Johannes climacus says:

    Paradox,

    I guess you never made it to Third Nephi. The Three Nephites, along with their smashing good looks, incredible wit, and hilarious slapstick ability, were added to the Book of Mormon to offset its major–albeit sometimes boring and long winded–themes of faith, religion, and sacrifice. The Three Nephites represent humor and all things funny in the Book of Mormon. I’m surprised and almost offended, Paradox, that you have never heard of them.

  54. My biggest caution with stories about the 3 Nephites is that they aren’t verifiable. As in: Was it one of the 3 Nephites who stopped and helped with my car when it broke down on the freeway or was it just a random person who decided to do a good deed? Who knows?

  55. #54:
    Heavenly Father :)

  56. 48: No.

  57. walkinginthewoods says:

    exactly, KyleM; they are NOT Mormons, but in my ethnocentric religious world of many years ago–

    I thought they were. *smile*

    kevinf, I do understand, and thank you for your kindness–

    I guess I just wanted to point out that there is still room for these real *stories*–

    somewhere; I’m not sure where myself–

    and I have been in a world where those urban legends were taken seriously; it’s a frightening thought–

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