At noon on the Ides of March, 1493, a small wooden ship rode the rising tide up the Río Tinto and into the harbor of Palos, Spain. She wasn’t much of a ship—her deck was only about 55 feet long. She was weathered but solidly built and appeared to be newly caulked. She was named the Santa Clara, but was usually called the Niña after her owner, Juan Niño of Moguer. The Niña had last been seen in Palos on August 3, 1492, sailing down the ebb tide with two other ships, the Santa María and the Pinta as part of an attempt to reach the Orient by sailing west across the uncharted waters.
A crowd quickly gathered to meet the crew as they rowed to shore in a small boat. The most momentous sea voyage in history ended where it began, at a small village on the Atlantic coast of Spain. The town of Palos de la Frontera remains relatively unknown, but the name of the Genoese sea captain who returned there is one of the most widely recognized names in history: Christopher Columbus.
“A Man Among the Gentiles”
In recent decades, the story of Columbus has been largely forgotten. He has become not so much a person as a symbol of all that has gone wrong in the modern world. He has become politically incorrect in every way, to the point where on many college campuses, the former Columbus Day holiday has been renamed “fall break.”
When I first read the Book of Mormon as a young teenager, Nephi’s prophecy about Columbus was one of the few verses that I clearly understood:
"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
Years later, as a mission president in Spain, I took all newly arriving missionaries directly from the airport or train station to the top of a large castle that overlooks Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea. While looking out over the “mission field,” we read together Nephi’s short verse about Columbus, who, like these new missionaries, came to a foreign land with a bold but unpopular idea and found success.
Upon returning triumphantly from his great voyage of discovery, Columbus traveled to Barcelona where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were holding court. There, in the old Palau del Rei, he reported to the monarchs on his world-changing voyage. I often visited the small plaza facing the old palace and imagined the silver-haired Columbus, regal as a Roman senator, ascending the steps to greet the monarchs, followed by a parade that included live parrots, exotic Indians, and marvelous artifacts of gold.
It was in Barcelona that I first read a statement by Columbus in which he declared that he was inspired and motivated by the Holy Ghost to undertake his voyage across the sea. I was struck by his declaration of divine guidance, as he seemed to describe the literal fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy. I became intrigued by this man who is so widely recognized but so little known, and I began to read and research the life of this famous discoverer.
Why Columbus Sailed
Nephi tells us what Columbus would do—cross the great ocean from the land of the Gentiles to the land of Lehi. That Columbus actually did this is one of the most widely known facts of history. He may not have been the first European to cross the Atlantic, but no earlier voyage had any lasting impact on history.
“Only with Columbus’s undertaking,” wrote the Italian historian Paolo Taviani, “did Europe, Islam, India, China, and Japan learn of the existence of a New World. And that changed the course of human history profoundly.”2
While everyone knows what Columbus did, why he did it is the subject of much speculation and argument among historians. Where did the idea come from to reach the East by sailing west? Why did he continue to persist with such unwavering conviction after his proposal was rejected time and again in both Portugal and Spain? When his proposal brought him ridicule and rejection, why did he keep insisting that he could, and would, cross the ocean? And why was he so unshakably certain that he could do what no one else had done and what everyone else thought was impossible?
Nephi tells us why Columbus sailed: “I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man.” And while historians may debate Columbus’s motives, from his writing it seems that Columbus himself knew why he did what he did:
"With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. . . . This was the fire that burned within me. . . . Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit . . . urging me to press forward?"3
Although Columbus never had access to Nephi’s prophecy—during his time, it was written in an unknown language on gold plates buried in a hill on a continent that Columbus was yet to discover—his words leave many convinced that he thought his voyage was the fulfillment of prophecy:
"The Lord purposed that there should be something clearly miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies. . . . I spent seven years here in [the] royal court discussing this subject with the leading persons in all the learned arts, and their conclusion was that all was in vain. That was the end, and they gave it up. But afterwards it all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he had spoken earlier by the mouth of his holy prophets."4
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the life of this remarkable man is how much it seems he truly understood his prophetic mission and his place in history.
Why Did Nephi Single Out Columbus?
In the 42 verses of 1 Nephi 13, Nephi identifies only one individual: the “man among the Gentiles” whom we know as Christopher Columbus. Why did Nephi focus on Columbus and not Martin Luther, George Washington, or others who played important roles in preparing the way for Joseph Smith?
One potential answer seems to be found in history. Columbus didn’t just discover America; he discovered the highway to America. By unlocking the secret of the trade winds, he made travel between Europe and the New World predictable and commercially feasible.
And that changed everything.
In our modern world, where we can see every corner of the globe online, it is difficult to appreciate the impact of Columbus’s discovery of a new and unimagined continent. Columbus’s account of his first voyage, published just weeks after his return, became an instant bestseller, going through three printings in Rome before the end of the year. His discoveries ignited an intellectual wildfire that spread across Europe.
Only 11 years after Columbus’s death in 1506, Martin Luther sent his 95 theses to the Bishop of Mainz, beginning the Protestant revolution. Seven years after Luther, William Tyndale translated the Bible into English. That English Bible inspired the Separatist movement in England, leading to the voyage of the Pilgrims in 1620 and the great Puritan migration to America beginning in 1630. In 1776, the descendants of those early immigrants declared themselves an independent nation and defended that declaration through a war in which they miraculously defeated the greatest military power currently on the planet. It was in this new nation that a young Joseph Smith went to a grove of trees early in the morning of a spring day in 1820 and later received and translated the ancient record containing Nephi’s prophecy of Christopher Columbus.
So why did Nephi single out Columbus? Perhaps it was because no other single individual would have such an impact on preparing the world for the Restoration. Just as historians mark 1492 as the year the modern age began,5 it is in many respects the year the Restoration began. No voyage of any man in all of recorded history since Noah would change the world as certainly and completely as the great voyage of discovery of Christopher Columbus. This discoverer unlocked what the Lord had locked away— the Promised Land of the Americas—and set in motion a series of events that would culminate with Joseph Smith and the Restoration. Even without a knowledge of the Restoration, the 16th-century historian Francisco López de Gómara proclaimed that Columbus’s voyage was “the greatest event since the creation of the world, save the incarnation and death of Him who created it.”6
Columbus, the Man
The popular view of Columbus today is that he was a greedy gold-seeker, bent on enslaving the peaceful native people, despoiling the pristine environment, and establishing slavery in the New World. But this view contradicts Columbus’s own writings. Hugh Nibley observed, “Most of what is mysterious and contradictory in the story of Columbus comes from the refusal of the experts to believe what he tells them. They say he was an outrageous liar when he was actually telling the truth!”7
When one accepts Columbus’s words at face value, a very different Columbus emerges from the vain, arrogant, greedy, and self-promoting man portrayed in so much of the current literature. What emerges is a man who, rather than arrogant, is unwavering in his convictions; a man not so much greedy and vain as he is interested in fairness and justice; an immigrant to Spain who makes an inestimable contribution to his adopted country, suffering great personal risk to do so, but who never achieves the acceptance afforded to native sons who do more harm than good. And more than anything, what emerges is a man of great faith, inspired by the Holy Ghost to do one great thing, and who, against all odds, accomplishes his divine mission and changes the world.
In the end, Columbus’s achievements and his universal fame are a reflection of his personal faith. “Peter stepped out upon the water,” he wrote, “and to the extent that his faith remained firm, he walked upon it. . . . No one should be afraid to undertake any project in the name of our Savior, if it is a just cause and if he has the pure intention of his holy service.”8 Columbus’s faith remained sufficiently firm to enable him, like Peter, to step out upon the water.
“History,” observed Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, author of Columbus on Himself, “has all the world’s best stories, and the life of the weaver’s son who discovered America could hardly be matched even by the most inventive imagination.”9 It is a story worth rediscovering.
1. 1 Nephi 13:12. Modern prophets have repeatedly affirmed that the “man among the Gentiles” in this scripture refers to Columbus. See Arnold K. Garr, Christopher Columbus, A Latter-day Saint Perspective, p. 73–79.
2. Paolo Taviani, Columbus, p. 262
3. Delno West and August Kling, The Libro de las profecías of Christopher Columbus, (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991), 105.
4. West and Kling, Libro, 107.
5. See Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, 1492: The Year the World Began (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).
6. Francisco Lopez de Gómara, Historia General de las Indias, Vol. I, (Madrid: Calpe, 1922), 4. See also Cecil Jane, The Four Voyages of Columbus, (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), xv.
7. Hugh Nibley, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 50.
8. West and Kling, Libro, p. 111.
9. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Columbus on Himself, (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2010), 17.