Papyri, Joseph Smith
From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Todd, Jay M.
The term "Joseph Smith papyri" refers narrowly to twelve extant pieces of the Egyptian papyrus that the Prophet Joseph Smith acquired from Michael H. Chandler in July 1835. Located in the Church Archives, these fragments range in size from 7.5 in. x 12.5 in. to 6.5 in. x 4.5 in. Facsimile No. 1 in the book of Abraham came from one of these fragments. Broadly, the term also refers to Facsimiles Nos. 2 and 3 in the same book and to papers and all the Egyptian materials of the Kirtland period of Church history containing small sections of copied papyrus text. The discovery and transmission of the mummies and papyri are discussed in book of Abraham: origin.
The origin of the ancient writings is fascinating to trace. In 1798 Napoleon's Egyptian conquest reawakened Europe to Egypt's treasures. One Italian collector, Antonio Lebolo, excavated in Egypt between 1817 and 1821. In 1820 he worked at Thebes, near El Gourna; Chandler said that Lebolo's mummies came from there (Todd, pp. 45, 130). About 1822 Lebolo returned to Italy, where he died on February 19, 1830. In 1831 his son Pietro investigated why shipping merchant Albano Oblasser had not reimbursed him for eleven mummies. In 1833 Pietro authorized Francesco Bertola, in Philadelphia, to sell eleven mummies that Oblasser had sent to a partnership in New York (Peterson, pp. 145-47).
How Chandler obtained his possessions is not known. It is known that Lebolo mummies and papyri were exhibited in Philadelphia (April-May 1833) and Baltimore. By September 1833, six had been shown in Harrisburg and one had been publicly dissected in Philadelphia. In June of 1835, four mummies and papyri were exhibited at Cleveland, twenty miles southwest of Kirtland (Todd, pp. 108-143).
In early July 1835, Chandler visited Kirtland, where he met Joseph Smith and inquired "if he had a power by which he could translate the ancient Egyptian. Mr. Smith replied that he had" (P. Pratt, Millennial Star, July 1842). Chandler presented some hieroglyphics, which others supposedly had interpreted. Joseph Smith left and returned with a written English translation corresponding to the interpretation Chandler had already received. The Prophet displayed interest in the papyri, but Chandler would not break up his exhibit. Shortly thereafter, Church members purchased for $2,400 "four human figures with two or more rolls of papyrus" (HC 2:235). Oliver Cowdery remembered that it was "two rolls [with] two or three other small pieces," the text written "with black, and a small part, red ink or paint" (Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 31, 1835). Within three days, Joseph Smith translated some "hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another, writings of Joseph of Egypt." Joseph Smith spent from July 17 to 31 "continually translating an alphabet and arranging a grammar" of Egyptian (HC 2:236-38). On October 1, while he worked on the alphabet, the "principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham unfolded" (HC 2:286). On November 17 he "exhibited the alphabet" (HC 2:316). He recorded "translating the Egyptian records" on October 7, November 19-20 (20th: "made rapid progress"), and November 24-26 (HC 2:289, 318, 320). LDS Church Archives contain Book of Abraham texts (Abr. 1:1-2:18) from this period.
In 1837 a visitor wrote: "These records were torn, some parts entirely lost, but Smith is to translate the whole by divine inspiration and that which is lost, like Nebuchadnezzar's dream, can be interpreted as well as that which is preserved." Joseph Smith let the mummies and papyri be moved to nearby towns, and in 1836 they were in the Kirtland Temple. Despite care, the papyri had been damaged. Consequently, they were cut into pieces, and some were pasted on paper for preservation. By January 4, 1838, there were at least "two undivided thirds." During 1838-1839, the papyri and mummies spent the winter in Quincy, Illinois, where they were exhibited, a practice that continued until 1856 (Todd, pp. 197-203).
In 1842 Joseph Smith worked to prepare the facsimiles for publication and, likely, wrote his "Explanations," which are printed with them; on February 23, he instructed the printer on making the plate for Facsimile No. 1, which with its "Explanation" was printed in the March 1 issue of the Times and Seasons, with Abraham 1:1-2:18. On March 4 he instructed the printer on Facsimiles Nos. 2 and 3; on March 8-9 he did "translating" and "revising" (HC 4:518, 543-48). The final installment of the Book of Abraham (2:19-5:21) and Facsimile No. 2 with its "Explanation" were printed in the March 15 issue; Facsimile No. 3 and its "Explanation" were printed May 16.
Although the papyrus rolls had been shortened, a visitor in February 1843 saw "a long roll of manuscript, [being told] it was the "writing of Abraham"' and was shown "another roll" (Todd, p. 245). After Joseph Smith's death, the Egyptian artifacts were held principally by his mother, and then by Emma Smith after Lucy's death on May 14, 1856. On May 25, 1856, Emma sold "four Egyptian mummies with the records with them" to Mr. Abel Combs (IE, Jan. 1968, pp. 12-16). (Pioneers brought one fragment west.) Combs then sold two mummies with some papyri, which were sent to the St. Louis Museum (1856); they ended up in the Chicago Museum (1863), where they apparently burned in 1871. The fate of Combs's two other mummies and papyri is unknown, but some papyri remained, for in 1918 Mrs. Alice Heusser of Brooklyn, a daughter of Combs's housekeeper, approached the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) with papyri once owned by Joseph Smith. In 1947 MMA acquired papyri from her widower. In May 1966 Aziz S. Atiya of the University of Utah saw eleven Heusser fragments at MMA. He informed Church leaders, and on November 27, 1967, the Church acquired the fragments; one of them is Facsimile No. 1.
Egyptologists who have studied the fragments in recent years generally identify them as religious texts, some from the Book of the Dead dating from 500-300 B.C., and some from the Book of Breathings dating from about A.D. 100. Since the rediscovery of the fragments, researchers have sought to learn if any of them, other than Facsimile No. 1, is related to the Book of Abraham. [See also Book of Abraham: Facsimiles From the Book of Abraham.]