Your Friday Firestorm #36

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.

(Joseph Smith – History 1:64-65)



  1. Floyd the Wonderdog says:

    Was it because Professor Anthon realized that Joseph Smith was from the country and, as everyone knows, people from New York are smarter than those from the country?

  2. I know a lot of people who take a cynical view of this episode but I can’t help but believe Martin Harris’s tale here. I just don’t think he was lying that this happened.

    One interesting counter-explanation that I’ve heard is that Anthon was just concerned that Harris was being ripped off by Joseph Smith.

  3. but I can’t help but believe Martin Harris’s tale here. I just don’t think he was lying that this happened.

    I also believe Martin’s account. If he were lying, one would have to question his sanity when upon his return he immediately put up as collateral a portion of his family farm so that the Book of Mormon could be published. Martin had plenty of opportunities to opt out of any Joseph Smith conspiracy re: The Book of Mormon. Yet, he stuck it out–even through ex-communication–remaining true to his ultimate testimony as one of the three witnesses.

  4. jf, that’s Anthon’s account. somewhat sanctimoniously he said that he was just looking out for this country bumpkin in his office. someone should post anthon’s response.

    i see this episode as crucial to the definition of seerhood, and I suspect that they were explicitly and consciously trying to live out Isaiah 29. I think the reason Harris undertook the trip was to see whether he could fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. All he needed was for a scholar to say “I can’t read a sealed book” and he had all the confirmation he needed.

    even if we believe harris’s account completely, it’s not clear what to do with it. An 1820s language scholar said “these letters look old but I can’t translate them”? The only relevance this could possibly have to whether the Book of Mormon is true is as a fulfillment of Isaiah 29, and that’s what they set out to prove. Incidentally, even if Anthon’s account is true, it also has nothing particular to do with the truth of the Book of Mormon. Just because an 1820s language scholar said he thought the characters looked like a combination of several ancient scripts doesn’t mean the plates were faked. It just means he thought the ancient script looked like other ancient scripts, which is how most of us deal with new patterns, by relating them to familiar ones.

    I see the whole debate as a tempest in a teapot distracting from the main issue, which is understanding how early LDS understood themselves to be fulfilling Biblical prophecy at every turn and their deep suspicion of Protestants and academics. I actually think that both accounts have a lot of truth in them. Getting yourself correctly understood by reporters, let alone rural visionaries, as an academic speaking outside your core competencies, is incredibly hard. Understanding a self-important Columbia professor as a rural visionary from the burned-over district is also quite hard.

    I imagine something like the following exchange.

    Harris: What are these symbols?
    Anthon: they look like a combination of various ancient scripts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. Are there more of them? Where did you get them?
    Harris: They’re from a sealed book discovered in my hometown.
    Anthon: what do you mean? Can you show me the entire book?
    Harris: It’s sealed.
    Anthon: well, i can’t help you if your book is sealed, now can I?
    Harris: [converted, says to himself, “the Bible prophecy really is being fulfilled. Thank heavens I have lived to see this day”] Well Joseph Smith can read the sealed book.
    Anthon: long tirade about how Joseph Smith must be a fraud
    Harris: you thought they were real before, and now that you hear they’re from a prophet you’ve decide they’re false. i think you are kicking against the pricks.
    Anthon: I never said that
    Harris: [heads off to fund the printing of the Book of Mormon]

  5. Possibly. It’s kind of like accusations that Evangelicals are enthusiastic about provoking chaos in the Middle East so as to play a role in ushering in the cataclysmic end-times events.

  6. jf, except that ultra-neocon evangelicals Armageddon-baiting are fairly malignant, and Harris was just finding evidence that the Book of Mormon was true.

  7. John, aren’t those latter accusations correct? I mean, I know that some Evangelicals definitely are. And there’s an overall heightened sense of apocalypse-awareness… but still.

    Sam, I tend to agree with your take on how things went down, at least in terms of your read of Anthon-as-villain. Besides, in terms of understanding the scripts — Champollion was what, 1822? Anthon would not have been able to translate or understand the writings, even were they authentic (although he would have been able to establish their authenticity).

  8. My reservation is that the way the first paragraph in Harris’s account reads, it’s actually quite hard to read smb’s take on how the actual conversation went down into it. Harris already covers what was said by whom when.

  9. If Martin Harris had all the confirmation of the fulfillment of Isaiah 29 during his interchange with Professor Anthon, why did he go see Dr. Mitchell afterwards for a second opinion? Wouldn’t he just have gone back to Palmyra?

  10. i see this episode as crucial to the definition of seerhood, and I suspect that they were explicitly and consciously trying to live out Isaiah 29. I think the reason Harris undertook the trip was to see whether he could fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. All he needed was for a scholar to say “I can’t read a sealed book” and he had all the confirmation he needed.

    This is a very interesting take, Sam. I guess I have always assumed Bushman’s take that it was later on that they viewed this as fulfilling prophesy. I’m gonna have to give it more thought.

  11. Do we have Anthon’s account? This all seems a little too convenient.
    “Yes, these characters are exactly what you said they were, and here’s a certificate to show all your friends to help convince them”.
    “Wait, you say they’re from an angel, give that certificate back, I can’t read a sealed book”.
    “Now leave with nothing but your word that I certified them as real, as well as fulfilling prophecy”.

    Or am I just showing my lack of faith in this area?

  12. I’ll agree the language between the prophecy and the Harris-Anton encounter are too similar not to suspect an intended scenario. The question of why Harris went to Dr. Mitchell afterward, however, sufficiently persuades me it wasn’t. I do wonder, though, in the discovery of the Isaiah prophecy afterward, if the conversation wasn’t recalled and documented with slightly more fitting wording.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Anthon’s account of the meeting is recorded in two later letters he wrote. Both are published by B.H. Roberts in his Comprehensive History (1930); I”m not sure whether they are available on the internet, but they probably are.

    Here is an interesting speculation about their conversation from John Welch (attention smb: it is based on a WW Phelps letter).

  14. Footnotes 5 and 6 feature links to the relevant CHC material and Stan Kimball’s BYUS article, which reviews other accounts.

  15. Like Sam MB, if I’m interpreting him correctly, I think that this must correctly interpret Martin Harris’s perceptions of what happened. Harris was too persuaded by the event to have concocted it from whole cloth. But I’m also sure that Anthon couldn’t have actually said at any point that the characters were genuine. Anthon was a really smart guy and knew his stuff. If he saw a version of characters like the ones that we have modern copies of, he would certainly have immediately realized that they weren’t consistent with any known ancient script, but that they had a bunch of things that looked like poorly-drawn versions of Greek and various other ancient characters.

    I think the key to this whole episode is the person of Martin Harris. My sense of the man from church and other sources is that he was sincere, pious, and not notable for his intelligence. It’s pretty easy to imagine that he wouldn’t make fine distinctions between someone saying something like “poorly drawn mishmash of characters from a bunch of different ancient scripts, plus some characters that look like somebody made them up on the spot” and “genuine ancient characters.”

  16. Name (required) says:

    presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof

    -Had translation been done at this point? (Are there other references that translation had been done at this time, or is this the only source?)
    -Are these translated ‘characters’ or translated ‘words’?

    Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian.

    -How would Anthon know? Did he know Egyptian? If not, was he just making things up? If not, was Martin making things up?

    This was actually Joseph’s account, right? Do we have an actual account from Martin?

  17. Steve Evans says:

    Name, JS was pasting in Martin Harris’ account.

  18. This is a complete aside, but it really gets my goat that John Welch makes such a big deal of differences in the two Anthon letters (written 7 years apart) but yet minimizes the differences in accounts of the first vision.

    I do think that he makes a good point however, in that it certainly could have been this interaction that introduced the term “reformed Egyptian” into mormon vernacular, as well as the term “shorthand Egyptian” used in the WW Phelps letter.

    But yet I just don’t find it be sufficient proof. I can see all sorts of places in Sam MB’s script where either or both terms could have bee used by Anthon.

    I have always viewed the Harris-Anthon interaction as a complete “he said – he said” situation. They both had reasons to stretch the truth of what occurred, whether intentionally or based on their perception and preconceptions.

    Why did JS copy the characters for Harris to take? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to take a charcoal rubbing of a whole plate? They were etchings after all.

  19. The two verses in JS-H immediately preceeding these reads:

    62 By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following.
    63 Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

    It is certainly probable that Harris had the translation and the characters. If he hadn’t, why would JS have left that part in the history?

  20. Does anyone really believe Anthon could have translated any of this at that time? I doubt he could read even one sentence.

  21. a) it’s just not fair to assume that Martin Harris was a court stenographer. he was constructing a narrative. The problem is that, with marked presentism, we’re reading into his story the standards of “journalistic” reporting that we believe ought to obtain. I’m not being postmodern, I’m arguing that if we’re after Truth we have to understand how people reconstructed conversations then. I suspect that the story got steadily more impressive as he retold it to Joseph Smith and the others. I’m pretty convinced that he did believe very early on that he was fulfilling scripture.
    b) i believe the ex post facto fulfillment explanation isn’t correct. the BoM itself sees itself as fulfilling Isaiah 29.
    c) as for the visits to Mitchell, I don’t see them as sufficiently distinct to argue what has been argued above.
    d) Martin Harris was an odd duck.

    I’ll read the Phelps letter. thanks, Kevin.

  22. Anthon didn’t read Egyptian though he would have recognized hieroglyphs.
    Smith was adamant that his script was not typical Egyptian, so it’s not a relevant point.

  23. The Welch argument is interesting but not particularly convincing. Thanks for the notice.

  24. JS was pasting in Martin Harris’ account.

    Yes, but at the time he was using MSWord95 and Windows ME, which was a notorious combination for bugs.

  25. smb,

    Im more addressing the statement that Anthon said the translation was correct which while he may have said it, I hardly believe he had any idea whether it was correct or not. he obviously could recognize glyphs whether they appeared like standard glyphs, heiratic, or demotic. I am just skeptical that he had any knowledge more than yes these look Egyptian.

  26. Im more addressing the statement that Anthon said the translation was correct which while he may have said it, I hardly believe he had any idea whether it was correct or not.

    He could have been looking over the glyphs and the translation and been noting some obvious structural consistencies, as well as some glyphs that were similar enough to known symbols. In other words, he could have been making a very educated guess as to whether ir not the translation was correct.

  27. Kevin Barney says:

    Years ago I was walking down the hallway at church when the other ward’s mission leader grabbed me and dragged me into the little interview room adjacent to the stake offices. Sitting there was a beautiful young woman in tears. She was a recent convert (or maybe investigator; I forget), and her mother was very antagonistic to the Church. Her mum had told her that Anthon wouldn’t have been able to read Egyptian. The WML was flummoxed and didn’t know what to say, and this girl’s faith was crashing down around her.

    I remember telling her matter of factly, “Oh, I agree with your mother.” I also recall the look of total shock on both her face and that of the WML. I don’t recall the details of what I said after that (I’m sure I waxed pedantic!), but I probably talked all about Champollion and the timing and Anthon and his classical encyclopedia and on and on. The upshot was that the failure of a common Mormon argument for the BoM–that Anthon had somehow authenticated the translation–does not constitute an argument against the authenticity of the BoM.

    I don’t think she cared a whit about the specific arguments, she was just relieved that this wasn’t somehow new information that was a death knell to the truthfulness of the Church, that someone who just happened to be walking down the hall would know all about it.

    After talking for just a few minutes, this young woman sat there smiling, beaming in fact, through her still tear-stained eyes. It was the most beautiful smile you could ever imagine.

    (And that, my friends, is why I’m involved in apologetics.)

  28. strong work, Kevin. I salute you.

  29. Did Martin know about the prophecy beforehand? If so, that may have influenced the exchange. Just like if I’m a prophet in Jerusalem with the world trying to kill me, I would know that I can kill people with fire and that eventually they will kill me, and my body will lie in the streets…

    I don’t remember hearing about Dr. Mitchell before. With the first certificate torn up, he most likely would have requested the sanction from Mitchell in writing. Has Dr. Mitchell’s endorsement ever shown up?

  30. my memory is that he saw mitchell first, mitchell referred him to anthon, and off he went. (I could be wrong; these details don’t seem germane to the event’s interpretation) in any case mitchell never gave harris anything.

    it is very improbable that harris and smith were unaware of Isaiah 29 before the event.

  31. Bushman says that Orson Pratt claimed that Joseph did not know about Isaiah 29 before Martin went to New York, and Martin said he (Martin) did not know either. Both claims were made decades after the fact.

    I don’t know what it means, but it occurs to me that the Book of Mormon’s discussion of Isaiah 29 was apparently translated with Oliver Cowdrey–after Harris’s visit to Anthon.

  32. Stephanie says:

    I am surprised noone has mentioned that the Book of Mormon says this is what would happen. 2 Nephi 27:15-18

  33. Steve Evans says:

    Stephanie, an excellent point. Now that you mention it, I’m surprised too.

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