Why Columbus Matters

Some thoughts about Christopher Columbus and the Restoration


October 12, 2015, marks the 523rd anniversary of the an event that changed the world. Three small wooden sailing ships from Palos, Spain, dropped anchor in a bay on the westward side of a small Carribean island which they named San Salvador. It was the beginning of an uninterrupted contact between what became known as the Old World and the New World. And it profoundly changed the course of human history. Though there may be both good and evil spoken about Columbus this Columbus Day, there is little doubt that he had a more dramatic impact on world history than perhaps any other modern man.


Columbus’s great achievement was not just that he discovered America, but that he discovered the route there and back, and by so doing launched a process that was irreversible. Others may have preceded him – almost certainly the Vikings and perhaps the Chinese – but no one prior to Columbus knew how to replicate and institutionalize the round-trip journey. Part of Columbus’s great genius was his discovery and use of the Atlantic wind patterns that allowed him not just to reach the New World, but to return to Old, and then repeat the round trip voyage again and again and again. Plans for a second voyage began within days of his return, and the route he developed on that voyage was followed by sailing ships until the age of steam. Even today, yachts crossing from Europe to the Caribbean follow his route. He didn’t just stumble across the ocean and bump into a new world, he built the highway.

If others did, in fact, reach the Americas before Columbus, they failed to inform the rest of the world, and a discovery that is unknown is no discovery at all: informing others is an essential element of discovery. While there is solid evidence that at least the Vikings reached the shores of America long before Columbus, their voyages had no impact on history partly because there was no contemporary record informing the world of their accomplishment. “Only with Columbus’s undertaking,” wrote historian Paolo Taviani, “did Europe, Islam, India, China, and Japan learn of the existence of a New World. And that changed the course of human history profoundly.”[1] Any voyage prior to Columbus is relegated to a footnote in history.


Columbus’s historic voyages marked a turning point in world history. Prior to 1492, the world was highly fragmented and diverse. Plant and animal life had developed independently – some plants, like sweet potatoes and corn, grew only in the Western Hemisphere, while others were unique to Asia. In fact, it was the presence of unique but highly desirable spices in Asia and their absence in Europe that was one of the drivers of fifteenth century exploration. “The world was divided among sundered cultures and divergent ecosystems,” observed Fernandez-Armesto:

Every continent had its peculiar repertoire of plants and animals. Life-forms grew apart, even more spectacularly than the differences that grew between peoples, whose cultural variety multiplied, and whose appearance and behavior diverged so much that when they began to reestablish contact, they at first had difficulty recognizing each other as belonging to the same species or sharing the same moral community.

With extraordinary suddenness, in 1492 this long-standing pattern went into reverse. The aeons-old history of divergence virtually came to an end, and a new, convergent era of the history of the planet begin. [2]

With the First Voyage of Columbus, the world began to be connected in ways not seen since the days of Noah. In our modern age, the same crops and species are found in similar climates on every continent. Even people and racIMG_0318es have become mixed in a way never before known.[3] In the post-Columbian world, tomatoes, which originated in Mexico, became a staple of Italian cuisine; chocolate, another Aztec food, became a signature product of Belguim and Switzerland; chili peppers bIMG_0319ecame an integral part of Thai dishes; and potatoes became the major crop of Ireland. Air travel and electronic communications have been layered onto Columbus’s achievement such that fashions and fads spread with the speed of light around the globe.The fact that one can purchase a Coca-Cola or a Big Mac in almost every country of the world
is, in certain respects, the legacy of Columbus. Of greater significance, the presence of Latter-day Saint congregations on every continent is made possible, in part, by events set in motion with Columbus’s world-changing voyage of 1492.


The Western European world into which Columbus was born was, by many measures, a world in decline. Two years after his birth, the great city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, making trade with the Indies difficult and dangerous and isolating Europe from the Levant. Morison observed that “at the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future.”[4] The great empires of China and Islam the most advanced and dominant civilizations on the planet. Europe was, by contrast, a cultural backwater. The rise of Islam in the east was shrinking both the territory and influence of the Christian nations. Continued efforts to recover control of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem had failed, and successive calls by the popes for a new crusade were seen as opportunistic devices to raise money.

There was no real country or empire in Europe comparable to the empires of the ancient world. Europe consisted largely of a number of city-states vying with each other for power and constantly at war. The Holy Roman Empire was a distant memory. The relatively wealthy city-states of Genoa and Venice competed for the remaining trade in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, capturing each other’s ships and confiscating cargos. Spain did not exist as a nation. Its two largest kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, remained separate and distinct kingdoms even though their monarchs were married, and a large portion of modern Spain was wrested from the Moors in 1492 only after a long and costly war. Castile and Aragon would continue to be ruled separately, with separate laws, finances and bureaucracies for many years.


But when Columbus’s little storm-battered ship floated into Lisbon in March 1493, it was as if someone had struck a match in dry tinder. The news spread across Europe with remarkable speed, and as old ideas faded, a new landscape – not just geographical but intellectual, artistic, and spiritual – emerged. Within a few years, a united Spain would rule a new empire that extended across the sea to Latin America and the Philippines, a breadth of dominion eclipsing anything in history. France and England, jealous and fearful of Spain’s new wealth, would soon challenge Spain both in the New World and in Europe.

The Catholic Church was the ostensible source of unity among the factions of Europe, but the decline and corruption of the Church reached what some consider its peak with the ascension to the papacy of Rodrigo Borgia in 1492. A native of Xátiva in Valencia, the new Pope Alexander VI had already fathered at least three illegitimate children during his tenure as a Cardinal, and would father at least four more as Pope.

On other fronts, too, Europe was in decline. No significant advances in science or technology had been made in a century. University enrollment was in decline across the continent. Not a single new institution of higher learning was founded in Spain in the fifteenth century. The best highways in Europe were those built by the Roman Empire centuries earlier. The basic technologies that would ultimately change the world were developed first in China, not Europe. Paper and printing, gunpowder, steel – inventions that would define the modern world – all originated in China. But the expansive opportunity of a new continent enabled Europe to refine and employ these technologies in a way that they gave shape to a new world era in much the same way that an expanding American frontier in the eighteenth and nineteenth century would expand and inspire the spirit of America.

Within a generation, Spain would emerge from a cultural backwater and virtually bankrupt amalgam of kingdoms to the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. It would be the dominant geopolitical force for a century. Though it would squander its wealth, power and prestige, its influence would continue for centuries. When a new nation was founded in the New World in 1776, the new nation’s official currency would continue to be the Spanish dollar.


TOFor Europeans in 1492, the world consisted of three continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia, each settled by one of the sons of Noah. This was often depicted in what is now called a T-O map. The “O” represented the world, which was divided by the “T” into the three parts, separated by bodies of water: the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa, the Nile/Red Sea between Africa and Asia, and the Aegean and Black Seas between Europe and Asia. Jerusalem was at the center where the three land masses joined. The idea of a fourth continent had no place in this theo-geography. The Book of Mormon explains “that after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord.”[5] It was a land that was “preserved”[6] from the days of Noah, and hidden from all except those whom the Lord led there. Lehi explained that “there shall none come unto this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.” The land would be “kept… from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land.”[7] Delno West wrote, “The secret of the Ocean Sea had not been penetrated earlier because God wanted it hidden until He was ready.”[8] George Q. Cannon stated that, “For centuries [America] was hidden from all the nations of the earth. It was not until the fifteenth century that God inspired Columbus to go forth and seek a passage across the Atlantic.”[9] Orson Hyde, in declaring that Moroni guided Columbus’s three ships across the sea, indicates “an important reason why the discovery should be made: The history and record of a fallen people, containing light . . . and truth from heaven, were buried in the soil of the Western Continent; and although engraven on golden leaves in a strange and unknown tongue, still they must come forth.”[10]

IMG_0322The existence of the Americas had been so well hidden over the millennia that the idea of a three-continent world was deeply engrained in the medieval mind. It would take years for Columbus and his contemporaries to comprehend the geographic implications of his discovery. When Peter Martyr, in a letter dated 1 November 1493, referred to “Colonus ille Novi Orbis repertory – “that famous Columbus, the discoverer of a New World,” – it is clear that by “new world” he meant new portions of Asia. Columbus himself used the term “otro mundo” – “another world” – when writing about his First Voyage, but, again, it is clear that by this he meant simply a new part of Asia. It was not until the Third Voyage that Columbus encountered the coast of the mainland and realized he had come upon a different and new continent, and not until the Fourth Voyage that he realized that this continent, as a practical matter, blocked access to the Orient. The existence of a previously unknown and unimagined continent shattered the existing conceptions of world geography. Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe in 1519 to 1522 would finally cement this new geography in the minds of Europeans.

Columbus’s initial discovery spawned a proliferation of new voyages. As early as 1494, others began making voyages to the New World and within a very few years additional settlements were established. When Fernando Cortés was 36 years old he conquered the great Aztec empire of central Mexico, a civilization that was unknown on a continent that was unknown at his birth. Within 42 years of Columbus´s return from the Voyage of Discovery, men had sailed around the world, the empires of the Aztecs and Incas had been discovered and conquered, and great new cities had been established in Peru and Mexico. Spain had emerged from a war-weary and nearly bankrupt amalgamation of medieval kingdoms into the wealthiest and most powerful empire on earth. Over the span of single generation, the world had been transformed, and events had been set in motion that ultimately shaped the world in which we now live.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, who as a boy had gazed in wonder upon the first Indians to appear in Europe, recognized the momentous import of First Voyage: “Is there anything in the world comparable to the opening of the tightly shut doors of an ocean that no one dared enter before?”[11]


Not only did Columbus unlock the gates of the Ocean Sea, his accomplishments were a decisive factor in unlocking the intellectual and spiritual darkness that had encompassed Europe for centuries and was just beginning to fade. An awakening of the human spirit would be felt across Europe and manifest in many ways. In 1517, Martin Luther would publish his 95 theses, daring to speak out against corruption in Rome and forcing reforms in the Church. Luther would later translate the Bible into German, a work that would have enormous impact on German culture.

Luther’s work would be followed by William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in 1525, the publication of which would change not only English history but the English language. Henry VIII, as a result of his desire to divorce the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand, would break with Rome in 1534, and create the Church of England. With new protestant churches in Germany and England, the Reformation would become the Protestant revolution.

Additional English editions of the Bible, notably the Geneva Bible, would bring the Bible to a wider audience, including many English citizens who separated themselves from the Church of England. Some of those Separatists, as they called themselves, carried copies of the Geneva Bible with them across the Ocean Sea, as foreseen by Nephi,[12] where they founded a small colony on Cape Cod. Strangers in a strange land, they would be known by successive generations not just as pilgrims, but as The Pilgrims. Their literal and spiritual descendants would ultimately break from England, declaring themselves a free and independent nation, a declaration that would be defended by a long and difficult war against what was by then the most powerful nation on earth. Improbably and miraculously, they would prevail and create a new nation. In the early days of that new nation, a family descended from one of the early immigrants to Cape Cod would, through a series of seemingly unremarkable circumstances, relocate to a small rural area near a hill known anciently as the Hill Cumorah. And from that hill, the young Joseph Smith would take the record written by Nephi, translate it, and publish it to the world. With the publication of the Book of Mormon, Nephi’s prophecy, which Columbus had never read but which he so clearly understood and so faithfully fulfilled, would be published to the world and the fullness of the gospel would begin to flood the earth.

It was not just Columbus’s voyage but what it led to that caused Francisco López de Gómara to proclaim that it was “the greatest event since the creation of the world, save the incarnation and death of Him who created it.”[13] Columbus turned the keys given him by the Almighty and opened a new age. Perhaps no other single individual did more to prepare the way for the last dispensation than did Christopher Columbus, Xpo Ferens.St Christopher

Excerted from Christopher Columbus: A Man Among the Gentiles, published 2014 by Deseret Book.

[1] Taviani, Columbus, p. 262.
[2] Fernandez-Armesto, 1492, p. 2.
[3] One of the signs of the last days is that “the whole earth shall be in commotion” (D&C 45:26). An interesting manifestation of this commotion is the movement of people around the globe. Walking the streets of nearly any large city (and many smaller towns) in North America or Europe, one can easily identify people from a variety of nationalities and races. This mixing of peoples is an important element in the spreading of the Restored Gospel. For example, a young missionary serving in the Spain Barcelona Mission during the first decade of the 2000s spoke with natives of 87 different countries during less than 24 months in Spain. Convert baptisms in that mission came from such diverse nations as Egypt, China, Equatorial Guinea, and Burkina Faso. (Data in possession of the author).
[4] Morison, p. 3.
[5] Ether 13:2
[6] Ether 2:7
[7] 2 Nephi 1:6-7
[8] Libro, p. 63.
[9] George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses, 23:103.
[10] Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses, 7:108. The remarks are contained in speech delivered on 4 July 1853. Hyde does not mention Moroni by name in this speech but refers to “the Spirit Angel.” However, it is clear from his remarks on 4 July 1854 (Journal of Discourses, 6:368) that he is referring to Moroni. Hyde’s assertion about Moroni’s role in guiding Columbus and others is consistent with the declaration in Doctrine and Covenants 27:5 that Moroni was sent to Joseph Smith “to reveal the Book of Mormon, containing the fulness of my everlasting gospel,” and that Moroni held “the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim.” Elder Russell M. Nelson declared, “One specific angel held keys of responsibility for the Book of Mormon. That angel was Moroni!” (Ensign, November 2007).
[11] Las Casas, Vol. I, p. 47.
[12] See 1 Nephi 13:20-25.
[13] Gómara, Francisco Lopez de, Historia General de las Indias, Vol. I, p. 4, 1922 edition. Also Jane, p. xv.
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