While I have always had high esteem for Christopher Columbus, he seems to be increasingly criticized into today’s world. I hear reports that kids growing up today are told in school that he was a horrible man. Not fully understanding these criticisms, I recently undertook to studying about his life and accomplishments, including reading a new biography on Columbus called “Christopher Columbus: A Man among Gentiles” written by an LDS author, Clark B. Hinckley. While I have titled this post “Mormons’ View of Christopher Columbus” it might be better titled “This Mormon’s View of Christopher Columbus.” Please be aware that my writings are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Mormon Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In August 1877, Wilford Woodruff, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was the first president of the recently dedicated St. George Temple of the LDS Church. He reported that one day, the spirits of the founding fathers of the United States of America and other prominent men, and possibly women as well, appeared to him and asked for temple ordinances to be performed in their behalf:
“The spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” . . . They waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them . . . I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister [J. D. T. McCallister, first counselor in the temple presidency] to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others.” (Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 19:229. Also see Benson, Ezra Taft This Nation Shall Endure, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, 22.)
Columbus–A Man among the Gentiles
While it is interesting to note is that Christopher Columbus was among these “eminent men,” for Latter-day Saints, this is no surprise given the mention of him in the Book of Mormon. Mormons believe that Christopher Columbus is mentioned, though not by name, in the Book of Mormon when the ancient American prophet Nephi sees in vision the discovery and colonizing of America.
“And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land” (1 Nephi 13:12).
James E. Talmage, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the early 1900s, said this in his seminal book, Jesus the Christ, regarding Columbus:
“Unto Nephi, son of Lehi, was shown the future of his people, including the degeneracy of a branch thereof, afterward known as Lamanites and in modern times as American Indians. The coming of a man from among the Gentiles, across the deep waters, was revealed in such plainness as to positively identify that man with Columbus; and the coming of other Gentiles to this land, out of captivity, is equally explicit. … The establishment of a great Gentile nation on the American continent, the subjugation of the Lamanites or Indians, the war between the newly established nation and Great Britain, or “their mother Gentiles,” and the victorious outcome of that struggle for independence, are set forth with equal clearness in the same chapter.”
Elder Mark E. Petersen, another apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve, also confirmed that that man among the Gentiles is Columbus.
When Columbus went to King Ferdinand, he said, “I came to Your Majesty as the emissary of the Holy Ghost.” When he stood before the clergy of San Esteban, he insisted to them that he must be regarded as a man inspired. Columbus’s own son, Fernando, in a biography of his father, quotes the discoverer as saying on one occasion, “God gave me the faith and afterward the courage so that I was quite willing to undertake the journey.” And the last will and testament of Christopher Columbus includes this expression: “In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, who inspired me with the idea and afterward made perfectly clear to me that I could navigate and go to the Indies from Spain by traversing the ocean westward” (Wasserman, Columbus, pp. 46, 61). Columbus was inspired, and Nephi looked upon him and beheld him coming to the Western Hemisphere” (Elder Mark E. Petersen – The Great Prologue, BYU Speeches, Sep. 29, 1974).
Finally, Gordon B. Hinckley, 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, confirmed this about Christopher Columbus:
“The entire world is celebrating this month the five hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, his biographer, says, “This night of October 11–12  was one big with destiny for the human race, the most momentous ever experienced aboard any ship in any sea.” (Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942, p. 223.)
“In my private commemoration of this event, I have read and reread one important and prophetic verse from the Book of Mormon [1 Ne. 13:12], and also a very long biography of Christopher Columbus. …We interpret that [verse] to refer to Columbus. It is interesting to note that the Spirit of God wrought upon him. After reading that long biography, a Pulitzer winner of forty years ago, titled Admiral of the Ocean Sea—I have no doubt that Christopher Columbus was a man of faith, as well as a man of indomitable determination” (Building Your Tabernacle – Gordon B. Hinckley – October 1992).
Christopher Columbus Vicariously Ordained a High Priest
President Ezra Taft Benson, 13th president of the Church, said that not only was Christopher Columbus among the eminent men who appeared to Wilford Woodruff, but Columbus was one of only four men ever known to be vicariously ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood office of High Priest.
“The temple work for the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence and other Founding Fathers has been done. All these appeared to Wilford Woodruff when he was president of the St. George Temple. President George Washington was ordained a high priest at that time. You will also be interested to know that, according to Wilford Woodruff’s journal, John Wesley, Benjamin Franklin, and Christopher Columbus were also ordained high priests at that time. When one casts doubt about the character of these noble sons of God, I believe he or she will have to answer to the God of heaven for it.” (Benson, Ezra Taft This Nation Shall Endure, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, 22.)
The Lord Opened My Mind
Now let’s take a closer look at Christopher Columbus’ life and events and the things he is known to have said and done which provide evidence as to why the eminent figure of history has been so honored by Mormon prophets and members. In chapter 1 of Christopher Columbus – A Man among Gentiles, author Clark B. Hinckley says,
“Columbus himself knew exactly why he was compelled, against all odds, to do what he did. He described his motivation in these remarkable words: ‘With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project . . . This was the fire that burned within me . . . Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit . . . urging me to press forward?’ (West and Kling, Libro, 105.) The story of Columbus is, among many other things, a story of the fulfillment of prophecy. More than two thousand years passed from the time that simple prophecy was recorded by Nephi in the wilderness of Arabia until the fulfillment of that prophecy with Columbus’s successful voyage of discovery. And without access to Nephi’s prophecy, Columbus himself described its perfect and exact fulfillment.”
Columbus further stated about the years he spent getting approval and financing to make the voyage across the Atlantic: “I spent seven years here in your royal court discussing this subject with the leading persons in all the learned arts, and their conclusion was that all was in vain. That was the end, and they gave it up. But afterwards it all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he had spoken earlier by the mouth of his holy prophets” (West and Kling, Libro, 107).
Near Mutiny Almost Terminated the Voyage before His Discovery
On August 3, 1492, Columbus departed from Spain with three ships: the Santa María, captained by Columbus, and two smaller vessels, the Pinta and the Niña. Columbus first sailed to the Canary Islands, where he restocked provisions and made repairs to his ships. The three ships then departed on September 6th for what turned out to be a five-week voyage across the ocean, though they weren’t without drama before they reached their destination on October 12, 1492. This is what Hinckley reports in Chapter 6 of his book:
“On 9 October, when the winds were light and the ships were traveling at only about 2 knots, the Pinzón brothers came aboard the Santa María, where they ‘held a more or less stormy conference with Columbus in his cabin, demanded that the search for land be abandoned, and that advantage be taken of the southerly breeze to start home.’ Morison concludes that Columbus convinced his captains to carry on for three more days and that the captains returned to their respective ships. On the morning of 10 October the wind picked up and the ships sped along at 7 knots. The renewed easterly winds fueled fears among the crew that a return voyage would be impossible, and the men confronted Columbus ‘with one voice’ demanding that he turn back. (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 220–21.) This was where the enterprise came the closest to failure.”
“…One can hardly blame the sailors for their concerns nor consider them cowardly for their desire to turn around and head home. They had experienced two false landfalls, they had been in open ocean at least twice as long as any previous expedition, and by every reasonable measure they were beyond where they had been told they would find land. They had passed the 65th meridian and were north of Puerto Rico. If one looks at a map today and blocks out the Americas—unknown to Columbus and his crew—one might begin to sense the growing despair, even fear, felt by the crew. Morison characterized the attempted mutiny with these observations: ‘It was . . . the inevitable conflict between a man of one great, compelling idea and those who did not share it in anything like the same degree . . . Their issue with their commander was the eternal one between imagination and doubt, between the spirit that creates and the spirit that denies.’ (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 215.) Columbus was unwavering, and his vision prevailed.”
Guardian Angel of America
Orson Hyde said that the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni “calmed the troubled elements” during Columbus’ voyage, he might well have been referring to those events of October 9-10, 1492. Orson Hyde was called as one of the original members of the Twelve Apostles by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the early days of the restoration of gospel of Jesus Christ. He gave a patriotic talk about America in Salt Lake City on July 4, 1854 in which he referred to Moroni as the “guardian angel of America.” Elder Hyde said, “That same angel of God that appeared to Joseph Smith presides over the destiny of the United States of America.” Elder Hyde said that Moroni was in the camp with George Washington and helped when he had trouble. He said that same angel was with Christopher Columbus and gave him deep impressions and dreams and visions respecting the new world. And according to Elder Glen L. Rudd in a BYUI Devotional, “that same angel was with Columbus on the stormy deep. He guided his frail vessel to the desired haven, and he calmed the troubled elements” (see The Angel Moroni by Elder Glen L. Rudd, BYU–Idaho Devotional – March 11, 2003).
Comfort from a Celestial Voice
During Columbus’ fourth voyage to the Americas, he and his crew encountered many terrible storms, they had a failed attempt to establish a settlement in Central America, they had many battles and with the native inhabitants, and eventually became shipwrecked and stranded on the island of Jamaica. During this voyage, on 6 April 1503, Columbus had one of the seminal experiences of his life where he heard a celestial voice both chastise him and comfort him and buoy him up.
“I was completely alone outside on this dangerous coast in a high fever and a state of great exhaustion. All hope of escape was dead. I struggled up to the highest point of the ship, weeping and calling in a trembling voice to your Highnesses’ Lord of Hosts in every direction for comfort, but there was no reply. Exhausted and groaning, I fell as if asleep and heard a very compassionate voice saying:
‘O fool, slow to believe and serve thy God, the God of all! What more did he do for Moses or David his servant than he has done for thee? Since thou wast born, ever has He had thee in His watchful care. When He saw thee at an age that pleased Him, He caused thy name to sound marvelously in the land. The Indies, which were so rich a part of the world, He gave thee for thine own; thou hast divided them as it pleased thee, and He enabled thee to do this. Of the barriers of the Ocean Sea, which were closed with such mighty chains, He gave thee the key; and thou wast obeyed in many lands, and among Christians thou hast gained an honorable fame. What did He do more for the people of Israel when He brought them out of Egypt? Or for David, who from a shepherd He made to be King of Judea? Turn thyself to Him, and know now thine error; His mercy is infinite; thine old age shall not prevent thee from achieving all great things; He has many inheritances very great. Abraham was over a hundred years old when he begat Isaac, and Sarah was not a young girl. Thou criest for help, doubting. Answer, who has afflicted thee so greatly and so often, God or the world? The privileges, letters and promises that God gives are all fully kept, and after receiving service his favors increase and He grants his servants paradise. I have spoken of that which thy Creator has done for thee and does for all men. Now in part He shows thee the reward for the anguish and danger which thou hast endured in the service of others.’
“I heard all of this as if I were only partially conscious, and I had no answer to give to words so true, but could only weep for my errors. He, whoever he was who spoke to me, ended by saying: “Fear not; have trust; all these tribulations are written upon marble and are not without cause.”( Varela and Gil, Textos, 491–92)
A Divinely Chosen Person
The Book of Prophecies (in Spanish, El Libro de las Profecías) is a compilation of writing and revelations written by Christopher Columbus towards the end of his life. In Delno West’s introduction to the English translation of the book, he summarizes Columbus’ character and motives:
“Christopher Columbus looked upon himself as a man of destiny who had been given a charismatic gift to understand Scripture, navigation, maps, winds, tides, astronomy, cosmography, mathematics and related sciences. His understanding of his mission, or enterprise, was drawn from the Bible or proved by the Bible, and he knew that he was opening up new lands rich with gold and other valuables. He believed himself a chosen person working for the good of all Christendom in opening up the rest of the world to the gospel message. He knew that he would be misunderstood and maligned, but he accepted that as the lot of a divinely chosen person” (Libro de las profecias, p. 105. Raccolta, pt. I, vol. ii, p. 79. Also see Columbus and the Hand of God by De Lamar Jensen, Emeritus professor of history at BYU, Ensign Magazine, October 1992).
A Man Alone with God
Samuel Eliot Morison, author of Admiral of the Ocean Sea, said this of Columbus.
“For he was not, like a Washington, a Cromwell or a Bolivar, an instrument chosen by multitudes to express their wills and lead a cause; Columbus was a Man with a Mission. . . . He was Man alone with God against human stupidity and depravity, against greedy conquistadors, cowardly seamen, even against nature and the sea. Always with God, though. . . . Men may doubt this, but there can be no doubt that the faith of Columbus was genuine and sincere, and that his frequent communion with forces unseen was a vital element in his achievement.” (Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Boston: Little, Brown, 1942), 46—47.)
Columbus and Revelation
LDS Church scholar Hugh Nibley wrote about Christopher Columbus in chapter 2 of his book, The Prophetic Book of Mormon. Said Nibley:
“[Columbus’] contemporary and friend, Las Casas, in an oft-quoted passage says he was as certain of finding what he said he would as if he had it already locked up in his trunk. Las Casas tells how “from all sides and in many ways did God give Columbus motives and causes that he should not doubt to undertake so great a deed,” and that “God seemed to move him on by constant pushes.” (Bartolome de las Casas, Historia de las Indias (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951), 27—34.) Everything else in Columbus’ life is subservient to the carrying out of that one mission. The aim and purpose of all his work and suffering was what happened at 2 A.M. on the morning of October 12, 1492, and must not be judged by what happened after (it was “the wrath of God upon the seed of my brethren,” says Nephi), or by any other quirks or misadventures. In retrospect we see that this is so—but Columbus himself always knew it was: God had chosen him to do this one great deed.
“… Sailing into a perfect blank on the map, Columbus infallibly did the right thing: “He did not make a single false move in the entire voyage!” says the geographer Professor Nunn. He maintains that Columbus must have been the discoverer of the Trade and prevailing Westerly Winds since it was only by taking fullest advantage of both that his journey was possible—yet his subsequent voyages show that Columbus knew nothing about the wind system. (See George E. Nunn, The Geographical Conceptions of Columbus, New York: American Geographical Society, 1924.) This was not Columbus’ doing. Neither was the flight of birds that appeared just in time to keep the ships from turning back, nor the sudden rising of the sea that at another time inspired the expedition to continue. Call it what you will, Columbus was convinced he was being helped.
“Finally a day came when he was forced to give the whole fleet his solemn word that he would turn back within two days if land was not discovered—and on the morning of the second day land was discovered. About eight or nine hours before the discovery, at sunset on October 11, Columbus gave a strange and sudden order for a marked change of course. ‘Why he did this, nobody explained,’ writes Professor Morison, a very sober historian and a nautical expert. (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 223.) But he assures us that if he had not done it, the great discovery of October 12, 1492, would have been a tragic discovery of deadly reefs that lay but a short distance dead ahead of the little fleet on its original course….’No man alive,’ says Morison, speaking as a mariner, ‘limited to the instruments and means at Columbus’s disposal, could obtain anything near the accuracy of his results.’ (Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 195.)
Columbus and the Hand of God
“I could sense [God’s] hand upon me,” wrote Columbus, “so that it became clear to me that it was feasible to navigate from here to the Indies, and he gave me the will to do it” (Raccolta, pt. I, vol. ii, p. 79.). Regarding Columbus’ feeling of guidance by the hand of God, professor of history at BYU De Lamar Jensen said:
“Perhaps nothing irked his contemporaries more than Columbus’s frank assertion that he was divinely chosen. ‘God made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which He spoke in the Apocalypse of St. John after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah,’ Columbus wrote to a friend and confidant of the queen, ‘and he showed me where to find it.’ (Columbus to Doña Juana de la Torre, Raccolta di documenti e studi pubblicati della R. Commissione Colombiana, pt. I, vol. ii; I Scriti di Cristoforo Colombo, ed. Cesare de Lollis (Rome: 1894), p. 66.)
“…Columbus was convinced that the key to his enterprise was the spiritual gifts given him by the Lord: ‘He bestowed the arts of seamanship upon me in abundance, and has given me what was necessary from [astronomy], geometry, and arithmetic; and has given me adequate inventiveness in my soul.’ Columbus was certain that God provided these gifts to be used in His service, ‘encouraging me to go forward, and without ceasing they inflame me with a sense of great urgency.’ (Ibid., p. 79. also see Columbus and the Hand of God By De Lamar Jensen, Emeritus professor of history at BYU, Ensign Magazine, October 1992)
God Gave Me the Spirit and Intelligence for It
From chapter 18 of Clark B. Hinckley’s book, he summarizes Christopher Columbus’ life this way:
“Finally, what emerges from Columbus’s words as we have them in his letters, journals, and other documents is a man of deep and abiding faith. His piety was not a hollow set of daily rituals or outward appearances; his faith in God was the foundation of all he did, it was the driver of his life, and it sustained him through disappointment, rejection, and deep discouragement. He was ‘longsuffering in the challenges and adversity that always beset him, which were incredible and infinite, always with great faith in the divine Providence’ (Las Casas, Historia, 1:44). His faith begat hope that enabled him to do what others deemed impossible. He prayed with faith and received answers through faith: ‘I prayed to the most merciful Lord concerning my desire, and he gave me the spirit and the intelligence for it’ (West and Kling, Libro, 105).”
Columbus as a Forerunner to Christ like John the Baptist
Historian and biographer Felipe Fernandez-Armesto observed that Columbus, “saw himself, like that other hero of his, John the Baptist, as ‘a man sent from God.’”(Columbus on Himself, 156.) Columbus saw himself in a similar role as the forerunner of Jesus Christ to help pave the way for our Savior’s second coming. Christopher Columbus expert Delano West observed, “John the Baptist was . . . the messenger of the New Testament. He paved the way for Christ’s mission during the First Advent as Columbus would pave the way for the Second Advent.”(West and Kling, Libro, 73) Washington Irving, in his landmark biography of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, observed that Columbus “considered his great discovery but as a preparatory dispensation of Providence.” (Irving, Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, 57)
Why Columbus Matters: The Protestant Revolution
Columbus historian Clark B. Hinckley notes:
“When Columbus’s little storm-battered ship floated into Lisbon in March 1493, it was as if someone had struck a match in dry tinder. The news spread across Europe with remarkable speed, and as old ideas faded, a new landscape—not just geographical but intellectual, artistic, and spiritual—emerged. …Not only did Columbus unlock the gates of the Ocean Sea but his accomplishments were a decisive factor in unlocking the intellectual and spiritual darkness that had encompassed Europe for centuries and was just beginning to fade. An awakening of the human spirit would be felt across Europe and manifest in many ways. In 1517, Martin Luther would publish his ninety-five theses, daring to speak out against corruption in Rome and forcing reforms in the Church. Luther would later translate the Bible into German, a work that would have an enormous effect on German culture. Luther’s work would be followed by William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in 1525, the publication of which would change not only English history but the English language. …With new protestant churches in Germany and England, the Reformation would become the Protestant revolution.” (Christopher Columbus: A Man among Gentiles, Chapter 17, Why Columbus Matters)
It all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said
One of the most remarkable aspects of Christopher Columbus’s life and character is the degree to which he understood his God-given mission, divine protection, and place in history. Said Columbus:
“The Lord purposed that there should be something clearly miraculous in this matter of the voyage to the Indies . . . I spent seven years here in your royal court discussing this subject with the leading persons in all the learned arts, and their conclusion was that all was in vain. That was the end, and they gave it up. But afterwards it all turned out just as our redeemer Jesus Christ had said, and as he had spoken earlier by the mouth of his holy prophets.” (West and Kling, Libro, 107)