Jim reminds us that next week begins a change in the Gospel Doctrine curriculum. This year’s course of study is, without a doubt, my favorite book in the world, The Book of Mormon. I hope to see a vigorous discussion of Jim’s provocative study questions, but I am going to anticipate him by a week or two with a post about the first verse of the Book of Mormon: “I, NEPHI, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.” In my humble opinion, this verse does not mean what most of us think it means.
Before explaining my understanding of this verse, I want to ensure that we all agree on the usual understanding of this verse. General Authorities of the Church have used this verse repeatedly to support the notion that “goodly parents” means “righteous parents”:
* Elder L. Tom Perry: “What a blessing it would be to have it said of all fathers and mothers that they were goodly parents, righteous parents, active parents, faithful parents, exemplary parents, celestial parents.”
* Elder M. Russell Ballard: (after noting that Nephi was born of goodly parents) “So was the Prophet Joseph Smith; he once declared, ‘Words and language are inadequate to express the gratitude that I owe to God for having given me so honorable a parentage’ (History of the Church, 5:126).”
* Elder S. Dilworth Young: “Prophets are born of goodly parents. Before the earth was formed the heavenly hosts gave shouts of joy, both because they could come to the earth and that their leaders were chosen and recognized….”
* Elder Lynn Archibald: “The Book of Mormon clearly shows the value of righteousness and dedication in parents.”
* Elder Douglas L. Callister: “‘Goodly parents’ means good parents who set an example in keeping the commandments of God. My parents were very good. I hope I have been as good an example to my children.”
* Sister Virginia Pearce: “They were ‘goodly’ because they taught him to love the Lord and obey His commandments.”
In my view, this understanding of “goodly parents” is simply wrong. While the debate over material prosperity still proceeds below, I will add some fuel to the fire: the words “goodly parents” mean nothing more than “rich parents.”
This is not an issue that can be resolved by reference to a dictionary of usage. One sees remnants of my understanding of “goodly” in modern dictionaries — for example, the American Heritage Dictionary defines “goodly” to mean “Quite large; considerable” — but that does not resolve the issue. In addition, historical usages of “goodly” are mixed. If memory serves, the OED offers support for both definitions of “goodly” discussed here (i.e., righteous and rich). My argument, therefore, proceeds not solely from the dictionary, but from my reading of the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon never quantifies Lehi’s wealth, but several references in the text suggest that Lehi was a man of great means. When describing the departure of Lehi and his family from Jerusalem into the wilderness, Nephi writes: “he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things….” 1 Nephi 2:4 Perhaps the most striking reference occurs when Lehi’s sons return to Jerusalem to obtain the “plates of brass,” which contained the writings of the prophets prior to Lehi’s departure at the time of the reign of Zedekiah (roughly 600 b.c.). 1 Nephi 5:11. When the four sons of Nephi attempt to buy the brass plates from Laban – himself apparently a man of great means – Nephi records, “when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it….” 1 Nephi 3:25.
Why is this relevant to our understanding of “goodly parents” in 1 Nephi 1:1? The view of Lehi and Sariah as “rich parents” sheds light on the subsequent division in the family. The main issue that divided Lehi’s family was wealth. The older children — Laman and Lemuel — were raised in conditions of great affluence, and they were quite outspoken in their opposition to the family’s move down the social ladder. Moreover, in Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life, Laman and Lemuel elected to enter the “great and spacious building,” which was “filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.” 1 Nephi 8:27. By contrast, the younger children — Sam, Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph — remained righteous. The youngest (Jacob and Joseph) were born in the wilderness, and the others were probably too young when the family relocated to have been tainted by the affluence of the family in the days prior to Lehi’s “conversion.”
Finally, I anticipate someone commenting that “goodly parents” might have a dual meaning (both righteous and rich), but I don’t agree. The notion of goodly parents is connected to Nephi’s opportunities for learning: “therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.” This is pretty clearly a reference to literacy, as Nephi concludes verse 1 by saying, “therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.” While wealth has obvious connections to literacy, righteousness does not. That is, I assume that many righteous parents of Nephi’s day were unable to provide their children with a formal education.
There is much more that can be said about this, but that should suffice to generate some reactions.