In the early chapters of the Book of Mormon, Nephi sees a vision of, among other things, events that readers have interpreted as the then future history of the colonization of the Americas. At one point in his telling of the vision, Nephi says this:
“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)
Traditionally, readers have interpreted this verse as a prediction of the voyages of Christopher Columbus. And some latter-day saints have felt the need to defend Columbus from “political correctness” when Columbus’ serious sins (slavery, brutal oppression, etc.) are discussed.
John’s excellent post examines how morally fraught it is to defend Columbus against an appraisal of his serious misdeeds. As John explains, we can’t just dismiss an unflinching, critical evaluation of Columbus as mere presentism, because the fact is that Columbus’ contemporaries were not blinded by their time and culture to the evils of slavery. Most prominently, Bartolome de las Casas stood against Columbus’ enslavement and oppression of Natives, which can only rightly be described, as John describes them, as “blood and horror.” I am also inspired by the Abinadi’s to De Las Casas’ Alma, the Dominican friars who took a stand by withholding the sacrament of confession and reconciliation from De Las Casas and other slavers in protest of the practice, thus inspiring him to repentance and conversion.
A commenter on John’s post made an insightful observation that perhaps some of the seeming rush to defend Columbus in LDS culture stems from anxiety that if Columbus is not a good man, then the Book of Mormon’s portrayal of him as inspired by God is wrong. If so, it becomes, in that view, nothing but a relic of 19th Century views of Columbus as a man of God. An attack on Columbus, in that view, is an attack on the validity of the Book of Mormon.
But that anxiety rests on a few assumptions that are not necessary. It rests on the assumption that the man Nephi saw was Columbus, and it rests on the assumption that Nephi’s description of the man as “wrought upon” by the spirit of God means that the man was a good man. I’d like to complicate these assumptions.
Is the Man among the Gentiles Really Columbus?
First, the assumption that Nephi’s vision is really talking about Columbus. We jump to assume that it must refer to Columbus, because he is the one we think of as the first European to have contact with people living in the western hemisphere. But Nephi doesn’t even say that the man among the gentiles he saw was the first to make contact. (In fact, if he did, that would likely rule out Columbus, see, for example, the Norse settlements in L’Anse aux Meadows.) All Nephi really says is that the man was separated from the descendants of the Lamanites by many waters, that he crossed the many waters and came to the Lamanites’ descendants, and that after him, many other gentiles came and mistreated the Lamanites’ descendants.
Nephi’s statement that after the “man among the gentiles” many other gentiles came and scattered the Lamanites’ descendants leads people to think of Columbus, because Columbus is thought of as the man that opened the way for European colonization of the Americas. But again, Nephi does not actually say that the man among the gentiles opened the way. There is a sequence between the man among the gentiles’ coming and the coming of other gentiles, but the causal relationship between the two is an assumption. It may be a warranted assumption, but it is still something that we bring to the text, not something that the text itself says.
And what about the statement that the man among the gentiles came to the Lamanites’ descendants? Columbus is an imperfect fit. Columbus did not settle the Americas. He settled the Carribbean. Now, I don’t know what theory of Book of Mormon geography you buy into, if any. I personally think they all have problems. But whether you buy the mesoamerican theory, the heartland theory, the great lakes theory, or some other, I’m not aware of any theory that puts the Book of Mormon in the Caribbean. It is true that in his last voyage, Columbus did stop over in what is now Honduras, but both before and after that, his activities were focused in the Caribbean. Columbus died in 1506, and the Spanish didn’t establish any permanent settlements in what is now south or central america until about a decade later.
Other Candidates for the Man Among the Gentiles
If you are looking for a Spanish explorer who had significant contact with Natives in south America, Pizzaro or Cortes fit that description at least as well as Columbus.
For a couple of years, Russel Stevenson has been pushing his theory that Nephi’s man among the gentiles was none other than Bartolome de las Casas. Thats another possibility.
But if you’re looking for a spaniard who had really widespread contact with a whole bunch of different tribes, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca might be the best candidate. Cabeza de Vaca was born in Hispaniola, and in the early 1500s was shipwrecked off the coast of what is now Texas. He spent the next eight years living with a variety of native tribes across what is now the American southwest, sometimes as a slave himself, but became something of a Christian shaman, faith healer, and trader, walked across Texas, and eventually made his way to the Spanish colonies in California. If you believe that the Lamanites’ descendants were in North America, Cabeza de Vaca might be your guy.
But why does it have to be a Spaniard, anyway? Another possibility is Samuel de Champlain, the founder of the french colonies in North America. He lived about a century after Columbus and Las Casas, but he is significant because he began the settlement of New France. If you buy into the Great Lakes theory of Book of Mormon geography, Champlain is a better candidate than Columbus or Las Casas, because under that theory, Nephi’s “the seed of my brethren” would have been living near the area of the St. Lawrence, where Champlain founded the city of Quebec.
Champlain was also much more humane in his treatment of native Americans than was Colombus. The Spanish method of colonization was to see the native tribes as a source of free labor, a natural resource to be exploited just like any other resource. Champlain’s vision was different. He wanted to convert the native tribes to Christianity, not by force, but by preaching the gospel to them, which he believed would result in conversion of their own free will, and his dream was to create a new Christian community of natives and french immigrants that would live together as equals. He took time to learn the language of the Algonquin tribes that lived along the shores of the St. Lawrence, treated them kindly, shared food with them, and accompanied them in their military campaigns against their enemies in the south. At one point, he even initiated a sort of exchange program where he would send sons of noble families to live with the natives, and would adopt sons of prominent native families into the french colony.
But if you’re going to assume that the descendents of Lehi that the “man among the gentiles” went to were in North America, rather than in the carribean, why stop with New France? Why not go all the way back to the very first evidenced European settlement by the vikings? Leif was the son of Norwegian explorer and outlaw Eric the Red. He was born in Iceland toward the end of the 10th century AD, and when he was probably in his 20s, traveled back to Norway and there became a Christian, and was given the mission to convert Greenland to Christianity. Leif heard rumors of a merchant that had been blown off course and landed in a land to the west of Greenland, and when he sailed back from Norway to Greenland, the same thing happened to him. After his mission to Greenland, probably in the year 1001, he returned to the west, found land, and finding an abundance of wild grapes, called the place Vinland. Evidence of a Norse settlement has been found in Newfoundland, and it has tentatively been identified as Vinland.
Or it is entirely possible that the man that Nephi saw is a nobody whose life is unrecorded in our histories. There is no reason why Nephi’s vision needs to match up nicely with any particular popular version of history.
What does it mean to be “wrought upon” by the Spirit of God?
But let’s look at the second assumption. A man responsible for so much evil against natives doesn’t sound like a man inspired by the Holy Ghost. But if we read closely, the text of Nephi’s telling of his vision doesn’t require us to conclude that the “man among the gentiles” was a holy man or even a good man.
Nephi says that the man was “wrought upon” by the Spirit of God. Does that really mean that he was inspired of God in the way we usually think of it? In context, the “man among the gentiles” is not portrayed as bringing the light of God, but rather as a vessel of the wrath of God. The preceding verse sets the scene for what is about to follow: the angel says to Nephi “Behold, the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren.” In context, then, the “man among the gentiles” who is “wrought upon” by the Spirit, is a punishment for the sins of Lehi’s descendants: namely, their embracing war and militarism and genocide, among other things. Similar to the way the Babylonian captivity was seen by Old Testament prophets as the wrath of God, the coming of Columbus, and all the blood and horror that he brought, could be read as a fulfillment of the “wrath of God.”
Under this reading, the man among the gentiles was not Gods servant, but a blunt tool in God’s hands. That does not mean that the enslavement and mistreatment of natives by Europeans was justified before God. After all, Mormon himself says that “it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed.” With this idea in mind, whoever the man among the gentiles is, portraying him as wrought upon to bring God’s punishment to the Lamanites’ descendants more fully condemns him and justifies him not at all.
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Columbus is hardly the only candidate for the “man among the gentiles” that Nephi saw, but even if he is the man, the fact that Nephi says he was “wrought upon” by he Holy Ghost is not an endorsement of his life. A belief in the Book of Mormon therefore in no way obligates us to defend, dismiss, or minimize the evil, the blood and horror, that he and countless others inflicted upon those that they found living in this hemisphere.
So let’s not call evil good for the sake of defending an arguably plausible, but unnecessary and morally questionable interpretation of scripture.