The Anthon Affair

In the Book of Mormon, Joe Smith has his Nephi protagonist say, "Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians." (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 1:2).

At the end of the book, Smith calls the writing "reformed Egyptian" characters:

"And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record." (Book of Mormon 9:32-33)

None of the Old Testament, of course, is written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. With his "sufficiently large" comment, Smith implies that "reformed Egyptian," as an "altered" language, is a compact writing form, a type of ancient shorthand (Book of Mormon Student Manual, prepared by the Church Educational System, published by the LDS Church, 1979, pp. 13-14).

William W. Phelps was an early Mormon editor. He, of course, left the "church" and called Smith a false prophet, as did most of the eleven "witnesses" to the Book of Mormon and most of the first twelve apostles. While he was a member, though, Phelps wrote,

"The places where they dug for the plates, in Manchester, are to be seen. When the plates were said to have been found, a copy of one or two lines of the characters, were taken by Mr. Harris to Utica, Albany and New York; at New York, they were shown to Dr. Mitchell, and he referred to professor Anthon who translated and declared them to be the ancient shorthand Egyptian. So much is true" (Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, Painesville, OH, 1834, pp. 276-277).

The formal Egyptian writing found in pyramids is hieroglyphics, a pictographic script. Words for "bird" or "insect" were pictures of the particular animal. Egyptians developed hieratics as a cursive, shorthand version of hieroglyphics. The demotic script used by the masses was an even more cursive and abbreviated form of hieratics.

Smith knew that if people saw what appeared to be a scholar's certificate authenticating "reformed Egyptian" as a genuine language, he could fool more people into joining his "church." Seeing what appeared to be renowned scholar Charles Anthon's imprimatur on Smith's characters influenced Phelps to join Smith's "church."

To carry out his deception, Joe Smith made some doodlings on a piece of paper and gave the page to Martin Harris. Smith told Harris that these characters were copied from the "golden plates." In the winter of 1828, Harris traveled to Columbia University scholar Charles Anthon's home in New York and knocked on the door. After the visit, Smith lied about Anthon's pronunciation on the characters:

"I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them. Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows: 'I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters that had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters.'" (Joseph Smith—History, 1:62-64, 1982 edition)

When professor Anthon learned that Smith was fraudulently using his name, he vehemently denied authenticating Smith's translation. Anthon's denial letter is preserved in A Comprehensive History of the Church (vol. 1, p. 103). Additionally, Charles Anthon could not have known if the "translation was correct" because in 1828 no one in the United States could translate Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The document Harris brought to Anthon is extant. It is referred to as Martin Harris' Visit with Charles Anthon: Collected Documents, Preliminary Report by the F.A.R.M.S. staff, No. STF-85a (F.A.R.M.S., 1985). Here is a graphic of the Anthon Transcript. Even the apologetic Encyclopedia of Mormonism acknowledges that the characters on the Anthon Transcript represent the actual characters Martin Harris showed to Charles Anthon.

The Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes:

"The reorganized church of Jesus Christ of latter-day saints possesses a handwritten text known as the Anthon Transcript that contains seven horizontal lines of characters apparently copied from the plates. . . . Even if the document is not the original, it almost certainly represents characters either copied from the plates in Joseph Smith's possession or copied from the document carried by Harris." ("Anthon Transcript," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel Ludlow, ed., Macmillan Pub., Vol. 1, 1992)

As one can see, the characters are mostly doodles of English letters. Egyptologist Klaus Baer, of the University of Chicago, said that the characters are nothing but "doodlings" (Jerald & Sandra Tanner, Changing World of Mormonism, Moody Press, 1980, p. 143). Dr. Baer found no resemblance of Joe Smith's "reformed Egyptian" characters to Egyptian hieroglyphics, hieratics, or demotics. Mormons have not been able to pass peer review with language experts, and have not been able to build a case for the characters as Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac and Arabic, the specific languages Smith mentioned. The papers written by Mormon "scholars" are not taken seriously by language experts.

Charles Anthon would not have authenticated the doodlings either. Because Charles Anthon was, according to his biography, a man of sterling scholarship and character, he would not have lied for strangers who were trying to pass off doodlings as an authentic language. Since scholars today have not made heads or tails of Smith's gibberish writing in the Harris document, Anthon certainly would not have made sense of it either; therefore, Smith and the Mormon "church" are caught in a transparent and clumsy hoax.

Because the Mormon "church" used these doodlings in an 1844 broadside advertisement for the Book of Mormon, Mormons are stuck with the doodlings as a representation of "reformed Egyptian." The broadside was titled "Stick of Joseph." (See article in BYU Studies, vol. 20, no. 4, p. 325) A photo of the broadside is printed in The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard (Deseret Book, 1992, p. 57). Here is a graphic of the broadside. LDS authorities also printed some of the characters in the December 21, 1844 issue of the Mormon newspaper The Prophet. Characters from the Anthon visit, from the broadside and from The Prophet newspaper are similar enough for one to identify a common source.

Furthermore, the Book of Mormon declares that nobody can read "Reformed Egyptian" because it was "altered" (Book of Mormon 9:32-34), yet Joe Smith, in his story of Martin Harris' visit to Charles Anthon, claims that Anthon verified the translation of the characters as "correct." How would Anthon know if they were correct, if the Book of Mormon were true? How could Professor Anthon say that the characters shown to him by Martin Harris were "correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian," when the Book of Mormon itself declares that the characters were "reformed Egyptian," the language of the Nephites. Since the language of the Book of Mormon was known to "none other people," how could Professor Anthon have verified the accuracy of Smith's translation? The lie is established by using Smith's own words.

I urge Mormons to evaluate Joe Smith's "reformed Egyptian" characters on the Harris document and to note the English 2, 3, H, B, etc., in the common cursive handwriting of Smith's day. To make his imposture less observable, Smith gave flourishes and squiggles to other English letters. Notice that both the Harris document and the broadside share three identical characters in a row. To the immediate right of an upper case "A" is a "t," and to the immediate right of the "t" is an upside down "t." One does not need to be a professional such as Dr. Klaus Baer to find Smith's doodlings a clumsy hoax.

By Mark Hines, M.A.