Moroni and Nephi

Moroni and Nephi

From time to time, the ongoing confusion over Moroni and Nephi arises. This is a brief explanatory note.

When originally published in the Times and Seasons in 1842, Joseph Smith's history said that it was Nephi who first appeared to him in 1823 to tell him about the plates.

He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Nephi. That God had a work for me to do, and that my name should be had for good and evil, among all nations, kindreds, and tongues; or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.

Church historians later edited the history so that it now reads Moroni.

33. He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.

This detail has led critics to claim that Joseph couldn't get his story straight.

I see it differently.

There's no doubt the 1842 publication in the Times and Seasons was an error. Joseph had identified the messenger as Moroni in the Elders' Journal in 1838. Oliver Cowdery had done the same in 1835.

How can we account for such an obvious error in the 1842 Times and Seasons?

First, the publication of the error is evidence that Joseph Smith, who was the named editor of the newspaper at the time, was merely the nominal editor (i.e., in name only). He didn't review the paper closely, if at all, prior to publication.

Second, the history published in the 1842 Times and Seasons was not written by, and probably not dictated by, Joseph Smith. Instead, it was compiled by his scribes beginning in 1838. 

Of course, this raises the question, why would the scribes think it was Nephi who first visited Joseph and not Moroni?

The answer could be that they knew Joseph had multiple encounters with both Moroni and Nephi.

Brigham Young explained in a letter to his son that "There is really no discrepancy in the history about these names. It was Moroni who delivered the sacred records and Urim and Thummim to Joseph, but Nephi also visited him."

Those who have read the Saints book, volume 1, will remember the account of a divine messenger showing Mary Whitmer the plates in Fayette, NY. The book claims the messenger was Moroni. This is a revisionist historical narrative, designed to accommodate M2C by deflecting attention from David Whitmer's testimony that this same messenger took the Harmony plates (the abridged plates) to Cumorah before bringing the unabridged plates of Nephi to Fayette.

The claim that the messenger was Moroni also contradicts what Mary Whitmer herself reportedly said; i.e., that the messenger identified himself as Brother Nephi.

By changing the historical narrative to omit Nephi and insert Moroni into the account of the messenger who took the Harmony plates to Cumorah and showed the plates of Nephi to Mary Whitmer, our Church historians have compounded the confusion that long existed over the claim in the 1842 Times and Seasons that it was Nephi who first appeared to Joseph Smith.

As usual in questions about Church history, we are better off accepting the statements of those involved than the revisionist history of our modern historians.


The other problem with the Moroni narrative is the doctrinal problem of teaching that resurrected beings are shape shifters.

"The spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form." Alma 11:43

The Moroni/Nephi confusion is complicated by later references. To keep things straight, here's a helpful chronology.

1832. David Whitmer and Hyrum Smith, as missionary companions, teach and baptize the family of Zina Peterson, who later wrote about her experience. This is the last known connection between Zina and David.

1835. In Letter VI, Oliver Cowdery named the angel who visited Joseph in 1823 as Moroni.

I believe that the angel Moroni, whose words I have been rehearsing, w[h]o communicated the knowledge of the record of the Nephites, in this age, saw also, before he hid up the same unto the Lord, great and marvelous things, which were to transpire when the same should come forth

1838. Joseph identified the angel as Moroni in Elders' Journal, July 1838, 42-43.

Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?

Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon.

1838. Joseph Smith's History is compiled by his scribes.

1842. Joseph Smith's History is serialized in the Times and Seasons. The 15 April edition says it was Nephi who visited Joseph Smith. Later, Church historians changed this to Moroni when they prepared the version for the Pearl of Great Price.

1877. Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt visit David Whitmer, who relates the account of meeting a divine messenger on the road from Harmony to Fayette. 

When I was returning to Fayette with Joseph and Oliver all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old fashioned wooden spring seat and Joseph behind us, while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon who saluted us with, “good morning, it is very warm,” at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and by a sign from Joseph I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, “No, I am going to Cumorah.’ This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked round enquiringly of Joseph the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again.

J.F.S.—Did you notice his appearance?

D.W.—I should think I did, he was, I should think, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches tall and heavy set, about such a man as James Vancleave there, but heavier, his face was as large, he was dressed in a suit of brown woolen clothes, his hair and beard were white like Brother Pratt’s, but his beard was not so heavy. I also remember that he had on his back a sort of knapsack with something in, shaped like a book. It was the messenger who had the plates, who had taken them from Joseph just prior to our starting from Harmony. Soon after our arrival home, I saw something which led me to the belief that the plates were placed or concealed in my father’s barn I frankly asked Joseph if my supposition was right, and he told me it was. Sometime after this, my mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him) who said to her, “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tried because of the increase of your toil, it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened!”  Thereupon he showed her the plates. My father and mother had a large family of their own, the addition to it therefore of Joseph, his wife Emma and Oliver very greatly increased the toil and anxiety of my mother. And although she had never complained she had sometimes felt that her labor was too much, or at least she was perhaps beginning to feel so. This circumstance, however, completely removed all such feelings, and nerved her up for her increased responsibilities.

The original draft of their report is here:

1877. Edward Stevenson explained why he asked David about the angel. 
"I wish to mention an Item of conversation with David Whitmer in regard to Seeing one of the Nephites, Zina Young, Desired me to ask about it. David Said, Oliver, & The Prophet, & I were riding in a wagon, & an aged man about 5 feet 10, heavey Set & on his back, an old fashioned Armey knapsack Straped over his Shoulders & Something Square in it, & he walked alongside of the Wagon & Wiped the Sweat off his face, Smileing very Pleasant David asked him to ride and he replied I am going across to the hill Cumorah. Soon after they Passed they felt Strangeley and Stoped, but could see nothing of him all around was clean and they asked the Lord about it. He Said that the Prophet Looked as White as a Sheet & Said that it was one of the Nephites & that he had the plates." 

1878. In a letter dated 7 Jan 1878, Edward Stevenson writes to John Taylor about his visit to David writing "he related many very interesting items of seeing one of the Nephites in company of the Prophet and Oliver when Joseph's countenance became almost transparent &c."

1887. Edward Stevenson publishes an article about his interview.

Edward Stevenson, “A Visit to David Whitmer,” Juvenile Instructor, 22 (15 Feb 1887):55

While on the return journey from Palmyra, David noticed a somewhat aged-looking man who approached them on the road. He had a very pleasant face, about which, however, there seemed something peculiar, and he carried a knapsack on his back fastened with straps which crossed his breast. David asked him to take a ride, but he declined, saying: “I am going over to Cumorah,” and then disappeared very suddenly, though there was no chance for him to secrete himself in the open country through which the party was then passing. All felt very strange concerning this personage and the Prophet was besought to inquire of the Lord concerning him. Shortly afterwards, David relates, the Prophet looked very white but with a heavenly appearance and said their visitor was one of the three Nephites to whom the Savior gave the promise of life on earth until He should come in power. After arriving home, David again saw this personage, and mother Whitmer, who was very kind to Joseph Smith, is said to have seen not only this Nephite, but to have also been shown by him the sealed and unsealed portions of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

1888. Andrew Jensen reports an account of from a grandson of Mary Whitmer about her seeing the plates. Jensen inserts a parenthetical (bolded below) that Mary was wrong because the messenger must have been Moroni.

Her son, David Whitmer, before his death, testified on several occasions taht his mother had seen the plates, and when Elders Edward Stevenson and Andrew Jenson visited Richmond, Missouri, in 1888, John C. Whitmer, a grandson of the lady in question, testified in the following language:

"I have heard my grandmother (Mary Musselman Whitmer) say on several occasions that she was shown the plates of the Book of Mormon by a holy angel, whom she always called Brother Nephi. (She undoubtedly refers to Moroni, the angel who had the plates in charge.) 

"It was at the time, she said, when the translation was going on at the house of the elder Peter Whitmer, her husband. Joseph Smith with his wife and Oliver Cowdery, whom David Whitmer a short time previous had brought up from Harmony, Pennsylvania, were all boarding with the Whitmers, and my grandmother in having so many extra persons to care for, besides her own large household, was often overloaded with work to such an extent that she felt it to be quite a burden. One evening, when (after having done her usual day's work in the house) she want to the barn to milk the cows, she met a stranger carrying something on his back that looked like a knapsack. At first she was a little afraid of him, but when he spoke to her in a kind, friendly tone and began to explain to her the nature of the work which was going on in her house, she was filled with unexpressible [sic] joy and satisfaction. He then untied his knapsack and showed her a bundle of plates, which in size and appearance corresponded with the description subsequently given by the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. This strange person turned the leaves of the book of plates over, leaf after leaf, and also showed her the engravings upon them; after which he told her to be patient and faithful in bearing her burden a little longer, promising that if she would do so, she should be blessed; and her reward would be sure, if she proved faithful to the end. The personage then suddenly vanished with the plates, and where he went, she could not tell. From that moment my grandmother was enabled to perform her household duties with comparative ease, and she felt no more inclination to murmur because her lot was hard. I knew my grandmother to be a good, noble and truthful woman, and I have not the least doubt of her statement in regard to seeing the plates being strictly true. She was a strong believer in the Book of Mormon until the day of her death." Mother Whitmer died in Richmond, Ray county, Missouri, in January, 1856.

Andrew Jensen, Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia 1:283, Salt Lake City, Utah: 1901)

Note that Mary's grandson considered her truthful, but Andrew Jensen thought she was wrong.

Jensen's speculation appears to be where the narrative was changed.

1891. Stevenson writes a letter to Wilford Woodruff dated Oct. 6, 1891, in which he relates:

David also related that while coming from Harmony Pa.. - about halfway to Fayett, [sic] N.Y., - which was June 1829 - they saw Maroni [sic] who at that time appeared as an ordinary man and common attire with a knapsac on his back. he asked him to ride with them, but he replied I am only going over to Cumorah. Steped back and disappeared. Oliver and David asked the Prophet to enquire of hte Lord who this misterious and distinguished visitor was. David told me that when he looked back at the prophet he looked to him nearly transparent and said that was <Maroni> with the plates, &c. - soon after their arrival at Fayett, David said his mother saw Maroni and he also opened the plates turning them over leaf by leaf- but there was some portion sealed with 3 gold rings... 

The Brethren in Alberta are feeling well, and are much more united in their faith, without so much distinction and classification, as we have in our Babylonish Pride and Classification of S.L.C. and other older settlements, which proved a curse to both the Jaredites as well as the overthrow of the Nephites..... since I have been here by request I have given 6 public Lectures in Alberta on the subject of the early rise of the Church and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon Illustrated by 3 paintings one of the Hill Cumorah 2d Joseph the Prophet, and the Angle Maroni delivering the previous Record and the 3d one with the 7 lines of Characters coppied from the plates by the Prophet, and sent to Professor Anthon N.Y. by Martin Harris.

1918. A typed, unsigned document labeled "Part of April 25/18 minutes See xx page 9 No 5" relates what Joseph F. Smith said in a meeting in California. The document relates this version of the encounter he and Orson Pratt had had with David Whitmer 41 years earlier. This version changes several details from the original report, adding Emma to the wagon, expanding David's conversation, and claiming Joseph identified the messenger as Moroni.

President Joseph F. Smith: The last meeting I attended at Lost Angeles, the theme in the Sunday School, just previous to the meeting, had been the early history of the Church...

When they started for New York Joseph told them how they would travel over the rolling country and over the prairie. He came to one of those rolling prairies as they were driving along and he described his wagon with two long poles in it at each end across the end gates of the wagon box, and then two boards laid across that for seats on those hickory poles. Joseph and Emma were on the hind seat and Oliver and David on the front seat. In the middle of this prairie, all of a sudden, there appeared a man walking along the road, and David said he raise his head <hat> and rubbed his brow like that, as if he were a little warm, and said, good morning to them, and they said good morning. Oliver and David looked at each other and began to marvel and wonder: Where did he come from, what does it mean? David described him saying he had on something like an old-fashioned knapsack, but of course a little differently formed, right across his shoulders, and on his back he was carrying something of considerable weight. They looked round to Joseph inquiringly: What does it mean? And Joseph said, "Ask him to ride." So David, who was teamster, asked him if he would get in and ride with them. He said, "No, I am just going over to Cumorah." David said, "Cumorah? Cumorah? What does that mean?" He had never heard of Cumorah, and he said, "I thought I knew this country all around here, but I never heard of Cumorah" and he inquired about it. While he was looking around and trying to ascertain what the mystery, was the man was gone, and when he looked back he did not see him any more. Then he demanded, "What does it mean?" Joseph informed him that the man was Moroni, and that the bundle on his back contained plates which Joseph had delivered to him before they departed from Harmony, Susquehanna County, and that he was taking them for safety, and would return them when he (Joseph) reached father Whitmer's home. There was a long talk about this. David gave us a description also of what occurred when Joseph and Oliver and Emma reached his mother's home. His mother had a large family of boys, only one girl. It was fashionable <customary> for the women to do all the milking and all the hard work, and she was feeling rather down-hearted and discouraged, and she wondered how she was going to provide for all her own family and for this additional number to be taken care of. She went down to milk the cow and was feeling very gloomy about it, she hardly thought it would be possible for her to take care of them all. David said that when she came back she was full of joy. He did not know the reason for her rejoicing until she said, "I have seen the messenger." David said she described the very man they saw walking on the prairies and he told her who he was; said that Joseph had come there for safety and he was in their care and protection. He told her that her burdens would be lightened, and she would enjoy her service, and not be bowed down or sorrowful, and David said after that she was the happiest woman in the world. She met her added obligations with such alacrity and pleasure that they were no trouble to her. She described the individual just as David and Oliver had seen him and they knew that she had seen the same messenger.
Bro. Orson Pratt and I and this crowd of friends who had been invited in were sitting around in our room in the hotel when this took place. In the meeting at Los Angeles I told them this story, occupying about an hour and a half, and the people sat spell-bound.


In 1911, the Improvement Era published an account of Nephi visiting the Indians in Utah.

Messenger to the Indians

The following comes addressed to President Joseph F. Smith: "In the summer of 1876, a personage appeared to the Indians out west of St. George at a place called Duck Creek. This personage told the Indians that he was one of their forefathers and had many things to tell them, as he had lived a long time upon the earth.

By this man's request, runners were sent out to all the nearby bands of Indians to bring them together. "This personage, whom the Indians described as having a long white beard, and as being dressed in white, remained with them for several months, and during all that time not an Indian was seen along the Virgin river or its tributaries.

"When the Indians returned to their homes, my brother Nephi Johnson and myself Sextus E. Johnson called the Indians together and questioned them about the personage who had appeared to them out west. "They told us that his name was Nephi, the same as my brother Nephi. He told them that the 'Mormons' were their friends and they must listen to their counsels, and that in time prophets would come among them and lead them to live a better life.

"They asked him how long he had lived upon the earth. He told them, but it was so many moons that they could not enumerate them, but it was many hundred years, in fact far beyond their comprehension.

"President Joseph F. Smith: We are satisfied that this personage spoken of did appear to the Indians out west, and that his name was Nephi, one of the apostles of the Savior whom He chose during his sojourn upon this land.

Nephi and S. E. Johnson. "Written from memory by S. E. Johnson at Colonia Morelos, Sonora, Mexico - September 11, 1911" -- Nephi and S. E. Johnson, “Messenger to the Indians,” Improvement Era, November, 1911, 15:79-80

Here's a link to the original version in the Improvement Era:

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