Several years ago, I saw some beautiful artwork depicting the twelve Nephite disciples. It struck me at the time that there are probably, in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon plates, the gospels of Timothy, Jonas, Mathoni, and others of the Nephite Twelve. As much as I love the “fifth gospel” contained in Third Nephi, I developed a deep yearning to read the words of the disciples whom Jesus ordained and commissioned among the Nephites. Most of us can probably name the majority of the biblical apostles of Jesus, but very few of us Latter-day Saints could name the apostles of the new world.
The information we have about them is sparse. We learn their names in the narrative of Third Nephi, when Jesus appeared to the Nephites the second time. Their names were Nephi, Timothy, Jonas, Mathoni, Mathonihah, Kumen, Kumenonhi, Jeremiah, Shemnon, Jonas, Zedekiah, and Isaiah. Among them, there were a number of brothers, which testifies of the power of families when it comes to faith. Nephi and Timothy were brothers. So were Mathonihah and Kumen (See 3 Nephi 19:4).
These were men of great faith. Nephi, we learn, had raised his brother from the dead. Take a moment and recall the early chapters of Third Nephi. That particular book shows the pattern in which we are living now. Secret combinations had threatened the freedom of the people. There was much wickedness and war was becoming all too frequent. There were dissenters (apostates) who lost their faith and then went among the Lamanites to stir up contention and persecution against those they once called “brother” and “sister.” Their government collapsed and the people formed up into tribes of partisans. Wickedness and violence were rampant. Then came the destruction at the time of the Savior’s crucifixion and the months of recovery that followed. These were men who came through that challenging period with their faith intact.
Some have questioned how there could be twelve apostles in Jerusalem and twelve in the Americas. Wouldn’t that make 24 apostles? It is important that we understand the differences in the nature of the callings of the Jerusalem Twelve and the Nephite Twelve. To Peter and his brethren, Jesus conferred the keys of the kingdom, which included the sealing authority (Matthew 16:19). Like our modern-day Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Jerusalem Twelve had the penultimate authority bestowed upon them. They presided over the Church in all of the world. Their commission was to go to all nations preaching the gospel. Their calling was also special in that they shall act as judges over the tribes of Israel in the last judgment. We read in Matthew 19:28:
“And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Scope of authority was different
Of the Nephite Twelve, the scope of their authority was different from, and subordinate to that of the Jerusalem Twelve:
1 And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words unto Nephi, and to those who had been called, (now the number of them who had been called, and received power and authority to baptize, was twelve) and behold, he stretched forth his hand unto the multitude, and cried unto them, saying: Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants; and unto them I have given power that they may baptize you with water; and after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost; therefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am.
2 And again, more blessed are they who shall believe in your words because that ye shall testify that ye have seen me, and that ye know that I am. Yea, blessed are they who shall believe in your words, and come down into the depths of humility and be baptized, for they shall be visited with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins (3 Nephi 12:1-2).
The Nephite Twelve were give authority to preside over the Nephite saints and perform gospel ordinances like baptism, confirmation, and the sacrament for them. They would also act as judges over them. We might think of them as twelve judges in Israel, a title by which we refer to our stake presidents and bishops.
27 And know ye that ye shall be judges of this people, according to the judgment which I shall give unto you, which shall be just. Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am (3 Nephi 27:27).
25 And now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words he looked upon the twelve whom he had chosen, and said unto them: Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, ye are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people… (3 Nephi 13:25).
In this capacity, they performed an important role in regulating and building up the Nephite Church after a period of apostasy and destruction.
Devote their lives to preaching the gospel
The Nephite Twelve were called upon to forsake worldly concerns and to devote their lives to preaching the gospel. As he did with the Jerusalem Twelve, the Lord made them special promises regarding their material needs as they served in their callings.
They were men who were filled with the Spirit. They were visionary men, seers, and revelators.
17 And it came to pass that the disciples whom Jesus had chosen began from that time forth to baptize and to teach as many as did come unto them; and as many as were baptized in the name of Jesus were filled with the Holy Ghost.
18 And many of them saw and heard unspeakable things, which are not lawful to be written (3 Nephi 26:17-18).
Acting as a Priesthood Council
The Nephite Twelve acted as a priesthood council, resolving disputes like the one that arose over the name of the Church.
1 And it came to pass that as the disciples of Jesus were journeying and were preaching the things which they had both heard and seen, and were baptizing in the name of Jesus, it came to pass that the disciples were gathered together and were united in mighty prayer and fasting.
2 And Jesus again showed himself unto them, for they were praying unto the Father in His name; and Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and said unto them: What will ye that I shall give unto you?
3 And they said unto him: Lord, we will that thou wouldst tell us the name whereby we shall call this church; for there are disputations among the people concerning this matter. (3 Nephi 27:1-3).
As mentioned earlier, they were very likely authors of scripture and their own gospels, as they were commanded by the Savior to do so.
23 Write the things which ye have seen and heard, save it be those which are forbidden…
24 Write the works of this people, which shall be, even as hath been written, of that which hath been.
25 For behold, out of the books which have been written, and which shall be written, shall this people be judged, for by them shall their works be known unto men.
26 And behold, all things are written by the Father; therefore out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged.
We most often think of the Three Nephites, whose names we do not know. Mormon knew their names, but was forbidden to write them. They had ministered unto him and Moroni long after their mortal counterparts had died. Nephi recounts the marvelous moment when Jesus, like He had with his friends the Jerusalem Twelve, offered them their greatest dreams.
6 And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me.
7 Therefore, more blessed are ye, for ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven.
8 And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father.
9 And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. (3 Nephi 28:6-9)
When we finally get the opportunity to read of the ministries of the Nephite Twelve, it will be marvelous and inspiring. We get just a hint of their experiences from Mormon, who wrote:
18 But this much I know, according to the record which hath been given—they did go forth upon the face of the land, and did minister unto all the people, uniting as many to the church as would believe in their preaching; baptizing them, and as many as were baptized did receive the Holy Ghost.
19 And they were cast into prison by them who did not belong to the church. And the prisons could not hold them, for they were rent in twain.
20 And they were cast down into the earth; but they did smite the earth with the word of God, insomuch that by his power they were delivered out of the depths of the earth; and therefore they could not dig pits sufficient to hold them.
21 And thrice they were cast into a furnace and received no harm.
22 And twice were they cast into a den of wild beasts; and behold they did play with the beasts as a child with a suckling lamb, and received no harm.
23 And it came to pass that thus they did go forth among all the people of Nephi, and did preach the gospel of Christ unto all people upon the face of the land; and they were converted unto the Lord, and were united unto the church of Christ, and thus the people of that generation were blessed, according to the word of Jesus. (3 Nephi 28:18-23)
Converted an entire people
In their lifetimes, the Nephite Twelve converted their entire people to the gospel and organized them into the United Order, wherein the members of the Church shared all property in common. Their ministries established nearly two centuries in which there was peace, justice, and equity among the people. In Fourth Nephi, we learn that the Three Nephites were still at work in their ministries over 200 years later, even as their people rejected the gospel and fell away. One false church that denied the Christ persecuted the believers and attempted unsuccessfully to kill the Three Nephites (4 Nephi 1:29-31). Then we learn the tantalizing truth that the Three Nephites who remained on earth in a translated state are among us still.
24 And now I, Mormon, make an end of speaking concerning these things for a time.
25 Behold, I was about to write the names of those who were never to taste of death, but the Lord forbade; therefore I write them not, for they are hid from the world.
26 But behold, I have seen them, and they have ministered unto me.
27 And behold they will be among the Gentiles, and the Gentiles shall know them not.
28 They will also be among the Jews, and the Jews shall know them not.
29 And it shall come to pass, when the Lord seeth fit in his wisdom that they shall minister unto all the scattered tribes of Israel, and unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, and shall bring out of them unto Jesus many souls, that their desire may be fulfilled, and also because of the convincing power of God which is in them.
30 And they are as the angels of God, and if they shall pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus they can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.
31 Therefore, great and marvelous works shall be wrought by them, before the great and coming day when all people must surely stand before the judgment-seat of Christ;
32 Yea even among the Gentiles shall there be a great and marvelous work wrought by them, before that judgment day (3 Nephi 28:1-9, 18-32).
After the first century of the Nephite golden era had finished, other disciples were ordained in their stead to watch over and lead the Church until the fourth generation fell away and rejected the gospel (See 4 Nephi 1:14). As wickedness expanded, the Three Nephites ministry became less public. Nevertheless, they did visit and strengthen Mormon and Moroni as they endured the hellish scenes of the Nephites’ last days.
10 And there are none that do know the true God save it be the disciples of Jesus, who did tarry in the land until the wickedness of the people was so great that the Lord would not suffer them to remain with the people; and whether they be upon the face of the land no man knoweth.
11 But behold, my father and I have seen them, and they have ministered unto us.
In a 1978 Ensign article, we find that the Three Nephites were among the messengers who appeared to and instructed the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Elder Orson Pratt, in a personal letter to John Christensen of Brigham City, testified:
“The prophet often received visits from Nephi, Moroni, Peter, James, John (the beloved), John (the Baptist), Elijah, Moses, the three Nephites, etc. etc.” (See Book of Mormon Personalities Known by Joseph Smith).
To conclude, the Nephite Twelve were apostolic witnesses of Jesus Christ, who ministered among their people and did marvelous works in the name of their Master, saving thousands of souls. Their calling and authority differed from the Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem, but they did a marvelous work and a wonder in their own way. Their works are recorded in scripture yet to be revealed. What a wonderful blessing it will be to be able to study their words and experiences when the Lord deems to bring forth those texts! And how cool is is that there are three of them still out there—today!