Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Regarding the Alleged Handwriting of Abraham

     The Book of Abraham puzzle is cluttered with a lot of assumptions. One of these is the idea that Joseph Smith claimed Abraham personally held and wrote on the papyrus which Joseph Smith had in his collection. If Joseph Smith did make that claim, it would be problematic, because his papyri collection dates to many centuries after Abraham lived.
     Most LDS apologists seem content with just chalking it up to Joseph Smith not knowing any better, and attributing it to Joseph Smith's secular efforts to understand the papyri's relationship to the inspired Book of Abraham translation.
     That's all well and good if it's true. But I don't think we should just assume that it's true. Such an assumption, if false, could taint our overall understanding of the Book of Abraham issues, possibly making it more difficult for us to find real answers to Book of Abraham challenges.
     So, let's have a look at the cases where Joseph allegedly claimed that Abraham personally wrote on the papyrus.

     I know of five such cases. One is in the handwriting of Willard Richards, possibly dictated by Joseph Smith, and the others include Josiah Quincy, Charles Adams, an anonymous person referenced in the National Intelligencer, and someone referenced in Supplement to the Courant. Let's look at these individually, starting with the most well-known example.

Josiah Quincy
"And now come with me," said the prophet, "and I will show you the curiosities." So saying, he led the way to a lower room, where sat a venerable and respectable-looking lady. "This is my mother, gentlemen. The curiosities we shall see belong to her. They were purchased with her own money, at a cost of six thousand dollars;" and then, with deep feeling, were added the words, "And that woman was turned out upon the prairie in the dead of night by a mob." There were some pine presses fixed against the wall of the room. These receptacles Smith opened, and disclosed four human bodies, shrunken and black with age. "These are mummies," said the exhibitor. "I want you to look at that little runt of a fellow over there. He was a great man
in his day. Why, that was Pharaoh Necho, King of Egypt!" Some parchments inscribed with hieroglyphics were then offered us. They were preserved under glass and handled with great respect. "That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful," said the prophet. "This is the autograph of Moses, and these lines were written by his brother Aaron. Here we have the earliest account of the creation, from which Moses composed the first book of Genesis." The parchment last referred to showed a rude drawing of a man and woman, and a serpent walking upon a pair of legs. I ventured to doubt the propriety of providing the reptile in question with this unusual means of locomotion.
     This account of a visit to Nauvoo, which took place shortly before Joseph's Martyrdom, was published in 1883 and compiled from Quincy's journal entries and letters written in 1844. Quincy was certainly not acting as a scribe for Joseph during the visit, and it is doubtful that, by the time Quincy sat down to compose his journal entries and letters concerning the variety of experiences he had at Nauvoo, that he actually recalled the words which Joseph had said. Rather, he seems to be caricaturing the types of things which were said, in order to convey the general spirit of his experience. For instance, he says Joseph Smith's mother purchased the papyri, which is not true, and that the price was 6,000 dollars, which is also not true. Here it looks like Quincy combined two separate ideas - that the papyri had been purchased and that Joseph's mother owned them – into a single claim. And, he did so without attention to the finer details.  
     Quoting Joseph's exact words was evidently not Quincy's concern, since, in his words, "the blasphemous assumptions of Smith seemed like the ravings of a lunatic."
     Are the "ravings of a lunatic" significant enough to remember word-for-word? He even compared Smith to inmates at an insane asylum, "victims of the sad but not uncommon delusion that each had received the appointment of vicegerent of the Deity upon earth." Quincy does not seem to hold this against Smith personally, but rather is taking pity on him, while at the same time marveling that such a man could accomplish all that Joseph Smith had accomplished.
     Moreover, Quincy's journal entry is less reliable because it was apparently rewritten decades later to make it more suitable for publication. In his introduction, Quincy states:
... a friend, who had read my journals with interest, offered me his most valuable aid in what may be called the literary responsibilities of the undertaking. My narratives have gained in grace of expression as they passed beneath the correcting pen of my obliging critic, and I am confident that a stern exercise of his right of curtailing reflections and omitting incidents has been no less for the reader's advantage.
     We might reasonably suppose that any of Joseph Smith's detailed, clarifying remarks, which Quincy may conceivably have originally written down, would have been edited out as part of that "stern exercise of his right of curtailing reflections and omitting incidents..."  
     In further support of this view is the included statement, "This is the autograph of Moses, and these lines were written by his brother Aaron. Here we have the earliest account of the creation, from which Moses composed the first book of Genesis." Since this was May of 1844, Joseph had long since already translated both the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham. But Quincy and his friend appear not to realize that the Book of Moses had in fact come from a translation of the Bible, not from a translation of the papyri, so in print it ended up in a narrative of the papyri - and this is perhaps the type of liberty which Quincy calls the “grace of expression” in the introductory excerpt to his book, cited above.

Charles Francis Adams
He [Joseph Smith] then took us down into his mother's chamber and showed us four Egyptian mummies stripped and then undertook to explain the contents of a chart or manuscript which he said had been taken from the bosom of one of them. The cool impudence of this imposture amused me very much. "This," said he, "was written by the hand of Abraham and means so and so. If anyone denies it, let him prove the contrary. I say it." Of course, we were too polite to prove the negative, against a man fortified by revelation.
     Perhaps the most telling words in the Adams account are “so and so.” Like Quincy, Adams is clearly not interested in what Smith was saying, but is “amused” at what he calls an “imposture.” Adams believes that he (and Quincy) could have proven the “so and so” wrong, but were simply too polite to do so – and yet he still declines to do so in even his journal entry, where politeness is no longer at issue, which perhaps means that he had forgotten what the “so and so” was. In any event, it appears Joseph simply explained how  the Book of Abraham came down to us, and that Adams took away very few of the details.

Joseph Smith
A considerable quantity of the matter in the last paper was in type before the establishment came into my hands.— Some of which went to press without my review or knowledge and a multiplicity of business while entering on the additional care of the editorial department of the Times and Seasons must be my apology for what is past.—
In future I design to furnish much original matter which will be found of inestimable advantage to the saints,—& all who desire a knowledge of the kingdom of God,—and as it is not practicable to bring forth the new translation of the Scriptures & various records of ancient date & great worth to this generation in the usual form by books I shall permit specimens of the same in the Times & Seasons as fast as time and space will admit,—so that the honest in heart may be cheered and comforted and go on their way rejoicing,— as their souls become exposed.—& their understanding enlightened by a knowledge of God's work through the fathers in former days as well as what He is about to do in latter days to fulfill the words of the fathers.— 
In the present no. will be found the commencement of the Records discovered in Egypt some time since as penned by the hand of Father Abraham which I shall outline to translate & publish as fast as possible till the whole is completed and as the saints have long been anxious to obtain a copy of these records those [who] are now taking this Times Seasons will confer a special favor on their brethren who do not take the paper by informing them that they can now obtain their hearts.
      This was a rough draft of a statement which was in the process of being prepared for the Times and Seasons, in the handwriting of Willard Richards on behalf of Joseph Smith. This unpublished statement was written before the publication of the Book of Abraham, when Joseph was perhaps still deciding how to explain the relationship between the record of Abraham and the papyri without detracting from the message of the scripture. 
     One of the routine duties of Joseph's scribes was to adjust his grammar and phraseology to conform to professional standards. In the process of them performing that duty, some meaning can however be lost. 
     Richard Bushman illustrates how William Clayton as scribe was “more alert to doctrine” than Willard Richards, citing differences in how they recorded a statement made by Joseph Smith on April 2, 1843:
Richards recorded one famous epigram as “The earth in its sanctified and immortal state will be a Urim & Thummim for all things below it in the scale of creation, but not above it.” Clayton elaborated the sentence to read “The earth when it is purified will be made like unto crystal and will be a Urim & Thummim whereby all things pertaining to an inferior kingdom on all kingdoms of a lower order will be manifest to those who dwell on it.”
     We might contrast the unpublished statement written by Richards for Joseph Smith, with the introductory note which ended up on the Book of Abraham when it was finally published. The note does not say the papyrus Abraham wrote on was the same papyrus Joseph Smith purchased, or even a papyrus roll that still exists, or anything of the like.
     The header for the original 1842 printing reads:
Of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs of Egypt, purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the BOOK OF ABRAHAM, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.
     First, we need not suppose that the word "translation" confines Joseph Smith to what is literally on the papyrus. It is well known that Joseph used the word "translation" in a much broader sense than we typically do today.
     Second, the word "purporting" indicates there is more going on than meets the eye. Here we have a situation where the words “purporting to be” are inserted to indicate something, yet the word “purporting” has negative connotations. That word was only used in the Times and Seasons in reference to things that had not been verified as true, and usually it was used as a means of denying the authenticity of the items in question.
     For instance, the December 1, 1842 edition contains the following excerpt, which uses the word to cast doubt on a “lost book,” which parallels the Book of Abraham:
We have lately seen a pamphlet, written, and published by James C. Brewster; purporting to be one of the lost books of Esdras; and to be written by the gift and power of God. We consider it a perfect humbug, and should not have noticed it, had it not been assiduously circulated, in several branches of the church.
     Another example (out of several which exist) is found in the September 2, 1844 edition:
Whereas Elders James J. Strang and Aaron Smith have been circulating a "revelation." (falsely called) purporting to have been received by Joseph Smith on the 18th of June, 1844: and through the influence of which they have attempted and are attempting to establish a stake, called Voree, in Wisconsin Territory, thereby leading the saints astray: therefore, the said James J. Strang and Aaron Smith are cut off from the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this 26th day of August, 1844.
     So, what should we make of the use of the word “purporting” in the Book of Abraham header? Well, we know Joseph is not trying to cast doubt on the authenticity of Abraham's writings which he translated. But he does seem to be casting doubt on the idea that the ancient records in his possession are themselves the plain, uncorrupted writings of Abraham. 
National Intelligencer
To the disgrace of the age this wicked imposture flourished. As a specimen of its grossness, we may mention a fact, stated by an extremely respectable gentleman of this city, as one within his personal knowledge. Being on a tour to the West, he visited Nauvoo from curiosity. In the temple he was shown a collection of curiosities, and among them were one or two mummies, which had been imported from Egypt by Joe Smith. The attention of the visitor was called by Smith to the mummy clothes and the writing upon them. "There," said Smith, "that's the hand writing of the patriarch Abraham, and I am the only man that can read it," which he then proceeded to do!
     This article was a piece of anti-Mormon propaganda, arguing against statehood for “Deseret.” Aside from that, the article may have simply been referring to Josiah Quincy:

     Quincy: "That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful,"”
     Intelligencer: "that's the hand writing of the patriarch Abraham...”

     Quincy fits the description of an “extremely respectable gentleman,” who had been “on a tour to the West,” and “visited Nauvoo from curiosity.” He was also “of this city,” meaning Washington, D.C., where the Intelligencer was published, in the sense that his father, Josiah Quincy III, became a United States Congressman two years after the younger Quincy was born, and served for eight years in Washington, D.C. 

Supplement to the Courant
The embalmed body that stands near the centre of the case, said he, is one of the Pharaohs, who sat upon the throne of Egypt; and the female figure by its side, was probably one of his daughters. It may have been the princess Thermutis, I replied, the same that rescued Moses from the waters of the Nile. It is not improbable, answered the prophet; but my time has not yet allowed me fully to examine and decide that point. Do you understand the Hebrew language, said he, raising his hand to the top of the case, and taking down a small Hebrew Grammar of Rabbi Sexias. That language has not altogether escaped my attention, was the reply. He then walked to a secretary, on the opposite side of the room, and drew out several frames covered with glass, under which were numerous fragments of Egyp-tian papyrus, on which, as usual, a great variety of hieroglyphical characters had been imprinted. These ancient records, said he, throw great light upon the subject of Christianity. They have been unrolled and preserved with great labor and care. My time has hitherto been too much taken up to translate the whole of them, but I will show you how I interpret certain parts. There, said he, pointing to a particular character, that is the signature of the patriarch Abraham. It is indeed a most interesting autograph, I replied, and doubtless the only one extant. What an ornament it would be to have these ancient manuscripts hand-somely set, in appropriate frames, and hung up around the walls of the temple which you are about to erect in this place. Yes, replied the prophet, and the translation hung up with them.
     The first thing I want to address is a recurring theme, an example of which we find here, of Joseph telling people that one of the mummies was a “pharaoh” or a “king.”
     The details of the accounts differ and provide contradictory information, but among these accounts is even an 1846 statement attributed to Joseph's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, by someone known as “M.”
[Lucy Mack Smith] produced a black looking roll (which she told us was papyrus) found on the breast of the King, part of which the prophet had unrolled and read; and she had pasted the deciphered sheets on the leaves of a book which she showed us.
     It's possible that “M” could be relying on someone in addition to Lucy for this information, but it sounds like Lucy is talking about the Book of Breathings papyrus, and that she explained something about it being found on the breast of “the king.” It was, in fact, found on the breast of Hor, who was a priest but not a king. The only way Hor could be called a king is either by mistake or in the context of the Book of Breathings content, which tells Hor that he has become Osiris (a king and god) and tells him, “you are on the throne of Osiris.”
     Osiris was believed by Egyptians to have been the first king/pharaoh of Egypt, as well as a god and king of the afterlife. We wouldn't expect people to understand or remember a detailed explanation from Joseph regarding these matters, but they would certainly remember the word “king,” leading to people thinking, “Joseph said the mummy was a pharaoh.” 
     And it's important to keep in mind that Joseph and his mother were showing people the Egyptian papyrus, not the English translated Book of Abraham. So in that context, it would be natural for Joseph to speak of the Book of Breathings in a similar fashion as how he addressed it in response to William Clayton's questions on the plates found in Kinderhook, Illinois, according to my theory on the Kinderhook Plates.

     The second, but primary, issue I wish to discuss here is the word “signature,” in this visitor's reference to Joseph mentioning the signature of Abraham.

     Webster in 1828 defined “signature” in the first entry as:
1. A sign, stamp or mark impressed. The brain being well furnished with various traces, signatures and images. The natural and indelible signature of God stamped on the human soul.
     The relevant definition for “mark,” is “any note or sign of distinction.”
     The relevant definitions for “stamp” are:
3. To impress; to imprint; to fix deeply; as, to stamp virtuous principles on the heart.
4. To fix a mark by impressing it; as a notion of the Deity stamped on the mind.
     All of these are useful to us, but the first word Webster used, in the first definition for “signature,” is “sign.” In turn, the first definition he gives for “sign” is:
1. A token; something by which another thing is shown or represented; any visible thing, any motion, appearance or event which indicates the existence or approach of something else. Thus we speak of signs of fair weather or of a storm, and of external marks which are signs of a good constitution.
     Joseph, then, was perhaps not pointing to any instance of Abraham having actually personally written on the papyrus, but instead to something on the papyrus which signifies Abraham, i.e. “something by which another thing is shown or represented.”
     Most likely, Joseph's reference to a signature was part of a larger explanation, as it seems unlikely that Joseph would have just out of the blue pointed to a certain character and said it was the signature of Abraham, but the image of him pointing at the papyrus is what stood out in the visitor's memory.
    Of course, the visitor goes on to call it an “autograph,” indicating the visitor's own, perhaps limited, understanding of Joseph's explanations. Joseph evidently declined to comment on the visitor's use of the word “autograph,” but focused on the visitor's remark about the external beauty of the papyri, using it as an opportunity to turn the conversation towards the English translation of the Book of Abraham: “Yes, replied the prophet, and the translation hung up with them.”
     It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to be in Joseph's shoes, having a great understanding of heaven and God, and so many other things, yet leading people who themselves have great variance in their levels of understanding. I am reminded of the scriptures:

I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now (John 16:12).

0 Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth (D&C 50:40).


  1. Fascinating post. I have always assumed that the prophet thought the papyri he had was from Abraham's time but that he was wrong (simply because being prophet does not mean one is infallible), but reading your counter-argument, I am no longer convinced that my assumption is the correct one. You have given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

    1. Thank you very much! I really appreciate that!

  2. I believe that joseph smith had much guidance in all that was being done and part of that guidance is genetically in coded in him the book of Abraham and many other precious works are all connected each serves its purpose on different levels ...just like the ones who study and ponder it will learn at different levels it is good...because eventually oneness will happen like the bees that work together as a whole separate oneself from the others divides ...I'm looking at the books and teachings and the teachers and the pupils as a whole it all works together. The master creator of the puzzle works each piece into its placeasier to form the bigger picture and will do so until late it's complete and even when you think it's complete the master of the puzzle introduces you to another puzzle another level