SHIELDS header banner /w logo

42 Question List


Question 18
Who Appeared to Joseph, Moroni or Nephi?

Why do The Times and the Seasons, Millennial Star, and Lucy Mack Smith's biography on Joseph all agree that the angel who appeared to Joseph Smith in 1823 was named Nephi?

Response: by Malin Jacobs

The only reason the critics had to ask this question was that they were sloppy researchers.  Also, in their zeal to convict Joseph Smith of something that turns out to be insignificant, they overlooked the more serious question, which is discussed below.

The angel was erroneously called Nephi in the 1839 manuscript History.1  When the Times and Seasons (T&S) printed Joseph Smith’s history in serial form,2 it copied the name Nephi from this history.  The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (Star) later reprinted this serialized history.3  Lucy Mack Smith’s biography of Joseph Smith also copied the account from the T&S.4  It is therefore only to be expected that all three publications would state that the angel was named Nephi.  This is not a case of three independent witnesses "agreeing" that the angel was called Nephi, but a single case of the name Nephi being associated with the angel, and this name then being printed in the T&S from which it was copied into the other publications.

An examination of the above listed publications demonstrates the sloppy nature of the research of the critic who originally framed this question.  It also demonstrates the same sloppy approach taken by other critics who, instead of checking the original sources, simply crib from the works of their fellow critics.  At the beginning of each installment of Joseph Smith’s History, the Star clearly stated that it was copying the history from the T&S.5  Also, Lucy Mack Smith’s biography gave the source of this information as the T&S.6  It is difficult to believe that the critics took the time to scour these early LDS publications for this bit of trivia and yet failed to see the answer to the question staring them right in the face in the very sections of the publications they were searching.

So the "agreement" between these publications in naming the angel who visited Joseph Smith on the night of September 21, 1823 as Nephi, is meaningless.  Strictly speaking, the answer to the posed question ends here.  However, this answer raises a more serious question which needs to be addressed: How did the name Nephi get into the 1839 History in the first place.  This was the history of Joseph Smith, which eventually became the beginning of the History of the Church and, if anyone knew the name of the angel, it should have been Joseph Smith.

There are at least two possible answers to this question.  Both are not only simple, but adequate.  If a critic refuses to consider either of these possibilities to be reasonable, the problem is with him, not with LDS history.

1. Joseph Smith may have simply made a mistake in his dictation to his scribe, James Mulholland.  According to both Joseph Smith and other early church leaders, he was visited by angels in addition to Moroni.7  Nephi8 and Alma9 are among those specifically mentioned.  In a letter to John Wentworth of the Chicago Democrat, Joseph Smith stated:

The angel appeared to me three times the same night and unfolded the same things.  After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22nd of September, A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands.10

I have five children, including three sons.  Much to his irritation, I occasionally refer to my youngest son, Scott, by his next older brother’s name, Todd.  While I usually immediately correct this error, Scott sometimes beats me to the punch, and corrects me.  The point is that, despite the fact that I know that Scott is not Todd, I occasionally mistakenly call him Todd.  Anyone who has ever made this kind of mistake should have no difficulty understanding how Joseph Smith might have said Nephi when he meant to say Moroni.

2. Alternatively, Brother Mulholland may have inserted the name Nephi not from Joseph Smith’s dictation, but from his own or someone else’s confused memory of the name of the angel.  Orson Pratt noted that

"the discrepancy in the history . . . may have occurred through the ignorance or carelessness of the historian or transcriber.  It is true, that the history reads as though the Prophet himself was writing: but . . . many events recorded were written by his scribes who undoubtedly trusted too much to their memories, and the items probably were not sufficiently scanned by Bro. Joseph before they got into print." 11

The angel was identified as Moroni long before the 1839 History was written.  In 1835, Oliver Cowdery identified the angel:

. . . and I believe that the angel Moroni, whose words I have been rehearsing, who communicated the knowledge of the records of the Nephites, in this age . . .12

The 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants also identifies the angel:

Behold this is wisdom in me: wherefore marvel not for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni, whom I have sent unto you to reveal the book of Mormon . . .13

Prior to the writing of the 1839 History, Joseph Smith himself identified the angel in print:

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.14

The error in the 1839 History becomes a non-issue–one of the many insignificant errors that crop up in any human record-keeping effort.

Earliest known discussion: Orson Pratt, letter to John Christensen, 11 March, 1876.


1. Deane C. Jesse, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume I (Salt Lake City, Utah, Corporation of the President, 1989): 277.

2. The "History of Joseph Smith" began in Volume III, No. 10 (March 13, 1842).  The reference to Nephi appearing to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823, is in Volume III, No. 12 (April 15, 1842) on p. 753.

3. The "History of Joseph Smith" began in the June, 1842 issue (Vol. III, No. 2).  The reference to Nephi appearing on September 21, 1823, appears in the August, 1842, issue (Vol. III, No. 4) on p. 53.

4. Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith and his Progenitors for many Generations (Liverpool, England, 1853): 79.

5. See, for example, The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Volume III, No. 4 (August, 1842): 53.

6. Lucy Smith, op. cit., p. 81.

7. Many references to visitations by angels other than Moroni appear in the Journal of Discourses (hereafter referred to as JD).

8. For references to visitations by Nephi see John Taylor in JD 17:374; 21:161-64; George Q. Cannon in JD 13:47; Brigham Young, letter dated April 24, 1866, to his son, Brigham Young, Jr., and Orson Pratt, letter dated March 11, 1876 to John Christensen.  The relevant text from both of these letters are given in Deane C. Jesse, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith, Volume I (Salt Lake City, Utah, Corporation of the President, 1989): 277, footnote 1.

9. At least one visitation by Alma is referred to by George Q. Cannon. See JD 13:47.

10. HC 4:537; emphasis added.

11. Ibid. Orson Pratt to John Christensen.

12. Oliver Cowdery, Letter VI, Latter Day Saint’s Messenger And Advocate 1:112 (April, 1835).

13. Doctrine and Covenants, 1835 ed., Section 50:2 (Section 27:5 in current edition).

14. Elders Journal 1, pp. 42-3 (July 1838).