Nephi on Women & Motherhood
By George Potter
Nephi had an incredible intellect and was a “Renaissance man” who was thousands of
years ahead of his time. His accolades include:being a great visionary, a prophet, a brave
leader who led his family through the wilderness (Mosiah 10:13), a talented wordsmith,
the builder and captain of a large sailing ship, the architect of a city and a temple, a king,
and the father of the Nephite nation. Yet one ofhis greatest attributes is that in an era
when seemingly little value was placed on women, Nephi taught of the true nobility and
importance of them. Indeed, in the very first sentence in the Book of Mormon, he pays
equal tribute to his father and his mother: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly
The prophet’s engravings in 1st and 2nd Nephi are a very ancient record. Yet we see that
his treatment of women, even by medieval standards, was revolutionary. Nephi and his
disciple, his younger brother Jacob, clearly respected women’s sentiments and
achievements, supported their rights, and showed high reverence for the divine calling of
To understand just how progressive Nephi was, one needs only to compare his writing to
those of other ancient texts, which seldom name women, let alone discuss their affairs.
For example, consider the Old Testament. How many women were named in that fourthousand-year chronicle? Of the few who were mentioned, what do you really know
about these women?
Only during the last two centuries have women and their issues gained significant import
in literature. In many parts of the world today, women are still considered little more than
the property of their husbands. In antiquity, women were rarely given credit for their
achievements and were seldom respected for the incredible challenges they endured as
mothers living under primitive conditions. Periodtexts like the Old Testament, or even
the more recent Qur’an, describe unauthorizedpolygamy, the right of men to sleep with
slave women, and the tradition of acquiring an unlimited collection of concubines.
Perhaps the greatest offense committed against women in antiquity was that they were
ignored. Author Michael Crichton transformed the manuscript of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s
report to the Caliph of Baghdad into a novel format. In 922 A.D., Ibn Fadlan had been
sent as an ambassador to the King of the Bulgars. Crichton comments, “Ibn Fadlan never
states that his party is greater than a few individuals, when in fact it probably numbered a
hundred people or more… Ibn Fadlan does not count literally-slaves, servants, and lesser
members of the caravan.” 1 Of course, the ‘lesser’ members of the caravan were the
women. No wonder we have the saying, “History was written by men and for men.” The
result is a terrible tragedy. We have lostforever the histories of half the world’s
1 Michael Crichton, Eaters of the Dead: the Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922(New York: Ballantine Books, 1976), 12.
Nephi broke with tradition by writing in detail about affairs of his mother, wife, sisters,
sisters-in-law, and even the mother of Christ. The prophet must have had great respect
for women, for he counseled those who followed him to write only on the small plates the
things of God (1 Nephi 9:2-4) and those things which should “profit” the people (2 Nephi
5:30-32). Thus, Nephi himself must have valued highly the affairs of women—a concept
that seems to have been foreign to other ancient cultures and manuscripts. Following
Nephi’s “commandment,” Jacob wrote only ofthe ‘most precious things” (Jacob 1:2),
and yet he too wrote about the problems faced by the Nephite women.
Nephi showed great empathy and respect for the suffering of the women during his
family’s journey and pays specific tribute for the hardships sustained by his own mother
(1 Nephi 5:1-3, 18:17,19). It would also appear that Nephi had a deep respect for the
faithfulness of his wife, noting that she cried and prayed for his welfare when his brothers
bound him (1 Nephi 18:19). Nephi also included on the plates the efforts of one of his
sisters-in-law and his mother-in-law to softenthe hearts of Laman and Lemuel so that
they would cease trying to kill him (1 Nephi 7:19).
Although at one point the daughters of Ishmaelmurmured against Lehi and Nephi, we
should note that Nephi explains that they did so only after their father died and it
appeared that they would all die from hunger. Throughout the ordeal of crossing the
Arabian desert, Nephi appears to have had a deep empathy for the women, for he
inscribed on the plates that they had “suffered much affliction, hunger, thirst, and fatigue”
(1 Nephi 16:35).
Nephi’s concern for the women in his party appears to have been seeded in a deep respect
for them. In Chapter 17, Nephi holds up the women in the party as exemplars and
standards for the entire group and seems to credit the women’s efforts for bringing the
party back into compliance with the Lord’s commandments:
And we did travel and wade through muchafflictions in the wilderness; and our
women did bear children in the wilderness. And so great were the blessings of
the Lord upon us, that while we did liveupon raw meat in the wilderness, our
women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like
unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.
And thus we see that the commandments of God must be fulfilled. And if it so be
that the children of men keep the commandments of God he doth nourish them,
and strengthen them... (1 Nephi 17:1-3).
We can see from his earliest writings that rather than ignoring women, as was the custom
of the time, Nephi included women in his narrative of the precious things of God.
Jacob loved Nephi (Jacob 1:10) and followed in his footsteps. Undoubtedly, his words
make the Book of Mormon the earliest book in history to specifically condemn the
unauthorized practice of multiple wives.
Wherefore, I the Lord God will not sufferthat this people shall do like unto them
of old. Wherefore, my brother, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For
there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he
shall have none; For I the Lord God, delight in the chastity of women. (Jacob
Equally remarkable is Jacob’s strong rebuke of those who abuse their wives. Emotion and
physical abuse are both alluded to by Jacob. His language is progressive even for our own
For behold, I, the Lord, have seen the sorrow, and heard the mourning of the
daughters of my people in the land of Jerusalem, yea, and in all the lands of my
people, because of the wickedness and abominations of their husbands.
And I will not suffer, saith the Lord of Hosts, that the cries of the fair daughters
of this people, which I have led out ofthe land of Jerusalem, shall come up unto
me against the men of my people, saith the Lord of Hosts.
For they shall not lead away captive the daughters of my people because of their
tenderness, save I shall visit them with a sore curse, even unto destruction; for
they shall not commit whoredoms, like unto them of old, saith the Lord of Hosts.
And now behold, my brethren, ye know that these commandments were given to
our father, Lehi; wherefore, ye have known them before; and ye have come unto
great condemnation for ye have done these things which ye ought not to have
Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren. Ye
have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your
children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their
hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of
God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep
wounds. (Jacob 2:31-36)
Above all, Nephi, perhaps more than any other ancient author, honored motherhood, and
his words paid great respect to mothers.
Nephi told Jacob to use only the gold plates for writing the “spiritual things” and to avoid
trivia (Jacob 1:1-2,4). In thislight, Nephi must have believed it was important that we
understand the suffering that his own mother endured in her effort to follow the
commandments of God. He tells us how his mother ”truly had mourned” when she
thought her sons had perished in the wilderness, and how she was ”exceedingly glad”
when they finally returned (1 Nephi 5:1). Nephi appears to have been humbled by the
sacrifice the women made as they bore children in the wilderness, and he takes the time
and effort to record these wilderness births on the golden plates(1 Nephi 17:1).
Nephi praised the nobility of all the mothers in their small caravan and acknowledged
their strength during the most difficult part of the trail. The example of the mothers seems
to have inspired the men in the party and directly led to an increase in the faith
experienced by the family, which in turn was the key reason the family was able to
survive their arduous journey (1 Nephi 17:1-3). Nephi lets us know that the women in his
party had been pampered women, who lefttheir precious things—probably their
maidservants and a large luxurious house—only to endure eight years in one of the most
hellish wildernesses on earth. Why? Nephi tellsus that these dedicated women did it to
fulfill the commandments of God (1 Nephi 17:3). With Nephi’s help we can understand
that his mother, wife, and the other mothers in the party were great pioneers of faith.
Another profound tribute Nephi made to mothers is that he taught the correct image of
our first mother. Satan has caused the world to label Eve with a despicable image. Some
Christian and Muslim scholars credit Eve as the root of all evil and relegate her to a dark
and distorted legacy. Undoubtedly the psychological sting of this Satanic deception of
Eve has been felt by all Christian women.
Nephi, our great prophet, stood tall for Eve. He recorded on the plates Lehi’s teachings
that Eve was brave, tenacious, and intelligent enough to understand, and then fulfill, her
extremely important role in the Lord’s plan. So vital was her assignment that its
completion was essential for the eternal progression of all her children—each one of us (2
Nephi 2:22-26). The Book of Mormon suggests that Eve understood well the
consequences of her actions prior to the fall,i.e., enduring the pains of child birth and
physical death so that man could experience God’s great giftof free agency (2 Nephi
2:22-26). By the fall, she was helping Adamin opening the door toeternal progression,
the knowledge of sweetness and joy, and eventually the blessings for all of us to
appreciate and be cleansed by the atonementof Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Book of
Mormon provides an accurate image of our noble and wise first mother: a decisive hero,
an intelligent martyr who subjected herself to physical death, and a wonderfully loving
mother who understood the gospel in great depth (2 Nephi 2:15-18).
And after Adam and Eve had partaken of the forbidden fruit they were driven out
of the garden of Eden, to till the earth.
And they had brought forth children; yea, even the family of all the earth.
And now, behold, if Adam [& Eve] had not transgressed he would not have
fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which
were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they
were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a
state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for
they knew no sin.
But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.
And the Messiah cometh in the fullness oftime, that he may redeem the children
of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have
become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves… (2 Nephi
Perhaps, the most important tribute to Motherhood found in the Book of Mormon are
Nephi’s words describing Mary, the mother ofour Savior. Carefully consider his praise
of Mary and contemplate the powerful endowment it provides for every young woman
who dreams of becoming a mother. In my opinion, the images of Mary in the Book of
Mormon have little to do with her physical appearance, but describeher core character
and the purity of her soul. God’s eyes do notsee as those of men. What better model
could any young woman have of the eternal importance and grand splendor of
motherhood than Mary?
And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and
stood before me; and he said unto me; Nephi, what beholdest thou?
And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.
And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not
know the meaning of all things.
And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the
Son of God, after the manner of the flesh. (1 Nephi 11:14-18)
As Mother’s Day approaches, I’d like to acknowledge three great mothers who have
blessed my life: Mary Potter, my own mother, whose kind spirit constantly reflected the
love of Christ; Ila Jenson, my wonderful mother-in-law, who provides me a mother’s
love now that my own mother is deceased; and my wife Susan Potter, who is the mother
of our 10 children and whose incredible support and love have empowered me with the
time and inspiration I need to continue developing the body of work known as the Nephi
Project. To conclude my Mother’s Day tribute, I would like to share with you a story by
Gordon Russell, a member of the L.D.S. Church from the United Kingdom.
Once upon a time there was a child ready to be born. So one day she asked God
“They tell me you are sending me to earth tomorrow. But how am I going to live
there being so small and helpless?”
God replied, “Among the many angels, I chose one for you. She will be waiting
for you and care for you.”
“But tell me, here in Heaven, I don’t do anything else but sing and smile, that’s
enough for me to be happy.”
“And how am I going to be able to understand when people talk to me, if I don’t
know the language that men talk?”
“Your angel will tell you the most beautiful and sweet words you will ever hear,
and with much patience and care your angel will teach you how to speak.”
“I’ve heard that on earth there are bad men. Who will protect me?”
“Your angel will defend you even if it means risking her own life.”
“I will always be sad because I will not see you anymore.”
“Your angel will always talk to you about me and teach you the way for you to
come back to me, even though I will always be next to you.”
At that moment there was much peace in Heaven, but voices from earth could
already be heard, and the child in a hurryasked softly, “Oh God if I am to leave
now, please tell me the name of my angel.”
God silenced all fear when he said, “You will simply call her Mother.”