Fact-checking Mormon History: Did Charles Anthon Authenticate Joseph’s Translation of Reformed Egyptian Characters?

Early in 1828, Joseph Smith wrote out some characters from the gold plates that Martin Harris took to classical scholar Charles Anthon. We have five accounts of this trip; two from Joseph, two from Anthon, and a secondhand account from Charles Butler, from whom Harris attempted to borrow money for publishing the Book of Mormon. The accounts agree about very little beyond the bare fact that the visit occurred.

Charles Anthon. Photo via Brent Metcalfe

Joseph Smith, 1832

Chronologically, the first account that we have was written by Joseph in 1832 (with spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing modernized):

Because of his faith… the Lord appeared unto [Martin Harris] in a vision and showed unto him his marvelous work which he was about to do. He immediately came to Susquehanna and said the Lord had shown him that he must go to New York City with some of the characters, so we proceeded to copy some of them.
And he took his journey to the Eastern Cities 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, and thus the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled which is written in the 29 chapter concerning the book.

David Whitmer identified this “Caractors” document as the one that Harris took with him:

Image from the Joseph Smith Papers

Joseph Smith, 1838

In 1838, Joseph Smith narrated a more elaborate description as part of what would become the canonized Joseph Smith: History, this time in Harris’s voice:

I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; 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. Anthon 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 Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.

Some differences in the two accounts stand out:

  1. In 1832, Joseph only says that Martin took “some of the characters.” In 1838, this is expanded to include a translation. If a such a translation was made, it has not survived.
  2. In 1832, Joseph records that Anthon told Harris that he could not read the document (but was willing to try to decipher the original, which would provide a much larger body of material to work from). In 1838, Joseph recounts a glowing endorsement from Anthon of the characters’ authenticity and Joseph’s translation.
  3. Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill is named for the first time as corroborating Anthon’s certification. More on Mitchill later.

There are a few reasons to be skeptical of the expanded details in 1838:

  1. At the time Joseph wrote this account, Martin Harris had left the church following the meltdown in Kirtland. Thus, despite being characterized as Harris’s own words, it was probably Joseph’s ten year old memory of a second hand account.
  2. Nobody alive could truthfully claim to read Egyptian in 1828. As Mormon scholar Stanley Kimball noted, “Champollion himself was just beginning to ‘break’ the language and could actually translate little more than royal titles and demonstrate the inner relations between the hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic systems with Coptic.” Would Anthon really have certified to Martin, in writing, the correctness of a translation he could not verify? Joseph’s 1832 account, in which Anthon said he could not read it, is more believable.
  3. The gold plates would not have contained “Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic” writing as well as Egyptian, nor does the very distinct Arabic script resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs whatsoever. Either Joseph or Harris is embellishing here.
  4. The “I cannot read a sealed book” conversation is implausible, either at the time or in retrospect: if God commands that part of the plates are to remain sealed, then only the unsealed part must be translated. This looks like another embellishment added with the passing of time to make the story correspond better with Joseph’s interpretation of Isaiah 29:11 / 2N 27:15–18. (I will not examine the details of how Joseph takes Isaiah out of context, but I give a source for learning more in the Further Reading section.) The original manuscript of JSH corroborates this inference: it can be seen that the dialogue around a sealed book was added during editing, and was not part of the original narration:
Detail of Joseph Smith History, 1838–1856, volume A-1, p 11

Charles Anthon, 1834

The first explanation we have from Charles Anthon was written when Eber Howe began his investigation of Mormonism. Howe heard of Joseph’s claims to have shown a copy of Book of Mormon characters to Anthon, and contacted the scholar for an account of his conversation with Harris.

Anthon replied to Howe,

Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper, which the farmer would hand me, and which Dr. M. confessed he had been unable to understand. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax
I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money [Joseph was relying on Harris to fund the publication of the Book], and I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues. He requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving, and he then took his leave carrying the paper with him.
This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calender given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived. I am thus particular as to the contents of the paper, inasmuch as I have frequently conversed with my friends of the subject, since the Mormonite excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained any thing else but “Egyptian Hieroglyphics.”

It is notable that Anthon’s description of Harris’s copy does not match the Caractors document. This is the primary reason some scholars believe that the transcript taken to Anthon is lost, and the Caractors represents another copy of Book of Mormon symbols made by Joseph at some point. (This is also why Mark Hofmann was able to sell a forgery matching Anthon’s description before his fraud was discovered.) More recently, some scholars have concluded that the handwriting in “Caractors” more closely resembles John Whitmer’s, than Joseph’s.

Charles Anthon, 1841

John Clark records in Gleanings by the Way that

The Rev. Dr. Coit, Rector of Trinity Church, New Rochelle, West Chester county, N. Y., hearing that the Mormons in that place “were claiming the patronage of Professor Anthon’s name in behalf of their notions, took the liberty to state the fact to him, and ask in what possible way they had contrived to associate him with themselves.”

Anthon responded to Coit as follows:

A plain looking countryman called upon me with a letter from Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell requesting me to examine, and give my opinion upon, a certain paper, marked with various characters, which the Doctor confessed he could not decipher, and which the bearer of the note was very anxious to have explained. A very brief examination of the paper convinced me that it was a mere hoax, and a very clumsy one too. The characters were arranged in columns, like the Chinese mode of writing, and presented the most singular medley that I ever beheld. Greek, Hebrew and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, either through unskilfulness or from actual design, were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects, and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac. The conclusion was irresistible, that some cunning fellow had prepared the paper in question for the purpose of imposing upon the countryman who brought it, and I told the man so without any hesitation…
On my telling the bearer of the paper that an attempt had been made to impose on him and defraud him of his property, he requested me to give him my opinion in writing about the paper which he had shown to me. I did so without hesitation, partly for the man’s sake, and partly to let the individual “behind the curtain” see that his trick was discovered. The import of what I wrote was, as far as I can now recollect, simply this, that the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetical characters, and had, in my opinion, no meaning at all connected with them. The countryman then took his leave, with many thanks, and with the express declaration that he would in no shape part with his farm, or embark in the speculation of printing the golden book.

The most notable aspect of this account is that here Anthon does admit giving Harris an opinion in writing, even though he describes that opinion as entirely disparaging. As in his first letter to Howe, Anthon wants to reader to believe that he came immediately to the conclusion that the thing was a hoax or a fraud.

But Anthon’s account cannot necessarily be taken at face value either. It is an incontrovertible fact that after his trip to New York, Harris returned to Palmyra and mortgaged his farm to pay for the publication of the Book of Mormon. (Harris would end up having to sell part of the farm to pay off the mortgage after the Book of Mormon sales flopped. This also ended up costing him his marriage, as his wife Lucy was convinced that he was the victim of a hoax and refused to have anything to do with Mormonism.) It is unlikely that Harris would have done so if Anthon had been as forceful in arguing that the transcription was a hoax as he claimed to be years later.

Charles Butler, 1831

Journalist James Gordon Bennett reported in the Morning Courier & New-York Enquirer a brief account that Charles Butler got from Martin Harris. (Bennett’s article is not overall sympathetic to the Church, but he avoids the temptation to editorialize in his account of the Harris/Anthon exchange.)

Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket, went to the city of New York, and called upon one of the Professors of Columbia College [presumably Anthon] for the purpose of showing them to him. Harris says that the Professor thought them very curious, but admitted that he could not decypher them. Said he to Harris, “Mr. Harris you had better go to the celebrated Dr. Mitchell and show them to him. He is very learned in these ancient languages, and I have no doubt will be able to give you some satisfaction.” “Where does he live,” asked Harris. He was told, and off he posted with the engravings from the Golden Plates to submit to Dr. Mitchell. Harris says that the Doctor received him very “purlitely,” looked at his engravings — made a learned dissertation on them — compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered [by] Champollion in Egypt — and set them down as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more.

This earliest account agrees that Anthon could not “decypher” Harris’s transcript. But as Richard Bennett points out, Butler’s account suggests “the intriguing possibility that historians for all these many years have viewed the whole story in reverse.” That is, that Mitchill rather than Anthon was the focus of his trip. In Joseph’s and Butler’s accounts, Harris visits Mitchill after Anthon, while Anthon has him visiting Mitchill first. Bennett writes,

Anthon was a grammarian, a promising but youthful scholar who knew virtually nothing about Egyptian, Reformed Egyptian, or whatever kind of writings or characters were on the “Anthon Transcript.” It was natural and credible that he would refer Harris to the more prominent senior scholar, Samuel L. Mitchill. Third, the statement that Mitchill “compared” the transcript which Harris brought him with “other hieroglyphics” conforms to what we now know of Mitchill. He not only had many such writings on hand in his cabinets of antiquities but had also translated ancient writings for others.

Unfortunately, Mitchill died in late 1831 without recounting his own memory of this visit to anyone.

Verdict

Joseph’s 1838 claim that Charles Anthon certified Joseph’s translation as correct is not credible:

  1. Anthon did not have the ability in 1828 to read Egyptian, so he could not have certified a translation from Egyptian or an Egyptian-derived language even if he wanted to do so.
  2. Anthon’s accounts, Butler’s, and Joseph’s own earliest account all agree that Anthon told Harris that he could not read the transcript.
  3. Other parts of Joseph’s 1838 History, both with respect to Anthon and with other parts of the account like Joseph’s employment as a treasure seer, show signs of being later embellishments or distortions.

However, it is unlikely that Anthon was as discouraging to Harris in 1828 as he told Howe and Coit years later. Most likely, Anthon told Harris (possibly in writing) that the characters looked like authentic ancient writing of some kind, and that he would be interested in examining the original source. It is also likely that after learning about the origins of the document he became genuinely concerned that Harris was a victim of fraud.

Further Reading

  1. Stanley B. Kimball, “The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems.” Writing in BYU Studies, Kimball authored the first serious study of the Anthon trip. Kimball is generally inclined to take Joseph’s 1838 account at face value, but notes that “Joseph Smith was only reporting what Martin Harris said happened.” He concludes that the most likely explanation is “Anthon and Mitchill merely recognized the characters as some form of Egyptian” and that “whatever they said respecting the correctness of the translations cannot be taken too seriously.”
  2. Richard E. Bennett, “‘Read This I Pray Thee’: Martin Harris and the Three Wise Men of the East.” Bennett is primarily concerned with fleshing out the biographies of Anthon, Mitchill, and minor character Luther Bradish. To my knowledge Bennett is the first historian to follow Butler’s account in suggesting that Mitchill was actually the central figure in Harris’s conversations.
  3. Robert N. Hullinger, Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism, chapter 7. Hullinger reports several additional contemporary, second-hand accounts that agree that Anthon could not and did not authenticate a translation of the characters, and a much later (1873) account from Martin Harris that claims that he did.
  4. David P. Wright, “Joseph Smith’s Interpretation of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.” Covers how Joseph turned “the simile of a sealed book in [Isaiah 29] vv. 11–12 into a prediction of the Book of Mormon.”