Mormons (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) believe that Jesus Christ visited America after his resurrection and chose 12 apostles from among an ancient group of people there called the Nephites to help spread his Gospel message in the new world. Three of those apostles asked Jesus to change them from human beings into angels and let them remain on Earth until the end of the world so they could help people in need wherever they traveled on the planet, according to the Book of Mormon.
Those three translated beings (people who have become angels) are known as the Three Nephites, and stories about their appearances have become a popular part of Mormon lore.
A Large Body of Stories
Believers have told many stories about the Three Nephite angels and their appearances ever since the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.
"Though there have been many translated beings, none seem to capture the interest and intrigue of the Latter-day Saint people as have the Three Nephites," writes Bruce E. Dana in his book The Three Nephites and Other Translated Beings.Dana later writes: "Many stories have been circulated among Latter-Day Saint People concerning appearances of The Three Nephites in modern times. Hundreds of these narratives have been circulated in folklore archives, located at various universities."
"A large body of Three Nephites stories has developed over the years," notes Eric A. Eliason in an article published in the book The Big Book of Angels: Angelic Encounters, Expert Answers, Listening to and Working With Your Guardian Angel.
Daniel H. Ludlow writes in his book Encyclopedia of Mormonism: "LDS stories of the Three Nephites comprise one of the most striking religious legend cycles in the United States. ... As the newly founded Church grew in numbers, an ever-increasing body of stories began circulating among the people, telling of kindly old men, usually thought to be these ancient Nephite disciples, who had appeared to individuals in physical or spiritual distress, helped them solve their problems, and then suddenly disappeared."
Appearing as Kind Men Who Encourage People
When the Three Nephites appear to people -- either in person, in dreams, or in visions -- they show up in the form of kind men who are sometimes seem quite old, with strikingly white hair and beards, believers say. The Nephite angels often encourage the people they visit to stay strong in their faith.
"Most of the time, only one Nephite has performed a kind or wonderful deed," writes Dana.. "A few times, the three are together and have accomplished a great miracle."
“Because they span a century and a half of LDS history, these narratives mirror well the changing physical and social environments in which Latter-day Saints have met their tests of faith," writes Ludlow.
In their book Haunted America, Michael Norman and Beth Scott describe how stories about the Three Nephites started in Utah and spread across the world: "... when the Mormons first settled the land that would become the state of Utah, these three wandering patriarchs appeared, bringing hope and courage to those early pioneers who struggled to clear the land, to fight the great plagues of locusts and grasshoppers, and to survive the periodic droughts in the harsh environment of the great American West. For 150 years, the devout believe, these holy men have roamed the towns, villages, and isolated settlements of this intermountain state; there is 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 their beards."
The authors continue: "They travel singly by most accounts, arriving unseen, unbidden, often seeking a meal or a place to spend the night. ... 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. ... Although the earliest reports of their encounters with faithful Mormons came from Utah, later stories started coming in from all over the world as the Nephites supposedly followed Mormon missionaries who sought converts in every part of the globe. ... The Three Nephites evidently appear to persons in all strata of society, and have for the past century and a half. They have not gone away, even with more sophisticated methods of transportation and a generally skeptical population. Encounters are reported even today."
Eliason describes four main types of popular stories about the Three Nephite angels.
One is called "The Hitchhiker." Eliason writes: "... a doubting Mormon picks up a hitchhiker (in his wagon or his car, depending on how old the story is) while far away from home. The conversation turns to religion, and the doubter decides he can confide in the stranger. The hitchhiker listens patiently. In a calm, knowledgeable manner, the stranger resolves every one of the man’s concerns. The doubter is so overcome with joy, he bursts into tears. He wipes his eyes just for a moment and looks toward the stranger to thank him, but he’s gone."
Stories about Nephite angels helping Mormon missionaries (and especially protecting women missionaries) are also popular among Mormons worldwide, writes Eliason, and so are stories about Nephite angels showing up at Mormon homes seeking hospitality.
Draw Your Own Conclusions
The Mormon church doesn't officially include any stories about Three Nephites appearances into its official doctrine, Ludlow writes. "Part of a much larger body of LDS traditional narratives, these stories are not official doctrine and are not published in official literature."
So people can draw their own conclusions about the Three Nephites angel stories. Eliason writes: "Latter-day Saints are left on their own to make determinations about whether to believe any report of an angelic visitation."