Introduction to Egyptian Material
Napoleon Bonaparte’s late eighteenth-century adventures, depredations, and exploits unintentionally inaugurated an age of exploration and inquiry into Egyptian antiquities. Subsequently, sometime between 1817 and 1821, an Italian explorer, Antonio Lebolo, uncovered a tomb near Thebes, Egypt, containing a large cache of mummies and papyri. Later, eleven of the mummies were sent to New York City under what remain curious circumstances. In early July 1835 some of the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, purchased four Lebolo mummies and some papyri from Michael Chandler, an antiquities dealer visiting the area. (Hauglid, Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 1.) JS’s close associate, William W. Phelps, provided the following account of these events to his wife: “On the last of June four Egyptian mummies were brought here. With them were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings. . . . They were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were and said that the rolls of papyrus contained a sacred record kept by Joseph in Pharaoh’s court in Egypt and the teachings of Father Abraham.” Phelps added, “These records of old times when we translate and print them in a book will make a good witness for the Book of Mormon.” (William W. Phelps, Kirtland, OH, to Sally Phelps, Liberty, MO, 20 July 1835, in Journal History of the Church, 20 July 1835, CHL.)
Later that year, in response to public excitement prompted by “erroneous statements” circulating in the press concerning the Egyptian artifacts, correspondence between Oliver Cowdery, another close associate of JS, and a William Frye of Illinois was printed in the December 1835 issue of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Published under the heading “Egyptian Mummies—Ancient Records,” Cowdery’s letter to Frye endeavored to set the record straight concerning “a quantity of ancient records.” After reviewing the circumstances surrounding acquisition of the artifacts and describing some papyri in detail, Cowdery observed in closing, “When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probable idea how large volumes they will make. . . . Be they little or much, it must be an inestimable acquisition to our present scriptures.” (“Egyptian Mummies—Ancient Records,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1835, 2:223−227.)
By the time the Messenger and Advocate account was published, JS, Cowdery, Phelps, and JS’s scribes Frederick G. Williams and Warren Parrish had invested portions of the previous six months working with the Egyptian material. JS’s journal for the period from October to December 1835 contains nine entries recording activity directly associated with the Egyptian documents. In addition, a JS history entry for July 1835, probably composed by William W. Phelps in 1843, notes that JS was “engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.” (JS, History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, p. 597.)
Regardless of the specifics, it is apparent that JS and his scribes spent considerable time in the second half of 1835 and early 1836 engaged in two separate yet related endeavors: the translation of the Book of Abraham, which yielded several Abraham manuscripts; and a language-study effort that produced a number of Egyptian alphabet and grammar manuscripts. Both types of manuscripts exhibit connections to the papyri in JS’s possession and, according to the historical record, both projects occurred roughly concurrently. However, there is presently not enough information to definitively ascertain how these two projects related to each other or to the revelatory process.
The Egyptian manuscripts featured here, which constitute all the known and extant JS Egyptian manuscripts, range from a “counting” document to several “alphabet” documents to sheets of copied hieroglyphs. Scribes created entries on pages within a ledger book as well, titled “Grammar & Aphabet of the Egyptian Language.” In total, there is one ledger book, six other assorted records, and two small notebooks of copied hieroglyphs with English commentary. Some of the records are integral to one another; others are more textually tied to the papyri and extant manuscripts of the Book of Abraham. Historical introductions for each document will be posted soon to this website. For further information on the Abraham material, see “Introduction to Book of Abraham manuscripts.” The original papyri are partially extant; images are available here.
Note: The transcripts of the Egyptian material presented here are used with permission of Brian M. Hauglid, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. Hauglid is preparing a collection of JS Egyptian materials for print publication.