The narrative in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints surrounding Christopher Columbus can be confusing. Some Church leaders and scholars have taught that the Book of Mormon references Columbus in 1 Nephi chapter 13 when it says, “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.”
During emeritus professor Arnold K. Garr’s first year teaching at BYU, he was asked by the dean of religion to write a book about Latter-day Saints’ perspective of Christopher Columbus.
Garr accepted the task because despite what he called “secular historian attacks” on Christopher Columbus, he believed Columbus to be an inspired man and a fulfillment of the Book of Mormon prophecy in 1 Nephi 13. He published the book “Christopher Columbus: A Latter-day Saint Perspective” in 1992 — the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Bahamian islands.
Garr quoted Church prophets and apostles in his book, such as President Brigham Young who stated “The Almighty moved upon Columbus,” and Elder Mark E. Peterson who said, “It was Christopher Columbus whom he (Nephi) saw, and he observed that the discoverer was guided by divine power on his journey.”
BYU professor Roni Jo Draper said she believes if that interpretation feels right and good to the reader, they have every right to continue believing it, but if it makes the reader uneasy, it isn’t the only possible interpretation. That particular verse has much more room for interpretation than many care to think, she said.
“I’m very leery of that being suggested as being the official Mormon declaration of how I’m supposed to feel about Columbus because I’m LDS,” Draper said. “I joined the Church when I was 19. It’s my choice to be a member of the Church. It’s not my choice to be indigenous. I was born into that; that’s who I am. I don’t get to choose not to be indigenous.”
Draper said she does not feel she needs to accept the narrative that the scripture prophesies of Columbus, but that she chooses to continue faithfully studying. She wants her Church membership and her indigeneity to live peacefully together. “I practice my faith in ways that have been powerful to me, and I can be an indigenous person in a way that honors my indigeneity,” she said.
“When I’m reading scripture, sacred text, I am also in communion with the Divine and I may come to different conclusions,” Draper said. “When I read, ‘a land is being prepared,’ I can imagine indigenous people preparing the land. And I can think of great waters. My tribe is on a great water right now. I don’t think that should be ignored. I just want to open up that possibility.”
Draper said she feels that opening up the scriptures for non-Eurocentric interpretations paves the way for Church members to more openly discuss the problems of our day. “I also want to open up space for conversation within the Church to be able to talk about racism,” Draper said. While she has received backlash for recent efforts to open up such a conversation and change narratives that perhaps exclude or offend minorities, she said she has words that she cannot keep quiet.
“White supremacy surrounds me every day, and I want to be able to have conversations about that. I want us to be able to talk about how those views of white supremacy keep us from being able to realize the second commandment that Christ gave us to love one another,” Draper said.
Draper said that despite being told that not everything is about race, for people of color it is about race a lot more often than some might think.
“For white people, not everything is about race; hardly anything is about race. For people who aren’t white, a lot of things are about race,” she said. “There’s no way that we can fully engage in the kind of charity that Christ described if we’re not willing to have conversations that wipe out white supremacy amongst us.”