Introduction to Book of Abraham Manuscripts, circa July–circa November 1835
Book of Abraham Manuscripts, circa July–circa November 1835
Following the acquisition of ancient mummies and papyri by JS and others in July 1835, JS began two related projects: (1) an attempt to catalog, understand, or decipher the Egyptian characters found on the papyri, and (2) an effort to translate the papyri by divine help, which resulted in the first portion of a scriptural text later known as the Book of Abraham. The -era Book of Abraham narrates the life of the biblical patriarch Abraham in the land of Ur, his journey to Egypt, and the origin of the Egyptian government. JS and his associates saw the Book of Abraham text as a translation of the recently purchased papyri. wrote at the time that JS “knew what they [the papyri] were and said they . . . contained the sacred record kept of Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court in Egypt, and the teachings of Father Abraham.” As with JS’s work on the Book of Mormon, the translation of the Book of Abraham was not a process in which someone proficient in two languages converted text from one language to the other. Rather, JS and those around him understood his translation work to be a revelatory process.
The text of the Book of Abraham was not published until 1842 in , Illinois, and a portion of the text was not dictated until shortly before its publication. During the last half of 1835, however, three scribes in , Ohio, created three separate manuscripts of the first part of the Book of Abraham. Neither the manuscripts themselves nor other contemporary documents explain when or how the texts were created. It seems likely that at least one other manuscript of the Book of Abraham was created in Kirtland but did not survive. The three manuscripts presented here are the earliest extant versions of the Book of Abraham, and the relationships among the manuscripts offer clues about the book’s translation and production.
JS and his scribes evidently worked on the Book of Abraham in summer 1835. JS’s history places the translation effort soon after the acquisition of the Egyptian artifacts in early July 1835. While all three scribes who created early manuscripts of the Book of Abraham—, , and —were present in that summer, Parrish apparently did not return to Kirtland from his mission until the end of July or the first part of August. In a late July 1835 letter to his wife, , William W. Phelps discussed the acquisition of the papyri and noted JS’s intention to “translate and print them in a book.” By early fall, the translation had both begun and then been suspended. In another letter to his wife, written 11 September 1835, Phelps reported that “nothing has been doing in the translation of the Egyptian Record for a long time, and probably will not for some time to come.” Eleven days after Phelps wrote his letter, JS and his clerks began keeping a daily journal of JS’s activities. On 7 October, the journal mentions that JS “recommenced translating the ancient reccords.” Several entries in the following month document JS’s effort to translate the papyri. In December, wrote a letter suggesting that the translation was not yet finished. By the end of 1835, JS and his associates had begun to focus on studying ancient Hebrew, which many nineteenth-century scholars believed was an important stepping stone to understanding Egyptian. But if this attempt to learn Hebrew was intended to assist them in their study of Egyptian, it quickly became a distraction. By January 1836, JS’s study of Hebrew diverted his attention away from the Book of Abraham.
The three manuscripts created by , , and are also related to JS’s efforts to study the Egyptian language. In the Book of Abraham manuscripts, characters from the papyri and other sources were copied in the margins next to passages of English text—as was done on the Egyptian Alphabet documents and Grammar and Alphabet volume. The text was presented in columns rather than in a single block, as was done in the Book of Mormon manuscript. The Williams and Parrish manuscripts also contain titles similar to those found in the Egyptian Alphabet documents.
The precise manner in which JS dictated the Book of Abraham text is unknown. JS left no statement describing the process, and his scribes and close associates provided few details. The accounts that do exist focus on JS’s translation as a revelatory process. stated, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.” In 1838, after he had left the church, denounced JS in a letter to a newspaper. Despite his bitter characterization of JS, his statement regarding the Book of Abraham suggests that JS and his scribes at the time believed JS dictated the manuscript by revelation: “I have set by his [JS’s] side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven.” recorded that when JS translated the Book of Abraham in in 1842, he did so “through the Urim & Thummim,” likely meaning JS’s seer stone. There is no evidence to suggest that JS used a seer stone as he dictated the text of the Book of Abraham in .
The three manuscripts presented here provide insight into the timing of the translation of the Book of Abraham text. The close relationship between the manuscripts created by and indicates that they were begun around the same time—perhaps even concurrently. The leaves on which the two manuscripts were inscribed were originally two halves of a single sheet: one large sheet was separated in two, and the halves were used by Williams and Parrish as the first leaves of their respective documents. The same process was repeated with a second large sheet, the halves of which then served as the second leaves of the two manuscripts. The texts of the Williams and Parrish manuscripts are similar though not identical, as are the revisions, including cancellations and insertions.
Discrepancies in the spelling of several words in the two manuscripts suggest that the manuscripts were not visually compared against one another or against a single, earlier version. Given the similarities between the texts of the two manuscripts and the revision process for both, JS may have dictated some or most of the text to both scribes at the same time. In that case, these two manuscripts would likely be the earliest dictated copies of the Book of Abraham. Some scribal errors in the later portion of the manuscript made by , however, indicate that he copied some of his text from another manuscript. JS may have read aloud to Williams and from an earlier, nonextant text, making corrections as he went; he followed a similar process in his work in the Bible revision project.
The third version, inscribed by and , silently incorporates most of the changes made in the earlier and Parrish versions. The most complete of any of the extant versions created in , the manuscript inscribed by Phelps and Parrish was originally copied into a bound volume, which suggests that it was viewed as a more permanent text, rather than a work in progress. This manuscript also contains prefatory material that does not appear in the other two Kirtland-era manuscripts. This prefatory material contains the most similarities to the definitions in the Grammar and Alphabet volume and was therefore also likely connected to JS’s study of the Egyptian language. Many themes appear both in the Book of Abraham manuscript inscribed by Phelps and Parrish and in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, and three characters that are analyzed in the fifth degree of the first part of the Grammar and Alphabet volume are found along the margin of this manuscript.
JS may have planned to translate more of the Book of Abraham when he moved to , but the conflict that ensued there, as well as JS’s arrest and incarceration in 1838–1839, prevented additional work. JS dictated later portions of the Book of Abraham in in 1842.
For instance, Oliver Cowdery stated of the content of the papyri and the expected translation: “Be there little or much, it must be an inestimable acquisition to our present scriptures, fulfilling, in a small degree, the word of the Prophet: For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Oliver Cowdery, Kirtland, OH, to William Frye, Lebanon, IL, 22 Dec. 1835, in Cowdery, Letterbook, 74.)
Cowdery, Oliver. Letterbook, 1833–1838. Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
JS History, vol. B-1, 596–597. These entries, written by Willard Richards on 15 and 16 September 1843, were likely drafted with input from William W. Phelps, who was assisting with the history at this time. (Richards, Journal, 15–16 Sept. 1843; see also Vogel, History of Joseph Smith, 240, 244.)
Woodruff, Journal, 28 June 1835 and 22–23 July 1835; Minutes, 14 July 1835; Phelps, Diary and Notebook, 16 May 1835; “From the Letters of the Elders Abroad,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Aug. 1835, 1:167.
Woodruff, Wilford. Journals, 1833–1898. Wilford Woodruff, Journals and Papers, 1828–1898. CHL. MS 1352.
Phelps, William W. Diary and Notebook, ca. 1835–1836, 1843, 1864. CHL. MS 3450.
Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Kirtland, OH. Oct. 1834–Sept. 1837.
William W. Phelps, [Kirtland, OH], to Sally Waterman Phelps, 11 Sept. 1835, William W. Phelps, Papers, BYU. Phelps wrote that he was engaged in revising hymns for a new hymnal, which presumably would have taken him away from work on the Egyptian project.
Grey, Matthew J. “‘The Word of the Lord in the Original’: Joseph Smith’s Study of Hebrew in Kirtland.” In Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges, 249–302. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015.
Warren Parrish, Kirtland, OH, 5 Feb. 1838, Letter to the Editor, Painesville (OH) Republican, 15 Feb. 1838, . While it is possible Parrish was speaking of the work on the Egyptian Alphabet documents or the Grammar and Alphabet volume, the majority of Parrish’s scribal work was on the Kirtland-era Book of Abraham manuscripts.
See Woodruff, Journal, 19 Feb. 1842. Word had reached a newspaper by August that JS examined “the papyrus through his spectacles” to determine the identity of the mummies. (“Another Humbug,” Cleveland Whig, 5 Aug. 1835, .)
Woodruff, Wilford. Journals, 1833–1898. Wilford Woodruff, Journals and Papers, 1828–1898. CHL. MS 1352.
See Matthews, Plainer Translation, 39; and Faulring et al., Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible, 4–6.
Matthews, Robert J. “A Plainer Translation”: Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible: A History and Commentary. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975.
Faulring, Scott H., Kent P. Jackson, and Robert J. Matthews, eds. Joseph Smith’s New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004.
Swartzell, William. Mormonism Exposed, Being a Journal of a Residence in Missouri from the 28th of May to the 20th of August, 1838, Together with an Appendix, Containing the Revelation concerning the Golden Bible, with Numerous Extracts from the ‘Book of Covenants,’ &c., &c. Pekin, OH: By the author, 1840.