In an important publication from the Joseph Smith Papers Project, 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, one of the Book of Abraham transcripts written in the Nauvoo area is said to likely represent Joseph Smith’s original translation, a claim made contrary to reasoned conclusions in the writings of John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, and others arguing that this portion at least of the Book of Abraham was probably already done by 1835. The previously published case for the translation having already been done in 1835 is not addressed, but to their credit, the editors of JSPRT4 offer a reason for their belief that this represents original scripture, giving readers a chance to evaluate this and other positions that are taken on a variety of controversies (often without alerting the reader that a controversy exists).
I’ll address this claim in a moment, but let me first note that in spite of my objections to what I see as bias in the commentary, footnotes, and a few other elements, the core of JSPRT4 is outstanding, giving us detailed photographs and transcriptions of most (but not all) of the key documents from Joseph Smith and his associates related to the Book of Abraham. It’s an amazing accomplishment and a precious tool that can help us better dig into details to understand many Book of Abraham issues. I do have a problem, however, with the many positions it takes on important debates where I fear personal bias has played too large a role and may lead some readers to unwarranted conclusions.
The document I’m discussing in this post is Willard Richards’ March 1842 Book of Abraham manuscript covering Abraham 3:18-26 (the link is to the document and its transcript at the Joseph Smith Papers website). Just two pages survive, labeled as pages 7 and 8, obviously from a longer manuscript that we do not have. The commentary in JSPRT4 page 285 states that, “The handwriting of this manuscript appears rushed, suggesting that this document is part of the original manuscript dictated by JS to Richards [emphasis added].” The “suggestion” that Joseph might have dictated this document seems to have quickly solidified into fact in the following sentence: “Following the dictation, it appears that this manuscript was marked for publication.”
An important conclusion directly relevant to the debates on the origin of the Book of Abraham and the meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers seems to depend on the perception of the editors that this second Book of Abraham manuscript from Willard Richards is “rushed.” I can appreciate that perception, for the writing of Richards in this, his second Book of Abraham manuscript from 1842, the one that supposedly shows the rushing impact of the ever impetuous Joseph Smith dictating at high speed, does have a certain sloppiness or “rushedness” in its appearance, as you can see in this portion from the first page, labeled p. 7 (click to enlarge):
Now compare that his first Book of Abraham manuscript, named “Book of Abraham Manuscript and Explanation to Accompany Facsimile 1, circa February 1842 [Abraham 1:1–2:18]” on the JSP website, where he is copying text that we know was available in 1835, apparently preparing a manuscript for final publication in 1842, and certainly does not represent live dictation of new scripture from Joseph Smith. Here we see a portion of page 2 of his first Book of Abraham manuscript:
The Historical Introduction of this document on the JSP website indicates that this document, which originally consisted of passages from our Abraham 1:1−2:18, “may have been copied from an earlier, though unknown, manuscript or set of manuscripts.” Further confirming that explanation are the emendations in the document showing the kind of errors that come when visually copying another document. Forgive my subjective opinion here, but this latter “unrushed” document looks rather similar to the “rushed” document above. For those of you with far better scholarly credentials than we untrained bloggers, please feel free to help me understand the distinction between Richards’ handwriting when Joseph is revealing scripture versus when he is copying and editing a manuscript. Rushed, unrushed — I just don’t have the credentials to figure this out!
But I can ask questions, which I supposed is one of my more annoying characteristics. So here are a few questions that I feel should be addressed before a scholarly conclusion can be made about the meaning of the 2nd Richards Book of Abraham manuscript document and its implications for the timing of the original translation of Abraham 3:
- Is a “rushed” appearance in the handwriting sufficient to demonstrate that Gee and other scholars were wrong in their analysis of numerous factors indicating that Abraham 3 was probably already translated by 1835?
- Is this “rushed” appearance significantly different than other examples of handwriting by Willard Richards when he was not taking dictation? In addition to his first Book of Abraham manuscript mentioned above where he is apparently copying text that was clearly translated in 1835, there are others to consider. For example, when Richards made a copy of the arrest warrant for Joseph Smith in late 1842 (provided on the JSP website), is there something fundamentally and quantifiably different in that document relative to this Book of Abraham manuscript which requires that live dictation must have been occurring in the latter? For example, did the editors consider any objective measures of nonuniformity in spacing, letter size, loop formation, slant angle, etc.? Did they analyze changes in ink flow, typographical errors, smearing, malformed letters, typographical errors, wiped versus scraped corrections, or other measures that tell us this document shows such a high level of “rushedness” that it meets objective criteria to distinguish it from ordinary copying or composition? Or was this a subjective evaluation made without reference to controls that might be nothing more than confirmation bias?
- If the document is unusually “rushed” compared to Richards’ other documents, is live dictation necessarily the cause for the appearance of Richards’ handwriting? After all, there may be other reasons for being in a hurry on any particular day. I can assure you, for example, that I’ve written a few blog posts in a highly rushed manner with far less care than I see in Richards’ rushed manuscript — and I rarely take dictation when blogging, even when feeling particularly inspired.
- If we are certain that dictation was involved, how do we know who was dictating? As in the case of the twin Book of Abraham manuscripts, it’s frustrating to see assumptions be elevated to the level of fact without recognizing the leaps of faith or leaps of bias it took to reach that result.
- Even if it clearly is Joseph dictating, how can we tell that the dictation was of newly revealed scripture?
But perhaps this is all just nit-picking on my recalcitrant part. However, a late Nauvoo-era origin for the Book of Abraham translation fits the view of the editors that Joseph’s gradually developing theological and cosmological views influenced the direction of the Book of Abraham, bringing his Nauvoo-era thinking into the final chapters. But there is a reasonable possibility that the revelation of the Book of Abraham is what influenced some of Joseph’s thinking, rather than the other way around, and that is especially likely if Abraham 3, for example, were already available before the Nauvoo era. It’s an important issue, but rather than a scholarly weighing of the possibilities based on considering prior scholarship and objective evidence, we seem to have a personal opinion elevated to fact girded by nothing more than a subjective opinion about “rushedness” that may not bear any genuine scrutiny. The impact of such bias is too common in JSPRT4 and has had a harmful effect on some, in my opinion, which is why I dared to challenge this book, painful as that has been. Such personal biases, though sincerely held, should not be elevated as a scholarly conclusion quietly embedded in the Church’s publication on the Book of Abraham without pointing to the scholarship, if any, that justifies such controversial viewpoints that are contrary to the published works of significant LDS scholars.
Somewhat strangely, it’s not just the conclusions of other LDS scholars that are being overturned in the final published commentary in JSPRT4, it’s also the prior work of Brian Hauglid himself and, most curiously, the commentary provided on the JSP website for this document, where the “Historical Introduction” states:
Though no earlier iteration has survived, several contemporaneous corrections made to the text suggest it may have been copied from a prior draft. (Hauglid, Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 5–6, 22, 150–151.)
So what happened between the publication of the provisional website and the final publication to JSPRT4 that lead Hauglid and Jensen to reverse this position that presumably they and their team drafted?
The “Historical Introduction” makes a noteworthy point regarding “contemporaneous corrections,” such as corrections and changes made on the fly during the drafting or dictation. Apart from catching spelling errors and other similar typos, when Joseph was dictating, the resulting documents didn’t have a lot of inline corrections. He generally dictated scripture without making major changes on the fly. This was an important point made by the JSP team in a 2017 volume prior to JSPRT4 as other JSP editors discussed the twin manuscripts of the Book of Abraham that are also in JSPRT4.
Regarding the Book of Abraham Manuscripts A and B, two documents from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers collections with a few “Egyptian” characters in the margins, Brent M. Rogers, et al., the editors of another volume in the JSP series, Documents: Volume 5, January 1835–October 1838, recognized that what was being dictated in the twin manuscripts most likely came from an already existing text, not original scripture being created by live dictation by Joseph Smith: “Textual evidence suggests that these Book of Abraham texts were based on an earlier manuscript that no longer exists” (pp. 74-75). The supporting footnote explains:
Documents dictated directly by JS typically had few paragraph breaks, punctuation marks, or contemporaneous alterations to the text. All the extant copies, including the featured text, have regular paragraphing and punctuation included at the time of transcription as well as several cancellations and insertions. [emphasis added]
This point was ignored in JSPRT4, which favors the idea that the twin manuscripts represent Joseph’s dictation and that it may represent the creation of original translated text. How that point from Documents: Volume 5 was overturned remains unclear in the JSP Project rebuttal to my objections (see the comments in particular for my queries).
I remain grateful to the editors and to the entire JSP team for the outstanding work they have done in providing the original documents with high-quality photographs and generally excellent transcripts, so that people can examine the details on their own and evaluate the subtle assumptions that permeate JSPRT4.
Looking at the two-pages of Richards’ document, there are some signs of the kind of punctuation that might not be expected from Joseph’s dictation, such as the colon in “there shall be another more inteligent [sic] than they: I am the Lord thy God” on the first page. After this colon comes a series of semicolons and numerous commas. Here is the entire transcript of this document from the JSP Project website, which is slightly less accurate (but fine for my purposes here) than the final version published in JSPRT4:
they shall exist after, for they are im mortal Gnolaum, or Eternal. —<P. 21.> <or> Now the Lord said unto me, these 2 facts <do exist, that there are 2 spirits> one being more intelignt than th[e] other, do exist there shall be another more inteligent than they: I am the Lord thy God <I am more intelegnt than they all.> The Lord thy God set sent his angel to deliver thee from the hands of the Pri[e]st of Elkenah. he who <I> dwelleth in the midst of them all; I, now, therefore, have come down unto thee, to declare unto thee the works, which my hands have made, wherein my wisdom excelleth them all, for I ruleth in the heavens above, & in the earth beneath, in <all> wisdom & prudence, over all th inteligences thine eyes have seen frm the beginnig; I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelejences thou hast seen. <P. 22> Now the Lord had shewn unto me, [p. 7] Abaham, the inteligences that were organized bfore the world was; and among all these were many of the noble & great onees, and God saw these souls that they were good, & he stood in the midst of them, and he said, these, I will make my rulers; for he stood among these <those> that were spirits, & he saw that they were good; & he said untto me, Abraham, thou art one of them, thou art Chosen before thou wast born. & there stood one among htem <them> that was like unto God, & he said unto those, who were with him, we will go down, there for there is space there, & we will take of these materials, & we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; & we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall comm[an]d them; & they, who keep their first estate, shall be added upon; [p. 8]
We have 1 colon, 8 semicolons, 10 periods, and 35 commas in this short passage. This is a fairly high level of punctuation, consistent with the view that Richards is using a manuscript that has already been punctuated. But even more important may be the evidence from the emendations.
In the second sentence, Richards first wrote this: “Now the Lord said unto me, these 2 facts one being more intelignt than th other, do exist there shall be another more inteligent than they: I am the Lord thy God the Lord thy God set his angel to deliver thee from the hands of the Prist of Elkenah.” This passage shows classic errors that occur when a scribe is copying from an existing document. First, he skipped several words, perhaps a line: “do exist, that there are 2 spirits” and then, after catching the mistake, had to insert that phrase above the already written line. This is not likely to represent Joseph changing his mind and making an alteration because it would require dictating something that makes no sense when spoken. Did Joseph say, “these 2 facts one being more intelligent than the other, do exist”?
With “2 facts” having already been written, it would be easy to look back at the document being copied and see “2 spirits” and think that “2 spirits” had just been written, then moving on from there. Similar phrases like “2 facts” and “2 spirits” are often ripe opportunities for scribal confusion resulting in skipped or repeated words as the eye loses the proper place in the document, confused by something similar. The skipped line or phrase with “do exist” may have then been seen and recognized as new text, resulting in continuing with “do exist,” but then recognizing something was wrong. The misplaced “do exist” may then have been stricken out and the missing phrase “do exist, that there are 2 spirits” was then inserted in the proper place, above the line.
Such mistakes and corrections are a tell-tale sign of visual copying, not taking live dictation.
Next a phrase is skipped between two identical phrases, “the Lord thy God,” which could have caused confusion, perhaps right after the second occurrence of “Lord thy God” was written. Such a skipped section was not typical of Joseph’s dictation style, as noted in that other JSP volume, Documents: Volume 5.
After mentioning the priest of Elkenah, it’s conceivable that Richards’ saw “dwell” or “dwelleth” in “I dwelleth” (like the “I ruleth” a couple line later that was changed to “I rule”) and assumed it was about the priest, resulting in “he who dwelleth” before changing it to “I dwelleth” or, perhaps at the same time, to “I dwell” (the document he was copying might have had “I dwelleth” and “I ruleth”). The mechanism behind this emendation is less clear. But the few remaining emendations, such as changing “in wisdom” to “in all wisdom” (inserting a skipped “all”), initially skipping “for” in “for there is space there” and writing “htem” instead of “them” are, as a whole, more likely to reflect visual copying errors rather than errors in Joseph’s dictation that required on-the-fly corrections.
In other words, textual analysis of this document strongly suggests that Richards was working with an existing document. The text he produced is not likely to reflect live dictation of new scripture by Joseph Smith, or even dictation at all from anybody else. The assumption woven into the commentary of JSPRT4, which favors the personal bias of the editors, may have serious scholarship behind it, but the justification for that position is not evidence in the text and, pending further clarification, should be rejected as improperly supported.
Again, for clarity, when I question the lack of consideration of prior scholarship on this matter and question the inadequate justification for the controversial position taken, my objection is not about failing to meet my expectations for a plush historiography, but a possible problem in the scholarship itself (and a problem of personal bias playing far too big of a role) that merits more attention. If a controversial position is going to be taken on key issues such as the dates of document, at least acknowledge that a controversy exists and share the reasons for overturning the work of other LDS scholars. If there is strong evidence supporting the position taken that requires overturning prior scholarship, including scholarship from other editors of related JSP publications, I would hope for more information to explain that position, something more than assertions and the subjective perception of a document being rushed. Otherwise it’s fair to wonder if inappropriate bias has crept into that volume on important matters related to the origins of the Book of Abraham and the question, for example, of whether the revealed Book of Abraham influenced Joseph’s evolving views on theology and cosmology, or visa versa.
Yes, Joseph did grow and develop in his thinking over time, and we can see, for example, that what he learned in Hebrew study in early 1836 may have given his some new tools that led to a few edits in the Book of Abraham, such as the insertion of several Hebrew words into the Book of Abraham or possibly adjusting how he worded some phrases in the Creation account. Such edits could have been done as late glosses or adjustments to the Book of Abraham as he was doing a little further “translation” in 1842 to prepare some of the work for publication. But there was not nearly enough translation time reported then to account for the majority of the text being translated in 1842. There are several lines of evidence, previously discussed here, pointing to the majority if not all of the text and even more that we don’t have now having been translated by 1835. Meanwhile, the subjective and questionable evidence of a “rushed” appearance for Willard Richards’ 1842 manuscript 2 with part of Abraham 3 in no way indicates that his document came from live dictation of new scripture rattled off by Joseph Smith.
(Thanks to reader “Joe Peaceman” for his comments on spelling issues in Richards’ documents and the suggestion to look more closely at these manuscripts. )