This post is part of a series of reflections on I Nephi. If you’re interested, the introduction to the series is here. To peruse earlier entries, click the authors tab at the top of the page and then click on my name. I welcome your own thoughts on these specific verses (or on my reflections) in the comments below.
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This passage is paradigmatic of the careful crafting of Nephi’s narrative, reflective of those concerns dominating his life when he wrote it, and a passage that parades itself conspicuously. Two remarkable items: the repetition of Nephi’s mantra concerning the need to keep the commandments of God in order to prosper and to see the hand of the Lord; the placement of this mantra immediately preceding Laman’s criticism.
If we take Nephi’s account at face value, we have on multiple occasions had the fulfillment of the promise given in verse 13: miracles have taken place to assure them all that they really are led by God, that it is the hand of God that has spared their life and made it possible for them to reach their destination. Repeating that promise at this point in the narrative seems entirely superfluous. Why repeat it again when we’ve already seen it’s fulfillment so often in the narrative? Either here in Bountiful or later in the land of Nephi or perhaps most likely in both places, the decision to build a boat and continue journeying must have been a serious public issue. That is, it was a live controversy concerning whether they ought to sail across the waters—a controversy for the family in Bountiful or else a controversy for the family living in Nephi. I suspect that both the natural bounty of Bountiful as well as the harsh and unforgiving nature of carving out a life in an entirely new and exotic ecosystem in the New World called into question the wisdom of their trans-oceanic journey. [FN 1]
Nephi confronts this challenge with his adamant and oft-repeated claim that their journeying was a commandment of God, and with the claim that those who keep the commandments are inevitably able to see the miraculous hand of God and know that God led them. Again, this seems to argue that neither was clearly evident at the time of Nephi’s writing. I have a hard time not seeing Brigham Young’s leading the saints West as clearly necessary and just as obviously an example of divine intervention and preservation. Belief in that fact is firm in my gut, and from where I stand my reason affirms that gut. That said, I find it healthy to gaze upon and ponder these events from other heights as well. John Turner’s volume on Brigham Young is a wonderful example of such other heights. Imagining myself starving with my ancestors, eeking by on mostly dandelion greens and prickly pears in one of Utah’s valleys is another such height. Thinking about the theft of lands, the murder at Mormon hands, and the close of an era of native people’s sovereignty and prosperity is another still. I suspect that there were just as compelling multiple accounts and reasons to wonder at Nephi’s narrative of divine command and intervention.
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- It strikes me as likely that Bountiful was both an ultimately hostile and untenable social climate AND that retrospectively, gazing from the brutal conditions of their settlements in the Americas, Bountiful looked awfully good. This wouldn’t be terribly different than the historical romanticizing we’re all quite familiar with today.