Isaiah, Buried and Sealed
[p.73]”I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it,” [said Alice.] “If there’s no meaning in it,” said the King, “that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.”
—Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Because of preoccupation with the Bible in early nineteenth-century America, Eduard Meyer argued, any new church would require a book to focus its claims and catalog its interpretations.1 In the case of Mormonism, a generation of speculation had prepared a book which would disclose the origin of the Indians and confirm the revelatory activity of God.
Ethan Smith drew extensively from Isaiah to show that a literal restoration of Israel was predicted for the last days.2 Joseph Smith made even greater use of Isaiah. One-tenth of the Book of Mormon comes from Isaiah, and Isaiah 29 stands out above all others in importance because the Book of Mormon interprets this portion to foretell the discovery and translation of the Book of Mormon itself. In the Book of Mormon, Isaiah 29 also gives Joseph Smith, Jr., his credentials as translator of Egyptian hieroglyphics and makes him subject of biblical prophecy.
Isaiah 29:3-5 talks of being brought low to the dust. The traditional interpretation has these verses refer to Jerusalem’s destruction. But the Book of Mormon sees in this imagery the hiding in the [p.74] ground of the golden plates after the destruction of the Nephites. Nephi, father of the Nephites, wrote: “[A]nd now, my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come” (2 Ne. 33:13). Another Book of Mormon prophet, Moroni, similarly wrote: “I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust?” (Moro. 10:27).3
Entire Chapters of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon
|Isaiah||Book of Mormon|
|2-14||2 Nephi 12-24|
|29||2 Nephi 27|
|48-49||1 Nephi 20-21|
|50-51||2 Nephi 7-8|
|52||3 Nephi 30|
|54||3 Nephi 22|
A book buried by Hebrew forebearers and discovered in the 1820s needed translating to be of use. Isaiah 29:11-12 provided a pattern to follow. The passage depicts God denouncing the prophets and seers of Jerusalem who had closed their eyes to him. So completely did they lose their vision that they were like scholars trying to read a sealed book: “And 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.”
For early Mormons, these verses foretold a literal historical event—Martin Harris’s visit to Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia University to examine Book of Mormon hieroglyphics. In December 1827, according to Joseph Smith, Harris gave him fifty dollars to move from Manchester, New York, to Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Once there Smith copied a number of characters from the golden plates, translated them, and sent the sample [p.76] transcript with Harris to Anthon for scholarly evaluation.
When Harris returned he supposedly told this story: “I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof to Professor Anthony, 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 they were Egyptian, Chaldeac, Assyriac, and Arabac; 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.”4
Since Mormon theology, not to mention Book of Mormon prophecy, rests to some degree on this account of biblical interpretation, it may be worth examining it more closely. The official account asserts that Harris first visited Anthon and then consulted a “Dr. Mitchill.” This is a minor point, but more initially set off to consult Mitchill rather than Anthon.5 Samuel Latham Mitchill would have been a name known to Harris for his service in state and national legislatures from 1791 through 1813. 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. He was also considered learned in science, history, higher education, medicine, and land development.6 Mitchill’s name appeared without explanation in Palmyra’s newspapers at least fifteen times between 1821 and 1826.
In contrast, Charles Anthon was known primarily in New York City. He was admitted to Columbia College when just a boy and [p.78] recognized as a genius by the age of fourteen. The state supreme court accepted him to the bar when he was twenty-two. A year later in 1820 he became adjunct professor of Greek and Latin at Columbia College. He was also proficient in French and German. Although he was well known in educated circles for his edition of Lempriere’s A Classical Dictionary, in 1828 his fame lay primarily in the future.7
In addition to Mitchill and Anthon, Harris apparently consulted Luther Bradish as well. Bradish went abroad as a special trade emissary of U.S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1820. He visited in countries bordering the Mediterranean, traveling in Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Europe where he studied the “language, manners, and antiquities” of those nations. In 1827 he was elected to the state assembly as a Whig.8 Joseph Smith, Sr., Pomeroy Tucker, and John Gilbert said that Harris consulted Bradish en route to New York City.9 W. W. Phelps indirectly supported that claim.10 Bradish was known in the Palmyra area because he had relatives there.11 Harris probably tried to see him in his home in Utica, a stopping place on the Erie Canal, but went on to Albany when he found him absent.
The various accounts about what actually happened when Harris reached New York City differ as to important details of the consultation, but almost all of these—including the Book of Mormon account in 2 Nephi 27— contradict Joseph Smith’s official version of events. One focus of dispute concerns whether or not Anthon (or others) was able to identify the language or characters which Harris had with him. Smith’s recital has Anthon and Mitchill say that the transcript characters were “true characters” from Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic. This assertion would confirm the Book of Mormon’s own claims that the ancient Nephites used “reformed Egyptian,” an altered form of Hebrew. Hebrew writing had been changed by the ancient Nephites so that “none other people knoweth our language” (Morm. 9:32-34).
Certain sources affirm that some characters were identifiable. An Episcopal minister, John Clark, saw one letter which may have been Hebrew, but he otherwise was ignorant “of the characters in which this pretended ancient record was written.”12 In 1834 Anthon spoke of Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters, but by 1841 he concluded that “the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetical characters.” Joseph Smith, Sr., reported Anthon as saying that “with few exceptions, the characters [p.80] were Arabic,” but that there was “not enough to make anything out.”13
W. W. Phelps and David Whitmer supported Smith in saying that the scholars identified the characters as “shorthand” or “reformed” Egyptian.14 Of course, the scholars would not have known reformed Egyptian if they saw it, since knowledge of this language had disappeared with the Nephites. They might identify an abbreviated script, except that in 1834 Anthon wrote that the characters were “anything but ‘Egyptian hieroglyphics.'” In 1841 he denied that he had pronounced “the Mormonite inscription to be ‘reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics.'”
Smith repudiated Anthon’s statement that the characters were Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. In 1843 he wrote that “there was no Greek or Latin upon the plate from which I … translated the Book of Mormon.”15 Anthon and Mitchill might have compared these characters to existing alphabets,16 but Smith excluded those which Anthon named.
During the summer of 1829 Smith told Martin Harris’s brother Henry that the transcript was taken from “italic letters written in an unknown language.”17 In 1835 Cowdery wrote that Smith was denied the plates in 1823 “because they cannot be interpreted by the learning of this generation.”18 And in 1843 Smith wrote James Arlington Bennett that “I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost to the world.”19 Charles Butler, an attorney in Geneva, New York, said that Harris told him Mitchill thought the characters were “of a nation now extinct which he named” but which Harris did not name.20 But Harris also told Butler that Anthon “did not know what language they were,”21 just as he had earlier told John Clark that Anthon “could not decide exactly what language” the characters “belonged to.”22
If the scholars could not identify the language or the characters, they certainly could not have translated the transcript. Yet the official version has Anthon declare that Smith’s sample translation of the transcript “was correct, more so than any he had seen before translated from the Egyptian.” This claim cannot be supported by the sources. Ironically the Book of Mormon account of Isaiah 29:11-12 in 2 Nephi 27 does not deal with how well Anthon and Mitchill were able to translate the “sealed” transcript characters, because it was the words “which are not sealed” that were delivered [p.82] to Anthon; the words “which are sealed” were not delivered. The “learned” (Anthon) neither confirms nor denies that he can read the transcript characters that Smith sent along with Harris. Instead he asks to see the “book” (golden plates) before he will try to read the characters. Harris (identified only as “another”; 2 Ne. 27:9, 16) told the “learned” (Anthon) that the “book” (plates) is “sealed” to all but the one who is “not learned” (Smith). The “learned” (Anthon) then responded that he “cannot read” a book he cannot see, but he is referring to the “book” (plates), not to the transcript characters.
Smith gave his clearest portrayal of the Harris-Anthon consultation in an unfinished history he began in 1832. He wrote that the Lord directed Harris to “go to New York City with some of the characters so we proceded to copy some of them and he took his Journey to the eastern City and to the learned saying read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the plates they would read it but the Lord had forbid it and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate and I said I cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters.”23 There is no confusion here. Harris asked Anthon to translate the characters. Anthon could not decipher them and asked to see the plates. Smith could not translate the characters by his own ability but could after he donned the glasses. This account is clearer than both the Book of Mormon and official versions which have Anthon ask to see the plates and being denied. In these accounts Anthon does not say he cannot read the transcript but only asks to see the plates. In this 1832 account Smith says clearly that the scholars could not translate the characters. If they had translated the transcribed characters that would have been a problem for Harris, for only Smith had the spectacles needed to translate them.
Oliver Cowdery’s 1835 history claims “the words of a book, which were sealed, were presented to the learned.” “Sealed” is used to mean that the language was indecipherable to the learned but not to the unlearned. Orson Pratt used “sealed” in the same way when he wrote that the characters were a “sealed writing to the learned professor—the aboriginal language of Ancient America could not be deciphered by him.”24
Other sources also rule out Anthon’s ability to decipher the characters. For example, when the Smith party returned to Palmyra in June 1829 to find a printer, Wayne Sentinel publisher E. B. Grandin [p.83] refused the contract but published the Book of Mormon title page in his paper along with his comment: “[M]uch speculation has existed, concerning … an ancient record, of a religious and divine nature and origin, written in ancient characters, impossible to be interpreted by any to whom the special gift has not been imparted by inspiration.”25 Similarly in August 1829 the Palmyra Freeman reported that Harris “took some of the characters interpreted by Smith, and went in search of some one, besides the interpreter, who was learned enough to English them; but all to whom he applied (among the number was Professor Mitchell, of New York,) happened not to be possessed of sufficient knowledge to give satisfaction!”26 A week later a similar report in the Rochester Gem concluded that Harris “found that no one was intended to perform that all important task but Smith himself.”27
David Whitmer, one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, reported that when Smith opened the plates he discovered “divers and wonderful CHARACTERS; some of them large and some small, but beyond the wisdom of men to understand without supernatural aid.”28 Fifty years later Whitmer said that after Anthon and Mitchill had examined the transcript, “they pronounced the characters reformed Egyptian, but were unable to read them.”29
In 1830 Joseph Smith, Sr., said that Luther Bradish “could not read the strange characters” and that Anthon could not “make any thing out” of the “Arabic” letters.30 John Gilbert, Book of Mormon typesetter, wrote that “Martin returned from his trip satisfied that ‘Joseph’ was a ‘little smarter than Professor Anthon.'”31 In other words, Smith could read what Anthon could not. Gilbert’s colleague, Pomeroy Tucker, wrote that the scholars “scouted the whole pretense as too depraved for serious attention.”32 Attorney Charles Butler reported Harris as saying that Anthon “admitted that he could not decypher them,” and Mitchill gave a “learned dissertation” upon the characters but did not translate them.33
In 1837 Mormon apostle Parley Pratt said that Anthon examined the characters “but was unable to decipher them correctly,” and in 1838 he said that Isaiah 29:11-12 was fulfilled because the “learned” (Anthon) received “the words or characters” but “could not read them.”34 In 1840 Orson Pratt echoed his brother’s words of 1837,35 and noted in 1848 that the characters were “a sealed writing to the learned professor—the aboriginal language of Ancient America could not be deciphered by him.”36 In a debate with Parson Hall in [p.84] Johnson County, Tennessee, in 1841, John D. Lee said that the Book of Mormon had been intended to appear “in a language unknown to men.” The characters “were taken to Professor Anthon, of New York City, for translation. He replied that he could not translate them, that they were written in ‘a sealed language, unknown to the present age.’ This was just as the prophet Isaiah said it should be.”37
Charles Anthon expressly denied that the transcript could be translated. According to his 1834 letter, “Dr. Mitchell confessed that he had been unable to understand.… I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick.” Seven years later he reiterated that the characters “had, in my opinion, no meaning at all connected with them.”
Support for the official version first came from W. W. Phelps in a letter dated 15 January 1831 to E. D. Howe. According to Phelps, the characters “were shown to Dr. Mitchell, and he referred to professor Anthon, who translated them and declared them to be the ancient shorthand Egyptian.”38 A few years later Joseph Knight, Sr., wrote that Martin Harris found men in Albany, Philadelphia, and New York who could translate some of the characters, although he said of Anthon and Mitchill, there were some characters “they could not well understand.”39 In 1870 Martin Harris recalled that his impression from the experts had been that “the characters were translated correctly.”40 When Anthony Metcalf interviewed him in 1873, Harris told him that Anthon “said the characters were translated correctly.”41 Nevertheless the nearly unanimous witness—from Mormon and gentile—is that the scholars could not translate the transcript.42
The confusion over whether or not Anthon or the other scholars could verify a translation is compounded by a contradiction over whether Harris even took a translation with him on his visits to the scholars. According to the official version, Harris took a transcription of characters along with a translation, which Anthon declared “was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian.” In contrast Anthon wrote in 1834 that “no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles.”
Support for the official version came from the Pratt brothers who in 1837 and 1840 wrote that “a few of the original characters were accurately transcribed and translated by Smith, which, with the translation … were presented to … Anthon.” Pomeroy Tucker [p.85] wrote that Harris took the transcript “together with the translation in his possession” to New York but noted that Harris may not have given Anthon the translation.43 Indirect support might be found in the two letters of Anthon. In the first he wrote of copies of the characters whereas the second has copy. John Clark wrote that Harris had left Anthon “with some of the manuscripts that Smith furnished him.”44 The first letter does not allow for a translation, only a transcript of characters; the second allows for a translation.
Not until 1870 did Martin Harris write anything about the sample translation: “[T]he translation that I carried to Prof. Anthon was copied from these plates.”45 Here the language is ambiguous about whether Harris refers to a translation or the characters. In 1873 Harris finally spoke clearly when he told Anthony Metcalf that Anthon “said the characters were translated correctly.”46 After Simon Smith spoke with Harris in 1875, he wrote that Harris “by command, took part of the manuscript with the translation thereof to one Professor Anthon … to get his opinion in regard to the language and translation.”47
Those who knew Smith and Harris in the early years—including family members, close associates, and non-Mormons—made no mention of a translation when they spoke or wrote of the consultation with Anthon. The sample translation was not an element of the original story. One must therefore choose between the story that developed and the opposite word of Anthon, although Harris accommodated himself to the official version in 1853 and again in 1859.48
A final disputed detail is the certificate which Anthon supposedly wrote to the citizens of Palmyra verifying the characters and the transcript translation. The official version concerns itself primarily with this certificate, but it is mentioned nowhere else by Smith or others. In fact, Smith’s 1832 account undermines the claim in insisting that Anthon could not translate the characters. If Anthon could not identify the characters or language and could not translate, then there would have been no certificate.
The official version has Anthon tear up the certificate. This serves the same purpose as having an angel remove the plates from Smith. It made comparison impossible and kept the focus on the message Smith brought rather than on the medium through which it came. But again, Anthon contradicts such a claim. According to Anthon, he gave a written opinion that the marks on the transcript were meaningless.49
[p.86] Joseph Knight, Sr., recalled that Anthon could allegedly translate a few characters but not others. Therefore he “rote a very good piece to Joseph and said if he would send the original he would translate it.”50 It was this piece of paper which Anthon tore up according to Knight. Both Knight’s and Anthon’s versions are plausible, whereas Smith’s version is contradicted by Smith himself.
The official version says nothing about why Harris decided to consult the scholars or whose idea the trip was. But such questions are important, both in helping to make sense of Harris’s response to the “failure” of his trip and also in helping to see what was at stake in the attention Smith gave to the consultation. Harris returned eager to see the book translated and published and willing to help finance the venture. Clearly, securing such support from Harris was an important part of what had been at stake all along in this consultation of the scholars.
A number of sources suggest that Harris’s concerns were both religious and pragmatic. He wanted to know if the proposed translation was from God or from Satan and whether he should advance money for printing the book. But he was also concerned about whether he would get his money back on the investment.51 Harris first heard about the plates when his brother, Preserved Harris, spoke of them “about the first of October, 1827.”52 Soon afterwards Smith sent his mother to tell Harris that he wanted to see him. At an angel’s direction, Smith looked into the glasses which were found with the plates and saw the man who was to help place the translation before the world. Harris was the man.
Harris was cautious. “If the Lord will show me that it is his work,” he told Smith, “you can have all the money you want.” He went home to pray about it, and then God “showed me that it was his work, and that it was designed to bring in the fulness of the gospel.… He showed this to me by the still small voice spoken in the soul. Then I was satisfied that it was the Lord’s work, and I was under a covenant to bring it forth.”53 Thus Harris followed Smith from New York to Pennsylvania, got the transcript, returned to Palmyra, and called on Father John A. Clark of Palmyra’s Episcopal Church before heading east.54
Clark heard that “a great flood of light was about to burst upon the world, and that the scene of divine manifestations was to be immediately around us.” A golden Bible had been found “as would settle all religious controversies and speedily bring on the glorious [p.87] millennium.”55 Charles Anthon later heard the same story. The contents of the gold Bible “would, as he had been assured, produce an entire change in the world and save it from ruin.” It contained “very great truths, and most important revelations of a religious nature.”56
Anthon wrote that Harris was under pressure to publish the translation and came to him “as a last precautionary step.”57 Harris had to convince himself more “clearly that there was no risk whatever in the matter, and that the work was actually what it claimed to be … and satisfy him[self] as to the perfect safety of the investment.”58 Harris told Pomeroy Tucker at the Wayne Sentinel office that the forthcoming translation would be of God but that he did not want to bear alone the publication costs. Nevertheless, Harris “sought out the ‘wisdom of learned'” to see if the discovery and revelation were genuine.59
Martin Harris followed a well-worn route for those who had hieroglyphic writings in hand. In 1819 the Palmyra Register told of a rock in Dighton, Massachusetts, which had hieroglyphic inscriptions. Two copies of the characters were sent off to several universities in the United States and to the University of Edinburgh but were not deciphered until much later.60 In 1823 the Palmyra Register printed the translation of a facsimile of a rock in Pompey, New York, and explained several symbols of the inscription. The article concluded that the inscription was written by a Roman Catholic in 1520 and suggested how the stone might have gotten to Pompey.61
“Deciphering of Hieroglyphics,” which appeared in the Wayne Sentinel in 1827, described the work of Professor Seyffarth of Leipzig, who was translating Egyptian antiquities in Rome. Seyffarth “found the picture of a Jew in bonds, and other allusions to the state of slavery to which the Jews were reduced. He added, that he had found the old and new testaments in the Sefific, and the Pentateuch in the Memphitic dialect; and a Mexican manuscript in hieroglyphics, from which he inferred, that the Mexicans and Egyptians had intercourse with each other from the remotest antiquity, and that they had the same system of mythology.”62
Accounts from the period provide conflicting testimony about who first proposed the consultation. Many suggest that it was Smith’s idea. His mother Lucy wrote that Harris’s intense interest in the plates led her son to agree to the consultation even before he left for Pennsylvania.63 Edward Stevenson, Smith’s close friend in later [p.88] years, said that it “was manifested” to Smith to send Harris east.64 In 1875 Harris told Simon Smith that he went east “by command.”65
More than a year before Harris went to New York City, however, Smith had been thinking about prophetic fulfillment in terms of Isaiah 29 and the golden plates. Emily M. Austin knew Joseph and Emma Smith in January 1827 at Colesville, New York, at the time the couple was married. She wrote that Smith “declared an angel … told him of golden plates … containing a history … which Isaiah the prophet had spoken of; a vision which should become as the words of a book that is sealed.”66
Joseph Smith’s testimony on the subject is ambiguous. 2 Nephi 27:15-18 indicates that the Lord would have commanded Smith to send Harris. When Smith began a draft of his history in 1832, however, he credited Harris with a vision in which Jesus told him to get the characters and consult the scholars.67 According to Oliver Cowdery, the angel in Smith’s 1823 vision said that the “scripture must be fulfilled before it is translated, which says that the words of a book, which were sealed, were presented to the learned.”68 Harris in this version of events pressed for the consultation, and Smith let him go in order to gain his support.69
An important clue as to who was controlling events might be seen in Harris’s mood on his return. His enthusiasm to publish the book seems strange in view of what he had learned, that the scholars could not translate the transcript characters. In fact, Harris was even more convinced of Smith’s divine commission after his visit with the eastern sages. John Clark reported that Harris was willing to “take of the spoiling of his goods … though it consumed all his worldly substance” to help Smith publish the book, because Harris thought it was “the work of the Lord.”70
If Harris had gone expecting the scholars to confirm the authenticity of the transcript, if his only model had been the one often replayed in contemporary newspapers—taking a new find to scholars for explanation and clarification—then he would have returned disappointed. Luther Bradish told Harris that there was not enough “to make anything out.” Anthon told him that the transcript was a “trick, perhaps a hoax,” that it was “part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money” that “some cunning fellow had prepared the paper in question, for the purpose of imposing” upon him.71 When Harris returned to Palmyra he told Clark that Anthon could not pinpoint the language of the characters.
[p.89] But these results did not discourage Martin Harris. On the contrary, according to Clark, “Martin had now become a perfect believer. He said he had no more doubt of Smith’s commission, than of the divine commission of the apostles. The very fact that Smith was an obscure and illiterate man, showed that he must be acting under divine impulses. It was in vain I endeavoured to expostulate. I was an unbeliever, and could not see afar off.” Clark added, “My intimations … in reference to the possible imposition that was being practiced upon him … were indignantly repelled.”72
Given Harris’s joy at scholarly ignorance and disregard of their warnings, one can only conjecture that Harris had been prepared for such reactions. Smith must have forewarned Harris that the scholars’ failure would be a sign that Smith’s story was true. Harris said that he did not know that he was fulfilling Isaiah 29 until he returned from the consultation. Anthony Metcalf asked him in 1873 if he had known about the passage, and Harris replied that “Joseph Smith had shown that chapter to him after his return.”73 Smith apparently had told him—and he believed—”that Smith was to prepare the way for the conversion of the world to a new system of faith, by transcribing the characters from the plates and giving translations of the same.”74 But after the fact Harris explained the scholars’ failure to translate the characters with a paradox: since the scholars failed, Smith must be right.75
Tending to confirm that he was prepared to interpret ignorance as proof, Harris even at the start of his eastward journey told Clark that Clark’s ignorance of the characters was “new proof that Smith’s account of the divine revelation made to him was entirely to be relied on.”76 Such sentiment is also behind John Gilbert’s report that “Martin returned from his trip east satisfied that “Joseph” was a “little smarter than Professor Anthon.” Smith could “read” the characters which were “sealed” to the “learned.” According to Pomeroy Tucker, Harris regarded “these untoward results merely as ‘proving the lack of wisdom’ on the part of the rejecters, and also as illustrating the truth of his favorite quotation, that ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.’ This was always his self-convincing argument in reply to similar adversity in his fanatical pursuit.”77
Smith sent Harris to Mitchill and Anthon not to get their translation but to convince Harris to go through with financing publication of the translation. Mormon writer Hugh Nibley has [p.90] suggested that it was to give the leading scholars the opportunity “to speak their piece,” so that no one could charge that Smith was afraid to display “his mythical manuscript to real scholars.”78 But Smith knew that they would not, could not—as Nibley also admits—translate the characters.
The Harris-Anthon consultation was suggested by Isaiah 29, but another source had demonstrated that evidence in hand was not necessary to promote faith. Ethan Smith’s Pittsfield Parchment story told of his belief that there was an Indian parchment with Hebrew characters on it, but he never found the parchment. He believed it only on the basis of a translation and the testimony of two sets of witnesses. Thus the Harris-Anthon consultation connected the translation of the Book of Mormon and the launching of the restoration church to prophetic fulfillment. It was an initial step in the commonly accepted progression of events which millennialists believed would signal the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Smith fleshed out Isaiah 29:11-12 with his interpretation of the Harris-Anthon consultation. The biblical scenario dictated that Smith (“him that is not learned”) would read what Anthon (“one that is learned”) could not—namely, the transcribed characters (“the words of a book that is sealed ).79 The issue of time was important: the “sealed” book could not be translated before it was presented to the “learned.” Smith had been talking about these conditions since his marriage to Emma in January 1827. In his 1832 draft Smith told of the consultation, the scholars’ failure, Harris’s return and request that Smith translate the characters, and his reply to Harris: “I cannot for I am not learned.” Smith went on to tell of translating the characters with the aid of the glasses and then commented: “and thus the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled which is written in the 29 chapter concerning the book.”80 This evidence that Smith was fulfilling prophecy is strengthened by the Cowdery account three years later, where emphasis is placed on appropriate procedure: first the scholars had to see the characters and then the translating could begin.81
Soon after the translation work, the identity of what Charles Anthon could not read was changed in the Book of Mormon account; instead of the transcript characters he held during the consultation with Harris, the Book of Mormon account identifies the plates as that which he was not allowed to see. After that, changes in the story Joseph Smith first told in 1828 about the Anthon [p.91] consultation can be seen to fall into several stages. Originally (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. Also, the account expanded talk about reformed Egyptian characters to a discussion of the Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic alphabets.
In 1838 Smith stayed for a time with George and Lucinda Morgan Harris.82 Lucinda was the widow of William Morgan, whose 1826 disappearance was the immediate cause of the anti-Masonic excitement in New York. (Smith would later marry Lucinda polygamously.) William Morgan had received only the Royal Arch degree of Masonry, and in 1829 David Bernard had added the Royal Arch to his reprint of Morgan’s exposé of Masonry’s first three degrees, including the Royal Arch word for God, said to have been known to ancient Hebrews, lost during the Babylonian exile, and restored when the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. The holy word, JAH-BUH-LUN, was compounded from “three different languages, (i.e. Hebrew, Chaldaic, and Syriac.)”83 Bernard had also added a secret alphabetical code, some letters of which correspond to characters on the Anthon Transcript.84 Bernard’s enormously popular book found its way into many Palmyra homes. By further identifying the characters as he did in 1838, Smith appealed to those with Masonic backgrounds. As the next chapter will show, he later made the appeal more openly.85
The story of the Anthon consultation was important in early Mormon missionary efforts. In 1834, if not earlier, Mormons used Anthon’s name and authority to claim that the transcript characters were “reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics”86 and were still doing it in New York in 1841.87 In Brooklyn in 1836 Mormons held a meeting in which “they were to prove by the scriptures that the Book of Mormon was of divine authority.” When they came to Isaiah 29, the speaker “strove to make his bearers believe that the prophet had this book in mind.”88 On a Mississippi steamer in 1842, according to [p.92] Daniel Kidder, Mormons used the consultation story in missionary work, claiming “that the prophecy of Isaiah was literally fulfilled in the origin of the book before us.89 Today it has become one of the staples of Mormon folklore.90
The importance of tying biblical prophecy to contemporary events in dismissing critics cannot be overestimated. The conclusion that the Harris-Anthon consultation had no important missionary use and no “great practical value” is simply not born out by the evidence. The episode convinced Martin Harris to finance publication of the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith used Isaiah 29:4 to show that the Book of Mormon was the lost book of the Indians, buried through the ages, and recovered by him from the side of Cumorah Hill near his home. Isaiah 29:11-12 was used to establish the book as written in a lost script which defied the efforts of the best known scholars of New York. It provided for Smith to translate the book as one foreseen by prophecy and to set the stage for the Millennium.
2. He cited in whole or in part chaps. 5, 7, 10, 11, 14, 18, 26, 42, 43, 48, 51, 60, 65, and 66. He regarded chapters 48-49 as predictions of the restoration in the “latter days.” So did Joseph Smith, as he expressed it through Nephi in 1 Ne. 20-21.
3. Other passages also are used to make the Book of Mormon a subject of prophecy (1 Ne. 13:35), a buried book (2 Ne. 26:15, 17), and a book “out of the earth” (Morm. 8:23, 26). See 2 Ne. 26:15-18, where Isa. 29:3-5 is applied to the destruction of the Nephites, and 3 Ne. 8-9, which describes the destruction of Jerusalem.
9. Fayette Lapham, “The Mormons,” Historical Magazine (New Series), 7 (May 1870): 307, interviewed the prophet’s father before 1831. Pomeroy [p.93]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 (typescript copy, archives, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah).
10. In his 15 Jan. 1831 letter to E. D. Howe (Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834, 273), Phelps said that Harris took the characters to Utica, Albany, and New York City. Bradish lived at Utica and was serving in the state legislature in Albany in 1828. Two additional sources mention Philadelphia as one of the cities visited: Joseph Knight, Sr., and William R. Hine. See Dean C. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Autumn 1976): 34; and “W. R. Hine’s Statement,” Naked Truths About Mormonism 1 (Jan. 1888): 2. Knight’s recollections were written in the 1830s. Both Knight and Hine lived in Colesville, New York, and knew Smith before publication of the Book of Mormon. Knight became a follower. Hine did not.
11. Stanley B. Kimball, “The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 330, points out that Harris may have known about Bradish’s travels, may have known Bradish himself since Bradish had relatives around Palmyra.
19. Joseph Smith to James Arlington Bennett, Nauvoo, 13 Nov. 1843. Reply of Joseph Smith to the Letter of J. A. B.–of A-n House (New York and Liverpool, 1844); referred to in Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Feb. 1844, 160.
20. Leonard J. Arrington, “James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on ‘The Mormonites,'” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 362. Arrington published the article referring to Butler along with the notes which Bennett took and used to write the article (p. 355). The notes were dated 7-8 Aug. 1831.
23. This unfinished history first came to public view in Paul R. Cheesman, “An Analysis of the Accounts Relating to Joseph Smith’s Early Vision,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965. Dean C. Jessee then published portions of it in “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First [p.94]Vision,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 275-94.
24. Orson Pratt, “Divine Authority, or the Question, Was Joseph Smith sent of God?” Doctrines of the Gospel (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1884), 9. This is a reprint of A Series of Pamphlets published from 1848-51 with some portions deleted.
34. Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning and Instruction to All People (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Steam Printing Establishment, 1874), 72; Writings of Parley Parker Pratt (Salt Lake City, 1952), 205-206.
42. Mormon scholars recognize that the official version claims too much. B. H. Roberts, New Witness for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1926), 2:95-96; Hugh Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price: Part I. Challenge and Response,” Improvement Era 71 (Feb. 1968): 17; and Kimball, “The Anthon Transcript,” 335-36, have agreed that the scholars could not translate Egyptian at that time because the Rosetta Stone had only recently been decoded. There had not been sufficient time to learn the language. They suggest that Anthon and Mitchill may have compared the characters to various styles of writing or said that they were authentic characters but nothing more. Kimball also suggests that Harris was eager to fulfill a prophecy and that he might have mistaken “translation” for “transcription.” Harris, however, said that he did not know of the prophecy until Smith showed it to him upon his return from the east.
49. Two possible contradictions in Anthon’s two letters led Mormon scholars to favor Harris’s account over Anthon’s. Kimball (p. 339) concluded that Anthon was an “uncritical, emotional man,” not a “detached scholar,” a description which better fits Martin Harris.
Nevertheless, when Howe asked Anthon for his version of the consultation, Anthon asked him “to publish this letter immediately, should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics.” But in his introduction to the 1841 letter, T. W. Coit wrote that Anthon had not yet thought it “worthwhile to say anything publicly on the subject.”
Second, in the 1834 letter Anthon states that he declined to give Harris an opinion in writing, while in his 1844 letter he says that Harris asked for an opinion in writing, to which he replied in writing that the marks on the paper “had in my opinion no meaning at all connected with them.” The Church Record 1 (24 Apr. 1841): 231.
Wesley P. Walters offered a plausible explanation for the apparent contradictions. First, when Howe asked Anthon for his version of the consultation, he appeared not to have told Anthon it was for publication, since Anthon asked him “to publish this letter immediately, should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics.” In his introduction to the 1841 letter, T. W. Coit wrote he had asked Anthon for a public statement. Anthon, therefore, replied that no one had previously asked for his statement in “writing,” that he had not thought it “worthwhile to say anything publicly on the subject.” Second, the 1834 letter restates Harris’s story about the spectacles enabling the person who used them to examine the plates and fully “understand their meaning.” Harris came to get Anthon’s opinion “about the meaning of the paper,” but Anthon refused to give a “learned opinion” about a “hoax.” Harris, however, may have wanted a written statement that the characters “had in my opinion no meaning at all connected with them.” Walters to Hullinger, 8 Jan. 1975. This is likely, since Harris most probably expected the scholars to fail.
51. The sources reveal different estimates of Harris. Some saw Harris as deluded but absolutely honest in his persuasion. Others, including his wife, saw his involvement as a potentially profitable venture. Still others saw [p.96]a mixture of both motives. Clark (p. 224) reported Harris as “intent upon the pecuniary advantage … as upon the spiritual light” the newly discovered Nephite book “would diffuse over the world.” See also Tucker, 55, and Orsamus Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester: William Ailing, 1851), 215.
52. Tiffany, 167. The prophet’s mother said that her husband told Harris about the plates at least a couple years before (Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations [Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853], 109).
53. Tiffany, 168. Turner (p. 215) supported Harris’s story that Smith made the first contact in seeking Harris’s support. Lucy Smith (pp. 113-14) said that her son asked her to arrange a meeting between him and Harris. Joseph Knight, Sr., also credits Smith with the initial impetus to contact the scholars. Compare Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 33. It is clear that Smith wanted the meeting.
57. Letter to Rev. T. W. Coit, Rector of Trinity church, New Rochelle, West Chester County, New York; in The Church Record 1 (24 Apr. 1841): 231-32. It appeared in Clark (pp. 233-38) and will be cited hereafter as the 1841 letter.
64. Reminiscences of the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City, 1983), 28-29. In William E. Berrett and Alma P. Burton, Readings in LDS History from Original Manuscripts, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1953), 1:26.
68. Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1835, 80. The trustworthiness of Cowdery’s account on some particulars was debated by Wesley P. Walters and Richard L. Bushman in “The Question of the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 59-100. Bushman criticized Walters’s reliance on Cowdery’s version because his evidence was “hearsay” and—because he was physically distant from Smith—”close cooperation was impossible” (pp. 85-86). Walters (p. 95) reviewed the evidence showing the frequency with which Cowdery and Smith spent time together to support Cowdery’s claim to have had “authentic documents” and Smith’s help.
69. Forty of the first seventy-two revelations demonstrate the following pattern. Some person or circumstance initiated—or presented—a question, challenge, or need to Smith. To respond, Smith began a dialogue with God. The impression which came to Smith’s mind revealed the way to respond to the person, challenge, or need.
81. The Pratt brothers spread this thinking: the words of a book had to be delivered to the learned (who would be unable to read them), while the book itself was delivered to the unlearned (who would be able to read it with the aid of the glasses). That fulfilled the text. See Parley P. Pratt in Mormonism Unveiled—Truth Vindicated (1838). See Writings of Parley Parker Pratt (Salt Lake City, 1952), 205-206.
82. Ibid., 9. Smith arrived at Far West, Missouri, on 14 March 1838 and began dictating his History on April 27 (p. 25). He was still dictating on May 1-4 (p. 26). He did enough to cover the material of the official version in the first few days after having been with the George Harris family for over a month. The official version is found in Smith’s Manuscript History, Book A-I, 9, in LDS archives.
83. David Bernard, Light on Masonry (Utica: William Williams, 1829), 138-39. Also reproduced in the “Report of Seceding Freemasons, or, A Summary of Freemasonry,” The Proceedings of the United States Anti-Masonic Convention, Held at Philadelphia, September 11, 1830 (New York: Skinner [p.98]and Dewey, 1830), 45-46. See “The Royal Arch Key” illustration (p. 109) since Bernard’s book and the “Report” appeared during the years that Smith was dictating and publishing the Book of Mormon, and Bernard’s book was widely available. Smith may have seen it before his stay with the Harris family at Far West.
It is an interesting sidelight that the ritual as Bernard knew it mentioned only three languages. Although the official version mentions four, as does modern Masonic ritual, it appears that this was one of the variations to be found in Masonry in the 1820s and 1830s. Martin Harris mentioned only three languages in his interview with David B. Dille in 1853, although he later spoke of four. For a modern ritual with the context of the four languages in the Mystical Lecture of the First Chair of the Royal Arch and its modern spelling of the Sacred Names as JAH-BUL-ON, see Walton Hannah, Darkness Visible: A Revelation & Interpretation of Freemasonry (London Augustine Press, 1952), 181.
85. Reed C. Durham, Jr., “Is There No Help for the Widow’s Son,” Presidential Address for the Mormon History Association, 20 Apr. 1974, Nauvoo, Illinois. In Mormon Miscellaneous 1 (Oct. 1975): 11-16. Durham finds many parallels between the developing Mormonism of the late 1830s and 1840s.
90. It is a faith-promoting story taught to children, similar to the story of the pilgrims in teaching patriotism to American children. See Austin and Alta Fife, Saints of Sage and Saddle: Folklore Among the Mormons (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1956), 38-39.