Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who was Nephi's guide in 1 Nephi 11:11?

Someone in a comment to a lesson that was taught recently suggested the guide in Nephi’s vision of the tree of life in 1 Nephi 11:11 was the Holy Ghost, that Nephi had seen and spoken with him, thus proving the identity of the Holy Ghost as a male spirit. 
Elder James E. Talmage

I flipped to the scripture passage cited and looked at my margin notes. In my margins I had written, “Premortal spirit body of Jesus Christ, NOT the Holy Ghost,” and I cross-referenced the experience of the brother of Jared in Ether. There was no indication in my margin notes how I had made that conclusion. I boldly took exception to the comment made in the two classes, and concluded somewhat flippantly, “Who would you rather believe, James E. Talmage or David Goates?”

There are many, many thoughts that pass through my head these days then quickly are forgotten, but this one lingered. How could I be so sure? If James E. Talmage believed it was the spirit body of the Holy Ghost, then how did I come to a different conclusion? You have to realize this about me – I think I'm old enough now to have forgotten most of what I’ve learned over a lifetime. I have to “refresh the memory card” in my faltering brain from time to time.

Elder Harold B. Lee, circa 1954
Today, I was seated in another Sunday School class in a different ward, and was thumbing through a prized volume I edited for our family many years ago. It’s an unpublished series of lectures given by Harold B. Lee in the summer of 1954 on the campus of BYU to Seminary and Institute teachers. In a completely random way, his lectures on my lap (I had it with me today for some unknown reason) opened to a page with the answer to where I most likely reached my conclusion. I stumble over many doctrinal morsels these days while I’m focused on something completely different, as I did today.

Elder Lee in the lecture that day was quoting President George Q. Cannon (counselor in the First Presidency to Brigham Young), who wrote an editorial in answer to someone who apparently was criticizing the Brethren, thinking they had made an error. The editorial appeared in the Instructor, 1891:

We have received a communication from one of our friends, in which he says he has been requested to ask a question as to the meaning of the note in Leaflet 52 [an old missionary tract] in regard to angels. The statement is there made that “they may be spirits who have never had bodies, or they may be resurrected and glorified beings.”

Elder Lee had previously read D&C 129:1-3 and then he read D&C 130:4-5, stating: “In answer to the question – Is not the reckoning of God’s time, angel’s time, prophet’s time, and man’s time, according to the planet on which they reside? I answer, Yes. But there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it."

Then Elder Lee observes: From these passages in the Doctrine and Covenants, he questions the correctness of the note in the leaflet referred to. In answer to that inquiry, this is what President Cannon says:

President George Q. Cannon
We perceive no contradiction between the note in Leaflet 52 and the passages from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. In the broadest sense, any being who acts as a messenger for our Heavenly Father is an angel, be he a God, a resurrected man, or the spirit of a just man; (in some occasions the Savior came and was referred to in the old scriptures as an angel, a resurrected man, or the spirit of a just man, and the term is so used in all these instances in the old scriptures.) In the stricter and more limited sense, an angel is, as the Prophet Joseph states, a resurrected personage, having a body of flesh and bones. But it must be remembered that none of the angels who appeared to men before the death of the Savior could be of that class, for none of them were resurrected. He was the first fruits of them that slept. He himself appeared often to his servants before he took his mortal body; for instance, to the brother of Jared, to Abraham, to Moses, to the seventy elders of Israel, and to many others. The Holy Ghost, who, we are directly informed, has never yet taken a body, was seen and conversed with by Nephi, who bears record, “that he was in the form of a man.” (1 Nephi 11:11).

Then Elder Lee concludes: “Here, President Cannon is putting himself on the side of those who believe that that appearance in 1 Nephi, the 11th chapter was the appearance of the Holy Ghost. (Some of our Brethren, I think, may have other ideas).”

Notwithstanding the views of President George Q. Cannon, I value that statement by President Lee, “Some of our Brethren may have other ideas.” My conclusion was based upon the subject matter of the dream of Lehi, the centerpiece being the tree of life, symbolizing the Savior. I concluded the Savior was involved in His appearance to Nephi, just as He was in the experience where He showed His spirit body to the brother of Jared, Moses and others like Abraham.  Does the premortal spirit of Jesus Christ have to appear in the vision of Nephi to narrate his future mortal role in mortality?  No, not necessarily, but why not?

So today after Sunday School, I looked deeper.

Elder James E. Talmage:

The Holy Ghost, called also Spirit, and Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, Comforter, and Spirit of Truth, is not tabernacled in a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of spirit; yet we know that the Spirit has manifested Himself in the form of a man. (See 1 Nephi 11:11).

. . . . That the Spirit of the Lord is capable of manifesting Himself in the form and figure of man, is indicated by the wonderful interview between the Spirit and Nephi, in which He revealed Himself to the prophet, questioned him concerning his desires and belief, instructed him in the things of God, speaking face to face with the man. "I spake unto him," says Nephi, "as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another." (See 1 Nephi 11:11; Articles of Faith, 38; 144-45).

Elder LeGrand Richards
Elder LeGrand Richards:

The Holy Ghost is a male personage. Note how often Jesus refers to the Holy Ghost as "he" and "him," in the above quotations. He is a male personage of spirit as was Jesus before he was born of the Virgin Mary. Note Jesus' own statement:

I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.

And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was. (John 17:4-5).

"Before the world was," Jesus was with the Father and shared his glory. But he was a personage of spirit until he was born into the world. It was while Jesus had his spirit body that he created this earth under the direction of his Father. (See John 1:1-14). Likewise, the Holy Ghost in his spirit body has his assignment of responsibility as the third member of the Godhead, which assignment is that of a Comforter. While Jesus does not explain why he and the Holy Ghost cannot remain on the earth and serve together, nevertheless he does make this fact clear: ". . . It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you. . ." (John 16:7).

When the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi was shown, by the Spirit of the Lord, the dream his father had seen, Nephi asked him the interpretation thereof:

And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.

And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof — for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another. (1 Nephi 11:9-11). (A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, 115-116).

Charles D. Tate, Monte S. Nyman:

Having been caught away to a high mountain for instruction, Nephi was asked by a personage whom he calls "the Spirit:” "What desirest thou?" Nephi answered promptly: "I desire to behold the things which my father saw." (1 Nephi 11:1-3). Then followed a series of questions, answers, and visual explanations to the young Nephite seer. Having been shown the vision of the tree, the same which Lehi had beheld, Nephi was asked, "What desirest thou?" to which he responded, "To know the interpretation thereof — for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another" (1 Nephi 11:9-11, italics added). One is faced right away with an interesting theological question: is Nephi's guide, designated by him as "the Spirit of the Lord," the premortal Christ (the individual spirit personage who became Jesus Christ in mortality) or the Holy Ghost?

Sidney B. Sperry
If this is a personal appearance of the Holy Ghost to a man, it is indeed a singular occasion, so far as our scriptural accounts are concerned. In addressing this issue some years ago, Sidney B. Sperry suggested the latter alternative — that the "Spirit of the Lord" was the Holy Ghost — based upon the following textual evidence. First, we read of Nephi's desires (in the preceding chapter) to "see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost." He further testified that the Holy Ghost gave authority for his words. (See 1 Nephi 10:17-22, italics added.) Second, Nephi used phrases like "the Spirit said," "the Spirit cried," and "I said unto the Spirit" (verses 2, 4, 6, 8, 9), all of which sound very much like reference to the Holy Ghost rather than Jehovah. Third, Nephi never spoke of the Lord Jesus Christ as the "Spirit of the Lord" when the Master appeared to him on other occasions (1 Nephi 2:16; 2 Nephi 11:2-3). Fourth, the phrase Spirit of the Lord occurs some forty times in the Book of Mormon, and in every case reference seems to be to either the Holy Ghost or the Light of Christ. Examples of this would be 1 Nephi 1:12, where Lehi, having read from the book delivered to him, was filled with the "Spirit of the Lord"; 1 Nephi 13:15, where the "Spirit of the Lord" was poured out upon the Gentiles in preparation for the establishment of the American nation; Mosiah 4:3, where the "Spirit of the Lord" came upon the people of King Benjamin and they experienced a remission of sins and its subsequent joy; and, of course, those references wherein the expression Spirit of the Lord is used after the mortal ministry of Jesus Christ, places where these words could only mean the Holy Ghost (for example, Mormon 2:26; 5:16; Moroni 9:4). "The Holy Ghost undoubtedly possesses personal powers and affections," Elder James E. Talmage has written. "These attributes exist in Him in perfection. . .  That the Spirit of the Lord is capable of manifesting Himself in the form and figure of man," Elder Talmage continued, "is indicated by the wonderful interview between the Spirit and Nephi, in which. He revealed Himself to the prophet, questioned him concerning his desires and belief, instructed him in the things of God, speaking face to face with the man."

After explaining to the Holy Ghost that he sought the meaning behind the representation of the tree of life, Nephi "looked as if to look upon" the Spirit, "and [he] saw him not; for he had gone from before [his] presence" (1 Nephi 11:12). Nephi was then caught away into vision again, this time beholding many of the cities of the Holy Land, specifically Nazareth of Galilee. The heavens were opened to Nephi and "an angel came down and stood before" him. This angel, whose identity is not given, became Nephi's guide and instructor throughout the remainder of his panoramic vision. . . (First Nephi: The Doctrinal Foundation, by Charles D. Tate, Monte S. Nyman, 165-167).

Robert L. Millet
Robert L. Millet:

Nephi desires to receive the same vision his father received. As he sits pondering, Nephi experiences some marvelous things as the Spirit of the Lord takes him through quite an extensive vision, and then an angel questions him. By 1 Nephi 11, Nephi has seen the tree of life and is given to understand that it is symbolic of the love of God as manifest in Christ.

Let's read 1 Nephi 11:9-11 to learn more about the Holy Ghost:

And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all.

And he said unto me: What desirest thou?

And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another. (Emphasis added)

There seem to be at least two possibilities of whom Nephi is speaking to in those verses: (1) the premortal Messiah, Christ himself, the Spirit Lord, or (2) the Holy Ghost. Now, the latter possibility would make Nephi's experience a bit unusual because nowhere else in the scriptures do we have the Holy Ghost appear and speak with someone "as a man speaketh with another." (I suppose we would describe what takes place at the baptism of Jesus as an appearance of the Holy Ghost to man, but he was not in the form of a man.)

One way to discover who is speaking to Nephi is to examine the different uses of the phrase Spirit of the Lord in the Book of Mormon. The phrase Spirit of the Lord occurs exactly forty times. If you study these forty references, you will find that the phrase Spirit of the Lord refers most of the time to the Holy Ghost and occasionally to the light of Christ. I prefer to read this passage from 1 Nephi 11:11 as an appearance of the Holy Ghost to Nephi. Elder Talmage, in The Articles of Faith, suggested that he also felt this was the Holy Ghost, and President Romney concurred. Thus, Nephi's experience with the Holy Ghost appearing as a spirit man was a pretty singular occasion.

So, within the first twenty pages (eleven chapters) of the Book of Mormon, we learn that the powers of the Holy Ghost are real; that God constantly reveals himself, by the Holy Ghost, to those who seek and search; and that the Holy Ghost, though a spirit personage, is in the form of a man. (

President Marion G. Romney
President Marion G. Romney, quoting Elder James E. Talmage:

1 Nephi 11:11 “. . . I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.”

“That the [Holy Ghost] is capable of manifesting Himself in the form and figure of man is indicated by the wonderful interview between the Spirit and Nephi. . . in which He revealed Himself to the prophet, questioned him concerning his desires and belief, instructed him in the things of God, speaking face to face with the man.” (Ensign, May 1974, 90).

* * *


After reviewing the opinions of those cited, what I found interesting is that in my research I have not been able to find a statement by any President of the Church in this dispensation who offers an opinion on the identity of Nephi’s first spirit guide in his vision. Many will ask, "So what?"  It's reminiscent of trying to discover the identity of "Elias" in D&C 110:12.  In both cases all we have are educated guesses and studied opinions.  For example, in the Elias identity sweepstakes we have several opinions from which to choose:  B.H. Roberts says it's Melchizedek, Joseph Fielding Smith says Noah, Bruce R. McConkie says a prophet named Elias during the days of Abraham, I say why not Abraham?  Take your pick.

Absent any definitive source on the topic at hand, when I wrote my margin notes years ago in 1 Nephi 11:11, I must have sided with President Lee who planted a seed of doubt by stating, “Some of our Brethren may have other ideas.” He never elaborated on that statement from 1954 onward, he just left it at that.

And so will I. . .


  1. 1 Nephi 11:2 The Spirit talks to Nephi.
    1 Nephi 11:7 The Spirit tells Nephi he will see a man descend out of heaven. He instructs Nephi to bear record that it is the Son of God.
    1 Nephi 11:11 The Spirit stands before Nephi in the form of a man.
    1 Nephi 11:12 The Spirit vanishes from before Nephi.
    1 Nephi 11:14 Nephi sees an ANGEL descend from heaven just as the Spirit said he would.
    This angel takes Nephi on a tour of the life of Jesus Christ.
    1 Nephi 13:33 This angels reveals Himself as the Lamb of God.
    The purpose of the Holy Ghost is to introduce and bear testimony of the Son. Which He did in 1 Nephi 11:2-12. Then he leaves, and the Son of God descends.

  2. It was Elder Bruce R. McConkie who stated that 1 Nephi 11:11 referred to the premortal spirit body of Christ.

    1. Would you please share your source where Bruce R. McConkie stated that?

    2. Many years back I found this conundrum while reading McConkie's book – Mormon Doctrine page 752 on "Spirit of Christ". Up until then I had been taught that it was the HG that appeared to Nephi AND it was the only instance in which this has occurred. Of itself that seems odd that this would be the only instance of such a visit. It is a singular event if that interpretation holds, and there are but a few of those in our doctrinal history.

      At the time, McConkie's explanation made sense to me as he reasoned that the ROLE in which the spirit personage appeared was that of the Savior not of the HG and thus it was the Savior that was referenced in 1 Nephi 11:11. There are other such accounts where the Spirit Christ appears, Mahonri Moriancamur, Enoch, and more as were discussed in this excellently researched blog. As I mentioned, there are no such other accounts of the HG doing this, nor do I believe it is his role.

      Additionally, why does the Spirit leave when asked about the condescention of God - unless it would have been cofuing for Him to be in the scene that was to be portrayed and acting as the guide to Nephi (I speculate without other evidence that it was Gabriel (Noah) who was the angel because of his role).

      It is quite often that people confuse who the term refers to in scripture. Who is the Lord - Jehovah or Elohim? Christ often spoke in first person for the Father - but when he speaks he is acting in his role to minister to this earth in the Fathers name.

      Regardless, until I have more authoritative clarity, and there doesn't seem to be a desire to provide because it is not really that important, I don't agree with the position in the research presented above that Nephi was asking for a visitiation of the spirit persanoge of the HG, rather he was asking to know by the power of the HG. I presently believe that the explanation put forth by McConkie - who knew of the positions of others - makes more sense.


    3. Maybe the Holy Ghost leaves because the angel told Mary: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." In 1 Ne 11:13, right after Nephi mentions the Spirit of the Lord in 11 and in vs 12 the Spirit leaves, we read about the virgin. That's the connection. The Spirit leaves because of what Luke 1:35 states.

    4. All is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men and maybe this is an example of that. If it is a description of the premortal Christ, the Spirit of the Lord leaves to be born.

  3. I just re read this chapter of scripture for the millionth time and just now considered he might be speaking of the Holy Ghost. I googled a question about it and came to this blog. Thank you for doing the research for me. Very interesting and left me satisfied with "we don't know and don't really need to know."

  4. I had penciled in the margin of my B of M concerning this verse, "Proof the Holy Ghost is a man." Each successive time I reread the book, I looked at that marginal note and thought, "Yup." This time, I questioned. I searched the institute student manual. They ignored that verse. Like Carlin above, a google search turned up your blog. I want to thank you, too, for doing all the research and posting it. I am content that there is no definitive answer, and in the end, it really doesn't matter. Thanks again...and I will cruise some of your other writings while I'm here.

  5. Thanks Lolene - always happy to welcome a "newbie" to the site. I hope you enjoy the content.

  6. Notice that after Nephi expresses his desire, the Spirit begins a prayer or worship verse praising God and the Son of God. Unless you believe that Jesus is praising himself, it must be the Holy Ghost.

    Also, add Elder Oaks to the list who believes it is the Holy Ghost.

  7. Thanks Jim. Don't disagree with any of that analysis, as you can tell by the sources I cited above. However, that said, the opinions on this one come from studied and considered opinions on both sides, so I'll leave the door open. . .

  8. According to "Teachings of Presidents of The Church, Joseph Smith" pg. 81, The Holy Ghost descended in the form of a personage to whitness the baptism of Jesus Christ. So, according to Joseph Smith there is record in the scriptures of The Holy Ghost appearing to man in the form of a personage. "Whoever led the Son of God into the waters of baptism, and had the privilege of be holding the Holy Ghost descent in the form of a dove, OR RATHER in the sign of the dove was instituted before the creation of the world, a witness for the Holy Ghost, and the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove. The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage. It does not confine itself to the form of the dove, but in the sign of the dove.The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a dove; but the sign of a dove was given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as the dove is an emblem or token of truth and innocence." This obviously does not prove the the spirit in 1 Nephi was the Holy Ghost but does stand as an example of another time in the scriptures that the Holy Ghost came to man in the form of a personage.

  9. Sunday (April 9, 2017) we studied in Priesthood Chapter 7, "The Whisperings of the Spirit", by President Gordon B. Hinckley. The instructor asked, because he himself was wondering, "Has anyone ever seen the Holy Ghost?" A former stake president answered that Nephi saw him. Shortly a CES employee spoke up and said the reference to that is I Nephi 11:11. I wrote down the reference so I would not forget it and after arriving at home I opened the Book of Mormon to that chapter and began reading with verse 1. When I got to verse 11 I noticed I had written in the margin "This is the Holy Ghost--Talmage." I have been pondering this since Sunday and today Googled the statement by Talmage and I found this most informative blog. I fully concur that knowing to whom Nephi was speaking is not essential for our salvation. If it were, a prophet would have been empowered to forever settle this question. Chapter 8 of "Articles of Faith," by James E. Talmage does give enlightening information about this third member of the Godhead. I do tend to agree with Talmage, but I am not going to teach as an absolute that Nephi was having a conversation with the Holy Ghost. We need to know absolutely that Nephi was given true instruction. The instruction was valid whether the instructor was the premortal Christ or the Holy Ghost.

  10. who said the Holy Ghost has not received a body yet? No authority has ever said that. An old Jew put it in your minds. The Holy Ghost might have been mortal already, died and be in a spirit body now, acting in the office of the Holy Ghost.

  11. It is interesting the number of times that I google a question while reading the Book of Mormon and end up in Goates Notes! Thank you for all of your study, research, and clear explanations of same.

  12. Don’t know if you respond to questions... I’ll give it a shot. I can’t find any info about why Nephi and others should be so comforted by the assurance that their seed, many generations later, should again have the gospel and be righteous. That’s wonderful, of course, but small consolation, it seems, for the loss of the immediate generation. Do you know if this subject has been addressed by modern day prophets?

  13. I am unaware of any statements by prophets to address that question. However, I would suggest how comforting it would be to me as a grandfather to have the assurance that my future posterity would remain faithful for generations to come. What a blessing that would be!