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.
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?
 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.