The Three Nephites and Mormon Literature

10.24.12 | | 16 comments

In preparing my weekly poetry for Gospel Doctrine Lessons (aka Literary BMGD) post on Times and Seasons for this week, I discovered an interesting statement in the current Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine lesson manual for lesson #42 (covering 3 Nephi 27-28 and 4 Nephi):

Note: Stories often circulate about the three Nephites who were translated. Members of the Church should be careful about accepting or retelling these stores. You should not discuss them in class.

I won’t be surprised to find that this statement has been in the various Book of Mormon manuals for some time. And I understand why. Telling Three Nephite stories could easily change the lesson from something spiritual to something like an episode of the Twilight Zone.

But, the statement makes me wonder. Have the Three Nephites  appeared much outside of oral folklore? Are there short stories or novels or poems or even drama or visual art that features the Three Nephies?

Off the top of my head, two  things  occur to me, and both are kind of ancillary. First, if I recall correctly, Brian Evenson has a story in which a Mormon woman having car trouble thinks the three Nephites have come to help her, but they turn out to be criminals. Second, the online short video series (or whatever it should be called) Jer3miah includes a character that, again if I recall correctly, isn’t himself one of the Three Nephites but claims to be directed by them.

Beyond those two, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them appear in Mormon literature.

To be honest, I find this a little strange. Folklore is usually a fertile ground for authors. It sometimes seems like half of romance novels are veiled versions of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or the Ugly Duckling. Mormon literature has been quite willing to take stories from Mormon history, but Mormon folklore is somehow overlooked?

Perhaps the timing is just different from that of non-Mormon folklore. Cinderella and Snow White and similar stories entered literary consciousness  in the 17th Century with Charles Perrault and in the 19th Century with the work of the Brothers Grimm and others, and short stories and novels that drew on them arose soon after. In contrast, passing on Mormon folklore seems to have been in decline since the mid 20th century, perhaps because the rapid expansion of the Church has made it more difficult for these stories to be told widely and to resonate with most Mormons. But in a very real sense significant numbers of widely read and well known Mormon novels only started in the 1970s, when authors perhaps didn’t know the stories as well, or perhaps were part of a modern mindset that finds the tales bizarre.

I am, of course, guessing as to all this. I do know that for me it is rare to hear Three Nephite or other Mormon folklore these days — more rare than it was in the 1970s when I was a youth.

Am I wrong? Have many Mormon stories and novels been written based on the Three Nephites or other Mormon folklore? What stories or novels have I missed? Is Mormon Folklore disappearing?

16 comments: “The Three Nephites and Mormon Literature

  1. Daron Fraley

    I don’t hear the Three Nephite stories either… not like I did as a teenager. It is disappearing.

    And it’s not like this is a gospel hobby for me, but I think these stories are important. Do we believe the scriptures or not? When Christ said they would not die, do we believe that? Are we afraid to go there for fear of being mocked by others because the idea sounds looney to them?

    Well, I’m not afraid. In fact, I have some of that folklore in my latest book, THIRTY-SIX. I’m not going to give away which folklore is present because it’s more fun to discover in the story (it’s not the Three Nephites).

    FYI, That book just happens to be free on Kindle today. http://www.amazon.com/Thirty-Six-ebook/dp/B008PSGIJ6/ref=tmm_kin_title_0

  2. FoxyJ

    I know my parents have on their shelf a novel about the Three Nephites that was published years ago by someone they knew (or maybe it was a relative). Unfortunately I can’t remember the title or anything about it. I’m fairly certain it was published by a small/local press.

    Also, one of the chapters in Bound on Earth is a Three Nephites story.

  3. Th.

    .

    As long as I’m linking to myself, I want to say this:

    The Three Nephites are like angels in that they take God out of the little box we like to keep him in. Like Daron said, do we believe this or not? It’s easy to believe in the hereafter. It’s much harder to believe in the herenow. Do we believe in the administration of angels? That that’s part of a deacon’s priesthood? Do we believe three Nephites still wander the earth doing good? Do we? Or, if such a story were to appear in fast-and-testimony meeting would we avert our eyes and think kuhRAAAzy?

    Incidentally, I think a girl in our ward may have just met one of the Three Nephites. She was on BART and a stranger sat next to her and told her all her secrets and gave her strength and she left feeling the Spirit and weeping and strengthened in the faith. I’m not sure stalkers can give you that impression.

    She was just baptized so she didn’t leap to the 3N conclusion, but mightn’t that be what it was?

    And if so, do I have the faith necessary to accept that possibility?

  4. David J. West

    Without trying to toot my own horn here, I’ve been fascinated with the Three Nephites for years and have included them several times in my stories and will continue to do so.

    I have one (unnamed of course) in ‘Heroes of the Fallen’ that introduces Zelph to Christ – and whenever I get round to the sequels, the three of them will be making more appearances as supporting characters.

    I also have one (and I specify that because quite a few of our folklore tales have just one at a time despite being one of three) in the shortly forthcoming Porter Rockwell weird western ‘Garden of Legion’. (I have to admit a great amount of glee at selling these Rockwell tales outside the LDS market)

    back on subject…

    I own two (non-fiction) books on the Three Nephites.

    ‘About the Three Nephites’ by C. Douglas & Jewel Beardall (I have used a lot of information from this one)
    and
    ‘The Three Nephites’ by “cough” the independent apostate Ogden Kraut. While Kraut is never one to pull any punches, the Beardall book is much more comprehensive. we know Kraut self-publishes and I believe the Beardall book was self-pubbed, it says it is from LDS BOOK Publications.
    IF I recall correctly I think I bought in the bargain rack at Deseret Book long long ago when you could actually find more than just the top 50 titles.
    Yes, I’m bitter about less variety and selection.

  5. Katya

    “The Last Nephite” by Neal Chandler (published in Benediction: A Book of Stories)

    “They Did Go Forth” by Maurine Whipple (published in Dialogue, vol. 24, no. 4 (Winter 1991))

    “The Third Nephite” by Levi Peterson (published in Dialogue, vol. 19, no. 4 (Winter 1986))

    “Wild Sage” by Phyllis Barber (published in Dialogue, vol. 20, no. 2 (Summer 1987))

    “Christina” by Angela Hallstrom (published in Bound on Earth)

    For what it’s worth, “Christina” is based on the same story as one of these others (probably “Wild Sage,” but I don’t remember for sure).

  6. Scott Hales

    “The Backslider” has one, if I remember correctly. So does “The Singles Ward.” I vaguely remember something about the 3 Nephites in a Virginia Sorensen novel, but I could be wrong.

    Ah yes–and one of the three Nephites plays a major role in the third and fourth Tennis Shoes novel.

    I wrote a 3 Nephite story once, but no one cared to publish it. I also shared a 3 Nephite story the other day in seminary–but I prefaced it with a disclaimer.

  7. Beth

    My ancestor, George Washington Hill, was invited to go meet with one of the Three Nephites but his mission president wouldn’t let him keep the appointment. True story.

  8. Luisa Perkins

    Yes, the webseries The Book of Jer3miah references the Three Nephites constantly, as does the novelization–written by yours truly and coming out in the spring from Deseret. I just got the cover today. It’s pretty cool.

    I remember the Evenson story–so creepy. I loved the 3N appearance in Hallstrom’s book.

  9. Mahonri Stewart

    My play Rings of the Tree features a character that is prominent in Mormon folklore (revealing the identity would mean HUGE SPOILERS to this particular play, it’s a major plot twist)…

  10. KDA

    I think his work is with letters and journals and not fiction; nevertheless, any study of 3 Nephite stories should draw on the work of Bert Wilson (William A. Wilson), folkorist, Mormon, scholar of Finnish literature, and former chair of the BYU English Dept.

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