Joseph Smith and the Critics

Tucked away in a highly specialized corner of this highly specialized field are three highly specialized papyri applying with their highly specialized commentary illustrations to a highly specialized account of Abraham in Egypt. The peculiarities of the facsimiles and the explanations that go with them cry for careful specialized investigation. So the question we have to ask here of every member of the Spalding jury is not whether he knows a lot, but whether he is equipped to deal with this particular problem. The problem is complicated by emotional religious elements that make it necessary in screening the jury to ask two main questions of each: (1) whether he is equipped by training to give a thorough and definitive interpretation of the plates and texts in the Pearl of Great Price, and (2) whether he is temperamentally qualified to do so.

Five of the scholars consulted by Bishop Spalding for his 1912 publication were among the most learned men who ever lived. Each of them was a giant endowed far beyond the normal run of men with independence of mind, imagination, curiosity, insight, energy, and integrity. Yet as we look them over it appears that each is uniquely unqualified to pass judgment on Joseph Smith as a translator, at least on the basis of the information supplied by Spalding. Let us take them in order of their seniority, labeling them with the titles Dr. Spalding gives them.

Archibald Henry Sayce

“Dr. A. H. Sayce, Oxford, England,” or, more fully, the Reverend Archibald Henry Sayce (fig. 18), D. Litt., LL.D., D.D. (1845—1931). Sayce was born with a phenomenal I.Q. and plenty of money, and “his attitude to life was that of a fastidious ascetic,” according to his fellow Welshman and fellow genius F. L. Griffith.1 Free to do pretty much as he chose, he was constantly traveling about; he “knew about every great personality in Europe of the last two generations”;2 and “in the course of his long life he seems to have seen everything and everybody that was interesting.”3

At the age of 18, according to Stephen H. Langdon, “he proved that he knew Hebrew, Egyptian, Persian and Sanscrit [sic],” and that “he had a firm grasp of the state of cuneiform studies.” In time he “had a good knowledge of every Semitic and Indo-European language, and could write good prose in at least twenty languages.” And yet this paragon “never became a great specialist in any subject”; he was too volatile, “always moving from place to place. . . . Any subject lost its attraction for him as soon as the period of decipherment was passed.”4 He “left no lasting monument,” writes Griffith; “one cannot but feel that his marvellous gifts were out of proportion to his accomplishment.”5 Or, as Langdon puts it, “his real greatness was never revealed in his work.”6 But how is one to measure gifts save by accomplishments or greatness apart from works?

In his younger years Sayce attacked the evolutionists hammer and tong, maintaining that “the whole application of a supposed law of evolution to the religious and secular history of the ancient Oriental world is founded on what we now know to have been a huge mistake.”7 But later in life he became even more vigorous in assailing fundamentalism: “When I was a boy,” he recalled shortly before his death, “there were some old-fashioned people who still believed that . . . some of [the books of the Old Testament] were written by Moses himself . . . and we of the younger generation, trained in the critical methods of Germany, were unable to accept the dogma; it rested only on unproved assertions.” [8] Of course there is no excuse for that sort of thing any more. “A new era has dawned upon us. The scientific method . . . has . . . furnished us with facts instead of theories.”9 And so he ticks off the well-worn and now discredited clichés of scientism with evangelistic fervor: “An inductive science . . . deals with objective facts and not with . . . tastes and predilections. . . . Like the geologist, the archaeologist has had to leave catastrophic theorizing to the literary amateur”;10 we must forget the idea that “similarities in technique [e.g., of pottery] . . . indicate relationship”—for diffusion is a myth.11

He has no patience with historians who want to measure civilization by the thousands of years, for he has proven that “civilized man can not be measured by millennia. . . . Civilized man in the fullest sense of the word is immeasurably old. . . . Archaeology is repeating the lesson of geology and physical science.”12 This is the sort of thing Griffith refers to when he writes, “His vivid imagination and insight framed pictures of events and of interpretation in which he too often mistook the sharp lines of the picture for fact,”13 and of these “facts” he would brook no criticism for “he was impatient of the claims, the pride, and the reticence of exact scholarship.”14

Sayce’s Egyptological researches are typical of his methods. For a number of years his own Nile boat, the Ishtar, might be seen searching out unfrequented spots along the banks of the great river, where he would discover new ruins and inscriptions, only to leave them behind for others to study.15 It is significant that of the many inscriptions he discovered and copied down, he is always careful to translate the Greek and Latin ones in full (though most of his readers could read Greek and Latin well enough for themselves), while he never attempts to translate any of the Egyptian inscriptions.16 Why not? “His métier was that of a decipherer of any thing new,” wrote Langdon, explaining that he lost interest as soon as the code was cracked.17 But surely the deciphering of Egyptian was far newer and more challenging in the 1890s than the reading of Greek and Latin. In the same way, Sayce, though criticizing Joseph Smith more severely than any other member of the big five, is the only one of them to preserve complete silence regarding the facsimiles. Sayce’s specialty was Assyriology, not Egyptology, and while in the former field, according to H. R. Hall, “the Professor must be judged by his peers,” his speculations in Egyptology “do not carry much conviction.”18

There is another side to this remarkable man that we must not overlook, for though Dr. Sayce was greatly annoyed by people who took the Bible literally, he remained always a churchman and fiercely loyal to his church. “Attached by generations of his heritage to the ancient traditions of the Church of England,” to follow Langdon, “Sayce regarded all learning which did not apply to the culture of his people and his Church as useless.”19 His native language was Welsh.

Now just how well does this man qualify to pass impartial judgment on Joseph Smith as a translator? By temperament he is the fastidious aristocrat moving in exalted circles, disdaining the vulgar; above all he is the austere, uncompromising churchman—how would he judge the efforts of an uneducated rustic from the American frontier? By training he is the spoiled dilettante to whom everything came easy, impatient of criticism, opinionated, and dogmatic in his own views. It is a toss-up which A. H. Sayce would be more intellectually hostile to Smith: the early clerical Sayce who “regarded as useless” all learning that did not support his church, or the scientific Sayce, invincibly opposed to supernaturalism. The two meet and mingle in the Sayce of 1912, who dismisses the Book of Abraham with eleven contemptuous lines. For all his great learning, I don’t think Dr. Sayce rates a place on this particular jury.

W. M. Flinders Petrie

“Dr. W. M. Flinders Petrie, London University” (1853—1942). If it is possible to imagine a man more independent in his way and self-contained in his thinking than A. H. Sayce, that man must be Dr. Petrie (fig. 19). We can illustrate this by a story told by Professor George Steindorff to a small group that met to celebrate Steindorff’s eightieth birthday in 1942. Petrie came down to meet the Nile boat one hot evening in 1894 as the young Steindorff disembarked at the scene of Petrie’s operations in upper Egypt. The great man conducted his guests to his tent for dinner, which was to consist of an enormous, heaping bowl of rice, completely covered with a mantle of blue-bottle flies. Professor Petrie in his hearty manner invited the party to fall to, but when some of them hesitated he reached for a box of Keating’s Insect Powder and showered its contents liberally over both flies and rice, saying as he did so, “I’ve found that it kills them—but it doesn’t kill me!” Such a man was not to be deterred from his course by the opinions of others. Petrie’s strength was his weakness—his complete independence of mind made it possible for him to make real discoveries where the timid would never have ventured, but at the same time it blinded him to the valid objections that others might have to his theories and interpretations.

An only child, Petrie never went to school—he was from the first self-educated and self-directed; “he was incapable of teamwork,” writes his biographer Guy Brunton—”Petrie seems to have felt no need of companionship; nor was he very sympathetic to the ideas of others.”20 With a somewhat limited “outlook on life in general,” he boasted that he had never been to a theater.21 Though he was the greatest practitioner of scientific archaeology in modern times, “even when visited by those having great experience in archaeology he preferred to talk rather than to listen”;22 and though archaeology was his life, “he never visited the excavations of others.”23 With his own work “there must be no interference or deviation,” and “having once arrived at a conclusion, he was extremely averse to modifying it in any way.”24 So as time went on, “Petrie’s views on all manner of subjects . . . crystallized into stated facts” from which he was not to be moved.25

This intransigence was abetted, if not actually caused, by the nature of Petrie’s education, which in turn was determined by his complete inability to learn languages. At a tender age, he had a tutor to teach him “French, Latin, and Greek grammar, for which he had,” according to Brunton, “no aptitude whatever. A breakdown resulted, and for two years he was left to his own devices.” Then they tried again—”fresh attempts were made with the grammars, but it was found to be hopeless.”26 So he became his own teacher and did the things he was really good at: “Essentially a practical fieldworker of great ability, he made contributions of the highest value, but had no flair for research in epigraphy. He was prone to base his theories on inadequate premises.”27 He expressed his settled opinions on religion shortly before Spalding appealed to him, in a book in which he declares that any feeling of a need for repentance is the index of a “morbid mind,”28 and that “the last branch of unbalanced Religious experience is that of Hallucinations,” which “enter so much into the scope of mental disease that it is useless to begin upon the detail of so far-spreading a subject.”29

So here we have another spoiled only child, a law unto himself (no need for him to repent!) reaping the rich rewards of independent thinking (and how we could use a little of that type of thinking in our own society!), but paying a high price for the luxury of always having his own way. Not a linguist by any means, he is hardly the man to call in for a study of all but illegible documents; and, utterly averse to any hint of the supernatural in religion, he is even less likely than Sayce to give Joseph Smith a fair hearing; then too, quite aside from his one-sided training and religious prejudice, would the man who had not the patience or courtesy to listen to the opinions of his most eminent colleagues or to visit their excavations take time off to give careful attention to the 80-year-old writings of a young farmer from New York? Indeed, while Petrie confirms statements of the Book of Abraham in a surprising number of instances, he would be the last man on earth to recognize the fact, and all Spalding got from him on the subject was a terse offhand opinion (fig. 20). What else could he expect? I think we should excuse Dr. Petrie from serving on this particular jury.

Eduard Meyer

“Dr. Edward Meyer, University of Berlin” (fig. 21). Eduard (Spalding misspelled the name) Meyer (1855—1930) knew more about the whole field of ancient history than any other man who ever lived. He was the greatest scholar since Scaliger, and it would be hard to think of some way in which his learning might have been more extensive than it was, or more productive—though he himself declared at the end of his life that his generation of scholarship has erred sorely in trying to be so everlastingly “scientific” about everything instead of trusting more to their intuition and instincts. Because of his whole-hearted and single-minded dedication to the documents of the past which from childhood he was determined to search thoroughly and systematically, Meyer’s judgments often seemed to smack of almost prophetic insight.30 His mistakes, wrote Walter Otto, were often more valuable than other men’s facts;31 he laid the firm foundations of Egyptian chronology, vindicated the historicity of the Old Testament against Wellhausen and his school, was rivaled only by Breasted in his contributions to Egyptian history, exploded the evolutionary theory of economic development, first showed the importance of Iran in Jewish and Christian tradition, anticipated the Dead Sea Scrolls in discerning the important role played by the desert sectaries in early Christian and Jewish history, opened up the world of the Hittites, gave the world the first real picture of ancient Greece, and was the last human being to find himself in a position of being able to write a general history of antiquity from the sources of his own learning. Like the other members of the panel, he was largely self-taught and always went his own way, a pioneer wherever he went; but unlike the others, he had a healthy sense of his own limitations and freely admitted his mistakes and changed his views when the evidence required it.32

Also, Meyer had his blind spots. He could not understand art, according to his biographer; he lacked any aesthetic sense; he was impatient and usually in a hurry, so that he often brushed aside or overlooked real problems, e.g., his history of the United States “is hasty, biased, superficial and inaccurate.”33 When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Meyer, it is said, ran down the street Unter den Linden with hair flying, declaiming wildly, and tearing his honorary Harvard diploma to shreds.

Still, if any scholar was competent to pass judgment on Joseph Smith, it should have been Meyer. An indication of his peculiar independence and deep insight is seen in the fact that he always regarded Mormonism as a phenomenon of enormous importance in the history of religions. Professor Werner Jaeger recalled that the only time Meyer was able to fill his lecture hall in Berlin was when he talked on the Mormons—then the place was packed, because then Meyer became alive as never before. Meyer, according to Walter Otto, “was the first secular historian ever to tackle the problem of the origin of Christianity—the central-problem of World History,” and in Mormonism he saw the best guide.34 He was convinced that “Mormonism . . . is not just another of countless sects, but a new revealed religion. What in the study of other revealed religions can only be surmised after painful research is here directly accessible in reliable witnesses. Hence the origin and history of Mormonism possesses great and unusual value for the student of religious history.”35

He had visited Utah in 1904, and a year before Spalding’s book appeared, he had published his Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen. In that book Meyer had made it perfectly clear just what he thought about Joseph Smith, whom he regarded as a prophet in exactly the same sense in which Isaiah, Jeremiah, and (to a lesser degree) Mohammed were prophets. He was free to run the risk of paying such high tribute to the Mormon Prophet because everyone knew that he did not for a moment believe that there ever was such a thing as a true prophet; in keeping with the lofty scholarship of his day, Meyer disdained to grant the smallest measure of probability to any proposition tainted with the supernatural. That, as Otto points out, is what spoiled what should have been his greatest work, that on the Origins of Christianity, in which “everything in the person of Christ must be explained on rationalistic grounds. He never allowed for the irrational element in the human character.”36 So it is no compliment to Joseph Smith for Meyer to place him among the real prophets, for Meyer begins from the premise that all prophets are self-deluded. Granted that premise, there is only one position, of course, that one can possibly take regarding Joseph Smith’s claims to divine revelation and only one view that anyone can possibly take of his teachings in the Book of Abraham.

So Bishop Spalding was appealing to a judge who had already declared against any form of supernaturalism. Eduard Meyer, a great man that he was, was also a judge on whom Spalding could count with absolute trust to give only one answer to his question about the Book of Abraham. By stating with great emphasis and clarity his views on religion in general and Joseph Smith in particular, in effect he disqualifies himself for the jury.

James H. Breasted

“James H. Breasted, Ph.D., Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago” (fig. 22). Professor Breasted (1865—1935) had his full share of those qualities which we have found to be most conspicuous in the three giants noticed so far: independence of action and judgment, boundless self-confidence, and equally boundless energy and exuberance. We have already seen how Professor Mercer chides his master for getting carried away too much. Breasted’s training and temperament go together. He was trained in a school that knew all the answers—the Prussian school of the 1890s, which bolstered the individual’s sublime confidence in himself as one who shared the corporate omniscience of the establishment. He was, a German reports, “most intimately tied to the German school of Egyptology from his first scientific beginnings,”37 as “the dear, hearty comrade” of the German Egyptologists. His friend Eduard Meyer inspired him to take wide views, which in turn inclined him to make wide and sweeping pronouncements that disturbed some of his colleagues,38 some of whom point out that he was much too prone to generalize and “often interpreted evidence wrongly to suit his purposes.”39

The French Egyptologists sometimes felt that Breasted underestimated their work and so criticized him quite freely, accusing him of being pro-German to the point of slighting and even insulting French Egyptology, while putting forth his own theories as settled facts and completely ignoring any theories and even evidence that did not appeal to him.40 George Foucart comes right out and accuses Breasted of being opinionated and unfair, noting that “in treating the contradictions of his predecessors without charity [indulgence] Breasted makes himself vulnerable to the same treatment in the future.”41 In this Foucart was a true prophet, for time has not been too kind to Professor Breasted’s favorite theories. As Professor Jéquier and Foucart see it, Dr. Breasted with sublime self-confidence goes his way “bestowing his criticism or approval freely on all sides,” presenting his own opinions as historical facts and his private reconstructions as original texts,42 and while his colleagues may find his affirmations most unconvincing, the general public is supposed to accept them as official.43

We have ventured to quote such unpleasantries because we have here exactly the high and authoritarian attitude taken by Breasted in dealing with the Book of Abraham. There is no doubt that he could have translated most of the hieroglyphs if he had given himself the trouble, but, though he professed himself most interested in the problem, he never did. Why should he? He knew the answers already. Like every other American professor in 1912, he belonged to that school which firmly believed that evolution held all the answers, as Jean Garnot observes, basing their boldest speculations on implicit faith in the validity of analogies with biological evolution, sublimely confident that the evolutionary rule of thumb could give the perfect insight into the mind of the “primitive.”44 Thus he can assure us that “Set was doubtless some natural phenomenon, . . . and it is most probable that he was the darkness,” though no Egyptologist would write that way today.45 And he can tell us with convincing insight how copper was discovered when primitive man one morning noticed little beads of pure metal that had oozed from the rocks that banked his campfire somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula; it was not until 1945 that the Egyptologist Alfred Lucas called attention to the experiments of H. H. Coghlan, showing that it is quite impossible to smelt copper in any open fire.46

Breasted’s main argument against the Book of Abraham is that the Hebrews were monotheists and the Egyptians polytheists: both points have always been disputed among Egyptologists, some of the greatest being ardent defenders of a standard Egyptian monotheism, yet for Breasted the question is settled once he has spoken. When the Mormons pointed out that Breasted had identified as the lady Isis in Facsimile 1 a figure that other Egyptologists had called Horus, Anubis, or a priest, Dr. Breasted impatiently remarked to Mercer: “One man says fifty cents, another man says half a dollar!” But it isn’t the same at all; Isis and Horus are as different quantities as half a dollar and half a pound.

In our fatal year of 1912 Breasted completely misinterpreted many passages in the Egyptian wisdom literature, discovering among other things in them a “complaisant optimism” in a text that, Frankfort insists years later, “indicates no such thing, but represents, on the contrary, the deep religious conviction which inspired the ‘teachings.'”47 Errors due to the imperfect state of the evidence at one time are, of course, excusable—but they are nonetheless errors. Thus, of the great Ancient Records series, Alexander Scharff wrote in 1935, “Today we read many passages differently and more correctly.”48 “Unhappily,” wrote Sir Alan Gardiner in 1961, “in Breasted’s day our knowledge of Late-Egyptian syntax was not sufficiently advanced to enable him to translate the damaged introduction of the Turin papyrus correctly.”49 So as knowledge increases, the verdict of yesterday must be reversed today, and in the long run the most positive authority is the least to be trusted. Few have been more positive than Breasted, and in nothing was he more positive than in his attitude toward Joseph Smith’s pronouncements.

Friedrich Freiherr von Bissing

“Dr. Friedrich Freiherr von Bissing, Professor of Egyptology in the University of Munich” (fig. 23). Incredible as it may seem, there was one man in the world who actually surpassed Sayce, Petrie, Meyer, and Breasted in complete independence of thought and action, and that was the Freiherr von Bissing (1873—1956). Not yet 40 years old in 1912, he was richer than all the rest of them put together; already hailed as “the generous Maecenas of Egyptology,” von Bissing was rich enough not only to visit important excavations in Egypt when he chose, but also to finance them from his own pocket.50 Even more than the others, he traveled and dug and collected everywhere,51 “an archaeologist in the broadest sense of the word,” recognized as “the last scholar who could see the Mediterranean as a unit, familiar with everything down to the most insignificant potsherd.”52 “For us today,” wrote Hellmut Brunner, “it is simply inconceivable how one individual man could speak with equal authority on the etymology of the word ‘Pavian,’ the painting of el-Amarna, the fundamentals of Byzantine art, the structure of the personal pronouns in early Egyptian, or the exodus from Cnidus.”53

Von Bissing was proud of being a dilettante, and his numerous writings on all subjects almost all take the form of short notes of a few sentences.54 Most of them have to do with artistic history and criticism, which was his specialty, and allowed him to range as widely and speculate as freely as he chose.55 Both rich and noble, “he was an original, stamped from a unique mold, willing to face all consequences without regard to praise or disapproving head-shakes. . . . He went the way of his own convictions.”56

Here, then, we have an incorruptible judge—but was he an unbiased one? Hardly. Whatever his scientific convictions or scholarly integrity, he was a member of the nobility: throne and church always had first and unquestioned claim on his loyalty, and nothing could budge him from his commitment to them.57 In this he was much like the aristocratic Sayce, his scientific skepticism matched only by his uncompromising loyalty to a feudal society and a feudal religion—hardly the man to look with a kindly eye on the supernaturalism and humble simplicity of a Joseph Smith.58

As to von Bissing’s technical knowledge, his specialty was ancient art, especially Egyptian art, but even in that, Foucart maintains, “his conclusions go too far,”59 and in his archaeological one-sidedness he often shows poor judgment.60 Not surprisingly, he too often equated the old-fashioned or established view with the sound and safe one, insisting, for example, as late as the 1930s that there were no ties whatever between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia,61 and continuing to doubt the existence of the Hittites, whom he always puts in quotation marks. Even his approach to art was an old-fashioned, positivistic one, and he opened his Systematic Handbook of Egyptian Art with words that today seem hopelessly narrow: “A history of art must not be a history of culture.”62 For him, in fact, even the glories of Egyptian art were but a preparation for Greek art.63 Hidebound and opinionated to the point of rudeness, aristocratic and aloof, fiercely loyal to the views and interests of one church, impatient of any disagreement or contradiction—is this the man to give a cool and patient hearing to Joseph Smith? He never offers to tell us what the facsimiles are, but is completely satisfied that “every one figure is an absurdity,” and that whatever the inscriptions say (though he does not read them), “they cannot say what Smith thought.” His verdict is not surprising, but neither is it very convincing.

Second String

With the five giants accounted for, the other members of the team should not detain us long. But first, Théodule Devéria (1831—71, fig. 24) deserves a word of notice because he wrote the first, the longest, and the most carefully considered report on the facsimiles that has appeared to date.64 Bishop Spalding gives short shrift to Devéria because, as he explains, “unquestionably, this matter is far too important to depend on the opinion of a youthful amateur. Such an important matter deserves the thoughtful consideration of mature scholars—of the world’s ablest Orientalists.”65

Youthful? When Devéria wrote his study of the facsimiles he was 34—two years older than Mercer was when he did the same—fully matured and at the height of his powers.

Amateur? At 17, urged by the Egyptologist Jules Feuquières, Devéria had plunged into Egyptology while Charles Lenormand gave him Coptic lessons and August Harle, the best Hebraist of his time, pushed him in Hebrew. At 19 he retranslated an important manuscript formerly rendered by Champollion; at 23 he was publishing in Egyptology and in the following year became attached to the Department of Antiquities of the Louvre, where he produced the first complete catalogue ever made of a major Egyptian collection. Still in his twenties, he succeeded the great Auguste Mariette as conservator of the Egyptian museum in the Louvre and, according to de Rougé, produced a work on the Turin Papyrus that “placed Devéria among the masters.” It was only the jealousy of his superior at the museum, Mariette, that obscured his great contributions to Egyptology.66

Thoughtful consideration? Whereas Devéria wrote a long study, two of Spalding’s experts dashed off notes of a hundred words only, and five of them wrote less than a page.

World’s ablest Orientalists? Spalding deems superior to Devéria four men besides Mercer, whose combined output in Egyptology could not begin to approach that of the “youthful amateur.” We have already considered Dr. Mercer; how about the others?

“Dr. John Peters, University of Pennsylvania. [In charge of expedition to Babylonia, 1888—95].” In 1912 Dr. Peters (1852—1921) was pastor of a church in New York and had not been at the University of Pennsylvania for twenty years (fig. 25). When Spalding’s good friend, Professor Pack, discovered that Dr. Peters was not at the University of Pennsylvania as Spalding claimed, he was quite upset and wrote: “For an instant I was paralysed. . . . Could it be possible that Dr. Peters is not connected with the University of Pennsylvania, but is a rector in one of New York’s fashionable churches? No. I could not believe it. . . . You had led the public to believe that Dr. Peters is at the University of Pennsylvania.”67 So while he was back East Dr. Pack made a number of visits and inquiries and summed up the results thus: “Now, Dr. Spalding, this looks like plain deceit. Am I mistaken? Why did you lead the public to believe that Dr. Peters is at the University of Pennsylvania when you knew he left there twenty years ago? . . . Why did you hide from the public the fact that Dr. Peters is a rector in your own church and has been for twenty years.”68

To be sure, being the rector of anything need not prevent one from being also an Egyptologist, but Peters was never that. He had taught Hebrew at Pennsylvania for eight years, and he wrote popular books on the Bible and modern politics, but his name appears nowhere in connection with Egyptian studies. A career churchman, he had in 1912 just finished serving six years as canon-residentiary of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.69 He is another of those devoted churchmen who, like Sayce and Mercer, combine with the dignity of the cloth an intellectual contempt for the supernatural and an ill-concealed impatience with those who would interpret the Bible too literally. Dr. Peters, in fact, wrote a book showing that the ancient patriarchs were nothing but myths, legendary figures “generously clothed with personal traits by successive generations of narrators” by whom “striking episodes have been introduced into their stories and even romances which have no inherent connection with the original legends.”70 Along with “the racial and legendary elements,” the history of Abraham combines “features of a purely romantic character, for which we are to seek no other meaning than the fancy of the story-teller.”71

With such a view of Bible history, is Dr. Peters the man to give serious attention to the Book of Abraham as history? Peters’s ideas reflect the consensus of scholarly opinion in his day, and that of the Spalding jury in particular. At that time the establishment was solidly against the whole concept of the Book of Abraham.

“Dr. Arthur C. Mace, Assistant Curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Department of Egyptian Art” (fig. 26). Though he is not mentioned in any of the usual biographical sources nor in W. R. Dawson’s Who Was Who in Egyptology, 1910—1914, Dr. Mace (1874—1928) had been a student of Petrie and had worked with the Hearst collection in Berkeley before going to the Metropolitan.72 His chance for immortality came when Howard Carter, overwhelmed with work and expense on the tomb of Tutankhamun, asked for the assistance of a Metropolitan Museum crew who were working close by; Mace at the time was taking Dr. Lythgoe’s place in charge of the work, and on instructions from the latter he joined the Carter enterprise and thus had a part in the most sensational archaeological discovery of the century.73 Dr. Mace was an archaeologist and not a philologist. He assisted in the publication of discoveries by and for the museum, but when he came to inscriptions, even short and easy ones, he turned the work over to others.74 His one serious attempt to deal with documentary sources, a study called “The Influence of Egyptian on Hebrew Literature” (1922), is described by Raymond Weill as nothing but an inferior rehash of Herrman Gunkel’s work of 1909 on the same subject.75

“Dr. Albert M. Lythgoe, Head of the Department of Egyptian Art of the Metropolitan Museum” (fig. 27) should be added to the list, since Bishop Spalding intended to consult him instead of Arthur C. Mace, who was his understudy while he was abroad. Like Mace, Dr. Lythgoe (1868—1933) was a museum man and a collector who had been a pupil of Wiedemann at Bonn and assisted Reisner in the field. “His finest achievement,” according to his obituary, “was the arrangement of the Egyptian Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of New York.”76 Arranging collections is not the same thing as interpreting abstruse texts, and the long interview with Lythgoe in the New York Times reads almost like a burlesque of pompous scholarship: “To make clear just how great a hoax the Mormon prophet perpetrated upon his people,” Lythgoe explains to the reporters with magisterial ease exactly how Egyptian symbolism originated and just what Egyptian religion is all about, as he readily identifies solar hymns in the facsimiles and twice refers to Facsimile 1 as depicting the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham (fig. 28). The whole baffling complex presented “no puzzle to Dr. Lythgoe,” though his strange theories of Egyptian religion and his guesses about the facsimiles found no echo even among the other members of the Spalding panel.77

“Dr. George A. Barton.” When he was challenged by the Mormons, Bishop Spalding sought further support from the learned and got it from Professor Barton (1859—1942), acknowledged minister of the Society of Friends (orthodox) 1879—1922, deacon 1918, priest 1919, D.D. 1924.78 In 1912 Dr. Barton’s book, The Heart of the Christian Message, had just gone into its second printing. “Permit me first to say,” Professor Barton began his contribution to the Spalding cause, “that, while I have a smattering of Egyptology, I am not an Egyptologist”79—and indeed we have already seen what Dr. Mercer thought of Barton as an authority on Egypt.80 But he was a minister, thus bringing to five the number of non-Egyptologist ministers sitting in judgment as Egyptologists on Joseph Smith.

Barton believed that the “faker” Joseph Smith merely attempted to imitate Egyptian characters, the result being “untranslatable. . . . As they stand [they] do not faithfully represent any known writing.”81 As to the facsimiles, the experts disagree about them, Mr. Barton explained, because “these pictures were differently interpreted at times by the Egyptians themselves,” and some of the jury “have given the original interpretation of the symbolism, and some, the later Egyptian interpretations.”82 Odd, that that explanation should never have occurred to any of the experts themselves, who might have been very embarrassed had the Mormons chosen to exploit Professor Barton’s foolish remarks.

P.S.: In 1915 the University of Utah brought in Edgar J. Banks, “one of America’s most distinguished archaeologists,” to put the final seal of authority on the Spalding enterprise.83 Banks (1866—1941) had already sounded off on the subject in the Christian Herald in 1913, and it was duly reported through the pages of the prestigious Literary Digest that Dr. Spalding’s zeal had forever discredited Mormonism in the eyes of the more intelligent Mormons.84 Mr. Banks pictured himself in Who’s Who decidedly in the romantic tradition of Richard Haliburton. He had been U.S. consul in Baghdad in his youth, organized an expedition to excavate Ur, which, however, never got into the field, and claimed to have discovered in 1903 a “white statue of king David, a pre-Babylonian king of 4500 B.C. (oldest statue in the world).”85 While Spalding was working on his grand design in 1912, the dashing Banks, as he tells us, was climbing Ararat (17,210 feet high—he put that in Who’s Who too), and crossing the Arabian Desert on a camel (from where to where he does not say).86

It is amazing, unless one knows this type of glamor-mongering archaeologist, that Mr. Banks, after months in Salt Lake City as an expert on the subject, could come out with such howlers as that “Smith seems to have obtained the documents from a sea captain,”87 that it was the Mormon officials themselves who “willingly supplied Bishop Spalding with copies of [the inscriptions]” with the request that he investigate their authenticity,88 that hypocephali such as Facsimile 2 (of which fewer than fifty were known at the time) existed by the millions: “It has been estimated that something like 20,000,000 of Egyptian mummies have been discovered. . . . Beneath each mummy’s head, like a cushion, was a little disk of clay or papyrus, covered with mythological pictures. . . . The disks, found in great numbers, are nearly alike, varying only slightly with the period from which they come.”89 Banks also announced that Joseph Smith had never possessed any papyri at all but only such little plaster disks.90 Apparently nothing Mr. Banks could say was too absurd to be swallowed by the open-mouthed scholars on the Bench as long as the magic words science and progress were evoked with ritual regularity.91

We should not leave our experts without a word about Sir E. A. Wallis Budge (1857—1934, fig. 29), who in 1903 had agreed with his colleague Woodward at the British Museum in declaring the Prophet’s interpretation “bosh,” “rubbish.”92 This was a demonstration of Budge’s “ferocious bark, which could turn to biting if need be.”93 Others could bark back, however, and when Budge gave the Englishman Thomas Young priority over Champollion in the translation of Egyptian, an eminent French Egyptologist quoted Peter Renouf: “No person who knows anything of Egyptian philology can countenance so gross an error.”94 Jean Capart noted that the highest praise of Budge must also be his severest criticism—the phenomenal productivity for which he paid too high a price.95 Animated by the laudable objective of providing as many texts as possible for students and as many translations as possible for the public, Budge dashed off the longest list of publications in the entire scope of Who’s Who.96 To do this he followed no plan, paid no attention to the work of others, never indicated his sources; according to Capart, his interpretation of figures is extremely defective, “and his translations are full of completely erroneous ideas.”97 “I can categorically declare,” wrote the same critic, of Budge’s Gods of the Egyptians, “that it is bad.”98 As R. Campbell Thompson observed, Professor Budge was always “in too great a hurry to finish.”99 Will anyone maintain that he was not in a hurry, his old impulsive blustering self, when he offhandedly condemned the interpretations of the facsimiles?

Consider for a moment the scope and complexity of the materials with which the student must cope if he would undertake a serious study of the Book of Abraham’s authenticity. At the very least he must be thoroughly familiar with (1) the texts of the “Joseph Smith Papyri” identified as belonging to the Book of the Dead, (2) the content and nature of mysterious “Sen-sen” fragment, (3) the so-called “Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar” attributed to Joseph Smith, (4) statements by and about Joseph Smith concerning the nature of the Book of Abraham and its origin, (5) the original document of Facsimile 1 with its accompanying hieroglyphic inscriptions, (6) the text of the Book of Abraham itself in its various editions, (7) the three facsimiles as reproduced in various editions of the Pearl of Great Price, (8) Joseph Smith’s explanation of the facsimiles, (9) the large and growing literature of ancient traditions and legends about Abraham in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, etc., and (10) the studies and opinions of modern scholars on all aspects of the Book of Abraham.

There are two propositions regarding the Book of Abraham that none can deny. The one is that Joseph Smith could not possibly have known Egyptian as it is understood today. The other is that the Prophet has put down some remarkable things in the pages of the Book of Abraham. Why should we waste time on proposition number 1? It is proposition 2 that provides us at last with firm ground to stand on—and none of the critics has ever given it a moment’s thought!

What Joseph Smith tells us about Abraham in the book attributed to him can now be checked against a large corpus of ancient writings, unavailable to Joseph Smith, to which we shall often refer in the pages that follow. He has also given us, independent of any translated text, his interpretations of the three facsimiles. It is to these that we now address ourselves.

A hundred years ago Naville and Maspero agreed that “a philologically easily understood sentence, the words and grammar of which give us not the slightest difficulty,” often conveys ideas that completely escape all the experts, these being also the ideas behind the pictures.100 And today Professor Wilson and Anthes would concur in the same view. The latter calls attention to our “helplessness in the face of these mythological records,” both “texts and pictures,”101 while Dr. John A. Wilson suggests the amusing analogy of an Eskimo who had never heard of the Bible trying to make sense of the old hymn “Jerusalem the Golden.”

The Mormons were not slow in calling attention to this fatal limitation to the understanding of the facsimiles: “I repeat,” wrote Dr. John A. Widtsoe, “that something more must be done than to label a few of the figures Osiris, Isis or Anubis before Joseph Smith can be placed in ‘the same class of fakers as Dr. Cook.'”102 The mere names tell us nothing unless we can also tell “who and what were Isis and Horus and all the other gods of Egypt? Not by name and relationship, but as expressing the Egyptian’s vision of the known and the unknown, the past, the present and the hereafter?”103 Sjodahl and Webb asked similar questions, but the Mormons were ignored because they were not Egyptologists. Yet, shortly before, Georg Steindorff had written: “We know relatively little about Egyptian religion in spite of the abundance of pictures and religious texts of ancient Egypt which have come down to us. We know, it is true, the names and the appearances of a large number of divinities, we know in which sanctuaries they were honored, but until now we have but few notions about their nature, and the significance which the people and the priests gave to them and the legends attached to their persons.”104 And Jaroslav Černy can still write: “For the Old and Middle Kingdom there are hardly more than proper names to give us a glimpse into the beliefs of the common people and their relationship with the gods,”105 while Jéquier points out that the “shocking contradictions” in the interpretation of religious imagery “show us that we have not yet found the truth.”106 There is nothing for it, says Jéquier, but for each scholar to continue on his way, “each interpreting in his own manner and according to his means . . . and so gradually penetrate the mystery of the Egyptian religions.”107 These were the very points that the Mormons were trying to make and that the opposition, determined at any price to give the impression of great and definitive knowledge, quietly ignored.


1. F. L. Griffith, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” JEA 19 (1934): 66.

2. Thus Stephen H. Langdon, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” Archiv für Orientforschung  8 (1932): 342.

3. Griffith, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” 65.

4. Langdon, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” 341.

5. Griffith, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” 66, 65.

6. Langdon, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” 341.

7. A. H. Sayce, Monument Facts and Higher Critical Fancies (New York: Revell, 1904), 118.

8. A. H. Sayce, “The Antiquity of Civilized Man,” Smithsonian Report (1931): 518—19.

9. Ibid., 518.

10. Ibid., 529.

11. Ibid., 528.

12. Ibid., 517, 520.

13. Griffith, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” 65.

14. Ibid., 66.

15. “Nécrologie,” CdE 9 (1933): 283.

16. The one exception is an inscription from Aswan of only six characters, of which Sayce writes, “The inscription on the left reads, I think, ‘Beloved of Khnum the Great, the Lord of the country of Râ-nefer.’ . . . In the inscription on the right the island of Senem appears to be mentioned.” The inscription on the right was much the longer one, yet no attempt is made to translate it. A. H. Sayce, “Gleanings from the Land of Egypt, § IV,” RT 15 (1893): 147. See Greek inscription, “This I venture to translate,” in ibid., 148. Cf. A. H. Sayce, “Gleanings from the Land of Egypt, § V” RT 16 (1894): 167—76; Sayce, “Gleanings from the Land of Egypt, § VI” RT 17 (1895): 160—64; Sayce, “Gleanings from the Land of Egypt, § X—XII,” RT 20 (1898): 169—76; Sayce, “Gleanings from the Land of Egypt, § I and III,” RT 13 (1890): 62—67, 187—91.

17. Langdon, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” 341.

18. H. R. Hall, review of The Religion of Ancient Egypt, by A. H. Sayce, JEA 1 (1915): 77.

19. Langdon, “Archibald Henry Sayce,” 341—42.

20. Guy Brunton, “William Matthew Flinders Petrie,” ASAE 43 (1943): 4.

21. Ibid., 5.

22. Ibid., 4—5.

23. Ibid., 13.

24. Ibid., 5.

25. Ibid., 13.

26. Ibid., 4.

27. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th ed., s.v. “Petrie, Sir (William Matthew) Flinders.”

28. W. M. Flinders Petrie, Personal Religion in Egypt before Christianity (New York: Harper, 1909), 22.

29. Ibid., 37.

30. His education is described by Walter Otto, “Eduard Meyer und sein Werk,” Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft 85 (1931): 6; his unique aptitude and personality in ibid., 1—3.

31. Ibid., 8.

32. Some of Meyer’s accomplishments are listed in ibid., 11—22.

33. Ibid., 5; 6 n. 2.

34. Otto, “Eduard Meyer und sein Werk,” 20.

35. Eduard Meyer, Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: Niemeyer, 1912), 1.

36. Otto, “Eduard Meyer und sein Werk,” 21.

37. Editorial in ZÄS 72 (1936): flyleaf.

38. Ibid., (ii), and Gustave Jéquier, review of Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, by James H. Breasted, Sphinx 17 (1913): 148—49.

39. Hans Bonnet compares Breasted to Kees, in review of Totenglauben und Jenseitsvorstellungen der alten Ägypter, by Hermann Kees, Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft 81 (1927): 179, 183; see also Jéquier, review of Development of Religion and Thought, 148—50.

40. See Jéquier, review of Development of Religion and Thought, 149; and George Foucart, review of Ancient Records of Egypt, by James H. Breasted, Sphinx 11 (1908): 40—42, who is particularly outspoken.

41. Foucart, review of Ancient Records of Egypt, 42.

42. Ibid.; Jéquier, review of Development of Religion and Thought, 148—49.

43. Foucart, review of Ancient Records of Egypt, 42; Jéquier, review of Development of Religion and Thought, 148—49.

44. Jean S. F. Garnot, La vie religieuse dans l’ancienne Égypte (Paris: Presses universitaires, 1948), 107—9.

45. James H. Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), 40.

46. Alfred Lucas, “The Origin of Early Copper,” JEA 31 (1945): 96—97.

47. Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), 64.

48. Alexander Scharff, “Nekrologe,” Jahrbuch der bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaft 6 (1935—36): 1—2.

49. Alan H. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1961), 291.

50.    Thadée Smolenski, “O dzisiejszym stanie badan egiptologicznych (État actuel des recherches égyptologiques),” Bulletin international de l’Académie des Sciences de Cracovie 6—7 (1906): 77.

51. Hellmut Brunner, “Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bissing,” Archiv für Orientforschung  17 (1955): 484.

52. Ibid., 485.

53. Ibid.

54. For a complete bibliography of his writings, see “Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing: Verzeichnis seiner Schriften (1895—1956),” compiled by Ingrid Wallert in ZÄS 84 (1959): 1—16; and “Verzeichnis der Verfasser und ihrer Arbeiten: Bissing, F. W. V.,” in a listing of authors and their contributions during the first 100 years of the Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, in ZÄS 89 (1964): 3—4.

55.    The vast range of his studies on art is discussed in “Grußwort an Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherrn von Bissing zum 22. April 1953,” ZÄS 79 (1954): 1.

56. Brunner, “Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bissing,” 485.

57. Ibid. In 1922 von Bissing became a voluntary exile for political reasons, in ibid., 484.

58. On his skepticism, ibid., 485.

59. George Foucart, review of Denkmäler ägyptischer Sculptur Lieferung 3, by Fr. W. Freiherr von Bissing, Sphinx 11 (1908): 89.

60. Ibid., 93—94.

61. Friedrich W. von Bissing, “Probleme der ägyptischen Vorgeschichte,” Archiv für Orientforschung 7 (1931—32): 24—30.

62. Herbert Senk, “Ägyptische Kunstgeschichte, zur Problematik ihrer Erforschung,” Orientalische Literaturzeitung 58 (1963): 6.

63. Ibid., 7.

64. Théodule Devéria, “Fragments de manuscrits funéraires égyptiens considérés par les Mormons comme les mémoires autographes d’Abraham,” BE 4 (1896): 195—202; see also Théodule Devéria, “Spécimen de l’interprétation des écritures de l’ancienne Égypte,” BE 4 (1896): 165—93.

65. Franklin S. Spalding, Joseph Smith, Jr., as a Translator (1912; reprint, Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, 1965), 19.

66. All this from the biography by his brother, Gabriel Devéria, “Notice Biographique de Théodule Devéria (1831—1871),” BE 4 (1896): i—xlviii.

67. Franklin S. Spalding quoted in Frederick J. Pack, “An Open Question to Dr. Spalding,” IE 16 (1913): 703—4.

68. Ibid., 704.

69. Albert N. Marquis, ed., Who’s Who in America (Chicago: Marquis, 1912), 1648.

70. John P. Peters, Early Hebrew Story: Its Historical Background (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 129.

71. Ibid.

72. Mace’s work on mummy bandages while with the Hearst Egyptological expedition of the University of California is noted by G. Elliot Smith, “An Account of the Mummy of a Priestess of Amen Supposed to Be Ta-Usert-Em-Suten-Pa,” ASAE 7 (1906): 157.

73. Howard Carter and Arthur C. Mace, The Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen, 3 vols. (New York: Doran, 1923), 1:156—58.

74. Arthur C. Mace and Herbert E. Winlock, The Tomb of Senebtisi at Lisht (New York: Gilliss, 1916), 35, n. 1: “The greater part of these translations is due to the kindness of Dr. Alan H. Gardiner.” Since the only inscriptions in the tomb were very short and easy ones, one wonders why Dr. Gardiner was needed to translate “the greater part” of them, and how much would be left to the genius of Dr. Mace. So also Carter and Mace, Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen, 1:109: “Dr. Alan Gardiner kindly undertook to deal with any inscriptional material that might be found.”

75. Raymond Weill, “Les transmissions littéraires d’Égypte à Israël,” Cahier complémentaire à la Revue d’Égyptologie (1950): 48.

76. Obituary of Albert M. Lythgoe in JEA 20 (1934): 107.

77. Editorial, “Museum Walls Proclaim Fraud of Mormon Prophet,” New York Times, 29 December 1912, pt. 5:1.

78. Albert N. Marquis, ed., Who’s Who in America (1924—25) (Chicago: Marquis, 1924), 331.

79. George A. Barton, quoted in Franklin S. Spalding, “Rev. Spalding’s Answer to Dr. Widtsoe,” IE 16 (1913): 613.

80.    Hugh W. Nibley, “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” IE 71 (May 1968): 57; reprinted in this volume, pp. 99—100.

81. Barton, quoted in Spalding, “Rev. Spalding’s Answer to Dr. Widtsoe,” 614.

82. Ibid.

83. Quotation is from a Christian Herald article citing Edgar J. Banks in “The Revolt of Young Mormonism,” Literary Digest 51 (10 July 1915): 67, where also Banks is quoted: “Lately I have been delivering a series of lectures under the auspices of one of the departments of the University of Utah.”

84. Ibid., 66: “The knowledge of such facts is working like a leaven. . . . The Board of Regents of the University of Utah, avers Professor Banks, is ‘predominantly Mormon’ and ‘making desperate efforts to check the growth of progress.'”

85. Marquis, ed., Who’s Who in America (1924—25), 303.

86. Ibid., 303—4.

87. Banks, cited in “The Revolt of Young Mormonism,” 66.

88. Ibid.

89. Edgar J. Banks, cited in Sterling B. Talmage, “Letter and a ‘Protest against Misrepresentation,'” IE 16 (1913): 774.

90. “The inscriptions are not upon papyrus, but upon small clay objects,” in Banks, cited in “The Revolt of Young Mormonism,” 66.

91. See his sanguine remarks quoted in Talmage, “A Letter and a ‘Protest Against Misrepresentation,'” 774—75. “At the close of one of the lectures a bright young Mormon student accompanied me to the club where I was stopping. He asked about Joseph Smith’s translation of the Egyptian inscriptions, for he remembered the discussion of two years ago. He is now a Mormon only in name. A Mormon gentleman . . . showed me about the Temple grounds. He was ashamed of his religion . . . and he represents the younger generation of the Mormons.” Banks, cited in “The Revolt of Young Mormonism,” 67.

92. Reported in Junius F. Wells, “Scholars Disagree,” IE 16 (1913): 342, reprinted from Junius F. Wells, “Letter to the Editor,” Deseret Evening News, 19 December 1912, 4.

93. R. Campbell Thompson, “Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge,” JEA 21 (1935): 69.

94. Ernst Andersson, review of A Guide to the Egyptian Collections in the British Museum, by E. A. Wallis Budge, Sphinx 12 (1909): 237.

95. Jean Capart, Bulletin critique des religions de l’Égypte (Leiden: Brill, 1939), 25.

96. Thompson, “Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge,” 69.

97. Capart, Bulletin critique des religions de l’Égypte, 28.

98. Ibid., 25.

99. Thompson, “Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge,” 68—69, noting that Budge “early relinquished” the writing of articles and turned out instead about 120 Oriental books. His work “undeniably does show this haste.”

100. Édouard H. Naville, Das aegyptische Todtenbuch der XVIII. bis XX. Dynastie, Einleitung (Berlin: Asher, 1886), 2; Gaston Maspero, “Stèles funéraires de la XIIe Dynastie,” BE 1 (1893): 22.

101. Rudolph Anthes, review of The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon, by Alexandre Piankoff, Artibus Asiae 20 (1957): 92.

102. John A. Widtsoe, “Dr. Widtsoe’s Reply to Rev. Spalding,” IE 16 (1913): 618.

103. John A. Widtsoe, “Comments on the Spalding Pamphlet,” IE 16 (1913): 457.

104. Georg Steindorff, “Religion of the Ancient Egyptians,” in Karl Baedeker, Egypt and the Sudan: Handbook for Travelers, 6th ed. (Leipzig: Baedeker, 1908), cxii—cxxvi.

105.   Jaroslav Černy, Ancient Egyptian Religion (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1952), 54.

106.   Gustave Jéquier, Considérations sur les religions Égyptiennes (Neuchatel: Baconniere, 1946), 7.

107. Ibid., 8.