Following in the Footsteps of Mormon Folklore’s Mysterious Helpers
Latter-day Saints (Mormon) folklore is full of stories of the Three Nephites: three kindly, old men with long, gray beards who appear out of nowhere to do good turns for people in need. They’re supposed to be men who have been granted eternal life, and they roam the whole world, helping people and then vanishing, sometimes right in front of the people they helped. Sometimes only one of them appears, rather than all three. Stories about the Nephites began to be told in pioneer times, when Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake Valley, but the Nephites are still going strong. A Nephite might surface at an A&W in Provo, Utah, encouraging the owner to close on Sundays and apparently seeing to it that his profits won’t go down. A Nephite is rumored to have led a troop of thousands of soldiers in the Arab–Israeli War, vanishing—troops and all—once victory was secure. (They were pro-Israeli, if it matters.) One of the three old men turned up to help push a car out of an intersection in Carlsbad, California.
I was raised in Salt Lake City as a “gentile”—a non-Mormon—and I have considerable faith in the kindness and generosity of Latter-day Saints. Here’s an instance: One August, I was idiotic enough to run out of gas in the Virgin River Gorge near St. George, exactly where there is no cell phone reception and the temperature was 110 degrees. After waving at passing cars for about ten minutes, I was relieved but not completely surprised when a young man with three young boys in his truck pulled over to suck some of his gasoline into a hose, which he just happened to have on hand, and siphon it into my car’s tank. It was more than enough fuel to get me to the next gas station, and he refused to take a dime for it. Nephites, as I say, turn up when help is needed, and they turn up in modern guise. Maybe the three boys were Nephites in training.
Since Nephites sometimes do turn up out of nowhere, I have found myself in times of trouble grumpily muttering, “I could really use a Nephite right here, right now, dagnabbit!” (That’s Utah-Woman cursing.) “A Nephite would be really handy just now!” There are three old men on the loose looking for someone to help out, and it has sometimes seemed to me that it would be awfully convenient if one or all of them turned up to help me out.
And then my thoughts about Nephites shifted.
As a young mother, living in Los Angeles, I was taking my son home from preschool one day, driving home straight up Overland Avenue, which dead-ends into the hill the Los Angeles Mormon Temple stands on. You can’t miss it. I happened to glance to the side as I was driving and saw a toddler in a diaper on the sidewalk, wandering around alone. I did what anyone would do: I pulled over fast, suddenly in fight-or-flight mode; yelled at my son I’d be right back; he could see me out of his window; and jumped out of the car. I ran up to the toddler, said “Hi!” as cheerfully as I could, and scooped him up. He seemed comfortable enough being picked up by a total stranger, and for a moment or two, I just stood there with this little guy in my arms, wondering what to do and thinking, Oh great, I’m going to be arrested for felony kidnapping!
And then I started knocking on doors, constantly looking over my shoulder at my own toddler, strapped into his car seat. I was angry: what kind of person would let a child loose on a major Los Angeles street? Eventually a door opened, and I handed the little boy over to the father, who hadn’t even realized his son had gone missing. Then I walked back to my car, got in, took a minute or two to calm down and calm my son down. (He must have wondered why his mom was holding some other little boy.) I started my car, and there it was, straight ahead: the Mormon Temple.
Once we were home, I got my son inside and tried to calm myself down: what would have happened if I hadn’t seen that little boy wandering next to Overland in a diaper? And then I turned to my husband and said, “I think I was just a Nephite.”
Another experience around that time shifted my perspective even more. I was teaching writing at a college and would meet regularly with my students to discuss their papers one-on-one. I once had a student whose in-class comments were sometimes bizarre enough to draw her classmates’ stares, and when we met individually she could seem incoherent. During one of these sessions she said something about having to sleep with her father. I listened and asked questions until I was sure that was what she was saying. Then, “Just a second,” I told her. “I want you to talk to someone about this. Grab your backpack.” We walked down to the Office of Student Psychological Health, and at the counter I quietly explained why we were there and asked for help as soon as we could get it. Then I sat in on the meeting between my student and the doctor long enough to explain why we’d come, figuring they could take it from there. They did, and not just therapeutically: someone had endowed a scholarship just for this kind of situation. My student had been living at home, but was helped to move into a dorm later that day. Student Health set up lots of appointments with her. The dorm room, her books, and her meal plan were free to her, and she got some spending money as well. It was a full ride and then some.
Was I a Nephite when I stood up and told my student, “I want you to talk to someone about this”? In a small way, I think I was. Was the psychologist one? Yes! Pretty much by definition! Was the anonymous donor a Nephite in a wise and generous way by funding a scholarship for people like my student? Yes, indeed, and in a lasting way too: the last time I saw her she was a medical student at the same university, and we were hugely happy to see each other.
Nephites still walk the earth. They’re not divine beings, though like everybody else they have that of God within. . . . Quaker history and our meetings today are full of people who have found a leading to be Nephites for just a moment, or for days, weeks, and years on end.
Oddly enough, in our entire married life, my husband and I have never lived more than a few blocks from a Mormon stake house or temple, and we lived on Overland Avenue, the street where I found the toddler, three blocks down from the Temple.
I’m not an old man, and I don’t have a long, gray beard, but through these experiences, I realized that something significant had happened to me. The baton had been passed. I was an adult, a teacher, someone professionally asked to help my students. I was a mother, a wife, and the time had come for me to stop wishing for a Nephite to materialize out of the ether and help me out. Instead, when a Nephite is needed, when I can see the need and act on it, I need to become a Nephite myself.
I don’t want to sound sanctimonious; I’m not a Latter-day Saint or any other kind of saint, and I can’t pretend that being a Nephite is my full-time job. But there’s a time in an adult’s life when she needs to move on from sulking and thinking, Could somebody send me a Nephite NOW? There’s a time to realize it’s her turn to look for Nephite moments, swoop in, and help out. I was in my late 30s when this occurred to me. I think I was actually pretty slow to work this out.
Every once in a while, I notice a moment when a Nephite is needed: a toddler wandering the streets of LA? Suddenly, for a few minutes, I’m a Nephite; a student who casually reveals that her father forces her to have sex with him? Oh you betcha, I’m a Nephite. Thirty years later, I still don’t have the trademark long, gray beard. I suspect I miss a lot of these moments or fumble the delivery; I’m slow on the uptake. But every once in a while, I manage to be a beardless female Nephite.
Can a Quaker be a Nephite? Can a Quaker suddenly appear to help someone in need and then vanish? I think so—not so much on the basis of my own experience but because Quakers have a very long tradition of stepping in to help when people are in need, are suffering, or both. Doing that is the heart of the community and peace testimonies and at the heart of our practice as Quakers in the world. I see it in individual meetings, members, and attenders.
Nephites still walk the earth. They’re not divine beings, though like everybody else they have that of God within. Gray beards are no longer a requirement; and at least in my opinion, being a man or a Latter-day Saint isn’t a requirement either. Whatever background and faith they bring to their ministry, they minister by doing good, wanting nothing in return, and then vanishing when the job is done. Quaker history and our meetings today are full of people who have found a leading to be Nephites for just a moment, or for days, weeks, and years on end.