An Alphabet TO the Book of Abraham: What Did Joseph Mean?

Here’s another look at some minor issues around the Book of Abraham and some of the gaps in the treatment in The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, eds. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), hereafter JSPRT4.

In a previous post on the importance of word order in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, I noted that Joseph Smith’s History from July 1835, p. 597, speaks of working on an “alphabet to the Book of Abraham.” Not for production of the Book of Abraham, but simply to the Book of Abraham. The transcript is on the Joseph Smith Papers Project website:

July 1835 <​Translating the Book of Abraham &c.​> The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arrangeing a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients. [emphasis added]

Reader “Joe Peaceman” suggested that this suggest whatever the alphabet was, it seems to have been produced as a companion to the Book of Abraham (or whatever portion had already been translated) based on this language, rather than as a tool for translating the Book of Abraham. I agreed and argued that this wording “creates the logical though debatable presumption that the Book
of Abraham is controlling the creation of the GAEL and not the other way
around.” This is in contrast to the various sometimes subtle positions taken in JSPRT4 that favor the theory that at least part of the Book of Abraham evolved from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers or was being developed at the same time, as if dependent on the human efforts with various “Egyptian” characters.

Today I’m considering the question about the meaning of that phrase, “an alphabet to the Book of Abraham.” One of the meanings of “to” is to describe what role something will play
or what purpose it will serve, as in “a guide to the city of Lisbon,”
“an assistant to the chairman,” or “an invitation to disaster.”  So does Joseph’s usage most plausibly mean something derived on or created for an existing Book of Abraham translation (as in “a companion/appendix/guide/ to the Book of Abraham”), or something that would be used to create the Book of Abraham from the papyri? For the latter, I would expect something like “an alphabet for the translation of the papyri” or “an alphabet for [translation of] the Book of Abraham.” But let’s see how others use language similar to Joseph.

To begin, I considered how other English speakers have used the phrase “alphabet to.” I searched in  Google Books from 1500 to 1900 for the phrase “an alphabet to” or “alphabet to the” and eliminated instances where “to” pertains to a verb (e.g., “the Phoenicians gave the alphabet to the Greeks” or “an alphabet to decode text”) or other noun (e.g., “the adaptation of one alphabet to the needs of another language”) or is part of a separate phrase or sentence. I found just a few relevant examples:

First there is the 1805 book Materials for an Alphabet to the Science of Medicine published in Philadelphia by a writer from Virginia. This book presumes the existence of the science of medicine, and wishes to clarify uncertainty about its principles by creating an alphabet “or a correct view of its fundamental principles.” This usage would be consistent with Joseph’s statement if Joseph were talking about a tool extracted from an existing Book of Abraham translation.

Next is the 1690 book, An Alphabet to the Calendar of Acts of Parliament from Henry 7th to King Charles the 2nd, which is in the British Museum and apparently not online. This appears to be a guide to understanding the Calendar of Acts of Parliament, another case where an “alphabet to” refers to something derived from an existing source.

Turning closer to Joseph Smith’s day and Yankee locale, in The Public Statute Laws of the State of Connecticut (Hartford: State of Connecticut, 1835), p. 549,  there is reference to “an index or alphabet to the same” for lists of mortgages, grants, deeds, etc., to be kept in alphabetical order. Naturally, the records come first, then the alphabet follows.

In Index to the Laws of Maryland, from the Year 1818 to 1825, another 1835 publication, we find a resolution “to make a general alphabet to the land records” related to a William Bateman. Elsewhere in this volume we read of “a general alphabet directed to be made to the land records belonging to Anne Arundel county.” Here the “alphabet to” in both cases seems to be an index or guide to assist in understanding existing land records and is clearly derived from those records, not a tool to create them.

Moving away from legal records, in William Philips’ An Introduction to Mineralogy, (London: Longman et al., 1837), 4th ed.,  we read that “Mineralogy, therefore, is in reality essential to the geologist; it is the very alphabet to the older rocks.” [emphasis original] Once again, “alphabet to” is like a “guide to” something that already exists.

In The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, vol. 9 (1827), p. 22, a publication from London, the skill of reading music is described as “an alphabet to the science” of music. Here the skill helps unlock the understanding of music, and is not described as the key to creating the music in the first place.

In the world of accounting from Joseph’s day, The American System of Practical Book-keeping by William James (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1829), p. 9, has a page with the heading, “Alphabet to the Leger,” wherein the “alphabet to” obviously represents organization of existing information. 

That’s pretty much it from my searching. Searching for “alphabet for” or “alphabet of” yields many finds pertaining to language, as expected. But based on other uses of the phrase “alphabet to,” it would seem the most reasonable way to parse “an alphabet to the Book of Abraham” would appear to refer to a tool derived from or based upon existing Book of Abraham materials. In other words, the translation came first, then the alphabet. Of course, this is what Champollion was doing with his alphabet. It was the existing translation of the Rosetta Stone that allow him and others to begin cracking the code of Egyptian to form what was commonly called in newspapers and articles of Joseph’s era an “alphabet” for the Egyptian language. Whatever Joseph and his scribes thought they were doing with their “alphabet,” it appears that it was a case of the revealed translation coming first, followed by some puzzling human work with the translation and with various characters (most of which were not even Egyptian) to create the strange Kirtland Egyptian Papers.

To interpret Joseph’s declaration about his “alphabet to the Book of Abraham” to argue that alphabet came first involves some questionable assumptions and what appears to be a sloppy reading of what Joseph said. The best reading would seem to be “an alphabet to [the existing (portion of)] Book of Abraham” and not “an alphabet [for translating] the Book of Abraham [from the papyri],” a proposition that gets especially questionable when one realizes that the most of the characters in the various Egyptian Alphabet documents, the Egyptian Counting document, and the Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet are not Egyptian characters at all.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

5 thoughts on “An Alphabet TO the Book of Abraham: What Did Joseph Mean?

  1. Interesting search, Jeff! You have a fair point about the syntax of Joseph's statement. Your post brought to me another interesting thought. I always conceived of the word "alphabet" as a collection of letters, or failing that, symbols. However, the examples you use don't have anything to do with representational symbols; rather, they refer to whole concepts. The author of "Materials for an Alphabet to the Science of Medicine" wasn't creating a whole new set of symbols, he was codifying fundamental principles. The same applies to the Parliament book, the mineralogy book, and the musical review. To them, an alphabet was a codification of basic background principles.

    I may be way late to the party on this one, but it was news to me.

    Anyway, that opens up some interesting possibilities for how to consider the GAEL and the Egyptian Alphabet documents, especially with regard to any form of catalyst theory. They are alphabets in the sense that they detail background concepts of the Book of Abraham environment, as opposed to "alphabet" in the sense of symbolic transmission. The non-Egyptian nature of the characters in the margin are also intriguing to me. I think that strengthens an Adamic language search hypothesis or a mnemonic character hypothesis more than anything else.

  2. Great research! One thing to consider though is that Joseph Smith did not keep a journal at the time. The statement seems to have been added in 1843, probably by Phelps. This does not mean the statement is not true, but it does mean the word choice was most likely not Joseph Smith’s.

  3. Good points, Ryan! If it is by Phelps, I still think that makes for a strong case. It's Phelps' handwriting on most of those documents. He was heavily involved with the Egyptian project, indeed some have suggested that he was a driving force. He would know what was going on as well as anyone.

  4. Yes, I agree, great research. I’ve been avoiding comments due to time constraints but continue to read some of Jeff’s cutting-edge life-changing stuff. Hebrew in Mesoamerica is an amazing addition to open BofM discussions and already overwhelming evidence, and I hope Brian Hauglid and others are reading the BofA discussions and have noted the evident folly in following Dan’s darker paths.
    Luv ya all and miss U 😘 ❤️

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