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Spencer: The expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from their lands in Jackson County, Missouri, in late 1833 was incredibly disruptive to the church. It threw more than a thousand Latter-day Saints into poverty and forced them to start rebuilding their lives. Furthermore, many church members worried that they had lost Zion. Compounding these worries were the halting of the church’s printing operations that resulted from the destruction of the Missouri printing office and the indefinite delay in constructing a temple in the city of Zion.
Much of the work that Joseph Smith and his fellow church leaders undertook in the years that followed centered on these concerns. Could they effectively use political and legal channels to reclaim their land in Missouri—to redeem Zion? Could they resume printing revelations and scripture? Could they expedite the work to build the House of the Lord in Kirtland?
Through all these setbacks Joseph Smith continued to articulate a bright future for the Latter-day Saints. In this episode we’ll show how the efforts to redeem Zion would result in a strengthened church membership and how the building of the Kirtland Temple would inspire men and women to prepare themselves spiritually for the blessings that awaited them therein. Furthermore, we’ll talk about how an unexpected acquisition of ancient artifacts would result in the translation of ancient scripture. Kirtland was central to each of these events, and revelations directed the Saints through it all.
This is Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 5: “Temples and Scripture”
Spencer: In the spring of 1834, Joseph Smith’s attention was occupied by the crisis in Missouri. Church members had been unlawfully expelled from their lands. And according to revelation, those lands were designated as the center place in the gathering of Israel ahead of the second coming of Jesus Christ. What was the best path forward for the church in Missouri? What could church members elsewhere, including those who lived in Kirtland, do to help their fellow Saints? Matthew Godfrey, a general editor of The Joseph Smith Papers, explains what Joseph Smith and other church leaders ultimately decided.
Matthew: Parley P. Pratt and Lyman Wight, who are living in Missouri, are actually sent to Kirtland to consult with Joseph Smith about what the Saints there need to do. And they meet with the Kirtland high council in February of 1834, and they outline the plight of the saints in Missouri and ask for help. When Joseph hears this in the meeting, he stands up and he says, “I’m going to go help my brethren in Missouri. Who is going to go with me?” And so he asked for volunteers at that meeting.
Now that same day that this meeting happens, Joseph also receives a revelation, which is currently section 103 in the Doctrine and Covenants. And in this revelation it refers to a parable of the nobleman whose land has been overrun by his enemies and who tells his servant to call up the strength of the Lord’s house to go and redeem his land.
And this revelation tells Joseph Smith, “Joseph, you are the servant in this parable. You need to gather up the strength of the Lord’s house, and you need to go help those who are in Missouri.” And so this begins a process of Joseph and several other church leaders going out and recruiting people and trying to raise money so that they can go to Missouri and help those who are there. And this of course is the genesis of the Camp of Israel, what we know today as Zion’s Camp.
Spencer: The mission of the Camp of Israel, or Zion’s Camp, was to redeem Zion, to reclaim and protect the lands in Missouri from which the Latter-day Saints had been unlawfully expelled. But they intended to do so by working through proper legal and political channels.
Matthew: Now when we think about Zion’s Camp, sometimes we think that what it was supposed to do is this group of men and women that Joseph raised were supposed to march into Missouri, go into Jackson County, and retake the Saints’ land. But that’s not what the goal of Zion’s Camp was.
We have a letter that Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon write to the church in May of 1834, that explained exactly what the goals were. Joseph Smith was under the impression that Governor Daniel Dunklin of Missouri was willing to call out the state militia in order to help the Saints regain their land. And the problem was, is that once the Saints regained their land, Governor Dunklin couldn’t keep the militia mustered as a protective force for the Saints. And so what Joseph envisioned the Camp of Israel to be is a group that would go into Missouri; they would then petition Daniel Dunklin to call up the state militia. The militia would then escort the Saints back to their lands in Jackson County, and then when the militia left, this group that we know as Zion’s Camp would stay in Jackson County and protect the Saints from being driven off their lands again. So that was really the goal of it.
Spencer: So the Camp of Israel did not intend to retake the land in Missouri by force. Instead it intended to protect the Saints’ land in Missouri after the governor used the state militia to restore it to its proper owners. So how did the plan work?
Matthew: Now there’s about 230 men, women, and children that go to Missouri on the Camp of Israel expedition. And when they get there, they do send people to go talk to Governor Dunklin. Orson Hyde and Parley P. Pratt are the two that are sent to ask the governor to call out the state militia. And there’s some confusion about what actually happened when they went there, but the end result was that Governor Dunklin was not willing at that time to call out the state militia.
And so that kind of negates what Joseph Smith was hoping the Camp of Israel would do. Because if the state militia isn’t willing to escort the Saints back to their land, there’s not much that the Camp of Israel can do. Especially because there’s a whole lot of opposition to the Camp of Israel, and there are reports that there are men from adjoining counties to Jackson County that are mustering, that they have marched into Jackson County and have threatened that if the Saints cross the Missouri River into Jackson County, there will be bloodshed. And so Joseph, of course, wants to avoid any kind of fight with these individuals.
Spencer: A revelation provided direction to Joseph Smith on how to proceed.
Matthew: And so after hearing the report from Orson Hyde and Parley P. Pratt, he receives a revelation, which is section 105 in our current Doctrine and Covenants, that tells Joseph that the time is not yet right for Zion to be redeemed, for the Saints to get their lands back. And it says that there needs to be an endowment of power that is given to the elders first before Zion can be redeemed. And it essentially tells those that have been on the Zion’s Camp expedition: thank you for your service, you’re no longer needed, and the camp disbands after that to return to Kirtland.
Spencer: Not long after the disbandment of the Camp of Israel, the First Presidency formed the Quorums of the Seventy as part of the expanding church leadership structure. The expansion, which occurred in accordance with revelations on priesthood that Joseph Smith received in Kirtland, gave more men opportunities to participate in the work of leading the church. Several historians have observed that of those called to serve as seventies, many had been a part of the Camp of Israel, and that the expedition had served as a training ground of sorts for these men. In addition, when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was formed in 1835, many of the Quorum’s first members had also participated in the Camp of Israel.
But the revelation that disbanded the Camp of Israel also focused the attention of church members on the endowment of power that they had been promised. The revelation made it clear that they needed this endowment of power before Zion could be redeemed. And the endowment of power they sought required the completion of the House of the Lord in Kirtland.
Spencer: The plan to build a temple in Kirtland had been in the works since 1832. And it was always tied to the endowment of power referenced in the December 1830 revelation that commanded Joseph Smith and the Saints to move to Ohio. Brent Rogers, Managing Historian of The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Brent: When they’re in Ohio, Joseph Smith receives another revelation in December 1832, so almost two years later, that calls on Church members to establish a “House of God.” So this is now the place where they’re being told they’re going to be endowed with power from on high, as they had been told in that early January 1831 revelation. And so at that time period of December 1832 through June 1833, I think there’s some conversations that are going on about what it will take to build the house, but whatever conversations they had been having during that period, on June 1, 1833, they hadn’t done enough. In a revelation, there’s a strong chastisement from the Lord in which He says, “Ye have sinned against me a very grievous sin, in that ye have not considered the great commandment in all things that I have given unto you concerning the building of mine house.”
Spencer: This revelation, while chastising, also reinforced the centrality of temple to all that the Latter-day Saints were doing in Kirtland. The revelation made it clear that building the House of the Lord in that city was essential.
Brent: And so while they know they need to go to Ohio, they’re there, they need to build a House of God, but they haven’t done enough. This is, the Lord is saying, “The great commandment in all things.” It’s showing pretty clearly that the building of the House of God is a huge priority for the Saints. And by June 1, when that revelation is given of the Lord, they have not done enough to build this house that will enable the endowment with power from on high.
So over the course of the next six days, a lot happens. And by June 7, 1833, Hyrum Smith recorded in his journal that he went out and struck the first blow to the ground. His journal reads, “This day commenced making preparations for the building of the House of the Lord.”
Spencer: There was no pomp or ceremony in this groundbreaking. It was just Hyrum Smith taking the chastisement in the June 1, 1833 revelation to heart, taking a digging instrument of some sort, and starting the work of construction.
As for the plans for the temple, those also came within days of Hyrum Smith breaking ground for the building. In fact, the plans for the temple were revealed in a vision to the First Presidency, which then consisted of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams.
Brent: And as they’re engaged in unified prayer, the later account says that they were encircled in a vision, in which the Lord showed them what the house would look like, the general dimensions, and some of the architectural specifications. And so by June 7, there is enough information out there that Hyrum Smith goes out and starts with such a vigor, with almost a zeal, goes out and starts digging by hand and with some tools the trenches for the foundation of the temple, and it’s really at that point when the work truly commences.
Spencer: I asked Brent how the design elements revealed in this vision were incorporated into the formal plans for construction and who made those plans?
Brent: So what we can tell from the existing documents is that Frederick G. Williams drew up the plans and likely in consultation with Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. And so the plans that we have for the building are in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, and so he could be credited with those first plans. There was a building committee established. Reynolds Cahoon, Jerry Carter, and Hyrum Smith were the building committee to sort of oversee the getting of materials and the organizing of work and things like that. Others came on later. Artemis Millet, Jacob Bump, Truman Angel were individuals that helped to maybe flesh out some of the design elements and to make the building architecturally sound and to help oversee work that was happening. And then you could add Brigham Young into the credits for finishing the interior and doing work as a painter and glazier to finish the work on the temple.
Spencer: Where did church members get the materials that they needed to construct the temple?
Brent: So the building was mostly constructed with stone from local quarries, from local timber; some materials were obtained through merchants in the eastern United States, mostly in New York.
Spencer: Brent told me that the funds to purchase the land upon which the Kirtland House of the Lord was built came from the generous donations from church members.
Brent: The land for the temple is purchased because of donations that were given to the church. One in particular was from a woman named Vienna Jacques.
Vienna gives a considerable amount of her means; she was a very wealthy woman who moved from the Boston area to gather with the Saints and brought with her all of her means which she donated to the church. And the church used that money as well as other donations to buy the land. And as more funds were needed, they took out some lines of credit with mostly New York financiers and those kind of things.
Spencer: So while donations helped the church purchase the land, other financial arrangements were needed for the construction to move forward. One of those additional arrangements was through subscriptions. Elizabeth Kuehn, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Elizabeth: So a portion of the Kirtland temple was funded by subscriptions, and these are essentially asking people to pay in the future and then coming back to them at that future date and saying, “Hey, you said you’d give a hundred dollars, can I have that money now?” And a lot of people want to make that donation. And so they subscribe, but unfortunately this is a relatively impoverished community, and so you don’t have many really wealthy individuals who are able to give charitable donations. You have some like John Tanner that give quite a lot to the temple, but for most, they were able to give their work and not actually any kind of money.
Spencer: But donations and subscriptions were not enough.
Elizabeth: So despite all that the Saints sacrificed, more money was needed, and the majority of these funds came in relation to some mercantile stores that were developed by the temple committee starting in 1835. And so by the time that the temple is dedicated, you have essentially the bulk of the temple funds are tied up in mercantile debt.
And the hope was that they would buy these wholesale goods from merchants in the East and then be able to sell these goods and make a profit that could then be used to help the temple. That happens in some regard, but it doesn’t happen to the extent that they had hoped, and so they were actually indebted for a lot of these goods and unable to pay for them; and that ends up causing problems later.
Spencer: As for the work on the temple itself, that came from church members volunteering their time and labor. The women of the church played a crucial role in this too, facilitating much of the work that the builders did. Jenny Reeder, a historian with the Church History Department, spoke with me about the role of women in the building of the Kirtland temple.
Jenny: They played a huge role in the construction of the Kirtland temple, and it’s fascinating to me how they were able to do that. Of course, Emma boarded men working on the temple in her home, and she cared for them. But she also supported other women and joined other women.
Heber C. Kimball remembers his wife, Vilate, spinning wool. There was kind of a quota from a bunch of different women to spin wool for the workers on the temple, and they were also promised a portion of the wool that they spun to keep for themselves. But Vilate Kimball gave all that she spun, which was heavy, hard work, to the temple, and she was so grateful to be a part of that.
Spencer: Providing room and board for those building the temple was also a considerable contribution made by women.
Jenny: In fact, I would add something too. At one point, Emma had invited so many of these men working on the Kirtland temple to stay at her home that she and Joseph had to sleep on the floor, and I think that’s just a sign of how engaged she was as the wife of the prophet and as a Latter-day Saint to welcome people and to make sure they were comfortable.
Spencer: Women helped in other ways too, as did the children of Kirtland.
Jenny: There’s an account of a woman driving a wagon to the quarry to get stone and bring it back to Kirtland for the temple, and I love that story. I also love that the children were asked to help collect broken plates, broken china, and to contribute as a part of the stucco of the Kirtland temple. Oftentimes, we repeat the story that women gave their finest china to be broken up and put into this stucco, but that’s not the case. It was in fact already broken and worn down china, but still it made that temple glisten.
Spencer: The work of building the Kirtland House of the Lord went on and the Latter-day Saints in the community anxiously noted its progress. They believed that when it was finished that they would experience the long-awaited, the long-promised endowment of power.
Spencer: With the destruction of the church’s printing office in Missouri, the church moved its printing operations to Kirtland. And there was a strong demand for printed material. The top priority was publishing many of the revelations that Joseph Smith had received to that point in time.
Sharalyn: In September 1834, the Kirtland high council appointed a committee to publish revelations, and this committee consisted of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams.
Spencer: That’s Sharalyn Howcroft, the project archivist of The Joseph Smith Papers.
Sharalyn: The original intent was to publish excerpts from the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith’s revelations under one cover, but they decided to revise that idea to include parts of the Doctrine and the Covenants.
Now the doctrine consisted of seven lectures on faith, and the covenants were the revelations that were part of the Book of Commandments, but additional revelations received since then, and some expanded revelations.
Spencer: For example, many of the revelations on the administration of the church and on the priesthood—the revelations that were copied by hand and circulated more than any others—were included near the front of the section containing the revelations.
In 1835, church leaders accomplished their goal with the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants. It was a collection of many of the revelations dictated by Joseph Smith, as well as some doctrinal teachings delivered in Kirtland. This was a significant moment in the ability of men and women to read the revelations and teachings of a prophet in their own time. Robin Jensen, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Robin: By September of 1835, you could purchase a copy. And this is after five long years of the church’s existence, seven or so years of Joseph Smith receiving revelations, members of the church could finally have access to these revelations.
Spencer: The composition of the book of Doctrine and Covenants in 1835 is a little different than the current edition. In part, this is because Joseph Smith and other presidents of the church received revelations after 1835 that were later added to the book. But the organization and content of the book was a little different as well.
Robin: So the Doctrine and Covenants was originally conceived as two parts. The first part was the doctrine of the church, and this was the Lectures on Faith. And the second part was the covenants and commandments of the Lord, and those were the revelations received by Joseph Smith. So the Doctrine and the Covenants was originally a two-part volume that contained these Lectures on Faith and the covenants or the revelations.
Spencer: The preface of the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants states that the Lectures on Faith were, “a series of Lectures as delivered before a Theological class in this place.” The preface does not state who delivered the lectures. Scholars today are uncertain about their authorship, whether it was Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, somebody else, or a combination of individuals.
As the church grew, it also started to feel an acute need for a second edition of the Book of Mormon. When the first edition of the Book of Mormon was published in Palmyra, New York, Joseph Smith had 5,000 copies printed. By 1836, it was difficult to find a copy if you did not already have one. The church needed to print more. In 1837, the second edition of the Book of Mormon was published in Kirtland.
The work of preparing the second edition included a review of the entire text by Joseph Smith. He used the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon to make changes to the text, primarily to correct grammatical and spelling errors, as well as punctuation. However, in a few instances, he made changes related to doctrine and theology. For example, in several places he changed to pronouns used to refer to God from “which” to “who,” opting for the pronoun more commonly used for persons instead of the pronoun more commonly used for objects. For those interested in this process, The Joseph Smith Papers has published the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon in print and online. On high resolution color images, you can view any and all markings on the manuscript used in preparing for the printing of the second edition of the Book of Mormon.
It’s significant, though, that the efforts to publish scripture in Kirtland went beyond the Doctrine and Covenants and a new edition of the Book of Mormon. I’m talking about the Book of Abraham.
Spencer: Even as the church was working to publish the Doctrine and Covenants and contemplating a new edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith started work on a new scriptural project—the translation of the Book of Abraham.
The Book of Abraham is a record of the biblical prophet and patriarch Abraham. It tells the story of Abraham seeking the blessings of the priesthood, rejecting the idolatry of his father, and covenanting with Jehovah. It tells the story of Abraham marrying Sarah, moving to Canaan and to Egypt, and receiving knowledge about the creation of the earth. So the Book of Abraham largely follows the biblical narrative of Abraham’s life, but it adds important information regarding Abraham’s life and his teachings.
Spencer: The story of the coming forth of the Book of Abraham has to do with a touring exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts. And the tour occurred during a period of time in which Americans were particularly fascinated by ancient Egyptian civilization. Robin Jensen explains.
Robin: The early nineteenth-century America, you could often find a traveling exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts. This is what scholars called Egyptomania. Most in Europe and in America, they were obsessed with these recent discoveries in Egypt, and it really makes sense. If you heard of someone who went to Egypt, you see these giant pyramids, you see these sculptures and remnants of this ancient civilization, and you wonder what people created this, what civilization was around that created this?
And then as you would dig into the graves and other areas and you uncovered mummies and papyri and other artifacts, it’s just so fascinating. Everyone just loved this. And so people, enterprising individuals, quickly realized that you could take some of these artifacts, mummies, papyri, and tour them around Europe or America and make some money. You could charge 10 cents, 25 cents and people would pay to come and look at these.
Spencer: So in 1835, a man named Michael Chandler arrived in Kirtland exhibiting Egyptian artifacts, including mummies and papyri. And Joseph Smith took an immediate interest in them. Christian Heimburger, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Christian: I think it’s safe to say that Chandler’s visit and the eventual purchase of the mummies and papyri were fortuitous. During the mummies’ two-year tour, Michael Chandler apparently sought out experts whom he hoped could translate mysterious characters that were inscribed on the scrolls from the papyri. Several individuals in the East apparently referred Chandler to the famed Joseph Smith, who he was told had previously translated ancient characters.
So when Chandler arrived in Ohio, he sought out Joseph Smith, who provided him with an interpretation of some of those characters. What Joseph saw convinced him that these ancient records were of great worth spiritually. According to Oliver Cowdery, Chandler would only part with the records if Joseph also purchased the mummies.
Spencer: The people of Kirtland, like the rest of the United States, were excited to learn more about the people of ancient Egypt. But there was a component of their interest in ancient records that may not have been as present in most other American cities at this time.
Christian: I think it’s important though to note that the acquisition of the papyri was not the sole catalyst for church members’ interest in ancient texts and language study. Joseph, of course, had previously stated that he had translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates engraved in a language referred to as reformed Egyptian. In 1832, Joseph dictated a document that defined words from what was referred to as the pure language of God.
And in addition to this, Joseph and other church leaders also began to study Hebrew not long after he acquired the papyri. So in other words, the analysis and the translation of the Egyptian characters inscribed on the papyri represented one part of a larger ongoing project to understand various ancient languages and texts during the early 1830s.
Spencer: But the interest in ancient languages exhibited by Joseph Smith and his fellow church members went well beyond a curiosity about the past.
Robin: This makes complete sense, because Joseph Smith had taught and learned from experience that ancient civilizations could teach modern cultures about the dealing of God.
So for instance, the Book of Mormon, that’s a history of an ancient civilization that lets us know about God’s dealing with his children. And so he believed that God spoke to his children throughout history, and if he could uncover some of those dealings of God with his children in the past, it might benefit the present. And so when he saw these mummies and these papyri, he must have wondered, maybe there’s something here that might benefit us either directly or tangentially. He believed that all ancient languages were connected like everyone else, that if you learned one ancient language, it could help you understand another ancient language.
Spencer: The church did not publish the text until 1842, when it appeared in the church’s Nauvoo, Illinois, newspaper, the Times and Seasons, titled “The Book of Abraham.” Kerry Muhlestein, an Egyptologist and a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, described the result of Joseph’s work with the papyri.
Kerry: I’d say the Book of Abraham is this fantastic record from Abraham where he not only records some of his stories, so the story of his God making a covenant with him, God delivering him. So we get these first couple of chapters that are about Abraham’s relationship with God, but then God teaches him about his relationship with the cosmos and with all of mankind and even starts into the creation story. And so on a lot of levels, the Book of Abraham is about who God is and what His relationship is to us, and how He’s trying to increase that relationship through covenant and through redemption. It’s just a powerful, fantastic message in just a few pages.
Spencer: I asked Kerry about what we know about how Joseph Smith undertook the work of translation.
Kerry: What Joseph does in his work as a translator does fit within the technical definition of translation, but it’s not how most of us think of translating. So most of us think of it as someone who knows one language and they know a second language, and they take a text, whether that’s an oral text or a written text, they take a text from the first language, and because of their academic training, they translate it into the second language. Right? So I’ve done that with Hebrew and Egyptian text. I know how that works. Joseph doesn’t know any of those ancient languages. So he gives us a translation from a language he doesn’t know into a language that he does know, and it only happens by divine aid.
Spencer: Kerry compared Joseph Smith’s work on the Book of Abraham to his work on the new translation of the Bible.
Kerry: Now there’s another twist to put in there as well. What he calls the new translation of the Bible is actually not going from one language to another; both texts are in English, but the second text has in it things that aren’t in the original text. So it’s still a kind of a translation, but in all cases with Joseph Smith, it involves the divine. This is something that he can do with divine aid and is incapable of doing without divine aid. That’s still translation—it’s what we will call the gift of tongues—but it’s not translation in the typical sense that we think of today.
Spencer: Why do you think that Joseph said so little about his revelatory and translation processes?
Kerry: I wish we understood more about that revelatory and translation process. I so wish we understood more. Joseph Smith tells us pretty much nothing about it. Just like with the translation of the Book of Mormon, if you want to find out details about that, you have to read what his scribes say because Joseph doesn’t say anything. And there’s probably a reason for that. One is that it’s a very sacred experience for him, but two, it’s probably very hard for him to describe.
I know that the experiences I have with inspiration or revelatory experiences from my own life or in callings that I receive, it’s pretty hard to describe. Even when I understand it, I can’t put it into words. And sometimes I don’t fully understand it, so I suspect that it’s something similar to that for Joseph Smith, that this is a process that goes beyond his ability to describe for us, so he doesn’t describe. For the Book of Mormon, he tells us it’s the gift and power of God, and we just kind of have to insert that in with the Book of Abraham as well. We really don’t get something from Joseph Smith describing it.
Spencer: Today, some scholars suggest that for Joseph Smith, the papyrus acted as a catalyst of sorts and that the text of the Book of Abraham came to him through revelation. Others suggest that the text was the direct translation of papyrus scrolls that no longer exist. Since only a fraction of the papyrus scrolls that Joseph Smith possessed survive today, it is likely futile to try to fully assess the mechanics of his translation.
So I asked Kerry what, if anything, do we learn from Joseph Smith’s scribes about the translation process?
Kerry: You don’t get a lot from his scribes either. One of the great statements is from Warren Parrish, who is one of his scribes as he’s dictating the Book of Abraham, and Warren Parrish gives us this information after he’s left the church and doesn’t like Joseph Smith. And it’s part of something he’s saying to say things against Joseph Smith, but he says that he set by a side and the word he uses is Joseph claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from heaven. So that’s about as close and good a description as we get. We get later people like Wilford Woodruff and Orson Pratt talking about Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim. They’re talking about the Nauvoo period, not so much the Kirtland period. So maybe that was involved. But in the end, all we have to say is we really don’t know much of how it happened other than every single person who was ever eyewitness to it in any way who speaks of it, speaks of heaven being involved or inspiration being involved. All of them agree that this is a heavenly thing, not any kind of ordinary process, but an inspired process.
Spencer: Portions of the papyri that Joseph Smith purchased in Kirtland survive and are owned by the church today. But it is clear that the surviving fragments are not all of what Joseph Smith owned and worked with in Kirtland. Some of the papyrus is lost or no longer survives.
Kerry: We have today only a small portion of the papyri that Joseph Smith had. We knew he had a long roll and a short roll, and what we have are fragments. And they may be from those rolls or they may just be separate fragments; he had some fragments as well. So we have a small percentage of what he originally had. The only reason we can be sure that any of these fragments are in any way associated with the Book of Abraham is because one of the fragments—the one that’s labeled “Fragment One”—has the drawing on it that “Facsimile 1” is a facsimile of. It’s a facsimile, that vignette, is what we call it as Egyptologists on the papyrus. So at least that drawing has a connection with the Book of Abraham. But other than that, we can’t tell that there’s any connection from any of these fragments with the Book of Abraham. So when we translate the text adjacent to that drawing, we can translate that today and I’ve translated it, it is an Egyptian funerary document called “The Book of Breathings”. And it’s a really interesting document, I think, but it’s got nothing to do with Abraham or the Book of Abraham.
Spencer: While the papyrus fragments that survive do not translate to what exists as the Book of Abraham, Kerry explains that any academic approach to the Book of Abraham must take into account what we do know as well as what we don’t know.
Kerry: So again we have to ask ourselves, what do we know about the relationship of that text and the Book of Abraham, and the answer is we don’t know anything. We can assume, and people did assume, that Joseph is translating the text adjacent to the drawing, but we have no evidence that points towards that, and we actually have quite a bit of evidence that points away from that, that talks about him translating on the larger roll or things like that. So again we just have to say, well, that must not be what he’s translating from, there’s nothing that would tell us that it has to be that and there’s a lot that says it’s probably not, including the fact that when we translate it, it says something else.
And so again, I think we need to be careful to distinguish between things that we can actually know and you can actually know about Joseph Smith as a translator through revelatory experiences of your own. You can know that, but what we can learn from these fragments is very limited. We just don’t have enough information. So be careful to distinguish between conclusions that can be drawn from fragmentary information and bad assumptions and conclusions that can be drawn from good information and from revelatory experiences.
Spencer: It is worth noting, too, that scholars of religious history, in their professional pursuits, are not tasked with proving or disproving religious claims. Instead we seek to understand and to contextualize them. And, as with any subject, there are limits to what we can know from the historical sources that survive.
Robin: We scholars like to think that we have all the answers, and members of the church sometimes think that we have all the answers, but neither of those is true. And so ultimately the Book of Abraham is a matter of faith. That even though we don’t have all of the answers, if we can be open-minded and accept the fact that there are complications about the record, that there are complications about the evidence, and that some of the evidence doesn’t make sense, but this is recognized by millions of church members and scriptures. That is just as important, if not the most important piece of evidence that we’re dealing with.
Spencer: For Latter-day Saints and any others who believe that God can and does reveal truth to men and women even without clarity of all historical details, this kind of revelation matters. It matters to their religious devotion and in their understanding of God’s dealings with humankind throughout history. At the conclusion of our conversation, Robin considered how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might approach their understanding of the coming forth of Joseph Smith’s scriptural translations.
Robin: The most important thing to read about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is the Book of Mormon. The most important thing to read about the coming forth of the Book of Abraham is the Book of Abraham. That is where you will gain this testimony. And when you feel the Holy Ghost bearing witness to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon or the truthfulness of the Book of Abraham, I hope that you will also recognize that there can be nuances and ambiguities and even some false assumptions that you’ve made about the coming forth of those things. That the book of scripture that you believe in is true, but you also might have some faulty information or faulty assumptions about how that scripture came to be. And as we learn more about the coming forth of these scriptures, as we learn more about Joseph Smith’s translation and revelatory experience, we will uncover new, interesting, important facts about Joseph Smith and his process. But we won’t learn more about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon or the truthfulness of the Book of Abraham.
Spencer: In 2018, The Joseph Smith Papers published Volume 4 of the project’s Revelations and Translations series, which features the extant fragments of the Egyptian papyrus and several nineteenth-century records associated with them. If you are interested in learning more, the contents of that volume are also available on the project’s website, josephsmithpapers.org.
Spencer: Amid all the publishing and translation efforts in Kirtland, the church was growing. And as the year 1835 came to a close, and as the pages of the calendar turned, it was clear that the temple was almost complete. To church members, completion of the temple meant that the long-awaited endowment of power was imminent. Their hopes were high, but opposition to the church was growing in the area. How would the endowment of power prepare church members to withstand the trials that lay ahead?
We’ll talk about that in the next episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.