Digging in Cumorah
by Mark D. Thomas

Chapter 5
Lehi’s Dream and Nephi’s Visions:
The American Apocalypse 

[p.99]A woman in labour is in pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish in her joy that a child has been born into the world.

John 16:21 (REB)

Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions present a narrative that is a literary reworking of a dream. Bruce W. Jorgensen, a professor of English at Brigham Young University, has recognized that, in addition to allegory, this dream narrative contains the central figures of salvation in the Book of Mormon. It would therefore be’ difficult to overstate the importance of this dream narrative in interpreting the Book of Mormon as a whole.

The dream and the visions are written in a literary form called an apocalypse. In this chapter I will define it and its use in the Book of Mormon. The apocalyptic literary form and apocalyptic language found in Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions also appear in Daniel, Revelation, and 2 Esdras in the Apocrypha. Characteristically, it presents a panoramic, prophetic vision of history, in contrast to the warning prophet form (chap. 2) which focuses on one particular historical setting. Because Lehi’s dream is the only detailed apocalyptic dream in the Book of Mormon, it is not possible to identify formulaic plots or elements, but its closest literary relative is the allegory of the wild and tame olive tree (Jac. 5). Like Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions, Jacob 5 pre-[p.100]sents a panorama of history down to the end of the world as an allegory, but not as an apocalypse. 

The American Apocalypse

Apocalypse and apocalyptic are currently used in a variety of ways in literature, art, theology, and politics. Some writers use these terms to describe a cataclysmic end of the world. Others understand them as the art produced when a world view or culture is dying, as in the case of the visions of Black Elk, the Native American visionary. Klaus Koch, a biblical scholar who strictly limits these phrases to their original Near Eastern definitions, admits that any definition of “apocalyptic” is subjective.l But definitions are not so much true or false as they are useful or not useful.

The apocalyptic form (as I will use the term) is a religious and literary tradition that flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. in Judaism and Christianity.2 Apocalyptic writings during this period consisted of revelations in the form of narratives in which an otherworldly being discloses a transcendent reality which contains an eschatological salvation.3 Up to 200 B.C.E, writings of various prophets were added to the prophetic literature. After that time, the canon began to solidify, as many faithful Jews believed that prophecy had ceased. To gain acceptance for their views, apocalyptic authors typically wrote under the pseudonyms of former prophets like Ezra, Moses, Enoch, or Isaiah. Bernhard Anderson refers to apocalyptic as “prophecy in a new idiom.”4

Certainly there were apocalyptic elements in earlier prophetic writings. For instance, Isaiah 24 describes God’s judgment day: the earth is convulsed, the moon grows pale, and the sun hides its face. Such cataclysmic events are typical in the apocalyptic. But the apocalyptic literary form followed by the Book of Mormon cannot be found in literature before about 200 B.C.E, according to the standard treatments on development of the form. Mormons, and any others who date Lehi’s dream to the time of Zedekiah, will take this as evidence that the apocalyptic tradition is much older than the works at our disposal would lead us to believe. Those who consider the Book of Mormon a product of Joseph Smith will consider the use of this form an anachronism. In either case, Lehi’s dream is clearly in the tradition of the historical apocalypse.

The “historical” apocalyptic form used in the Book of Mormon [p.101]contains, according to Koch, “speculation which-often in allegorical form … aims to interpret the course of history and to reveal the end of the world.”5 Standard works on the subject refer to apocalyptic both as a set of ideas and as a literary tradition. The concept that apocalyptic writings constitute a literary form is a point debated by scholars, due to the great variety in the form. Thus, although I refer to the literary form of historical apocalypse, I recognize that it manifests significant variations and is disputed by some.

Authors of historical apocalyptic works claim that God revealed to them the imminent end of the world in a dream or vision-often as a series of dreams or visions. The recipient of the dreams or visions typically prays for an interpretation. An angel often appears to interpret the dreams or visions as a historical allegory. This allegorical panorama is either from the time of the supposed author to the end of the world or from the creation to the end. The writer records the interpretation, then hides the book from the eyes of the pseudonymous author’s generation to come forth near the time when the real author lived.

In historical apocalypse, the present contains no cause for optimism. According to D. S. Russell’s descriptions, the writer’s society is corrupt, evil prospers, and the righteous are powerless. But God will send the Messiah to wage the final war between good and evil, resulting in evil’s destruction. A new age begins. It might last for forty, four hundred, or, in the case of the Christian millennium, a thousand years. Apocalyptic writings are dramas of cosmic dualism. The contrast is “white versus black, light versus darkness, good versus evil, God versus Satan.”6

The apocalyptic imagery is often grotesque. Monsters sport many heads and horns. Rocks bleed. The moon is turned to blood. These unnatural images reflect psychic disorientation, a fertile imagination, and the influence of dreams. It is impossible to distinguish how much of the apocalyptic narratives was visual experience and how much was literary reworking. The only full-length apocalyptic works in the Bible are 2 Esdras, Daniel, and Revelation, although dozens of noncanonical apocalyptic works have survived. The apocalyptic tradition is an extension of prophetic literature7 with major theological changes and with possible influences from Persian (and perhaps Babylonian) religion. The apocalyptic writers saw themselves as the successors and the interpreters of the prophetic tradition. They quoted extensively from, modified, inter-[p.102]preted, and freely reinterpreted the prophetic literature, creating a literary form tradition that was alive until the time of Joseph Smith. Almost certainly the historical apocalyptic form has had continued influence due to the fact that the canonized scripture contained apocalyptic works.

This historical apocalyptic form is precisely that which is followed in Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision. In his dream Lehi finds himself in a dark wilderness. A man in white appears, whom Lehi follows for many hours. After praying, he sees a field and a tree. The fruit of the tree is sweeter than anything he has tasted and whiter than anything he has seen. A river runs past the tree. He looks up and sees the “fountain” or “head” of the river, or in other words, the spring or source of the river. His family is standing at the head, not knowing where to go. He calls them to join him at the tree. Except for the rebellious Laman and Lemuel, they do. Because these sons refuse to come to the tree, he fears that they will not be saved. Lehi sees a field near the river’s head in which all the people of the world are standing. Running from the river’s head to the tree is an iron rod. Many people try to reach the tree but, confused by a mist of darkness, release their hold on the rod, fall, and drown; others, however, successfully cling to the rod, arrive at the tree, and eat its fruit. Some of them then notice on the other side of the river a large building floating in the air. In this wonderfully bizarre image for evil, well-dressed people scoff at those who partake of the fruit. Those who pay attention to the scoffers feel shame and wander from the tree. The dream and the visions are filled with apocalyptic dualism-God vs. Satan, light vs. darkness, good vs. evil.

Upon waking, Lehi relates this dream to his family and prophesies about the future of the Jews. When Nephi desires to understand his father’s dream, he prays for an interpretation. An angel appears to him, and through a series of visions, interprets the dream on both a temporal and a spiritual level. In the temporal interpretation, the dream is an allegory of the history from Nephi’s time to the end of the world. In the spiritual interpretation, various objects represent the love of God, the word of God, the pride of the world, and so forth. The angel explains that the world will end just after the Book of Mormon appears in the last days.

Nephi’s vision thus has the characteristics of the historical apocalyptic literary form: an angel gives an allegorical interpretation of a dream, ex-[p.103]plaining history from the narrator’s time to the end of the world. A possible exceptional element involves the claimed authorship of the Book of Mormon, depending on whether one believes it to be pseudonymous or not. But even the book of Revelation was written in the name of a John of Patmos, and not that of an ancient Jewish prophet.

One might wish to argue that the use of the apocalyptic form in the Book of Mormon is coincidental, but there is overwhelming evidence that this use is purposeful. Nephi actually sees John the Revelator in one of his visions and explicitly defers his account of how the world ends to the book of Revelation (1 Ne. 14:25-30). Furthermore, apocalyptic phraseology and quotations appear in Nephi’s account. Each of his sequential visions is introduced with formulas that also reflect the wording of the apocalyptic visions of 2 Esdras and Revelation: “I looked,” “I saw,” or I looked and beheld.” Symbols and phrases from Revelation also appear in the American apocalypse: the symbolic use of white for purity, “the whore upon many waters,” “the mother of harlots,” “garments made white in the blood of the Lamb,” etc. These phrases are too specific to be accidental. In addition, the tree of life beside a river is an archetypal symbol in widespread use in apocalyptic, nineteenth-century literature in many cultures as well as in both Revelation and the Book of Mormon.8 A tree seems to be a natural way to symbolize life, regeneration, the lost Eden, or the transition from the lower to the upper world. Jorgensen has argued that the tree of life is the master symbol of the Book of Mormon because all individual and social histories can be plotted in the narrative of Lehi’s dream; it points, in short, to religious redemption.9 Trees can symbolize a number of concepts, including the lost paradise, regeneration, or the passageway from the mundane to the spiritual world. The path is another common religious symbol for righteousness and discipleship, while loss of sight is a common symbol for evil.

While the Book of Mormon uses the apocalyptic form, its symbolism is not nearly as bizarre as that in many apocalypses, even though it is unnatural and dream-like. The setting seems to be realistic and pastoral, yet a large building floats in the air and an iron rod leads to a tree with fruit of an unearthly whiteness. These unnatural qualities represent both the strangeness of a dream and the spiritual features of the referents of the symbols. Take, for example, the floating building, a provocative image. The unreality of a floating building represents an evil, “un-[p.104]natural” state of spiritual being. It plays off and contrasts with several biblical passages in which the righteous are portrayed as building upon a solid foundation that will not fall (Matt. 7:25; Luke 6:48; Eph. 2:20; Isa. 28:16). It is high in the air and filled with well-dressed people, representing evil as both powerful and vulnerable to collapse, both intimidating and unreal.

Besides acting as a spiritualized symbol for evil, it also, in its allegorical sense, refers to the wicked in various ages. They are high in the air, without foundation, and will fall (1 Ne. 11:35-36, 12:18-19). The shame that those eating the fruit feel when the well-dressed people in the building mock them indicates a sense of social compensation in the symbolisma higher social class ridiculing a lower. In fact, the symbols generally are provocative dream symbols with all the interest of dream symbolism. In the Book of Mormon, we find dream symbolism interpreted as spiritual maps and as historical allegories. The Book of Mormon uses both allegory and spiritual symbolism to build a world. 

Temporal and Spiritual Meanings 

Between Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision occurs an important narrator commentary connecting the dream both to the broader narrative and to the readers’ circumstances. This commentary not only defends the visionary experience, but recommends it as a source of knowledge for all. Nephi desires to see what his father has seen in his dream justifying his desire for revelation by his faith that God manifests himself in every age, “For he is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever” (1 Ne. 10: 17-18/ /Heb. 13:8).10

Nephi later interprets Lehi’s dream for his brothers, explaining that it contains representations “of things both temporal and spiritual” (1 Ne. 15). Nephi notes this dichotomy in terms of the river in Lehi’s dream, the “awful gulf’ of hell separating the wicked and the righteous. Nephi’s brothers ask whether this hell refers to “torment of the body” in mortality or “torment of the soul” after death. He tells them that the spiritual interpretation is the suffering in hell after the Judgment (1 Ne. 15:26-36). 1 Nephi 12:15-16 gives the temporal interpretation of the river: “And it came to pass that I looked, and beheld the people of my seed gathered together in multitudes against the seed of my brethren; and they were gathered together to battle. And the angel spake unto me, saying: Behold the fountain of filthy water which thy father saw; [p.105]yea, even the river of which he spake; and the depths thereof, are the depths of hell … ”

The angel gives the allegorical interpretation of each element of the dream by juxtaposing the historical event and its dream symbol. Therefore, the temporal interpretation of the river (or “fountain of filthy water”) is the destruction of the Nephites. This is just one example of how the Book of Mormon uses a two-tiered level of interpretation.

1 Nephi 15 is extremely important in interpreting Lehi’s dream. On the spiritual level, the tree in Lehi’s dream represents the “love of God” and the tree of life (1 Ne. 11:21-25, 15:22), the mists of darkness are “the temptations of the devil, which blindeth the eyes” (1 Ne. 12: 17; 15:24/ /2 Pet. 2:17), the iron rod is the word of God that leads us through the mists of darkness to the tree (1 Ne. 11:25, 15:23-24), the great and spacious building is the pride, “the wisdom of the world,” and the “vain imaginations, and the pride of the children of men” (1 Ne. 11:35-36, 12:18), and the river is “the fountain of filthy water … and the depths thereof are the depths of hell” separating the wicked from the righteous (1 Ne. 12:16-18, 15:27-29). I will argue that this river and fountain are the same natural feature which is called “the fountain of living waters … which waters are a representation of the love of God” (1 Ne. 11:25). In short, the dream narrative, on a spiritual level, is a kind of map of the universal aspects of the spiritual world. The symbols are filled with a moral dualism. They address a message of consolation to the socially outcast, a message important not only to Lehi, the rejected prophet, but also for Book of Mormon readers including the nineteenth-century visionaries and the socially disinherited.

The spiritual interpretation underscores life as a process of progression toward completion. The characters begin at the fountainhead and must choose a path (1 Ne. 8:20, 12:17/ /Matt. 7: 13-14). But the path to salvation is dangerous, obscured by evil and temptation. Appearances are deceptive; the spacious building has no foundation and will collapse, despite the easy confidence of its elegantly dressed people. Pride is the arch-sin in the Book of Mormon as it was in Protestantism generally. Pollok called pride the “fountain-head of evil.”11 Protestants tended to see sin less as specific acts, and more as pride which separated one from God and led to specific sins. On the other hand, Catholics after the Council of Trent (1545-63) typically defined evil as specific acts. The dream suggests that only divine aid can lead us safely to fulfillment.

[p.106]The temporal interpretation construes Lehi’s vision as a historical allegory. When Nephi prays for an interpretation of his father’s dream, the angel presents a series of visions from the time of Christ to the end of the world, each with the typical apocalyptic introduction: “I beheld,” “I looked and beheld,” and so forth. Each of the first few visions responds specifically to an element in Lehi’s dream. The tree is juxtaposed to the coming of the Son of God (1 Ne. 11:9-23). The life of Jesus is juxtaposed to the iron rod (1 Ne. 11:24-25). The iron rod, which spiritually represents the word of God, allegorically may refer to scripture and revelation (1 Ne. 15:24-25); but on the temporal level, the life of Christ is presented as the Word of God (/ / John 1: 1). Thus there is a subtle verbal connection between the spiritual and temporal meanings in the case of the iron rod.

In Nephi’s description of the vision, the white-fruited tree is associated with a fountain of water, as though the two are twin symbols, which both represent the love of God: “I beheld that the rod of iron which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God” (1 Ne. 11:25/ /Jer. 2:13; John 4:10-11; Rev. 7:17, 21:6).

This reference to a fountain or source of the river presents the most problematic image in the dream. I believe that there are three ways of understanding this fountain-as a second fountain, as a dead metaphor, or as another reference to the first fountain. First, some scholars interpret this fountain as a second fountain-a spring under the tree, as distinguished from the spring which is the source of the river.12 This interpretation is plausible, but in the end unconvincing, as we shall see.

On the face of it, the passage cited above seems to refer to the river in Lehi’s dream connected to the tree by the iron rod. The original dream contains three related images that are in close physical proximity and grouped together in the text. These are the water, the rod of iron, and the tree (1 Ne. 8:19-20). The verse cited above simply presents that same cluster of three and adds an interpretation (1 Ne. 11:12-31). Lehi mentions no second river or fountain. This set of images in Lehi’s dream gives the first suggestion that the water and the fountain mentioned in Chapter 11 are not a second fountain, but just Nephi’s interpretation of the first one. This fits the general interpretive structure of [p.107]Nephi’s visions as simple repetitions and interpretations of all Lehi’s dream imagery. In no part of Lehi’s dream is a second fountain mentioned. Nephi clearly asks to see and understand what his father saw (1 Ne. 11:3-6). Every other image within the dream is mentioned two or more times in Nephi’s vision; he embellishes and comments in detail on these features. Such expansions and evaluations are obviously part of the purpose of Nephi’s interpretive visions. To propose a second spring based on this one verse would require us to place an image in Lehi’s dream that Nephi treats differently than all of the other images. To posit a second fountain is not only unnecessary but also out of character with the rest of the narrative. The wording of the narrative likewise supports the theory that there is only one fountain. In Lehi’s dream the iron rod “led by the head of the fountain,” and in Nephi’s vision it “led to the fountain of living waters” (1 Ne. 8:20, 11:25). This verbal echo strongly suggests that Nephi’s fountain is the same as Lehi’s. In summary, the general structure of Nephi’s vision as an interpretive repetition of Lehi’s images, the similar clustering of the three images, and the verbal parallels all support the conclusion that there is only one fountain in both Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s vision.

The problem with this interpretation is that Nephi later refers to the depths of the fountain and the river as the depths of hell, while the verse in question refers to the fountain of living water as a biblical image of God (1 Ne. 12:16-17). How can we see the same fountain as both good and evil? If the fountain represents both, it contradicts the moral dualism of the dream in which good is always separate from evil. I would argue that this dual meaning, with the same fountain representing both good and evil, is possible because the river already represents both good and evil. Nephi’s vision interprets the river as both the depths of hell and the justice of God (1 Ne. 12:16-18). Hence the river, ironically, already mixes both good and evil.

The second way of understanding the fountain mentioned in this verse is as a dead or mixed metaphor. The passage could be interpreted as saying that the tree is the source (“fountain”) of God’s love, meaning that God is the fountain or the source of good. So is the tree of life. Hence, both tree and fountain represent God, who is the source (“fountain”) of all good. Evidence in favor of this interpretation is that the fountain is used as a dead metaphor for “source” elsewhere in the Book [p.108]of Mormon (1 Ne. 2:9). Yet as dream/vision objects, the fountain is clearly separate from the tree as indicated by the use of also in the text: “I beheld that iron rod … which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God” (1 Ne. 11:25). For this reason, this interpretation of the mixed or dead metaphor must be rejected.

If this narrative refers to only one fountain, then Nephi’s vision reinterprets the fountain and its significance. Nephi states that his father neglected to see the filthiness of the water; perhaps Lehi intended the river as an image of righteousness, but Nephi reinterpreted it later in his vision. “And I said unto them, that the water which my father saw, was filthiness; and so much was his mind swallowed up in other things, that he beheld not the filthiness of the water” (1 Ne. 15:27). Brent L. Metcalfe has already demonstrated that the Book of Mormon is an organic text that changes in the course of its narration.13 Thus it is more likely that Nephi reinterprets his father than it is to posit a second fountain.

The mists of darkness in a temporal interpretation are the thick darkness that obscured the land of promise just before Christ’s visit to the Nephites (1 Ne. 12:1-6/ /3 Ne. 8:19-23). In the same chapter, the wickedness of the Nephites and Lamanites and the final destruction of the Nephites are juxtaposed to all of the symbols of evil: the water, the building, and the mist of darkness.

Some of the symbols in Lehi’s dream are given more than one temporal meaning in Nephi’s vision. The large and spacious building is clearly related to the account of those who war “against the apostles of the Lamb” (1 Ne. 11:34-35/ /Rev. 19:19, 21:14). Hence, the literal interpretation of the building is the historical destruction of primitive Christianity and the resultant apostasy. But various phrases quoting from or alluding to the books of Revelation and Matthew (1 Ne. 11:36/ / Matt. 7:27; Rev. 18:1-3, 14:6) suggest that the building’s prophesied collapse (predicted but not realized in either the dream or the vision) may represent the “world” in every age. In addition, Nephi hints that the latter-day great and abominable church may be this great building that lacks a foundation (1 Ne. 22: 14). Corbin Volluz argues persuasively for reading 1 Nephi 12:18-19’s description of both the mists of darkness and the building as a representation of the destruction of the Nephites by the Lamanites.14

[p.109]My analysis excludes many more biblical allusions and interpretive details; my discussion is not intended as a thorough exegesis, but rather as an introduction to, and overview of, the rhetorical features of the two-tiered method of interpretation. As we have seen, the symbols in Lehi’s dream are universalized by the spiritual interpretation and allegorized by the temporal interpretation. Apocalyptic literature has served a variety of purposes; but the main function of the Book of Mormon’s American apocalypse is to pour hope and righteousness into the midst of despair by offering the book itself as a figure of redemption in the evil age before the end.

Apocalypticism goes beyond descriptive history to convey expressive and symbolic representations of a world. It seeks to build or sustain transcendent values while the world is collapsing. Its value lies not in its predictive powers, but in its diagnostic abilities. IS Hence we should not judge Lehi’s dream by its historical accuracy but by its ability to present the sweet and desirable fruit to those under the yoke of the powerful and sophisticated of the “world.” The use of the apocalyptic form helps create a dualistic world for the reader who lives near the end of time. When prophets predict that the world is coming to an end, they are usually, in some sense, correct. A world is in fact ending. New Testament literary scholar Amos Wilder has stated that “the metaphor of the Apocalypse is our best model for viewing our contemporary human condition. It alone gives us a large and flexible mythic form that is grand enough to allow a full expression of our agonies and aspirations … responsive to the major cataclysms of twentieth-century life and death.”16 I anticipate that the form will be even more pertinent in the opening stages of the twenty-first century. 

Excursus 5.1
Millennialism in the Early Nineteenth Century 

To fully appreciate Lehi’s dream, we must have some understanding of the latter-day audience to which it is addressed. The earliest use of the Book of Mormon was primarily eschatological,17 Joseph Smith employed apocalyptic vocabulary and allusions that his original followers would have found readily comprehensible.

Robert Girouard has summarized the literary features of apocalyptic visions recorded in the late eighteenth century in America.18 According to his schema, like ancient apocalypses, they are typically pseudonymous. [p.1l0]The recipient has a dream from which (usually) he or she awakens to recount the narrative. A spirit or a patriarchal figure summons the visionary and shows him a vista of symbolic happenings and people. The spirit or figure interprets the vision as an allegory, often with political overtones. The language is strongly influenced by the King James version of the Bible. America is portrayed as a chosen place in which the New Jerusalem is to be established. Hence, many of the major features of ancient apocalypticism had survived into Joseph Smith’s day.

By examining the similarities and differences between the Book of Mormon and early nineteenth-century apocalypticism, I believe we are in a better position to interpret Lehi’s dream. The symbolism of the tree of life by a river and evil as a mist both derive from the Bible and were therefore familiar to the original modern audience of the Book of Mormon (Rev. 22; 2 Pet. 2: 17) In an 1823 sermon in Brookfield, New York, Lorenzo Dow stated that the tree by the river in Revelation 22 was generally considered to be Christ. 19 The juxtaposition of the tree to the birth of Christ in Nephi’s vision appeals to this general understanding.

The image of the tree of life standing in a mist of darkness is a symbol found in religious literature from many ages. It was adapted by nineteenth-century authors in poetry, songs, and other writings.20 Two nineteenth-century visions of the tree of life suggest how 1830s readers would have understood this dream. The first is the vision of Aaron Lummus. Lummus had a vision at night in which he saw a light brighter than the sun at noon, then a field, a tree within the field, a prostrate youth by the tree, and two birds. He interpreted the light as the glory of God, the field as the field of the gospel, and the tree as the tree of life from the book of Revelation. 

In Lehi’s dream the field represents the world. The tree of life is interpreted spiritually as the love of God and temporally as Christ. Nephi interprets the tree as the “tree of life” (1 Ne. 11:25, 15:21-22). If Dow and Lummus are representative, the 1830s reader of the Book of Mormon would have interpreted Lehi’s tree as the tree of life from the book of Revelation, which (as we have seen) was understood as a representation of Christ.  

The second tree of life vision of interest is Joseph Smith Sr.’s 1811 dream in which, according to his wife’s account of it, he saw a tree beside a stream, with a rope extending beside the stream. He could see neither the mouth nor the source of the stream. The fruit of the tree [p.111]was white and delicious beyond description. He sought his family to have them also partake. Across the stream was a large building filled with people who scorned those under the tree.21 

Lucy Mack Smith, by recording this dream in her history more than a decade after the Book of Mormon was published, thus registered her belief that God could give her husband a dream similar to Nephi’s. There is no good reason to doubt that Joseph Smith Sr. actually had such a dream. According to Jungian psychiatrist Jess Groesbeck, who has investigated the dream in the context of the life of Joseph Smith Sr., it matches the Smiths’ social rejection and economic failures. Certainly the dream contains a strong compensatory element. 

The publication of the Book of Mormon may have influenced Lucy Mack Smith’s memory of the details her husband recounted; but the real interest in comparing the dreams of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lehi lies in the differences between them. The dream of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lehi’s dream up to 1 Nephi 8:19 reflect what we would expect in a dreama symbolic portrayal of personal fears and desires. But Lehi’s dream shifts in 1 Nephi 8:20 from a personal expression to a symbolic portrayal of the world, a different focus from the dream of Joseph Smith Sr. In verse 20, Lehi describes a field “as if it had been a world” and numberless concourses of people. What began as a private psychological experience has suddenly become a piece of public literature. Lehi’s dream is a dream gone public, its symbols universalized into both a spiritual map and a temporal allegory. 

Historical apocalypse addresses an audience that stands at the end of history. According to historian Ernest R. Sandeen, “America in the early nineteenth century was drunk on the millennium.”22 Sandeen suggests that this increased interest in millennialism stemmed from the erosion of the social order in the American republic and the uncertainty generated by industrial and social revolution.23 America was often seen by the original audience of the Book of Mormon, not only as a sign of the Millennium, but also as an agent to bring it about. For example, both Jonathan Edwards and Lyman Beecher believed that American revivals were helping bring the Millennium. After the 1770s, a number of American prophets, preachers, and eccentric religious groups saw America as the location of the New Jerusalem,24 a theme prominent in eighteenth-century apocalyptic. The majority of nine-[p.112]teenth-century millennialists saw the book of Revelation as encoded history from the incarnation (or sometime earlier) to the end of time.25 Thus the Book of Mormon meets some of the expectations an 1830s audience would have of a scriptural apocalypse, because the American apocalyptic tradition served as a preparation for the Book of Mormon. 

Apocalypticism, by rejecting the evils of the present time, expresses a longing for its destruction. Hence, in his classic study of apocalypticism, D. S. Russell has stated that ancient apocalypticism is essentially literature of the oppressed. However, John J. Collins has demonstrated that apocalypticism was actually much more versatile in its purposes than in providing only consolation for the oppressed. Certainly, nineteenth-century millennialism was diverse enough to appeal to both the well-to-do and the oppressed, and millennialism took different forms for different social groups. 

Basically two major views had developed by the eighteenth century: Pre-millennialism and post-millennialism. According to pre-millennialists, the end-time schedule called for Christ to appear, for divine cataclysmic action to suddenly destroy the existing evil order, and for a thousand years of peace to ensue because only the righteous would survive. Post-millennialists, in contrast, believed that human effort would bring about gradual improvements until a utopian millennium ensued. This perfected people would, after a thousand years of peace, welcome the second coming of Christ. Post-millennialism became more and more popular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as the coming of Christ became equated with the doctrine of progress. In the early nineteenth century, evangelicals were increasing their support for a post-rnillennial view, probably because they tended to emphasize the need for human action as a means for divine deliverance.26 Pre-millennialists tended to be literalists, while post-rnillennialists tended to spiritualize the events of the end as the influence of the Spirit over people. Pre-millennialists tended to believe in two judgments and two resurrections (one for the righteous and one for the wicked).27 Pre-millennialism was generally revolutionary by nature. Post-millennialism was generally utopian. 

Historian Ruth Bloch has published an excellent and comprehensive analysis of millennial publications in America from the last decades of the eighteenth century up to 1800 in her Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756·1800 (Cambridge, Eng.: Cam-[p.113]bridge University Press, 1985). Bloch gives us an excellent analysis of millennial views prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon. After examining her work in some detail, I will give some examples showing the continuation of these millennial traditions up to 1830. 

According to Bloch, prior to the 1790s, some works mixed elements of both pre-millennialism and post-millennialism; however, after that point, they became two distinct perspectives, both theologically and socially. Pre-millennialism became a revolt against the established and scholarly clerical elite of most Calvinist Congregationalists who, as postmillennialists, looked for social perfection prior to the Millennium. Pre-millennialists tended to be more passive, to rely on the miraculous, to withdraw socially, and to emphasize judgment prior to the Millennium.28 

She also documents an enormous variety of millennial writings during this period. Some works emphasized the hope of a new world, while others pointed to the terror of divine judgment. Some were calls to action, while others expressed futility in the face of overwhelming evil but hope in waiting for miraculous intervention. Some works were social criticism, still others works of optimistic patriotism.29 

Bloch documents three types of literary traditions that used the Millennium as a theme during this period: exegetical, prophetic, and political. Exegetical works were scholarly attempts to interpret the obscure symbolism from apocryphal Enoch, Daniel, and Revelation. In these treatments the Jews were either converted or returned to their homelands. The Turks, representing Islam, and the pope or Catholicism figured as various evil characters. The Antichrist was identified with numerous figures in the early nineteenth century, including Jefferson, Napoleon, and the nation of Turkey.30 

Identifying the papacy as the Antichrist was the oldest and least controversial feature of Protestant millennial thought.31 Ethan Smith announced in 1814 that most Protestants labeled the Catholic hierarchy as the Antichrist.32 And if Catholicism was not identified as the Antichrist, it was often cast in some other demonic role. Ethan Smith believed that Catholicism was not the Antichrist, but rather the second beast, the mother of harlots, Babylon the Great, and the mother of abominations in Revelation.33 Adam Clarke and Elias Smith add that the Catholic church was “almost universally” considered the fulfillment of certain eschatological passages in Revelation and other sections of [p.114]the New Testament.34 These references to Catholicism were so commonplace that the 1823 Evangelical Witness could refer to “the beast” or “the mother of harlots” with no further explanation; the audience understood that it was a reference to Catholicism. 

Catholicism was also commonly seen as the whore upon waters, the mother of harlots, or some other apocalyptic figure. In late eighteenth-century New England, 5 November was Pope Day, when the pope and the devil were burned in effigy. As late as the end of the eighteenth century, seven out of thirteen states banned Catholics from public office. Anti-Catholic eschatologies increased with the large Catholic immigrations in the 1820s and 1830s. A good deal more could be said about anti-Catholicism in this period. Torture, tyranny, immorality, superstition, and greed were all associated with the Catholic church by a wide spectrum of Protestant publications in the early nineteenth century. 

Intolerance was not narrow in its targets. Jonathan Edwards included the Anglican church and other religious movements as the Antichrist.35 Some Baptists in the 1770s declared that all of the ecclesiastical establishment was the Antichrist. In the 1790s Simon Hough and David Austin included Protestantism as part of the Antichrist.36 In the early nineteenth century, Ethan Smith declared that the apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible against Catholicism were representative of all false religion.37 

Marvin Hill and Dan Vogel, LDS scholars of the early nineteenth-century Primitivist and Seeker movements, have identified strong feelings in both movements that existing churches were corrupt. Primitivists sought for a renewal of the Christianity of the New Testament and for a rejection of postbiblical creeds. Seekers withdrew from existing churches and awaited a restoration of God’s ancient church and authority.38 Hill cites the reported vision of Asa Wild in the 23 October 1823 Wayne (New York) Sentinel, in which God reportedly told Wild that the Millennium was near, that all the churches were corrupt and constituted the New Testament Babylon, and that the angel mentioned in Revelation 14 was about to come with the everlasting gospel to those of inferior class and small learning. This example and others fall under Bloch’s category of exegetical writings concerning the end of the world. The second tradition Bloch identified is the prophetic.39 It also contained an exegesis of biblical texts. In 1756 Presbyterian David Imrie supplied both an exegesis and prophecy to interpret biblical passages. [p.115]He believed that the Bible could describe apocalyptic events, but that only the spirit of prophecy could give the timing of the event. 

Other apocalyptic/prophetic literature of the period strayed farther from a biblical base. One work published in Philadelphia in 1760 purported to be an ancient Latin manuscript predicting latter-day events. In 1761 a New York prophet delivered an apocalyptic message given to him by an angel. In the 1790s A Remarkable Prophecy was published, a “Hebrew” text inlaid in gold and purportedly buried in France 600 years earlier. It predicted the French revolution, European wars, and the establishment of the Millennium in 1800.40 Richard Brothers, an English prophet with a large following, had visions that convinced him he was destined to gather the Jews. His book, Revealed Knowledge, was a best seller in America, going through seven American editions in 1795 alone.41 

Prophetic works on the Millennium continued into the nineteenth century. Daniel Hawley, a Presbyterian schoolteacher in New York State, published a book of revelations about the end of the world in 1818. Not an apocalypse, it merges prophetic and exegetical traditions. It begins with biblical-style language and versification: 

1. The testimony of Daniel, whose sire-name is Hawley, containing many infallible proofs of the prophetic doctrine
2. And of the testimony, divinity, and doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ … 

Hawley reported several visions, among them one of God’s glory “exceeding the shining sun’s light.” God had commissioned him to speak to the nations to establish peace and command their cooperation in allowing Hawley to return the Jews to the Holy Land. He also defended the Bible against atheists, transmitting God’s promise: “I your Almighty God of nations, with the Lord your Mediator and Redeemer, will renew with you the ancient covenant which I made with your fathers, and blot out your iniquities, and no more visit you for the iniquities of your fathers.”42 

Hawley identifies the pope and Catholics as the second beast of Revelation 13, arising out of the earth, because Rome controls European nations.43 The “little horn” (Dan. 7:1-8:21) is the exalted power of France, while the Ottoman empire is in power for a time and a half, as prophesied by Daniel (12:7). He identifies the seven heads and ten [p.116]horns in Revelation 12-17 as various historical kingdoms. Those who follow his biblical teachings will be “like celestial trees of life planted in heavenly habitations by streams of living water,” probably an allusion to the tree of life in Revelation 22:2.44 Hawley, a pre-millennialist, believed that the Christ would return in 1863. His work is a representative example of prophetic pre-millennialism.45 

A post-millennialist contrast is Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a Congregational minister in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1810s. He published two sermons under the joint title Signs of the Times in 1816, arguing that each age has its own spiritual omens. The signs of our times, he states, are not wars and rumors of war or earthquakes, but cooperation among religions, greater tolerance, the emergence of moral societies, revivals of religion, and the conversion of the heathen. These signs point to a gradual and steady improvement of the world, indicating that his age was the greatest in the history of the world. He exhorts his hearers to heed these signs and join in improving the world.  

Palmer considers that his optimistic views are based on observation and solid, rational deductions in contrast to the “visionary enthusiasm” of the prophetic pre-millennial works of his time. Like Channing, he contrasts his own “rational” (in this case optimistic postmillennialist) views to prophetic pre-millennialism. 

Bloch’s third major millennial tradition is the political. In the 1750s writers saw earthquakes and the French and Indian wars as the fulfillment of prophecy.46 By the 1770s millennial authors were combining British tyranny and Catholicism as the Antichrist, while America was God’s agent in bringing the Millennium to pass and the American revolution was commonly seen in apocalyptic terms.47 A decade later in the 1780s, the Revolutionary War had become the basis for the future kingdom of God.48 During that same decade, however, popular millennialism became less political and more spiritualized, supplanted by scriptural exegesis until the French revolution in the 1790s once again seized the apocalyptic imagination as an extension of the American revolution in a battle against tyranny and popery.49 

I am not aware of any work to date as comprehensive as Bloch’s covering the first third of the nineteenth century, but a number of authors, like Hawley and Palmer, continued to interpret political events as fulfillment of prophecy. The 16 February 1825 edition of the Wayne Sentinel commented [p.117]on popular interest in Revelation: “Everyone looked for some ingenious application of the revelations to the peculiar situation in the present century,” while Ethan Smith, Robert Pollok, and the Evangelical Witness saw the European wars of the early nineteenth century as fulfilling Matthew 24. 

The Book of Mormon includes the discovery of America, the American revolution, and “wars and rumors of wars” among its prophecies of the latter days, both among the Nephites and Lamanites and also in the latter days, perhaps indicating an understanding of the meaning of the prophecy of Jesus concerning “wars and rumors of wars” (1 Ne. 14:16-17/ /Matt. 24:6). Because 1 Nephi 14:16-17 dates the wars as beginning before God fulfilled his covenants with Israel (including the gathering of Israel and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon), the 1830s audience could understand them as already past. 1 Nephi 14 also specifies that these wars would occur among nations formerly under the control of the “mother of harlots” (meaning Catholicism) or the great and abominable church, which controls nations, seeks wealth, martyrs the saints, and corrupts the Bible (1 Ne. 13:1-9, 26-33). This definition of the great Antichrist is later expanded to include all false religions (1 Ne. 14:10-11). However; although the timetable and location in Nephi’s vision match the European wars prior to 1830, Nephi’s vision also states that the “fight against the Lamb of God” would be “among all the nations of the Gentiles” (1 Ne. 14:13-15). Either the readers of the Book of Mormon expected a universal war to grow out of the European wars or understood “all the nations of the Gentiles” to refer only to wars among European nations. In either case, these prophecies on war would have been seen as a prelude to the appearance of the Book of Mormon, alluded to in verse 17, when God would prepare “the way” for fulfilling his covenant with the House of Israel.  

The Book of Mormon is pre-millennialist and prophetic, both characteristics that reinforce its counter-cultural nature, in contrast to the more socially established post-millennialists. Its exegetical and political interests are subtle but can be found in numerous allusions to apocalyptic sections of the Bible and to American history in Nephi’s visions, including the American revolution (1 Ne. 13). Thus the Book of Mormon contains elements of all three of Bloch’s categories, but the prophetic clearly dominates.

 As with the entire migration narrative of Lehi, this dream/vision nar-[p.118]rative defends and explores the prophetic world view. (See chap. 2.) The dream consoles a prophet rejected by the wel1-dressed world, compensating for public shame and appealing to readers, like Lehi, who had been scorned by the world. We might think that the prophetic pre-millennialism of Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions would limit its appeal to a narrow audience. On the contrary, the strength of that appeal has been astonishing and lasting, in part, I believe, because it used a biblical apocalyptic literary form. 

The allegorical interpretation of Lehi’s dream places the reader in a critical historical moment between the coming of Christ and the end of the world. This allegory tells the latter-day audience, both of the 1830s and of the present, where they spiritually came from and why. The most remarkable feature about the Book of Mormon is its method of promised deliverance. In the last days the Antichrist is not a historical personage like Napoleon or George III, nor is it a political institution. The Book of Mormon identifies first early Catholicism and then all established religion itself as the Antichrist (1 Ne. 13:6-29, 14: 10-17). The latter days, a time of despair under the control of the great and abominable church, become a time of deliverance from the oppression of this church and the ignorance it causes. Thus the first apocalyptic message in Lehi’s dream and Nephi’s visions is a message of hope for those who experience history as dominated by evil forces. The saints of God are few but powerful. God is on their side. 

The main agent of deliverance prior to the coming of Christ (which is hardly mentioned) is the Book of Mormon and subsequent scriptures. Hence, the dominant figure of Lehi’s and Nephi’s millennialism is not a redeemer figure or a religious movement. It is a book. The latter-day despair caused by evil is due to the lack of knowledge and authority. Because of that lack, the world is enslaved by false religion. God promises to unleash his wrath in war upon the great and abominable church but also offers a strong moral challenge to those who receive this book: 

For the time cometh, saith the Lamb of God, that I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men; a work which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand or the other; either to the convincing them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds, unto their being brought down unto captivity, and also unto destruction (1 Ne. 14:7). 


1. Klaus Koch, The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic (London: S. C. M. Press, 1972), 20-22. 

2. Biblical scholars see apocalypses as one of the important bridges between the Old and New Testaments. The influence of apocalyptic writings can be seen throughout the New Testament. Some scholars see early Christianity as essentially an apocalyptic sect. Recently, a minority of New Testament scholars has argued that the apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually later editorial additions. My personal view is that at least some of the apocalyptic messages in the gospels reflect the historical Jesus.  

3. John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York: Crossroads, 1984), 4, 31.

4. Bernhard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 579.

5. Koch, The Rediscovery of Apocalyptic, 33.

6. D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 16-17.

7. A major exception to this scholarly consensus is Von Rad who sees apocalypses as a kind of wisdom literature.

8. Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, trans. by Philip Mairet (New York: Harper, 1960), 18-20, 59-72, 99-122; Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964); Carl G. Jung, Psychology and Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1938); Carl G. Jung and M. L. von Franz, eds., Man and His Symbols (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 62-106; Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 89-93; John Welch, The Narrative of Zosimus and the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1979).

9. Bruce W. Jorgensen, “Dark Way to the Tree: Typological Unity in the Book of Mormon,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, edited by Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 217-31.

10. For a discussion of the nineteenth-century context in which this biblical proof text was used, see Mark D. Thomas, “A Mosaic for a Religious Counterculture,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 29 (Winter 1996): 256-60.

11. Robert Pollok, The Course in Time (Boston: Crocker Brewster, 1828), 34-36. Seven editions of this work were published in the United States in 1828.

12. Corbin T. Volluz, “Lehi’s Dream of the Tree of Life: Springboard to Prophecy,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2 (Fall 1993): 14-38; Welch, The Narrative of Zosimus.

[p.120]13. Brent Lee Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993),395-444.

14. Volluz; “Lehi’s Dream of the Tree of Life,” 23.

15. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 214-15; Bernard Brandon Scott, “After the Future: From Mad Max to the Destruction of the Temple,” Forum 8 (Sept.-Dec. 1992).

16. Amos Wilder, “The Rhetoric of Ancient and Modern Apocalyptic,” Interpretation 25 (1971).

17. Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 60.

18. Girouard, “A Survey of Apocryphal Visions,” 191-95.

19. According to David Marks, Dow disagreed with this consensus, believing that the tree was the church and that the fruit represented the graces and virtues of the Christian. David Marks, Life of David Marks (Limerick, ME, 1831), 151; see also Brown, A Brief View of the Figures, 281-82.

20. Seth Young Wells, Millennial Praises [hymnal] (Hancock, MA: Talcott, 1813), 131-32; Pollok, The Course in Time [poetry].

21. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, edited by Preston Nibley (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 48-50.

22. Ernest R. Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennialism, 1830-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 42.

23. Ibid.; Edwin S. Gaustad; ed., The Rise of Adventism: Religion and Society in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 104-17.

24. Dan Vogel, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 192-94; Ruth Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 74, 165-68.

25. James H. Moorehead, “Between Progress and Apocalypse: A Reassessment of Millennialism in American Thought, 1800-1880,” Journal of American History 71 (Dec. 1984): 532, 537-38.

26. Harrison, The Second Coming, 6-7; Timothy P. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming (Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1979), 13-14.

27. Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, 1-10.

28. Bloch, 131.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid., 4445; see also Ray Allen Billington, The Protestant Crusade: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism (New York: Macmillan, 1938).

32. Ethan Smith, A Dissertation on the Prophecies Relative to Anti-christ and the Last Times (Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong, 1814).

[p.121]33. Smith, A Dissertation on the Prophecies.

34. Clarke, The Holy Bible … With a Commentary and Critical Notes, under Rev. 17:9; Ethan Smith, A Dissertation on the Prophecies, 100-103.

35. Bloch, Visionary Republic, 19.

36. Ibid., 138-42.

37. Smith, A Dissertation on the Prophecies.

38. Marvin Hill, “The Role of Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830-1844,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1968; Marvin Hill, “The Shaping of the Mormon Mind in New England and New York,” BYU Studies 9 (Spring 1969); Vogel, Religious Seekers.

39. Bloch, Visionary Republic, 23-78.

40. Ibid., 162.

41. Ibid., 163-66; Harrison, The Second Coming; 57-85.

42. Daniel Hawley, Hawley’s Millennium (New York: Forman, 1818), 21.

43. Ibid., 38.

44. Ibid., 11-12.

45. For other prophetic millennialists, see Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism, 21-23; John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 57- 58, 61, 95-104, 129-46, 184.

46. Bloch, Visionary Republic, 33ff.

47. Ibid., 74, 92.

48. Ibid., 94.

49. Ibid., 101.