Joseph Smith Among The Egyptians An Examination Of The Source Of Joseph Smith’s Book Of Abraham -- By: Wesley P. Walters

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 16:1 (Winter 1973)
Article: Joseph Smith Among The Egyptians An Examination Of The Source Of Joseph Smith’s Book Of Abraham
Author: Wesley P. Walters


Joseph Smith Among The Egyptians
An Examination Of The Source Of
Joseph Smith’s Book Of Abraham

Wesley P. Walters

Marissa United Presbyterian Church, Marissa, Illinois 62257

Was the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr., the first American Egyptologist? He could well be credited with this distinction if his claim to be able to read Egyptian by direct divine aid is true. In 1835, while Cham-pollion in France was just making the first break-through in understanding the method of Egyptian writing, Joseph Smith’s History records the following about his own Egyptian studies:

The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.1

No wonder the Mormon writer William Berrett proudly announced about his Prophet, “His most notable achievement was the development of a Grammar for the Egyptian hieroglyphic form of writing,” and he added that it was “the first Egyptian grammar in America.”2

The question of whether Joseph Smith could really understand Egyptian has more than just academic or even historical interest. Smith’s claim to be the restorer of the world’s only true religion ultimately rests on whether he could translate unknown languages by divine power. He first put forth his claim to such supernatural ability when he maintained that he had translated his Book of Mormon from golden plates written in “Reformed Egyptian,” a language which he alone, by divine aid, could read. Although witnesses claim to have seen the gold plates, no one at that time—not even the wituesses—was able to check Smith’s translating ability. Upon completion of the work the plates were said to have been returned to God, leading one of Smith’s contemporaries to ask, granting there were such plates, “how are we to know that the Book of Mormon is a correct trans-

lation?” 3 The only point, therefore, at which one might check as to whether Joseph Smith did have a gift for translating is in regard to the Egyptian documents he began to translate in 1835.

In the latter part of June that year a man named Michael Chandler brought to Kirtland, Ohio four mummies and some papyrus writings found with them.4 When the Mormons purchased these a few weeks later, the Mormon Prophet with his divine gift began work on them and much to their delight announced “that one of the rolls cont...

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