Category:Book of Mormon/Elements/Columbus

Christopher Columbus in the Book of Mormon

Parent page: Book of Mormon/Elements

Book of Mormon describes Christopher Columbus in terms not known in Joseph's day

Daniel C. Peterson,

One of the best-known prophecies in the Book of Mormon has generally been understood to predict the career of Christopher Columbus, who is usually reckoned the effective European "discoverer" of the New World. Accordingly, Columbus emerges from the very pages of scripture itself as an important and foreordained actor in the divine plan:

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.

Skeptical readers of the Book of Mormon, however, have tended to dismiss this passage as a cheap and easy instance of prophecy after the fact, composed centuries after Columbus's death—but postdated, as it were, in order to create a seemingly impressive and self-validating prediction by an ancient prophetic writer. At the very most, some have observed, a "prophecy" of Columbus hardly constitutes evidence for the antiquity or inspiration of the Book of Mormon.

On a surface level, such critics seem to be right. It would have taken little talent in the late 1820s for someone to prophesy the discovery of America nearly three and a half centuries earlier. But the description of Columbus provided by 1 Nephi 13:12 nonetheless remains a remarkable demonstration of the revelatory accuracy of the Book of Mormon. It is only with the growth of Columbus scholarship in recent years, and particularly with the translation and publication of Columbus's Libro de las profecías in 1991, that English-speaking readers have been fully able to see how remarkably the admiral's own self-understanding parallels the portrait of him given in the Book of Mormon. The Columbus revealed in very recent scholarship is quite different from the gold-driven secular adventurer celebrated in the textbooks and holidays most of us grew up with.26

We now understand, for example, that the primary motivation for Columbus's explorations was not financial gain but the spread of Christianity. He was zealously committed to the cause of taking the gospel, as he understood it, to all the world. He felt himself guided by the Holy Spirit, and a good case can indeed be made that his first transoceanic voyage, in particular, was miraculously well executed....[1]—(Click here to continue)

Columbus: By Faith or Reason?

Grant Hardy,

First Nephi 13:12 tells how the Spirit of God was to come down upon a man who would go "forth upon the many waters" to discover the posterity of Lehi in the promised land. This verse has long been understood as referring to Columbus. In particular, Orson Pratt's references in the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon made this identification explicit. Dominant historical opinion, on the other hand, has seen Columbus led by science, reason, restlessness, and conquest. Recently, historian Pauline Watts has taken a new look at this issue and argues persuasively that Columbus was in fact deeply influenced by prophecy and revelation....

But if the Book of Mormon's "Spirit of God" that "wrought upon the man" was not especially shocking to some Americans in 1830, it did stand firmly against the intellectual trend of the times, which focused on Columbus's rational, scientific nature and acknowledged the spiritual roots of his quest only grudgingly, if at all. In 1792, for example, Jeremy Belknap gave a commemorative discourse in Boston filled with scriptural references, but he nevertheless chose to emphasize Columbus's logical reasoning. He carefully reconstructed his motivations for sailing based on (1) natural reason, (2) the authority of ancient writers, and (3) the testimony of sailors (following the account of Columbus's son, Ferdinand Columbus). He does mention in passing that Columbus was "guided by th' Almighty hand," but even here all the emphasis is on "Reason's golden ray."3

Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus is the closest in time and place to the publication of the Book of Mormon, and though he duly notes Columbus's "deep religious sentiment," he discounts it as "a tinge of superstition, but . . . of a sublime and lofty kind."4 He attributes Columbus's discovery to the "strong workings of his vigorous mind."5 Modern attitudes about Columbus and his motivations have been even more heavily influenced by the research of Alexander von Humboldt in the 1830s, who firmly established the image of the scientific Columbus.

Against all of this, the Book of Mormon boldly asserts that whatever else may have been involved, Columbus's primary reasons for sailing were spiritual. Thus it may be of interest to Latter-day Saints that much recent scholarship has come to agree with the Book of Mormon's original assessment of Columbus.

In her article, Watts investigates the spiritual origins of Columbus's voyages. She discusses the influences of scripture, theology, astrology, apocalypticism, and medieval prophecy. She particularly focuses on a book that Columbus himself was writing but never completed, called Book of Prophecies (the fragments were first edited by Cesare De Lollis in 1894). In this book Columbus set forth views on himself as the fulfiller of biblical prophecies! Columbus saw himself as fulfilling the "islands of the sea" passages from Isaiah and another group of verses concerning the conversion of the heathen. Watts reports that Columbus was preoccupied with "the final conversion of all races on the eve of the end of the world," paying particular attention to John 10:16: "And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold" (see also 3 Nephi 16:3). He took his mission of spreading the gospel of Christ seriously. "God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth. . . . He showed me the spot where to find it," Columbus wrote in 1500.7

Watts summarizes her argument by stating that "in the final years of his life, . . . Columbus came increasingly to see himself as a divinely inspired fulfiller of prophecy, the one who inaugurated the age of the unum ovile et unus pastor" ("one fold and one shepherd").8 "He came to believe that he was predestined to fulfill a number of prophecies in preparation for the coming of the Anti-Christ and the end of the world"9 (which also happens to be the context of Nephi's prophecies in 1 Nephi 13-14).

Here we have a picture of Columbus as a man who very strongly felt the Spirit of God directing his life and who sought to understand that influence using the best knowledge and resources available to him. Such is not far removed from Nephi's portrait. Columbus was fulfilling inspired words more precisely than even he imagined.—(Click here to continue)[2]


  1. Daniel C. Peterson, "Not Joseph's, and Not Modern," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 2, references silently removed—consult original for citations.
  2. Grant R. Hardy, "Columbus: By Faith or Reason?," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), Chapter 9.

Pages in category "Book of Mormon/Elements/Columbus"

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