In previous posts (here and here) on the Book of Abraham and in my article for The Interpreter, I have noted that newspapers and other sources in the United States make it fairly clear that the story of Champollion seems to have been widely known by 1835, contrary to assertions in two volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. But one reader argued that relying on possible “common knowledge” of the day still doesn’t provide a direct link showing that the early Saints actually know of or spoke of Champollion. Could it be that they really hadn’t heard of the Rosetta Stone and Champollion’s
work, the cause of so much interest in all things Egypt? Perhaps! Maybe they were
gripped in Egyptomania without hearing the most basic news tied to that
With that fair objection in mind, I did another search this morning and found something that I hope will help clarify the issue. It involves the account of Martin Harris going to the East with a copy of Book of Mormon characters in hand, seeking academic validation for Joseph’s translation work. (See the related information in the “Scholar Gives New Insights on Martin Harris’s 1828 Visit to Charles Anthon,” based on Richard E. Bennett’s 2015 Sperry Symposium presentation.)
In 1831, James Gordon Bennett, a man who would become one of America’s leading journalists, gave a boost to his journalistic career with a sensational two-part article on the “Mormonites.” He interviewed a couple of people, apparently E.B. Grandin, printer of the Book of Mormon, and Charles Butler, a lawyer and friend of Martin Harris, and then prepared a two-part article sharing what he had learned and his views on the Book of Mormon story. Part 2 of this article was published in New York City in the Morning Courier and Enquirer, Sept. 1, 1831. The article was soon reprinted in several other newspapers. Since it mentioned Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, it was surely brought to Joseph’s attention. The story behind the article and the complete text of the two-part story are found in Leonard J. Arrington article, “James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on ‘The Mormonites,’” BYU Studies, 10/3 (1970): 353-364. On p. 362, we see that Bennett claims that Dr. Samuel Mitchill mentioned Egyptian hieroglyphics and Champollion’s decipherment to Harris:
Larry E. Morris in his excellent Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (relevant portion viewable on Google Books) is not sure that the mention of Champollion in Bennett’s newspaper account came from the interviews or from Bennett’s embellishment of the story (he suggests embellishment is more likely), for the notes from the interviews in Bennett’s journal only mention Mitchill comparing the characters to hieroglyphics without mentioning Champollion. (The original newspaper story is document 1.13 in Morris, appearing on pp. 90-95, and is considered again on pp. 298-299, where Morris’s comment on Champollion occurs.) So it may be that Mitchill had mentioned Champollion, or perhaps he merely mentioned hieroglyphics and then Bennett extrapolated with the addition of Champollion to the story. In either case, though, the Saints of 1831 cannot be viewed as ignorant of Champollion. Whether Martin had been told about Champollion by Harris, or the Saints first learned the name from this article, it seems there’s little room to believe that they could have remained ignorant of the news after 1831, even if the only newspaper stories they ever looked at were the ones from their area talking about them.
The article, of course, treats knowledge of Champollion as old news that should be familiar to most people. If Joseph and his peers had not yet heard of him, surely they would start inquiring after this announcement, being relevant to the precious Book of Mormon.
Reprints of this story can be found in the Essex Gazette of Haverhill, Mass., Vol. V, No. 47, Nov. 19, 1831, under the title “History of Mormonism,” available at Uncle Dale’s Readings, and elsewhere (apparently including Ohio’s Hillsborough Gazette, Oct. 29. 1831, shown at GospelLink.com).
[Update, Dec. 10, 2019: Also see the Vermont Gazette of Bennington, Vermont, Vol. II, No. 37, Sept. 13, 1831, also provided at Uncle Dale’s Readings. That gives us newspaper coverage in at least New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Ohio.]
By the way, while my past posts and my article for The Interpreter provide a wide variety of sources from American soil in the early part of the nineteenth century dealing with Champollion and the Rosetta Stone, here are a couple others just as a reminder of the state of common knowledge in the States. First, Uncle Dale’s Readings in Early Mormon History offers this excerpt from the Ohio-based Presbyterian newspapers, The Observer and Telegraph, Oct. 21, 1830:
It is well known that the Champolions have by wonderful perserverance and extensive research, unlocked the mysteries of
the pyramids of Egypt, and disclosed the arcana of their interior, by decyphering the hieroglyphics which have perplexed
the investigation of the learned for centuries, and thereby furnishing additional testimony to the truth of sacred
history, and of the oppression of the ancient Israelites. The account of the investigations which led to the discovery
of these hieroglyphics, has been lately translated from the French, by Professor Stewarts son, of Andover, and is
illustrated by notes of the Professor. The work no doubt will much interest the curious, and particularly the biblical
scholar. [emphasis added]
Of course, since Joseph and other early Saints spent some time in Pennsylvania, we may also with to inquire there. The Pittsburgh Recorder on April 26, 1825 published this note, also courtesy of Uncle Dales’ Readings:
Discovery of very ancient Egyptian Archives, written several
ages before the Trojan war.
The learned are well acquainted with the important discoveries made by Young and Champollion in the art of decyphering
the sacred writing of the Egyptians. The latter is still engaged in pursuing this most interesting object, as will
appear from the following detail…. [emphasis added]
Or consider the open letter to Champollion published in Philadelphia’s Atlantic Journal in 1832:
First Letter to Mr. Champollion, on the Graphic systems of America, and the
Glyphs of Otolum or Palenque, in Central America.
You have become celebrated by decyphering, at last, the glyphs and
characters of the ancient Egyptians, which all your learned predecessors
had deemed a riddle, and pronounced impossible to read. You first
announced your discovery in a letter. I am going to follow your
footsteps on another continent, and a theme equally obscure….
Here is another from New York, from Palmyra, Wayne County, a place with obvious connections to the early members of the Church, published simply as “Items,” Nov. 4, 1829 in The Reflector, courtesy of Uncle Dales’ Readings:
M. CHAMPOLLION — in company with other learned Frenchmen, is now in Egypt investigating the
various subjects of antiquity. It is reported that this gentleman reads hierogylphics with as much
readiness as his native language. Much light will be thrown upon a dark period of ancient history.
What was well known in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York in the early 1830s was probably known also to the Latter-day Saints, and almost certainly would become known once the 1831 news story in New York linked the Book of Mormon characters to Champollion’s discovery with hieroglyphics from Egypt.
Understanding that Champollion’s story — the headlines, not the technical details — surely was known by key members of the Church by 1835 helps us better question the arguments that are repeatedly made about Joseph Smith thinking that Egyptian was a bizarre language where one character could contain vast treasures of information, enabling one character to become 200 words of text with names and other details all mysteriously embedded therein. It’s time to recognize that the Saints, like their follow Americans, did not experience Egyptomania without knowledge of the news that helped Egyptomania reach a fever pitch: Champollion was translating Egyptian, and those mysterious characters were often simply phonetic, making Egyptian a language just like the “reformed Egyptian” as described by Joseph and implied in the Book of Mormon itself — a running language.