Part 1: 2 October–1 December 1835

In fall 1835, the township of , Ohio, was bustling with activity. Already home to approximately one thousand church members, it continued to absorb migrants almost daily. Some were new converts seeking to gather with the Latter-day Saints, while others were elders assembling for the 1835–1836 session of the Elders School. Work on the continued. With the central structure of the edifice largely completed by early fall, masons began applying plaster to the exterior and interior walls in early November. Commercial activity was on the rise, facilitated by mercantile firms operated by church members. Having recently published the Doctrine and Covenants, the church’s continued to disseminate ecclesiastical instruction and church-related news in periodicals such as the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, and the printers were preparing the church’s first hymnbook for publication.
As he oversaw these and many other efforts, JS continued to counsel church members and establish and explain doctrine through letters, sermons, and revelations. In a series of three letters printed in successive issues of the Messenger and Advocate, he expounded on doctrinal matters, provided specific instruction to missionaries, and responded to claims made by critics of the church. In a 23 October prayer, JS and other church leaders pleaded for relief from financial debts and for assistance in redeeming Zion. JS also continued to direct the church broadly and counsel or comfort its members individually through revelations, ten of which he dictated from mid-October to mid-November. A revelation dated 18 October prophesied that the sickness and distress experienced by church members would be mitigated; another, more personal revelation assured JS that his pregnant sister-in-law , who was “confined an[d] in a verry dangerous situation,” would deliver a healthy child. Throughout this period, JS also received dozens of visitors. Many came to examine the Egyptian antiquities that JS and others had purchased from traveling exhibitor in July, while others, such as and , came to “enquire concerning the faith” of the Latter-day Saints, “having heard many reports.”
As church members worked to finish the , JS prepared members of the church’s lay ministry to receive a promised endowment of power by urging sanctification and unity. On 5 October, he advised the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that it was the will of God that they attend the “solemn assembly of the first Elders for the organization of the School of the prophets, and attend to the ordinence of the washing of feet and to prepare their hearts in all humility for an endowment with power from on high.” Instruction sometimes included correction and chastisement. A 3 November revelation reproved the Quorum of the Twelve and commanded them to “repent speedily and prepare their hearts for the solem assembly and for the great day which is to come.” Nine days later, JS urged the Twelve to prepare themselves for the ritual of foot washing, which he told them was “calculated to unite our hearts, that we may be one in feeling and sentiment and that our faith may be strong.” While organizing the Elders School in early November, he stressed the necessity of “our rightly improving our time and reigning up our minds to a sense of the great object that lies before us, viz, that glorious endowment that God has in store for the faithful.”
After purchasing ’s collection of mummies and papyri in early July, JS and several associates devoted time to two separate but related endeavors during the fall: the translation of what would later be referred to as the Book of Abraham, and a language-study effort that produced a number of Egyptian alphabet and grammar manuscripts. Church leaders’ interest in ancient languages developed during a period when intellectuals were trying to uncover the origins of human language; Christian scholars in particular were interested in reviving the study of biblical languages like Hebrew and Aramaic. Though the arrival of the papyri in 1835 surely piqued JS’s and others’ interest in the Egyptian language, the translation of the ancient records and production of papyri-related texts—such as the Book of Abraham manuscript and the “Egyptian alphabet” that are featured in this section—were part of an abiding interest JS and his associates took in ancient languages and extra-biblical religious texts, an interest that extended back more than half a decade. JS reported that during the years 1828 and 1829, he translated the Book of Mormon from gold plates engraved in a language referred to as “reformed Egyptian.” While working on a revision of the Bible in 1830, JS added a passage to Genesis that referenced Adam passing down a “book of remembrance” so that his children could be taught in a language “which was pure & undefiled.” Two years later, JS dictated a document that revealed and defined some words from the “pure language” of God. Interest in ancient languages persisted into the mid-1830s; in late May 1835, penned a letter to his wife, , that included six characters that he classified as “a specimen of some of the ‘pure language.’”
News of JS’s translation of the papyri generated excitement and curiosity among many Latter-day Saints during the summer and fall of 1835. Sometime in late 1835, produced a document that featured several unknown characters paired with what appear to be translations; later copied and identified them as “characters on the book of Mormon.” The existence of these character documents, along with ’s sample of the pure language, suggests that JS and his associates were experimenting with various kinds of language study during this period. JS, Phelps, Cowdery, Williams, , and others began working with Egyptian characters from the papyri in summer 1835, and later that year they also began to study and translate Hebrew as a way to “understand his [the Lord’s] word in the original language.” They commenced an informal study of Hebrew during the early fall, which later led to a more systematic study of the language under noted Hebraist . The transcription, translation, and study of Egyptian characters undertaken by JS, Cowdery, Williams, Phelps, and Parrish likely overlapped with their informal study of Hebrew during the fall of 1835.
  1. 1

    Backman, Heavens Resound, 139–140; William W. Phelps, Kirtland, OH, to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 27 Oct. and 14 Nov. 1835, in Historical Department, Journal History of the Church, 27 Oct. and 14 Nov. 1835.  

    Backman, Milton V., Jr. The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830–1838. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983.

    Historical Department. Journal History of the Church, 1896–. CHL. CR 100 137.

  2. 2

    JS, Journal, 12 Nov. 1835.  

  3. 3

    William W. Phelps, Kirtland, OH, to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 20 July and 14 Nov. 1835, in Historical Department, Journal History of the Church, 20 July and 14 Nov. 1835; Crawley, Descriptive Bibliography, 1:47–52, 57–59.  

    Historical Department. Journal History of the Church, 1896–. CHL. CR 100 137.

    Crawley, Peter. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church. 3 vols. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1997–2012.

  4. 4

    Letter to the Elders of the Church, 2 Oct. 1835; Letter to the Elders of the Church, 16 Nov. 1835; Letter to the Elders of the Church, 30 Nov.–1 Dec. 1835.  

  5. 5

    Prayer, 23 Oct. 1835.  

  6. 6

    Revelation, 18 Oct. 1835; Revelation, 27 Oct. 1835; JS, Journal, 27 Oct. 1835.  

  7. 7

    JS, Journal, 15 and 17 Nov. 1835; Conversations with Robert Matthews, 9–11 Nov. 1835; JS, Journal, 4 Dec. 1835.  

  8. 8

    See Revelation, 22 June 1834 [D&C 105].  

  9. 9

    JS, Journal, 5 Oct. 1835.  

  10. 10

    Revelation, 1 Nov. 1835; Revelation, 3 Nov. 1835; Historical Introduction to Revelation, 8 Nov. 1835.  

  11. 11

    Revelation, 3 Nov. 1835.  

  12. 12

    Discourse, 12 Nov. 1835.  

  13. 13

    JS, Journal, 3 Nov. 1835. The Elders School was just one of several “schools” established in Kirtland during this period, with other classes focused on English grammar, writing, history, and geography. (Revelation, 2 Nov. 1835; William W. Phelps, Kirtland, OH, to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 14 Nov. 1835, in Historical Department, Journal History of the Church, 14 Nov. 1835; William W. Phelps, Kirtland Mills, OH, to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 18 Dec. 1835, in “Some Early Letters of William W. Phelps,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Jan. 1940, 30; Satterfield, “History of Adult Education in Kirtland,” 102–104.)  

    Historical Department. Journal History of the Church, 1896–. CHL. CR 100 137.

    Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine. Salt Lake City. 1910–1940.

    Satterfield, Bruce Kelly. “The History of Adult Education in Kirtland, Ohio, 1833–37.” PhD diss., University of Idaho, 2002.

  14. 14

    Historical Introduction to Book of Abraham Manuscript, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–A [Abraham 1:4–2:6]; Historical Introduction to Egyptian Alphabet, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–A.  

  15. 15

    Examples of such intellectuals include Stephen Sewall, Alexander Campbell, and Moses Stuart. (Goldman, God’s Sacred Tongue, 45–50, 141–150; Brown, “Joseph [Smith] in Egypt,” 36–40.)  

    Goldman, Shalom. God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

    Brown, Samuel. “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden.” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture 78, no. 1 (Mar. 2009): 26–65.

  16. 16

    JS History, vol. A-1, 13; Book of Mormon, 1830 ed., 538 [Mormon 9:32]; see also Introduction to Part 1: July 1828–Mar. 1829.  

  17. 17

    Old Testament Revision 1, p. 11 [Moses 6:5–6]; Sample of Pure Language, between ca. 4 and ca. 20 Mar. 1832.  

  18. 18

    William W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and Frederick G. Williams deciphered various characters related to what they believed was the “pure language,” presumably the language used by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as well as characters reportedly copied from the gold plates. (William W. Phelps, [Kirtland, OH], to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 26 May 1835, William W. Phelps, Papers, BYU; Characters Copied by Oliver Cowdery, ca. 1835–1836; Writings and Characters Copied by Frederick G. Williams, ca. early to mid-1830s.)  

    Phelps, William W. Papers, 1835–1865. BYU.

  19. 19

    William W. Phelps, [Kirtland, OH], to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 26 May 1835, William W. Phelps, Papers, BYU.  

    Phelps, William W. Papers, 1835–1865. BYU.

  20. 20

    William W. Phelps, Kirtland, OH, to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 20 July 1835, in Historical Department, Journal History of the Church, 20 July 1835; Albert Brown to “Dear Parents,” 1 Nov. 1835, Amos L. Underwood Correspondence, CHL; Oliver Cowdery, Kirtland, OH, to William Frye, Lebanon, IL, 22 Dec. 1835, in Cowdery, Letterbook, 71–74.  

    Historical Department. Journal History of the Church, 1896–. CHL. CR 100 137.

    Underwood, Amos L. Correspondence, 1831–1853. CHL.

    Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833–1838. Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

  21. 21

    Characters Copied by Oliver Cowdery, ca. 1835–1836; Writings and Characters Copied by Frederick G. Williams, ca. early to mid-1830s.  

  22. 22

    The same six characters that Phelps wrote later appeared in copies of the Egyptian alphabet. (Egyptian Alphabet, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–A.)  

  23. 23

    JS, Journal, 19 Jan. 1836; see also JS, Journal, 21 Nov. 1835 and 26 Jan. 1836.  

  24. 24

    Historical Introduction to Letter to Henrietta Raphael Seixas, between 6 and 13 Feb. 1836.  

  25. 25

    See Historical Introduction to Letter to Henrietta Raphael Seixas, between 6 and 13 Feb. 1836.