Monday, March 31, 2008

Characters and Correlations

Part 8 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(for the whole series, click here)

Is the Caractors Document an accurate rendering of what appeared on the Gold Plates? What correlation does it have with the Anthon Transcript which Martin Harris took with him to show the learned men?

An important part of the story has to do with which characters Professor Anthon was shown. We have assumed that Anthon's description of the paper Harris gave him differs from the Caractors Document because it was arranged in vertical columns and contained a circular figure divided into compartments. But I have concluded that the characters Anthon viewed were the very same we have copied on the Caractors Document.

The Witness of David Whitmer
David Whitmer, who had come into possession of the Caractors Document, said that it was the text that Martin Harris showed to Charles Anthon. Stanley B. Kimball has traced this claim as follows:

"The first account of Whitmer's possession of this document was made by Edward Stevenson (later a member of the First Presidency of Seventies) who visited Whitmer in 1871 and made a copy of the document. Later, the March 25, 1881, edition of the Richmond (Missouri) Conservator reported that Whitmer had the original transcript, a claim which Whitmer made again in 1887 when he wrote, "I have in my possession the original paper containing some of the characters transcribed from one of the golden plates, which paper Martin Harris took to Professor Anthon of New York. . . ." In 1884 a committee of the RLDS Church conversed with Whitmer and were shown the transcript. Unfortunately we lack any further information regarding how, when, or why Whitmer acquired this document. Though inconclusive, it is of interest to note that Martin Harris neither confirmed nor denied Whitmer's claim. [1]
The RLDS transcript was given to the Church in 1903 by the heirs of David Whitmer, fifteen years after his death in 1888. In 1941, Frederick Smith wrote describing the Caractors Document: "the paper itself is old, and of the same quality and appearance of the paper of the [Book of Mormon] manuscript and of early Revelation, manuscripts undoubtedly made before 1833." [2]

Publishing of the Characters
Additionally, these characters were published several times within the lifetime of Martin Harris purporting to be the characters which Joseph was translating from the Book of Mormon, and which were taken to Professors Mitchill and Anthon. [3] When I began writing this post I was already convinced that if the Caractors Document was not the actual writing shown to Charles Anthon, it contained the same letters the Professor saw, and was an accurate representation of what Joseph said was the writing of the plates.

Arrangement of the Characters
When I was searching for an image of the characters as they appeared in the December 21 edition of the New York Prophet, I discovered the following:

The characters that appeared in the newspaper are a handwritten reproduction of the first three lines of those which appear on the "Caractors Document." [4] But notice that the bottom image is turned on its side. The characters in the newspaper appear in vertical columns, as was described in the Anthon letter! Since this was the only reason I had for not believing the Caractors Document was one and the same as the Anthon Transcript, I was shocked by the discovery!

This discovery explains some things, and brings up more questions. First, Anthon's letter describes the characters as "crooked." He says that "Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns." For example, we see letters similar to the Roman "H," "T," "V," "C," and "U," and if they were viewed in columns, they would appear to be "placed sideways." But the question might be raised: was the slip of paper we know as the "Caractors Document" written in columns, with the label "Caractors" written as an afterthought? Or had Martin Harris and Charles Anthon looking at the document turned the wrong way? Since Joseph was not there to instruct them, this is a possibility.

Here's something else to consider: an 1831 newspaper account reports that "Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket went to the city of New York and called upon one of the professors of Columbia College for the purpose of showing them to him..." [5] Some have speculated that a translation of the characters was one of these manuscripts. This is rather doubtful. Anthon's letters speak of only one paper. He is clear that Harris was coming to him to "decypher" the paper; and that no translation had been furnished. In the Mormon version of the story, there is no mention of a translation until many years later. Anthon did, however, mention that Harris had "a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper, which the farmer would hand me, and which Dr. M. confessed he had been unable to understand." So what were the several documents Harris had in his pocket? Do we have one of these documents today?

Well, dear readers, I leave you with my impressions that the characters with which we are by now familiar were those viewed by Charles Anthon in 1828. Over the years, these characters have become well-known to members of the Church. In 1980 the Church came out with a gold-cover edition of the Book of Mormon which had the letters from the Caractors Document inscribed in black lettering. I had one in my possession until this last move. :( These characters and the story of the Anthon transcript fascinate us because, since we do not have the gold plates to handle and touch, they represent the most concrete and tangible evidence we have. Of course, a testimony of the Book of Mormon will never depend on evidence, but our mortal minds do appreciate what little there is.


[1] Stanley B. Kimball, The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems, BYU Studies Vol. 10, No. 3, Pages 325-352 (Spring 1970).

[2] From a letter of Frederick M. Smith, May 9, 1941, to John A. Widtsoe as cited in Kirkham, A New Witness, Vol. 1, p. 176.

[3] BYU Studies, vol.20, no.4, p.325. Twice in late 1844, after the Prophet's martyrdom, portions of these symbols were published as characters that Joseph Smith had copied from the gold plates. Characters appeared in the December 21 issue of the Mormon newspaper The Prophet. Also, (right, click to enlarge) in 1844 the Latter-day Saints published a broadside with the title "Stick of Joseph" which contained these same characters copied from the plates.

[4] Kimball, _The Anthon Transcript_, "On Saturday, December 21, Samuel Brannan, the presiding Elder of the branch in New York City and publisher and editor of a semi-official Church publication, The Prophet, published in this newspaper a three-line reproduction of the 'Anthon transcript.' With no introductory remarks or any indication of source, this illustration was printed under a headline reading, 'The Stick of Joseph taken from the hand of Ephraim.' He then added that. . . 'The following is a correct copy of the characters taken from the plates which the Book of Mormon was translated from: the same that was taken to Professor Mitchell, and afterwards to Professor Anthon of New York, by Martin Harris in the year 1827 [sic] in fulfillment of Isaiah 29: 11-12.' (The quotation was given in full.)"

[5] Canandaigua (New York) Morning Courier and Enquirer of September 1, 1831.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Perplexities of the Preferred Account

Part 7 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(for the whole series, click here)

I lied--this is not going to be my last post in the series. I sure hope this isn't becoming my Gospel Hobby! But I just read Chanson's post Why "Reformed Egyptian" at Latter-day Main Street and I was intrigued by another aspect of the Anthon Affair.

I have belabored the fact that the stories of Martin Harris and Charles Anthon differ in particulars. Isn't it interesting that if we give credence to the official version of Harris' story, a problem is raised that is not present if we accept Anthon's claims:

JS-H Account--Harris brought the transcript to Anthon to have the characters verified. Anthon identified them as Egyptian characters (perhaps comparing them to books he had in his possession.) Anthon provided a certificate to the effect, but ripped it up when Harris told him how Joseph Smith had obtained the characters.

This version opens up the possibility that when the suggestion that the characters resembled Egyptian made it back to Joseph Smith, he then introduced the idea that the plates were written in "reformed Egyptian" into the Book of Mormon text. (see John Hamer's comments #7 and #9 here.)

Anthon Account--Anthon insisted that he did not identify the characters as resembling Egyptian. In his letters, he writes: "The whole story about my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be 'reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics' is perfectly false." and "I am thus particular as to the contents of the paper, inasmuch as I have frequently conversed with my friends on the subject, since the Mormonite excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained any thing else but 'Egyptian Hieroglyphics.'"

Part 6 of this series postulated that Anthon's version of events fits better with the prophecy in Isaiah 29. Here I would like to add that Anthon's version protects Joseph from claims that parts of the Book of Mormon text came from ideas he got from the Professor's examination of the transcript. It seems that apologists should be pleased that we have Anthon's side of the story!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Prophecy and Professor Anthon

Part 6 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(For the whole series, click here)

Can you believe I am still blogging about the Anthon transcript? I don't know why this has intrigued me so much. Much of this information is not new to me, but I haven't seriously considered it in the past, or tried to come to any conclusions. If you're still reading me, here are some concluding ideas I've had as I've looked at the whole incident.

Anthon's and Harris' accounts changed over time. But there are certain undisputed historical facts from which we can form a coherent narrative. Joseph Smith copied some characters which he said he got from the gold plates onto a sheet of paper. Martin Harris took this and other materials back East to get the opinion of the classicists of the day. Professor Charles Anthon spoke with Martin Harris and gave him an opinion. Latter-day Saints believe this event fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 29.

The disputed points are immaterial:

1. Were the characters Egyptian? The writings in the Book of Mormon were done in reformed Egyptian, and certainly changed even more during the many years in the New World before Mormon made his abridgement. [1]

2. Did Professor Charles Anthon possess the ability to recognize ancient Egyptian in 1828? It is unlikely that Anthon would have been able to actually translate ancient Egyptian texts. But he certainly had a familiarity with the hieroglyphics and possessed a reference book that would have contained Egyptian writings. However, being "reformed" and evolved, the characters did not necessarily have a recognizable correspondence with the Egyptian alphabets with which Anthon was familiar in 1828.

3. Did Anthon verify the characters in writing? A verification of the characters by Anthon was not necessary for the encounter to satisfy Biblical prophecy. In fact, if Anthon had been able to translate the characters in any way, it would have served to weaken the correlation between this story and the Isaiah prophecy that the learned man was unable to read the sealed book. A verification was only important to Martin Harris to satisfy him that he should contribute financially to the publication of the Book of Mormon. Apparently his interactions with the "learned men" were enough to convince him to do so.

Some Latter-day Saints have attempted to view the encounter with Anthon as a way to verify that the characters were of ancient origin. They would be better served to drop this approach and instead see the incident as did Orson Pratt: " was a sealed writing to the learned professor—the aboriginal language of ancient America could not be deciphered by him. He was as much puzzled as the wise men of Babylon were to interpret the unknown writing upon the wall. Human wisdom and learning, in this case, were altogether insufficient. It required another Daniel, who was found in the person of Mr. Smith." [2]

Although there are several questions in my mind as to whether the characters represent a form of ancient Egyptian, I can agree that the Anthon encounter fits well into Biblical prophecy:

And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned. Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.

Next: is the Caractors Document an accurate rendering of what appeared on the Gold Plates? What correlation does it have with the Anthon Transcript which Martin Harris took with him to show the learned men?

[1] An interesting paper on this subject is _Reformed Egyptian: "In the Language of my Fathers"_ by Richard G. Grant.

[2] Orson Pratt, "Divine Authority, or the Question, Was Joseph Smith sent of God?" Doctrines of the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), 9.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Stages of the Story

Part 5 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(For the whole series, click here)

Now I am ready to look at the historical development of both the Martin Harris account and the Charles Anthon account of what happened at their meeting in 1828. In my study of this meeting, I would prefer to take each witness seriously. I do not believe either Harris or Anthon was deliberately misrepresenting the truth, but each has his own perspective. Perhaps we can learn something by attempting to reconcile the differences in their stories. Historians have noticed that when a primary source makes a record of an historical event, the telling of the story tends to change over time. An examination of these changes can further illuminate the event.

Changes in the Martin Harris Account

Martin Harris told the story of his visit to Charles Anthon in Palmyra immediately after he returned from New York City. The Reverend T. A. Clark in Palmyra wrote that "After his return he came to see me again, and told me that, among others, he had consulted Prof. Anthon, who thought the characters in which the book was written very remarkable, but he could not decide what language they belonged to." [1] In August of 1829 the first newspaper report of Harris' story appeared as follows: "So blindly enthusiastic was Harris that he took some of the characters interpreted by Smith and went in search of someone, besides the interpreter, who was learned enough to English them; but all of whom he applied (among the number was Professor Mitchell of New York) happened not to be possessed of sufficient knowledge to give satisfaction." [2] About a week later the Rochester Gem of September 5, 1829 reported the incident as follows: "Harris states that he went in search of someone to interpret the hieroglyphics, but found no one was intended to perform that all-important task but Smith himself." [3]

Orson Pratt wrote an account which agreed with the supposition that Professor Anthon was unable to identify the characters. Wrote he: "Isaiah says that 'the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned...' All this was fulfilled before Mr. Smith was aware that it had been so clearly predicted by Isaiah. He sent the "words of a book" which he found, as before stated, to Professor Anthon. But it was a sealed writing to the learned professor—the aboriginal language of ancient America could not be deciphered by him. He was as much puzzled as the wise men of Babylon were to interpret the unknown writing upon the wall. Human wisdom and learning, in this case, were altogether insufficient. It required another Daniel, who was found in the person of Mr. Smith. [4]

Some time later the Canandaigua (New York) Morning Courier and Enquirer of September 1, 1831 reported the incident: "Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket went to the city of New York and called upon one of the professors of Columbia College for the purpose of showing them to him. Harris says that the professor thought them very curious, but admitted that he could not decipher them. Said he to Harris, 'Mr. Harris, you had better go to the celebrated Dr. Mitchell and show them to him. He is very learned in these ancient languages and I have no doubt he will be able to give you some satisfaction'. . .Harris says that the Doctor. . .looked at his engravings--made a learned dissertation on them--compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered by Champollion in Europe, and set them down as a language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more. [5] Also in 1831, W.W. Phelps wrote a letter in which he reported that Anthon had translated the Book of Mormon characters and declared them to be "the ancient shorthand Egyptian." This term was familiar to Anthon through a review of Champollion's Préçis in the American Quarterly Review, calling hieratic Egyptian script "short-hand" Egyptian. Anthon owned a copy of this review and he cited it in his Classical Dictionary. [6]

By 1841 there is evidence that the Harris-Anthon incident was being used by missionaries "claiming the patronage of Professor Anthon's name in behalf of their notions." [7]

In 1842 the May 2 issue of the Times and Seasons contained the fourth installment of what was then called "Church History." The chief significance of this publication was that it was the first official reference to the event. That same year the story was reprinted in the Millennial Star in October as the "History of Joseph Smith." This is the version which we find today in JS-H. Joseph gives his own recollection of what Martin Harris reported to him about ten years after the events took place: "I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Anthony [sic], a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments;--Professor Anthony stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldeac [sic], Assyriac, and Arabac [sic]; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthony called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him. He then said to me, 'let me see that certificate.' I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him, he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, 'I cannot read a sealed book.' I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthony had said respecting both the characters and the translation. [8]

Stanley L. Kimball has observed that changes in the story of the Anthon consultation can be seen to fall into several stages. In the first telling of the experience (1) Harris visited the scholars, found that they could not translate the characters, and went home. Later, possibly as early as the summer of 1829, (2) Harris visited the scholars and found they could authenticate but not translate the characters. Then, in late 1830 or early 1831, (3) Harris visited the scholars and found that they could identify and translate the characters. Finally, in 1838 the story had evolved to the point that (4) Harris visited the scholars, found that they could authenticate the characters, identify the language, and verify Smith's sample translation. Harris received Anthon's certificate to the Palmyrans and then saw Anthon tear it up. The account expanded talk about reformed Egyptian characters to a discussion of the Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic alphabets. [9]

The earliest recountings of Martin Harris' story, including that given by Orson Pratt agree with Anthon's strong assertion that he did not attempt any translation, but offered to examine the plates, which Harris informed him was forbidden. It should not cause a problem for Latter-day Saints if Anthon made no identification of the characters shown him. In fact, this interpretation best fulfills the "learned man" prophecy in Isaiah 29:11. As the Martin Harris story was retold over the years, a number of additions were made. By the time the official account was written, the story had been circulating among missionaries and proponents of the Church for many years. In the effort to portray the Book of Mormon as an ancient record, there seems to have been an attempt to connect the characters with Egyptian writing. I think it is quite likely that Professor Anthon compared the characters with his copy of Champollion's Précis, perhaps in the process mentioning hieratic, or "shorthand" Egyptian. This was a phrase that Harris would certainly remember, with its similarity to "reformed Egyptian" mentioned in the Book of Mormon. This exchange could very well have given rise to the later claim that Anthon identified some of the characters as Egyptian and other languages.

Changes in the Charles Anthon Account

A comparison of the two letters written by Charles Anthon shows that the professor's emphasis also changed over time. I think it is interesting to see that Anthon admits a change in sentiments when he learns the source of the characters:
"On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and, instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax upon the learned, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues."

Harris and Anthon agree that there was a change of opinion regarding the characters when their provenance becomes known. But Anthon excises this from his later letter. I think that Professor Anthon was initially excited by the appearance of the transcript. He had a great interest in antiquities and recognized something unusual. Anthon may even have seen some similarities between the characters and ancient scripts, and expressed this to Harris. Then when he heard the strange story of the gold plates, Anthon changed his mind and decided the whole thing was a hoax. This was enough to convince Harris to the extent that he would mortgage part of his farm to pay for the publishing of the Book of Mormon. Let us assume that Anthon was sincere in wanting to dissuade Harris from investing his money in a fraud. He would naturally have wanted to disassociate his name from the whole affair. Thus his letters stress the oddity of Joseph Smith's translation process and the dissimilarities from ancient Egyptian, and he hesitates to admit that he had ever taken the characters seriously.

Another change in Anthon's account has to do with the written affadavit he allegedly gave to Martin Harris. In 1834 he writes that he declined to give Harris an opinion in writing. In 1841 Anthon says that he did give a written statement, "that the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetical characters, and had, in my opinion, no meaning at all connected with them." This and other indications in the later letter show that Anthon over time represents himself as more positive from the outset that the characters were a fraud.

Apparently Harris and Anthon's stories were rather similar soon after the event, but as time went on they diverged as both Anthon and the Mormons became anxious to promote their agendas. Agreement in the accounts centers around these points:

  • Martin Harris showed Professor Anthon a transcript containing characters.
  • Anthon agreed the characters were similar to certain ancient writings.
  • A comparison was made to Egyptian characters, probably using Champollion's book.
  • When Harris described the provenance of the characters, Anthon changed his mind and decided they consisted of a fraud designed to cheat Harris of his money.
  • Anthon refused to verify the characters.
  • Anthon gave an opinion of the characters in writing.

More to come...

[1] John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia, 1842), pp. 222, 229.

[2] The account appeared in the Palmyra Freeman, August 1829, but is known only through a quotation reprinted in the Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph of August 31, 1829.

[3] The above two newspaper articles are cited in Kirkham, A New Witness, Vol. 1, p. 151.

[4] Orson Pratt, Orson Pratt's Works [Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1945], 18 - 19.

[5] see James Gordon Bennett's 1831 Report on "The Mormonites," by Leonard J. Arrington in BYU Studies. Stanley L. Kimball has shown that Anthon owned a copy of Champollion's _Précis du système Hiéroglyphique des Anciens Égyptiens_ (Paris 1824). This is now located at Cornell University and carries Anthon's signature on the flyleaf.

[6] John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992. Excerpt here.

[7] In September 1841 the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo printed a letter from Charles W. Wandell (1819-1875), a New York convert then laboring as a missionary in New Rochelle, New York. In this letter, written July 27, Elder Wandell reports that the Episcopal D.D. [T.W. Coit] had written to Professor Anthon inquiring about the Mormons' claim. Wandell includes an extract from the reply Professor Anthon made to Coit. (Clark, Gleanings, p. 232.)

[8] Times and Seasons, Vol. 3 (May 2, 1842), p. 773. (Usually cited as Joseph Smith 2:64-65).

[9] Kimball, Stanley B. "The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems." BYU Studies 10 (Spring 1970):325-52.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hallelujah! Christ Arose!

The Easters of my childhood could not be more different than those of my children. As a "Preacher's Kid," those Sundays in early spring of the '60's and '70's recall new patent leather shoes, pastel dresses, hats, and little white gloves. Easter lilies adorned the house, with the largest one placed on my grandmother's handmade doily on the grand piano in the front room. My father had written a special sermon which we would all discuss at the table that evening when we ate our traditional ham dinner. I sat sedately on the pew with my knees together, and head bowed. It was a special, awe-filled, reverent day, and I felt great joy well up in my heart as we sang the Protestant Easter hymns. "Christ the Lord is Ris'n Today" was twice as fast and toe-tapping as any Mormon ward has ever performed it, and then, my personal favorite:

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!


Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!


Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Fast forward to the 1980's and '90's. BiV tries valiantly to recall the Easters of her youth as she sews 7 matching Easter dresses every year, and volunteers to write Easter cantatas for Sacrament meetings. But most years Easter falls on General Conference days, and we lie around the house in PJ's, munching on chocolate bunnies and putting jellybeans on Conference Bingo cards while watching the talking heads. Frustration mounted through these years. I wondered how we could come from such a wonderful musical tradition with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and be satisfied with Ward Choirs who thought an acceptable Easter production was singing "He is Risen" with the men singing the first verse, the women singing the second, and all joining together on the third. Talks and lessons went on in the usual schedule, sometimes with nary a mention of the resurrection. Mormons don't do JOY on Easter, I realized.

That's when I started worshipping with my local Baptist congregation on Easter. No, I didn't miss Church (or any of the Conference sessions). But I'd search for a sunrise service, or one that didn't conflict with any of our meeting times, and I'd slip over for an hour every Easter. DH was against it, so I didn't bring any of the children. It was just me, feeling the great spirit of Resurrection morning in an anonymous way with a group of people I didn't know.

One Easter I found myself in a rather large Christian church with lovely stained-glass and a 200-voice choir. The program was a live musical rendition of the Easter story. I was sitting in an aisle seat midway back when suddenly the doors behind me swung wide open and a bearded actor in a homespun robe entered the building, sitting on a real donkey! He passed, close enough to touch, and I felt an amazing emotional reaction. At that moment, I realized in a visceral way that Jesus was a historical, real, vital person who had actually lived and walked around on this earth. People had seen him, and touched him, and listened to his message. I felt a conviction that he had risen from the dead, as the scriptures relate. I thought it not impossible that he had physically appeared to a farm boy in New York in answer to a sincere prayer. It was the strongest testimony of the reality of the Savior and of the restoration of the gospel that I had yet experienced.

Perhaps it might seem odd that I could receive such a strong witness of the Restored Gospel in such a place. Or maybe it is perplexing that here on my questioning, often critical blog I would include my assurance of a personal Savior. But to all my readers, seeking or not, believing or not, I offer you my Easter story, however you will receive it. It is why I struggle to find answers to the conundrums of Mormonism. It is why I stay when others tell me to go find another church. It is why I roll my eyes at some of the policies and practices and then I go and do what I am told. It is why I put up with the abuses of patriarchy and the sore spots where other struggling sinners scrape against my weaknesses.

There's a place within me that loves Jesus. I join with you to shout Him welcome this Easter morning.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Letters From a Learned Man

Part 4 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(For the whole series, click here)

It seems like I've taken a long time just to say that Martin Harris was in possession of a copy of some of the characters from the Book of Mormon and that he consulted some of the leading candidates of the day who might have been able to authenticate them. Now the time has come to more fully examine Professor Anthon's account of Martin Harris' visit. Extant are two letters in which Charles Anthon replied to enquiries about his encounter with Harris. I will reproduce them in their entirety and then discuss what they reveal about Mormon history and scholarship.

1. This letter was written to Eber D. Howe, Editor of the Painesville Telegraph (1822–1835), author, and publisher of Mormonism Unvailed. On February 9, 1834 Howe wrote to Charles Anthon about Mormon claims that he had authenticated Book of Mormon characters. Anthon answered in a response dated Feb. 17, 1834:

New York, Feb. 17, 1834
Dear Sir -

I received this morning your favor of the 9th instant, and lose no time in making a reply. The whole story about my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be "reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics" is perfectly false. Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper, which the farmer would hand me, and which Dr. M. confessed he had been unable to understand. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax. When I asked the person, who brought it, how he obtained the writing, he gave me, as far as I can now recollect, the following account: A "gold book," consisting of a number of plates of gold, fastened together in the shape of a book by wires of the same metal, had been dug up in the northern part of the state of New York, and along with the book an enormous pair of "gold spectacles"! These spectacles were so large, that, if a person attempted to look through them, his two eyes would have to be turned towards one of the glasses merely, the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the breadth of the human face. Whoever examined the plates through the spectacles, was enabled not only to read them, but fully to understand their meaning. All this knowledge, however, was confined at that time to a young man, who had the trunk containing the book and spectacles in his sole possession. This young man was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses, decyphered the characters in the book, and, having committed some of them to paper, handed copies from behind the curtain, to those who stood on the outside. Not a word, however, was said about the plates having been decyphered "by the gift of God." Every thing, in this way, was effected by the large pair of spectacles. The farmer added, that he had been requested to contribute a sum of money towards the publication of the "golden book," the contents of which would, as he had been assured, produce an entire change in the world and save it from ruin. So urgent had been these solicitations, that he intended selling his farm and handing over the amount received to those who wished to publish the plates. As a last precautionary step, however, he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles. On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and, instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax upon the learned, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues. He requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving, and he then took his leave carrying the paper with him. This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calender given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived. I am thus particular as to the contents of the paper, inasmuch as I have frequently conversed with my friends on the subject, since the Mormonite excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained any thing else but "Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Some time after, the same farmer paid me a second visit. He brought with him the golden book in print, and offered it to me for sale. I declined purchasing. He then asked permission to leave the book with me for examination. I declined receiving it, although his manner was strangely urgent. I adverted once more to the roguery which had been in my opinion practised upon him, and asked him what had become of the gold plates. He informed me that they were in a trunk with the large pair of spectacles. I advised him to go to a magistrate and have the trunk examined. He said the "curse of God" would come upon him should he do this. On my pressing him, however, to pursue the course which I had recommended, he told me that he would open the trunk, if I would take the "curse of God" upon myself. I replied that I would do so with the greatest willingness, and would incur every risk of that nature, provided I could only extricate him from the grasp of rogues. He then left me.

I have thus given you a full statement of all that I know respecting the origin of Mormonism, and must beg you, as a personal favor, to publish this letter immediately, should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics.

Yours respectfully, CHAS. ANTHON.

2. The second letter was in response to a letter from Reverend Dr. Thomas Winthrop Coit who was Rector of Trinity Church in New Rochelle, New York from 1839-1849. Having heard the Mormon claim that Anthon had actually validated Joseph Smith's "translation" of the Book of Mormon but had torn up the alleged affidavit before Harris could leave with it, Rev. Coit wrote to Anthon requesting a statement from him about his involvement in the affair. Anthon responded on April 3, 1841 with the following:

New York, April 3d, 1841.

Rev. and Dear Sir:

I have often heard that the Mormons claimed me for an auxiliary, but, as no one, until the present time, has ever requested from me a statement in writing, I have not deemed it worth while to say anything publicly on the subject. What I do know of the sect relates to some of the early movements; and as the facts may amuse you, while they will furnish a satisfactory answer to the charge of my being a Mormon proselyte, I proceed to lay them before you in detail.

Many years ago, the precise date I do not now recollect, a plain looking countryman called upon me with a letter from Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell requesting me to examine, and give my opinion upon, a certain paper, marked with various characters, which the Doctor confessed he could not decypher, and which the bearer of the note was very anxious to have explained. A very brief examination of the paper convinced me that it was a mere hoax, and a very clumsy one too. The characters were arranged in columns, like the Chinese mode of writing, and presented the most singular medley that I ever beheld. Greek, Hebrew and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, either through unskilfulness or from actual design, were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects, and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac. The conclusion was irresistible, that some cunning fellow had prepared the paper in question for the purpose of imposing upon the countryman who brought it, and I told the man so without any hesitation. He then proceeded to give me the history of the whole affair, which convinced me that he had fallen into the hands of some sharper, while it left me in great astonishment at his simplicity.

The countryman told me that a gold book had been recently dug up in the western or northern part (I forget which), of our state, and he described this book as consisting of many gold plates, like leaves, secured by a gold wire passing through the edges of each, just as the leaves of a book are sewed together, and presented in this way the appearance of a volume. Each plate, according to him, was inscribed with unknown characters, and the paper which he handed me, a transcript of one of these pages. On my asking him by whom the copy was made, he gravely stated, that along with the golden book there had been dug up a very large pair of spectacles! so large in fact that if a man were to hold them in front of his face, his two eyes would merely look through one of the glasses, and the remaining part of the spectacles would project a considerable distance sideways! These spectacles possessed, it seems a very valuable property, of enabling any one who looked through them, (or rather through one of the lenses,) not only to decypher the characters on the plates, but also to comprehend their exact meaning, and be able to translate them!! My informant assured me that this curious property of the spectacles had been actually tested, and found to be true. A young man, it seems, had been placed in the garret of a farm-house, with a curtain before him, and having fastened the spectacles to his head, had read several pages in the golden book, and communicated their contents in writing to certain persons stationed on the outside of the curtain. He had also copied off one page of the book in the original character, which he had in like manner handed over to those who were separated from him by the curtain, and this copy was the paper which the countryman had brought with him. As the golden book was said to contain very great truths, and most important revelations of a religious nature, a strong desire had been expressed by several persons in the countryman's neighbourhood, to have the whole work translated and published. A proposition had accordingly been made to my informant, to sell his farm, and apply the proceeds to the printing of the golden book, and the golden plates were to be left with him as security until he should be reimbursed by the sale of the work. To convince him more clearly that there was no risk whatever in the matter, and that the work was actually what it claimed to be, he was told to take the paper, which purported to be a copy of one of the pages of the book, to the city of New York, and submit it to the learned in that quarter, who would soon dispel all his doubts, and satisfy him as to the perfect safety of the investment. As Dr. Mitchell was our "Magnus Apollo" in those days, the man called first upon him; but the Doctor, evidently suspecting some trick, declined giving any opinion about the matter, and sent the countryman down to the college, to see, in all probability what the "learned pundits" in that place would make of the affair. On my telling the bearer of the paper that an attempt had been made to impose on him and defraud him of his property, he requested me to give him my opinion in writing about the paper which he had shown to me. I did so without hesitation, partly for the man's sake, and partly to let the individual "behind the curtain" see that his trick was discovered. The import of what I wrote was, as far as I can now recollect, simply this, that the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetical characters, and had, in my opinion, no meaning at all connected with them. The countryman then took his leave, with many thanks, and with the express declaration that he would in no shape part with his farm, or embark in the speculation of printing the golden book.

The matter rested here for a considerable time, until one day, when I had ceased entirely to think of the countryman and his paper, this same individual, to my great surprise, paid me a second visit. He now brought with him a duodecimo volume, which he said was a translation into English of the "Golden Bible." He also stated, that notwithstanding his original determination not to sell his farm, he had been induced evidently to do so, and apply the money to the publication of the book, and had received the golden plates as a security for payment. He begged my acceptance of the volume, assuring me that it would be found extremely interesting, and that it was already "making great noise" in the upper part of the state. Suspecting now that some serious trick was on foot, and that my plain looking visitor might be in fact a very cunning fellow I declined his present, and merely contented myself with a slight examination of the volume while he stood by. The more I declined receiving it, however, the more urgent the man became in offering the book, until at last I told him plainly, that if he left the volume, as he said he intended to do, I should most assuredly throw it after him as he departed. I then asked him how he could be so foolish as to sell his farm and engage in this affair; and requested him to tell me if the plates were really of gold. In answer to this latter inquiry, he said, that he had never seen the plates themselves, which were carefully locked up in a trunk, but that he had the trunk in his possession. I advised him by all means to open the trunk and examine its contents, and if the plates proved to be of gold, which I did not believe at all, to sell them immediately. His reply was, that. if he opened the trunk, the "curse of heaven would descend upon him and his children.' "However," added he, "I will agree to open it, provided you take the 'curse of Heaven' upon yourself, for having advised me to the step." I told him I was perfectly willing to do so, and begged he would hasten home and examine the trunk, for he would find that he had been cheated. He promised to do as I recommended, and left me, taking his book with him. I have never seen him since.

Such is a plain statement of all I know respecting the Mormons. My impression now is, that the plain looking countryman was none other than the prophet Smith himself, who assumed an appearance of great simplicity in order to entrap me, if possible, into some recommendation of his book. That the prophet aided me by his inspiration, in interpreting the volume, is only one of the many amusing falsehoods which the Mormonites utter relative to my participation in their doctrines. Of these doctrines I know nothing whatever, nor have I ever heard a single discourse from any of their preachers, although I have often felt a strong curiosity to become an auditor, since my friends tell me that they frequently name me in their sermons, and even go so far as to say that I am alluded to in the prophecies of Scripture!

If what I have here written shall prove of any service in opening the eyes of some of their deluded followers to the real designs of those who profess to be the apostles of Mormonism, it will afford me satisfaction equalled, I have no doubt, only by that which you yourself will feel on this subject.

I remain, very respectfully and truly, your friend,


These two letters are rich with information about early Church history. The tidbit which fascinates me the most is Anthon's description of the translation process, as explained to him by Martin Harris. It adds more to our understanding of how Joseph Smith's contemporaries perceived the translating was done. W.W. Phelps explained that the translation was done "through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles — (known perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim) ..." [1] Some have disagreed with Phelps' speculation and supposed that the "Urim and Thummim" referred to the Seer Stone that Joseph later used in the translation process. [2] But Anthon's letter makes it clear that in 1828 Harris was describing the means of translating the Book of Mormon as a large pair of spectacles. David Whitmer explained that the "Interpreters" (spectacles) were taken from Joseph as a punishment after he and Martin Harris lost the 116 pages of manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Later Joseph was allowed to recommence the translation using a Seer stone. [3] Accounts of the translation done with the use of the Seer stone abound. Isaac Hale explained that the translation was done by use of the Seer Stone without the physical presence of the plates. Joseph placed his seer stone in a hat and the translation would appear. [4] Emma Smith's description of the process agrees with her father's, saying that Joseph translated with his face buried in a hat. [5] David Whitmer's account adds detail to this idea, explaining how the characters appeared one at a time. [6]

Anthon's letters thus help to clarify how the translation of the Book of Mormon was done. The 116 manuscript pages were translated using a large pair of spectacles. The portion of the plates which comprises our Book of Mormon was translated by the use of a Seer Stone. Since the various accounts call both the spectacles and the Seer Stone(s) by the words "Interpreters" and "Urim and Thummim," [7] I would speculate that these two terms might loosely be used to refer to any divine instrument of translation.

I will leave you now with this one interesting example of how the Anthon letters contribute to our understanding of Mormonism. Perhaps my readers may wish to add comments with other insights from the above letters.

To be continued....


[1] W.W. Phelps, Evening and Morning Star, vol. 1, no. 8, (Independence, Missouri, January 1833) p. 2.

[2] This confusion has resulted from the accounts of some of the early Saints which concatenate the Urim and Thummim, the Interpreters, and the seer stone. For example, Oliver Cowdery, who joined in the translation effort in the winter of 1828 exults: "These were days never to be forgotten — to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated, with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, 'Interpreters,' the history, or record, called 'The book of Mormon." (Oliver Cowdery, Messenger and Advocate, (Kirtland, Ohio, 1834), vol. 1, no. 1, p.14.)

[3] In an 1885 interview, Zenas H. Gurley, then the editor of the RLDS Saints’ Herald, asked David Whitmer if Joseph had used his "Peep stone" to do the translation. Whitmer replied: "... he used a stone called a 'Seers stone,' the 'Interpreters' having been taken away from him because of transgression. The 'Interpreters' were taken from Joseph after he allowed Martin Harris to carry away the 116 pages of Ms [manuscript] of the Book of Mormon as a punishment, but he was allowed to go on and translate by use of a 'Seers stone' which he had, and which he placed in a hat into which he buried his face, stating to me and others that the original character appeared upon parchment and under it the translation in English." (Elder Z.H. Gurley holograph in LDS Church archives, cited by Richard S. Van Wagoner in "Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15:2 (Summer 1982), p. 54.)

[4] ""The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with a stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods." (Affidavit of Isaac Hale dated March 20, 1834, cited in Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), pp. 126-128.)

[5] "In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us." (History of the RLDS Church, 8 vols., Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1951, "Last Testimony of Sister Emma," 3:356.)

[6] "Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear." (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Missouri: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)

[7] In 1823 Joseph Smith equated the Urim and Thummim with the spectacles: "...there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim--deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book." (JS-H 1:35) By 1835 the term "Urim and Thummim" was added to the revelation published as D&C 10 (verse 1), and thereafter, was used to refer to both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone(s) by Joseph Smith and numerous other people. Joseph Knight, Sr., an early member of the Church and a close friend of Joseph Smith, equates the Urim and Thummim with the Seer stone: "Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and darkened his eyes then he would take a sentance and it would appear in brite roman letters then he would tell the writer and he would write it then that would go away the next sentence would come and so on. But if it was not spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the hol [whole] translated." (Cited in Dean Jessee, "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," BYU Studies, vol. 17:1 (Autumn 1976), p. 35.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Assessing the Alphabets

Part 3 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(For the whole series, click here)

Before I get to my next post, I'll take some time to respond to John F. and Sanford's questions on my last one. Keep in mind that I am completely out of my depth here, and feel free to correct or add to my thoughts.

In the Martin Harris account of his visit to Professor Anthon that we have in the JS-H, he asserts that Anthon verified the letters as true characters from the "Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic" languages. Historians have shown that Anthon had at least a rudimentary knowledge of these languages, enough to recognize the alphabets when he saw them. Let us assume that Martin Harris was correctly recalling the languages mentioned by Anthon. We should be able to see some correlations with these ancient alphabets and the JS characters. Below I will post some charts of the alphabets, so we can compare them with the "Caractors Document."



Ancient Assyrian (Akkadian) differs somewhat from modern Assyrian (Neo-Syrian). Akkadian was in use until about 750 BC, and was gradually replaced when writing began to be done on parchment, leather and papyrus rather than clay tablets. Aramaic gradually replaced the Ancient Assyrian because of the technological breakthrough in writing. It is sometimes assumed that Martin Harris meant to say "Aramaic" rather than "Arabic" in his report of Anthon's words because the Arabic language did not come into usage until after Lehi's group left for the New World, and would not have been represented on the plates. Arabic is descended from Aramaic and first appeared about 512 AD.

Now, here again is the "Caractors Document:"

Do you see any correlations here? I don't. It's especially disappointing to see the lack of similarity to Egyptian. In his 1834 letter to E.B. Howe, Anthon denied that the characters he saw included Egyptian, but rather wrote that he saw "Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways..." Doesn't this seem more descriptive of the characters to you?? (See especially Greek letters alpha, eta, lambda, tau, and upsilon.)

This post is intended to be a simplistic view of the alphabets as discussed by the major players in the Anthon drama. Other authors have gone into further depth on the relation of the characters to different scripts. [1] I do indeed have a working theory as to how the assertions of Martin Harris came about, but there are a few more points to cover before I get into my conclusions.


[1] Here are only a few samples the many which are available on line.

Apologetic Sources:

Ariel L. Crowley, The Anthon Transcript: A Series of Articles in
The Improvement Era, Jan. - Mar., 1942.

Russell Littlecreek, Evidence for Reformed Egyptian. This is really cool. Click on the letters in the "Caractors Document" and you are taken to a possible corresponding Egyptian Hieratic or Hieroglyph. (Keep in mind as you do this that Professor Anthon would not have had complete knowledge of all these characters.)

John Gee, Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript:Review of Stan and Polly Johnson. Translating the Anthon Transcript.

Stanley B. Kimball, A Visit With Dr. Hayes, Sunstone, July 2002, pp. 12-13

Critical Sources:

Richard Stout, A Singular Discovery: The Curious Manuscript, Mitchill, and Mormonism. (scroll down and read about the close resemblance between the "Caractors" and Tironian notes!)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Credentials of the Columbia Professor

Part 2 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(For the whole series, click here)

In this post, I would like to explore the credentials of the learned men consulted by Martin Harris. Harris was highly motivated to find a qualified scholar to verify the translation of the characters Joseph Smith gave him. He was being asked to contribute a hefty sum toward the publication of the Book of Mormon. In August 1829 he would mortgage his home and farm to Egbert B. Grandin to secure payment on the printer's contract. Later, when the mortgage note fell due, the home and a portion of his 240 acre farm were sold for $3,000. "Mr. Harris was to take the characters to the East and through the country in every direction, and on his way he was to call on all who were professed linguists to give them an opportunity of showing their talents in giving a translation of the characters." [1] Many sources confirm that Martin Harris visited the following men on his trip to Philadelphia, Utica, Albany, and New York City. [2]

1. Luther Bradish
Luther Bradish was a special trade emissary of U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1820. He was sent to Asia as a semi-official agent on a special mission to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople concerning an American trade treaty with the Ottoman Empire, during which time he learned Arabic. Following his stay in Constantinople, Mr. Bradish was the guest of the celbrated Mohammed Ali Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, who provided him an escort to Jerusalem. It is speculated that he may have been the first American to visit the Holy City. He later traveled throughout Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Europe where he studied the "language, manners, and antiquities" of those nations. Other travels included Smyrna, Malta and Gibraltar, the West Indies, South America, England, Scotland, Ireland, the uper cataracts of the Nile, the Red Sea, Beirut, Adrianople in Bulgaria, Hungary, Vienna, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Holland, Denmark, and even Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia. Having been elected to the state legislature in Albany as a Whig in 1827, Bradish lived at Utica in 1828. Harris was aware of Bradish's travels and may even have known Bradish himself since Bradish had relatives around Palmyra. [3] It is believed that Harris went to see him in his home in Utica, a stopping place on the Erie Canal, proceeding from there to Albany. [4] Despite Bradish's experiences with the culture and languages of the Middle East, he was apparently unable to venture an opinion on the characters. He told Harris that there was not enough "to make anything out."

2. Samuel Latham Mitchill
Samuel Mitchill's early studies were in the classics. After receiving his medical and scientific training in New York and Edinburgh, he was appointed to the chair of natural history, chemistry, and agriculture at Columbia College in 1792. In addition to teaching, he was twice in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1801-1804 and 1810-1813; a senator from 1804-1809; professor, College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, 1807-1826; and an organizer and a vice-president of Rutgers Medical College during its brief existence, 1826-1830. When book or product promoters of that era wanted the ultimate testimonial in their advertisements, the most auspicious name they sought was that of Samuel Latham Mitchill, a walking encyclopedia and "chaos of knowledge" whose very name could silence critics and command awe & respect. It was "Dr. Mitchill" to whom Americans turned for the final word on everything from ancient American ruins to natural history, medicine or agriculture. In the upstate New York farming journal, "The Plough Boy" - just the sort of publication a prosperous Palmyra farmer like Martin Harris would read - the references to "Dr. Mitchill" and his pronouncements are almost countless, including numerous letters to and from Mitchill (together with occasional lengthy addresses) whenever a final authority on some matter was required. "There is not in the United States," wrote the editor, "a more scientific man than Dr. Mitchill - there is not, perhaps, a more useful man. . . . whose amiable disposition in connection with his real science, his ardent thirst for philosophic attainments, and his invaluable labours in the vineyard of human improvement, render him at once the ornament of his country, and the benefactor of mankind." [5] Samuel Mitchill would also have been a name known to Harris for his service in state and national legislatures from 1791 through 1813. He was also considered learned in science, history, higher education, medicine, and land development. Mitchill's name appeared as a recognized authority in Palmyra's newspapers at least fifteen times between 1821 and 1826. [6] Mitchill translated books from the Spanish, German, Latin, Dutch. He also could read Greek and decipher ancient Oriental tongues. [7] Dr. Mitchill was a noted antiquarian who studied Egyptian and Babylonian artifacts. He had a great interest in the history of the American Indian. Dating from his appointment in 1798 as a commissioner to purchase land in western New York from the Six (Indian) Nations, he was known as an authority on native Americans. His speculations on their origins appeared in several publications before 1820. [8] Martin Harris soon discovered that Mitchill's expertise on ancient America was of no help in identifying the characters from the gold plates. Mitchill declined giving any opinion about the matter, but did write a letter of introduction referring Martin Harris to Professor Charles Anthon whom he thought might be able to assist in the endeavor. [9]

3. Charles Anthon
Charles Anthon was admitted to Columbia College while still a boy. At the age of thirteen, young Anthon "was awarded so many distinctions that his name was withdrawn from competition." He was recognized as a genius by the age of fourteen. The state supreme court accepted him to the bar at twenty-two years of age. One year later he became adjunct professor of Greek and Latin at Columbia College. He was also proficient in French and German. He became well known in educated circles for his edition of Lempriere's A Classical Dictionary. [10] While preparing for the bar he had adopted the habit, which he retained for many years, of rising at 4 a. m. and devoting the early hours of the morning to his literary labors. A liberal allowance of his day was devoted to the study of languages. This was the quintessential "nerd," not a man of vanity or imprecision. [11]

These three men were among the prominent scholars in the U.S. in 1828, and if anyone could have translated an Ancient American document written in "reformed Egyptian," these would have been the men to consult. But the state of Egyptian studies at the time was in its infancy. Jean Francois Champollion, a brilliant young linguist in France, began his attempt to decipher the Rosetta stone in 1808. Some bits of the writing, primarily numbers and some names, had been tentatively identified by scholars and linguists, who were still unsure whether hieroglyphics were a phonetic or ideographic written language. In 1821, Champollion had a breakthrough in which he recognized that hieroglyphics were primarily a phonetic written language. The next year he was able to present the idea to the French Acadamie des Inscriptions. [12] It has been proven that Charles Anthon was current on the research done by Champollion. Champollion's two-volume work, _Precis du Systeme Hieroglyphique_ (1824), was in Anthon's possession and at least a full year prior to the visit by Martin Harris, Anthon had studied and cited his findings. [13] Despite this, in 1828 Champollion had several years of work ahead to be able to actually read and understand hieroglyphics. He died suddenly of a stroke in 1832, at age 42. His study of Egyptian grammar was published in 1836, and his Egyptian dictionary in 1842 - both many years after Martin Harris's encounter with Charles Anthon. Until these books were published posthumously, no one was considered fluent in Egyptian hieroglyphics.

From this information, historians have made varied conclusions on the ability of Charles Anthon to verify the characters shown him by Martin Harris. After my study of this subject, I am convinced that Anthon certainly had the ability to recognize and identify Egyptian hieroglyphics, if not to actually translate a text. In addition, he was well conversant with a number of other ancient languages. I would not be surprised if Mitchill and possibly Bradish also had this ability. It is highly doubtful in my mind that Anthon told Harris that the characters consisted of "Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyric, and Arabic" lettering, as he reported.

I have already noted in my last post that the Caractors document we now have differs from the Anthon Transcript that Martin Harris brought with him to show to the scholars. But the characters on both documents came from the Book of Mormon translation. So I will assume that the charactors we now have matched those that Charles Anthon was viewing. Even with our modern knowledge of Egyptian and other Near Eastern languages, we are unable to make sense of them. More implications for the believing Latter-day Saint will be covered in my subsequent posts.


[1] Lucy Mack Smith, from Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor editors, _The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith By His Mother_, Bookcraft, 1996.

[2] See Elden Watson's Timeline of Book of Mormon events for a detailed view of Martin Harris' trip East.

[3] Stanley B. Kimball, "The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems," Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 330.

[4] Joseph Smith, Sr., Pomeroy Tucker, and John Gilbert said that Harris consulted Bradish en route to New York City. (Fayette Lapham, "The Mormons," 7 (May 1870): 307; Pomeroy Tucker, _The Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism_, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1867, 42; "Memorandum of John H. Gilbert," 8 Sept. 1892, Palmyra, New York.) W. W. Phelps indirectly supported that claim when he said that Harris took the characters to Utica, Albany, and NYC. (15 Jan. 1831 letter to E. D. Howe in _Mormonism Unvailed_, Painesville, OH, 1834, 273.)

[5] "The Plough Boy," issue for Saturday, September 8, 1821 [III:15], p. 112.

[6] "Samuel Latham Mitchill," Dictionary of American Biography, 13:69-71. Mitchill was consulted on the translation of other ancient documents such as the "Detroit Manuscript" in 1823.

[7] Horace Coon, _Columbia: Colossus on the Hudson_, (New York, 1947).

[8] Richard Stout, A Singular Discovery, Part 2.

[9] Charles Anthon, Letter to Eber D. Howe dated Feb. 17, 1834.

[10] "Charles Anthon," Dictionary of American Biography, 1:313-14.

[11] Rick Grunder

[12] Bonnie Lach Oswald, Joseph Smith, Charles Anthon, and the Egyptian Translations, Meridian Magazine.

[13] Sidney B. Sperry, Answers to Book of Mormon Questions, p. 59 (citing the work of Stanley H.B. Kimball)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sigils From a Sealed Book

Part 1 of a series on Martin Harris and the Anthon Transcript
(For the whole series, click here)

This week in SS we discussed 2 Nephi 27 (Isaiah 29) where a book comes forth from the dust and is presented to a learned man who cannot read it. The book is then delivered to one who is not learned. The teacher made the usual parallel in Church history when Martin Harris takes characters from the Gold Plates to learned professor Charles Anthon of Columbia University. As Martin Harris tells the story, Anthon first gives him a certificate of authenticity, verifying that the translation is correct, and that the characters are true representatives of Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic writing. (JS-H 1:64-65)

As always when this story is discussed, I wondered idly what qualifications Professor Anthon had that qualified him to make these statements, and why he seemed so sure of the translation when the study of the ancient Egyptian language was in its infancy in 1828.

In response, I've written a post which is quite long, so I'll break it up into sections and post it over the rest of the week. Many of you may be familiar with these facts, since they are available on the net, but I'd like to discuss them and see what people think. Let's start with the Anthon transcript itself.

The Anthon Transcript was a sheet of paper upon which Joseph Smith copied sample "reformed Egyptian" characters from the plates of the Book of Mormon. In the winter of 1828, Martin Harris showed these characters, along with a translation, to at least three scholars in the eastern United States, including Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, described as a "Magnus Apollo" because of his extensive and broad learning; and Charles Anthon, an acclaimed classicist and lover of antiquities at Columbia College. No one knows what happened to the sheet of paper Martin Harris had in his possession. (Perhaps it is now languishing somewhere along with the 116 lost manuscript pages! :) ) We do have several clues which help us learn more about the Anthon Transcript.

First, Charles Anthon wrote at least two letters describing Martin Harris' visit. I will discuss these letters in their entirety in a forthcoming post. However, in both of these letters Anthon included a description of the paper which was shown him:

"This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calender given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived." [1]

"The characters were arranged in columns, like the Chinese mode of writing, and presented the most singular medley that I ever beheld. Greek, Hebrew and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, either through unskilfulness or from actual design, were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects, and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac." [2]

As I read these narratives, I was taken by the description of the Mexican-looking "circle divided into various compartments."
Pictured at left are a pictorial horoscope chart and a Mexican calendar stone. A Mexican calendar stone was rediscovered in 1791 and Anthon, with his fascination for antiquities, would surely have been familiar with it. But to me the description seems reminiscent of the hypocephalus which Joseph Smith would later obtain from Michael Chandler and include as Facsimile #2 in the Pearl of Great Price Book of Abraham. However, Chandler did not obtain his mummies until 1833, and did not bring them to Kirtland until 1835. Actual historical events and coincidences of this period seem so fantastic that Joseph's metaphysical claims almost pale in comparison.

The Community of Christ possesses a handwritten text which is known as the "Caractors Document." This fragment contains seven horizontal lines of characters apparently copied from the plates, as seen in the image below:

The characters are written on a piece of paper measuring 8 by 3¼ inches. The paper appears to be of the same quality and appearance as that on which the manuscript of the Book of Mormon was written. David Whitmer, who once owned the document, claimed that it was this text that Martin Harris showed to Charles Anthon. [3] But the Caractors Document in no way corresponds with Anthon's description. The characters are not arranged in vertical columns, and there are no images of moons or stars. Neither is there evidence of a circular figure.

Though this document is not the original, it almost certainly represents characters either copied from the plates in Joseph Smith's possession or copied from the document carried by Harris. Twice in late 1844, after the Prophet's martyrdom, portions of these symbols were again published as characters that Joseph Smith had copied from the gold plates. Characters appeared in the December 21 issue of the Mormon newspaper The Prophet. Also, in 1844 the Latter-day Saints published a broadside with the title "Stick of Joseph" which contained supposed characters copied from the plates. [4] These are somewhat different from the Anthon transcript. We don't know who prepared this 1844 sheet.

Considering that we have this sample of the "Reformed Egyptian" characters, I would think that Mormon linguists would be interested in attempting to translate them and match them with the corresponding Book of Mormon text. And indeed I found a few attempts to do this by several authors. Back in 1942 Ariel Crowley, an LDS attorney from Boise, presented evidence that the characters might be of Egyptian origin. He discussed Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic in relation to hieratic and demotic Egyptian, and Martin Harris's report that Anthon mentioned those languages when he reviewed the transcript. He also presented 194 pairs of photographs comparing characters from the Anthon Transcript with similar or identical characters in recognized Egyptian works such as the Book of the Dead and the Rosetta Stone. [5]

In 1970 Carl Hugh Jones published another serious study of the characters. [6] Jones identified more than 224 characters from the various available sources, and assigned reference numbers to each. Though he felt linguistically unprepared to do so himself, he felt that he had found evidence for an alphabet of between 20 and 32 letters and was confident that a translation could be made. Jones also did some work matching certain of the characters with various Oriental and Mexican scripts.

Community of Christ adherent Blair Bryant claims to have found correlation between the Caractors document and the Book of Mormon title page. [7]

Lastly, Stan and Polly Johnson argue that the Anthon transcript corresponds to Ether 6:3–13 in the present Book of Mormon. [8]

Apologist John Gee is more pessimistic about the possibility of translation of the characters. He postulates that the characters came from the text Joseph was then translating--the 116 missing manuscript pages. Additionally Gee feels that the sample of letters is not large enough to render decipherment feasible. [9] Even so, I would be interested to see a comparison of the claims of Martin Harris with those of Charles Anthon. Harris says that Anthon identified Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic figures in the sample that was given him. Anthon writes that he saw recognizable though deformed Greek, Hebrew, and Roman letters. Can we tell, by a study of the Caractor Document, which of these languages are represented?

In this age of computer assisted research, I am baffled as to why cryptographic studies have not yielded results in this area. Unfortunately, to date no Mormon "Robert Langdon" has cracked the code of the Anthon Transcript. Do my readers still think the characters are in fact authentic? Do Latter-day Saints retain faith that translation might one day be done?

In 1980 a document surfaced which more closely resembled Anthon's specifications and appeared to be the original Anthon Transcript. But in 1987, Mark W. Hofmann admitted that he had forged it. The forgery certainly fits the picture I have in my mind of the Anthon transcript! But what does it say about the state of our linguistic study of the characters that Latter-day Saints were so easily fooled?


[1] letter written by Charles Anthon to Eber D. Howe dated Feb. 17, 1834. Originally published in Eber D. Howe, _Mormonism Unvailed_, 1834, chapter xviii. The letter appears in full in B. H. Roberts, _A Comprehensive History of the Church, Century One_ (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, UT: 1965), pp. 102-104.

[2] letter written by Charles Anthon to Rev. T. W. Coit dated April 3, 1841. Originally published in Rev. T. W. Coit, _Gleanings By The Way_, 1841. The letter appears in full in Roberts, _CHC_, pp. 104-107.

[3] A photograph of the characters was published in a 1908 history of the Reorganized LDS Church. Twenty-two years later LDS historian B. H. Roberts published a new photograph of the same document in his Comprehensive History of the Church. There is little question that this transcript was at least part of the material presented to Anthon to display characters copied from the gold plates.

[4] BYU Studies, vol.20, no.4, p.325

[5] Improvement Era, Feb 1942

[6] “The ‘Anthon Transcript’ and Two Mesoamerican Cylinder Seals, Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historical Archaeology 122 (Sept. 1970): 1–8. An online FARMS article New Light: "Anthon Transcript" Writing Found? mentions the study and laments, "Issues that Jones raised remain today a challenge not yet taken up by scholars."

[7] See Blair Bryant's Caractors Translation.

[8] Stan and Polly Johnson, _Translating the Anthon Transcript_ (Parowan, Utah: Ivory Books, 1999)

[9] Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript by John Gee


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Making Women's History Today

cross-posted at Feminist Mormon Housewives

Young women who live in Saudi Arabia today are increasingly being exposed to the influence of the outside world. There are those who are sheltered from television, music, and the media, but most college-aged girls now own ipods, cell phones, and jeans. Many of these young women are pursuing their education to the university level at institutions which have opened up separate and close-to-equal college programs for females. These are the girls with whom I have had the pleasure of associating during my stay here in the Kingdom. When DH accepted a job at a university in Riyadh, I was fortunate to find employment with the same institution in their women’s college as a health and physical education instructor.

When I arrived here in August, I discovered that the program was dismal. In the public schools, physical education is strictly forbidden for girls, and in the private schools the PE programs are rudimentary. At the university level, the girls attended 4 semesters of HPE. The classes consisted of one hour per week of theory (health & nutrition, first aid, anatomy, and pregnancy & childbirth) and one hour of practical exercise. I was placed over the prac courses. At the time I arrived these were one hour of aerobic exercise given to classes of 30-40 girls in a small dance studio--without music. There I was, jumping up and down, trying to get these beautiful veiled princesses to put on pants, move around during their periods, and elevate the heart rate with no space and no beat other than me singing out, “1-2-3-4!” The first month I was there, I attempted to get approval for music with no success. I then focused my efforts on facilities.

I learned from the girls themselves that it was counterproductive to fight against the local culture. I must work within the system if I wanted to see change. In particular, our student body president is a young woman who believes that Arabic women can accomplish much within the limitations that are imposed. She began to work toward the possibility of a women’s basketball team. Our HPE faculty began to point out to our supervisors how much better the facilities were at other colleges. We were lagging behind those schools which had full gymnasiums for their women’s programs! Soon, we were given the use of 2 outdoor basketball courts formerly used by the men’s side. We had to wait until the courts were completely walled in so that the girls could not be seen while exercising. These courts were finished in January, and we quickly added basketball, volleyball, badminton and soccer to our program. The first day that we went out on the courts, one of the girls confessed to me that she had never in her life exercised out of doors.

Some of the young women at our university had received education in the US, in other countries, or in private schools, and were excited about the changes. Early in February, I read that the Arab News had published an article about the first-ever women’s football (soccer) match in Saudi Arabia. It was held Jan. 22, 2008 in Dammam between Prince Muhammad ibn Fahd University and the Al-Yamamah Women’s College of Riyadh. Though the match was open to women spectators only, the team members broke social expectations that women must be lady-like and demure at all times. I knew the time was right for our basketball team.

I am not a basketball coach, nor do I have much experience with the game. In my Nike Air Max I barely stand five feet tall. But our student body president collected more than 150 names of girls interested in coming out for our team. Someone had to step up. I am thankful that I live in the day of the internet so I was able to go online for rules, training techniques, fun drills and other aspects of coaching basketball. For weeks now, I’ve been dribbling a ball around and practicing my shooting so I won’t be too embarrassed in front of the girls. And I can now report that in this Women’s History Month of 2008 I am a little part of making history in this area of the world as our girls start their practices! We plan to compete with Al-Yamamah later in the semester. The interior design department is hard at work designing outfits for our team in which we will be able to move, yet which fit the stringent standards for women’s wear. Our games won’t be filmed by camera crews, and the spectators will be only a few of the mothers and sisters who wish us well. But to me, this semester in Riyadh has been as important as walking on the moon. One small step for womankind.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

His Hand is Stretched Out Still--Musings on Doctrine, Apostasy, and Gay Marriage

For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.

When you read the words of the prophet Isaiah that [the Lord's] hand is stretched out still, does it give you comfort, or does it cause you to tremble?

The phrase is a picturesque one, occurring four times in Isaiah chapters 9 and 10 (9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). These chapters are included in the Isaiah passages found in the Book of Mormon. The refrain has been interpreted in two different ways in biblical exegesis.

The Lord's Arm Stretched Out in Mercy

In the consensus of LDS thought, it is explained that although the House of Israel has sinned and the Lord's anger is not turned away, yet his hand is stretched out to forgive and redeem his people. A footnote to Isaiah 9:12 clarifies the phrase as follows: "In spite of it all, the LORD is available if they will turn to him," and refers the reader to the Topical Guide heading "God, Access to."

In his Oct 2006 Conference address "Prophets in the Land Again," Jeffrey R. Holland reflected this interpretation of the phrase when he stated,

To all of you who think you are lost or without hope, or who think you have done too much that was too wrong for too long, to every one of you who worry that you are stranded somewhere on the wintry plains of life and have wrecked your handcart in the process, this conference calls out Jehovah’s unrelenting refrain, “[My] hand is stretched out still.” ...His is the pure love of Christ, the charity that never faileth, that compassion which endures even when all other strength disappears. I testify of this reaching, rescuing, merciful Jesus, that this is His redeeming Church based on His redeeming love..."

LDS audiences are most familiar with this interpretation of Isaiah's poetic chorus. After watching BYU Broadcasting "Insight into Isaiah," Kelly Miller wrote her own verses on the subject. Part of Kelly's poem reads:
As He extends mercy and assurance
His softly flowing waters fill,
Ever offering hope and guidance.
Where e'er we turn, His hand is stretched out still.

The Lord's Arm Stretched Out in Judgment

Little do most Mormons realize there is another way of looking at this familiar phrase. Note the context in Nephi's quotation of Isaiah 5:
Therefore, is the anger of the Lord kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them; and the hills did tremble, and their carcasses were torn in the midst of the streets. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still. (2 Nephi 15:25)

In this interpretation the Lord's hand is stretched out in judgment against a rebellious nation. Moeller's commentary on Isaiah 9 reads:
Here God declares himself as the one who is bringing these calamities. The reason: because the punishments have not turned the people to him. Since they continue in their abandonment of the source of their help he will allow further calamities to overtake them. ...There was more to come from the hand of a wrathful God. This series will only end with the complete destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and their extinction as a political entity.

As I've read the details of the Danzig case, I can only repeat Isaiah's words, over and over, in my mind. I've been reflecting upon these verses as compared to the Church's reactions toward perceived "apostasy" by its members. The hierarchy seems to see itself as the outstretched hand of the Lord, always there with mercy to welcome back the repentant sinner. Yet, members who struggle with reconciling their consciences with Church policies are recipients of the harsher treatment of the refrain. To these, the Church's hand continues to stretch forth in judgment and punishment rather than mercy and healing.

What I have seen of these very public cases over the years are members who sincerely believe in the Church yet struggle with ambiguity. I relate to the Danzig's dilemma since I was present in California when the Church became involved in helping to pass Proposition 22. As members, we were asked to participate in making phone calls supporting the initiative, and to place signs in our front yards. Much pressure was placed upon members in this effort. A few years later, having moved to Texas, a similar situation presented itself. This time, members of the ward sat through a fifth-Sunday combined PH/RS meeting where the position of the Church regarding gay marriage was delineated and members were pressed to spend time and money in passing the legislature. I am strongly in favor of the Church's official position on political neutrality, and believe that on the gay marriage issue this position is being strongly violated.

In an LDS press release, Church representatives stated,
"In his Tribune letter-to-the-editor, Mr. Danzig said he 'was troubled that my church requested I violate my own conscience to write in support of an amendment I feel is contrary to the constitution and to the gospel of Christ.' In reality Church leaders had asked members to write to their senators with their personal views regarding the federal amendment opposing same gender marriage, and did not request support or opposition to the amendment."
This may be the official position of the Church, but it has not been the case in my personal experience, either.

The release also contained this: "Church leaders are always saddened when an individual, whether through his or her actions or personal choices, decides to leave the Church. A welcoming hand of fellowship is always extended to those who wish to return at anytime."

For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.

UPDATE!! Come join an interesting discussion on these issues at George's blog Periginatioanimae!