Lehi's journey in the Old World

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Lehi's journey in the Old World

Lehi's journey paralleled the ancient "Frankincense trail," a trade route used in ancient Arabia

Hilton and Hilton noted that Lehi's journey paralleled the ancient "Frankincense trail," a trade route used in ancient Arabia:

The much traveled [Frankincense] trail begins at the coast of modern Oman. From there it goes from ancient waterhole to waterhole throughout the Middle East. We should note that the word trail does not refer to a well-defined, narrow path or roadway, but to a more general route that followed a valley or canyon. The width of the route varied with the geography, ranging from a half mile to up to fifty miles at one point.[1]

Hugh Nibley had already sketched the essentials of the route in the 1950s, pointing out Joseph Smith's uncanny accuracy in identifying the only plausible route for Nephi, decades before the truth became generally known in the west:

It is obvious that the party went down the eastern and not the western shore of the Red Sea (as some have suggested) from the fact that they changed their course and turned east at the nineteenth parallel of latitude, and "did travel nearly eastward from that time forth," passing through the worst desert of all, where they "did travel and wade through much affliction," and "did live upon raw meat in the wilderness" (1 Nephi 17:1-2). Had the party journeyed on the west coast of the Red Sea, they would have had only water to the east of them at the nineteenth parallel and for hundreds of miles to come. But why the nineteenth parallel? Because Joseph Smith may have made an inspired statement to that effect. He did not know, of course, and nobody knew until the 1930s, that only by taking a "nearly eastward" direction from that point could Lehi have reached the one place where he could find the rest and the materials necessary to prepare for his long sea voyage...

The best western authority on Arabia was thus completely wrong about the whole nature of the great southeast quarter a generation after the Book of Mormon appeared, and it was not until 1930 that the world knew that the country in which Lehi's people were said to have suffered the most is actually the worst and most repelling desert on eart

In Nephi's picture of the desert everything checks perfectly. There is not one single slip amid a wealth of detail, the more significant because it is so casually conveyed.[2]

Question: Could Lehi's group have made a transoceanic crossing as described in the Book of Mormon?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #21: Did Ancient People Sail the Seas? (Video)

It is definitely possible to sail from Arabia to the Americas

The Book of Mormon, in 1 Nephi chapters 17 and 18, recounts that Nephi built a ship in which the Lehi colony sailed from the old world to the new. In June 2010 the History Channel aired a documentary, "Who Really Discovered America?" which claims that it would have been impossible for a ship made by Nephi to have successfully carried the people and necessary supplies in a transoceanic crossing.

It is definitely possible to sail from Arabia to the Americas. The only way to conclude that Nephi could not have done so is to insist that he must have built an inadequate ship, and this documentary is very specific in its assumptions about what Nephi must have built and why therefore the voyage could not have succeeded. There is no basis for accepting those assumptions except for a disbelief in the premise that God may reveal information to men and women.

What were the specifications of Nephi's ship?

In 1 Nephi chapter 17, Nephi recorded the circumstances of his instruction to build a ship:

And it came to pass that after I, Nephi, had been in the land of Bountiful for the space of many days, the voice of the Lord came unto me, saying: Arise, and get thee into the mountain. And it came to pass that I arose and went up into the mountain, and cried unto the Lord. And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Thou shalt construct a ship, after the manner which I shall show thee, that I may carry thy people across these waters.(1 Nephi 17:7-8)

And I said unto them: If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done. And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship? (1 Nephi 17:50-51)

In 1 Nephi chapter 18, Nephi additionally comments on the exceptional nature of the ship's construction:

And it came to pass that they did worship the Lord, and did go forth with me; and we did work timbers of curious workmanship. And the Lord did show me from time to time after what manner I should work the timbers of the ship. Now I, Nephi, did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me; wherefore, it was not after the manner of men. And I, Nephi, did go into the mount oft, and I did pray oft unto the Lord; wherefore the Lord showed unto me great things. And it came to pass that after I had finished the ship, according to the word of the Lord, my brethren beheld that it was good, and that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine; wherefore, they did humble themselves again before the Lord. (1 Nephi 18:1-4)

Nephi does not record the technical details of the design or construction of the ship, aside from that it was made of timbers, it sailed and was driven forth before the wind and so presumably had sails, and that it could be steered.

But Nephi did repeatedly specify that he did not design it himself, did not base it on the shipbuilding technology then available in his own and neighboring cultures, and that his work was not informed by any source except direct revelation.

The History Channel used false assumptions in reaching its conclusion

In "Who Really Discovered America?" the documentary presents analysis from a naval archeologist and an oceanographer, which assumes the following:

  1. That Nephi would have built a ship according to the naval technology then available.
  2. Therefore, Nephi's ship would have closely resembled a Roman ship of the time, with a "round formed hull," "thick ribbed," a square sail, and an "elevated bow and stern."
  3. Ships built in that Roman style were unable to travel at top sailing speeds.
  4. The Lehites would have launched from the Arabian peninsula, sailed eastward across the Indian Ocean, eastward across the Pacific Ocean, and landed somewhere on the west coast of the Americas.
  5. The voyage was non-stop with no replenishment of supplies.

The documentary thereby concludes that:

  • Known wind patterns and currents across those oceans would have prevented a Roman ship from making that crossing any faster than 580 days.
  • All passengers would have died on such a long voyage. The documentary does not spell out why this would necessarily follow; presumably he meant that the Lehites could not have carried sufficient supplies to sustain them for so long.

Of the assumptions used, the first three are directly contradicted by the Book of Mormon text. The fifth is not addressed by the text at all. The analysis is not a serious study of the available information and the conclusions are faulty.

The text instead states that Nephi built a ship from revealed designs and techniques, which were "curious" and not "after the manner of men." There's absolutely nothing to indicate that Nephi's ship had the hull, ribs, sails, bow and stern like the documentary says they must have been.

Resources Were Available to Build a Ship

Many believe that there weren't sufficient resources for Nephi to build a ship, but at least two locations have been proposed by Book of Mormon Scholars for Nephi's Bountiful which provide abundant resources for Nephi to construct a ship. Scholar George D. Potter offers Khor Rori as a candidate for Nephi's bountiful in a paper for Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.[3] Scholars Lynn and Hope Wilson propose Khor Kharfot as Nephi's Bountiful.[4]


  1. Lynn M. Hilton and Hope Hilton, In Search of Lehi's Trail (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 21, (italics in original). ISBN 0877476306. Also published in Ensign 6 (September 1976): off-site and (October 1976): off-site.
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988),234–235.
  3. George D. Potter, "Khor Rori: A Maritime Resources-Based Candidate for Nephi’s Harbor," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 51 (2022): 253–94.
  4. Lynn M. Hilton, “In Search of Lehi’s Trail—30 Years Later,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15, no. 2 (2006).