Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts

Since the 1830s and 1840s, Latter-day Saints have viewed the Book of Abraham as the translation of an ancient text containing the writings of the biblical patriarch Abraham. Approximately 3,500 words long, the work presents a narrative of Abraham’s journey from Ur to Egypt, a description of his activities in Egypt, an account of the creation of the world, and doctrinal teachings on topics such as the eternal nature and premortal existence of spirits and the plan for a Savior for humankind. Like the Book of Mormon and the Bible revision, both of which were dictated by Joseph Smith early in his ministry, the Book of Abraham was understood by early Latter-day Saints as important evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic role.
Even before the Book of Abraham was published in 1842, Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints described it as a divinely inspired translation of Egyptian papyri acquired by Smith and others in 1835. , a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stated in 1842 that “the Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim & Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam, which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us.” Woodruff and other Latter-day Saints viewed the Book of Abraham text as resulting from a revelatory process rather than a scholarly one. Throughout this volume, the editors have used words such as translation, decipherment, and transliteration to discuss the work of Joseph Smith and his associates on the study of the Egyptian language and the creation of the Book of Abraham. This terminology is intended to reflect the early Saints’ understanding of their own work, rather than to indicate that their work comports with modern scholarly understanding of Egyptian documents.
This volume of The Joseph Smith Papers presents three sets of documents: (1) the extant fragments of the papyri purchased by Joseph Smith and his associates; (2) the documents that collectively constitute the “Egyptian-language documents,” which are associated with the attempt by Joseph Smith and his associates to decipher hieroglyphic and hieratic characters from the papyri; and (3) the manuscripts and first publication of the Book of Abraham. The entire collection of documents is reproduced here for the first time in photographic and, when possible, typographic facsimiles. The Joseph Smith Papers include documents that were created by Joseph Smith—whether written or dictated by him or created by others under his direction—or that were owned by Smith (that is, received by him and kept in his office). All of these documents meet one or both of these criteria for inclusion.
The papyrus fragments published in the Joseph Smith Papers constitute the only known, surviving portions of the two papyrus rolls and various papyrus fragments purchased by Joseph Smith and his associates; only a fraction of that original collection survives today. Modern Egyptologists have identified these fragments as portions of ancient Egyptian funerary texts created for individuals who died sometime in the third or second centuries bc. The extant papyri are: (1) two fragments of the Book of Breathing for Horos; (2) four fragments and several scraps of the Book of the Dead for Semminis; and (3) a fragment from the Book of the Dead for Nefer-ir-nebu, which includes a vignette, or illustration.
The Egyptian-language documents published in the Joseph Smith Papers consist of the following: (1) several manuscripts on which associates of Joseph Smith copied Egyptian characters; (2) three manuscripts containing attempts to decipher the Egyptian writing system, called the Egyptian Alphabet documents; (3) a document associated with the Egyptian Alphabet documents, called the Egyptian Counting document, that contains a system of counting; and (4) a manufactured book of ruled paper into which early Latter-day Saint scribes and inscribed a “Grammar and A[l]phabet” of the Egyptian language. The Egyptian-language documents are textually interdependent. The Egyptian Alphabet documents contain non-Roman characters—many of which were copied from the papyri—with accompanying transliterations and definitions. Characters, transliterations, and definitions from the Egyptian Alphabet documents were later copied into the Grammar and Alphabet volume. The extent of Joseph Smith’s involvement in the creation of these manuscripts is unknown. His handwriting appears in two of these documents, and his journal references working on some of them on a few occasions.
The final group of documents contains Book of Abraham material. Joseph Smith dictated the text of the Book of Abraham during two periods of time: in the weeks and months after he purchased the papyri in summer 1835, and in early 1842, shortly before the publication of the text in , Illinois. This volume, therefore, includes the following: (1) the three manuscripts of the Book of Abraham created in , Ohio, in 1835; (2) the two manuscripts of the Book of Abraham created in Nauvoo in 1842; (3) the two installments of the Book of Abraham text as published in the church newspaper Times and Seasons in 1842; (4) three facsimiles of vignettes, or illustrations, found on the papyri, which were also published in the Times and Seasons in 1842; and (5) explanations of the various figures in the facsimiles, which were published alongside them. The Kirtland-era manuscripts contain the first portion of what would later be published as the Book of Abraham, along with Egyptian characters copied in the left margin. Most of these characters were copied from the papyri, but few of them are found in the Egyptian Alphabet documents or in the Grammar and Alphabet volume. The Nauvoo-era Book of Abraham manuscripts include a copy of a Kirtland-era manuscript and a partially extant portion of text that was produced in 1842. This volume also presents photographs of the printing plates used to publish the facsimiles in the Times and Seasons.
This introduction examines two converging narratives that contextualize the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian-language manuscripts in the early history of the and of the Latter-day Saint faith. The first is the explosion of interest in ancient Egypt that occurred in early nineteenth-century America, as well as Joseph Smith’s interest in Egypt and other ancient cultures. The second is Smith’s previous dictation of sacred texts—including the Book of Mormon, the Bible revision, and his revelations. Understanding these themes informs the study of these documents and Smith’s interaction with them.
The Rediscovery of Ancient Egypt
Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Abraham at a time when Western culture was enthralled with the discovery and excavation of ancient Egyptian artifacts. But even before such discoveries, scholars, philosophers, and theologians had studied and written about ancient Egypt for centuries. According to many of these writers, ancient Egyptian documents and artifacts—such as monuments, mummies, and papyri—held universal truths waiting to be revealed. Joseph Smith too believed that spiritual wisdom and historical knowledge were hidden in ancient cultures and languages. To understand the production and publication of the documents in this volume, it is crucial to examine both ’s fascination with ancient Egypt and Joseph Smith’s own search for truth in antiquity.
Western interest in the Egyptian writing system began with the ancient Greeks and continued throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. Attempts at deciphering the language during the Renaissance and the eighteenth century resulted in differing theories about the grammar, meaning, and history of the language and its relationship to other languages, but they yielded little progress in the quest to actually read Egyptian characters. This failure to decipher the language encouraged individuals to posit new hypotheses. Some saw a relationship between the Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and Egyptian cultures and languages. Some assigned multiple meanings to each Egyptian hieroglyph. The seventeenth-century German scholar Athanasius Kircher published an ambitious three-volume dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphs, synthesizing many of these ideas and adding his own. Kircher’s dictionary explored the symbolic nature of the hieroglyphs, projecting his own Neoplatonic philosophy onto them. His volumes illustrate that much of the scholarship on the Egyptian language was a mixture of supposition and reliance upon erroneous, centuries-old assumptions.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 dramatically increased interest in ancient Egyptian artifacts and eventually led to the deciphering of the language. A variety of scholars accompanied the French army to document the remnants of ancient Egyptian culture. Their inquiry and publications resulted in a rush of European scholars and collectors to study the antiquities the French scholars brought back to Europe. Among the artifacts discovered by Bonaparte’s forces was the Rosetta Stone, which was used by the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion in the 1820s in his effort to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Champollion’s work would ultimately upend previous notions about the Egyptian language. His work revealed that Egyptian characters, both hieroglyphic and hieratic, represented both sounds (as with Roman letters) and ideas. Even after Champollion’s groundbreaking discoveries, though, some continued to assert competing theories about Egyptian hieroglyphs, whether because they rejected Champollion’s findings or were ignorant of them. Indeed, in in the 1830s and 1840s, Champollion’s findings were available only to a small group of scholars who either read them in French or gleaned them from a limited number of English translations or summaries.
There is no evidence that Joseph Smith or his associates had read contemporary works of French or English Egyptological scholarship, but they nevertheless seemed to approach the papyri with many assumptions that were espoused by scholars who wrote before Champollion. The documents created by Smith and his associates, for example, suggest they assumed that the Egyptian language contained a series of complex systems and symbols, each of which held multiple meanings; they believed the meaning of each character was shaped by its position in a language hierarchy made of five tiers (which they called “parts” or “degrees”), and they thought marks such as underlining could be added to a character to change its meaning. In the language system found in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, each character contained five different degrees of meaning, and the definition of the character in each successive degree was more complex or detailed than in the previous degree. Scholars have yet to explain comprehensively the ways in which earlier concepts regarding the Egyptian language—such as the notion that each character represented multiple ideas—may have been inherited, used, or understood by Joseph Smith.
By 1835, when Joseph Smith and others purchased four mummies and some papyri, antiquities were flowing into to satisfy the growing interest of collectors, museums, exhibitioners, and spectators. The enthusiasm Americans showed for mummies exhibited throughout the country influenced journalism, scholarship, poetry, and architecture. Some considered mummies educational: one newspaper encouraged teachers “to take their classes to the exhibition [of mummies], as much useful information may by this means, in a few moments, be indelibly impressed upon the youthful mind!” For others, mummies inspired reflection upon ideas of time, mortality, and religion. One viewer reported being confronted with questions about the materiality of the soul while looking at the mummies: “Look again at this ancient remnant of mortality. What was it once? The residence of an immortal soul. What is it now? A senseless lump of clay; and such, in a short period, reader, shall we be.” Early Latter-day Saint leader offered similar reflections after he observed the four mummies that Joseph Smith and others had purchased. Cowdery wrote in a letter that the “mummies themselves are a curiosity and an astonishment, well calculated to arouse the mind to a reflection of past ages, when men strove, as at this day, to immortalize their names.” Cowdery, however, placed even greater value on “those records which were deposited with them [the mummies].” For Cowdery and for Joseph Smith himself, the most potent connection with the past offered by the recently acquired antiquities lay in the papyri.
The journey of the mummies and papyri from Egypt to can be traced to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when and vied for control of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the wake of French discoveries under Bonaparte. At the time, ’s consul-general Henry Salt and ’s consul-general Bernardino Drovetti oversaw the collection of antiquities by their respective nations. Both Salt and Drovetti employed agents in Egypt to hire workers and supervise digging projects. One of Drovetti’s agents was the Italian-born French national Antonio Lebolo. Between 1817 and 1822, Drovetti and his agents disinterred mummies, papyri, and other Egyptian artifacts primarily from tombs in Luxor, Egypt, the site of the ancient city of Thebes. In addition to supplying material for Drovetti, Lebolo obtained a small collection of artifacts for himself. Many of these artifacts ended up in museums throughout Europe. Before Lebolo died in 1830, Drovetti assigned him to sell some of the antiquities to individuals or institutions in . While the mummies were not mentioned in either Lebolo’s last will and testament or the lengthy inventory of his belongings made after his death, a power of attorney drafted after his death listed eleven mummies. By 1831, the guardian of Lebolo’s younger children authorized the sale of the mummies.
The mummies were entrusted to a man named Albano Oblasser, who ensured that they were transported to perhaps as early as 1831. The mummies appeared in by 1833. An Irish immigrant named claimed that Lebolo was his uncle and had left the artifacts to him, but in fact, Chandler appears to have been an agent for a group of individuals in Philadelphia who purchased the mummies and hired him to exhibit them. He traveled through the with the mummies in 1833 and 1834, visiting cities such as Baltimore, , and and selling the mummies as he went. In March 1835, the mummies and papyri received much attention in , Ohio. After exhibiting his show in that city, Chandler traveled east to . He arrived there in late June or early July 1835, hoping to sell his remaining wares: four mummies, two papyrus scrolls, and additional papyrus fragments.
traveled to likely because he saw the Latter-day Saints as potential buyers. According to one reminiscence, Chandler established his exhibit in a hotel in Kirtland, and Joseph Smith visited him the next morning. Smith inspected the papyri, and he and Chandler discussed ancient languages and Smith’s previous translating activities. described the documents as being “beautifully written in papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation.” Chandler allowed Cowdery to copy “some four or five different sentences or separate pieces” from the papyri. Smith provided Chandler with a sample decipherment of these copied Egyptian characters, and Chandler in return supplied Smith with a certificate stating that his translation corresponded “in the most minute matters” to other knowledge he had gleaned “in many eminent cities . . . [from] the most learned.” Scholars, experts, and doctors in the early nineteenth century often signed certificates authenticating mummies and papyri; Chandler even had one such certificate in his possession. Chandler may have issued the certificate to ingratiate himself to the Latter-day Saints and increase the likelihood of a sale. In reality, though, modern Egyptological scholarship was so new that neither Chandler nor any other American at that time would likely have been able to make such an attestation authoritatively.
Shortly after produced the certificate, Joseph Smith and others purchased the mummies and papyri for $2,400. No contemporary receipt of sale exists, but , who was tasked with making the purchase, explained later that the cost was divided equally into three parts of $800, which were paid by himself, “S. Andrews,” and Joseph Smith “& Co.,” suggesting that a consortium of individuals assisted in paying Smith’s share. While Coe and others believed they overpaid for the mummies, it appears that $2,400 for four mummies and a number of papyri was roughly market value in the mid-1830s. For Smith, the real value was in the papyri. He wanted to buy only the papyri, but Chandler demanded that his four remaining mummies be included in the purchase.
Word quickly spread that the Mormons had acquired ancient writings and that Joseph Smith could translate the record. Like many of Smith’s endeavors, the purchase and translation of the papyri elicited strong reactions from surrounding communities and from church members. Latter-day Saints were excited for the translation, while non-Mormons were incredulous at Smith’s claims. Writing from to his parents in , church member stated, “Many of the Learned have been to kirtland to examine the characters but none of them have been able to tell but very little a bout them and yet Joseph without any of the wisdom of this world can read them and know what they are.” The Cleveland Whig, on the other hand, printed a brief editorial titled “Another Humbug” in early August 1835: “We are credibly informed that the Mormons have purchased of . . . the Mummies which he recently exhibited in this village; and that the prophet Joe has ascertained, by examining the papyrus through his spectacles, that they are the bodies of Joseph, (the son of Abraham,) and King Abimeleck and his daughter.” The Whig worried that Latter-day Saints would “no doubt gull multitudes into a belief of its truth.”
Joseph Smith’s keen interest in Egyptian writings may have stemmed in part from his belief that the writing system on the gold plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon had an Egyptian component. A passage in the Book of Mormon explained that the writings on the plates were “in the characters, which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.” Smith mentioned “engravings, in Egyptian characters,” when describing the plates in a later history and recalled that the language of the Book of Mormon plates was the “same as the Hebrew language.” compared the characters “upon the writings of ” and those “which were previously copied from the plates, containing the history of the Nephites, or book of Mormon.” , Joseph’s mother, recalled later in her life that Joseph Smith was given divine instruction to make a copy of “the charecters composing the alphabet[,] which were called reformed egyptian.”
Joseph Smith’s interest in the Egyptian language dovetailed with his fascination with ancient cultures. Smith and his followers identified many of the sacred texts he dictated as rooted in Adamic, Abrahamic, Egyptian, Enochian, Johannine, or ancient New World cultures. These texts prompted an interest in ancient languages within the early church and an anticipation that additional ancient texts would be revealed. Early Latter-day Saints believed that ancient cultures provided a conduit to a purer language, perhaps inspired in part by the story from the Book of Mormon of an ancient people who retained their language when God cursed other languages at the Tower of Babel. Shortly following the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith—with his wife , , and others as scribes—began work on what they came to understand as an inspired revision or “new translation” of the Bible. Members of the church would learn from Joseph Smith’s Bible revision project that “a book of rememberance was kept” in ancient times, written “in the Language of Adam.” The Bible revision posited that Adam and Eve’s children “were taught to read & write having a languag[e] which was pure & undefiled.” Smith perhaps felt it part of his prophetic responsibility to unlock this pure language and that doing so would uncover ancient truths. Shortly after Smith dictated the narrative of Adam and Eve’s pure language, he created a short document exploring “A Sample of pure Language.” The surviving manuscript lists words and their meanings in what Smith believed was the pure Adamic language.
Joseph Smith looked to ancient cultures in search not only of the language of the divine but also of promised records. As Smith and translated the Book of Mormon, Smith dictated a revelation promising that Cowdery would “Translate all those ancient Records which have been hid up which are Sacred.” While working on the Bible revision, Smith wrote about the prospect of recovering lost biblical writings in an 1833 letter to church leaders in : “We have not found the book of Jasher nor any of the othe[r] lost books mentioned in the bible as yet nor wille we obtain them at present,” he said. Joseph Smith’s history briefly describes an anticipatory attitude among Latter-day Saints: “Much conjecture and conversation frequently occurred among the saints, concerning the books mentioned and referred to, in various places in the old and new testaments, which were now no where to be found.” He continued to reference lost or hidden records after the purchase of the papyri, dictating a revelation that anticipated that Book of Abraham scribe would do additional translation work. “He shall see much of my ancient records,” the revelation said, “and shall know of hid[d]en things, and shall be endowed with a knowledge of hid[d]en languages.” It is little surprise, with such fervor for ancient languages and cultures, that when four Egyptian mummies and papyri came into , they received rapt attention from Joseph Smith and his followers.
Joseph Smith’s Revelations and Translations
Joseph Smith used the term translation to describe his work on the Book of Abraham. His usage, however, did not correspond to the conventional meaning of the word. The decipherment of the Egyptian language was newly under way when Smith began to study the papyri, and there is no evidence that he was acquainted with the progress that had been made. He was certainly unequipped to translate the scrolls as a scholar would. The translation of the Book of Abraham is perhaps best understood by examining the way in which Smith produced other scriptural works, namely the Book of Mormon, the Bible revision, and his revelations.
Joseph Smith stated that he translated the Book of Mormon by “the gift and power of God” but was largely silent on the particulars of his methods. It appears that Smith first created copies of characters from the plates, and one of his associates, , consulted experts in ancient languages, perhaps hoping to obtain aid in the translation effort. Following Harris’s unsuccessful trip, Smith used instruments he saw as divinely appointed—namely, the “interpreters” found with the gold plates and a “seer stone” already in his possession—to aid in the translation of the Book of Mormon. While Joseph Smith sometimes worked with the plates in front of him on a table, witnesses said the plates were often covered. Indeed, accounts by his scribes suggest that the plates were not always present and that Smith typically looked directly at the interpreters or seer stone while he dictated, reading words directly from whichever instrument he was using. During the period when he was translating the Book of Mormon, Smith dictated a revelation that described translation as both an intellectual and a spiritual process. The revelation explained to the process by which he should have approached his own effort to translate—to first “study it out in [his] mind” and then seek spiritual confirmation from God.
According to contemporary accounts, Joseph Smith also accessed the divine in a variety of ways when he dictated revelations: he and his followers recorded that he used seer stones, experienced heavenly visions, and received revelations by direct inspiration, without use of any physical tool or artifact. When revising the Bible, Smith worked with a copy of the King James Version, apparently with no other instrument at hand. Some revisions, like minor grammatical changes, may well have been considered to be the result of human reason rather than divine revelation. A subset of the changes appears to be the result of an attempt to harmonize differences among the gospels or other scriptures, and evidence also suggests that Smith and his scribes consulted Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary as they considered the text. All of these processes—both intellectual and inspired—provided precedents that Joseph Smith could have drawn upon while producing the Book of Abraham.
No known first-person account from Joseph Smith exists to explain the translation of the Book of Abraham, and the scribes who worked on the project and others who claimed knowledge of the process provided only vague or general reminiscences. Smith’s journal suggests that he and his clerks saw their study of the papyri as being divided into two separate but related projects: their attempts to decipher and systematize the Egyptian language and their work on the Book of Abraham text. The journal did not, however, specify the mechanics of either project or how the two projects related to one another. , who worked with some of the manuscripts, stated: “I have set by his [Joseph Smith’s] side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration from Heaven.” , another scribe, wrote a lengthy letter giving a history and description of the papyri, but he did not relay any detail of the translation process, stating only, “When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say.” Cowdery did state, however, that Smith had an understanding of the “comprehensiveness of the language.” , who is not known to have been involved in the process but was close to all those who were, stated in his history that “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records, which gavee an account of our forefathers.”
A few sources state that Smith used “the Urim and Thummim”—apparently his seer stone—during his -era work on the Book of Abraham. Apostle wrote in his journal in February 1842 that Smith was translating the Book of Abraham “through the Urim & Thummim.” , another member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, published an article in England a few months later reporting to the Saints there that the Book of Abraham was “in course of translation by the means of the Urim and Thummim.” In a reminiscence several years later, though, fellow apostle seemed to imply that Smith’s method for translating the Book of Abraham was similar to his process for creating the Bible revision and delivering his later revelations—inspiration without the use of a seer stone. Orson Pratt stated that he saw Smith’s “countenance lighted up as the inspiration of the Holy Ghost rested upon him, dictating the great and most precious revelations now printed for our guide. I saw him translating, by inspiration, the Old and New Testaments, and the inspired book of Abraham from Egyptian papyrus.” Differences in these accounts suggest that if Smith used a seer stone during the translation of the Book of Abraham, he did not use it at all times.
The Egyptian-language manuscripts created by Smith and his associates while they worked with the papyri from July through about November 1835 give the only firsthand, contemporaneous evidence of how they understood the Egyptian language. Textual evidence in the manuscripts indicates Smith and his clerks closely scrutinized the papyri, copying characters from the papyri into notebooks or onto loose sheets but adding little or no commentary. Other characters were copied into the Egyptian Alphabet documents and then into the Grammar and Alphabet volume. But like many similar efforts of the time to unravel the mysteries of the Egyptian language, these attempts are considered by modern Egyptologists—both Latter-day Saints and others—to be of no actual value in understanding Egyptian.
It is unclear when in 1835 Joseph Smith began creating the existing Book of Abraham manuscripts or what relationship the Book of Abraham manuscripts have to the Egyptian-language documents. While some of the documents are clearly textually dependent upon others, there is also evidence of overlapping creation, false starts, and building upon previous work. The sequence of the creation of the -era Book of Abraham manuscript and the various manuscripts of the Egyptian-language project is unknown. Considerable overlap of themes exists between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian-language documents. Both have information concerning Abraham, Egypt, the Creation, Adam and Eve, Eden, astronomy, and Kolob and other stars, among other topics. Some evidence indicates that material from the Grammar and Alphabet volume was incorporated into at least one portion of the Book of Abraham text in Kirtland. But most of the Book of Abraham is not textually dependent on any of the extant Egyptian-language documents. The inverse is also true: most of the content in the Egyptian-language documents is independent of the Book of Abraham.
Beyond the clues in the manuscripts themselves, little evidence exists to provide a timeline for the -era work on the Egyptian-language documents or translation of the Book of Abraham. A late July 1835 letter from to his wife, , confirms that Joseph Smith connected the papyri to the patriarch Abraham soon after first encountering them. According to Phelps, Smith “soon knew what they were and said they, the ‘rolls of papyrus,’ contained the sacred record kept of Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court in Egypt, and the teachings of Father Abraham.” Phelps further implied that Smith was planning to translate the papyri, if he had not already begun to do so. Some years later, wrote in Joseph Smith’s history that Smith, Phelps, and “commenced Translation of some of the Characters” presumably soon after the papyri and mummies were purchased. According to Richards, the work of “translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients” continued through the end of July. But the work quickly dropped off. In mid-September, Phelps declared, “Nothing has been doing in the translation of the Egyptian Record for a long time, and probably will not for some time to come.”
By October, the efforts had recommenced. Joseph Smith’s second journal, which began 22 September 1835, mentioned work on the decipherment of the papyri seven times from October through November 1835. On 1 October, the journal recorded that Smith, , and “labored on the Egyptian alphabet.” One week later, the journal states that Smith had “recommenced translating the ancient records.” Five more times in late November, Smith and likely Phelps and were occupied either in “translating” or in “transcribing Egyptian characters from the papyrus.” The work, however, seemed to end during winter 1835–1836 as other activities apparently took precedence, including setting up a school to study Hebrew.
While no evidence exists that Joseph Smith and his clerks worked on either the Egyptian-language documents or the Book of Abraham between late 1835 and early 1842, Smith showed the mummies and papyri to visitors and preached to audiences on doctrine from the Book of Abraham. Following the dedication of the House of the Lord in in spring 1836, the papyri and mummies were housed in the attic of that building. Several attempts were made in Kirtland to publish “the Egyptian records,” even though the Book of Abraham text was apparently not yet complete.
In the wake of financial crisis, legal threats, and internal dissent, Joseph Smith abruptly fled in early 1838, leaving the mummies, the papyri, and the Egyptian language and Book of Abraham manuscripts in Kirtland for others to transport to . When the mummies and the documents arrived in Missouri a few months later, Smith “was much pleased,” and a group of roughly ten people then read aloud from the records for two hours. Despite Smith’s apparent desire to continue the translation in Missouri, the burden of developing a new church headquarters in , Missouri, while also establishing new Mormon settlements in northwestern Missouri consumed most of his time in spring and summer 1838. And by fall 1838, Smith and the Saints were embroiled in a violent conflict with other Missourians. The conflict ended with Joseph Smith’s arrest and the violent expulsion of thousands of Latter-day Saints from Missouri. By the time of the expulsion, each clerk who had assisted Smith in the translation of the Book of Abraham and Egyptian-language project had either left the church or been subject to church discipline. After spending the winter of 1838–1839 in state custody, Smith arrived in in early 1839. After a year, he was actively seeking time to “engage, more particularly, in the spiritual welfare of the Saints & also, to the translating of the Egyptian Records.” By 1841, Smith had still not realized his wish to continue the work and stated that the “twelve should be called upon to stand in their place next to the first presidency,” to conduct business so that “he might attend to the business of translating.” Though he apparently was not translating, Smith welcomed visitors to view the papyri, the mummies, and the associated manuscripts in .
Joseph Smith officially took over the editorship of the church-owned newspaper Times and Seasons starting with the 1 March 1842 issue, about the same time that he resumed his translation of the Book of Abraham. , who assisted in the Times and Seasons office, wrote in his journal in mid-February 1842, “Joseph has had these records in his possession for several years, but has never presented them before the world in the english language untill now. But he is now about to publish it to the world or parts of it by publishing it in the Times & Seasons.” In a letter written in early March 1842, Smith stated, “I am now very busily engaged in Translating, and therefore cannot give as much time to Public matters as I could wish.” During this period, created a copy of the -era Book of Abraham manuscript (what is now Abraham 1:1–2:18) and apparently acted as scribe for the creation of an additional Book of Abraham manuscript (the remainder of the extant text) and the extant explanations of the vignettes that were published as Facsimiles 1, 2, and 3.
The Book of Abraham text was published in two issues of the Times and Seasons (dated 1 March 1842 and 15 March 1842); those two issues and the 16 May 1842 issue also contained facsimiles of the vignettes, or illustrations, found on the papyri. After those three issues, publication of the Book of Abraham ceased. Almost a year later, the Times and Seasons noted that Joseph Smith had promised “to furnish us with further extracts from the Book of Abraham,” but no more excerpts were published in the Times and Seasons or elsewhere. Smith and others also had conversations about finishing and printing the Grammar and Alphabet volume, but it was never published.
Latter-day Saints received the Book of Abraham eagerly. wrote to fellow apostle in 1842, declaring, “The Saints abroad manifest much interest in the Book of Abraham in the T[imes] & Seasons[.] it will be continud as fast as Joseph gets time to translate.” published in the New York Herald an excerpt from the Book of Abraham, which he wrote was “set down as a revelation among the Mormons.” In addition to the excerpt, Bennett published a wide-ranging commentary on the Book of Abraham and on Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. “While modern philosophy, which believes in nothing but what you can touch, is overspreading the Atlantic States,” Bennett wrote, “Joe Smith is creating a spiritual system, combined also with morals and industry, that may change the destiny of the race.”
After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, the mummies and most of the papyri remained with Smith’s mother, , while the majority of the extant manuscripts of the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian-language project remained with and the church he led to Utah. Following Lucy Mack Smith’s death in 1856, Joseph Smith’s widow sold the mummies and papyri to Abel Combs, who divided the collection. Some of the artifacts went to the Chicago Museum (renamed Wood’s Museum in 1864), where they were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Other fragments made their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in , which transferred the papyrus fragments to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1967. In the 1930s, Mormon collector Wilford C. Wood acquired several pages of a Book of Abraham manuscript, which Wood later donated to the church, from the son of Emma Smith’s second husband, Lewis C. Bidamon. While the extant manuscripts and fragments of papyrus are currently housed in the Church History Library, it is certain that the majority of the papyri originally purchased in 1835 are missing. It is also clear that other manuscripts related to the Book of Abraham and perhaps the study of the Egyptian language were created by Smith or his associates but are no longer extant.
The Book of Abraham typifies Joseph Smith’s experience as revelator and translator—Smith sought divine truth from his own age and from ancient documents, recorded that truth in a scriptural text, and imparted it to his people and the world. Understanding his efforts to decipher the Egyptian language adds nuance and detail to the complex story of the translation of the Book of Abraham.