angels on the trail
The Three Nephites & the Gadianton Robbers

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"For 150 years these holy men, the devout believed, have roamed the towns, villages, and isolated settlements of this intermountain state; there’s scarcely a locale that has not been touched in some way by the Three Nephites with their bone white feet, their long flowing white hair and beards. They travel singly by most accounts, arriving unseen, unbidden, often seeking a meal or simply a place to stay the night. They come on foot, usually, less often by a rickety cart pulled by an ancient nag. They cure the sick, bring prosperity to the poor. The host who shelters a Nephite never learns his true identity until after he has left. After the stranger vanishes, leaving no earthly trace whatsoever, the Mormon family believes they have been touched by the hand of God. The Nephites remain on earth voluntarily. Although the earliest reports of their encounters with faithful Mormons came from Utah, later stories started coming from all over the world as the Nephites supposedly followed Mormon missionaries who sought converts in every part of the globe."

Nephite stories have been told since the very beginning of the LDS church. They were more prevalent in the 1800s than they are today, but while everyone else has angel stories, the Mormons have the three Nephite stories. Most of them are usually told about only one of these old men with long white beards and a staff and hat, though occasionally someone was lucky enough to have two or even all three of them show up at once. And sometimes, especially in more modern times, they were not old with a beard but appeared in any particular human form that would fit the occasion. Sometimes they were no more than a warning voice that one hears in one's head, or an invisible hand or hands which catch the person or do work for them, etc. But in the 1800s the Nephite was always a bit like Father Christmas in the Black Forest of Germany. There are so many stories that I am only going to relate just a few here, to give you an idea of what sorts of things the Nephites did for people.

When the Nephites were seen, they were described in this fashion. A mother alone with her dying baby in a log cabin, waits for her baby to die having done everything that she can for it. There is a knock on the door and an older man wearing a long white beard and wearing light colored clothes with a kind, firm face walks in. He places his hands on her children, talks to her about her faithfulness, hands the child to her and walks out the door. The next day there are no signs of his having been there, but the woman has a new attitude and goes about her duties cheerfully. Another pioneer woman, hungry and ill and alone with her children hears a knock on the door. A tall thin man with a long black beard and pioneer style clothing walks in. He is kindly but serious and talks to her about her bravery for bringing her children to Zion alone. When she turns to get him a chair, he vanishes. She runs to the door but there is no sign of his having been there. There are many such stories of a visitor coming for dinner when the family is in dire straits and then leaving without having eaten his meal. After which the family enjoys some measure of prosperity over that of their neighbors whom they are then obliged to help.

These Nephite stories were told and experienced for decades, but they did not reach their peak until the '40s and '50s. Two tales from this period involve a man and his wife traveling by truck across a desolate stretch of highway in 1944. They pick up an old man who stands by the roadside who appears to be very knowledgeable about world events. In a little while the man suddenly asks them to let him out of the truck out in the middle of nowhere. They ask him if he is sure he wants to get out at that particular spot. "This is the place," the old man says and then proceeds to tell them that on the way back they will be hauling a dead man and also that World War II will end in August. Sure enough the couple comes across an automobile accident where a young man has been killed and they have to haul his body back to the nearest town. World War II ended a year later in August. In the other story, the driver of a convertible picks up an old man hiking on the road and the old man proceeds to have a religious discussion with the driver knowing more about the Book of Mormon than the driver does. When the driver of the car lets the old man out a few miles later, he looks back and the man has disappeared. He asks his neighbors later if they had seen the old man in the car since they were outside at the time. They say, “What old man? There was no one sitting beside you!”

On the flip side of the three Nephites are the Gadianton robbers. They were an evil tribe of Israel, roaming the earth through eternity and doing their various evil deeds. Thank goodness they are not as well known, nor did they last as long as the Nephite stories have; possibly because there is enough evil in the world as it is and we do not need to add any more to it. Near the town of Modena on the Nevada-Utah border just past St George, a sort of Union Pacific flag stop; reports by freighters going to the mining camps in Nevada, were numerous. Hauling to Pinoche and Panaca, freighters went through a rocky gorge there that was said to be haunted by the terrorist brotherhood of the Gadianton robbers. Huge rocks were supposed to have tumbled down right in front of them, a few crushing others on the trail. But most important were the ways in which the rocky cliffs on either side of them would close in around them, keeping some trapped forever in the gorge to die of the heat and of starvation. Many others narrowly escaped these cliff rocks as they attempted to close in around them, watching for the supernatural Gadiantons who were suppose to swoop down upon them when the rocks closed and kill and rob those whom they entrapped. Either way, through supernatural apparitions being allowed to remain on the earth forever, or through simply being shut in by the rock cliffs apparently guided by these same forces; some freighters supposedly never made it home.

One such story tells of a certain unnamed settlement where a series of events were blamed on the Gadianton robbers who were evil spirits of Satan trying to prevent the establishment of the Mormon Church. Tools disappeared, women would set their bread out to raise and when they went back to check on it, all the bread would be turned upside down. Irons would disappear from ironing boards when the women turned their backs and the sawmill would run at night all by itself and yet cease whenever the men came out to check it. All of these strange events went on for several months and then suddenly ceased as suddenly as they had begun. The town blamed all of this on the spirits of the Gadianton robbers in the area.

Besides around the St. George area, the Gadianton robbers were suppose to haunt Red Creek in the Uintah basin. They became quite a famous band of robbers in the area and rode down the canyon on phantom horses. They would rumble down the old Red Creek road at night, robbing and plundering as they did and re-enacting actual events as ghosts and spirits from more ancient times. People saw them as they rode past, their dark shapes pounding past them in the darkness. Little boys that were being bad were threatened with being stolen or kidnapped by the Gadianton robbers from their beds at night. Whenever it was thought that wickedness was being built up somewhere, it was the fault of the Gadiantons who were calling up their secret oaths and combinations from the earth where they had been hidden. At one point even the Lord could not hold them back or restrain them from finding the treasures of others hidden in the land.

In the modern world now, the Gadianton robbers have totally disappeared. Media moguls, big business, technology giants, environmental pollutants, threats of nuclear and bio-terrorism, huge political machines and worldwide terrorist groups have replaced them. They would be nothing in comparison to what we deal with in our world today, both visible and invisible to us. It is interesting to me that the Nephites have survived through time while the Gadianton robbers are nothing more than a name that many Mormons don't know much about. Yet most that I have talked to know exactly who the three Nephites are or at least what they are supposed to symbolize: all that is good in the world. Angels, saints, spirit guides and Nephites, all carry out the same work, God's work. They guide us in our lives, sometimes even stopping long enough to heal us either spiritually or physically. They guide us in our spiritual work on earth, to treasures not so much hidden from us but hidden within us.

They teach us to take the right road, to fill our flour bins for others, to see those less fortunate than us rather than to pass them by. They warn us about impending dangers and come to us in dreams, to give us information about our lives and futures. They tell us where to find the healers just right for us, and what we should be doing in the world. The biggest hope to me is that out of the two polar opposites, it will be the Nephites and angels, which will withstand the test of time.

© Copyright 2003 by Linda Dunning. All Rights Reserved.

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