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.


Mormon Heretic said...

Wow--I have never seen or read such an examination of Charles Anthon/Martin Harris. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to more updates.

LaurieSue said...

This is fascinating! Keep those updates coming!