In a lecture I heard from Terryl Givens, one of my favorite LDS writers and thinkers, I was intrigued with his views on Egyptomania and its influence on Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham. His lecture is "Joseph Smith and Translation: Notes Toward a Theoretical Framework," The Mormon Translation Conference, Logan Utah, 16 March 2017, available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYkEPHH2xB8. Here's my transcription of a key segment from 14:15 to 15:50 in the video, as Givens explains how he thinks Joseph thought about Egyptian hieroglyphs:
We've had a few references today to Nineteenth Century Egyptomania. The point that I want to make is that the kind of Egyptomania that I think might have been most relevant to Joseph Smith's religious fashioning predates the Napoleonic engagement with Egypt. It goes back to the Early Modern period. And I'm going to just summarize this very quickly for you by saying this, that the notion of hieroglyphs in particular in the Enlightenment and Romantic circles carried echoes of priestly powers of expression and discernment. But the term was also taken to imply an almost mystical concision and economy of expression unknown to modern languages. Many language theorists working in the Nineteenth Century to try to trace language to its Adamic form were convinced that the further back you go, the more compressed and concise language becomes. By the time you get to the hieroglyph, ... you have the linguistic equivalent of a kind of neutron bomb, so that the notion being that here is a priestly emblem that has magically and mystically oracularly condensed within itself worlds of meaning which only a priestly power can unlock and allow to blossom into fullness. When I think of Joseph Smith laboring over the Egyptian Papyri and the whole Abrahamic cosmology that emerges out of this, it seems to me that we get a perfect understanding of how the hieroglyph was understood.
Interesting and eloquently expressed, but to me this seems painfully unaware of some essentials. Givens here places Joseph into the mindset prior to the Napoleonic engagement with Egypt, meaning, of course, that Given's feels Joseph and his brethren were somehow swept up in Egyptomania without being aware of the hottest news in the world of Egyptomania, namely, that the Rosetta Stone had been found showing Egyptian to be a running language like Greek, hot and widely discussed news from 1799, coupled with the 1822 news that Champollion had begun to decipher Egyptian. These were key drivers for Egyptomania in the 19th century, and cannot be so readily excised from Joseph's world. Givens' view arguably would divorce Joseph from his environment in 1835 and from the very Egyptomania that supposedly inspired him.

Even if the Joseph Smith of 1835 were still in "uneducated farm boy mode" and had been unaware of Champollion before purchasing the mummies and scrolls from Chandler, Chandler and the many other educated people who would come to Kirtland to see the artifacts and meet Joseph surely would have broken the well-known news to him: "What, you didn't hear? It's largely a phonetic language that can be deciphered; it's not all mysticism with vast treasures of text hidden within each character."

Givens' view, romantic as it may be,  also requires divorcing Joseph from the Book of Mormon. Joseph's views on Egyptian arguably should not depart wildly from the views expressed by Mormon in the manuscript Joseph translated. Mormon in Mormon 10:32 tell us that:
[W]e have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.
The reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon reflected speech. It must have been phonetic, or at least the reformed script Mormon referred to, like the reformed Egyptian script of demotic. That sensible view is wildly incompatible with the romantic notions Givens and others want to see in Joseph's approach to the Book of Abraham. But there's more to consider. On the Joseph Smith Papers website, you can see this quote from Joseph as he discusses the title page of the Book of Mormon, which came from the last plate (not the last character!) in the Nephite record:
I would mention here also in order to correct a misunderstanding, which has gone abroad concerning the title page of the Book of Mormon, that it is not a composition of mine or of any other man’s who has lived or does live in this generation, but that it is a literal translation taken from the last leaf of the plates, on the left hand side of the collection of plates, the language running same as ​all​ Hebrew ​ writing​ in general​. 
It was a running language. Not an utterly mystical one where each squiggle could be paragraphs of English. With his experience in reformed Egyptian behind him, does it stand to reason that once he saw the Egyptian scrolls in 1835, he would suddenly reverse course and see it as pure mysticism completely unlike Hebrew, no longer phonetic or a running language?

Further evidence against such a view comes from Joseph's comments on the meaning of the Facsimiles. The four hieroglyphs for the four sons of Horus become a remarkably concise "the four quarters of the earth," a statement that is actually quite accurate (but you aren't going to hear that from critics). Other statements he makes regarding the facsimiles and the characters tend to be equally brief. No sign of magical compactness with neutron bombs of meaning waiting to be unfolded. That idea died swiftly, though not universally, as news of the translation of the Rosetta Stone spread. It was old news when Joseph saw the scrolls.

Unfortunately, Givens' view may have been shaped by an unwarranted opinion from the editors of Volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers, one of whom, Brian Hauglid, is a co-author with Givens on an upcoming book of the Pearl of Great Price (coming out in August), where, sadly, I expect the beleaguered Book of Abraham might receive a little more unnecessary beleaguering based on the popular model of Joseph erroneously seeing worlds of text in a few squiggles, and, if my fears come true, the Book of Abraham treatment will lack discussion of the many treasures in favor of its antiquity and in favor of other models of the translation. After all, Hauglid has openly expressed his hostility to "apologetics" and has denounced the LDS Egyptologists who have pointed to many important evidences which genuinely need to be considered. In Volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers, we read the questionable view that Champollion's work really wasn't well known until decades later and that it did not really changed the way typical people thought about Egyptian. Here's the statement from the opening pages:
Even after Champollion's groundbreaking discoveries, though, some continued to assert competing theories about Egyptian hieroglyphs, whether they rejected Champollion's findings or were ignorant of them. Indeed, in America in the 1830s and 1840s, Champollion's findings were available to only a small group of scholars who either read them in French or gleaned them from a limited number of English translations or summaries. (Volume 4, p. xviii)
That's an astonishing assertion. Americans in the 1830s had not heard of Champollion's work? Only a tiny group of scholars were in on the news? And should we also believe that news of the Rosetta Stone and its related implications had also gone unnoticed in the U.S.? Sure, the detailed scholarly work of Champollion was for scholars, but the headlines were for everyone. Was there Egyptomania or not?

Was Champollion an unknown in Joseph's day? If so, one clue might be found in books and newspapers that mention Champollion. Do they need to take several sentences to explain to all the non-scholars and non-French speakers just who he is and what the Rosetta Stone was in order to bring readers up to speed, or do they act as if everyone knows the man and what he did? Below is an 1828 newspaper from Delaware, not far from where the Saints were. The source is the Delaware Journal, October 10, 1828, page 2, available at the Library of Congress' Chronicling America site (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov):



Here it is taken for granted that readers know who Champollion is, and that his first name need not be given, just M. for Monsieur. It is taken for granted that readers know that he has translated Egyptian hieroglyphics, and even the Rosetta Stone need not be mentioned. That he can read an Egyptian scroll is taken for granted. That's not news -- the news is what might be on the scroll. This was an era when people knew of Champollion. How could there be Egyptomania without being aware of the most amazing news in the history of Egyptology, that Champollion had begun to decipher Egyptian? And what the Rosetta Stone shows us is that a reasonable number of Greek characters correspond to a reasonable number of Egyptian characters. 

Maybe folks in Delaware were up to speed on this, but perhaps you are wondering about the more remote netherworld of Ohio. Could those more rural folks, perhaps swept up in their own agrarian brand of Egyptomania, have heard anything of the Rosetta Stone and its translator? The following story from an Ohio newspaper in 1837 does remind us of the history of the Rosetta Stone, but assumes readers understand its multilingual nature. Champollion and Dr. Young are mentioned as if readers will know these famous men with no need to give their first names or the details of what they did regarding their "discoveries concerning hieroglyphic language of Egypt." The source is the Maumee Express, November 18, 1837, p. 2, also available at Chronicling America (hat tip to Val Sederholm):

(Click to enlarge)


Critics of the Book of Abraham and even some faithful LDS writers have proposed that crazed Egyptomania fueled the imagination of the early Latter-day Saints, leading them to believe that Egyptian was a purely mystical language where a single character could require paragraphs of text to convey the intricate details hidden within. Such thinking was rapidly overthrown by the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone and especially the 1822 translation work. Val Sederholm does a great job in describing what that would mean for ordinary people in Ohio during the Kirtland era (the text below is an excerpt from his I Began to Reflect blog, "What did Joseph Smith say about the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs?"):
What did Ohioans in Joseph Smith's day know about Champollion's cracking of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script?

The Maumee Express, dated 18 November 1837 (page 2), gives us the answer.

In a notice entitled "Antique," [shown above] we read that "The Currators [sic] of the Albany Institute [Albany, New York] acknowledge the donation of a copy in plaster of the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, from Henry James Esq."

The notice, doubtless published in various states, goes on to say: "The interest of this piece of antiquity is increased by the fact that all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion concerning the hieroglyphic language of Egypt, originated in a study of the inscription on it."

One thing to admire about this little notice is how it tosses off "all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion" without elaboration. Ohioans, and other Americans, back in 1837 knew more about "all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion" than do Ohioans today.


Professor John T. Irwin has written about how these sensational discoveries awoke American intellectual--and, yes, imaginative--curiosity among academics and the populace at large. "In 1829 Henry Wheaton, the noted legal historian and diplomat, published in the North American a twenty-five-page review of one of Champollion's works." By 1831 Edward Everett was already publishing lengthy, widely-distributed, articles on the question of Champollion's priority over Thomas Young, while at once dismissing Athanasius Kircher's older views about hieroglyphs as metaphysical emblem with snorts of disdain: "utterly baseless;" "laboriously absurd" (John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, 4-5). On the other hand, "laboriously absurd" also perfectly describes the symbolic priestly writing at Dendara, a system of hieroglyphic writing students struggle to grasp even today. And at Dendara we find the great astronomical ceiling, the mapped Egyptian heaven, ironically the object of Everett's attention. 

I'm just looking over the shoulder of a typical Ohio farmer in 1837, as he opens his newspaper and nods knowingly. . .


Egyptology sprang from the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Because the stone bore a text in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, the world thereafter knew that "the hieroglyphic language of Egypt" was a running script as Greek was a running script, or perhaps as Chinese was a running ideographic script. 1799 thus marks a clean break between timeless speculations about the metaphysical nature of the script and what scholars now plainly saw on the Stone. The news went everywhere--even to the American frontier.

And to the South--and on to Hawaii, where the work of Young, Champollion, and Rosselini was pondered beneath the palms of Kona and Waikiki (The Polynesian). 
The Edgefield Advertiser (South Carolina), dated 12 April 1838 (pg. 1), has much to say about the work of Champollion:


"The genealogical and chronological table of Abydos, discovered in 1818, by Mr. Bankes, so well studied, explained, and commented upon by Champollion [see, they knew a lot about all this], and which is universally regarded as the most interesting and precious monument which has been drawn from the ruins of ancient Egypt since the celebrated stone of Rosetta. . ." (the italic added).

Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/


The above sampling, easily multiplied, shows both keen interest and an easy familiarity--not to know about these breakthroughs in 1837 would be like not knowing about the railroad or the steam engine.

One thing is for sure: the documentary evidence upsets conclusions put forward by the editors of the latest volume of the Joseph Smith Papers (Documents 5): "Though French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion came to recognize the phonetic nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs during the 1820s and early 1830s, his ideas were not fully embraced or widely published until decades after his death in 1832" (p. 81, italic added). "Though news of Champollion's work had reached the United States by the 1830s, few Americans had access to it or understood the significance of his work on Egyptian hieroglyphs" (83 n. 354; Isaac Stuart's translation of Greppo's essay on Champollion, Boston, 1830, is mentioned). 

There is a need to sort out the basic difference between Champollions's written work and his winged ideas.

Professor Irwin hits the nail on the head: "The name Champollion appears in some of the most important literary works of the American Renaissance". . . "Yet for most modern readers, it is a name that requires an identifying footnote" (Irwin, ibid., 3). Ohioans in 1837 didn't need a Jean-Francois attached to their Champollion.
If we want a "a perfect understanding of how the hieroglyph was understood," we need to quit looking at the Book of Abraham and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers with a blurry romantic lens. We need to pay attention to what Joseph Smith actually said and did. The Kirtland Egyptian Papers, whose dates may be much later than the Joseph Smith Papers Project indicates (see "Moses Stuart or Joshua Seixas? Exploring the Influence of Hebrew Study on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language"), simply cannot reflect the translation in process, no matter how appealing,  romantic, or scholarly that seems, but represent some strange and perhaps romantic effort after at least much of the translation was done, an exercise that was quickly abandoned. It's time we consider the data more fully and with the proper lens.

Though I disagree with some of the views that Dr. Terryl Givens has expressed, I remain a fan and am very appreciative of his many excellent LDS-related works. Things are complex with the Pearl of Great Price, though, and popular theories among scholars (and critics) can lead to blindness and painful errors. I've made many myself as I blog and write, and recognize that I also need to called to task when I blunder. That's how we learn and progress.

For Brian Hauglid, whose transformative journey has unfortunately challenged the faith of some impressionable Latter-day Saints, may I suggest that you step back and learn from the Book of Mormon before you reconsider what the Book of Abraham documents actually show.  Have a conversation with Jack Welch and the things he has learned about the early Book of Mormon manuscripts, especially the clues from the mistakes that scribes make when they are transcribing dictation versus copying an existing manuscript. Then evaluate the claims of Dan Vogel regarding the two manuscripts that Dan and you believe reveal Joseph Smith dictating fresh text for the Book of Abraham from a few characters in the margins. With that added awareness, it may become apparent to you that some important assumptions in your transformative journey was wrong. Then look at the influence of Hebrew study on the KEP, including Moses Stuart's strange Hebrew coin letter for letter #2, beth, which just happens to be exactly the same as the Egyptian Counting document for the number 2. That and the other obvious uses of Hebrew letters in the KEP strongly suggests that the dating of the GAEL and other key documents must be much later than you and our critics have been assuming. Reset your assumptions, drop the hostile accusations and recognize that your fellow mortals make all sorts of mistakes but may be acting in good faith, Joseph Smith included, and seek guidance on how you should balance the legitimate question marks with the significant body of non-abhorrent apologetic data that deserves more room than you've left for it in your recent remarks. The Book of Abraham is puzzling, but wonderful, and need not be recast as mere human error from a prophet who didn't know the first thing about translation. Indeed, the nature of his translation from the reformed Egyptian of the Book of Mormon suggests that at least when speaking as a prophet through the power of God, he somehow knew a great deal about that running language.


This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:


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