Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Three Nephites and LDS Missionaries

When I was on my mission in Canada my fellow missionaries used to like to tell stories about the three Nephites. Usually in their narrative one of the three Nephites miraculously saved either a missionary or a missionary's family member from drowning or freezing in the snow. They swore that it was a true story and happened in their family.

Most of us who were there thought that it was cool. Then we would speculate that maybe we had met one of them without knowing it. I remembered once meeting a Lamanite man just prior to going on my mission who had very prominent features who shook my hand like in the temple. It was very eery at the time. I didn't really get in a conversation with him and he didn't give me any instructions that is the closest I ever came to an alleged member of the Three Nephites. I had heard a few stories and taken out my endowments. In retrospect it was probably stereotypical for me to have associated an indigenous person from South America as being out of place in Las Vegas where I grew up. Las Vegas is after all an international place that people visit.

In researching the Three Nephites I discovered from reading a review of Hector Lee's The Three Nephites: The Substance and Significance of the Legend in Folklore, which is an early review of the literature on the theme that the Three Nephites accounts only have a single member of the group visiting or helping. They don't travel as a group. I guess that gives them a greater ability to help others.

William A. Wilson in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism describes their place in Mormon lore as:

LDS stories of the Three Nephites comprise one of the most striking religious legend cycles in the United States. Bearing some resemblance to stories of the prophet Elijah in Jewish lore, or of the Christian saints in the Catholic tradition, Three Nephite accounts are nevertheless distinctly Mormon. Part of a much larger body of LDS traditional narratives (see Folklore), these stories are not official doctrine and are not published in official literature. They are based on the Book of Mormon account of Christ's granting to three Nephite disciples, during his visit to the New World following his death and resurrection, the same wish he had earlier granted to John the Beloved-to "tarry in the flesh" in order to bring souls to him until his second coming (John 21:22; 3 Ne. 28:4-9). The Book of Mormon account states: "And they [the Three Nephites] are as the angels of God, and…can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good. Therefore, great and marvelous works shall be wrought by them, before the great and coming day [of judgment]" (3 Ne. 28:30-31; see also Book of Mormon: Third Nephi).

As the newly founded Church grew in numbers, an ever-increasing body of stories began circulating among the people, telling of kindly old men, usually thought to be these ancient Nephite disciples, who had appeared to individuals in physical or spiritual distress, helped them solve their problems, and then suddenly disappeared.

Because they span a century and a half of LDS history, these narratives mirror well the changing physical and social environments in which Latter-day Saints have met their tests of faith. For example, in pre-World War II agrarian society, the stories told of Nephites' guiding pioneer trains to water holes, saving a rancher from a blizzard, providing herbal remedies for illnesses, plowing a farmer's field so that he could attend to Church duties, or delivering food to starving missionaries. In the contemporary world, the stories tell of Nephites' leading LDS genealogists to difficult library resources, pulling a young man from a lake after a canoeing accident and administering artificial respiration, stopping to fix a widow's furnace, guiding motorists lost in blizzards, comforting a woman who has lost her husband and daughter in an airplane crash, and pulling missionaries from a flaming freeway crash.

Even though the settings of the newer stories have moved from pioneer villages with a country road winding past to urban settings with freeways sounding noisily in the background, some circumstances have remained constant. In the stories, the Three Nephites continue to bless people and, in telling these stories, Latter-day Saints continue to testify to the validity of Church teachings and to encourage obedience to them. The stories continue to provide the faithful with a sense of security in an unsure world, persuading them that just as God helped righteous pioneers overcome a hostile physical world, so will he help the faithful endure the evils of urban society. Taken as a whole, then, the stories continue to provide understanding of the hearts and minds of Latter-day Saints and of the beliefs that move them to action.

A few bloggers have tackled this subject this past couple of years in posts. Most of their posts have comments about when they were missionaries they heard or transmitted tales about the Three Nephites. On the blog By Common Consent Norbert tackled Are the Three Nephites Funny and said: "I had a missionary companion who told three Nephite stories third and fourth hand with hushed enthusiasm. (He also had a fascination for Bigfoot, fwiw.) But at BYU and in my family, cheeky shots at the three Nephites were fair game."

William on the blog A Motley Vision tells his own personal story in My Three Nephite Story when he was on a mission in Romania. This is what he says happened to one of his investigators:
Doina had a strong, one might say even fierce faith in God.

She shared the following story with Elder Nichols and me during a visit:

Doina reached a point where she had no money for food. She had lost her government job and with it her income. Her husband had been incognito for awhile. She had become estranged from her (latest) congregation. She didn't know any of her neighbors very well, and besides that they were all barely scraping by themselves. And she had three young children to feed. The only option she had left was to boil the straw from her broom and see if she could draw some nourishment from the small undeveloped kernels of wheat attached to the straw. She was in deep despair and didn't know what to do. She cried out to God. A few minutes (or perhaps hours) later there was a knock on the door. She opened it. A nicely-dressed (I think he may have even been wearing a white suit -- at the very least he was in 'church clothes') older gentleman was there with several bags of groceries in his arms. He asked if he could come in. Doina, of course, said yes. He gave her the groceries and some money. Doina wanted him to stay and told him that she would prepare a meal for him. He declined, but (I believe) did ask for a glass of water. Then he left.

Elder Nichols and I stared at each other in amazement after hearing this story. After the visit, we excitedly discussed it. If I recall correctly, the dedicatory prayer that opened up Romania for mission work had said something about the Lord preparing the land to receive his gospel. To us this seemed like a very real example of that. And the story had a certain amount of credibility in our eyes because her was someone who didn't grow up with Three Nephites stories telling us about an experience that echoed those stories.

Now, even then, we had some doubts about the account because we knew that Doina was prone to exaggeration. She is not the most credible witness. I also realize that this type of folk narrative featuring a heavenly visitor is not unique to Mormonism. For all I know, there could be a long tradition of such narratives among Romanian evangelical and protestant Christians [I think that with Orthodox folk narratives the details of such a visit would be quite different].

And while I can say that the story touched me deeply -- and was deeply felt by Doina, the tears streaming off her face as she told it -- because I am aware of the folk-quality of many of these narratives, I can't say that I believe it is a factual account. However: knowing Doina and her family as I do. Knowing her faith and how she relates to God and how he seems to relate to her -- he puts her through the wringer, but always somehow to provide the right things for her at the right moment. And believing as I do, the Book of Mormon account of the Three Nephites (and by extension what that tells us about John the Beloved), there's a part of me that believes the account is true.
Super Nerd at Mormon Matters laments in his post Big Foot, the Three Nephites and the Lost Tribes of Israel the fact that we don't hear much folk traditions often in Church anymore. He shares:

I would like to give a shout out to all the Ward crazies…Where have you all gone?

Every Ward has them and every Ward needs them for comic relief. You know who I’m talking about, that member of the ward who bears his/her testimony every month and always has a miraculous story about angels, the Three Nephites, Bigfoot, the return of the Lost Tribes of Israel, the building of New Jerusalem or some other end time event.

As a teenager my friends and I used to sit in the back pew next to the door laughing at many of the crazy things members would say and do during sacrament. Unfortunately today, I rarely hear these talks, lessons and testimonies. It could be that I’m too busy wrestling with one or more of my four children. However, I think it’s more likely that less and less of these people remain in the Church today.
The Three Nephite stories are part of mission culture. Young missionaries like to share stories about the Three Nephites because it is a type of bonding. William "Bert" Wilson in an interview with the Deseret News on 24 December 2006 described missionary culture as one in which missionaries initiate each other by the playing of practical jokes. The transmittal of the Three Nephite stories helps missionaries to see themselves in relationship to the Three Nephites. The Three Nephites are fellow missionaries carrying a message of Christ. They too travel around helping people. Sometimes their paths intermingle as the former Romanian missionary's experience. One of these days maybe all Three Nephites might appear in either the stories or in a physical place. I hope we never lose this unique tradition since there is moral value in telling our children and young adults tales that will help them overcome egocentric tendencies and do moral deeds. I believe that LDS missionaries keep alive our interest in the Three Nephites. I wonder where the Three Nephites have gone does anyone know? I bet a few missionaries know a few new Three Nephite tales.


jacob said...

that is really interesting.

Carl Aldrich said...

Thanks for the awesome post! I have been doing independent research on church history for the last couple of months and have just started thinking about the three Nephites. I think it's interesting that we have all of these stories and that the general attitude is that the people who tell them are crazy.

I didn't serve a mission (I joined the church when I was 20 and wasn't able to pay off my debts and save enough money quick enough), but I have a large amount of time with missionaries as a ward mission leader. I heard a few of these stories; usually a sister missionary having her bag stolen in an alley and three huge guys show up and intimidate the thief into giving the purse back.

I don't doubt the existence of the three Nephites. To do so would equate to doubting the validity of the Book of Mormon and Jesus Christ. It's important, though, to take these stories with a grain of salt.

Anonymous said...

Hi my name is Janelle~ I have recently returned to the LDS church after a couple of being inactive. My testimony of the Church has remained in tact all this time. I had a dream yesterday afternoon. I had dreamnt about a little girl that was so mistreated by the world and her parents. I was in my dream cleaning at the stake center, when she approached and I asked her to come with me. We ventured to an area where there had been 3 men sitting together. All them resembling one another, yet not identicle...I had asked them to please say a kind word to this child, because she had never been treated with love and kindness...The first of the men stroked the girls cheek and brushed her hair out of her eyes while tears were streaming down his face, the second of the men was looking at her as if she was so full of spiritual beauty, the third of the men was bitting his lip waiting for his opportunity to speak to her. At which time I had looked back beyond my shoulder to see the area I had been cleaning and when I glanced back at the 3 they were gone and this young girl her entire countenance had changed from rough and salty to pure and sweet. Could it be, I had dreamnt of my own inner child and the 3 men were 3 Blessed Nephits???

Anonymous said...

I have been a lds member all my life.I haven't been to church I dont know how long. I do belive that they out there doing the work that needs to be done.I may never meet the Three Nephites in this life but with all I belive they are out there helping people to come unto the lord. Yes I do have a testmony of the church and will never lose that.

I can tell you all this story I was a little girl I dont remeber what age I was. My dad was gone in Militray. He could be gone for very long periods of time and money will there was none. My mom told me about how we had no food in the house to feed us three kids. My mom didn't like to ask for help and finaly told some one how we had no food in the house to feed us kids. That the only thing to feed us three was potatoes. It was a fast sunday I belive she told me we had a little truck at the time with hood on it so us kids could ride in the back. She said when she came out to the truck after church there was food in the truck not just enough to feed us that nigh but the back of that toyta truck was full with boxs of food. Mom said she just cried and ask for a long time who had help us out. No one knew the bishop no one. So it up to you all to decide was it the help of a loving word or is it the Three Nephites. I never have knew about the Three Nephites storyes until I went to high shcool and stated to listen to my sminary teacher one day talk about the storyes.So yes I do belive there real I do belive they help us. I may not have meet them but with all that I am I do belive and my mom did belive to that they where the ones that help a very poor family out on that sunday. So I guess go to say that yes Vergina there is a Santa Claus. So yes I give when I can with out ever thinking about it. I think that why I have a strong love for the lord and his work.