“This was the fire that burned within me”

My Obsession with Columbus

I was in my early teens when I read the Book of Mormon for the first time. That first reading was more an effort to understand the story lines and the geography than to learn doctrine, and the stories and geography were complex enough that I couldn’t really process and commit to memory all of their rich complexity. But some parts were both simple and enlightening, among them Nephi’s account of his vision where he sees the early history of America. His statement in 1 Nephi 13:12 – “And I looked and beheld a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land” – fascinated me. He saw Columbus’s voyage in vision. I got that.

Statue of Morison on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue.

Statue of Morison on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue.

Not long afterwards I purchased and read a copy of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Christopher Columbus, Mariner, the small, condensed version of his landmark biography of the Admiral.

At age 21 I was serving as a full-time missionary in the North Argentine Mission and living in Cordoba, Argentina. About a week before I was to return home, my mission president, Richard G. Scott, invited me into his office for a lengthy interview in which he asked if I would be willing to extend my mission for three months in order to go to Madrid, Spain with three other missionaries and open missionary work in that country. My companions and I arrived in Madrid on 6 June 1969. It was a summer never to be forgotten, filled with miracles and marvelous experiences.

One of my favorite spots in Madrid during that summer of 1969 was the great statue of

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle, NYC

Columbus in Plaza Colon. After returning home I completed school, married, and moved to New York City, where we lived not far from Columbus Circle and its monumental statue of the Admiral.

In 2001, I came across a copy of Morison’s The European Discovery of America in The Last Word bookstore in Manhattan and quickly bought it. Three years later I found a first edition of Morison’s seminal work, Admiral of the Ocean Sea in Brattle Books in Boston. (I know these dates and locations because I noted them on the flyleaf of the books. Most of my recent purchases have been through Amazon.com, a provenance that is considerably less romantic).

But my obsession with Columbus began in the fall of 2009. Earlier that year I had been called to preside over the Spain Barcelona Mission. Kathleen and I arrived in Barcelona on 30 June 2009, and the first chance we had we visited Barcelona’s great Columbus statue that stands next to the harbor at the foot of the Ramblas.

English: An 8 segment vertical panorama taken ...

Monumento de Colón, Barcelona

The statue was dedicated in 1892, the 400th anniversary of the Voyage of Discovery, and is one of the great landmarks of Barcelona.

As I had time, I began poking around the Internet and my copy of Admiral of the Ocean Sea (which I had the presence of mind to bring with me to Barcelona) and discovered that Columbus had given his report of the First Voyage to the Spanish Sovereigns in the old palace, still standing, in Barcelona. He had come by land from Sevilla, his Spanish home, with a large entourage in the Spring of 1493, and entered the small square in front of the palace where the Sovereigns were seated at the top of the stairs at the palace entrance. His entourage included six Indians, who were baptized the next week in the Cathedral of Barcelona, just a few steps from the palace.

A short speech about Columbus quickly became part of my welcome and orientation of new missionaries. We would take newly arrived missionaries directly to the top of the hill Montjuic where we could look down on the city and Columbus monument, read 1 Nephi 13:12, and talk about how their arrival in Barcelona would also change the world, at least for them and the people they taught.

Sometime that fall in my Internet ramblings I stumbled across a quote from Columbus that stunned me. It was from his extensive writings known as the Libro de profecias, where he writes extensively of his motivations and the meaning of his discoveries. The particular passage that caught my eye reads:

With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies, and he opened my will to desire to accomplish the project. This was the fire that burned within me when I came to visit Your Highnesses. All who found out about my project denounced it with laughter and ridiculed me. All the sciences which I mentioned above were of no use to me. Quotations of learned opinion were no help. Only Your Majesties had faith and perseverance. Who can doubt that this fire was not merely mine, but also of the Holy Spirit who encouraged me with a radiance of marvelous illumination from his sacred Holy Scriptures, by a most clear and powerful testimony… urging me to press forward? Continually, without a moment’s hesitation, the Scriptures urge me to press forward with great haste. [Italics mine]

Nephi, in his succinct verse regarding Columbus, tells us not just what Columbus would do (“he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land”) but why he would do it (“I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man”). What surprised me when I read the paragraph from Columbus is that he knew why he did it – he was filled with the fire of the Holy Ghost urging him to press forward with great haste!

This quote immediately became part of my orientation speech from the top of Montjuic, and the phrase, “this was the fire that burned within me” became part of our mission lexicon and culture. And I became obsessed with learning more about this remarkable man who not only fulfilled prophecy but, as is evident in his writings, knew he was fulfilling prophecy and that he was a instrument of God in bringing to pass one of the great works to be done before the Second Coming – preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people.

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