Columbus and Accountability

“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles,
who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters;
and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man;
and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren,
who were in the promised land.”

1 Nephi 13:12

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (source:

Posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1519 (source:

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an opinion piece by David Tucker, a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ohio, in which Dr. Tucker is willing to go part of the distance in reducing cultural adoration of Christopher Columbus. After acknowledging many of the negative consequences for native peoples of Columbus’s actions — and rehabilitating Columbus by arguing that we only condemn him now because of the European values that he brought to the New World, primarily the notion of Equality (?!) enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — Dr. Tucker states “[t]his Columbus Day we need no triumphalism. Let it be a day instead to ponder the human capability for good and evil and wonder how we might encourage more of the good.”[1]

I don’t think this goes far enough in dealing with Columbus’s legacy — especially for me as a Mormon who has so deeply internalized the Church’s teachings about the importance of the principle of accountability in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But for the past few years, I’ve posted my thoughts about Columbus and Columbus Day on social media and I’ve received substantial push back on my criticism of Columbus, specifically from Mormon friends and family. Again, today, I’m aware that many are claiming that denouncing Columbus is just an example of political correctness run amok.

Still a Hero?

The thought of failing to denounce Columbus again today especially in light of such statements makes me ill at ease. Both the recalcitrant adulation of Columbus and the actual history of his actions necessitates such reminders of his real legacy (and specifically the major disconnect between Columbus’s unfortunately honored reputation and that actual history of blood and horror).

Tying into the broader “conservative” interest in celebrating Columbus, Mormons are known to take that cultural adoration to an atmospheric next level. Basically, Mormons might feel bound to honor Columbus because the above verse in The Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 13:12, *seems* to refer to Columbus and because past Church leaders have historically participated in the traditional Romantic American cultural celebration of the man. But that particular verse does not necessarily require such an outcome, and taking a fresh look can always be helpful.

In my view, Columbus’s actions are too morally objectionable to honor in 2016, despite the overwhelmingly religious words he used, for instance describing himself as God’s messenger to bring the new Gospel as described in the Book of Revelation (a role which we Mormons normally ascribe to Moroni, despite Columbus’s claim that it referred to him). After making landfall in the Western Hemisphere he claimed the Island of Hispaniola for the King and Queen of Spain, despite the fact that it was already inhabited by peoples whose history on the land was entirely unknown by him. We know about the torture and enslavement of many thousands and the ultimate centuries-long genocides begun by him and continued by his imperial successors. Accounting for 1 Nephi 13:12, Hugh Nibley posited that Columbus was led by the Spirit in his navigation. This subtle but important narrowing of the scope of Columbus’s guidance by the Spirit is on point. The ultimate outcome was a scourge to the native inhabitants of two whole continents and many islands. It’s a shameful history and one that did not have to unfold as it did. European imperialism and racism — the belief in the inherent inferiority of non-white peoples — shaped the “discovery” of the New World all the way down to the American genocides of Native Americans in the nineteenth century and their continued mistreatment beyond. Is that really something we should be honoring?

Mormon Cultural Adoration of Columbus

Of course I am aware of the Mormon cultural adoration of Columbus. I genuinely respect the intentions, intellects, and spiritual intuitions of Mormon family and friends who react with alarm at the suggestion that Columbus should not be honored. Some of them have cited Clark Hinckley’s recent Columbus hagiography[2] and his father President Hinckley’s 1992 talk in which he venerates Columbus[3]. Also, a 1992 Ensign article by De Lamar Jensen commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the West Indies argues why Columbus was a great man just as tradition holds, primarily based on Columbus’s self-identification as a pious individual[4]. All three of them derisively ascribe modern scholarly and popular criticism of Columbus to unwarranted political correctness. Jensen recognizes the substantial bulwark of laudatory myth surrounding Columbus’s legacy and concedes “[m]any still resist any attempt to show Columbus as a human being, with vices as well as virtues.” But then Jensen does not acknowledge a single data point in the long list of “vices” (or, to put it more accurately, atrocities); instead, he claims the “debunkers” of Columbus’s legacy are “overenthusiastic, even slanderous, in their attempts to demythologize Columbus” and that “[t]heir approach often serves to bolster a political cause rather than promote a search for truth.” In doing so, such critics merely create an “equally false myth of Columbus as a villain.” Jensen does not seem to perceive the political motivations and uses for the American religious right of the narrative he makes his own about Columbus as a God-sent hero, a use that potentially undermines the robust pluralism of which we as a minority religion are a major beneficiary.

I am told Clark Hinckley refers to the horrors inflicted by Columbus as his “imperfections” and that we should not judge him based on those. Although I agree the Gospel requires us to forgive people and civility moves us to look past their faults, I think we must recognize some point at which “faults” become something bigger than the foibles and “imperfections” that all people share in common. Isn’t there a line somewhere that sets brutal governance based on enslavement, torture, and other atrocities apart from lesser transgressions and “imperfections”? Did Clark Hinckley show any awareness of these actual facts of Columbus’ actions *after* the spiritually aided voyage? (Jensen did not in his 1992 Ensign article — some of these facts, which had been described by the contemporary Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas, were further attested when the report prepared by Columbus’s replacement, Francisco de Bobadilla, who conducted an investigation on behalf of the Spanish Crown, was discovered in 2005 in a Spanish archive[5]. Jensen mentions Columbus was sent back to Spain in chains but doesn’t explain why.) I still haven’t read Clark Hinckley’s book, but from discussions I’ve had about it, it doesn’t seem like he adequately acknowledges or addresses these issues.

It is also true that “abject reverence and unfettered denunciation are not the only points on the spectrum,” as one friend who remains a Columbus devotee has pointed out to me. From my perspective, many LDS family and friends appear to lean toward the abject reverence. Meanwhile, I have certainly been leaning toward unfettered denunciation in the years since my mission, which was the last period of my life in which I shared that laudatory view of Columbus. (Not knowing much about the actual history at the time, I read President Hinckley’s 1992 talk and Brother Jensen’s 1992 Ensign article linked above while serving as a missionary in East Berlin and was, predictably, pumped up by the cultural red meat on offer there in support of Columbus’s legacy against the “slanderous” scholars and critics of secular society.) After my mission, however, I learned the facts and could no longer subscribe to that narrative! My Mormon upbringing ingrained the notion of accountability too deeply for me to let Columbus off the hook for the atrocities, cruelty, and evil that he personally perpetrated. After all, millions of indigenous people tortured and worked to death as slaves in mines is not some mere “imperfection” — it is real, palpable evil.[6]

Because I know of the good will and intelligence of my Mormon friends and family who continue to defend Columbus, I don’t believe they condone Columbus’s atrocities or think that such atrocities are justified or ratified by God somehow. (I pray that is not the case, though I am unfortunately aware that some Mormons do take this view — those who felt the Priesthood restriction was justified as one concrete expression of the broader speculation that castes and different races deserve their inferior lot in mortality based on their lack of valiant action in the preexistence, thus justifying their suffering at the hands of such perpetrators.) Part of their efforts are political. They are seduced by the talking points of the American political right — that concerns about Columbus are a part of a left-wing plot or conspiracy created by a degenerate society seeking to justify sin and therefore casting everything that’s good and right (like Columbus) as bad in a frenzy of incorrect “political correctness.”

But that is only on the surface. I think a more profound stumbling block in really holding Columbus accountable for these things is the verse in 1 Nephi 13:12. But what does that verse really require of us as Mormons?

Delayed Accountability

It seems that honoring the principle of accountability and incorporating our better information about morality (the inherent wrongness of racism, slavery, segregation, and genocide of native peoples — ideas not firmly recognized by society at large in America until the last half century or less) and history (Columbus’s track record as viceroy and governor of Hispaniola and the policies he put in place with the intention of their continued effect) require us to amend our narrative to something more like the following:

* * *

Previous generations set in motion a culture of adoration surrounding Columbus. At the time this developed, the atrocities committed against the indigenous populations of North and South America by Columbus and his successors in the Conquest were not viewed as particularly morally objectionable by those who created the narrative about Columbus that still survives today. Society at that time allowed and relied on African chattel slavery, one of the most morally evil institutions that has existed on the earth, and was actively seeking to wrest lands unjustly and without fair compensation from Native Americans, also as a result of the fundamentally racist ideology that permeated our society at the time that narrative was created when the United States was pushing its borders westward. Later, though slavery was abolished as an incidental outcome of the Civil War, the deeply ingrained racism in America against any non-white peoples, whether African former slaves and their descendants or Native Americans (or others such as immigrant Chinese), continued in full force through the Jim Crow era and on until the Supreme Court forced the end of the morally bankrupt practice of legally mandated and enforced racial segregation. The traditionally accepted narrative about Columbus as a hero, without regard to the abuses that he himself perpetrated after making landfall in the West Indies and becoming governor of Hispaniola, is a product of this time in our history in which the atrocities suffered by the indigenous people were perhaps viewed as unfortunate (by the more enlightened members of society) but nevertheless still part of the beneficial story of Columbus “discovering” the Americas.

Now, however, society recognizes the dignity of all peoples and does not discount the value and rights of indigenous peoples the way previous generations have done. As our societies rejected legally mandated and enforced segregation in the second half of the twentieth century and invited all races and peoples into the equal protection of the law, we have become aware of how flawed our previous narratives about Columbus have been precisely in ignoring or overlooking — or excusing — the atrocities that he personally committed after arrival in the New World, no matter how inspired his navigation to get there might have been.

With this new awareness, we are able to acknowledge that the arrival of Europeans was an unmitigated disaster for the many nations of indigenous peoples inhabiting North, Central, and South America, and many islands, and in the annihilation of their cultures instigated by the Europeans they suffered unimaginable cruelty and dismantling of family and social life, and endured torture and enslavement. It is true that some of the Europeans, most notably in the English colonies that ultimately became the United States, established free governments that created conditions in which the Restoration of the Gospel would later be possible. But our gratitude for the Gospel does not and should not diminish our condemnation of the brutality and atrocities committed in the Conquest, including the unspeakably horrible things that Columbus himself did and led as viceroy in Hispaniola. The political system that was eventually established in the United States by the Constitution, which allowed the Restoration to happen, also made an immensely valuable political contribution to societies around the world as an example of constitutional government. And thanks to the constitutional freedoms enjoyed by white people in America, the United States made immensely valuable contributions to the advancement of all fields of human endeavor as time progressed. Eventually, the lofty ideals of the American founding were also extended, at least in theory, to non-white people in the United States, thus beginning to balance out centuries-long inequity before the law based on race. This process continues today, and our more realistic view of Columbus, which is based on the sad historical facts of his actions after he made landfall in the West Indies, is part of that necessary process.

Nevertheless, although we can now accept and acknowledge that Columbus ultimately committed some truly awful crimes as the Viceroy of Hispaniola, including enslaving the indigenous population and annihilating their culture, sanctioning torture, mutilation, and forcing “conversion” to Christianity by the sword or torture, we still believe that his initial dream of discovering a western passage to China in the service of the crown and his unfailing and admirable determination while on the perilous and at times hopeless-seeming sea voyage were influenced and inspired by the Spirit, as Nephi learned in a vision in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 13:12).

* * *

If, for example, I am influenced by the Spirit to do something good but then shortly thereafter commit genocide, I would rightly be condemned for the genocide despite the earlier inspiration. It is not clear why Columbus’s legacy should be held to a different standard of accountability.

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day!


[1] David Tucker, “Straight Talk About Christopher Columbus,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 9, 2016 (




[5] Giles Tremlett, “Lost document reveals Columbus as tyrant of the Caribbean,” The Guardian, August 7, 2006 (

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people’s ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery. . . .

The evidence has been found in a previously lost report drawn up at the time for the Spanish monarchs as they became worried by growing rumours of Columbus’ barbarity and avarice. The document was written by a member of an order of religious knights, the Order of Calatrava, who had been asked to investigate the allegations against Columbus by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who ruled Spain together at the time. . . .

Bobadilla collected the testimonies of 23 people who had seen or heard about the treatment meted out by Columbus and his brothers. ‘Even those who loved him had to admit the atrocities that had taken place,’ Ms Varela said. . . . ‘Columbus did not solve problems, he created them.’

[6] Spanish historian and contemporary of Columbus, the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas, wrote that between 1498 and 1508, three million people died from “war, slavery, and the mines. Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it” (History of the Indies (New York: Harper & Row, ed. and trans. 1971). (Summarizing here from Wikipedia for ease of reference: The number killed was likely closer to 300,000. But de las Casas also recorded that Columbus’s men terrorized the natives everywhere they went, torturing, raping, and pillaging as they tried to force them to reveal the fantastic stores of gold the Europeans believed would be found in the Indies. De las Casas also reported that Columbus organized his men into small forces each with a number of dogs and they would range across the land killing the natives wantonly, including using unarmed natives as objects for sword practice as they tried to cut them in half or decapitate them with one stroke (David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 70).

Columbus initiated the slave trade using natives, purportedly personally sending more slaves back to Spain than any other individual. Although de las Casas renounced this treatment of the natives and argued to the Spanish Court that the indigenous peoples were fully human, he advocated using African slaves instead, showing his own incredible blind spot. Perhaps most barbarically, and similar to the atrocities committed by King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo in the late nineteenth century, Columbus implemented a policy that all natives over the age of thirteen had to collect a certain amount of gold every three months and if they failed to do this, their hands would be cut off and they would be left to bleed out or survive as cripples, as fate would have it. Revolt after such harsh treatment was punished by hanging or burning to death. This caused mass suicides and infanticides among the natives. Finally, Columbus seems to have allowed the colonizers to engage in sexual slavery using the natives, including young girls.

So, basically a text-book example of reigning with blood and horror on the earth. (The next time someone tells you the world is far worse now than ever before, think about living in Hispaniola in 1498.)


  1. I think it’s possible to imagine a world in which the Restoration occurred without intentional genocide of Amerindians (the massive die-offs from smallpox are another story) and the practice of African slavery. Unfortunately, that’s not the world in which we live. Regardless, Mormon hagiography for Columbus needs to end now. The Lord uses whatever tools are at His disposal to accomplish His ends; certainly the Babylonians who sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC weren’t exactly a covenant people.

    Frankly, the only reason that Columbus Day is a national holiday is that Italians had become a major political force in what were then most of the nation’s largest cities (NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, San Francisco) by the ’30s. Their votes were essential for getting Franklin Roosevelt elected president and the Democratic Party into solid House and Senate majorities, and they were rewarded for their loyalty with an ethnic holiday. If the respective numbers of Poles and Italians immigrating to the United States had been reversed, the US would celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day as a national holiday and Columbus Day would only be a holiday in a few Italian-heavy states. (Also, we’d eat a lot less pizza and pasta and a lot more pierogies and potatoes.) Now that the US has twice as many Mexicans as it does Italians, and most of those Mexican-Americans are primarily or completely of Amerindian ancestry, perhaps it’s time to let Columbus Day go.

  2. Thank you for articulating this authentically Mormon way to view the issue.

  3. My question has often been, and nobody has ever given me a straight answer when I’ve asked, but how is excusing a historical figure’s wrongdoing by citing how social norms were different then NOT a kind of moral relativism? If today’s social norms are no excuse for bad behavior, as we are often told, why wasn’t that true then? (I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt and all, but I can’t see “yeah, but slavery was normal then” or anything similar as anything other than moral relativism, but moral relativism seems to be something the same people who defend these figures are really opposed to.)

  4. The fact that social norms differed doesn’t mean that there weren’t many, many voices crying out against the behaviors we now condemn. las Casas and many of the Spanish missionaries sent to New Spain were appalled at Spanish colonial practices; while paternalistic toward the natives in a way we’d find distasteful now, they were lights of compassion in what was otherwise a very dark night of blood and horror. Opposition to chattel slavery was very much a thing for at least a century before the Civil War.

  5. I think we ought to acknowledge the too-often-unstated Mormon fear that 1 Nephi 13:12 is a Joseph Smith emendation based on his 19th century understanding of Columbus as an important figure in the mythic explanation of the creation and exceptional God-driven nature of America. If not “true” in some inspired prophetic way, then one comes quickly to 19c artifact thoughts. Hugh Nibley’s “navigation” theory feels a little desperate to me. Among other things, it seems to require a belief that discovery (15th/16th century European discovery) wouldn’t or couldn’t have happened by someone else in the near time frame. Which I don’t believe.
    But in the service of (appropriately) denouncing Columbus . . .

  6. The theory that Columbus is the man among the gentiles that Nephi saw is textually problematic if you do a close reading of the text, and really only works if you are comparing the text with Columbus’s story on the level of really broad generalities and are importing assumptions about what the text says that aren’t actually there. For one thing, Nephi says that the man among the gentiles came to the lamanites, but Columbus only came to the islands and never actually made it to the north or south American continent. And while take a pretty agnostic view toward the various theories about book of Mormon geography, I’m not aware of anybody who thinks it took place in the west Indies. Sure, you could address this problem weigh some creative theory about lamanites migrating after the fact, but the fact remains that it is still a problem that has to be addressed if you are going to buy into the theory that these verses describe Columbus.

  7. Aussie Mormon says:

    JKC: His 4th voyage included stop overs in Central America where he interacted with natives.

  8. I guess I was wrong. :) Still, the major focus of his activities was in the Caribbean, not in the American continent.

  9. For me, all of this is put into context with 1 Ne. 13:11, which states that the angel explained that the wrath of God was upon the seed of Nephi’s brethren, and then Columbus or the Columbus figure is introduced. Whoever he is, it seems that he may be a vehicle of God’s wrath. The fact that the Spirit “wrought” upon him does not make him a holy or righteous figure. I recall that in the Old Testament both the Assyrians and the Babylonians are called God’s instruments in one way or another as they are used to cause destruction among the covenant people. There’s certainly no reason to consider them upright folks, but then I suppose I would be judging them by my own narrow standards. I think it’s okay to consider Columbus at least a morally ambiguous figure and still take 1 Nephi 13 for what it says. The hagiographical work of others is really unnecessary and is too much, but as Dr. Nibley used to say, everyone likes to get into the act.

  10. Part of this is a refusal to look closely at native american communities and see that, while the period of contact was marked by almost unbelievable cruelty, the institutional racism against these communities is ongoing.
    I think some people want to look back and “settle the question” with Columbus, instead of admitting (much less looking at) present day issues. Ironically both viewpoints “Columbus was great and did nothing wrong” and “Columbus was a villain, sure glad we’re not like him” are somewhat exculpatory, and completely sidestep incredible amounts of inhumanity perpetuated not just in a vague past, but in living memory and continuing in the present.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    I still think of it as Thanksgiving, not Columbus day.

  12. I think it’s only the position that “Columbus was great and did nothing wrong” that has the political use you’re referring to. The other perspective, the one that actually pays attention to Columbus’s personal atrocities and governance, is part of the process of recognizing the current problems, acknowledging their roots, and looking for appropriate ways to address them.

    Ignoring or downplaying the historical injustices will never be part of a successful solution. And, certainly, honoring the perpetrator of these atrocities will never foster healing.

  13. Unaddressed here is that Wilford Woodruff ordaining Christopher Columbus a high priest in the St. George Temple. To those aware of this, it only increases the discomfort of finding out Columbus wasn’t such a good guy, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a motivator for LDS culture to prop him up, despite pretty much all of the actual evidence.

  14. Marty Reeder says:

    (Warning: long, meandering post!)
    I feel that you, and Hugh B. Brown, are spot on when you say that the verse in 1 Nephi 13:12 is referring to being touched by the Spirit through navigation alone. There is ample evidence that Columbus truly felt inspired on that first journey, while the rest of his life rings more of a personal endeavor to protect and prolong the glory and inheritance (and personal pride) of his discovery (or lack of discovery!). I see no reason why God, especially in a time where the Gospel was not yet introduced on the earth, would not be able to inspire a prepared, religious, and ambitious man for a single moment. Columbus did not have the Gift of the Holy Ghost, after all, but he was certainly put through a humbling decade before his embarkation and could have been susceptible to spiritual promptings.

    Having said that, I do feel that Columbus is judged harshly by academia today, and I think disingenuous statements such as the one that the torture and death of millions of Indians were a Columbus “imperfection” are inaccurate and not helpful (I know that the quote comes from Las Casas, but he is not referring specifically to Columbus there–and while rightly critical of Columbus’s treatment of the Indians in other passages, Las Casas is an unabashed Columbus defender and admirer. If we’re going to trust Las Casas words, we should trust them on both sides). Saying that Columbus was pious only in words and not actions is also disingenuous. Columbus was very much tied to the ritual of religion and held church services, hymn singing, and scripture reading regularly on his ships. That was not (completely) uncommon for the time, but he had personal time set aside for it himself every single day. After surviving a horrific storm on the way back from the first journey, Columbus promised and completed a pilgrimage to a shrine in an out-of-the-way location of Spain, which caused great inconvenience for the preparations of the second journey, but Chris was a man of pious principle and made the journey, even if it was often (sometimes very often) misguided. He definitely was more than just pious in words.

    Looking closer at the Columbus’s narrative it is not a Western Civilization versus Indigenous population account. Columbus was a Genoese navigator sailing for Spain in competition against other European kingdoms (particularly Portugal), and he first came across the peaceful Taínos. At his insistence to his crew members, and well-documented (in the first voyage), Columbus treated the Taínos with relative respect and was careful to check his crew’s actions against them and insure that all interactions came through fair trade. This early alliance with the Taínos created the culture that would set Columbus and his followers against the aggressor Indian nation, the Caribs–cannibals who were far more ruthless and barbaric towards the Taínos than were Columbus and even his less “civilized” followers after him. (Of course, the truest killer of all these was disease, but Columbus usually gets pegged with that inadvertent consequence of hemispheric interaction as well.)

    This is not intended as a complete apology of Columbus, a very complicated, though I would say sincere man of ambitions. As a colonizer, Columbus was a bumbler and far too prone to external and internal pressures. But we have to remember that he left a colony of men under apparent peaceful circumstances after that first voyage, and when he returned, he and his men were horrified to discover that those they left behind had all been brutally killed (not, most likely, without some justification, though Columbus could not have known that). To colonize again under that oppressive, threatening environment kept them on a trigger, and led to one of Columbus’s subordinates acting against orders in seeking retribution for some Indian pillaging. Columbus’s problem was in not condemning the out-of-order actions and instead defending and continuing them. On sea, he had much greater control over his men; on land, his men and the Indians escalated the problem into a state of pseudo-war, where neither trusted the other and hot heads on both sides would cause them to justify the killing of any suspicious characters for any presumed reason.

    The account of Bobadilla was highly political and geared against Columbus in order for Bobadilla to secure his spot and keep Columbus from attaining the profits and titles that were his right according to the contract Columbus made with the crown, something that was never honored and for which Columbus would spend the rest of his life in wounded dignity trying to restore. Bobadilla and his successor, while far better colonial managers than Columbus, were much less civil and more inherently greedy than Columbus ever was. Had Columbus not gone back in chains, perhaps the European attitude towards the natives would not have taken such a negative, downward spin (though that is probably just wishful thinking, as Columbus could not control his subordinates’ actions against the natives and he eventually would cause some himself–such as the ridiculous punishment for not producing gold order, something based on bad information about the gold’s abundance in the land).

    Should we celebrate and venerate Columbus? As a navigator he deserves the same or greater praise that we might give Neil Armstrong and his crew for making it to the moon. Columbus’s journeys were an incredible feat of exploration and navigation, inspired even; but what followed, partly from him, though mainly from successors ranged from shameful to repugnant … with the occasional story of great humanitarians, such as Las Casas and Cabeza de Vaca, whose words perhaps became precursors to the dignified democratic states to follow. I think Columbus was not evil; in fact, I think he was one of the most compassionate and least greedy of the conquistadores (low bar, granted). If we are going to blame him for the atrocities that followed him, then I see no reason why we would not also credit him for the democracy and freedoms that followed. Realistically, he should not get credit/blame for either.

  15. JKC at 4:21am: I don’t disagree with your closer reading and questions (and I don’t think a 4th voyage really changes that, although I wasn’t thinking about it before now). However, I think that in doing so we are reading a 19th century text in light of 20th century geography and learning about about Columbus with 21st century limited geography notions about the Book of Mormon. I suspect that to a 19th century reader, especially one living and educated anywhere in the Americas, it was obvious to the point of not being worth discussion that 1 Nephi 13:12 was describing Columbus.

  16. Ox, I get that, but I don’t think Wilford Woodruff’s vision should be read to support the notion that Columbus’ lie was praiseworthy. Granted, our concept of post-mortem repentance was not as detailed then as it is now, with the benefit of Joseph Fielding Smith’s vision, but if we take those ideas seriously, Almost three centuries of suffering what Alma called the pains of a damned soul would potentially be enough for Columbus to repent. There’s also the possibility that President Woodruff’s vision was less about specific people and more about the idea of work for the dead, and showing a “dramatized” version of the souls of the dead, including many historical people that President Woodruff would have recognized, pleading for deliverance, would be an effective way to make that point.

  17. I agree, christian.

  18. Marty Reeder, I am not holding Columbus accountable for atrocities perpetrated by those who followed him except to the extent they were continuing his own policies and acting under his direction. Nor am I holding him accountable for disease except to the extent he used it intentionally as a means of eradication or control. I am holding him accountable for the atrocities he himself committed personally and directed, which were genocide. I’ve mentioned a few of them in the original post and also cited de las Casas, a contemporary eye witness who was a Columbus friend/supporter — even such a witness expresses the sheer horrors Columbus committed and presided over.

    Also, it is Clark Hinckley who characterizes these atrocities as “imperfections” that we shouldn’t judge now. He does this *in answer to* historians who are merely producing the facts of the events that took place. We have numerous eye witness accounts of the atrocities, including de las Casas and Bobadilla.

  19. I can picture Columbus being like King David: Charismatic, virtuous and inspired in his youth and then more cynical and driven by vice in his later years.

  20. Well done, John f. All of us can feature people who have been inspired at times, without being moral examples.

  21. Thanks Marty for your comments.

  22. Here’s a good article by Daniel Peterson on Columbus:

    Click to access S00010-51b7525168fb910Peterson.pdf

  23. Jack, I take it you’re merely posting that article as a provocation. It fully endorses the opposite view, that only a degenerate and unwarranted political correctness would denounce Columbus. It ignores his real atrocities waiving them away as some things to “ponder” and “regret.” It speaks in a voice as if any true Latter-day Saint *must* honor Columbus. It takes the cultural adoration of Columbus as a marker in the culture wars and casts criticism of Columbus as some deranged effect of public schooling and liberal bias.

    But facts are facts, Jack. You haven’t said what you think of Columbus’s atrocities. How about the woman who screamed at Columbus he was “low born” as he passed (during his reign of blood and horror, enslaving and torturing the native peoples) — as punishment he had her paraded around naked and cut out her tongue. He explained to his brother he was “defending the family.” So this is what “defending the family” means for culture warriors today too? If they’re not willing to denounce Columbus’s atrocities and stop, once and for all, honoring a man who perpetrated genocide, torture, horrific slavery including the cutting off of hands for those who did not meet quotas of gold that didn’t exist, and even sex slavery of girls as young as nine years old, then I wonder about their moral universe.

  24. Thank you for this, John. I am disturbed by the great lengths some Mormons are ready to go to wrest a divine(ly approved) role for Columbus out of the scriptures, as if God were powerless to accomplish his purposes without a few men ready to visit blood and horror upon humanity in pursuit of their vain desires. I also believe your response to the scriptural account is a more fruitful one than my own, which is to view 1 Nephi 13 as a passage that undermines Nephi’s reliability as a conduit of prophecy.

  25. I recently (as in early in the summer) read 1493 by Charles C. Mann. It was intriguing. The thesis was that Columbus’s first journey across the Atlantic marked the beginning of the modern age of globalization, for better and worse. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the book was that it hardly touched on Columbus, he was just a catalyst for the creation of the modern world.

    Which holds some merit. But we have to step away from only acknowledging only the positives of his exploration and ignoring all of the negatives. Because there are a lot of negatives.

    I prefer to celebrate October 10 as Indigenous People’s Day. I would rather celebrate the people who are still fighting for survival and respect than the man who catalyzed the centuries of atrocities.

  26. That is an honorable comment. One addition I would make is a suggestion to assess Columbus based on his own actions, which were atrocious, and not merely for the Conquest that he “catalyzed,” as you so descriptively put it. This is about holding him accountable for those things he himself personally did, mandated, and allowed. Others in the Conquest are similarly responsible for their own actions.

    No doubt Jack and Dan Peterson also have plenty of praise for Pizarro and Cortez as well, because tradition and evil liberals. But we as a society *must* begin to move away from honoring such figures and, instead, look *clearly* at the morally indefensible things they actually did during their mortal sojourn.

  27. Curtis Carmack says:

    Many important and thought-provoking points are made here and in the comments. However, we can a should be a little more careful with the “facts” as we know them. Though it is clear that Columbus did many reprehensible things, it doesn’t make sense to attribute to him things known to be done by another (as John F. does above, recounting an atrocity committed by Columbus’s brother, Bartolome, not by Columbus). Further, Bartolome de las Casas was not eye witness to Columbus’s actions, as they did not overlap in their time in Hispaniola. Columbus was returned in chains in 1500 and de las Casas (who initially also participated in the atrocities) did not arrive until 1502. Although Columbus did make a fourth voyage in May of 1502, his travels took him elsewhere and it seems unlikely that he and de las Casas ever met, as Columbus never docked in Santo Domingo and eventually returned to Spain in 1504.

    These are perhaps minor details, but we might as well get it right where we have enough information to do that. Please don’t think I condone what Columbus did by any means. There is no excuse for such conduct. That said, we do not have the benefit of recorded conversations or CNN video clips. To take anyone’s writings from 500 years ago and think we we know what happened is a real stretch. We don’t even have enough evidence to judge the potential biases of the writers, much less what lurked in the heart of their protagonists. We do not have to assume Columbus was a good man, only perhaps temper our judgment knowing we are not in full possession of the facts.

    In the end, it does not matter to the prophecy in 1 Nephi 13:12 whether or not Columbus was a good man — we know from the Book of Mormon itself, for example, that it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished (Mormon 4:5). Hence the author’s conclusions are in no way adverse to the prophecy of the Book of Mormon, despite what some may believe. We do not need to honor Columbus to believe Nephi’s revelation.

  28. We do not need to honor Columbus to believe Nephi’s revelation.

    Very, very true. And we certainly do not have to set up Columbus as a cultural icon in order to make some kind of bizarre political point against those who favor progress away from racism, segregation, and genocide.

  29. I can’t help but think that the Church’s early-’90s reification of Columbus as a cultural icon was little more than a signifier of fealty to the “correct” tribe in the Kulturkampf.

    Which likely means that it has the greasy fingerprints of Boyd K. Packer all over it.

  30. There’s a thread running here (just a thread, not enough rope for hanging) implying that Columbus was an instrument in God’s hands to punish the wicked, which would mean that his atrocities were in furtherance of God’s plan. I want to be on record as rejecting and renouncing that view.

  31. John, did you see my other comment wherein I liken Columbus to King David? I’m not suggesting that Columbus was without fault. But, on the other hand, if your OP were the only surviving document on the subject on would be left to assume that Columbus was a regular Hitler or Stalin — and *that* he was not. Dan’s piece brings in a little bit of balance to the issue. Like King David, Columbus was an incredibly spiritual man who went off the rails in his later years and then, it would seem, tried to right himself again with God.

  32. Thought provoking article, John F. It seems that millennials and gen x-ers really get this. My 20-yr old son referred to yesterday as “Indigenous People’s Day,” and has nothing good to say about Columbus. Pizarro and other conquerors did similar things but we don’t venerate them. I suppose it’s a cultural bias that the older U.S. generations have to venerate Columbus.
    If you look at verse 11, 13 and 14 of 1 Nephi Chapter 13, there’s a case there for Columbus as a scourge, along with the American Colonists. But you can see in later verses the case for European whites as both a scourge and a destined, chosen people. The Lamanites were a scourge to the Nephites, even though at times the roles were reversed and the Lamanites were the righteous group. Your point is well taken. Even if I see Columbus as a catalyst in the destiny of America and the Church, it doesn’t mean he and those that followed after him get a pass on atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous people here. It’s complicated, because “we” as an entire country have accountability for our colonialism against the Native Americans, while at the same time, most of us agree that the end result was divine destiny.

  33. Jack, I can’t tell you how many deeply religious, pious people have gone out and committed appalling atrocities that they’ve justified as being in keeping with their beliefs. (Think: the Thirty Years’ War.)

  34. Oh yeah, and why the cheep shot about praising Cortez? Though we don’t know much about him personally it seems to me that his tactics were brutal. On the other hand, I have to admit that, with what little I know about the Aztecs — if it’s true — they were ripened for destruction like the Canannites. Of course, that doesn’t absolve Cortez (or anyone) of wrong doing. We’ll all ultimately stand accountable for our misdeeds. I’d just hope that with all of the moral outrage there’s a commensurate degree of empathy to go along with it. Because, in the end, we’ll probably get a chance to meet these guys.

  35. APM, right. But I don’t think King David was that way in the beginning. I think both he and Columbus were truly inspired early on. It’s latter on, down the road when they run amok — for whatever reason. Be it religious zeal, or any other vice.

  36. and *that* he was not

    That’s where I’m not following you Jack. I see no need to preserve the hagiographic adoration of Columbus that originated in nineteenth-century American Romanticism and was taken up as a rally cry against “progressives” by those who self-servingly label themselves “conservative” and therefore try to “conserve” Columbus’s legacy against those mean “scholars and critics” who simply relate the facts about Columbus’s actual actions as governor, his actual brutality and atrocities, the actual 300,000+ victims of his enslavement, execution, and mutilation. Dan Peterson’s article, the 1992 Ensign articles, and Clark Hinckley’s book do not account for this by a long shot.

    I see no valid reason for conservative and liberal Mormons alike not to drop this cultural fetish of lionizing Columbus. If you feel obligated to honor him because of 1 Nephi 13:12 (which Dan Peterson seems to feel though that verse requires nothing of the sort nor implies that Columbus was honorable or worthy of honor in any way), then please limit your adoration to his navigation only and don’t be fooled by his pious, self-serving rhetoric and descriptions of himself in his letters to the Crown or even his Book of Privileges or his Book of Prophecies.

  37. Simply relating the facts? Boy, have you gone through the academic mill. The only “context” that seems to count for anything is presentism. In all of your studies about Columbus was there anything that may have caused you to view his situation with the slightest degree of empathy? As you would for, say, Nelson Mandela? Does cannibalism or human sacrifice play into the picture? Or any number of other reprehensible acts on the part of the indigenous folk? Are you suggesting that *you* would’ve done a better job at first contact if you were in Columbus’ place? With his identical cultural training? And on top of that, you keep inflating the numbers. 300,000? What does that mean? Is that a good guess on the part of historians for the isle of Hispaniola? And, if so (which I doubt), does that mean that Columbus brutalized every last one of them? How many of them were executed or mutilated at Columbus’ express order? And why? And who’s telling the story?

    All that said, it does seem to me that there’s likely enough evidence to suggest that Columbus fell from grace as did King David. And if so, and I hope I’m wrong, Columbus would be a tragic character like MacBeth or David.

  38. 300,000 is the likely number, reduced from de las Casas claim of 3,000,000.

    I still don’t see a recognition by you that torturing, enslaving, mutilating, executing, and selling into sexual slavery is universally morally wrong — and that people who have personally done these things in any degree should not be honored as cultural heroes and standard-bearers of religious virtue and “everything good,” which is how Dan Peterson frames him in that FARMS Review article you linked and how many, many Mormons revere him based on their cultural upbringing and conditioning, despite the facts easily available about his reign of terror as governor of Hispaniola. Instead, criticizing it is just presentism. We don’t have to carry that burden. Those atrocities were as wrong then as they are now. Columbus had the Ten Commandments just as we do. There’s a line of argument that should work for you, right?

  39. I don’t know, Christian. Isn’t it the case that even the most reprobate and degenerate sinner, even in his attempts to deliberately thwart God’s plan, ends up furthering it even unintentionally? (With Satan as perhaps the primary example.) To suggest that Columbus (or Pizzaro or Cortes or anyone else) was the wicked person by whom God “punished” the wicked doesn’t necessarily mean that God approved of those actions. I put punished in quotes because I believe that most of the time when God is described as punishing people in the scriptures what’s really going on is that he is removing his protection and grace to a certain degree, leaving them exposed to the natural conditions of the fallen works and their own actions, more than affirmative punishment.

  40. Facts are stubborn things.

  41. JKC @4:14: In brief (so as to not threadjack) I believe that 1 Nephi 13:14 (“I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren”) is an incorrect interpretation by the speaker, seeing death and destruction and incorrectly attributing it to God. We see the same kind of incorrect attribution in the Old Testament. It plays into a justification of genocide, and I don’t believe it. Not with respect to the Canaanites. Not with respect to Native Americans.

  42. “I still don’t see a recognition by you that torturing, enslaving, mutilating, executing, and selling into sexual slavery is universally morally wrong.”

    Of course it’s wrong. And I’ve (tentatively) placed Columbus in the same category as Macbeth and King David — murderers, both. But even so, it must be tentative until I can do a little more study on the subject. While it seems evident that Columbus was a poor governor, most of the problems at the various settlements occurred while he was away. And, on top of that, I’m a little suspicious of Bobadilla’s motives. They don’t seem to square with those of the Spanish royalty — Columbus’ benefactors.

  43. That’s fair, christian.

  44. very, very well said, CK (5:27pm)

  45. christiankimball,

    How would you justify 3 Nephi 9?

  46. Re 3 Nephi 9: Off topic, but . . .
    1. The fact that I don’t believe God sponsors genocide does not (logically, necessarily) mean that God doesn’t ever sponsor death and destruction.
    2. The events described in 3 Nephi 9 are natural disasters (tempests, earthquakes, fires, whirlwinds). It’s perfectly legitimate to have a different conversation about men killing men than about natural disasters (even today, for insurance claims for example, an uncontrollable natural force is referred to as an “act of god”).
    3. Further discussion of God’s hand in death and destruction would take me far afield, well into theodicy territory. I’m working on that but don’t expect my lifetime to be long enough to come to ready for prime time answers or conclusions.
    4. I find it interesting that there is a strong “unreliable narrator” signal at the beginning of chapter 8. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 at least are pretty clearly in the ‘tales told’ category of narrative, in which I think it common to modulate tenses and voices in the telling.

  47. I can respect that interpretation, christiankimball. Not sure, though, that I could ever whole-heartedly agree. Knowing that God has prescribed one man killing another, as in the case of Nephi or Moses, I can’t close the door on the possibility that He might have one nation destroy another — as appalling as it may seem.

    Sorry for the threadjack.

  48. Thank you for this commentary. As an LDS convert, and a Native American, Columbus day is very hard for me. Every time I go to church and hear one of my LDS friends speak of the “spiritually led hero, Columbus” I feel as if I have been punched in the gut. To hear my white brothers and sisters celebrate the man that committed monstrosities against my brown ancestors makes me feel physically sick and completely devalued by the people I attend church with. To read a blog from another LDS person that actually recognizes the evil of Columbus’s actions is a healing balm to a very painful sore.

  49. Here in beautiful British Columbia, every day is Columbus Day.

  50. Thank you, Rolanda.

  51. Wilhelm, I’m genuinely surprised that the province hasn’t considered changing its name to something of native/First Nations significance.

    Of course, that runs into the problem that, like pretty much every US state and Canadian province except perhaps Prince Edward Island and Hawaii, BC is a thoroughly artificial construction. Even the choice of the Continental Divide as an eastern border is kinda arbitrary given that the natives who lived there regularly traversed it.

  52. The following article gives a very good summary why Columbus is an important person to honor even though he had many deficiencies and why recent attacks are off base.

  53. Atrocities are not deficiencies. Only “political correctness” would characterize “atrocities” as “deficiencies” in order to maintain the politically desired image of Christopher Columbus. If you’re against political correctness, you should be against Columbus and the traditional, nineteenth-century American homage to the mythical legacy set up in that time period.

  54. Jack (Oct 12; 1:06 pm): Continuing the threadjack just a little, I’d like to add that my difficulty with genocide is not really about God’s will or actions (although that is a challenging avenue of thought) but rather an epistemological issue. I think that Abraham (with Isaac) and Nephi (with Laban) represent the outer edge of what man can know from God regarding acts that involve killing another (and that’s why they are in scripture). For myself, I conclude that both Abraham and Nephi were wrong (and that their stories are told in self-justification mode), but I recognize a close question and respect the “directed by God” point of view in accord with the text.
    Having defined the outer edge, I find inclinations or promptings or guidance toward genocide not just abhorrent but beyond and outside the scope of things that a human being is capable of knowing and understanding. In other words, if someone says “God told me to kill that nation” I’m prepared to say that is categorically wrong. You don’t know that. You can’t know that.

  55. Amen, CK

  56. christian, that is a helpful perspective and I almost entirely agree. At the risk of taking the threadjack even further (john, feel free to delete if this isn’t where you want the discussion to go), I would say that I generally agree, but I am wary of the word “categorically” there, because I am wary the view that sets limits around what God can do. Perhaps ironically, its for the same epistemological concern that you outline above: I don’t think we can know the limits of what God can or can’t command.

    That’s all in theory. As a practical matter, based on my own experience with God, such things are foreign to God’s character, and I seriously doubt that God would ever command the sorts of things attributed to him in the Old Testament, like genocide. Anybody who thinks he is commanding such things is far more likely experiencing a serious delusion than a divine revelation, to the point that for all practical purposes, I am prepared to say with you that they are categorically wrong.

    It is a scary idea, but I think there is a certain amount of risk inherent in faith. Faith is powerful and redemptive, but it is also dangerous. If you accept the reality of an interventionist God that continues revelation and is not bound by previous scripture or tradition, there’s a very short distance from that to atrocities committed in God’s name. The way to salvation is as narrow as a razor’s edge, and one can easily fall into fundamentalism and atrocities on the one side or into complancency and a God that doesn’t challenge our ideals on the other side (not that I’m accusing you of that), and I think we’re supposed to wrestle with that.

  57. JKC: Perhaps I misinterpret, but I read you as pressing on the immovable rock quandary (which is silly about rocks and very serious about genocide) and I agree that it would be a challenging dive into the nature of God. However, I stop short on this question, not reaching to the nature of God but stopping at the nature of man. I posit (for the sake of argument) and believe (for the here and now) that the horrific nature of a genocide is so disturbing and destructive to thought that the human mind in its limited ‘meat bag’ package is not capable of clear signal and reliable understanding. So I guess I am back to rocks–I think that God can make and has made human beings with whom He cannot perfectly communicate. That in this life we do see through the glass darkly.

  58. Maybe it does just reduce to an immovable rock paradox, in any case, whatever theoretical difference there is better us, for all practical purposes I don’t think we disagree much at all.

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