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)


Sanford said...

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.

Perhaps you will address this in part three, but do you have a working theory as to how Harris came to assert this? Was he simply wrong or mistaken or exaggerating or being untruthful or something else?

Thank you for your efforts.

john f. said...

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.

Why? That doesn't follow from anything you wrote before this sentence.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Mitchell was actually seen after visiting Professor Anthon and "sactioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation" according to Joseph Smith's journal.

Bored in Vernal said...

anon, do you have a citation for that?