Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Working of the Liahona

There seems to be some question in regard to how the Liahona worked as the instrument led the Lehi Colony in the wilderness along the Red Sea and then across the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter) desert in Southern Arabia to the coast they called Bountiful.
The Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, which occupies one-fifth of the Arabian Peninsula. It is a featureless expanse with no landmarks. Without a compass, it would be almost impossible to cross in 600 B.C.
First of all, this instrument, which Nephi called a compass (1 Nephi 18:12, 21), was uniquely made—referred to as “curious workmanship made of fine brass, and had two spindles, one of which “pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10). While it had two spindles, Nephi describes the use of only one—we are left to speculate on the use of the second spindle. In addition, the ball had writing upon it (1 Nephi 16:26), and this writing could be read  by all (1 Nephi 16:27), and “was plain to read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord” and this writing “changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it” (1 Nephi 16:29).
As for the two pointers, they also worked “according to the faith and diligence and heed which we did give unto them” (1 Nephi 16:28). One, we understand, pointed the way the Lord wanted the party, or an individual (1 Nephi 16:30), to go; however, we are not told where the second spindle pointed. Before delving into that, let us consider the working of a compass. We all know that a compass needle (spindle) points north—it does not move; however, depending on the compass, the outside ring, or another pointer can be moved to point in the direction one is heading, thus they know if they are going east, southeast, etc., even though the needle is pointing north.
The Liahona had two spindles (pointers). One pointed in the direction the colony should travel, so where did the other needle point? What was its purpose?
Now if we take this thought a little further and give the second source power of its own (the Lord’s involvement), then it would point in the way one is going or, controlled by the Lord, point in the direction one is to go. Thus, the one spindle (the one Nephi describes) points in the direction the colony was to travel, while the second spindle (which Nephi does not describe) would constantly point north. In this way, Nephi could then know what direction he was traveling. In this way, he could say: “we traveled for the space of four days, nearly a south-southeast direction” (1 Nephi 16:13).
So let us take a look at these steps in their order and time frame:
1. The Lord tells Lehi one night, that “on the morrow he should take his journey into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:9)
2. In the morning, Lehi stepped out of his tent and found the Liahona (1 Nephi 16:10)
3. The Colony loaded up their provisions and “whatsoever they carry into the wilderness,” took their seeds and tents and departed into the wilderness (1 Nephi 16:11-12)
4. The spindle on the Liahona “pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10)
5. They traveled for the next four days in a south-southeastern direction before stopping (1 Nephi 16:13)
6. After hunting and resting for a time, they again took their journey into the wilderness “following the same direction” in the borders of the Red Sea (1 Nephi 16:14).
It should be noted that in this series of events, covering six contiguous verses, two significant matters are mentioned: 1) the Liahona is found, and 2) the first cardinal direction of any kind is afterward mentioned. From this, we might conclude that Nephi sees from the Liahona the Lord provided that he was traveling in a compass direction. And not just one of the four cardinal points of north, east, south or west; nor in one of the 8 ordinal compass points, southeast, but in one of the 16 compass points: south-southeast, which is a combination of both cardinal and ordinal points.
The compass rose is a depiction of orientation and direction that is placed on compasses, maps, and charts. Thirty-two points are depicted around a circle in equal intervals, marking the four cardinal directions (N, E, S, W), the four intercardinal directions (NE, SE, SW, NW), and the other sixteen secondary intercardinal directions (NE by N, N by E, etc.). The 16-point compass roses (left) are constructed by bisecting the angles of the four principal winds and the eight half winds to come up with intermediate compass points, known as quarter-winds, at angles of difference of 2212°. The names of the quarter-winds are simply combinations of the principal and half winds to either side, i.e., North-northeast (NNE), East-northeast (ENE), etc.
The 32 points of the compass were originally established to indicate winds and were used by sailors in navigation. The 32 points represented the eight major winds, the eight half-winds, and the 16 quarter-winds. Today, most people use a compass casually, for instance with hiking or camping. In those situations, basic compasses are suitable. Many casual uses where travel is over a short distance require basic markings for cardinal directions and a basic level of understanding compasses. For more advanced navigation, where large distances are covered and a slight variation of degrees would offset your course, a deeper understanding of compass reading is required. Understanding declination, the angle between true north and magnetic north, the 360 degree markings on the compass face, and your course-of-direction arrow combined with individual compass instructions requires more advanced knowledge.
The point is, how did Nephi know he was traveling in one of the 16 quarter directions?
He was in an area where he had never before been; he had not mentioned any compass direction before that point; he was traveling not just in a wilderness, but in “the more fertile parts of the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:16), which must have been a specific area that would not have been known to any of the travelers except as it was revealed through the Liahona. And he used a terminology of a compass that was not known and understood until around 1100 A.D., when compass bearings were split into the 16 different directions.    
Obviously, the Liahona showed at least the 16 quarter directions. It would also seem just as obvious, that the second spindle on the instrument pointed to north, so that a directional finding could be determined, just as it is obvious that the first spindle pointed in the direction the Lord wanted the colony to travel. And when specific information was needed, the Liahona had writing appear on it for instruction. And all of this worked according to the attitude of those who held it. Some have suggested that the instrument was a magnetic compass, that it would have always pointed north; however, the Lord can intervene in any natural event and cause the spindle not to work simply by the power of his word (Genesis 1:3; Psalm 33:6).


  1. Very interesting. It appears that the writing actually appeared on the spindles themselves.

    I Nephi 16
    28 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.

    29 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.

    when it says there was also written upon "them," them appears to be referring to the spindles.