Quaker Nephites

Photo by eyedarren

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.

Anita Hemphill McCormick

Anita Hemphill McCormick is a member of Grass Valley Meeting in Nevada City, Calif.

8 thoughts on “Quaker Nephites

  1. Sadly, Mormonusm is a false religion. To them, the Nephites actually existed. Nevermind that there’s zero evidence. They were invented by Joseph Smith. Yes, Mormons are very kind and helpful but they have a reason why they go out of their way. Good works could lead to godhood.

    1. To be fair, Christians (including Christ-centered Quakers) are not the best people to put other religions on notice for having zero evidence for their beliefs. There are a great many reasons to be critical of the Church of Latter-Day Saints; to my mind, the notion that good works will eventually elevate you into godhood, as opposed to merely securing your citizenship in the kingdom of the heavens, is not a particularly pressing concern.

      But, hey, I’m a universalist, and I believe we’re all going to be bound together in God’s grace (or whatever you want to call it) in the long run, and I don’t have any evidence for THAT.

      1. I think you have a serious point, and I for one do not advocate LDS theology. The belief that one can gain entry to heaven by engaging in good works has a long history in some other branches of Christianity too, of course.

        But it could be worse; there are those who have believed that God decides we are saved or damned even before we’re born–and we can do nothing about it. No number of good works will make any difference. This belief gets played out in James Hogg’s 1824 novel “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”. The main character, Robert (you couldn’t call him a hero) is a Scottish Calvinist. A mysterious, impressive stranger tells him that he is among the saved. So, he figures, yippie, since I’m saved I can do anything I want and there won’t be any repercussions! I still have heaven locked in, no matter what I do! Consequently he goes out to stalk and torment other people and, among other things, he kills his older brother, who was going to inherit the family estates–but now, Robert will inherit instead. Was the mysterious, impressive stranger who told him he was saved Tzar Peter the Great, as Robert suspects? (Did Tzar Peter the Great speak Lowland Scots?) Or was he the devil, as the reader comes to believe?

  2. I work for a large Catholic church as music director, although I am not Catholic. Yesterday as I was preparing the selections for this coming Sunday’s services, I paused to reflect on a reading from the prophet Isaiah in which G-d honors Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, because he was a blessing to the Jewish people. Perhaps Cyrus was a Nephite to the Jews. Maybe you don’t even have to be a Mormon to receive help from a Nephite?

    Thanks for a beautiful article.

    1. Thank you very much! If we can stretch a point and consider me a part-time, adjunct Nephite, I can attest that the young student whom I helped was most certainly not a Mormon.

  3. If the Mormons are loving God and neighbors, seems like the core of Christianity.

    Love without good acts, and good acts without love, could both do better.

    If love is motivated by self(ish)-interest it may not endure under duress.

  4. Frankly, I believe that the Palestinian/Israeli problem has no solution.
    If God really gave the Isrealites the land already populated by Canaanites,
    He was playing favorites, with the same results as when He showed
    favoritism toward Abel that caused Cain to murder Abel.

    In 1948, various nations showed favoritism toward the hapless Jewish
    survivors of the lunatic policies of the German Nazis! But, to give the Jews
    the land that now had a huge Palestinian majority, was as criminal as
    if we gave the American Indians the United States! Israel had to be given
    land that in 1948 belonged to the Palestinian majority. Therefore, an
    eternal clash was initiated that now, once again, ignites warfare than
    has no apparent solution. The Palestinian/Israeli hatred will linger!

    My heart breaks from my pity for the innocents on both sides.

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