It has been a difficult year for Columbus in most respects but not within the LDS Church. Special firesides, sacrament meeting talks, a fifty-foot, four-panel mural in the Los Angeles Temple Visitors Center, and even a laudatory statement in President Gordon B. Hinckley’s discourse in the October 1992 general priesthood meeting have been part of the commemoration of the discovery of the Americas. Columbus would have appreciated the affirmation that he was inspired by religious motives and experiences to make the voyage. The way Mormons, in general, view Columbus is probably similar to the way he would have wanted.
Curiously, although Latter-day Saints have long used Book of Mormon prophecy to identify Columbus as a man “wrought upon” by the Spirit of God, members of the Church have done little research prior to this past year on the religious elements of Columbus’s life. Even though recent Columbus scholars generally have not taken his religious views and belief of spiritual guidance seriously and consequently have not written about them, those views have been available in his published diary and his work, Libro de las profecías (Book of Prophecies). Typically, LDS commentators have used limited secondary sources to support the claim that Columbus felt himself to be inspired, rather than drawing from the rich primary documents where Columbus several times alluded to his feelings of spiritual guidance. Given this weakness in Mormon Columbus research, the volume by Arnold K. Garr, assistant professor of Church History at Brigham Young University, was anticipated.
This book must be understood as a volume oriented to the general Church population and not the scholar. For this audience, the volume provides what was intended. It is a short biography (about seventy pages of text excluding maps and blank pages) asserting that Columbus was an inspired instrument who accomplished the purposes of the Lord in the discovery of the Americas but acknowledging the Admiral’s lack of inspiration in attempting to govern the colonies. Those with even a limited knowledge of Columbus, however, will be left wanting more.
Garr primarily has two objectives in the volume. The first is to give a historical sketch of Columbus’s life and his voyages to the Americas. Using recent scholarship on the topic, this part is well done. The second purpose is to outline Columbus’s religious convictions and demonstrate that he believed himself an instrument in the hands of the Lord. This section has some deficiencies. There is only a limited discussion of his religious views and background. Columbus had a scholastic Catholic view of the universe as permanent and unchanging, and of a world that was divided into three parts: Europe, Asia, and Africa. As Garr points out, Columbus believed in the prophecies of the Old and New Testament regarding the conversion of all of the world’s peoples to Christianity, the final recovery of the Holy Land, and the return of the Messiah. A major stimulus for his travel and discovery was a striving to fulfill prophecy. He believed that his understanding of the world came about through inspiration and that his subsequent discoveries were inspired by and influenced by God. He believed himself to be selected and predestined to fulfill this important quasi-final scene in the world’s history.
The author draws some statements on Columbus from early writers who recognized this important religious component. His first biographers, his son Ferdinand and Bartolomé de Las Casas, both emphasized his religious training and convictions. In his study of the European discovery and exploration of the Americas, Alexander von Humboldt felt that Columbus was a “strange combination of ideas and sentiments . . . gifted with a high intelligence and with an invincible courage in adversity, nourished on scholastic theology.”
Garr includes little concerning those who influenced Columbus and recognizes only briefly the religious climate and millennial fervor that was part of his environment. Columbus’s religious feelings and beliefs were not atypical, but representative of an important faction of the Catholic Church who anticipated the spread of the gospel and the subsequent apocalyptic end of the world. Even Sir Isaac Newton spent time with the numerology of the Apocalypse attempting to determine the second coming of Christ. Many of the educated and prominent people of Europe believed the discovery of the New World was one of the final events to occur before the end. Columbus’s beliefs were not unique, but typical of his time.
The greatest disappointment in the volume is its failure to examine seriously the Libro de las profecías. The author devotes a brief five pages to the document. For Mormons its translation and publication in English may be the most significant event of the quincentenary. In it we learn much about Columbus’s feelings and emotions about his role in religious history. We learn that he loved to read and believed the foundation of all learning was in the Bible. We recognize clearly that he saw himself as the chosen messenger of God, destined to open the way for the evangelization of the newly discovered lands. His search for gold is justified because it would be used by the sovereigns of Spain to reclaim the Holy Land. Garr’s approach to the document is descriptive with some discussion of the scriptures Columbus used. Greater analysis is needed to clarify how the scriptures were understood by Columbus and to address other questions Columbus’s account raises for Latter-day Saints. An explicit comparison with LDS beliefs would also have been helpful.
The volume includes maps and appendixes with a Columbus chronology and a brief list of Columbus quotes related to his spiritual beliefs and experiences. Also included are a list of quotes by Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles on Columbus and a list of the one hundred “eminent men” baptized by proxy in the St. George Temple in 1877 of whom Columbus was one.
The book will provide Church members with a summary of the life of Columbus and a brief discussion of his religious perceptions within the framework of the Book of Mormon prophecy. An in-depth study of his religious beliefs and activities and how they relate to LDS thought has yet to be written.