On May 8, Jim Green wrote:
"I am intrigued by the Martin Harris/Charles Anthon/Dr Mitchell story:
"1) Who on this planet could read Egyptian Hieroglyphics in 1828?
Could even Egyptians read them?
"2) Anthon was a professor of Classics -- How likely is it that he was proficient in even recognizing hieroglyphics let alone in reading them?
"3) Someone referred to as "Dr Mitchell" is surely a medical doctor (In 1828 anyone with a PhD would have very likely have been called "professor".) No matter how erudite an MD, would he be familiar enough with Egyptian to pronounce the Nephite glyphs as correctly translated?
"4) How likely is it that 1000 yr old Nephite glyphs looked sufficiently like Egyptian for anyone to recognize what Harris showed as Egyptian?
"5) Isn't it much more likely that a puffed up "Professor" Anthon and a "Dr" Mitchell would not want to seem at-a-loss to an apparent country farmer?
And hadn't the foggiest of what they were saying?
"Jim Green JMGreen@sisna.com"
[To which RickBook replies]
The natural implications of Jim's questions are broad in scope, and would require a lengthy book to answer. Aspects have already been handled by various writers, so my following comments are intended as simple reflections.
One year to the day before Joseph Smith's reported first viewing of the gold plates, Jean François Champollion (born fifteen years, to the day, before Smith) formally announced his discovery of the phonetic equivalents of Egyptian hieroglyphic figures, based on his analysis of the Rosetta Stone.
Thomas Young, a contender for the honor, published "An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature, and Egyptian Antiquities. Including the Author's Original Alphabet, As Extended by Mr. Champollion, with a Translation of Five Unpublished Greek and Egyptian Manuscripts. . . ." (London, 1823). F. J. Chabas, the eminent French Egyptologist, declared in 1867 that Young's phonetic approach to the study of hieroglyphs had been the "Fiat Lux" of that science. For a lengthy technical discussion, see George Peacock, "Life of Thomas Young," (London, 1855), pp. 258-344.
Although most scholars of the time had little understanding of Egyptian writing or its translation, this did not dampen their enthusiasm for the subject. In 1814, for example, Ethan Smith suggested that many ancient nations used Egyptian hieroglyphics to write their own more symbolic material ("A Key to the Figurative Language Found in the Sacred Scriptures, In the Form of Questions and Answers. By Ethan Smith, A.M. Minister in Hopkinton, N.H." . . . [Exeter, NH, 1814], discussions nos. 10-11; compare to the "Reformed Egyptian" concept in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 1:2; Mosiah 1:4; Mormon 9:32). The previous year, Elias Boudinot, even more influential than Ethan Smith, had commented on "this hieroglyphical language" with a reflection that "The Jews understood this manner of writing, being the learning of that age .
. . ("The Second Advent, or Coming of the Messiah in Glory, Shown to Be a Scripture Doctrine, and Taught by Divine Revelation, From the Beginning of the World. By an American Layman. . . ." [Trenton, NJ, 1815], p. 171). The year that the Book of Mormon was published, the eminent Biblical scholar, Moses Stuart, commented on Abraham's affinity with the Egyptians, and asked, inasmuch as "Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, who can well suppose that some of his written characters in Hebrew, where these agreed in sound with the Egyptian letters, would not be more or less conformed to the Egyptian mode of writing them?" (introduction to J. G. Honoré Greppo's "Essay on the Hieroglyphic System of M. Champollion, Jun. And on the Advantages Which it Offers to Sacred Criticism. Translated from the French . . . , with Notes and Illustrations. . . ." [Boston, 1830], p. 270. Stuart was a colleague and close friend of Joshua Seixas, who would soon teach Joseph Smith Hebrew in the School of the Prophets at Kirtland).
Backing up to 1828, however, and Jim's question about "Dr Mitchell," there is really only one serious candidate for the position, in my mind. When book or product promoters of that era wanted the ultimate testimonial in their advertisements, the most auspicious name they sought was that of Samuel Latham Mitchill, a walking encyclopedia and "chaos of knowledge" whose very name could silence critics and command awe & respect. There isn't room in this e- mail to list his titles and accomplishments, but since the death of "Dr.
Franklin," and his generation, it was "Dr. Mitchill" to whom Americans turned for the final word on everything from ancient American ruins to natural history, medicine or agriculture. In the upstate New York farming journal, "The Plough Boy" (Albany, 1819-23 - just the sort of publication a prosperous Palmyra farmer like Martin Harris would read), the references to "Dr.
Mitchill" and his pronouncements are almost countless, including numerous letters to and from Mitchill (together with occasional lengthy addresses) whenever a final authority on some matter was required.
"There is not in the United States," wrote the editor, "a more scientific man than Dr. Mitchill-there is not, perhaps, a more useful man. . . . whose amiable disposition in connection with his real science, his ardent thirst for philosophic attainments, and his invaluable labours in the vineyard of human improvement, render him at once the ornament of his country, and the benefactor of mankind." ("The Plough Boy," issue for Saturday, September 8, 1821 [III:15], p. 112).
If such a man suddenly answered his door in New York City to find an enthusiastic farmer - come all the way from Palmyra with a transcription of characters from plates of gold revealed by an angel - he might understandably treat the man kindly but without commitment. A man of Mitchill's extensive (but broad, Renaissance-style) learning might understandably glance at the transcript, suspect it had little to do with Egyptian (hieroglyphic or Demotic), and refer his visitor to the greatest classic linguist available -over at Columbia College, Prof. Charles Anthon, hoping that he might recognize the origin of the curious-looking text.
At age thirteen, young Anthon had entered Columbia, ". . . where," according to the Dictionary of American Biography, "he was awarded so many distinctions that his name was withdrawn from competition . . .
"In 1820 [at age 22!] he was chosen adjunct professor of Greek and Latin in Columbia College, and thus entered upon his life-work. While preparing for the bar he had adopted the habit, which he retained for many years, of rising at 4 a. m. and devoting the early hours of the morning to his literary labors.
His college duties occupied a large part of the day, and the rest was carefully divided, with a liberal allowance for modern languages. His Saturdays were spent in careful and exhaustive preparation for the next week's classes." I remember reading in a rare eulogy pamphlet written years later by a friend of Anthon, that this professor pursued an unvarying course worthy of the fictional Mycroft Holmes, progressing daily from his rooms, along the courtyard to classes, to his regular duties, and back home like clockwork.
This was the quintessential "nerd," not a man of vanity or imprecision.
Anthon would not have been able to translate Egyptian, I presume, but neither did he attempt to do so, according to his own testimony. "The whole story about my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be 'reformed Egyptian hierogylphics' is perfectly false.," he wrote six years after the fact. "Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased [Samuel L. Mitchill died September 7, 1831], 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. . . . 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 Calendar 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 friends on the subject, since the Mormon excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained any thing else but 'Egyptian Hieroglyphics.'" (letter to Eber D. Howe, dated New York, February 17, 1834, published in Howe's "Mormonism Unvailed . . ." (Painesville, OH, 1834), pp.
Rather than viewing Charles Anthon as "puffed up," I think we must defer to the earlier version of Martin Harris' story given by Joseph Smith in 1832 (and the other earliest sources), which agree with Anthon's strong assertion that he did not attempt any translation, but offered to examine the plates, which Harris informed him was forbidden (see Dan Vogel, "Early Mormon Documents" I:71, n.46). That earlier version, after all, is the one which best fulfills the "learned man" prophecy in Isaiah (29:11), and it is supported by a number of faithful LDS scholars. The original, honest-Mitchill/ sincere-Anthon version makes the most sense in relation to the historically-established temperaments of Mitchill, Anthon and Harris which I have researched over the last fifteen years.
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