The Pure Language Project

To understand the strange Kirtland Egyptian Papers, we may need to understand the fascination with “pure language” that was found among some early Latter-day Saints. Brian Hauglid wrote this in 2015:

Curiously, prior to purchasing the Egyptian papyri in 1835 Kirtland, Joseph Smith and others already seemed quite interested in ancient languages, particularly the pure language of Adam. From a document titled, “A Sample of pure Language given by Joseph the Seer as copied by Br Johnson,” which was probably drafted in Hiram, Ohio, in March 1832, we find a series of questions and answers concerning how the names of God, Christ, angels, the earth, and man would be pronounced in the pure Adamic language.[24]

It seems that interest in a pure language was still present in the first half of 1835 as well. On the back of a letter, which W. W. Phelps wrote to his wife, Sally, dated May 26, 1835, Phelps added what he termed, “A Specimen of some of the ‘pure language.’” Beneath this title Phelps drew several columns placing characters in one column, terms in another, and explanations in a third.[25] Interestingly, as we shall see, this same lexicographical scheme continues into the more intense Egyptian program that emerges after the reception of the Egyptian papyri.

Two other considerations of Phelps’s May 1835 letter may evidence some kind of an ongoing Egyptian language project occurring before the arrival of the mummies and papyri in Kirtland. First, the three Egyptian alphabet documents (EA) employ the same characters as those found in the “Specimen” letter (albeit with different explanations) and, second, the first page and a half of the EA documents contain characters not associated with the papyri.[26] In fact, it is quite apparent where the unrelated characters end and the papyri characters begin. This suggests that the production of at least the first part of the Egyptian alphabet documents predates the July 1835 arrival of the papyri.

Here is an important detail: the Kirtland Egyptian Papers don’t just have Egyptian characters. One of them, the Egyptian Counting paper, has a mix of multiple scripts but not a single Egyptian character. It’s clear this page at least could not possibly be of any use in even pretending to “translate” Egyptian. So what was going on?

As I previously discussed, William Schryver’s hypothesis is that “Egyptian” was synonymous (for W.W. Phelps and possibly others) with “pure language,” a reasonable point, and more controversially, that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers project was a short-lived attempt to equate chunks of English with brief characters not for the purpose of translating the characters, but for encrypting the English. But we don’t have evidence showing that such encryption was used, apart perhaps from whatever was being done with the Egyptian characters and concocted composites of Egyptian characters that were placed in the margins of 3 manuscripts that had a fraction of the Book of Abraham copied onto them. Maybe Phelps wanted to encrypt, but maybe he was seeking to understand how “pure language” might allow various characters, especially but not exclusively those from the Egyptian scrolls, to convey complex, detailed ideas. Joseph may have been interested in the work as well from an intellectual standpoint, but whatever the goal was of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar and related documents, they seem to be dependent on an existing translation, not the other way around.


Sadly, One of the Most Important Documents for Understanding the Kirtland Egyptian Papers Seems to Be Missing from the Joseph Smith Papers Project

The quote from Hauglid above mentions a May 1835 letter from W.W. Phelps that shares some  characters from his own “pure language” work. Take a look at the image below of Phelps’ letter, courtesy of the Religious Studies Center at BYU:

The May 1835 letter of W.W. Phelps to his wife. Click to enlarge.

This fascinating letter is a smoking gun, of sorts, for, as William Schryver pointed out long ago, it shows a variety of symbols that Phelps was working with weeks before Joseph saw and purchased mummies and scrolls from Egypt. The six strange but simple characters from Phelps surprisingly are also found in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. Their source is not Egyptian writing. But there they are, plainly visible in the middle of page 1 of an Kirtland Egyptian Papers document listed as “Egyptian Alphabet, circa Early July–circa November 1835–B” on the Joseph Smith Papers website:

The same six characters from Phelps, written before he ever saw an Egyptian scroll, are now part of the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar that we are supposed to believe that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Abraham.

This letter may be one of the most important documents to consider when understanding what the Kirtland Egyptian Papers mean and what they represent. The letter uses the same format in the Egyptian papers (three columns, one for characters, one for the sound ascribed to them, and one for the English “translation” or associated text), similar to the columns used in the Book of Abraham manuscripts that are said to show how Joseph created the translation, even though they are much more likely to have been copied from an already completed document (see my posts, “The Smoking Gun for Joseph’s Translation of the Book of Abraham, or Copied Manuscripts from an Existing Translation?,” and “My Hypothesis Overturned: What Typos May Tell Us About the Book of Abraham“). The letter compared to the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar appears to reflect W.W. Phelps’ thoughts  and creativity regarding “pure language”/”Egyptian.” Since Phelps is using characters from his pet project that he had written before he saw real Egyptian, is this document really showing us how Joseph’s translation was done? Or is it a window into W.W. Phelps’ thinking more than Joseph’s revelatory methods?

What was the purpose of this document then? Perhaps it was to encipher English, as Schryver argued, or to reverse engineer the completed translation, as Nibley argued, or to create/explore a “pure language” in some way, or to explore hidden relationships between Egyptian from near Facsimile 1 to the translated text. It’s murky. But the Alphabet and Grammar was not how Joseph did the translation, and the letter from Phelps helps us understand that, or at least undermines sloppy theories about what these Kirtland Egyptian Papers tell us about Joseph Smith.

Phelps’ letter is vital for more fully understanding the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.  Brian Hauglid, as noted above, mentioned it and showed it in his 2015 chapter, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project: ‘A Knowledge of Hidden Languages’,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 474–511. That was before he denounced faithful LDS Egyptologists as “abhorrent” apologists and began adapting the views of some critics of the Church. Hauglid, as an editor for the Joseph Smith Papers project pertaining to the Book of Abraham, has received a great deal of well earned credit and praise for his work in bringing together and describing many early LDS documents related to the Book of Abraham, but sadly, it lacks the valuable May 1835 letter of W.W. Phelps to his wife. This important document is not found anywhere on the Joseph Smith Papers website, as far as I can tell. Why? An oversight? A legal issue that didn’t prevent BYU from sharing it on their website? Or outside the scope of the project? But I hope they’ll add it and link to it. Update, April 19, 2019: While I personally wish it were there, it’s clearly not possible for every tangential paper to be included within the limited scope of the project in Volume 4 pertaining to the Book of Abraham, or for the website as a whole (see a helpful comment below by Dr. Robin Jensen on this issue). But I am grateful that we can at least see the key part of it on the Religious Studies Center site. [end update] It deserves to be known.

For some time Hauglid, while working on the Joseph Smith Papers and lecturing on behalf of the Maxwell Institute, has been on a “transformative journey,” leading him to publicly denounce fellow BYU professors and experienced Egyptologists for their defense of the Book of Abraham, as he posted on Facebook (now widely quoted, often with glee):

For the record, I no longer hold the views that have been quoted from my 2010 book in these videos. I have moved on from my days as an “outrageous” apologist. In fact, I’m no longer interested or involved in apologetics in any way. I wholeheartedly agree with Dan’s (Dan Vogel’s) excellent assessment of the Abraham/Egyptian documents in these videos. I now reject a missing Abraham manuscript. I agree that two of the Abraham manuscripts were simultaneously dictated. I agree that the Egyptian papers were used to produce the BoA. I agree that only Abr. 1:1-2:18 were produced in 1835 and that Abr. 2:19-5:21 were produced in Nauvoo. And on and on. I no longer agree with Gee or Mulhestein. I find their apologetic “scholarship” on the BoA abhorrent. One can find that I’ve changed my mind in my recent and forthcoming publications. The most recent JSP Revelations and Translation vol. 4, The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts (now on the shelves) is much more open to Dan’s thinking on the origin of the Book of Abraham. My friend Brent Metcalfe can attest to my transformative journey.

John Gee has used the Phelps letter in refuting the significance of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers as a window into Joseph Smith’s translation. Meanwhile, Hauglid gave a faith-shaking (for some, as I learned from a shaken member) lecture to BYU students in January 2019 that neglected to mention John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, or any shred of evidence in support of the authenticity of the Book of Abraham, and that also, of course, made no mention of Phelps’ letter and his “pure language” fascination. Maybe that letter is there on the Joseph Smith Papers site and I’ve missed it. Let me know! But I don’t see the letter in my search attempts or on the links on his biography. It’s certainly not included in Volume 4. Seems like it ought to be on the site somewhere, especially given its relevance to the Book of Abraham.

Here’s what John Gee had to say in 2015 about the Phelps letter. Ouch, he also criticizes the Joseph Smith Papers for giving too early a date to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, and if correct, that’s also a serious issue:

As William Schryver has pointed out, the format of many of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers follows that format established by W. W. Phelps in work he did on the pure language in May 1835 before anyone in the Church had heard of the papyri. All of them are from his collection of manuscripts. Kirtland Egyptian Papers show the influence of his thinking and were begun in his handwriting. They show what W. W. Phelps thought. They include the famous “Grammar and aphabet [sic]” book, which has been incorrectly included as the work of Joseph Smith on the Joseph Smith Papers website.

Contrary to the date provided on the Joseph Smith Papers website, the book cannot date to 1835. How do we know that? The system of transliteration that Phelps used in the book follows the transliteration system taught by Josiah Seixas beginning in January of 1836. Words with long final vowels end in an “h.” The transliteration system used before that does not have the “h” and this can be seen in the transcriptions of the same words made in October 1835. Since the book has the later system, it must date after the later system was taught and thus must date after its introduction in January 1836. Joseph Smith’s journal entries indicate that within a week of receiving Hebrew books, Joseph dropped working on Egyptian in favor of Hebrew.[77]

We have no record of Joseph Smith working on Egyptian materials from November 1835 until the beginning of 1842. Although Joseph Smith’s journals have numerous gaps starting in the spring of 1836, from October 1835 to April 1836, we have good records of what he was doing, and he was working on projects other than studying Egyptian after November 1835. This means that he was not working on the so-called Grammar and Alphabet, with its 1836 transliteration system. That work, instead, should be attributed to the man in whose handwriting it is and whose format it follows: W. W. Phelps.

–John Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 427–48.

Hauglid, of course, is coming out with a book on the Pearl of Great Price co-authored by one of my favorite LDS thinkers, Terryl Givens, who, I fear, may not fully appreciate the possibility of Hauglid’s approach being informed by something other than an open mind on the evidence around the Book of Abraham (seriously, the denouncement of fellow scholars and his refusal to recognize their work in his BYU lecture in January just doesn’t seem scholarly, so I’m worried that this attitude may influence many choices made in the book). Will their book include a helpful review of some of the positive finds from LDS scholars, similar to the excellent treatment in Givens’ previous work on the Book of Mormon? I suspect not. Will there be abundant footnotes to the fascinating and faith-promoting insights from the “abhorrent” ones? I suspect not. Will we be told that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers may primarily serve to give us a window into W.W. Phelps views, and that the key documents that are said to show Joseph’s translation in progress actually are copies made of an existing translation? I suspect not. But here’s hoping for a fair shake.

Anyone have an advance copy of their book that I can review? Would love to see it and hope it’s helpful and fair.

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

Author: Jeff Lindsay

7 thoughts on “The Pure Language Project

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jeff. One point of clarification. There are many, many documents that shed light on Joseph Smith's papers and his history but, because of the criteria established by the Joseph Smith Papers, they are not included in the corpus of the Joseph Smith Papers. As you well know, just because we do not publish a document in our print volumes or on our website, does not mean that we are unaware or do not to use the information from that document in our annotation. You've of course noticed that the latest volume of the Revelations and Translations series of the Joseph Smith Papers makes use of the William W. Phelps to Sally Phelps letter along with with many other (non-Joseph Smith) documents that offer insight into the Book of Abraham and other related manuscripts. Thank you for spreading the word of the availability of the newest Joseph Smith Papers volume.

  2. That makes sense. I guess if every tangentially related document were included, it would take several dozen volumes. The Joseph Smith Papers really are a remarkable blessiing and wonderful tool that allow people everywhere, even here in China, to look at details for themselves and learn much more about our history. Thank you!

  3. As a "shaken member" (not because of Hauglid), I just don't get the "Phelps did it" theory. Even if nothing existed in his handwriting, we still have plenty of KEP material in other's handwriting.

    What evidence is their that the pure language project came from Phelps mind, and not another revelation he was passing on to his wife (as he was apt to do)?

    How is the alphabet document in Joseph Smith's own handwriting explained? I own a copy of Gee's 2017 introduction to the Book of Abraham, and all the Nibley volumes, and can't find any explanation for it.

  4. My suggestion is to weigh the evidence. Book of Abraham evidence is weaker evidence than Book of Mormon evidence. Any conclusions about the Book of Abraham are on shakier footing. If you enjoy the puzzle of the Book of Abraham, then by all means spend time on it. But get shaken over the Book of Mormon, not over the Book of Abraham.

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