by Christopher C. Smith
Christopher C. Smith is a PhD candidate at Claremont Graduate University and is completing a dissertation on early Mormon views of Native Americans.
Stage 1, 1860–1861: Théodule Devéria
The first hints of difficulties with the Book of Abraham appeared in the late 1850s when French scholar Théodule Devéria wrote an Egyptological interpretation of the canonized Facsimiles. Devéria’s interpretation did not agree with Joseph Smith’s, and he indicated places where he thought Smith had altered the original illustration. (We now know that Devéria was correct. Parts of the original papyrus had been damaged, and Smith had “restored” the missing portions.) A couple versions of Devéria’s work appeared in English, but they were not widely circulated.
In 1879, George Reynolds published the only major LDS rebuttal to Devéria. He questioned Devéria’s credibility and cited various classical and apocryphal sources to corroborate the Abraham narrative. Many later apologists followed Reynolds’s lead. These included B. H. Roberts, Hugh Nibley, and John Gee, who all focused on corroborating the narrative while sidestepping translation issues.
Stage 2, 1912: The Spalding Pamphlet
Episcopal bishop Franklin S. Spalding initiated the second stage of the crisis in 1912 when he sent the Facsimiles to eight leading Egyptologists and then compiled and published their responses in a little pamphlet. Each of the Egyptologists explained that these were commonplace funerary illustrations that had nothing to do with Abraham. They referred to Joseph Smith’s explanations with colorful phrases such as “a farrago of nonsense.” The pamphlet garnered front-page coverage in the New York Times and caused a great stir at BYU.
The Improvement Era ran at least nineteen separate rebuttals to Spalding’s pamphlet, several by general authorities. The most sophisticated responses were written by Isaac Russell and James E. Homans. Bizarrely, neither was really a believer.
Russell, a professional journalist and cultural Mormon, received $2000 a year from the Church to write apologetics and PR. Privately, he could be a scathing critic. Before writing his defense of the Book of Abraham for the Improvement Era, he actually authored the withering front-page exposé that appeared in the Times!
Homans, a professional writer and liberal Episcopalian, wrote several articles and three books defending the Book of Abraham. These appeared under the pen name “Dr. Robert C. Webb,” though he did not actually have a PhD. His books included disclaimers that the Church had neither solicited nor paid for his services. His interest in the topic stemmed from fondness for Mormons, disapproval of Spalding’s polemics, and general eccentricity.
Homans’ argument was quite original. He claimed that Joseph Smith’s and the Egyptologists’ interpretations could both be right. The images could and did have multiple meanings, especially in different contexts. He went through Smith’s explanations and tried to show that they were “in the neighborhood of [Egyptological] truth” and had been given far too little consideration by Spalding’s prejudiced correspondents.
Stage 3, 1966–1967:
Rediscovery of the Abraham Papyrus and Manuscripts
Stage 2 had been all about the Facsimiles; Stage 3 focused on the text. Two developments brought about this stage of the crisis.
First, ex-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner published Joseph Smith’s original Book of Abraham and Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts in 1966. In the left margins of the manuscripts are Egyptian characters, each lined up with an English translation. Egyptologists say they’re wrong.
By all appearances the Church had had these manuscripts in the vault for a century and actively concealed their existence. BYU scholars James Clark and Sidney Sperry coaxed the secret from the assistant church historian in 1933, but after studying the documents, everyone involved agreed that it would be best if they stayed in the vault. There they remained until a leaked microfilm copy found its way to the Tanners.
The second development came in 1967 when the Church announced that researchers had rediscovered in a New York museum a portion of Joseph Smith’s papyri, including the original of Facsimile 1. Most of the characters in the Book of Abraham and Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts turned out to be taken, in sequence, from the text surrounding this illustration. Here was apparently clear documentary evidence that the Book of Abraham was a mistranslation of an ancient pagan funerary text known as the Document of Breathing.
Apologetic approaches proliferated during this stage of the crisis. Some authors developed versions of Homans’ old argument that Joseph Smith and the Egyptologists could both be right. John Tvedtnes and Richley Crapo proposed that ancient Jews may have used the Document of Breathing as a mnemonic device to remember the story of Abraham, and Joseph Smith may have restored this usage.
Taking a different tack, Hugh Nibley worked hard to disassociate Joseph Smith from these newly discovered documents. The Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts, he argued, were completely speculative documents cooked up by Smith’s scribes. As for the papyri, he asserted that only a very small portion of Smith’s papyrus collection had been rediscovered. Several “long rolls” of papyrus were still missing; maybe the Book of Abraham was on one of those.
The Facsimiles were less easily disposed of, and here Nibley followed Homans. The Facsimiles, he argued, depicted ritual dramas in which human actors such as those named in Joseph Smith’s explanations played the roles of gods and spirits such as those named in Egyptological interpretations. Thus Joseph Smith and the Egyptologists didn’t so much disagree as describe different layers of the documents’ meanings.
Hedging his bets, Nibley also developed a theory that the funerary papyrus might have merely served as a meditative “catalyst” for Smith to get the Book of Abraham by pure revelation. In this model, Smith either misunderstood the revelatory process or meant something different by “translation” than the term usually signifies.
Stage 4, ca. 1980: The Information Age
In contrast to the previous stages, no single event stands out as the beginning of Stage 4. It resulted from a general increase in availability of information, especially with the advent of the Internet.
The LDS response came mostly through an apologetic organization called farms, which was founded in 1979 and in 1997 became part of BYU. farms articles on the Book of Abraham emphasized Nibley’s “missing papyrus” theory and blamed Joseph Smith’s scribes for producing the Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts. With the evidence of mistranslation thus disposed of, apologists could focus their efforts on corroborating the Abraham narrative.
In 2013, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released the Abraham and Egyptian Alphabet manuscripts on its website, heralding a major change in official discourse. By publishing these manuscripts as part of the JSPP, scholars working for the Church acknowledged Joseph Smith’s authorship of these documents. Unlike previous generations of writers on this issue, JSPP personnel see themselves first as historians rather than apologists. They also seem to have bought into “inoculation,” the idea that disclosing damaging information through official sources prepares members to deal with it better down the road.
And now we finally come to the Gospel Topics essay itself.
In some ways, the essay follows in the apologetic tradition of Nibley and farms. Virtually every apologetic theory is mentioned in the essay, with particular emphasis on the missing papyrus theory. All counter-arguments from critics are completely ignored. Liberal Mormon perspectives are firmly rejected and the historicity and canonicity of the text repeatedly underscored.
But the essay also admits that Joseph Smith authored the Egyptian Alphabet documents and that the translations in those documents are wrong. This is a significant departure from the apologetic tradition and a step toward the JSPP’s “inoculation” approach.
Overall, the essay is an uneasy hybrid of rival approaches and shows clear signs of compromise and committee authorship. We may be seeing the early signs of a shift toward full disclosure of difficult issues, but this approach remains contested among leaders and scholars employed by the Church. It remains to be seen whether the subtle fault lines evident in this Gospel Topics essay portend more tectonic changes in LDS discourse.