At first blush, it seems odd that Nephi, son of Lehi—a man born approximately 615 years BC—should have such a contemporary and continuing influence upon my life. But he has.
When I received my call to serve as one of the Twelve Apostles, my response included a quotation from Nephi: "I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them" (1 Ne. 3:7). Thus, in one of the most important moments of my life, I spoke the words of a man whom I had never met, but in whom I had implicit trust. Ever since Sister Nelson and I were married, we have tried to emulate Nephi's example in accepting assignments in the Church. In that same address in which I quoted Nephi's words, I said, "I have learned not to put question marks but to use exclamation points when calls are issued through inspired channels of priesthood government" ("Call to the Holy Apostleship," Ensign, May 1984, p. 52).
Nephi had influenced my life previously through my many years as a medical educator, researcher, and surgeon. Having grown up in a day when it was not fashionable for medical doctors to participate in religious affairs, I was determined to be different. I wanted to follow the example of Nephi, who taught that we should "liken all scriptures unto us" (1 Ne. 19:23). The concept of blending scriptural truth with academic learning and not separating the two made perfect sense to me.
I took a great deal of courage from that concept in doing research on the heart. When I graduated from medical school, it was commonly believed that one must not touch the beating heart for fear it would stop. Because of Nephi's teachings, I chose to liken the scriptures to the field of my interest in the heart. Verses from the Doctrine and Covenants that served to undergird my thinking included:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated-
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated (D&C 130:20-21).
All kingdoms have a law given;
And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. (D&C 88:36-38.)
These scriptures helped me to understand that laws pertained to all blessings, including that of the beating heart. I felt that once we understood what the laws are that keep the heart beating, we should be able to stop a damaged heart, make required repairs, and start it again. Indeed that proved to be true. Surgeons now routinely stop and start the heart, knowing that the divine laws pertaining to that blessing are dependable and incontrovertible.
During the long years of education I spent in earning two doctoral degrees, scriptures also helped me to distinguish between learning and wisdom. I am so grateful for this counsel of Nephi, quoting his brother Jacob: "O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God." (2 Ne. 9:28-29.)
Nephi: Man of Faith and Ability
A study of Nephi's life provides inspiration as well as information.1 To me, it is highly significant that his first scriptural statement compliments his parents, Lehi and Sariah (see 1 Ne. 1:1). A sign of greatness then and now is the expression of deferential honor to parents. Lehi and Sariah's family of sons-Laman, Lemuel, Sam, Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph-and unnamed daughters are familiar to readers of the Book of Mormon (see 2 Ne. 5:6). Though Laman and Lemuel often resisted their father's counsel, most of Lehi's children honored him and followed his direction. Foremost among them was Nephi. Nephi's trials in obtaining the plates of Laban are a case in point.
Father Lehi responded to divine instruction by removing his family from the land of Jerusalem. The group traveled south into the wilderness adjacent to the Red Sea. Lehi was told that if he and his family remained obedient, they would be led to a land "choice above all other lands" (1 Ne. 2:20; 2 Ne. 1:5) but to preserve their faith, they needed to have the scriptures with them. So Lehi, under inspiration, sent his sons back to Jerusalem to obtain from Laban valuable records written on brass plates that contained both the sacred scriptures and the genealogy of Lehi and his ancestors. After a great deal of trouble, the plates were obtained. Laban's servant Zoram joined with the Nephites; the sword of Laban, a weapon of superior craftsmanship, was brought back to Lehi.
As Latter-day Saints, we know that story well. But we are less familiar with the terrain and climate of that area. Sister Nelson and I have visited Israel a number of times. When sojourning in its southern sector, we have traveled in the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle-a must for us in that very hot desert area. After an hour or two under the merciless rays of the midday sun, we have eagerly sought a cold drink or an early return to air-conditioned accommodations.
Although the place where Lehi issued the request for his sons to return to Jerusalem is not known exactly, we do know that it was along the eastern shore of the Red Sea. The distance they would have traveled-each way-has been estimated to be at least 250 miles. That is a long way to go without roads, cars, cold drinks, or air-conditioning. No wonder Laman and Lemuel murmured (see 1 Ne. 3:5). No wonder their mother complained (see 1 Ne. 5:2-3). But Nephi said, "I will go and do " A similar response was rephrased on another occasion when he said, "If it so be that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has commanded them" (1 Ne. 17:3). When Lehi asked his sons to return to Jerusalem a second time, their trek through the hot desert country would also have been without the benefit of the creature comforts to which we are accustomed. I deeply respect the faith of Nephi, whose "I will go and do" statement we quote so freely. Those words bear profound meaning for me.
The depth of Nephi's determination to follow inspired counsel is again revealed in a statement made later: "If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done." (1 Ne. 17:50.) That kind of faith made Nephi fearless.
Nephi had other sterling qualities as well. Even more uncomfortable than sun and desert must have been the challenges of dissension within his father's family. Lehi and Sariah's colony spent a total of eight years in the wilderness. Laman and Lemuel were older than Nephi, rebellious against both him and their father, Lehi. Divine intervention was necessary on several occasions to keep those sons from thwarting the plans of their prophet-father. Shortly after Lehi's death, Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishamel openly rebelled against Nephi-the spiritual successor to their father-insomuch that they sought to kill him, as they had done several years previously. Nonetheless his attitude was still kind and brotherly, as when he had said, "I did frankly forgive them all that they had done." (See 1 Ne. 7:16, 21; 2 Ne. 5:2.)
Meanwhile, Nephi became the preeminent record keeper of his civilization, surpassed perhaps only by Mormon. Commanded to keep accurate records of events he would witness, Nephi formed some plates that he called the plates of Nephi (later called the large plates of Nephi), upon which he engraved the history of his people.
Nephi was an exemplary leader. He was a young man when called to be a prophet, and he established a government based on sound political, legal, economic, and religious principles. His people proclaimed him king, although he resisted this action initially. He taught them to be industrious and to provide for their needs. He prepared them to defend themselves. He built a temple and anointed his younger brothers Jacob and Joseph as priests and teachers to instruct the people and lead them in spiritual matters. (See 2 Ne. 5:10, 16, 26; Jacob 1:18.)
Before he died, he appointed a new king and appointed his brother Jacob as caretaker of religious records. "Nephi gave me, Jacob, a commandment concerning the small plates. I should write upon these plates a few of the things which I considered to be most precious; I should preserve these plates and hand them down unto my seed, from generation to generation. And if there were preaching which was sacred, or revelation which was great, or prophesying, that I should engraven the heads of them upon these plates, and touch upon them as much as it were possible, for Christ's sake, and for the sake of our people." (Jacob 1:1-4.)
Nephi was also a great follower. He trusted God completely. Nephi taught us that though no one can discern the purpose and meaning of all life's situations, we can rest assured "that [God] loveth his children" (1 Ne. 11:17). Nephi's great trust in Deity is typified in his statement: "My voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God" (2 Ne. 4:35).
Nephi's response to the Lord's command to build a ship provides another glimpse of his remarkable faith. Through the ages, several great prophets have felt overwhelmed by tasks assigned to them by the Lord. Inexperienced Nephi easily could have wondered how to build an oceangoing ship. But his immediate response was simply, "Whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten?" (1 Ne. 17:9.) Nephi was shown how to build the ship.
Nephi was a craftsman of unusual versatility. He personally refined the ore, designed the shape, and made the metal plateson which he wrote (see 1 Ne. 19:1). When his steel bow broke, he made one of wood (see 1 Ne. 16:23). He smelted ore, fashioned tools, and built a ship of "exceedingly fine" workmanship (see 1 Ne. 17:16; 18:1). In the promised land he established a city, built a temple "after the manner of the temple of Solomon," and taught people to build buildings and to work in wood, iron, copper, brass, steel, gold, silver, and precious ores (see 2 Ne. 5:15-16).
Nephi's faith was buttressed by determination. We have record of a very significant oath that he declared: "As the Lord liveth, and as we live, we will not go down unto our father in the wilderness until we have accomplished the thing which the Lord hath commanded us" (1 Ne. 3:15). In those days, no man would dream of breaking such an oath. It would be the most solemn of all oaths to the Semite: "As the Lord liveth, and as I live!" Nephi swore that oath in order to pacify the struggling Zoram in an instant (see 1 Ne. 4:32, 35).
Another measure of a leader's greatness may be assessed in his foresight to prepare his successors. In his old age, Nephi anointed a man to be a king and ruler over his people. In deference to the name of Nephi, the king was called Second Nephi. Succeeding kings were called Third Nephi, and so on.
When Nephi passed away, Second Nephi became the Nephites' king; Jacob, the younger brother of Nephi, became their prophet.
Summary and Conclusion
Nephi was a multifaceted genius. Endowed with great physical stature, he was a prophet, teacher, ruler, colonizer, builder, craftsman, scholar, writer, poet, military leader, and father of nations. Nephi had a sincere desire to know the mysteries of God. He became a special witness and trusted prophet of the Lord.
Nephi lived an adventurous life and faced numerous difficulties. Some of the challenges he faced included fleeing Jerusalem, building a ship, crossing the waters to the promised land, colonizing, withstanding persecution, fulfilling family and leadership responsibilities, and keeping records. Toward the end of his inspiring life Nephi wrote his concluding testimony and bore witness of the doctrine of Christ, the power of the Holy Ghost, and the truthfulness of the words he had written. Appropriately, his final testimony closed with the words that could be known as his signature: "I must obey."
Few have spoken so profoundly in behalf of one generation to another. Indeed, Nephi's life and mission were destined to bless us and all people of our day.
Lead image: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
In this book, twenty General Authorities describe Book of Mormon heroes worthy of emulation. These figures come alive as their heroic qualities and deeds are discussed. We read of fearless Abinadi, who died a martyr for his faith; of Captain Moroni, who taught powerfully of values worth fighting and even dying for. Heroes from the Book of Mormon presents powerful lessons that will encourage readers to nurture the heroic within themselves. Available now at DeseretBook.com.
1. For thoughtful reviews, see Allen E. Bergin, "Nephi, a Universal Man," Ensign, September 1976, pp. 65-70; Noel B. Reynolds, "Nephi," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1003-5.