Freeways, Parking Lots, and Ice Cream Stands : The Three Nephites in Contemporary Society
Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought
Wilson briefly reviews the previous literature on the Three Nephite folklore, than tells how he got interested and what he has discovered. Earlier, Austin Fife and Hector Lee had concluded that the number of Nephite accounts was diminishing, but when Wilson began his work in the 1960s he found that they were alive and flourishing. He also tested Lee's hypothesis that there were no new stories surfacing--that the basic stories were left over from the pioneer era. Wilson found, however, that many new stories related events of the recent past. He now has some 850 stories he has collected since he began a folklore class at BYU in 1969. Dating the origin of the stories is, of course, difficult, and Wilson cites examples of old stories cast in a modern environment. But over half the events described in his collection are believed by the tellers to have happened in modern times. The stories speak to us of the present as well as the past, and are not mere survivals from an earlier, nonrational nonscientific way of thinking. Thus by looking at the Nephite accounts and the dominant themes contains in them, we should be able to discover the issues of central importantce at any one time to the Church and to individual Church members. A few of the issues revealed in the stories concern world political events--wars, etc. However, most relate to personal problems of individual Mormons, and can be grouped in three broad categories: (1) those having to do with genealogy and temple work; (2) those having to do with missionary work, and (3) those in which the Nephites come to solve personal and sometimes desperate needs of individuals--to save them from physical or spiritual danger. (This category also subsumes the other two). The stories also show that contemporary Mormon society is not remarkably different from that of the past--the concerns are the same, only worked out in modern contexts. The Nephite still protect people from danger, fix broken axles (on cars instead of wagons), comfort mourners, clarify gospel teachings, and encourage devotion to duty. But their spiritual advice now speaks to the children of the modern age. With reference to central inssues in the Church, the Nephite stores show us that the main concerns of the Church are also the main concerns of individual members--living lives worthy to go to the temple, etc. They also provide believers with a sense of security in an unsure world and, more importantly, give evidence of a personal, loving, caring God. Also, despite differences in dress and appearance, the Nephites always come in love and compassion. Wilson projects that the Nephite stories, like other parts of the large Mormon body of supernatural lore, will continue to grow.