Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham

By Robin Scott Jensen, Associate Managing Historian

Western culture’s interest in Egypt has waxed and waned throughout the centuries, but during Joseph Smith’s time this interest was so strong that it has been termed “Egyptomania.” As new discoveries of ancient Egypt surfaced, scholars and laypersons alike wondered what civilization could build such impressive structures, statues, and monuments. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in the late 1700s, the interest in Egyptian artifacts intensified. Multiple museums acquired recently unearthed mummies or scrolls, individuals purchased artifacts, and crowds flocked to traveling exhibits of mummies and other relics. With reports of touring mummy displays published close to his home in Palmyra, New York, a young Joseph Smith would have been familiar with the larger cultural interest in all things ancient Egypt.

In the summer of 1835, Joseph Smith and several other individuals purchased four mummies and some papyri from Michael Chandler, who had brought these ancient Egyptian artifacts to Kirtland, Ohio. Smith and his clerks approached the task of understanding the writings on the papyri with longstanding assumptions about the Egyptian language. Many people of this time believed that ancient Egyptian culture and writings contained mysteries that, if unlocked, would illuminate universal truths about God’s relationship to humankind. Some scholars speculated that Egyptian hieroglyphs were related to ancient Hebrew, that a single Egyptian character contained multiple meanings, or that a single character could signify a substantial amount of information. Although scholars such as Jean-Francois Champollion made breakthroughs deciphering the Egyptian language in the 1820s, Smith and his clerks built upon earlier assumptions of the language in their own study by copying characters from the papyri and creating documents that explained some rules of the language as they understood them. They were, in essence, following earlier scriptural instruction to “study it out” in their minds.[1]

When Joseph Smith approached the papyri, he had already become an experienced translator of divine scripture. Those who joined the church and believed in the Book of Mormon recognized Smith’s translations as miraculous rather than academic. Smith himself stated that he translated the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.”[2] This gift and power came through the assistance of the interpreters and seer stone that he used during the translation. For the inspired revision of the Bible—the Joseph Smith Translation—meanwhile, Smith is not known to have used material artifacts. In making sense of the writings on the Egyptian papyri, Joseph Smith relied on scholarly assumptions, other individuals’ assistance, and his own pattern of revelatory translation.

Joseph Smith dictated the first portion of the Book of Abraham to his clerks in 1835. Later that year, several members of the church, including Smith, began to study Hebrew—possibly in an effort to better understand the Egyptian language. By the time the church’s headquarters moved from Kirtland to Far West, Missouri, in 1838, financial problems, legal proceedings, and other challenges had interfered with progress on translating the papyri. In 1842, after the church moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith finally found time to renew his effort to translate. As editor of the church’s newspaper, Times and Seasons, Smith began printing portions of the Book of Abraham that he and others had produced in Kirtland. Following the first installment of that publication, which appeared in the March 1 issue of the newspaper, Smith “commenced translation” of the next installment for the following issue. By May of that year, three issues had published two installments of the text of the Book of Abraham as well as three facsimiles of vignettes, or illustrations, found on the papyri. Despite a promise of additional excerpts of the Book of Abraham, no other installments were produced.

Shortly after the Book of Abraham was canonized by the church in 1880, inquiries about the origins of the text arose. When the church acquired and published the papyri in the 1960s, questions about the relationship between the papyri, the nineteenth-century effort to understand the Egyptian language, and the Book of Abraham multiplied. With the publication of the fourth volume of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, scholars now have, in a single volume, high-quality color photographs of the papyri, Egyptian language documents, Book of Abraham manuscripts, and Joseph Smith–era printed texts. This resource brings together much of what scholars will need as they attempt to answer the questions raised by the manuscripts themselves. For those interested in reading the volume’s introduction, it is now available on our website.