A Dictionary of the Book of Mormon/Nephi, the son of Helaman

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NEPHI, THE SON OF HELAMAN. In Nephi we have one of the greatest prophets that ever trod the earth, or to whom the God of our salvation revealed His glorious will. He lived during the greater portion of the first century before Christ, and disappeared from the knowledge of mankind but a short time before the advent of the Messiah in Bethlehem. He is first referred to in the Book of Mormon (B. C. 44) as the elder of Helaman's two sons, Lehi being the younger. These two brothers appear to have been inseparable during their life; they are almost always mentioned as associated in the great and oft-times perilous labors of the ministry undertaken for the salvation of either Nephites or Lamanites. We have no information with regard to the time of Nephi's birth, but when his father died, in the year B. C. 39, he succeeded him as chief judge, the duties of which office he filled with wisdom and justice for about nine years, when, owing to the wickedness of the people, he resigned that office, and Cezoram was chosen by the people in his stead (B. C. 30).

The years that Nephi judged his people are some of the darkest in Nephite history. Owing to their great pride and iniquity, the Lord left them to themselves, and they became weak like unto the Lamanites, man for man. When war was declared, the latter, being much the more numerous carried everything before them. In vain the Nephites under Moronihah struggled for their homes and their liberties. They were forced back by the hordes of the Lamanites from city to city, from land to land. Not a place could be found in the whole southern continent where the soldiers of the Nephites successfully held their ground. With hurried hands they built a line of defense across the Isthmus of Panama, from sea to sea, for the hosts of their conquerors were still pushing northward. This line of fortifications stopped the roll of the barbaric tide northward, arid the Lamanite commanders rested with the conquest of a continent.

These richly deserved misfortunes brought the Nephites partly to their senses—they began to repent. Taking advantage of this change in the state of their feeling, Nephi, Lehi, and their general, Moronihah preached energetically, and uttered many prophecies concerning what would most assuredly come upon them if they did not amend their ways. After a time, Moronihah felt that they had sufficiently humbled themselves for the Lord to measurably be with them, and he once more ventured to lead his warriors against the Lamanites. Step by step they regained their former possessions, until all the most northern settlements had been reoccupied. Further than this Moronihah dared not venture, the conduct of the people was not sufficiently reformed, they had not repented in fulness of heart and purpose. So he waited in the hope of a better and brighter day, when the people would have thoroughly turned from all their besetting sins, and when he, in the strength of the God of Israel, could lead them on to victory. Thus Zarahemla still remained in the hands of the foe.

When Nephi retired from the judgment seat, it was with the intention of devoting his entire time to the preaching of the Gospel. He associated his brother Lehi with him, and commencing at the most northerly settlement on the southern continent—Bountiful—he journeyed and preached throughout all the land southward in the possession of the Nephites. From thence the two brothers passed onward to Zarahemla, where they found many Nephite dissenters, to whom they proclaimed the word of God in great power. Numbers of these confessed their sins, were baptized unto repentance, and immediately returned to their brethren to repair, if possible, the wrongs they had done, and make such restitution as lay in their power. Numbers of the Lamanites also received the truth gladly, insomuch that eight thousand of them were baptized in Zarahemla and the regions round about.

From Zarahemla, Nephi and Lehi proceeded south to the land of Nephi, where they were captured by an army of the Lamanites, and thrust into the very same prison in which Ammon, Helem and Hem were beforetime confined. Here they were treated with great inhumanity by their savage captors, food was denied them, and it was decided to kill them. When the officers commissioned with the carrying out of this cruel decision arrived at the prison, they found the two prophets encircled about as if by a pillar of fire. This sight filled them with awe; they dared not attempt to execute their orders; they held back from laying hands on the prisoners, lest they should be burned, but they also observed that the two brothers stood unhurt and unterrified in the midst of the ascending flames. Emboldened by the trepidation of the Lamanite officials, Nephi and Lehi stood forth and explained to them that it was by the power of God that this marvelous thing had happened; that it had been manifested that they might learn that no one could harm them, that they were the servants of the Most High, and His almighty arm shielded them. Nor was this all: a sudden earthquake shook the ground, the prison walls tottered to their foundations, a pall of thick darkness covered all whom curiosity or other motives had gathered to the prison. The unburning flame, the tottering walls, the quivering earth, the impenetrable cloud of blackness, all conspired to fill their hearts with solemn fear and awful dread. They realized the almighty power of God; they where filled with the sense of their own abject insignificance. A voice, the voice of One whom they knew not, sounded in their affrighted ears, once, and again, yea, a third time, and each time that the voice came it was followed by the trembling of the earth and the shaking of the prison walls. All nature quivered at the presence of the Majesty on High, while the heavy, palpable, impenetrable darkness still enshrouded them. From above the voice descended, it was outside the cloud, its tones came not to their quaking hearts with the roar of the pealing thunder, nor was it like the tumultuous flow of angry, raging waters, but it was "a still voice of perfect mildness," almost a whisper, that pierced to their inmost souls. That voice was the voice of the mighty God of Jacob, and He called upon all those who heard Him to repent, and to do His servants no ill, and with the third repetition of this command were added marvelous words of salvation that cannot be uttered by men. And because of the thick pall of darkness that enveloped them, and the fearful dread that filled their hearts, none dared move; fear, astonishment, apprehension of what was to come, had riveted each to the spot on which he stood.

Now among the crowd was a Nephite dissenter, an apostate from the true Church, named Aminadab. This man, happening to turn his face in the direction where the two prophets stood, beheld that their faces shone with a glorious light, and that they where conversing with some one who appeared to be above them, for their eyes were turned heavenward. Aminadab drew the attention of those who surrounded him to this glorious appearance, and the spell that bound them was sufficiently removed to enable them to turn towards the prisoners and to become witnesses of the fact also. “What do all these things mean?" they anxiously inquired. "They do converse with the angels of God," answered Aminadab. What shall we do that this cloud of darkness, must repent and cry unto the Voice, even until ye may be removed?" was their next question. "You shall have faith in Christ," he replied. They did cry unto God with all the energy that their terrifying surroundings inspired, and so continued to supplicate until the cloud was dispersed, when, to their great surprise, they discovered that they also were entombed in a pillar of living fire. Yet this fire did not hurt them, it did not singe their garments, it did not consume the prison walls, but their terror was swept away, and they were filled with a joy that was unspeakable, for the Holy Spirit of God filled their souls, and they broke forth in marvelous words of praise and rejoicing. Again, a pleasant, searching whisper reached their gladdened ears. It said unto them, "Peace, peace be unto you because of your faith in my well-beloved, who was from the foundation of the world." Now there were about 300 souls who heard and saw these things, and they cast up their eyes unto heaven, which was opened to their vision, and holy angels came down and ministered unto them.

The tidings of this glorious appearing were quickly spread near and far in the lands where the Lamanites dwelt, and so powerful was the testimony and so great were the evidences, that the major portion of the people believed, repented and obeyed the Gospel. Then, like all true Saints, they manifested the sincerity of their repentance by works of restitution; they laid down their weapons of war, they cast aside their false traditions, their hatred gave place to love, and they restored to the Nephites Zarahemla and the other lands they had taken from them (B. C. 30). So great was the reformation in their character, so radical was the change in their habits, that they soon exceeded the Nephites in faith and works of righteousness. It is a lamentable fact that at this time many of the latter had become hardened, impenitent and grossly wicked. But there were those who still remained faithful to the truth, whose hearts greatly rejoiced at the conversion of their former foes. This joy was, the next year, greatly increased by the arrival of many missionaries from among the hitherto darkened and benighted people. The tables were turned, the two races had changed places; Laman was teaching Nephi the ways of holiness and the law of the Lord. And God was abundantly with them, His matchless power attended them; they opened their mouths and He filled them with inspired words of truth. The Holy Spirit sealed their utterances, and many of the Nephites believed. Nor were Nephi and Lehi idle, they were sounding the Gospel trump, long and loud, in lordly Zarahemla and its tributary districts, and then, with many of the Lamanite priesthood, they proceeded to the land northward.

Peace throughout the vast continent from north to south, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, followed this reformation. A Nephite could visit and do business in every part of the wide land, and so could a Lamanite. This goodly peace brought stability, stability brought wealth, wealth engendered pride, pride gave birth to numerous sins, to be followed by contentions, dissensions, and then wars. These evils begat sorrow, sorrow softened their heart to repentance, repentance was followed by the blessing of God which again brought peace, prosperity and, by-and-bye, riches. And at this era of Nephite national life, this is the one eternal round which their inspired historians are compelled to chronicle. Within four short years of the happy time of universal peace we have just referred to, the riches of the world had induced stubborness and rebellion towards God, combined with the insane desire to rob, plunder and murder their fellow-men. If there ever were a people swift to do evil, they were the Nephites of that generation. In the year B. C. 26, Cezoram, the chief judge, was murdered by an unknown hand, as he sat on the judgment seat, and his son, who succeeded him, suffered in like manner within the year. The Gadianton robbers grew in strength, numerically and morally, and were actually fostered among the Nephites, while the more righteous Lamanites utterly destroyed all that they found within their borders. The one people dwindled in unbelief, the other grew in grace and in the power of God's divine Spirit.

Nephi tarried on the northern continent until the year B. C. 23, when, his teachings and his prophecies having been rejected by its inhabitants, he returned in sorrow to Zarahemla; but he found no comfort there. The Gadianton robbers filled the judgment seats, and perverted the law to their own avarice and lust. The life, the property, the liberty, the virtue of righteous men and women were counted as things of naught, their playthings or their spoil.

Nephi's house in Zarahemla was situated on one of the principal thoroughfares which led to the chief market-place. In his garden, near the highway, he built a tower, whither it was his wont to repair for prayer. On one occasion, shortly after his return from the north, he became so deeply concerned because of the iniquities of the people, that in earnest supplication to the Lord he raised his voice so high that he was heard by the passers-by in the street below. A listening crowd soon gathered, and when the prophet had ended his devotions and become aware of their presence, he commenced to teach them. His words were not sugar-coated, to adapt them to the predelictions of his congregation. To the contrary, he boldly rebuked their sins, their murders, their whoredoms, their secret iniquities, at the same time, in the love of the Gospel, entreating, beseeching and pleading with them to amend their lives and do better. He also warned them of the terrible, impending judgments that would inevitably fall upon them if they repented not. His words caused a division among his hearers, some clamoring for his arrest and imprisonment as one who bore false testimony and reviled the law, while others maintained that he spoke the truth and was a prophet. To prove to their sin-darkened minds that the prophetic gift was with him, he told them to send to the hall of judgment, and that there they would find the chief judge murdered, lying in his blood; yet more, that the murderer was the victim's brother. Five of the crowd hastened to prove his words. They hurried to the judgment hall, where they found the chief magistrate in the condition that Nephi had declared. Other citizens who knew nothing of Nephi's words, having entered the hall and finding the five men there with the dead body, concluded that they were the assassins, and consigned them to prison. And some of the most hardened afterwards charged Nephi with being an accomplice before the fact, and that he had arranged the whole affair to obtain influence with the people, so that they would believe and accept his doctrine. On this charge he was bound and imprisoned. By the wisdom that Heaven gave him so abundantly, he was enabled to baffle this attempt on his life, and through his instrumentality the murdered judge's brother having been brought to confess his crime, Nephi was delivered from his traducers and set at liberty. Some of the citizens now acknowledged that he was a prophet, others declared that he was a god, while many remained hardened in their sins. So violent became the contention, that the people gathered in excited crowds upon the streets, wrangling and disputing about the events of the past two days. In their excitement they entirely forgot Nephi, and left him standing alone in the street. With a sorrowful heart he wended his way homeward; but before he reached there, the voice of the Lord came to him with many words of comfort and commendation. As with others of His servants, the Lord made a covenant with him, that whatsoever he bound on earth should be bound in heaven, and whatsoever he loosed on earth should be loosed in heaven; that he should have power over the elements to bless and to curse; to smite the earth with famine and pestilence and destruction, and that none should have power to hurt him. The Almighty then directed him to return and again raise his cry of repentance in the cities of the Nephites. He obeyed, and lifted up his voice in solemn warning; he went from multitude to multitude, from city to city, from land to land, but without effect. Sometimes, when he thus warned his fellow-men, they sought to imprison and otherwise maltreat him, but the Spirit of God would bear him out of their midst to labor in some other place. In this manner three years passed away; contentions and wars, murder and violence, filled the land.

At last, wearied with beholding so much misery and contention, Nephi prayed that the Lord would not suffer the people to be destroyed by the sword, but rather let a famine desolate the land and, peradventure, bring the people to an understanding of their awful condition, and cause them to humble themselves and repent. God heard and answered his petition, the heavens became as brass over the land, the rains ceased, the earth dried up, the crops failed, the people perished for want of food.

Two years passed (B. C. 19 and 18) and the third came; but still the refreshing rain was withheld (B. C. 17). During this year the people, humbled by their sufferings, turned towards the Lord. They endeavored to root out iniquity from their midst. They destroyed the Gadianton robber bands, and established the government on a more righteous foundation. Nephi, observing the change in their conduct and feelings, interceeded with the Lord in their behalf. His prayers were answered, the welcome rain descended on the parched-up soil, and a bounteous harvest once more crowned the labors of the husbandman (B. C. 16).

The repentant people now regarded Nephi in his true light; they revered him as a great prophet, and for a few short years they listened to his teachings. While they did so they prospered. But the leaven of unrighteousness had too thoroughly permeated the national life for their faithfulness to God to be of lone duration. For two, three, or perhaps half a dozen years they would maintain their integrity, and then corruption would seethe, the vile would snatch the reins of government, the good would be oppressed, and contention and war, with all their horrors, would again reign supreme. Thus it was after the three years of famine. For two years there was peace, in the third there began to be much strife (B. C. 13), in the next, the Gadianton bands reappeared, and carried havoc among their more peaceable fellow-countrymen. Going on, year by year, they grew in iniquity and ripened for destruction. For many years Nephi strove to stem the tide of vice. At times partial success rewarded his unceasing efforts, and he had joy in the baptism of some honest souls. But the great bulk of the people had rejected the gospel, they had no love for its holy principles, and were unfit for its blessings.

Shortly before the birth of Christ, Nephi transferred the plates of brass and other records to his son Nephi, gave him charge concerning them, and departed from the land of Zarahemla. Whither he went, or what became of him, is hidden from the knowledge of mankind. That he did not return to the dwelling-places of humanity is testified to by his son some ten years afterwards (A.C.9).

Of Nephi's private life and circumstances we can learn but little from the Book of Mormon. It is evident that his public labors as a preacher of righteousness occupied almost his entire time. Two of his sons, Nephi and Timothy, are mentioned by name; these were both chosen by the crucified Redeemer to be members of the Quorum of the Twelve Disciples who ministered among the Nephites. His character is the one that stands pre-eminent in his age; he was of a verity a friend of God, who so acknowledged him, blessed him with as high and glorious privileges as are ever conferred on man, made peculiar and special covenants with him, and gave him revelations daily. His whole history gives evidence of his faith, patience, courage, integrity, humility and zeal. In his long life he saw much sorrow, but God took him to Himself at last.