Does “goodly” mean “wealthy”?

March 21, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 10:20 pm   Category: Scriptures

Nephi starts out his record thusly:

I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; (1 Ne 1:1)

Could Nephi be saying that he got a good education because his parents were wealthy?


  1. Well, I would say the goodly refers to being educated in the learning of his father. Whether that entails wealth I am not sure.

    It is also arguable that Nephi’s name comes from the Egyptian nfr meaning good, goodly, or beautiful. (Nefertiti for example).

    Comment by Joshua Madson — March 21, 2007 @ 10:57 pm

  2. Webster 1828: “goodly” — pleasant; agreeable; desirable; as goodly days.

    OED (3): Of good quality, admirable, splendid, excellent.

    Might add something…

    Comment by Ronan — March 22, 2007 @ 3:50 am

  3. Here are all the instances of goodly in the Triple Combination, which I think would give us a better idea of what JS thinks “goodly” means than the Dictionary…

    It boils down to a descriptor of three things

    parents (1 example)

    number (1 example)

    land (4 examples)

    based on the useage on number, I’d say goodly is, for all intents and purposes, synonomous with “good”

    Comment by Matt W. — March 22, 2007 @ 7:29 am

  4. Matt, that doesn’t fit the context of 1:1 very well.

    Comment by Ben — March 22, 2007 @ 7:45 am

  5. Ben, I am not sure what you mean. “Good” is an extremely generic term. I mean, we may as well ask “does good mean wealthy?” or “does good mean efficient?” etc.

    Comment by Matt W. — March 22, 2007 @ 8:01 am

  6. This is a little bit of a thread jack, but it should not be much of one, and I apologize for it. I heard this while on my mission, but have never heard it again. Someone said that a person of Nephi’s decent would have done three things when writing something like Nephi wrote.

    First he would have identified himself, second, he would have given credit to his parents, and third, he would have given his qualifications for his writing. Does anyone know if this is true or not?

    I think goodly meant good people. I am not sure if it would have been considered proper educate for someone to brag/mention their own wealth. It seems that is usually came form someone else saying someone was wealthy.

    Comment by CEF — March 22, 2007 @ 8:28 am

  7. He could simply mean that his parents were responsible enough to make sure their heritage was passed on to him.

    Comment by Mark Butler — March 22, 2007 @ 9:01 am

  8. I agree with Ronan, and Webster’s.

    Comment by annegb — March 22, 2007 @ 9:29 am

  9. Ronan, Matt, Mark, annegb,

    The reason I doubt this reading (that it basically means “good”) is that I suspect education was viewed differently in Nephi’s day than it is today. It is not simply heritage that has been passed on, but Nephi was trained in both Hebrew and Egyptian. That was probably not the norm for a person living in Jerusalem at the time, so he explains why he had such a good education. We do know from what happens later that Lehi was wealthy, so it seems to fit very well. Simply saying “I had good parents so they taught me Egyptian and Hebrew” doesn’t seem to make sense. Lots of people had good parents who didn’t get that kind of education.

    This morning I googled “goodly parents” and came up with a couple of hits. One that is interesting is a paper by Noel Reynolds in which he says this after discussing the OED:

    I would like to say just a little bit more about Nephi’s education. Lehi, himself, was a learned man, and he had had the best education available in Jerusalem while Nephi was still in his youth. It was the privilege of a wealthy family to hire tutors and scholars to teach the children.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 22, 2007 @ 10:47 am

  10. Jacob, you have a valid point. Nibley often mentioned that education and schooling was synonymous with wealth. He argued that is what you do when you dont have to make a real living because of your priveledged status.

    Comment by joshua madson — March 22, 2007 @ 10:54 am

  11. Jacob,

    The text make it clear later that Lehi was quite affluent. We also learn that he and Sariah were good and righteous people. Your specific question is what did “goodly” mean in this one verse. I think the evidence for it simply meaning “good” in this verse is pretty solid. He says basically “my parents were good people and they made sure I got the best education”. In later chapters we learn how they could afford that education (that is assuming such an education was costly of course). There is also the implication that Lehi was a merchant who spent plenty of time in Egypt (at least Nibley and others have inferred this) so if that is true it might have helped with Nephi’s education too…

    Comment by Geoff J — March 22, 2007 @ 10:56 am

  12. Matt,

    parents (1 example)
    number (1 example)
    land (4 examples)

    Parents is the one I’m asking about, so it doesn’t help us know the meaning.

    “Goodly number” would seem to me to mean “big number.” (I Nephi, having been born of big parents…, doesn’t seem to work.)

    “Goodly land” could mean “good” land, but here again, how can you be sure it doesn’t mean something more specific. It could be argued that “goodly land” implies promised land, if you look closely at the references in the D&C you cite. If so, I’m not sure it means a simple “good” and I’m not sure how it would help us know what Nephi was trying to say about his parents.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 22, 2007 @ 10:57 am

  13. Geoff,

    I think the evidence for it simply meaning “good” in this verse is pretty solid.

    What is the evidence again? You followed this statement by saying that “good” is a plausible reading. I agree, but I don’t think that counts as “solid evidence.”

    Comment by Jacob J — March 22, 2007 @ 11:02 am

  14. The evidence I meant was 1828 definitions of the word goodly. Joseph was the filter through which the words came so it seems to me that if in 1828 goodly mostly meant “pleasant; agreeable; desirable” and “Of good quality, admirable, splendid, excellent” then that is likely what Joseph meant when he chose that word.

    Comment by Geoff J — March 22, 2007 @ 11:18 am

  15. Ah, I see. I guess I see the 1828 Webster’s as useful, but not necessarily the final word on the meaning/implication of every word in the BofM.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 22, 2007 @ 11:41 am

  16. RE: #6
    “Hugh Nibley first identified 1 Nephi 1:1-3 as a colophon, a structured and typical identificatory passage used at the beginning or end of many ancient documents (Nibley Since Cumorah 1967, pp. 170-171). The essential elements are the identification of the writer, the writer’s lineage, and at times a statement of the veracity or trustworthiness of the written text.

    And for some reason I have goodly underlined in my BofM with a note in the margin that says goodly = well-off. So apparently I came across that idea somewhere, but didn’t write down the source.

    Comment by C Jones — March 22, 2007 @ 3:23 pm

  17. I mentioned this over at Millennial Star a bit ago, but my problem with the interpretation of “goodly” as “wealthy” is that I couldn’t find any precedence for the usage of the word as such. I just don’t think that Joseph would have started out the Book of Mormon using English in a novel way.

    Comment by Eric Russell — March 22, 2007 @ 5:16 pm

  18. C Jones,

    Thanks for the reference.

    Eric Russell,

    I see your point, and you could be right. To me, it doesn’t seem like a major stretch to think that “goodly” could be similar to a phrase like “well-to-do” or “well-off.” I agree that there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to think that “goodly” means “wealthy” except for the immediate context of this sentence. As I said in #9, the idea that it means “good” or “caring” or something like that does not seem like a very good explanation of why Nephi would have received a noteworthy education (which is what I think he is telling us). But, as I said, you could be right.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 22, 2007 @ 6:00 pm

  19. Our friend Marc Schindler once wrote:

    According to the OED,1 “goodly” does not mean “good” at all, but rather “notable or considerable in respect of size, quantity, or number” (this is the 2nd meaning given; the first is “of good appearance; well-favoured or proportioned; comely, fair or handsome.” It lists a number of references, at least one of which would have been readily available to Joseph Smith – namely, Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner”: “To walk together to the kirk / With a goodly company.” That this meaning was well-known throughout the 19th century is shown by the reference to Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood): “One of the two men locks the door with a goodly key.”

    The sentence, “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; . . .” consists of two clauses, connected with the adverb, “therefore” (emphasized above), which means, “for that reason, consequently, accordingly.”In other words, because of precondition A (having been born of goodly parents), consequence B followed (being taught in the learning of his father). The consequence is directly dependent upon the precondition. While a good character on the part of one’s parents might well have been a necessary condition for the son to receive a good education, it would not have been a sufficient condition, especially not in ancient times when being instructed in “all the learning of my father” could well have required some outlay of material resources (much like today, come to think of it!)

    I have managed to find one reference which comes very close to this interpretation, although it could be more explicit. In An Approach to the Book of Mormon, Nibley says,

    The opening verse of the Book of Mormon explains the expression ‘goodly parents’ not so much in a moral sense as in a social one: Nephi tells us he came of a good family and ‘therefore’ received a good traditional education…2

    This is in a section where Nibley is laying out the role of Lehi as a wealthy merchant, a person of position and importance. However, as close as Nibley comes to making the connection with the meaning I have given, he still uses the word “goodly” as a synonym of “good”, not as a completely different word with a different meaning. Perhaps this was a didactic simplification, but that is only speculation.

    Thus both the semantical structure of the sentence as well as the actual original (early 19th century) meaning of the word “goodly” – a meaning which has come to be archaic, if not obsolete, today – lead us to conclude that Nephi was not so much eulogizing the character of his parents, like the young lady of my acquaintance, but was introducing his socio-economic background to the reader. The theological ramifications of this I will leave to others to ponder upon, but I would like to emphasize again that, in the spirit of midrash, this interpretation, which I believe personally to be the correct one, does not necessarily contradict or preclude the widely- accepted interpretation. Good scriptures are goodly enough in their scope to contain multiple meanings, which do not contradict each other, but enhance each other.

    1. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, New York, 1971.Vol. I, p. 1175.

    2. Nibley, Hugh. An Approach to the Book of Mormon (The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 6).3rd ed., Deseret/FARMS, Salt Lake City & Provo, 1988.P. 47.

    Comment by Rex — March 23, 2007 @ 10:52 pm

  20. I’m new to this thread but thought I’d add something here.

    If we paraphrase Nephi, we might say “I Nephi because I had rich parents, I was taught to read and write…”

    This would make sense since virtually no one read or wrote in those days unless they were a scribe.

    Ironically, I was at a “Best of Especially for Youth” last night in Vista, CA. Brad Wilcox was one of the speakers and he taught that it does have a meaning of “wealthy”. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s the only meaning of the word “goodly”.

    Now I will agree that “goodly” has been used in the scriptures with more than one meaning. With that, here are some Biblical instances of where “goodly” has been used with definition closly associated with “wealth”.

    Luke 21:5
    And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said,

    Numbers 31:10
    And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire.

    Joshua 7:21
    When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them; and, behold, they are hid in the earth in the midst of my tent, and the silver under it.

    Joel 3:5
    Because ye have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried into your temples my goodly pleasant things:

    Jeremiah 3:19
    But I said, How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations? and I said, Thou shalt call me, My father; and shalt not turn away from me.

    Comment by Randal — July 29, 2007 @ 7:24 am

  21. I am pretty much in the group who believes that “goodly” = “wealthy” as used here. To argue that “goodly” just means “good” makes it easier to use this verse in teaching situations — be good parents so that your children can say that they had good parents just like Nephi said he had “goodly” parents — but the fact remains that Nephi says “goodly” and not “good”. But the context of Nephi explaining to the reader his education and why he is able to write and why he is writing weighs in favor of the “goodly” = “wealthy” understanding of this verse.

    Comment by john f. — July 29, 2007 @ 8:40 am

  22. Randal, thanks for weighing in and for including those Biblical examples of goodly. Very interesting.

    John, I am becoming more committed to that argument as time goes on.

    I had a chance to sit down with Royal Skousen not too long ago and talk with him about the Critical Text of the BofM project. One of the most controversial suggestions coming out of that project is that the language of the BofM is from the 1500s (pre KJV). The reason it is controversial is that it is very hard to explain why that would be, but Skousen is rock solid in his committment to that being the case if we consider only the evidence from the text. When I mentioned the 1828 Webster’s, he scoffed. First he started going off about how that dictionary was largely derivative of some dictionary in the late 1700s (which made me laugh) but also, he doesn’t consider the 1828 dictionary relevant because of his opinion that the language is coming from the 16th century.

    So, after pressing him for a few minutes about this point, it occurred to me that this could revive my goodly=wealthy thread, so I asked him if goodly meant wealthy in the 1500s. He said that they did do some investigation into that and found some sources that would support that interpretation, but since it is not a textual issue, he wouldn’t be publishing any of that as part of the project. I told him he needs to create some other publication to document all the peripheral research they did like this, but I’m guessing that will never happen. Anyway, I thought that was an interesting exchange to add to this thread.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 29, 2007 @ 10:35 am

  23. I still can’t figure out why I should care whether Nephi meant his parents were good or rich or both in that single verse… (Sheesh — I must be feeling surly today. Sorry about that Jacob.)

    On a second surly-sounding note; isn’t Royal Skousen the one who insists Joseph basically dictated the text of the Book of Mormon as he read it scrolling across the seer stone like a ticker tape or teleprompter? I find that theory to be at odds with much of what we learned about personal revelation from Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Geoff J — July 29, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  24. Surly Geoff,

    It’s not essential to your salvation to understand what Nephi meant by goodly in 1 Nephi 1:1. However, since some of us read that verse a lot more than the others in the BofM, we are tempted to plumb the depths of it. (g)

    As to Royal Skousen, you’ve got the right guy and the right theory. You may not agree with him (you won’t be alone) but since he has been working full time for over ten years on the textual issues in the BofM and has about as good an understanding as anyone of the primary sources relevant to the translation process, his opinion is not one that should be dismissed lightly. There are a lot of hints about the translation process which have come out of his analysis of the original manuscript, so he is not just dreaming up his theory without evidence. By the way, as far as personal revelation is concerned, there is no parallel to the production of the BofM anywhere to be found, so it does not necessarily follow the rules of how we decide who to marry and what job to take.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 29, 2007 @ 1:24 pm

  25. Geoff, one reason to care is that anti-Mormons have in the past and some particularly unscholarly hold-overs (such as in the Bible vs. Book of Mormon movie) continue to resort to a literacy argument against the viability of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But since Nephi explains in detail why he can read and write in the first verse of the Book of Mormon gets the faithful off to a good start in seeing that the Book of Mormon acknowledges the rareness of literacy both in Jerusalem circa 600 B.C. and in the New World, wherever Lehi landed.

    Comment by john f. — August 22, 2007 @ 9:57 am

  26. Interesting point John F. So you are saying explaining why Nephi could read and write is a useful apologetic tool for the Book of Mormon…

    But if the point is to show that Lehi was rich, we don’t need “goodly” at all since the text clearly tells us he is rich in the first few chapters. If we wanted to show Lehi was good, the text clearly shows us that in the narrative as well (he was a prophet of God after all). So why should we get worked up at all over the question of whether “goodly” was intended to mean rich or good? We have unequivocal evidence that Lehi and Sariah were both already.

    Comment by Geoff J — August 22, 2007 @ 10:05 am

  27. Yes, it is true the text shows us that Lehi was both wealthy and good. In my opinion, the interesting question here is one of hermeneutics. They have been arguing about this over the last week at FPR and as always the discussion there hinges on hermeneutics. RT, Nitsav, David J, Ivan, and Kevin all make interesting arguments. I thought the exchange was very useful, not because it matters too much what this word means, but because of all the issues it raises trying to figure it out.

    Comment by Jacob J — August 22, 2007 @ 10:38 am

  28. This is a bit late, but another reason to care what “goodly” means in this verse is that understanding it as indicating the social station of Nephi’s parents is that it then makes the text “a testimonial for the spiritual blessings that flow from the proper use of this world’s wealth.” (McConkie & Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 1, pg. 19) In a way, that fits in better with one constant theme of the Book of Mormon, that of the role/effects of prosperity and the people’s relationship with wealth.

    Comment by Beelzereed — October 11, 2007 @ 8:05 am

  29. Hey Jacob,

    Did you see this quote from Joseph Smith in the new manual?

    Joseph Smith wrote of his early training: “I was born … of goodly parents who spared no pains to instruct me in the Christian religion.”

    (Joseph Smith, History 1832, p. 1; Letter Book 1, 1829–35, Joseph Smith, Collection, Church Archives.)

    It is pretty clear that he used the word “goodly” to mean good since his parents were anything but wealthy. I find that a pretty compelling argument against the goodly=wealthy claim. Obviously unless one buys the teleprompter/ticker-tape method of translation of the Book of Mormon the way Joseph used a phrase is important.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 6, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

  30. Yes, I was already aware of this quote but I saw it in the lesson yesterday as well. It is a pretty interesting point, thanks for raising it here. As a person who leans toward the transcription method of “translation” (what you call the ticker-tape) this is not as compelling an argument for me as it is for you. But, I see your point.

    It is interesting to note that this quote above is structured very much like 1 Nephi 1:1 except that it lacks the “therefore” structure. Joseph says his parents were goodly AND took pains to instruct him in the Christian religion. Instructing him in hte Christian religion requires no special training or resources other than being good God-fearing people so this holds together.

    On the other hand, Nephi says his parents were goodly therefore he was in the learning of his father, which, as we learn in the next verse, includes being at least bilingual (likely trilingual). This kind of training (as opposed to training in Christian religion) would have required economic resources, which we later find out Lehi had. So, the internal evidence easily supports a different meaning in the Book of Mormon than the one used by Joseph Smith above.

    Keep in mind that Joseph made his statement after translating the Book of Mormon and may very well have been patterning his comment after the one in the Book of Mormon without an understanding of Nephi’s real intent with the word “goodly.” Joseph notoriously lacked and understanding of the full depth of the Book of Mormon text as evidenced by his statements about BoM geography and other similar issues. I personally tend to think that this is the explanation for the similarity, i.e. that Joseph phrased it to match 1 Nephi 1:1 rather than his understanding of “goodly” coming first as an explanation for the meaning of the verse.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 7, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

  31. Oy — I forgot you were a teleprompter guy… There’s no reasoning with that type ;-)

    Comment by Geoff J — January 7, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

  32. Geoff,

    Truly a disappointing response given that exactly two sentences (first paragraph) in my lengthy response rely on a teleprompter.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 7, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  33. The idea is that “goodly parents” is a Joseph-ism not a Nephi-ism. If you are a teleprompter guy you wholly reject that premise from the get-go. I am much more of an expansion believer so I think the BoM has Joseph-isms all over it. So if Joseph used goodly to mean good then that is what he meant as he translated whatever wording Nephi used in his language.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 7, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  34. If you are a teleprompter guy you wholly reject that premise from the get-go.

    Not necessarily, it depends on where the teleprompter text came from (there are multiple options). One option includes the possibility that the teleprompter text is tailored to Joseph’s language.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 7, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

  35. Well if that is the case then God and Nephi meant goodly=good right? God knew how Joseph used the term “goodly” after all and it is clear that for Joseph goodly=good (not wealthy).

    Comment by Geoff J — January 7, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  36. Yes, that is my point, even a person who believes in the transcription theory might adopt your reading of goodly. That’s not my inclination (as I expressed in #30), but it is a reasonable position.

    Comment by Jacob J — January 7, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

  37. That’s true. Seems like a little more of a stretch going that route though. If it was the teleprompter method and Joseph simply transcribed why wouldn’t God use whatever language would be most clear to the millions of future readers rather than giving wording designed for an audience of one (Joseph)? Seems like a backwards way to go about explaining goodly=good is all.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 7, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

  38. For whatever it’s worth, the church’s official Spanish translation of the Book of Mormon uses buenos for “goodly.” Bueno is a very common adjective usually translated as “good.”

    Comment by gfe — January 12, 2008 @ 11:38 am

  39. Interesting feedback gfe — thanks. It may not tell us what God/Nephi/JS meant but it does indicate what the translation committee in SLC thinks it means at least.

    Comment by Geoff J — January 12, 2008 @ 11:46 am