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.

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