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Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
Author: Wilson, William A.
LDS stories of the Three Nephites comprise one of the most striking religious legend cycles in the United States. Bearing some resemblance to stories of the prophet Elijah in Jewish lore, or of the Christian saints in the Catholic tradition, Three Nephite accounts are nevertheless distinctly Mormon. Part of a much larger body of LDS traditional narratives (see Folklore), these stories are not official doctrine and are not published in official literature. They are based on the Book of Mormon account of Christ's granting to three Nephite disciples, during his visit to the New World following his death and resurrection, the same wish he had earlier granted to John the Beloved-to "tarry in the flesh" in order to bring souls to him until his second coming (John 21:22; 3 Ne. 28:4-9). The Book of Mormon account states: "And they [the Three Nephites] are as the angels of God, and…can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good. Therefore, great and marvelous works shall be wrought by them, before the great and coming day [of judgment]" (3 Ne. 28:30-31; see also Book of Mormon: Third Nephi).
As the newly founded Church grew in numbers, an ever-increasing body of stories began circulating among the people, telling of kindly old men, usually thought to be these ancient Nephite disciples, who had appeared to individuals in physical or spiritual distress, helped them solve their problems, and then suddenly disappeared.
Because they span a century and a half of LDS history, these narratives mirror well the changing physical and social environments in which Latter-day Saints have met their tests of faith. For example, in pre-World War II agrarian society, the stories told of Nephites' guiding pioneer trains to water holes, saving a rancher from a blizzard, providing herbal remedies for illnesses, plowing a farmer's field so that he could attend to Church duties, or delivering food to starving missionaries. In the contemporary world, the stories tell of Nephites' leading LDS genealogists to difficult library resources, pulling a young man from a lake after a canoeing accident and administering artificial respiration, stopping to fix a widow's furnace, guiding motorists lost in blizzards, comforting a woman who has lost her husband and daughter in an airplane crash, and pulling missionaries from a flaming freeway crash.
Even though the settings of the newer stories have moved from pioneer villages with a country road winding past to urban settings with freeways sounding noisily in the background, some circumstances have remained constant. In the stories, the Three Nephites continue to bless people and, in telling these stories, Latter-day Saints continue to testify to the validity of Church teachings and to encourage obedience to them. The stories continue to provide the faithful with a sense of security in an unsure world, persuading them that just as God helped righteous pioneers overcome a hostile physical world, so will he help the faithful endure the evils of urban society. Taken as a whole, then, the stories continue to provide understanding of the hearts and minds of Latter-day Saints and of the beliefs that move them to action.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry, William A. Wilson.
Lee, Hector. The Three Nephites: The Substance and Significance of the Legend in Folklore. University of New Mexico Publication in Language and Literature, no. 2. Albuquerque, N.M., 1949.
Wilson, William A. "Freeways, Parking Lots, and Ice Cream Stands: The Three Nephites in Contemporary Society." Dialogue 21 (Fall 1988):13-26.
Some leaders of the church have professed that the 3 Nephites are real and still among us such as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said:
LDS Guide to the Scriptures
Three of Christ's chosen Nephite disciples referred to in the Book of Mormon.
The Lord granted to these disciples the same blessing granted to John the Beloved—that they might stay on the earth to bring souls to Christ until the Lord comes again. They were translated so that they would feel no pain and would not die (3 Ne. 28).
Book of Mormon Seminary Manual
The following is from the 2012 LDS seminary manual for youth:
Avoid speculation about the Three Nephites.
Many have heard stories about supposed visits of the Three Nephites. Rather than share these stories, teach what is taught in the scriptures. Remember Mormon's statement that the Three Nephites would be among the Gentiles and Jews, who would "know them not" (3 Nephi 28:27–28). Refrain from discussing stories or other information that is not found in Church-approved sources.
Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manuals
In Chapter 46: "3 Nephi 27–30," Book of Mormon Teacher Manual, (2009), pp. 170–73, The church teaches that "many of the stories people hear about the Three Nephites are probably untrue":
Point out that the Savior told the Three Nephites that they would be among the Jews and Gentiles, who would not know them (see 3 Nephi 28:25–30). Therefore, many of the stories people hear about the Three Nephites are probably untrue. Also explain that the phrase "ye shall never endure the pains of death" (verse 8) is often misunderstood to mean that the Three Nephites would never die. As Paul taught, "in Adam all die" (1 Corinthians 15:22). This refers to everyone, including translated beings. However, translated beings pass through death very quickly and then become resurrected beings. They do not experience the separation of the body from the spirit for any appreciable length of time, as most of us will experience. This change will happen in what the scriptures call "the twinkling of an eye" (verse 8). In this sense, they do not "taste of death" (verse 7).
In Lesson 42: "This Is My Gospel," Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual, (1999), p. 185, it says:
Note: Stories often circulate about the three Nephites who were translated. Members of the Church should be careful about accepting or retelling these stories. You should not discuss them in class.
Not much is said these days about the Three Nephites. It seems to be mostly relegated to the first 100 years of the church. However stories of the Three Nephites continue to appear by members claiming they have interacted with them. It's exciting to think that there may actually be three immortal beings roaming the earth today helping people.
We have to wonder why some people would merit having these immortal beings appear and help them change a tire and others are ignored in their time of need.
However, when you compare the Three Nephite stories to other urban legends such as the vanishing hitchhiker, the stories are identical. The Mormon versions just now add an LDS component, such as the "hitchhiker" warning the member that they need to make sure they have their year supply of food storage. If the myriad of non-LDS stories of strange visitors are just urban legends, then so too are the Three Nephite stories.
Podcast on the Three Nephites: Mormon Expression episode 42
The Three Nephites and Other Translated Beings by Bruce E. Dana
About the Three Nephites by Douglas & Jewel Beardall