“I looked,” testified the prophet Nephi, “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).
Latter-day Saints typically identify this man as Christopher Columbus.
Some critics respond, however, that no great prophetic ability was required in 1830 to “predict” something from well over three centuries earlier. Joseph Smith, they allege, simply placed an after-the-fact prophecy in the mouth of a fictional character that he had set in 600 B.C.
However, as I’ve already argued in a 1996 book review, the Book of Mormon’s apparent prophecy of Columbus cannot be so easily dismissed.
My attention has been recalled to this topic by Clark Hinckley’s “Christopher Columbus and the Restoration” in the current issue of LDS Living magazine and his recent book “Christopher Columbus: ‘A Man among the Gentiles.’ ”
When I was a schoolboy, Americans still celebrated Columbus Day. He was generally seen, though, as a man motivated by ambition and materialism who simply stumbled upon the New World by happy accident. Unfortunately, his image has grown even darker and more negative since then. He’s often condemned, rather than celebrated, as an embodiment of rapacious greed and Western colonialism, an imperialist forerunner of genocidal oppression.
But such views are, at best, one-sided and misleading.
In 1991, Delno West and August Kling published “The Libro de las profecías of Christopher Columbus.” Previously unknown to non-specialists and inaccessible to non-speakers of Spanish, this book provides an important window into how Columbus himself regarded his role in history.
Significantly, Nephi's statement that “the Spirit of God came down and wrought upon the man” turns out to be remarkably similar to Columbus' own self-understanding:
“With a hand that could be felt,” the great Genoese admiral reflected, “the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me. Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit using me to press forward?
“The Lord purposed that there should be something clearly miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies. It all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he had spoken earlier by the mouths of his holy prophets.”
His son Ferdinand was convinced, as, apparently, the explorer himself also was, that the very name “Christopher Columbus” (Italian “Cristoforo Colombo”) carried significant prophetic meaning. In Latin, “Columbus” means “male dove,” and Ferdinand linked his father’s name with the descending dove that represented the Holy Ghost at the Savior’s baptism. Even more remarkably, perhaps, “Christopher” is derived from Greek words that, together, signify a “Christ-bearer,” a perfectly appropriate title for the mission that Columbus aspired to fulfill. And that’s the function that history did in fact assign to him, as he opened the New World for Christian evangelization.
Columbus’ favorite biblical author was Isaiah, and among his most cherished passages was Isaiah 2:2, which Latter-day Saints will surely recognize: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” Indeed, it was in Isaiah’s writings that he believed himself and his voyages to be divinely foretold. Among the passages that caught his attention were Isaiah 42:1-4 (“Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him and the isles shall wait for his law”) and Isaiah 55:5 (“Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee because of the Lord thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel”).
Another of his favorite passages was John 10:16: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.