“Goodly Parents”

December 29, 2003 | 15 comments
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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.

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15 Responses to “Goodly Parents”

  1. Ben on December 29, 2003 at 10:53 am

    This is Marc Schindler’s conclusion as well.
    http://www.members.shaw.ca/mschindler/B/goodly.htm
    I think many of our interpretations (a few at the “official” level) commit the error of interpreting in ignorance of what the words meant in JS time(or in NT times, etc.)

  2. Renee on December 29, 2003 at 12:05 pm

    I agree that it could mean wealthy. If it does, is it a big deal? Wealth isn’t a sin. How it’s used, that’s the subject under debate elsewhere.

  3. Kaimi on December 29, 2003 at 12:07 pm

    Hi Gordon,

    I think you may be on to something here. But, just to suggest a possible counter-argument, isn’t it possible to accept the fact that goodly is tied to education, and yet to believe that goodly means righteous, because righteous members have a religious duty to educate their children?

  4. Gordon on December 29, 2003 at 1:20 pm

    A few quick observations:

    * Ben: Thanks for the pointer. It looks like Schindler and I are on the same wavelength. It seems to me that I have heard one or two other people mention this, too, though the thought was original to me when I first had it.

    * Renee: I didn’t mean to imply that being wealthy was a sin, but I did want to suggest that this may cast the story of Lehi’s family in a different light. If we begin the BofM with the notion that Lehi and Sariah were righteous parents who somehow, inexplicably, ended up with unrighteous olders sons, that is a different story than thinking of them as worldly parents who went through a conversion process. Frankly, it makes Laman and Lemuel more sympathetic to me. Read Lehi’s dream again (1 Nephi 8), and I think you will agree that Lehi is telling the story of his conversion:

    “I beheld myself that I was in a dark and dreary waste. And after I had traveled for the space of many hours in darkness, I began to pray unto the Lord that he would have mercy on me, according to the multitude of his tender mercies. And it came to pass after I had prayed unto the Lord I beheld a large and spacious field. And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.”

    It appears to me that Lehi’s conversion happened after Laman and Lemuel were old enough to be fairly accustomed to the “good life,” and they (naturally?) rebelled. Also, Sariah took a lot of convincing and clearly was not very happy about the trek into the wilderness. Indeed, Lehi himself faltered a bit along the way. Of course, we have only Nephi’s record, but from that it appears that Nephi — the impressionable young man — was the one who most internalized his father’s teachings.

    This reminds me of Joseph Smith. We often say that the Lord chose him as a young man because he could be shaped and molded. Similarly, we observe that Lehi proved tougher to change than Nephi. By the way, I think it is no coincidence that Nephi was given the same visions as his father. The Lord appears to have been working through Lehi to create a great leader (Nephi) for this branch of His people.

    Kaimi: The connection between righteousness and education strikes me as a fairly modern notion, and one that is most prominent in the US. While I do not gainsay the value of education (after all, that’s how I make my living), I wonder about the connection to righteousness. I would be interested to hear what others have to say on this, as I am far from expert on the topic.

  5. tyler durden on December 29, 2003 at 2:58 pm

    i think the goodly->wealthy view fits nephi’s approach to his story much better and gives much more meaning to lehi’s sacrifice and his “dwel[ling] in a tent”

  6. Gordon on December 29, 2003 at 3:51 pm

    Tyler, Nephi’s reference to his father dwelling in a tent is interesting. Why would Nephi mention that? The reference occurs in 1 Nephi 2:15, where Nephi is first describing the family’s circumstances in the wilderness. Notice the context:

    “And it came to pass that my father did speak unto them in the valley of Lemuel, with power, being filled with the Spirit, until their frames did shake before him. And he did confound them, that they durst not utter against him; wherefore, they did as he commanded them. And my father dwelt in a tent. And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.”

    The reference to Lehi in the tent falls between a description of the difficulty that Lehi is having with Laman and Lemuel and a description of Nephi’s conversion. Perhaps Nephi is noting how far his father has come, how greatly he has sacrificed for his visions. Perhaps Nephi is explaining that Lehi’s changed circumstances prompted Nephi to inquire of the Lord and to allow his heart to be softened. Quite a moving tribute of father from son.

  7. Kaimi on December 29, 2003 at 4:04 pm

    Gordon,

    I’m not sure I agree that the emphasis on education is entirely modern. I’m not an expert on the topic either. But, a few thoughts:

    1. The ideas that “the glory of God is intelligence” and that whetever intelligence we recieve will go with us to the next life, are modern, at least in articulation. But, when combined with the idea of an unchanging God, these may be considered eternal principles.

    2. Nephi’s use of the scriptures shows the value of education. As does the return for the brass plates in the first place.

    3. Much of Exodus, etc. is about teaching Israel. Other examples of education, such as Samuel, suggest its benefit.

    4. On the other hand, education is a detriment if it keeps one away from God (i.e. Pharisees in the New Testament).

  8. Jeremiah John on December 29, 2003 at 5:42 pm

    Your interpetration shouldn’t be controversial, except by the fact that it runs against the standard, easy one. One thing you haven’t mentioned, however, is that it seems to make good sense of what follows “goodly parents”. When Nephi says that he was taught in the learning of his father, he is probably not saying: “My father knew Reformed Egyptian, and so he made sure I knew it, just like any good parent would.” But rather: “My parents were well off, and that allowed me the time and resources to learn the language in which I am writing this record.” The latter makes more sense and this supports your interpretation.

  9. Renee on December 30, 2003 at 12:39 pm

    Gordon, I think you’re definitely onto something with the regards to the kids. The spoiled brats. :)

  10. Jim on December 30, 2003 at 12:41 pm

    Gordon, I think you are right about “goodly.” I’ve thought that for some time, based on the fact you point out, namely that the goodliness of his parents explains his education. Within the last two or three weeks, as I’ve begun to work on next year’s lessons, I’d also begun to wonder, as you suggest, whether Lehi isn’t someone who is what today we would call an adult convert or someone reactivated as an adult. That may be too strong, but I think you’re right that something is going on that we’ve overlooked, and it has a lot to do with why Laman and Lemuel are rebelious. On the other hand, I don’t want to overlook the obvious possibility that the children of a righteous person can rebel against the religion of that parent. But, as you point out, there are several hints that Lehi has changed.

  11. tyler durden on December 30, 2003 at 1:00 pm

    not only does it give an explanation for laman and lemuels rebelliousness, it also explains why everything seems so new to lehi’s family as well as lehi’s desire to see laman and lemuel repent (perhaps he felt a certain responsibility for their behavior). it also gives a good explanation as to why laman, lemuel, and sarah accuse lehi of going crazy

  12. Gordon on December 30, 2003 at 3:52 pm

    A quick follow-up on these last two comments by Jim and Tyler. In fairness I should note that it was my wife who pointed out to me that Lehi’s dream implies an adult conversion experience. We had talked about the “goodly parents” issue, and she took that insight and ran with it. Jim, all of us who are parents want to hold open the possibility that righteous parents can produce rebellious children, but it looks like we are reaching some degree of consensus on this blog that focusing on Lehi’s wealth offers a credible explanation for the difference between Laman and Lemuel and the other children. (The fact is, Lehi was wealthy, no matter what you think of the term “goodly parents.”) Also, Tyler makes another point that my wife has made to me: Lehi was very slow to give up on Laman and Lemuel, and his Job-like patience with them might be explained by empathy. Bottom line: it all seems to fit.

  13. Greg on December 30, 2003 at 4:14 pm

    Wow — thanks for an amazing piece of group blog exegesis. Great ideas.

    As for the very worthy project of giving solace to parents of inexplicably rebellious offspring, we’ll always have Cain.

  14. Michelle on January 10, 2004 at 5:10 am

    As I teach the lesson including 1 Nephi 1, I plan to focus less on the word “goodly” and more on the word “taught.” In my mind, the ability of Nephi to obtain a “knowledge of the goodness of God” and His mysteries could be attributed in large measure to his parents’ teachings. After all, Nephi received his “testimony” after he “did believe all the words which had been spoken by [his] father” (1 Ne. 2:16).

    One last thought: The word “goodly” has a variety of meanings in scripture. In my mind, it’s obvious that Lehi was wealthy, for the family left riches behind when they left Jerusalem. However, in my mind, it is a little pointless to speculate about Lehi’s pre-1-Nephi conversion status. What matters is that he *was* converted and was willing to sacrifice all to obey God. Sure, he had a few moments of weakness, but so did (and does) every other mortal!

  15. Rob on February 13, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    I’m coming to this way late…
    Maybe we’re letting Lehi and Nephi off the hook a little to early here. The Book of Mormon can be read as an extended commentary about the dangers of riches and pride…could it not be that despite their conversions and ability to leave it all behind in Jerusalem, that Lehi and Nephi held on to some of their previous attitudes (of superiority based earlier on riches, later on righteousness) and that this contributed to the family feud that would later lead to wars and genocide?

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