Vintage brass compass made in France in the early 1900's.
Where Science Meets the Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me Lessons: January 29-February 4; 1 Nephi 16-22
We read in 1 Nephi 16:10, “And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.” Furthermore, in 1 Nephi 16:28-29, “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, beheld the pointers which were in the ball, that they did work according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them. And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things.”
In 1 Nephi 18:12, Nephi calls the brass ball a compass, “And it came to pass that after they had bound me insomuch that I could not move, the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord, did cease to work.” (see also 2 Nephi 5:12) However, we don’t learn that he called it a Liahona until Alma 37:38, “And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director — or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it.”
Was it the “compass” to which Laman referred in 1 Nephi 16:38, when he said, “…he worketh many things by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes, thinking, perhaps, that he may lead us away into some strange wilderness…”? Was Laman suggesting that Nephi had built the Liahona? Nephi apparently had all the skills of metallurgy to make such a device (see 1Nephi 17:10-11, 16; 1 Nephi 19:1; 2 Nephi 5:15-16). However, Nephi stated that Lehi was “astonished” to find the ball outside his tent door (1 Nephi 16:10).
Nephi called the device a compass. He said that it had “…two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness.” Most modern compasses also have two “spindles,” one is magnetic or magnetized and points toward magnetic north or south, the central axis of the earth’s magnetic field. The other can be turned to give a baring, i.e. the direction in which a person may wish to travel.
In July 1901, Dimitrios Kontos and a crew of sponge divers discovered a 70–60 BC sunken Roman cargo ship near the Greek island of Antikythera. In a follow-up expedition under the Hellenic Royal Navy, numerous large objects were discovered at the wreck site: including bronze and marble statues, pottery, glassware, jewelry, coins, and a curious mechanism, now called the Antikythera mechanism. The mechanism has been described as the world’s oldest analogue computer and a kind of astrolabe, which could have been used to track the positions of celestial bodies, as well as to predict eclipses and the cycles of Olympic games. Apparently, the device, which dated to the first or perhaps even the late second century BC, had around 30-37 bronze gears enabling it to make numerous calculations.1 No other machine with such complexity is known to have appeared again until the fourteenth century astronomical clocks. However, it is hard to believe that the Antikythera mechanism, which was traveling on an apparently ordinary merchant ship, was a one-of-a-kind, or even the first-of-a-kind. However, I am not aware that the Antikythera mechanism had any spindles or clock hands.
According to William Lowrie and others, lodestone compasses date from the Han dynasty, around 300 to 200 BC.2 The earliest known reference to lodestone’s magnetic properties apparently comes from the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who allegedly discovered (or at least was the first person known to write about) lodestone’s attraction to iron in the 6th century BC. The term “magnet” may derive from lodestones, which occur naturally near Magnesia, Anatolia (modern Turkey).3 Early, simple compasses could have worked by placing a small, light, magnetized iron shard onto the surface of water. We can perform just such an experiment today by placing a magnetized needle onto the surface of water. No archaeological remains of such a compass would ever be expected to be discovered — all that would be found is a bowl for containing the water — the spindle would likely be tiny and long-since oxidized and disappeared. Other methods for suspending the “spindle” could also have been invented. An ideal housing would have been bronze or brass, which are not magnetic.
No matter how curious the Antikythera mechanism, lodestones, and compasses may be, none of them apparently are anywhere near as curious as the Liahona. I know of no compass that works “according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them.” I know of no device whereon is written “…a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it.” (1 Nephi 16:29) It may be that Nephi did not know how lodestone worked or about the earth’s magnetic poles. To him, and anyone else at the time, the function of a compass would be considered magic or the work of the Lord. The writing is a whole other issue, about which I have no idea.
In Doctrine and Covenants 17:1 is recorded a “Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, at Fayette, New York, June 1829, prior to their viewing the engraved plates that contained the Book of Mormon record.” “Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.” When Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris gave their testimonies, they only mentioned the plates, but not the other items.
Joseph Smith recalled in his “History of the Church” (volume 1 p. 54), that “…we beheld a light above us in the air, of exceeding brightness; and behold, an angel stood before us. In his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of. He turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discern the engravings theron distinctly.” There is no mention of the angel showing them any other objects.
However, in an 1878 interview with Orson Pratt, David Whitmer stated, “We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates ... there appeared as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the Directors i.e., the ball which Lehi had — and the Interpreters [Urim and Thummim]. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God.”4 He also described seeing the stone box, perhaps as many as three times, wherein the plates and other objects were placed.5
Even though David Whitmer, and apparently the other two witnesses, saw the Liahona, no modern description, to my knowledge, has ever been given. Therefore, we only have the original descriptions in the Book of Mormon concerning the nature of the Liahona.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. Freeth, Tony, et al., Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism, Nature 444: 587–91, 2006; Efstathiou, Kyriakos and Efstathiou, Marianna, Celestial Gearbox: Oldest Known Computer is a Mechanism Designed to Calculate the Location of the Sun, Moon, and Planets, Mechanical Engineering, 140:31–35, 2018
3. Brand, Mike, Sharon Neaves, and Emily Smith, Lodestone, National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1995; magnet.fsu.edu/education/tutorials/museum/lodestone.html; retrieved 26 January 2024
5. mormondialogue.org/topic/74863-witnesses-to-the-non-plates-artifacts-sword-of-laban-breastplate-ut-liahona, October 3, 2022; retrieved 27 January 2024