I had originally thought about asking “Who is Your Favorite Nephite?” But there were too many possibilities and too many possible criteria to consider. Many Latter-day Saints have been impressed with Ammon’s courage, Captain Moroni’s patriotism, Helaman’s leadership, and the Brother of Jared’s faith (I know the last one wasn’t a Nephite, but we’ll expand the question a bit). And the list goes on. What about Sariah? Alma the Elder? Amulek? Teancum? Samuel the Lamanite? The actions of these individuals reveal something of their character and abilities.
For this essay, however, I would like to focus on Nephites for whom we have some access to their minds, to the way they think. And the quality of a person’s mind is most evident in his or her writing. This narrows the field considerably, since there are only a few people in the Book of Mormon whose writings have come down to us relatively intact (though only in translation, of course).
The obvious candidates are the major narrators—Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni—since nearly the entire Book of Mormon has come through their minds and hands. Every so often though, we come across embedded documents such as letters from Captain Moroni and Helaman or written speeches like that of King Benjamin, and while these documents certainly offer windows into their souls, the glimpse is necessarily limited, capturing responses to very particular situations. Still, we probably have enough written sermons from Alma the Younger, over a number of years and in various circumstances, to come to know him fairly well. So we’ll put Alma in the running.
One might argue as well that a few shorter writings are particularly revealing, often because they illustrate some change of heart. The Book of Mormon has been accused of having flat, two-dimensional characters. This may be true to some extent (Laman and Lemuel seem to do little other than complain, and Amalickiah is just bad, from beginning to end). But some Nephites, through their writings, allow us to witness their development as full human beings as they grapple with difficult issues, gain broader understanding, and sometimes change their minds. I think that this sort of spiritual growth can be seen in each of the major narrators and in Alma, but we might also include Enos and Zeniff.
Have I left anyone out? Perhaps Jacob? Okay, here is my list of candidates, with a short description of the way that I have come to see them as writers.
1. Nephi. We usually think of Nephi as a young man, ready to “go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded,” but if we read the Book of Mormon carefully, it is clear that Nephi the writer—at least of the second version of his autobiography, which is the version we have—is a middle-aged man who is reflecting upon events from his teenage years (at 2 Ne. 5 we learn that Nephi is writing some forty years after his family left Jerusalem).
As with Zeniff, Nephi’s youthful enthusiasm has cooled somewhat as life in the Promised Land turned out to be less than blissful, with an irreparable split in his family and his siblings trying to kill each other. Nephi seems to withdraw into scripture study and meditation on the fulfillment of promises in the far-distant future. No other Nephite writer offers the same type of detailed interpretation and reworking of Hebrew prophecy as Nephi, and he almost completely ignores the events of his long reign as king as well as his relationship with his wife, children, and grandchildren (though there was undoubtedly more on these topics in his original history). In fact, aside from the flight of Nephi and his followers in 2 Ne. 5, there are no fully narrated stories after the family arrives in the New World at 1 Ne. 19.
Nephi sees himself as the last in a line of scripture scholars (“I have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews”; 2 Ne. 25:6) and he knows that the tradition that he brought from Jerusalem will end with himself. To me, Nephi is a tragic, poignant figure, who was devastated by the revelation, which came to him as a young single man, that his posterity would eventually be destroyed by the descendants of his rebellious brothers. It is interesting, however, to try to determine when Nephi began to realize that his disappointing life might actually have meaning over a much longer time-span.