Note: The following was originally printed in the April 2023 edition of MRM Update., sent bimonthly to financial supporters of MRM. To request a free subscription to Mormonism Researched, please visit here.
Under the date of July 3, 1835, the Documentary History of the Church (2:235) states that a man named Michael Chandler visited Kirtland, Ohio “to exhibit some Egyptian mummies. There were four human figures, together with some two or more rolls of papyrus covered with hieroglyphic figures and devices.” Speaking in the first person, Joseph Smith wrote that “Mr. Chandler had been told I could translate them, he brought me the characters, and I gave him the interpretation.”
We can assume that Smith’s claim that he had the ability to translate the characters was a major motivator for members of his church to raise $2400 to purchase Chandler’s mummies and the papyrus scrolls. Why shouldn’t they have been excited? Smith had already convinced his followers that he translated an unknown language called “Reformed Egyptian” into what came to be known as the Book of Mormon. Why should it be difficult for him to translate a known language into the modern tongue of 19th century Americans?
After the purchase was made, Smith wrote, “I commenced the translation of the some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that the one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the account of Joseph of Egypt, etc.”(DHC 2:236). If this were true, Chandler was a fool for settling for a paltry $2400. To have a manuscript written by a biblical patriarch such as Abraham would be priceless.
Smith’s claim that he had “the writings of Abraham” in his possession would become part of the introduction to the controversial “Book of Abraham” found in the Pearl of Great Price. But as scholars became more and more familiar with Egyptian history and language, Smith’s grandiose conclusion became more of an embarrassment. For much of the LDS Church’s existence, members were led to believe that Smith’s translation was an English rendition of the Egyptian text. However, the facts proved otherwise.
While admitting in a Gospel Topics Essay titled “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” that Joseph Smith “did not claim to know the ancient languages of the records he was translating,” the LDS Church came up with a clever phrase they hoped would protect their founder’s reputation. The church conceded that Smith’s Book of Abraham was not a work brought forth by a translation in the “traditional” understanding of the word; rather, it was an “inspired” translation. The essay admitted that “Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham.” The essay also notes “that close observers also believed that the translation came by revelation.”
After Smith was killed on June 27, 1844, the papyri he had in his possession was lost. However, in 1966 the text was discovered in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and given to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But What Happened to the Four Mummies?
Admittedly, the importance of the mummies pales in comparison to the importance of the papyri that Smith tried to pass off as an ancient text written by Abraham. Still, they do play a role, though less significant, in early LDS history.
In an article titled “From Kirtland, Ohio, to Far West, Missouri: Following the Trail of the Mormon Mummies,” authors Ray L. Huntington and Keith J. Wilson, both former professors of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, follow the known locations of the four mummified bodies. The authors say, “Although Joseph Smith may have initially kept the mummies at his residence in Kirtland, by mid-October of 1835, they had been moved to the home of Frederick G. Williams. Doctrine and Covenants 81:1 states that in 1832 Williams became a “high priest” and a “counselor to my servant Joseph Smith, Jun.”
Huntington and Wilson say that the mummies were kept at the Williams’ residence “from October 1835 to mid-February 1836—at which time they were delivered to Joseph Coe, a member of the first high council of the Church in Kirtland (see D&C 102:3).” Coe was one of the larger donors that enabled Smith to purchase the mummies from Chandler. Of the $2400 amount, Coe contributed $800, though this amount was apparently not a donation but rather a loan. They note that Coe had proposed “to hire a room at John Johnson’s Inn” located down the street from the Kirtland temple. This odd attraction would be on display “from day to day, at certain hours, that some benefit may be derived from them.” The expected “benefit,” they believe, would allow Coe to “recover some of the $800 he had loaned for the purchase of the mummies and papyri.” The authors wrote, “How long the mummies remained in Joseph Coe’s possession remains a mystery. What is known, however, is that both the mummies and the papyri were moved to the upper floor of the Kirtland Temple sometime prior to or following its dedication on 26 March 1836. This fact is affirmed by a statement in the History of the Church on 2 November 1837 as well as in a journal entry by Wilford Woodruff.”
Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, wrote that when “apostates” attempted to “sue Joseph Smith for debt,” including the four mummies in his possession, “by various stratagems, we succeeded in keeping them out of their hands.” Smith fled Kirtland and headed to Missouri.
Hiding the mummies in the homes of local members was one of those strategies. The authors write that for a time, the mummies were hidden in one of the homes owned by a member named William Huntington. William’s son, Oliver B. Huntington, wrote that “in my house the mummies and Egyptian Records were hid to keep them from sworn destruction by apostates.” They would eventually be moved to another home owned by Huntington in what was then known as New Portage, Ohio, located several miles south of Kirtland.
Under the care of Joseph Smith’s father, the mummies were then taken to Far West, Missouri. The authors state, “What became of the mummies and the ancient writings during the Missouri period becomes somewhat obscured.” They offer two references as evidence that they were indeed in Missouri before being taken to Nauvoo. One of the sightings was by Anson Call, a convert to Mormonism who was baptized in Kirtland in 1836.
The articles states that the mummies were in the care of Joseph Smith’s father and mother while they lived in Quincy, Illinois. They cite a not-so friendly description by a Mr. Henry Asbury. In Asbury’s “Reminiscences of Quincy, Illinois, 1882,” he spoke of Smith’s parents setting up “a sort of museum of curiosities, consisting mainly of several mummies from Egypt. The old lady charged ten cents admittance and acted as exhibitor, explaining who and what each object really was.”
When the Smiths took up residence in what was to become Nauvoo, IL, the mummies went with them. Smith’s father died on September 14, 1840, but his mother was known to proudly display the Egyptian artifacts until her death on May 14, 1856. Jay M. Todd, author of the book The Saga of the Book of Abraham, says the care of the mummies eventually fell to Emma, who sold the four bodies with some papyri records, to a Mr. Abel Combs eleven days after her mother-in-law’s death. Combs, in turn, sold two of the mummies to a St. Louis Museum. Those two “ended up in the Chicago Museum (1863), where they apparently burned in 1871” in the Great Chicago Fire. Wrote Todd, “The fate of Combs’s two other mummies and papyri is unknown” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1060).
Amazingly, some of the papyri did survive, and from what remains, it can be clearly demonstrated that Joseph Smith’s claim to translate Egyptian was nothing but a ruse.