Gospel Topics Essays Lessons: Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham

For the last several months, my ward has had monthly priesthood lessons on the Gospel Topics essays that the church has released over the last year or so. I teach in Primary, so I haven’t been to most of them. A friend taught the Race and the Priesthood essay in June, though, and invited me to his class; he did an excellent job, and it was well-received.

And then, three weeks ago, he asked if I’d teach a class. My topics? Book of Mormon and DNA Studies, Book of Mormon Translation, and Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham. (If only the class had been two Sundays later … )

In preparing the lesson, I decided to do two things I haven’t done before. First, I really wanted the class to be discussion-oriented. And I didn’t want anybody to feel like they couldn’t speak honestly, or like their questions were unacceptable. So I decided, upfront, to provide a way for class members to ask questions anonymously. It’s not that the topics are terribly controversial, or that I thought anybody would actually be constrained. But people are often hesitent to ask questions they think will make them look dumb or like an outsider (and this isn’t a uniquely Mormon problem—I see the same thing sometimes with the law students I teach), and anonymity can resolve some of those issues. I thought about providing notecards but, professionally, I use clickers in my classes, and I really like the technological solution. But most of the response systems aren’t free, and even those that are requires some upfront registration.

Still, almost everybody in my ward carries a smartphone. So I set up a Google Form where they could ask whatever they wanted. My friend emailed everybody about what we were going to talk about on Wednesday before the lesson, and included a link to the Form. I sent out a reminder email on Saturday night.

I also debated how to let people know about it on Sunday, in case they weren’t on the email list or were visiting. Finally, I remembered Tumblr. I tried Tumblr out a couple years ago as a professional blog substitute, but it never worked for me.

But I realized I could use it for my lesson. So I set up a new Tumblr and used it almost as if it were Evernote, putting interesting links and pictures and quotations that I came across as I prepared the lesson. Then, on Sunday, I gave my class the URL. That way, they had a link to the Google Form, and, if they decided to look at their phones instead of me, they had something on-topic that they could look at.

In the end, I got four anonymous questions (though one person told me after class that he’d asked one of them). I got plenty of actual discussion, and it was all careful, thoughtful, nuanced, and faithful. From where I sat, it was a spectacular success, something I’d strongly recommend to other priesthood quorums and Relief Societies. And I wouldn’t hesitate to recomment Tumblrs to teachers, either.

I prepared a lesson (which I’ll paste in below); ultimately, I only summarized what I prepared. We spent the bulk of the time in a back-and-forth discussion, which is what I’d hoped for and what really made the lesson.

In light of yesterday’s Joseph Smith Papers Project announcement, though, I hope this is helpful and interesting.


Questions link

Lesson Outline (n.b.: these were my notes for the lesson; I didn’t use all of this, and I don’t think all of it was necessary, but it’s what I wanted on the paper in front of me) (also, quick humblebrag: I managed to quote Daniel Kahneman and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and paraphrase David Foster Wallace, all while advancing the lesson)


  1. To learn the history surrounding Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham translation. It’s not immediately obvious why, but the church found these topics important enough that people put in real effort to understand and explain the history and, largely, did an admirable job
  2. To the why: I think exploring these things can help us crystalize and understand scripture generally, as well as why we have modern scripture. What role does it play in the gospel? What role does it play in our lives?
  3. Other goals for today?

Start: to get some feel for where I’m coming from, I believe that the BoM and BoA are scripture, divinely inspired.

Common theme in conclusion to Book of Abraham, BoM DNA papers: there’s ambiguity. We cannot definitively prove things one way or the other. That is, we live in a world of ambiguity, which is good



What’s the issue? Studies have shown that Native American DNA comes from Asia (though there may be less exclusivity than previously thought: a 24,000-year-old bone in Siberia shows genes found today in the Middle East, Europe, and Native Americans). At least a couple people have used those studies to say that the BoM can’t related history, because the Lehites can’t be the ancestors of Native Americans

But the analysis of the evidence is only as good as the assumptions underlying it; if we assume that the Lehites were one group among many, it doesn’t mean as much (though it still may be relevant)


Book of Mormon

How did Joseph translate the Book of Mormon? Basically, he dictated to various scribes: (a) Emma Smith; (b) Martin Harris; (c) Oliver Cowdery; (d) some of the Whitmers

Procedure: Emma Smith Bidamon wrote to Emily Pilgrim in 1870: “Now the first that my <husband> translated, [the book] was translated by use of the Urim, and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly, black, but was rather a dark color.”

Urim and Thummim: Mentioned Ex. 28:30; 1 Sam. 14:41 (though it was left out of early Hebrew manuscripts, so that part’s not in the KJV). Essentially, they appear to be divination stones.

And they appear to be something different than the Urim and Thummim that Joseph Smith got. See Mos. 28:13-15, 20; 8:13 (calling them “interpreters”); Ether 4:5 (also calling them “interpreters”). D&C 17:1 they get the name “Urim and Thummim.” They were apparently glasses-like, because they were called “spectacles”

Seer stone: Joseph had at least one, and maybe more. One he found digging for a well in 1822. He initially used it for finding lost objects and treasure; as he grew into his prophetic calling, he used it for revelation.

Not clear exactly how he used the interpreters. But with the seer stone, he would put it in the bottom of a hat, put his face in to block out the light, and dictate the Book of Mormon.

What did he see? Not clear.  “Br. Hyrum Smith said that he thought best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves. Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c.”

There are at least two possibilities. One is that he saw words or sentences scroll in front of his eyes. Royal Skousen believes this–in his mind, it was a very “tight” translation, one which Joseph had essentially no input in.

Alternatively, the revelation may have been looser, presenting concepts that Joseph then had to put into his own language. Richard Bushman seems to lean in this direction, and I tend to agree.

The actual witnesses disagree to some minor extent: Martin Harris and David Whitmer both indicate that words appear, but Whitmer says one character appeared at a time, with its interpretation, while Harris says sentences appeared. In any event, they don’t record these recollections until the 1880s, more than fifty years after the translation occurred.

Book of Abraham

Then we get to the Book of Abraham, which starts to put real pressure on what Joseph meant by “translate”

Quick set of meanings:

  1. Book of Mormon: to interpret one language into another, with that language written (albeit not necessarily looked at). With the Book of Mormon, he was miraculously translating a language he didn’t know into a language he did
  2. Bible: the JST wasn’t what we’d think of as a translation. He didn’t have any ancient language–he was going through a King James Bible, making emendations which seem to sometimes add in material that is missing, sometimes harmonize contradictions, and sometimes expand. It reads a lot like a Midrash (which offers exegesis on scriptural text)
  3. Book of Abraham:

The Book of Abraham seems slightly different. He was still translating a language he didn’t know into a language he did, but he seemed more interested in the language this time. He attempted to understand the writing, and to make a grammar.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs couldn’t be interpreted until 1822 in France, with the Rosetta Stone: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosetta_Stone 196 BC, carved in ancient Egyptian, Demotic script, and ancient Greek. Discovered by Napoleonic soldier in 1799.

John Gee claims that the ability to read ancient Egyptian wasn’t well-developed until the 1850s; I can’t find that anywhere else

From the fragments we have, as well as the various hieroglyphs we have in the Pearl of Great Price, though, his translation doesn’t seem to match up to the written documents (though, in fairness, parts were destroyed in the Chicago fire). Seems to have been a stepping-stone for inspiration

Translation as we know it: 1835, began to study Hebrew. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V03N02_43.pdf

Studied German in 1844, was reading Luther’s translation of the Bible. https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V19N03_87.pdf; King Follett Discourse: http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/discourse-7-april-1844-as-reported-by-willard-richards?p=5&highlight=germ

“Some Mormons were crushed when the fragments turned out to be rather conventional fuerary texts placed with mummified bodies, in this case Hôr’, to assure continuing life as an immortal god. According to the Egyptologists, nothing on the fragments resembled Joseph’s account of Abraham.

“Some Mormon scholars, notably Hugh Nibley, doubt that the actual texts for Abraham and Joseph have been found. The scraps from the Metropolitan Museum do not fit the description Joseph Smith gave of long, beautiful scrolls. At best the remnants are a small fraction of the originals, with no indication of what appears on the lost portions. Nonetheless, the discovery prompted a reassessment of the Book of Abraham. What was going on while Joseph ‘translated’ the papyri and dictated text to a scribe? Obviously, he was not interpreting the hieroglyphics like an ordinary scholar. As Joseph saw it, he was working by inspiration–that had been clear from the beginning. When he ‘translated’ the Book of Mormon, he did not read from the gold plates; he looked into the crystals of the Urim and Thummim or gazed at the seerstone. The words came by inspiration, not by reading the characters on the plates. By analogy, it seemed likely that the papyri had been an occasion for receiving a revelation rather than a word-for-word interpretation of the hieroglyphs as in ordinary translations.”  — Richard Bushman, RSR 191-92

Other Interesting Stuff

Book of Mormon: at the time it was published, most American homes had, at most, a Bible and a couple other specific-purpose books, like school supplies and devotional reading. When Joseph originally set the price at $1.75, that was crazy. CPI says that would be about $40 today
Most people read books published serially in newspapers. In fact, that’s how the Book of Abraham originally appeared



  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Good job. I’ve taught lessons based on several of the Gospel Topics Essays (although without the tech innovations you describe here), and they have all gone very well.

  2. I’m jealous. I’d love to have these topics taught in church. I’m not sure anyone else in my ward even knows they exist.

    Did you feel that being assigned three essays in one lesson was too much? It looks like you were only able to spend a few minutes on the DNA essay, for example.

  3. Anon for this says:

    Thanks Sam. I wish I was in your ward. I have strugged with the BOA more than anything and would appreciate any help you could offer.

    The root issue for me is this. Joseph clearly believed he was translating the actual papyrii, not just using them as a catalyst. And the BOA canonized in our scripture clearly includes erroneous translations. For example, Abr. 1:12 says “… that you may have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation at the commencement of this record.” The “representation” is facsimile 1, which is loaded with translation errors. The church essay pretty much concedes this.

    If we are to accept the catalyst theory, that means Joseph misunderstood what he was doing. That may save the BOA (for now), but it risks undermining everything else in the restoration – or at least the literalness of everything else. Are the gold plates just a catalyst too? How about the visitations in Kirtland?

    I haven’t found a way to accept that Joseph missed it on the literalness of the papyrii translation, but still maintain confidence that he was correct on the literalness of Christ’s visit to the Americas and priesthood keys restored through him. I still find great value and goodness in (most) of the BOM account, as well as priesthood ordinances. But because of the catalyst approach I find myself drifting to believe that the BOM is just a collection of good stories, not literal history, and that our ordiances are beneficial to build family ties, but not literally necessary for salvation.

  4. The technology side makes me nervous – sounds like we’re still sort of kludging things together – but I like the idea of giving people something else to do during a lesson while still keeping them on topic.

  5. Great comment. Very difficult for me to sort through tit all as well. The catalyst argument is another argument. There is a lot of hair splitting explanations going on and I frankly am struggling with it.

  6. So if nothing regarding these 2 critical books is fact, (and from the claims from JS on the title page of BoA pretty much discredit the book altogether when you look at the facsimile translation), what about priesthood authority and temple importance. I know in court if you discredit a witness with 1 lie you can discredit the entire testimony. Is anything as it seemed. Is there any truth to any of it? That is the crossroad I am at. Any tips from the masses? I could use a little help here in the jungle.

  7. Great questions and comments. I’m away from my computer all day today, but I’ll see what I can bring to the table later tonight.

  8. Ryan Mullen says:

    jiminpanama, Kevin Barney and David Bokovoy’s work on the Book of Abraham has helped me tremendously. Here’s one reviewing the work of the other https://bycommonconsent.com/2014/02/23/authoring-the-old-testament/

  9. Anon for this says:

    Thank you again, Sam.

  10. Price of the Book of Mormon. It appears that Grandin was paid $3,000.00 for printing and sold the mortgage for $2,000.00. In order to recoup the $3,000.00 for Martin’s farm (mortgaged to pay the cost of printing), the book had to be 40% over-priced which was another reason it was difficult to sell. Saw that in the new book “From Darkness Into Light”. I can’t remember which page and I don’t have it with me. These are the kinds of details that we often don’t think about (just like the cost of $1.75 being $40.00 in today’s money).

  11. Clark Goble says:

    Regarding Gee’s claim about reading Egyptian, I don’t know the history that well but I do know that as late as 1840 George Lewis an English scientist still was arguing Champollion was a fraud and that no one could read Egyptian. The controversy wasn’t really decided until 1866 when Champollion’s student Karl Richard Lepsius deciphered the Decree of Canopus that the issue of reading Egyptian was settled. This is all from the Wiki on Champollion. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics says much the same thing. It wasn’t until 1867 than a dictionary of Egyptian was published and two grammars in 1880. So It seems like Gee is on strong ground tying reading Egyptian to the later part of the 19th century.

  12. I’m not sure why being on wrong one thing (literally translating the BOA vs receiving revelation on it) has to mean that he is wrong on everything else. I mean sure its comforting to think that someone is never wrong therefore you can always rely on them for truth but that isn’t the case for anyone.

    I’m a teacher and do occasionally get things wrong (hard to believe I know). If a student discovers this or points it out to me in class. I don’t think that’s cause to call into question everything else I teach as well.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    I do agree that teaching multiple essays in a single lesson is too much; a single essay is hard enough to do in a devotional context.

  14. Clark Goble says:

    I think the difficulty is that since all regular translations require the translator to know the original source language/culture and read it from a particular text that our language doesn’t quite fit what Joseph did. Ignoring the various philosophical issues in the very notion of translation, it seems to me that the real question is the relationship in signified meanings between the produced text and the original text.

    We can all agree that some conventions of translation (such as end notes or footnotes separated from the translated text) are just that: arbitrary conventions. Likewise we agree that in terms of fidelity to the original text some translations are loose while others are tight. Contrast for example the Good News Bible translation versus say the KJV, or even better Ezra Pound’s loose translation of Chinese poetry in Cathay verses more “accurate” translations by people who knew Chinese.

    What’s at issue with Joseph Smith though tends to be the method of translation. There’s then a somewhat secondary question of what texts are being translated. (This is particularly the case with the Book of Abraham were the physical source texts date to late antiquity rather than to the much earlier era of Abraham) This makes this quite complex quickly and it’s not surprising that people who want things to be simple (the texts are physically something Abraham wrote with no additional later materials and Joseph could read this) end up upset. Once you realize all the issues at play though, even if you reject Joseph as a translator and his works as having connection to the texts, I think that the controversies make a lot more sense.

  15. Anon. I’ve also found that in dealing with the BOM and the BOA, it is helpful for me to break the issues into what I call “externals” and “internals”. The “externals” are the issues like the seerstone, the plates, the witnesses, the alleged similarities to View of Hebrews or the Recent War, etc. or the papyri, who said what about what Joseph was doing with the papyri, etc. The “internals” are those elements which resonate or even duplicate ancient documents that are apocryphal and/or pseudipigraphal in nature (like similarities with the Apocalypse of Abraham, discovered in the 1890s) or other parallels that abound in such literature. Granted, the use of these type of “internal” comparisons is not an exact science and you can’t just map them on to one another, but you can look at them (as Harold Bloom did) and ask how Joseph could have gotten so many such elements into what he produced. It certainly didn’t make Harold Bloom into a believer, but, for me, it provides something rational and plausible to enable me to exercise faith. The translation questions you raise are what I call “externals” and, while they need to be studied to the best of our ability (and I see several comments above and some helpful links as well), I typically balance them with my studies of the “internals”.

  16. @jiminpanama, my approach is to focus on the content of the work JS produced. I find too much that amazes and enriches me in th BoM and BoA to dismiss them as frauds. Wherever they came from, they are miraculous and “of great price”.

  17. What Terry H said. I’m a translator by profession, and the BoM *screams* “I am a translated book” every time I read it. It can be quite unsettling ;-).

  18. A geologist on reddit did a pretty good preliminary analysis: https://np.reddit.com/r/askscience/comments/3fuz4d/the_mormon_church_released_pictures_of_the_seer/cts81sl

    A comment from an archeologist on the same page discusses that the stone resembles “egg rocks” commonly found at ancient Native American sites.

  19. A couple thoughts: first, the three essays clearly have more than one lesson’s worth of material. I knew that going in, and we told the class members in the emails. I worked to resolve that by strongly encouraging class members to read the essays in advance (and several did), and by summarizing the issues and addressing questions. I didn’t bother reading any part of the essays in class, both because the essays are available and because that would have been a waste of time.

    At the same time, my goal wasn’t to come to definitive conclusions, or to tell the class the ultimate Truth about the topics. Rather, it was to give an overview of what was at issue, and different ways to look at the topics. I think the ability to understand and confront ambiguity is far more valuable than the ability to make a definitive answer. The discussion was great, and could have gone on another hour or two but, at the same time, we got a lot of what I hoped in the 40 minutes we had (and, frankly, there are synergies between the three topics, and it makes some sense to address them together).

    As for substance, BoA especially: I mentioned the papyri, and the Chicago fire (go Chicago!), and the recovered parts. I mentioned that what we have doesn’t correspond to the BoA, and talked about ways that people have dealt with that, including everything from arguing that the translated part was lost in the fire to basically a catalyst theory. We talked about the fact that translating Egyptian hieroglyphs was relatively new at the time (and thanks, Clark, for the back-up for Gee; I don’t disbelieve him, but was hoping not to single-source anything, and didn’t really feel like doing exhaustive research), and that Joseph’s grammar of Egyptian doesn’t reflect the actual meaning.

    I told them that I fall into the catalyst camp; tempermentally, I’m completely comfortable (and, sometimes, relieved) when I see God work through somebody, even though that person doesn’t understand entirely what he or she is doing. I mean, it’s pretty clear that Joseph believed he was translating what was on the page. But it doesn’t bother me if he was wrong; what he produced was scripture, and was inspired.

    I mean, it’s not like producing a volume of scripture is something that just pops into your head, unbidden. In Mormonism, revelation doesn’t appear unbidden. Rather, we work to get it. The existence of the papyri certainly could spark Joseph to think and ask about spiritual things.

    Beyond that, class members brought up the spiritual value of physicality, something I hadn’t really thought about, but I can totally get behind. We believe in an embodied God, in physically laying hands on heads, and all sorts of other fundamentally physical things that have spiritual significance. And the physicalness of gold plates, of papyri, could serve the same purpose.

    Ultimately, though, I understand other reactions. I understand wanting a prophet who understands the significance of what he does, one who is more than a tool in God’s hand, one who is more than a fallible mortal. I don’t think we get that, and I think that God is capable of working through fallible tools. And that makes me happy.

  20. I wrote a piece about the BOA a while back. You can find it here: http://defendingldsbeliefs.weebly.com/book-of-abraham.html Be aware that I’m a total amateur, but this is how the book makes sense to me.

  21. Anon for this says:

    Terry H, I appreciate your thoughts. Have you considered the possibility that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Upanishads, or even the Hoffman Salamadar Letters are authentic scripture? If we only look for internal themes that overlap with ancient or scriptural works – throwing out the external evidence – I can’t see why I would treat the BOA as scripture and not these as well.

    Sam B., I also appreciate your additional thoughts. I guess was was looking for better help on how to maintain a belief in the literalness of other claims made by Joseph if I discard his literal translation of the papyrus. Like you, I’m comfortable with the idea that God works through people who may err in understanding their work – even err is significant ways. But once that concession is made, it calls into question the reliability of *all* factual claims made by such people – not just those claims that have conflicting evidence. So again, I’m left wondering whether there’s any need to literally believe in nephites, priesthood keys, resurrection, and other truth claims, so long as I can hold to the view that these beliefs accomplish a lot of good even if they are not literally true.