Ep 103 – Book of Abraham Physical Plus Jake Farr-Wharton
On this episode, we begin a 3-part deconstruction of the Book of Abraham. We begin with the cultural realm captivated by Egyptian Antiquities with Napoleon’s discoveries and how such discoveries influenced minds in 19th-century America. We trace collections of papyri and artifacts being studied and exhibited all over the country right in Joseph Smith’s back yard. We briefly cover how the Church acquired the Egyptian Antiquities collection of mummies and papyri which later became the Book of Abraham as well as the translation process. After that we continue to follow the line of possession of the collection and how it came into the possession of the Brighamite LDS Church in November of 1967. After that we have on Jake Farr-Wharton of iFriends to talk about a recent article from the Sidney Morning Herald covering the Protect LDS Children campaign. Jake is followed by a brief “Angel’s Trumpet” segment about a recent headline from Mormon-newsroom.org telling of the Church’s apology for institutionalized and doctrinal racism.
Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham
Stephen E. Thompson Essay on Book of Abraham
Egyptology and the Book of Abraham Stephen E. Thompson
Wilhelm Ritter von Wymetal Mormon Portraits
Book of Abraham MormonThink
Joseph Smith’s Scriptural Cosmology Brent Metcalfe and Dan Vogel
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
A translation of some Ancient Records, that have fallen into our hands from the Catacombs of Egypt, the Writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own had, upon Papyrus.—Times and Seasons, Vol. III P. 704
The Book of Abraham thought provoking intro
Structure 3 episodes
Evidence and apologetics
The Book of Abraham isn’t what Joseph claimed it to be, he made it all up. The Egyptian Papyri Jo “translated” the Book of Abraham from have absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the Book of Abraham, he got every single thing wrong. The Book of Abraham is one of the few remaining low-hanging fruits of Joseph Smith history yet to be picked in our timeline, and I just said everything that needs to be said about it. The Book of Abraham proves that Joseph Smith could just make stuff up and people would buy into it. If he used his prophetic abilities to bring the Book of Abraham to the world, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a false prophet.
Now that we’re in the Nauvoo years, some of the seeds we’ve planted over the past 3.5 years are beginning to mature. Episode 33 – Ancient Papyri and Joe Tappin’ dat Fanny was when we discussed the Church’s acquisition of the Egyptian Antiquities which became what we’re going to cover today, so if you want some background I’d recommend starting there before listening to this episode.
With that out of the way it bears mentioning before we begin; studying the Book of Abraham has been really fun. There’s so much information about it and people have been arguing its merits for well over a century and a half. Some actions have been taken which have consequently destroyed any wiggle room the Church has when it comes to defending the book of its veracity, which we’ll be discussing at length.
For such a seemingly small aspect of Mormon history and doctrine, the Book of Abraham is a surprisingly dense topic. We’re going to spend the main segments of three episodes covering it in the typical granular detail you’ve come to expect from yours truly in hopes of leaving no stone unturned. These three episodes will cover the physical, spiritual, and logical aspects of this quirky little piece of Mormon scripture respectively.
This episode, the physical aspect, will cover the culture and academia of Egyptology which led to the papyri themselves coming into the possession of Joseph Smith and the church. History is nothing without context so we’ll attempt to put the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian collection into the context of the world for the past 200 years. We’ll continue to follow the line of possession of the antiquities collection after Jo’s death in 1844 and how it came into the possession of the Brighamite sect in the late 1960s.
Episode 2, the spiritual aspect, is going to be focused on the actual content of the Book of Abraham. If it was merely a creation of Jo’s mind, from what sources did he get the information? How does it impact Mormon doctrine and theology? Is it official scripture and how much does it really affect the modern church?
Episode 3 in this trilogy, covering the logical aspect, may be the most fun for some of us, that’s when we’ll cover the evidence for and against the Book of Abraham as well as the apologetic defenses provided to reconcile belief in it given the mountain of available debunking evidence. In episode 3 I’ll sincerely try my best to present the other side in a way which concisely and accurately represents the defenses for the Book and we’ll see if there’s any line of logic which holds water.
Let’s dive right in with enough historical context to put us in the right frame of mind for our examination of the Egyptian Antiquities collection which came to be the Book of Abraham.
A question can’t help but come to mind when we think of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham. What is it about Egyptian that so deeply captivated Joseph Smith? The seminal Book of Mormon that kicked off the entire religion was supposedly written on gold plates in Reformed Egyptian by ancient Jews who populated the American continent, why wouldn’t the plates be written in Ancient Hebrew as was the Torah? Apologetic answers exist to explain this discrepancy that Lehi was likely a wealthy merchant who frequently travelled to Egypt to buy and sell goods and must have had a working knowledge of the spoken and written language to operate his business, but there’s simply no evidence to substantiate this claim.
Let’s look at the issue through a naturalistic lens. In order to shed skeptical light on Mormonism we need to view it as a product of 19th-century Protestantism with dozens of other schools of thought; philosophy, magick, mesmerism, Masonry, Kabbalah, and the list goes on, peppered into the mix to add the spice and flavor to make it something completely unique. Yet, just because Mormonism is unique in so many ways, that doesn’t mean we can’t trace the genetic ancestors of Joseph Smith’s teachings and doctrines. With enough of these genetic markers, we might even be able to extrapolate conclusions to some extent. When we know the history of Mormonism, it loses its mystique and becomes explicable on nearly every point of doctrine and theology.
So, with that in mind, why Egyptian? If Joseph claimed Egyptian genesis for the Book of Mormon in a vacuum it would be bizarre, but Jo didn’t grow up in a vacuum. He grew up in a world with rapid spread of ideas and misinformation at unprecedented levels due to the incredibly low costs of printing. What was happening around Jo during his formative years which may explain Egyptian, reformed or otherwise? What memes did the young prophet grow up surrounded by?
Europe, European conquests in Africa, and America didn’t mature in isolation from each other. With how ubiquitous trade and communication had become by the 19th century, coupled with the widespread use of the printing press making the copying and propagation of intellectual property an all-consuming fire, when major world events happened on one side of the globe, it wasn’t long before word spread and people everywhere were up to speed on it. However, much like what we wrestle today, fake news overpowered legitimate news and the learned who could discern that difference were few and far between. In the way any yahoo can start a website today, anybody with any motivation or vested interest could buy space in a paper or start their very own, and sizzle tabloids sold extremely well, regardless of factual accuracy.
There was a particular fascination with Egypt in the early 19th century. We’ll get into some aspects of that fascination and the motivations behind it momentarily, but let’s first examine the primary catalyzing event which led to this increased fascination.
Let’s walk back to the turn of the 19th century and the beginning of the Napoleonic era. Historians often focus on the military or leadership traits of Napoleon Bonaparte as he was significantly ahead of his time when it came to strategy, tactics, and dictatorial politics. By any reasonable interpretation, Napoleon’s tyrannical tendencies and incredible battle prowess are frequently the focus, often overshadowing many of his other achievements and interests.
Napoleon was a polymath, and fantastically intelligent and a constant seeker of knowledge. His military campaign in Egypt, coupled with his victory in Austria, exhibited to the French populous and government that he was a young commander who was going places and could be trusted to bring France there with him. In May of 1798, Napoleon with 38,000 troops crossed the Mediterranean and landed in Egypt to begin a powerful shock & awe campaign against the Ottoman Egyptians in an effort to control the Suez Canal and thus all trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
One aspect of this military campaign which was eventually crushed by the superior British Navy, is how much digging in the dirt Napoleon’s troops did. For lack of better words, Napoleon’s troops blitzkrieged the northern districts of Egypt and overtook the banks of the Nile on land, and immediately commenced efforts to discover what mysteries laid beneath the Egyptians sands. There was a small market for such antiquities from the height of the pre-Ottoman Egyptian empire making the endeavor just as much business as it was academic.
On July 1, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte and his troops landed in Alexandria, Egypt, and eventually made their way to a small village named Rashid, or in English, Rosetta. Napoleon’s forces had a peanut butter effect. It started with a slab of troops and as he progressed and continued to conquer more territory in Egypt, his forces became spread thinner, making them vulnerable to the British attacking any available weaknesses. However, this did mean that many of his troops were left to occupy the conquered territory, and let’s face it, digging in the dirt is a really great pastime. His troops in Rosetta unearthed a massive 50-ton stone with writing on it, which would come to be known by academics as the Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone was a Governmental decree. It was inscribed for King Ptolemy V in 196 B.C.E. in three languages. The top of the stone is written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and the middle text is Egyptian Demotic script. The bottom is Ancient Greek.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was crucial to unlocked the history of Egypt for Western historians and scholars. Greek was understood and well-studied. Egyptian, however, remained elusive to scholars until this discovery and the ensuing debates among scholars who immediately began deciphering Ancient Egyptian.
The Rosetta Stone and many other discoveries by Napoleon’s troops spawned the field of Egyptology in Western studies. Egypt was a great white unicorn for academia until these many discoveries. With the headlines and popular media reporting on the discoveries and the British retaking those discoveries after Napoleon was defeated on the Egyptian coastlines, Egyptian antiquities and artifacts became something of a meme in 19th-century culture. This meme consequently ignited a fervor of pseudo-history surrounding Ancient Egyptian culture and the Rosetta stone as people toiled with what the inscriptions on the stone could possibly mean. Many non-historians and non-archaeologists were fascinated by ancient Egypt and the mysteries it holds; the Rosetta Stone became publicly known as the legend by which to understand these great ancient mysteries.
From 1802 to 1822, debates raged about the proper decipherment of the ancient Egyptian language. Newspapers across Western societies published articles covering the debates among scholars and historians of antiquity as linguists toiled with mapping Ancient Egyptian to the Ancient Greek text included in the Rosetta Stone.
A couple of the frontrunners in the decipherment process eventually emerged. One Thomas Young and a younger, more energetic, scholar Jean Francois Champollion. Please excuse my pronunciation, I don’t speak French so for some of these words you’ll have to bear with me. Champollion and Young went back and forth on the proper way to decipher Ancient Egyptian by using the known Ancient Greek and juxtaposing it with the hieroglyphics and demotic scripts and finally, in 1824, Jean Francois Champollion published Precis. This work detailed the phonetic and ideographic signs of the Ancient Egyptian languages and created an alphabetic translation of Ancient Egyptian. Champollion subsequently travelled to Egypt in 1829 to further his research into Egyptology. He spent much time digging through artifacts and handling papyri scrolls to continue building his body of linguistic decipherment.
This journey to Egypt was hard and took its toll on Champollion. He lectured on his discoveries and work a small handful of times before his untimely death in 1832 at the age of 41 and his research was published posthumously.
This was only the beginning. His work would take another decade and a half to be widely circulated and publicly accepted by American academics by the mid 1840s.
It should be noted that the British empire assumed control of the majority of these Egyptian antiquities. After Napoleon was dealt with and France and Britain were no longer at war, researchers could begin working in earnest from both kingdoms to understand all these incredible finds they were acquiring.
Here are a few headlines which hopefully exhibit how things were progressing in the field of Egyptology and antiquities. Just for fun, if you’re interested and have a few hours to burn, go to a newspaper archive website and search for the keywords ‘Egypt’ or ‘Rosetta’ from 1799-1840, a lot of fun articles surface which provide a bit of insight as to how these antiquities and Egyptology were viewed and evolved during the first half of the 19th century.
The first headline details the British taking possession of the Egyptian artifacts after the defeat of Napoleon in Egypt from the London Morning Chronicle in March of 1802:
“The conquest of Egypt, independent of its political consequences, has enriched our country with a number of rare and ancient monuments, some entirely perfect, and of the highest and most undoubted antiquity. Col. Turner has brought home in his Majesty’s ship Egyptienne, a stone of Black Granite, found by Menou, at Rosetta, and intended to be sent by that General the first convenient opportunity to France; it is charged with three inscriptions, in three different languages and characters, commemorating a Gift of Corn from Ptolemy Philadelphus to the inhabitants of that part of the country; the first is in hieroglyphics, the second in the old Coptic, or vulgar character of the ancient Egyptians, and the last Greek. The whole are perfect, and the two last but translations, it may reasonably be supposed, of the first.”
From the London Morning Chronicle August 1802:
“A very curious Stone, brought over in the same vessel, has been presented to the Antiquarian Society; it is about 7 feet long and 5 feet square; it has three inscriptions in different languages, all supposed to be on the same subject. The languages are Greek, Egyptian, and Hieroglyphics. The Greek has been made out, and it proved to be an Edict of their Priest for deifying one of the Ptolemies for his great and good deeds done for his country.”
From the Newbern Sentinel out of North Carolina in April 1820 as the debates raged of how to decipher Egyptian. Joseph Smith was 14 years old at this time. Before reading it, I just want to point out that I took a sampling from hundreds of articles and headlines about Egyptian that I thought were representative. These headlines were picked up by newspapers all across America and Joseph Smith invariably would have come into contact with some of these as he was maturing into adulthood, subtly influencing his hungry mind.
“Hieroglyphics of the Egyptians.
Herodotus says the Egyptians used two sorts of letters, or ways of writing; one called sacred and the other vulgar letters. Diodorus makes the same distinction; the vulgar ones were learnt by all the people, and the sacred were only known to the priests among the Egyptians, who learnt them of their fathers, among those things which were to be kept secret; but the Ethiopians, learnt them from the Egyptians & used all those letters or ways of writing indifferently; so that it was rather the unlawfulness than any impossibility of attaining a knowledge of these letters, that kept them from reading these sacred writings, as they could perhaps have learnt them of the Ethiopians, if we supposed they were exactly the same; but it is probably the Egyptians altered them so that they were not intelligible to the Ethiopians.”
While academia worked endlessly from 1802-1845 to decipher Egyptian, public interest in Ancient Egypt rose to an extreme level. In much the same way we see academic papers reported in public media with inaccurate or misrepresented articles today, academia surrounding Egyptian antiquities didn’t translate well to laypeople who were interested in the subject, but uneducated about it.
Through the 1820s we see an evolution as public knowledge and academic study of Egyptian language and culture continued to evolve. What began as a fascination, became a rabid obsession. Anytime the public is rabidly obsessed with a given topic, money stands to be made. Lectures started cropping up all over America with people exhibiting Egyptian antiquities as well as Champollion’s work in deciphering the languages.
From the Maryland Gazette in February 1819:
We took an opportunity, in our last number, to introduce to the acquaintance of our readers a Roman traveler by the name of Belzoni, who, in laying open the front of the great Sphynx, had made some singular discoveries in Egyptian antiquities. The uncommon sagacity and perseverance displayed by this Italian are worthy of all praise; & we apprehend we cannot conclude this article in a more satisfactory way, then by giving a summary account of what his recent discoveries have been, and what may yet be expected from him.”
From the National Gazette out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in Dec 1826, when Joseph Smith was forming his ideas of the Book of Mormon, claiming it to be written in Egyptian.
“M. Champollion Figeac, the well known French antiquary, addressed to letters, not long ago, to the editor of the Monitor, announcing the arrival at Havre, on the first of September, of the Durance, of one hundred and seventy tons, from Leghorn, with the valuable cargo of Egyptian antiquities (which we have frequently mentioned) destined to enrich the Museum of the Louvre…
There are above a hundred cases, besides the large pieces of sculpture, some of which weigh from 1400 to 1800 quintals.”
Once Champollion published his work, newspapers picked up reporting on lectures given across the nation which posed interesting findings to all those interested in Ancient Egypt.
From the National Gazette out of Philadelphia from April 1823, the same year Joseph claimed the angel first visited him to show him the gold plates written in Egyptian:
“The labours of M. Champollion, jun. on the Egyptian Writing, advance progressively, and furnish new results which are interesting both to archaeology and historical criticism. His alphabet of the Phonetic hieroglyphics, by means of which he has read on the monuments of Egypt the names of Greek or Roman Emperors, has just been confirmed and extended by applying it to more ancient monuments, the date of which it also serves to fix. We can already state, that guided by this hieroglyphic alphabet, M. Champollion has discovered and read the names of the Pharaohs, that is to say, the kings of the Egyptian race, carved on the great monuments of the first style.”
Why are we reading all of these headlines? History is nothing without context. If we’re to understand Joseph’s mindset, it helps to try and put our minds there by reading the kind of material to which young Joseph Smith would have been exposed. Egypt was a meme in America and the public loved the idea of learning about Ancient Egypt, but very few in the public actually did learn about it. How often do you get in conversations about astronomy, quantum physics, history, philosophy, or any other massive field of study as a layperson with another layperson? I would hedge a guess that most of those conversations would be scoffed at by people who’re actually learned in each respective field, but it’s still fun to have the conversations among laypeople. The same was the case when it came to Joseph Smith and his friends chewing the fat about the newest discoveries coming from the field of Egyptology.
A new market emerged. From the National Gazette out of Philadelphia reprinting an article from Boston in Feb 1826:
FOR SALE, just received from Egypt, via Gibraltar, by the brig New Castle,
4 mummies, one with a double Sarcophagus, extremely rich in hieroglyphics.
6 Embalmed Animals
1 ISIS, containing a Mummy, pedestal and base relief.
12 Stone Tableaux or Grave Stones, with Engravings, one of which has some Greek characters.
1 Statue of the God Osiris—together with a large collection of articles of great antiquity.
One of the human and one of the animal Mummies have been opened by scientific gentlemen, and found to be in an uncommonly fine state of preservation; and are pronounced by good judges to be greater Antique Curiosities than those exhibited in either of the cities of London or Paris—and altogether form the most curious assemblage of Egyptian Antiquities ever offered for sale.”
This unique market caused Europeans to flood into Egypt to acquire their share of antiquities to get their slice of the pie. By 1838 it became recognized that the looting was becoming a bit destructive, which consequently hindered the archaeological study of Ancient Egypt.
From the National Gazette in June 1838 as a reprinting of articles they’d received from Europe:
“Egyptian Monuments.—Had not the monuments of ancient Egypt been multitudinous in their number, and imperishable from their greatness, none of them would have been left undestroyed by the various inundations of fanatics and foreigners who have from time to time overflowed the land of the Nile. The Persians and the Saracens, under the influence of religious passion, did all they could for the overthrow and ruin of works happily too majestic for their puny devices; and since invading armies have left the gorgeous ruins in peace, hordes of European travelers have been doing their best to annihilate what thirty and forty centuries have spared. There is scarcely a pillar, or temple, or monument, which some hand or other has not been busy in damaging. The beautiful tomb of Osiris, which Belzoni laid open, is already nearly a heap of ruins. No man has been a more ruthless ravager than Champollion himself, with all his pretended respect for Egyptian antiquity, and professed services to hieroglyphic learning. For one traveler who has visited Egypt to unravel and to honour the venerable records of her solemn history, a hundred come to defile and to deface them.”
Archaeology in Egypt accelerated and various antiquities made their way to America and were exhibited in community gathering areas, churches, universities, and sold to collectors. An entire industry arose throughout the early 1800s in America and other Western societies of traders making their way back and forth across the Atlantic to buy and sell Egyptian antiquities. Antiquities such as Papyri, mummies, statues and other physical artifacts, and anything else from the ancient world quickly rose in price for exhibition and purchase, further fueling the public interest in Ancient Egyptian culture.
This is the world into which Joseph Smith was born and matured and founded the Mormon religion. Every one of those headlines covered from 1802 to 1838, Jo was born in 1805, started the Church in 1830, and died in 1844. He claimed the Book of Mormon to have been written on gold plates in reformed Egyptian. When we consider the realm into which Jo became the founding prophet of Mormonism, a number of aspects of Mormon history, doctrine, and theology come into focus.
In Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, D. Michael Quinn discusses the influence of the culture’s collective fascination with Egypt influencing Jo and the entire Smith family.
From page 194:
“According to the occult traditions of the early 1800s, persons with magic experience were the most appropriate interpreters of the Egyptian hieroglyphics identified with the Book of Mormon. It stated that the original text was in “reformed Egyptian” (Morm 9:32). In 1829 former scribe Martin Harris used both “hieroglyphics” and “Characters” to describe the original text of the book. Smith later used “Egyptian Characters” and “hieroglyphics” to describe Book of Mormon language. The conventional Anglo-American view was that Egyptian “characters” and hieroglyphics were occult symbols inveted by Hermes Trismegistus, the father of the ancient occult sciences. This even appeared in encyclopedias, one of which was on sale in Joseph Smith’s neighborhood.
The 1811 New York edition of Adam Clarke’s popular commentary on the Bible observed that the word “magicians…may probably mean no more than interpreters of abstruse and difficult subjects; and especially of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, an art which is now entirely lost” Clarek’s commentary was on sale near Smith’s home. In American editions of 1823 and 1827, Jahn’s Biblical Archaeology mentioned the magicians Jannes and Jambres as being among “those, [who were] skilled in the interpretation of hieroglyphical characters”. At some point, Joseph Smith read Jahn’s book, because he quoted from it as editor of a church publication. Even scholars of the early 1800s implied that a background such as Joseph Jr.’s experience as a treasure-seer and diviner was qualification for the mystic decipherment of Egyptian characters. This was prior to the impact of Champollion’s discoveries about Egyptian language.
Things Egyptian were of special interest in Joseph Smith’s neighborhood as of June 1827. From late June through early July, an Egyptian mummy was on display in six nearby communities, including Canandaigua (only 9 miles from Smith’s home). “This mummy was taken from a catacomb … [at] Thebes, on the River Nile, in Upper Egypt,” Canandaigua’s newspaper announced… That same month Palmyra’s newspaper reported that a German professor, “who has been employed in decyphering the Egyptian Antiquities at Rome, states, that he has discovered … a Mexican manuscript in hieroglyphics, from which he infers, that the Mexicans and the Egyptians had [cultural] intercourse with each other from the remotest antiquity, and that they had the same system of mythology.”
Given this historical context, it should be no mystery why Jo chose Egyptian for his seminal work and hopefully it helps to explain his affinity towards the ancient mysteries contained within Egypt and the artifacts coming across the Atlantic pilfered from those sacred locations.
The stage is set. We have a 19th-century world spellbound by Egyptian antiquity. We have antiquities dealers frequently making trips back and forth across the Atlantic to buy and sell artifacts. We have Joseph Smith, a practitioner of magic with his magic implement of choice, a seer stone, translating reformed Egyptian into the Book of Mormon and adapting his theology to absorb and incorporate anything which happens across his path to make it yet one more constituent piece to the Mormon puzzle. This group of variables set within the perfect parameters provides the historical context necessary to understand the central focus of this three-part series, the Book of Abraham.
In July of 1835, 5 years after the Mormon religion had been started in 1830, Joseph Smith was approached by an Egyptian Antiquities dealer by the name of Michael Chandler, who possessed a number of papyri scrolls and fragments, as well as 4 mummies available for purchase to any rare antiquities collector. Smith’s fascination with the ancient mysteries of Egypt and his proclivities towards anything esoteric or occult made him predisposed to be consumed by the cryptic information locked behind the Ancient Egyptian text on the papyri in his own hands.
Upon examining the papyri, Jo made some extraordinary claims which were recounted in the History of the Church and in a letter from W.W. Phelps to his wife which reads in part:
“Brother Joseph remarked that it was as easy to shed tears while reading [your]… letter as it was when reading the History of Joseph in Egypt. …
The last of June  four Egyptian mummies were brought here; there were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings with them. As no one could translate these writings, they were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were and said they, the “rolls of papyrus,” contained the sacred record kept of Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court in Egypt, and the teachings of Father Abraham. God has so ordered it that these mummies and writings have been brought in the Church, and the sacred writing I had just locked up in Brother Joseph’s house when your letter came, so I had two consolations of good things in one day. These records of old times, when we translate and print them in a book, will make a good witness for the Book of Mormon. There is nothing secret or hidden that shall not be revealed, and they come to the Saints.”
Believing these papyri to be personally written by Abraham and Joseph of Egypt, a number of wealthy Mormons pooled funds to purchase the entire collection for $2,400 ($63,000 in 2017). Smith began translating the papyri immediately and by November of the same year had his Egyptian Alphabet translated into his MS notebook with the help of W.W. Phelps, Ollie Cowdery, and Warren Parrish. The translation project took a hiatus from that time until the Nauvoo period. Possibly because of too many other projects mounting, the completion of the Kirtland temple, the foundation and dissolution of the Kirtland Safety Society anti-Bank-ing company, and definitely due to the Mormon war in Missouri of 1838, the papyri translation project was moved to the proverbial back-burner. Jo had completed the Egyptian alphabet but had yet to write the Book of Abraham supposedly translated from the papyri.
The fact that the translations weren’t yet complete didn’t stop the prophet from leveraging the papyri and mummies in the meantime. The 4 mummies out of their respective sarcophagi and the papyri were exhibited in Kirtland in the uppermost floor of the temple once completed in early 1836. Immediately, the exhibition drew skepticism from non-Mormon visitors who desired to see these incredible papyri written by father Abraham and Joseph of Egypt themselves. A specific instance of this was captured by a man named William S. West who came to Kirtland to see the temple and papyri. He reported in 1837 from a newspaper local in Warren County, Ohio the following passage:
“They say that the mummies were Egyptian, but the records are those of Abraham and Joseph . . . These records were torn by being taken from the roll of embalming salve which contained them, and some parts entirely lost, but Smith is to translate the whole by divine inspiration, and that which is lost, like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, can be interpreted as well as that which is preserved; . . . Is it possible that a record written by Abraham, and another by Joseph, containing the most important revelation that God ever gave to man, should be entirely lost by the tenacious Israelites, and preserved by the unbelieving Egyptians, and by them embalmed and deposited in the catacombs with an Egyptian priest[?] . . . I venture to say no, it is not possible. It is more likely that the records are those of the Egyptians.”
West’s account shows that the papyri alone were enough to draw skepticism based solely on the claim of their authorship. Without even seeing the published text of the Book of Abraham, certain people were able to dismiss the claims of the prophet as nothing more than humbuggery.
Upon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, life for the prophet was slightly less chaotic as the previous few years had been. Finally, in March of 1842, nearly 7 years after acquisition of the Egyptian collection, the full translations were published in the Church periodical “The Times and Seasons”, along with 3 of the most prominent facsimiles included in the papyri. The translations were fittingly titled “The Book of Abraham”.
Upon publishing the so-called ‘translation,’ the collection was once again exhibited in Nauvoo to anyone with a few shekels to spare. It is worth noting that by the time Jo was exhibiting these mummies and papyri to visitors, public interest had significantly waned compared to 15 years prior when he was mentally forming the contents of the Book of Mormon. Where a person could make a fair bit of change travelling the country and exhibiting such antiquities in the 1810s and 20s, the fuel which brought out the crowds had all but been consumed. If Jo viewed the papyri and mummies as a money-making venture, he was more than a decade behind the market. The exhibits in Kirtland and Nauvoo were also not bandied about the country, it was a standing exhibition. After the translation was published, there was the added appeal that the papyri were exhibited along with their respective translations, but the spell which once bound the public had largely been broken by the burgeoning popularization of Champollion’s work.
The line of possession of these papyri is rather fascinating. They currently reside in the LDS Church Archives in Utah, but they didn’t gain possession of the papyri until 120 years after Bloody Brigham Young dragged the Saints out to Utah. So let’s walk through the line of possession from the death of Joseph Smith to 1967 when the Brighamite Church gained possession after an anonymous donor made a contribution for an undisclosed amount.
After Jo’s demise in the June of 1844 gunfight in Carthage, Illinois, the Egyptian Antiquities collection fell into the possession of his first wife, Emma Hale Smith. She and her next husband, Lewis Bidamon, retained possession of the collection until the death of Lucy Mack Smith in 1856, when Lewis and Emma Bidamon sold the collection to a man named Abel Combs. This bill of sale was signed by Lewis and Emma as well as Joseph III who was being groomed at the time to become the prophet of the reorganization.
From Robert Ritner’s The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition, in chapter 1, written by friend of the show H. Michael Marquardt:
“Combs subsequently sold two of Smith’s mummies and some of the papyri to Edward Wyman’s St. Louis Museum (in Missouri) and kept the others. When the museum placed some of the items on display in 1856, Gustaf Seyffarth, a visiting professor at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis County who had studied Egyptian, also read the name of the person for whom Facsimile No. 3 had been made: ‘the papyrus roll is not a record, but an invocation to the Deity Osirus, in which occurs the name of the person, (Horus), and a picture of the attendant spirits, introducing the dead to the Judge, Osiris.’”
By 1856, when the small portion of the collection was transferred to Combs, Champollion’s work had been published and widely circulated. This professor Seyffarth was the second person historians have evidence of examining the papyri once the text and facsimiles could be actually deciphered. During the interim period from Jo’s death in 1844 to this transfer twelve years later, in 1851, Apostle Franklin D. Richards published the Pearl of Great Price in Britain which included the Book of Abraham among other texts which would be canonized at a later time.
The first person we have evidence for examining the papyri with a skeptical eye comes from around the same time as Professor Seyffarth examined the collection. This guy’s name was Theodule Deveria, a student of Egyptology who’d worked in the Louvre Museum in Paris and published this in 1860:
“The deceased led by Ma into the presence of Osiris. His name is Horus, as may be seen in the prayer which is at the bottom of the picture, and which is addressed to the divinities of the four cardinal points.”
Continuing from Ritner’s Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri:
“Deveria was thus the first to observe that what Joseph Smith had published as a “Facsimile from the Book of Abraham” was actually an ancient funeral illustration for a deceased Egyptian man named Horus.”
It’s odd, as soon as the scientific method was introduced to this provably false claim, we see that two independent observers came to the same conclusion in separate instances. Both these independent observers claimed the Book of Abraham papyri to be something completely different than what faithful Mormons claimed it to be. Either both these Egyptologists were working with a flawed data set, or the people who had no knowledge of Egyptology made a false claim. Both are plausible, what is more probable?
The papyri which Combs purchased were merely the Papyrus of Amenhotep and the original Facsimiles 2 and 3 and 2 of the 4 mummies. This small portion of the collection was sold to a man named Joseph H. Wood who owned a museum in Chicago. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 likely consumed these 2 mummies and these 3 papyrus fragments. It was thought for quite some time that it was actually the entirety of the collection which was consumed, and for another half-century, historians considered the entire Joseph Smith papyri collection lost forever.
The Pearl of Great Price underwent a revision and 2nd edition printing in 1878 by the Brighamite Church. For this printing they curiously removed the passage in the introduction which said “purporting to be” before “written in the hand of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt,” which consequently removed any wiggle room they had as an apologetic line of defense that the papyri merely claimed to be written by Abraham.
To drive this nail further into the Brighamite LDS coffin, they voted in 1880 after Bloody Brigham Young’s death to canonize the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. This officially designated these 4 books as Mormon scripture. This unanimous vote along with the removed passage from the heading of the Book of Abraham made it significantly harder to walk back when contrary evidence was raised against the historicity of the Book of Abraham, which was really beginning to mount near the end of the 19th century.
However, this evidence could largely be ignored as it was commonly believed the only surviving information from the original papyri were the printed facsimiles. Without the rest of the papyri collection, there was always room to claim that the facsimiles may have been mistranslated, but the Book of Abraham itself was taken from fragments which are no longer extant, supposed to have been destroyed in the Chicago fire. A significant development occurred in 1918. As it turned out, Abel Combs, who’d originally purchased the collection from Emma and Lewis Bidamon, had retained a significant portion of the collection in his own private possession, along with the bill of sale proving authenticity.
Continuing from Ritner’s book:
“After [Comb’s] death in 1892, these items passed to his nurse Charlotte Benecke Weaver. The papyri and bill of sale eventually ended up in the possession of Weaver’s daughter, Alice Combs Weaver Heusser, who approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1918. At the time, the museum was not interested in acquiring the materials. Almost three decades later, however, the museum revisited its decision and purchased the papyri artifacts in 1947 from Edward Heusser, Alice’s widower.”
Then, in 1966, a University of Utah researcher named Aziz S. Atiya, who was a Coptic studies scholar, was pilfering through the Papyri collections in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and discovered a few of the original Joseph Smith papyri. The researcher recognized facsimile 1 of the iconic Abraham being sacrificed on the table by the idolatrous priest of Elkenah pasted on a board for structural support. Immediately Atiya realized he’d found something important to a lot of people and he contacted then Church archivist N. Eldon Tanner to make him and the Church aware of the existence of the papyri.
From Ritner’s book in Marquardt’s chapter about the papyri:
“Negotiations with the museum began a few weeks later. Eventually, an anonymous patron agreed to make a donation to the museum to cover the cost of the transfer, thereby facilitating the museum’s “gift” of the items to the LDS Chruch on November 27, 1967.
The museum’s transfer included eleven pieces, or fragments, of papyri—including the original of Facsimile No. 1—which once belonged to three separate papyri. These fragments have since been numbered as JSP (Joseph Smith Papyri) I-VIII, X-XI…”
That exhausts our exploration of the physical aspects of the Book of Abraham. We covered the cultural fixation on Egyptian antiquities, the infection of that culture into early 19th-century America, and how the papyri and mummies came into Joseph Smith possession. We discussed the translation process and when it eventually was printed, covered the canonization process and the entire line of possession of the artifacts and how they came into the possession of the Brighamite LDS Church in Salt Lake City.
There’s much more to discuss when it comes to the Book of Abraham. I made a quick 12-minute video about this which you can find linked in the show notes or on the Naked Mormonism YouTube channel if you’d like to know what’s in store for the next 2 episodes in this trilogy. As I stated at the beginning, the Book of Abraham may seem like a simple subject. The papyri and the Book of Abraham don’t match up in translation, so Joseph Smith must have made it all up and we’re done here. But, the deeper you dive into the historicity of this book, the more fascinating it becomes. There’s a massive body of work behind this book coming from both sides of the belief spectrum and it’s really fun to dive into. I hope you’ll find this continued deep-dive just as fascinating as my little hamster brain has found it as we continue to progress. I’ll recommend picking up Ritner’s book, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A complete collection if you want a deeper dive. The book is extremely accessible even though it gets into some fairly deep Egyptological subjects and it puts the whole Book of Abraham into surprisingly concise context.
When we come back from the break, we’ll have friend of the show and token Australian, Jake FarrWharton, to talk about the Protect LDS Children movement making waves in the outback. Stay tuned.
Once again, huge thanks to Jake for coming on to chat about Protecting LDS Children and the damage caused by these harmful sexually explicit Bishop’s interviews. Dovetailing off our conversation, the Protect LDS Children movement hasn’t gone anywhere. The March march was a success in that the march itself happened, but no policy change has come and the Church has seemingly weathered the storm for now. The next step in public protest is happening on June 10th, that’s national children’s day, where people who support the movement are encouraged to go to church in peaceful protest and speak with their local bishopric about the concerns the Protect LDS Children movement seeks to change. You can go to protectldschildren.org and pick up your button or bumper sticker and all you really have to pay is shipping, showing that Sam Young and the campaign are absorbing even more cost to make this movement a success. So, I encourage you to join me at church on June 10th, 2018, to sit in the pews of your local ward with buttons on and show the members that these issues are still rampant and have yet to be addressed. Spark up a conversation, talk to the bishop after sacrament meeting, do anything you feel comfortable doing to help the movement succeed in their efforts to end these one-on-one sexually explicit worthiness interviews. They may not have affected you personally in a negative way, but every day these interviews continue to happen is another person being emotionally or sexually abused in some way and it needs to stop.
This didn’t fit with anything in the episode, but pilfering through old newspaper headlines yields some interesting results which seem to capture cultural norms which we may see as utterly abhorrent by today’s standards. This was a mere 185 years ago, less than 3% of written human history has happened since this was published.
“Taken up and committed to Jail on the 3rd instant, a negro man who calls himself JIM, and says that he belongs to Mr. William Little of South-Carolina, & runaway from Mr. Wilson Delany, (to whom he was hired,) near Pineville, near the Santee river, about nine years and nine months ago. Mr. Little was at that time an overseer for Mr. Lewis Godine, and lived in a large white house, at Mr. Godine’s ferry. Said Negro is much pitted with the small pox, is 5 feet 1 inch high, about thirty-five years old, has been much injured in the right knee by a fall from a horse, walks leaning on the right side, and has a scar on the left wrist, which he says he received on board a French privateer. The owner is requested to come forward, prove property, pay charges nd take him away.”
I can’t wait to find out the justifications for not allowing black people into the celestial kingdom next episode!
Beep and final credits
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