Every people needs to know that its laws and rulers are legitimate and authoritative. This is why stories of national origins and city foundings are so important to human societies throughout the world. Such stories provide explanations of the legitimate origins of their laws and their rulers. Not untypically, such traditions also deal with ambiguous elements of the founding, explaining away possibly competing accounts. When Nephi undertook late in his life to write a third account of the founding events of the Lehite colony, it appears that he wanted to provide his descendants with a document that would serve this function. His small plates systematically defend the Nephite tradition concerning origins and refute the competing account advanced by the Lamanites. Several factors indicate that Nephi carefully structured his writings to convince his own and later generations that the Lord had selected him over his elder brothers to be Lehi’s political and spiritual successor. Thus, the writings of Nephi can be read in part as a political tract or a “lineage history,” written to document the legitimacy of Nephi’s rule and religious teachings.
First Nephi is not the travel diary of a youngster. Nor is it possibly a figment of young Joseph Smith’s imagination. It is a highly complex and passionate account, purposefully written by a mature man of great culture and vision, to defend those things that he believes most worth defending. Nephi’s writings were composed at a time when Nephi could see the need to provide his people with an account that would explain, document, and justify his ascent to leadership. For Nephi’s people, his writings long served both as an extremely sophisticated political tract—something of a founding constitution for the Nephite people—and as an elaborate and compelling witness of Jesus Christ. In all these functions, the books of Nephi call on the reader to believe, as their author does, “that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Ne. 1:20).