Examining the Book of Abraham
Chapter 1 — A Brief History

Anyone who spends much time on the "Mormon Internet" — be it on faithful LDS sites like Nauvoo.com or downright "anti-" sites like Recovery from Mormonism (exmormon.org) — is bound to come across certain references to criticisms of the Book of Abraham, which is located in the LDS canon called the Pearl of Great Price.

Generally speaking, few Latter-day Saints know much about the origins of the Book of Abraham or its contents. Few have even read this short book of LDS scripture which is only five chapters long. And almost no one, outside of the few who get involved in internet discussions or in scholarly discussions, have any inkling that a controversy is currently raging between the defenders of the book and its critics — a controversy which began over 100 years ago!

It's interesting to note the diverse reactions people have had toward this curious little book throughout its history. In the beginning of its life, it seems to have been very faith-promoting, and was the basis from which several new doctrines and policies emerged — ideas that shaped LDS cosmology, and were the basis of such practices as the controversial policy of withholding priesthood ordination to anyone of African descent (which ended in 1978).

Currently, however, the Book of Abraham is gaining a reputation of being one of the primary "testimony-destroyers" of the LDS Church. Anecdotal as this is, I've noticed that every time one of the various disaffected-Mormon bulletin boards creates a poll asking their members to identify the reasons for their disaffection, it seems that the distinct majority of the men list the Book of Abraham as the primary reason their testimony in the Church evaporated. (Interestingly, it doesn't seem to be quite as important to the women of these forums, who often list the circumstances and doctrines surrounding the practice of Polygamy/Polyandry as their biggest concern.)

Why should this be all of a sudden? How does a book go from being faith-promoting in the beginning of its life, to becoming faith-destroying 150 years later?

That's what this essay is about. It is a summary of the critics' view of the Book of Abraham. Even though there are several books that do this nicely1, I've noticed that there aren't many good, detailed summaries on the internet that people can browse through. There are many sites that list a few points here or there, but not a comprehensive look at the critic's perspective. I hope this essay can help fill that void.

So, without further delay, let's start at the beginning.

A Brief History

In the early 19th century, an antiquities dealer named Antonio Lebolo raided a number of Egyptian tombs around Thebes. Among the spoils that he brought back to Italy were eleven mummies. After Lebolo's death, his family sent the mummies to a shipping company to be sold at auction. Michael Chandler was the eventual recipient.

Historically, it's usually been assumed that Chandler was the one who bought the mummies at this auction and was the one who took them on tour through America, stopping at communities along the way, setting up an exhibit, and charging the residents a small fee to see it. For a recent example of this assumption, see John Gee's book, A Guide To The Joseph Smith Papyri, published by FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies).

However, very recent scholarship may be challenging that assumption. Researcher Brian L. Smith has painstakingly researched the path Lebolo's mummies took after entering America. He has found dozens of newspaper ads advertising the exhibit in many parts of the country, such as this ad found in the Lancaster Journal in Pennsylvania, August 30, 1833:

There is now to be seen at Mr. Rohrer's Hotel, E. King Street, SIX EGYPTIAN MUMMIES,

Lately imported into this country, from Alexandria, in Egypt, and opened for the first time in New York, in the presence of some of the most respectable physicians and citizens,

These Mummies have been exhibited in Philadelphia, and at the Baltimore Museum, to crowded audiences — in the latter place, although only engaged for two weeks, the exhibition was prolonged to five weeks, with undiminished attraction.

Of all the relics of the ancient world that time has left, the Mummy is decidedly the most interesting. All other Antiquities are but the work [of] man, but the Mummies present us with the men themselves — they have certainly been contemporary, and perhaps actors in those mighty scenes of which the history of Egypt is full. An hundred generations have passed away, and new empires have begun and ended, since this flesh was animated, since those eyes were bright, and this tongue was elequent, and this leathern breast once contained a heart.

Admittance 25 cents.

Interestingly, even though plenty of evidence of the mummy exhibit has been found, Brian Smith has not been able to find any evidence of Chandler traveling with the exhibit until Cleveland, and then shortly afterwards in Kirtland.2

In any case, regardless of who had the mummies prior to Kirtland, it is of no question that it was Michael Chandler who brought the mummy exhibit to the Saints there in July 1835. As evidenced by the reduction of the number of mummies in the display throughout the previous 2 years, part of the goal of the exhibit's owner(s) was probably to eventually sell the mummies off. By the time Chandler reached Kirtland, there were only four mummies left.

As a matter of background, for the reader who may be unfamiliar with LDS Church history up to this point, Joseph Smith had published the Book of Mormon five years prior to this and claimed that the book was a translation of gold plates that he had unearthed, under the direction of God, Jesus Christ, and a certain angel named Moroni. The writing on these gold plates were purported to be a heretofore unknown script called "Reformed Egyptian".

Perhaps Chandler was curious to see if Joseph Smith could translate the writing of his ancient Egyptian papyri, or maybe, as the proprietor of a traveling curiosity, he figured that Egyptian artifacts would be of interest to the Saints in Kirtland, and could generate plenty of on-lookers at 25 cents a piece. Whatever Chandler's motivation for traveling to Kirtland, here is how the History of the Church (2:235) describes his visit and the exhibit itself:

"On the 3rd of July [1835], Michael H. Chandler came to Kirtland to exhibit some Egyptian mummies. There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices. As Mr. Chandler had been told I could translate them, he brought me some of the characters, and I gave him the interpretation, and like a gentleman, he gave me the following certificate:

    "'Kirtland, July 6, 1835
    "'This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., to correspond in the most minute matters.
        "'Michael H. Chandler
        "'Traveling with, and proprietor of, Egyptian mummies.'"3

Subsequent to Joseph viewing and commenting on the papyri, some of the elders purchased Chandler's entire exhibit for $2400 — a very large sum in those days.4

The History of the Church continues (2:236):

"...with W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc., — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth."5

Soon afterward, Joseph began his translation in earnest. The first thing he did was to prepare an alphabet and grammar of the Egyptian language. For those who wish to study his "alphabet and grammar" further, please see Joseph Smith's Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, published by Utah Lighthouse Ministries, or The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, by H. Michael Marquardt. Both books contain copies from microfilm of Joseph Smith's original book which is currently located in the LDS Church's archives.

Several times in his journal, Joseph mentions various activities surrounding the translation and artifacts:

"October 1, 1835 This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet in company with Brs O Cowdery and W. W. Phelps. The system of astronomy was unfolded [to us]."

"Wednesday, [October] 7 [...] This afternoon recommenced translating the ancient reccords."

"Monday, [October] 19th At home. Ex[h]ibited the records of antiquity to a number who called to see them."

"Sunday, [October] 24th Mr. Goodrich and his lady called to see the antient [ancient] Records. [They] also called at Doct[or] F[rederick] G. Williams to see the mummies."

"Thursday, [October] 29th [...] While at the Doct[or's], Bishop Bishop E[dward] Partri[d]ge came in in company with President Phelps. I was much rejoiced to see him. We examined the mum[m]ies..."

"Tuesday, [November] 17th Ex[h]ibited /the Alphabet/ of the ancient records to Mr. Holmes and some others. Went with him to F[rederick] G. Williams to see the Mum[m]ies."

"Thursday, [November] 19th [...] I returned home and spent the day in translating the Egyptian records."

"Thursday, [November] 26th At home. We spent the day in transcribing Egyptian characters from the papyrus."

"Monday, [December] 7th ...a number of brethren called this Evening to see the records. I ex[h]ibited and explained them to their satisfaction."

"Thursday, [December] 10th This evening I spent at hom[e]. A number of brethren called to see the [Egyptian] records which I ex[h]ibited to them. They were much pleased with their interview."

"Saturday morning, [December] 12th At home. Spent the fore noon in reading. At about 12 o'clock a number of young person[s] called to see the Egyptian records. I requested my Scribe [William Parrish] to ex[h]ibit them. He did so. One of the young ladies who had been examining them was asked if they had the appearance of Antiquity. She observed with an air of contempt that they did not. On hearing this I was surprised at the ignorance she displayed and I observed to her that she was an anomaly in creation for all the wise and learned that had ever examined them without hesitation pronounced them antient [ancient]."

"Monday, [December] 14th This morning a number of brethren from New York call[ed] to visit me and see the Egyptian records."

"Wednesday morning [December] 16th [...] Returned home, Elder McLellen, Elder B[righam] Young and Elder J[ared] Carter called and paid me a visit with which I was much gratified. I ex[h]ibited and explained the Egyptian Records to them and explained many things to them concerning the dealings of God with the ancients and the formation of the planetary System."

"Wednesday, [December] 23d In the forenoon at home stud[y]ing the Greek Language. Also waited upon the brethren who came in and exhibiting to them the papirus."

"Tuesday morning, [January] 12th [1836] [...]This after noon a young man called to see the Egyptian manuscripts and I ex[h]ibited them to him. He expressed great satisfaction and appeared verry anxious to obtain a knowledge of the translation."

"Saturday, [January] 30 Attended [Hebrew] school as usual, and waited upon several visitors and showed them the record of Abraham — Mr. Seixas our Hebrew teacher examined them [the Egyptian Papyri] with deep interest and pronounced them to be original beyound all doubt, he is a man of excellent understanding - and has a knowledge of many languages which were spoken by the ancients - he is an honorable man so far as I can judge as yet."

"Wednesday, [February] 3[rd] Attended our Hebrew lecture A.M. and studied with O Cowdery and Sylvester Smith. P.M. received many visitors and showed the records of Abraham."

"Thursday mornin[g], 11th Feb[ruar]y 1836 Spent the afternoon in reading and ex[h]ibiting the Egy[p]tian records to those who called to see me."6

Other first-hand accounts include both Charles Francis Adams, a member of the Massachusetts legislature and son of John Quincy Adams, and his travelling companion Josiah Quincy, who would become the mayor of Boston the following year.

Adams quoted Smith as pointing to a symbol on one of the pieces of papyri and saying, "This...was written by the hand of Abraham and means so and so. If anyone denies it, let him prove the contrary. I say it."7 Quincy reported Smith as saying, "That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful."8

The papyri caused quite a stir in the community, and the saints looked forward to the publishing of Joseph's translation. Eventually, the text that we know today as The Book of Abraham was printed in the "Times and Seasons" (beginning with the March 1, 1842 issue).

In 1851, Franklin D. Richards, who was presiding over the mission in England, compiled two texts — the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham — into one volume he called "The Pearl of Great Price" for the benefit of the members there. As these English saints began immigrating to Salt Lake City, they brought this volume with them, and eventually, on October 10, 1880, the First Presidency canonized the Pearl of Great Price and included it into the standard works.

From then until now, it has been accepted by the Church as a literal translation of a document "written by [Abraham's] own hand, upon papyrus" while he was in Egypt. If true, this would make the Book of Abraham immensely important — not just doctrinally, but historically. We don't know exactly when Abraham lived, but scholars have narrowed the time to probably between 2200 BCE and 1500 BCE (the LDS Bible Dictionary lists Abraham's birth as 1996 BCE — see "Chronology" on page 636 of the Church's current edition of the Bible). Even if we assume the latter date (1500 BCE), the manuscript that fell into Joseph's hands would have been a remarkable find. No other Biblical manuscript that scholars currently have — including any book in the Old Testament — is nearly that old. The Book of Abraham would pre-date any extant scriptural manuscript by hundreds, or even as much as a thousand, years.9

So what happened to the original papyri fragments and the mummies? They stayed with Joseph's mother Lucy Mack Smith until her death. After Lucy Smith's passing, Emma, who by this time was married to a Mr. Bidemon, soon sold the whole package — papyri and mummies — where they ended up in the Wood Museum in Chicago. Eventually, the whole display was presumed destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871.10

Table of Contents Next
The Field of Egyptology

**** Footnotes ****

1. Perhaps the most popular book right now that is critical of the Book of Abraham is a book written by Charles Larson called ...By His Own Hands Upon Papyrus. If you are LDS, the Institute for Religious Research will give you a free copy of this book, which you can request at this link. You can even download a free copy of the book (without the pictures) at the above link, as well. - Go back to article

2. Mystery of the Mummies: An Update on the Joseph Smith Collection, Interview with Brian L. Smith by Philip R. Webb, BYU's Religious Studies Center Newsletter, Volume 20 Number 2, 2005.

Here is a small quote from the article by Smith:

I have searched these hotel registries [in Pittsburgh] carefully to find where Chandler stayed while displaying the mummies, but I could not find him mentioned in any hotel registry. I even retraced my tracks back to Baltimore, Harrisburg, Lancaster, and Philadelphia and tried to find any evidence that Chandler was staying in any hotels in those cities. I could not find him anywhere. This has led me to wonder if Chandler was the person initially in charge of the display. If he owned the collection, why don't we find him mentioned in any of the registries, newspaper ads, or articles about the mummies? We do not find evidence of his presence until Cleveland (and Kirtland), Ohio, in 1835.

  - Go back to article

3. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, fifth printing, volume 2, p. 235 - Go back to article

4. ...By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus, by Charles M. Larson, p. 14 - Go back to article

5. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, fifth printing, volume 2, p. 236 - Go back to article

6. See the above journal entries in An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, ed. Scott H. Faulring, publ. Signature Books - Go back to article

7. Henry Adams, "Charles Francis Adams Visits the Mormons in 1844," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 68 (1952); also Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson's Archeological Search for The Book of Mormon, by Stan Larson, p. 95 - Go Back to article

8. Josiah Quincy, "Figures of the Past from the Leaves of Old Journals" (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), also Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson's Archeological Search for The Book of Mormon, by Stan Larson, p. 95 - Go Back to Article

9. For an easy-to-read summary of the dating of the Old Testament books, see Who Wrote The Bible?, by Richard Elliott Freidman, publ. Harper Collins - Go Back to Article

10. A Guide To The Joseph Smith Papyri, by John Gee, publ. F.A.R.M.S., p. 9 - Go Back to Article

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The Field of Egyptology