Sunday school for this year is studying the Book of Mormon, and today we hit 1 Nephi 13, which recounts a big vision that Nephi saw. Common Mormon theology states that in this vision Nephi sees Christopher Columbus:
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 Nephi 13:12)
But if one studies the life of Christopher Columbus, this interpretation has some serious issues, at least it does for me.
By all accounts Columbus was a terrible human being. In the New World he forced the natives to work in gold mines and when they were not productive enough cut off their hands. He captured and sold girls into sexual slavery, preferring the ones that were 9 to 10 years old. During his tenure, Columbus and his men wantonly killed natives, often times slicing off the legs of infants to test the sharpness of their swords. Conditions were so bad that 100 natives committed mass suicide to escape his reign of terror, and the Spanish government was so disgusted by his actions that they arrested him and dragged him back to Spain.
Some Mormons have attempted to create apologies for the man, stating that he was a very devout person that was influenced by the Holy Ghost, but that causes a problem for me.
Why would God allow somebody to go an commit such heinous crimes? Certainly God would not inspire somebody to go across an ocean knowing that they would rape and murder countless of his children. That is basically saying that God influences people to go commit horrible crimes. I can not believe that.
So we are stuck. Columbus was certainly a terrible, disgusting person who was the opposite of what you would expect from somebody that God was inspiring. So was Nephi wrong, or is the interpretation of this prophesy wrong?
I wonder if Nephi actually saw Leif Eriksson.
Leif Eriksson was an Icelandic explorer who in recent years scholars relies was the first European to discover the American continent. Eriksson converted to Christianity in 999 AD and was sent on a mission to Greenland, where he helped convert the people there to Christian beliefs.
During his mission to Greenland he was blown off course some point during an ocean journey and accidentally landed in North America. After returning to Greenland he later sailed back to North America and set up a colony called Vinland and later two other colonies. Eventually Eriksson’s crew contacted the natives, but misunderstanding resulted in hostilities between the two parties. Due to various difficulties with the colonies, they were abandoned and Eriksson returned to his native Iceland.
By all accounts Eriksson was a kind and wise man. He was dedicated to his religion, but was well-known to help anybody in need. During one voyage to Vinland he risked his life and crew to save sailors from an Icelandic shipwreck floating in the Atlantic.
If we look at Eriksson’s story, it also fits the Nephi account. Eriksson was Christian. His journey to find North America started due to his desire to preach Jesus Christ to the people of Greenland, so you could say that he was inspired by the Spirit. Interestingly, Columbus visited Iceland in 1477 and undoubtedly heard stories about Eriksson, since he was such a part of Icelandic heritage. Those stories probably influenced him to complete his trans-Atlantic quest.
But what about the teaching from church leaders that Nephi’s vision is referring to Columbus?
It is important to remember that Eriksson’s story was not well-known in the United States until the mid-20th century, and even still is glossed over in most history books. Columbus’s crimes also were not well-known until recently. Since the Nephi vision does not point out Columbus by name, it is likely that while translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith just thought it was talking about the person who he knew as the discoverer of America. Through the years that tradition stuck.
Yet, with new insight coming to mind, we might need to reconsider the prophesy and realize that Nephi was not talking about Columbus, but rather a brave, devout Icelander.