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Introduction to Book of Abraham Manuscripts

Napoleon Bonaparte’s late eighteenth-century adventures, depredations, and exploits unintentionally inaugurated an age of exploration and inquiry into Egyptian antiquities. Subsequently, sometime between 1817 and 1821, an Italian explorer, Antonio Lebolo, uncovered a tomb near Thebes, Egypt, containing a large cache of mummies and papyri. Later, eleven of the mummies were sent to New York City under what remain curious circumstances. In early July 1835 some of the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, purchased four Lebolo mummies and associated papyri from Michael Chandler, an antiquities dealer visiting the area. (Hauglid, Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 1.)

JS and his scribes William W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams, and Warren Parrish invested portions of the next six months working with the Egyptian materials. JS’s journal from October to December 1835 contains nine entries recording activity directly associated with the Egyptian documents. One product of their endeavors was a partial draft transcription (Abraham 1:1–2:18) of what was designated the Book of Abraham, a first-person narrative recounting a portion of the life of the biblical patriarch Abraham.

The account, as subsequently revised and published in 1842, opened with Abraham seeking the blessing of God and the priesthood. He rejected the religious beliefs and practices of the inhabitants in the land of the Chaldeans and refused to worship the Egyptian gods. Abraham was sentenced to death and prepared as a sacrifice to the gods of Egypt but was miraculously saved as he called upon the Lord. God commanded Abraham to leave Ur of the Chaldees and to go to Haran. There he received the covenant that was to bear his name. He had a vision revealing the order of the heavens and the proceedings of a premortal grand council. Because of famine Abraham was commanded by the Lord to go to Egypt where he had an encounter with Pharaoh. The text also provides an account of the earth’s creation, astronomy, the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve, after which the narrative abruptly ends.

Included with the record as later published are three vignettes taken from the papyri designated “facsimiles” that JS believed gave a pictorial representation of certain aspects of Abraham’s life. In Facsimile 1, Abraham is portrayed on an altar about to be sacrificed to Egyptian gods. In Facsimile 2, Abraham’s celestial vision is represented in the form of an Egyptian hypocephalus, or funeral amulet. In Facsimile 3, Abraham’s visit to Egypt is depicted. JS provided an accompanying explanation for each.

The texts featured in the Book of Abraham documents collection presented here comprise eight separate records, each of which will later have its own specific introduction. The Church History Library retains three manuscripts from 1835. It also holds three additional manuscripts from 1841 and 1842, used in preparation of the text for publication in the church’s Nauvoo, Illinois, newspaper, Times and Seasons. Collectively these manuscripts contain portions of the material from the first three chapters of the Book of Abraham as presently arranged in the Pearl of Great Price (a volume of Latter-day Saint scripture), including Facsimiles 1 and 2. Manuscript material pertaining to the current chapters 4 and 5, including the explanation of Facsimile 3, is not extant. The text of the Book of Abraham as published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, is included as the seventh document. The eighth item consists of images of the printing plates used for the facsimiles. Nine more manuscripts in the Church History Library’s collection primarily relate to Egyptian papyri and efforts to create a grammar and alphabet of the Egyptian language. They will be presented in the future on the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Though, as noted, JS initiated work on the Book of Abraham material in July 1835, it is not clear how far the narrative had progressed at that time or subsequently. No record survives that details exactly how much of the Book of Abraham text was available during JS’s lifetime. The published account ends abruptly, and yet there are tantalizing contemporary accounts suggesting JS may have shared unpublished material, written or oral, concerning Enoch, Noah, the Flood, and beyond, which does not appear in the extant record. There is also clear indication (see below) that JS intended to publish more of the Book of Abraham than he published in 1842.

Little is known concerning the process JS employed in bringing forth the Book of Abraham, and only a few ambiguous observations are available. For instance, John Whitmer, an early church historian, recorded in July 1835 that JS “by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records, which gavee an account of our forefathers, even Abraham.” (Whitmer, History, 76) In a critical account published in the Painesville Republican in 1838, JS’s former scribe Warren Parrish noted that he had “set by his [JS’s] side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven.” (Letter to the Editor dated 5 February 1838, Painesville Republican, 15 February 1838, Vol. II, No. 14–15) In February 1842, as he was “assisting in setting the Tipe for printing the first peace of the Book of Abraham” to be presented to the world, Wilford Woodruff spoke of the power of Joseph the Seer “to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the Urim & Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam.” (Woodruff, Journal, 19 February 1842)

After JS’s death, JS’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith retained the mummies and papyri and showed them to visitors. According to the published 1846 account of a group of visiting Quakers, she described a process similar to that of Parrish, one that paralleled some accounts regarding how the Book of Mormon was dictated: “She said, that when Joseph was reading the papyrus, he closed his eyes, and held a hat over his face, and that the revelation came to him; and where the papyrus was torn, he could read the parts that were destroyed equally as well as those that were there; and that scribes sat by him writing, as he expounded. She showed us a large book where these things were printed, which of course sealed their truth to Mormon eyes and minds; but we had not time to read them.” (Friends’ Weekly Intelligencer, 3 October 1846, 211)

The Times and Seasons on 1 March 1842 published the first installment of the Book of Abraham text, including Facsimile 1. A second installment, including Facsimile 2, was printed in the next edition of the Times and Seasons on 15 March 1842. The third and final installment appeared on 16 May 1842; this consisted only of Facsimile 3 and its explanation without additional narrative. No further mention of the text was made until the 1 February 1843 edition of the Times and Seasons reported that JS intended to provide “further extracts from the Book of Abraham.” No additional text was forthcoming, nor is there any evidence that JS resumed work on the Egyptian papyri or Book of Abraham after the February 1843 notice.

In July 1842, the Book of Abraham was republished in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, a church periodical printed in Liverpool, England. Although this edition generally followed the text that appeared in the Times and Seasons, it introduced some variants and many punctuation changes. Some of these changes affected subsequent editions of the Book of Abraham. In 1851, Franklin D. Richards, while serving as a mission president in England, published a small book he titled the Pearl of Great Price that included the Book of Abraham. This 1851 edition was not an official church publication, but an 1878 edition prepared by apostle Orson Pratt was commissioned by the First Presidency and essentially retained the 1851 text. Two years later, during the October 1880 general conference of the church, the Pearl of Great Price, including the Book of Abraham, was officially endorsed as scripture. In 1902 and 1921, James E. Talmage, a prominent church scholar and from 1911 an apostle, was authorized to prepare revised editions of the Pearl of Great Price, introducing some minor variant readings of the Book of Abraham narrative. The most recent revision, in 1981, revised portions of the text to more closely reflect manuscripts from the JS era.

Note: The transcripts of the Book of Abraham manuscripts presented here are used with permission of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. They were published earlier, with some differences in style, in Brian M. Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University, 2010).