“I Knew That It Was the Spirit of the Lord”

Brant Gardner

Redaction: This part of the conversation appears to duplicate the opening exchange (vv. 2–3). Either the Spirit was urging Nephi to plumb the depths of his real desires or the repetition is a device that Nephi uses to emphasize the next development. In any case, Nephi responds with a more specific desire: not just to see what his father saw but to understand it.

Scripture: There are two opinions about the identity of the Spirit who introduces the vision to Nephi. One opinion is that it is the spirit person of Christ, and the other is that it was the spirit person of the Holy Ghost.

Bruce R. McConkie expressed the first view in 1966:

To gain a sound gospel understanding, the truth seeker must determine in each scriptural passage what is meant by such titles as Spirit, Holy Spirit, Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, Spirit of truth. In many instances this is not difficult; in some cases, however, abbreviated scriptural accounts leave so much room for doubt that nothing short of direct revelation can identify precisely what is meant. We know, for instance, that the Spirit personage who appeared to the Brother of Jared was the Spirit Christ, for he so identified himself (Ether 3). But when we read the account of the appearance of “the Spirit of the Lord” to Nephi (1 Ne. 11), we are left to our own interpretive powers to determine whether the messenger is the Spirit Christ or the Holy Ghost. Presumptively it is the Spirit Christ ministering to Nephi much as he did to the Brother of Jared, for such is in keeping with the principle of advocacy, intercession, and mediation, the principle that all personal appearances of Deity to man since the fall of Adam, excepting appearances of the Father and the Son together, have been appearances of Christ.

However, in other writings, Bruce R. McConkie understands the title Spirit of the Lord to mean the Holy Ghost. While the title is most often associated with the Spirit of the Lord, Elder McConkie apparently believed that the circumstances of Nephi’s vision were sufficiently exceptional to interpret the Spirit of the Lord as, in this case, the spirit person of Jesus Christ before his birth.

The opposite interpretation was espoused by James E. Talmage in 1890:

That the Spirit of the Lord is capable of manifesting Himself in the form and figure of man, is indicated by the wonderful interview between the Spirit and Nephi, in which He revealed Himself to the prophet, questioned him concerning his desires and belief, instructed him in the things of God, speaking face to face with the man. “I spake unto him,” says Nephi, “as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another.”

B. H. Roberts, after quoting Talmage, commented in a 1912 work:

Elder Orson Pratt refers to the same passage in 1850, and makes the following comment: “Whether this Spirit that Nephi saw ‘in the form or a man’ was the person of the Holy Spirit, or the personal Spirit of Jesus, which, about six hundred years afterwards took upon himself flesh, is not definitely stated. The brother of Jared, some two thousand years before Christ, saw the personal Spirit of Christ, which was in the form of a man. Nephi might have seen the same; but we are rather inclined to believe from the context, that he saw the personage of the Holy Spirit; if so, this establishes, beyond doubt, the personality of the Holy Spirit.

Sidney B. Sperry examined all occurrences of the phrase “spirit of the Lord” and concludes: “In not a single passage where it occurs can there be shown a clear-cut example favoring the interpretation that it represents the pre-existent Christ instead of the Holy Ghost.”

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1