The Nephites were an ancient people that lived on the American continent. They are named after their prophet and leader Nephi, who traveled with his family from Jerusalem in approximately 600 B.C. Nephi and his descendents were commanded by God to keep a record of their people, a abridged version of which is now found in the Book of Mormon, which is considered scripture by the Mormon Church.
When Nephi’s family arrived in the America’s the group split into two rival groups, the Nephites who followed Nephi and for the most part were righteous followers of God, and the Lamanites who followed Nephi’s older brother’s Laman and Lemuel and who opposed the Nephites throughout most of their history.
It is important to note, that the names Nephite and Lamanite were names used by the Nephites to distinguish themselves and their enemies. One Book of Mormon prophet, named Jacob, described it this way:
- Now the people which were not Lamanites were Nephites; nevertheless, they were called Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, Zoramites, Lamanites, Lemuelites, and Ishmaelites. But I, Jacob, shall not hereafter distinguish them by these names, but I shall call them Lamanites that seek to destroy the people of Nephi, and those who are friendly to Nephi I shall call Nephites, or the people of Nephi, according to the reigns of the kings. (Jacob 1:13-14)
It is clear that there we many different groups, but the Nephite writers felt that the spiritual aspects of the story were more important than the historical and political ones and so they simplified the narrative by using only two names. Throughout the Book of Mormon these two groups interact and there was much mixing of the two.
Often throughout the Book of Mormon these two groups gain people from each others sides. There were dissenters from the Nephite population that joined the Lamanites, and some Lamanites became converted to the gospel of Christ and joined the Nephites. Eventually the two titles did not really describe who the people descended from, but those who believed in Christ (Nephites) and those who did not (Lamanites).
In about 34 A.D. after the death of Christ, the Nephite people recorded that the resurrected Christ visited them and taught them how to set up his Church. For more than two hundred years all were converted to the gospel of Christ and there was no longer a division between Nephites and Lamanites. Then some time after 200 A.D., a group people began to be wicked and called themselves Lamanites. Wickedness continued to seep into the Nephite culture and by about 421 A.D. the Lamanites had completely destroyed the Nephite people. The Book of Mormon records that it was because of the Nephites’ wickedness that God allowed them to be destroyed.
Finally, it should be noted that the Nephites were always a small minority in the Book of Mormon, surrounded by many other numerous peoples who often did not speak the same language, as one instance of dissident Nephites teaching their language to other groups indicates. Several passages in the Book of Mormon describe how the Nephites were outnumbered by several times their own numbers when their enemies join together to fight them. Thus the action of the Book of Mormon apparently covers a rather small geographical area.