Evidence #71 | September 19, 2020

Prophecy of Columbus

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Nephi’s prophecy about a man who crossed the ocen because he was “wrought upon” by the “Spirit of God” is consistent with Christopher Columbus’s self-described motivation for voyaging to the Americas.

In Nephi’s panoramic vision concerning the future of his people, he gave the following account:

And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren. 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)

Nephi’s description of “a man among the Gentiles” who “went forth upon the many waters” has long been interpreted by Latter-day Saints as a prophecy about Christopher Columbus.1 It is widely known that Columbus was not the first European to set foot in the Americas, yet his voyages spurred forward transoceanic contact between the Old and New Worlds in an unprecedented way. In a broad-strokes view of history, Columbus is unquestionably a pivotal figure of unique historical significance.

 

The caravels of Christopher Colombus, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, Image via history.com.

Yet, as Daniel C. Peterson has observed, “It would have taken little talent in the late 1820s for someone to prophesy the discovery of America nearly three and a half centuries earlier.”2 Something more is clearly needed for Nephi’s prophecy to rise to the level of “evidence,” and that something concerns Columbus’s motivation. Nephi “beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man” before he went forth upon the waters (1 Nephi 13:12). This implies that the man in Nephi’s vision was moved to action by a divine influence that rested upon him.

According to Grant Hardy,

Some of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries probably would not have disagreed with Nephi’s description of Columbus. Clues to the spiritual side of Columbus were already found in a few English sources, though these references were vague and few. Materials about the life and actions of Columbus by his son D. Ferdinand Columbus were republished several times in England during the eighteenth century, but the availability of sources and Joseph Smith’s actual use of them are two entirely different questions.3

Thus, it is by no means certain or even expected that Joseph Smith’s environmental exposure to Columbus would have led him to view the explorer as being primarily motivated by a spiritual influence. For example, in a discourse commemorating Columbus’s achievements, Jeremy Belknap in 1792 specifically attributed Columbus’s motivation to (1) “natural reason,” (2) “the authority of writers,” and (3) “the testimony of sailors.”4 Throughout Belknap’s discourse, science and reason loom larger than God, and only in passing is Columbus described as having been “guided by th’ Almighty Hand.”5 

According to Peterson, “It is only with the growth of Columbus scholarship in recent years, and particularly with the translation and publication of Columbus’s libro de las profecias [Book of Prophecies] in 1991, that English-speaking readers have been fully able to see how remarkably the admiral’s own self-understanding parallels the portrait of him given in the Book of Mormon.”6 In his own words, Columbus declared such things as:7

  • “With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project.”
  • “Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Holy Scriptures, by a most clear and powerful testimony … urging me to press forward?”
  • “Already I pointed out that for the execution of the journey to the Indies I was not aided by intelligence, by mathematics or my maps. It was simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied.”
  • “I feel persuaded, by the many and wonderful manifestations of Divine Providence in my especial favour, that I am the chosen instrument of God in bringing to pass a great event—no less than the conversion of millions who are now existing in the darkness of Paganism.”
  • “In the name of the most Holy Trinity, who inspired me with the idea and afterward made it perfectly clear to me, that I could navigate and go to the Indies from Spain, by traversing the ocean westwardly.”

These statements demonstrate Columbus’s own conviction that God inspired and directed his voyages across the sea, aligning with Nephi’s statement that “the Spirit of God … came down and wrought upon the man” (1 Nephi 13:12).

Image via history.com

It should be understood, however, that none of these statements morally justify the abuses that Columbus and other European conquerors and settlers carried out against native peoples in the Americas.8 In fact, the depravities that followed Columbus’s voyages are also predicted in the text. Just before showing Nephi about the man (assumed to be Columbus) who would cross the many waters, the angel declared, “Behold the wrath of God is upon the seed of thy brethren” (1 Nephi 13:11). This ominous prediction is picked up again in verse 14, but with more detail: “And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten.”

Conclusion

While it is possible that some early 19th century Americans saw the voyages of Columbus as being, at least in part, religiously or spiritually motivated, there is no guarantee that such factors would have been of primary significance in the mind of Joseph Smith. And considering the dearth of attention paid to this topic until recent decades, there is good reason see the portrayal of Columbus in the Book of Mormon as not having been derived from a 19th century context. What can be said with confidence is that Nephi’s prophecy that “the Spirit of God … came down and wrought upon [a] man” who then “went forth upon the many waters” aligns with Columbus’s own self-described motives for sailing to the New World. Significantly, the documents which verify this situation have only fairly recently been made available in English.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Nephi Prophesy of Christopher Columbus? (1 Nephi 13:12),” KnoWhy 547 (January 23, 2020).

Clark B. Hinckley, Christopher Columbus: “A Man Among the Gentiles” (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2014).

Daniel C. Peterson, “Not Joseph’s, and Not Modern,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 198–203.

Arnold K. Garr, Christopher Columbus A Latter-Day Saint Perspective, ed. Arnold K. Garr (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1992).

Grant Hardy, “Columbus: By Faith or Reason?” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 32–35.

Louis G. Hanson, “Columbus, Christopher,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 1:294–296.

1 Nephi 13:10–14

1 Nephi 13:10–14

  • 1 For a history of this interpretation see, Arnold K. Garr, Christopher Columbus A Latter-Day Saint Perspective, ed. Arnold K. Garr (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1992), 1–5. For a review of Garr’s book, see Daniel C. Peterson, “Christ-Bearer,” FARMS Review of Books 8, no. 1 (1996): 104–111.
  • 2 Daniel C. Peterson, “Not Joseph’s, and Not Modern,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 199.
  • 3 Grant Hardy, “Columbus: By Faith or Reason?” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 32.
  • 4 Jeremy Belknap, A Discourse Intended to Commemorate the Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (Boston, MA: Apollo, 1792), 13–18; cited in Hardy, “Columbus: By Faith or Reason?” 32.
  • 5 Belknap, A Discourse, 57; cited in Hardy, “Columbus: By Faith or Reason?” 32.
  • 6 Peterson, “Not Joseph’s, and Not Modern,” 199. See also, Pauline Moffitt Watts, “Prophecy and Discovery: On the Spiritual Origins of Christopher Columbus’s ‘Enterprise of the Indies’,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 1 (1985): 73–102, esp. 74: “Until recently, little attention has been paid to … the spiritual dimension of Columbus’s personality, to the religious and cultural environment out of which it developed, and to its possible influence on the genesis of his voyages of discovery.”
  • 7 The following statements are all quoted from Garr, Christopher Columbus A Latter-Day Saint Perspective, 81–83.
  • 8 It is now widely known that Columbus and other European rulers and settlers abused the native peoples of the Americas in terrible ways. For a brief overview of the growing controversy over Columbus’s historical legacy, see Marvin Lunenfeld, “What Shall We Tell the Children? The Press Encounters Columbus,” The History Teacher 25, no. 2 (1992): 137–144.
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