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Anthon Transcript: Did Charles Anthon Authenticate the Book of Mormon Characters or Translation?

Anthon Transcript: Did Charles Anthon Authenticate the Book of Mormon Characters or Translation?

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Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon from text written in Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics on gold plates entrusted to him temporarily by an angel. Since the gold plates, if they ever existed, are no longer extant, no Book of Mormon written in an ancient language is available to be read or even examined. However, Joseph Smith claimed that two classics scholars, Charles Anthon and Samuel Mitchill, examined a transcript of some of the characters from the plates and that they authenticated the characters and confirmed the accuracy of his translation of those characters. Joseph made this claim in a part of his autobiography (written in 1838-1839 and first published in 1842) that was later incorporated under the title “Joseph Smith–History” into the LDS scripture collection Pearl of Great Price. Moreover, there is a piece of paper extant that many Mormons believe is that transcript, or a copy of it. 

If these things were so, the so-called Anthon transcript and its authentication by two respected scholars would provide some credibility for the claim made by Joseph Smith to have translated the Book of Mormon from ancient gold plates. The Anthon transcript, if authentic, is the only significant physical artifact that Mormons believe contains text from the gold plates (although a few later documents, apparently dependent on the transcript, also reproduced some of its characters). The incident with Anthon is also important in LDS religion because Joseph Smith claimed that the incident fulfilled a prophecy found both in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. 

In Summary 

  • Martin Harris did take a piece of paper to Charles Anthon and Samuel Mitchill and ask their opinion of the characters on the paper.
  • The paper almost certainly did not include a translation of the characters, and if it had neither Anthon nor Mitchill could possibly have validated that translation.
  • Anthon’s assessment was that the characters were a mix or hodge-podge of characters from several different languages and other meaningless marks, and definitely not a form of ancient Egyptian.
  • Anthon may have acknowledged that some of the characters resembled those of some ancient languages, but he could not have authenticated the characters as a whole.
  • Joseph’s account of the incident with Anthon found in the LDS scripture Joseph Smith–History contains proven falsehoods.

The Anthon Transcript: What Can We Know about It?

Before going any further, it is worth commenting briefly on the possibilities and limitations of human knowledge about the past. Some things can be known with reasonable certainty or at least with a high level of confidence or assurance; some things can likewise be disproved either definitively or beyond reasonable doubt; and some claims about the past are difficult to assess simply because we don’t have enough information. In history, one need not choose between absolute proof for every conclusion or total skepticism; there is a spectrum of possible judgments about historical claims, with most claims falling in that area between what is most likely true and what is most unlikely to be true. As I shall explain, we can know some things about the Anthon transcript even while some things remain uncertain or debatable.

We may begin by setting out what facts we have that are undisputed by anyone. In February 1828 Martin Harris, a farmer considering financing Joseph’s work on the “Gold Bible” (as it was commonly called at the time), went to New York City to meet with some scholars about the project. Harris took a piece of paper containing a number of characters that Joseph said he had copied from the gold plates. It is certain that Harris met with Charles Anthon, at the time a professor of classical languages at Columbia College. Everyone agrees that Harris also showed the paper to someone called in LDS sources “Mitchell,” whom scholars have identified as Samuel L. Mitchill, a physician and professor with education and interest in classical studies.1 After meeting with these scholars, Harris returned home and agreed to support Joseph’s work financially.

Beyond these facts there is little agreement in the primary sources or in later commentary and analysis as to what exactly happened, let alone what it means.

The Anthon Transcript in Joseph Smith–History 

The official, canonical account of the event in Joseph Smith–History (which Joseph wrote in 1838) will be the point of departure in this study for investigating the facts about the Anthon affair.

62 By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there 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, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following. 63 Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned 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:

64 I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which 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. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him. 65 He then said to me, “Let me see that certificate.” I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, “I cannot read a sealed book.” I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation. (Joseph Smith–History 1:62-65)

This account contains five key claims about what happened: 

  1. The paper that Joseph gave to him to take to the scholars included both a copy of characters from the plates and a translation of some of those characters (1:62-63).
  2. Harris first visited Anthon, who told Harris that the translation provided for some of the characters “was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian” (1:64a).
  3. Anthon also said that the untranslated characters were genuine “Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic” characters (1:64a).
  4. Anthon wrote a certificate authenticating the characters and validating the translation, but he then tore it up when Harris told him that the characters had come from plates given to Joseph by an angel (1:64b-65a).
  5. Harris then took the paper to Mitchill, who confirmed Anthon’s assessment of both the characters and the translation (1:65b).

We will consider each of these claims in turn.

(1) The Anthon transcript did not include a translation of any of the characters.

In Joseph Smith–History, Joseph claimed that the paper presented by Harris to Anthon included a translation of some of the characters. This claim is contradicted by the testimonies of earlier sources. One of these, surprisingly, was Joseph himself. In his 1832 History, an earlier version of Joseph’s autobiography that was shelved and forgotten until the 1960s when it was rediscovered, Joseph told a different story of what happened. In that account, Joseph stated that Harris went to the learned man (Anthon) and asked him to read the copied characters, which he was unable to do. Harris then returned to Joseph, at which time Joseph claimed that although he was unlearned, with the spectacles the Lord had prepared for him he could read the book. Joseph says that he then “commenced translating the characters.”2

David Sloan, in an article in the conservative LDS periodical Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, acknowledges that “according to the 1832 history, Joseph could not translate the very same characters that he had previously copied off the plates; furthermore, it was not until the characters were returned to him that he ‘commenced’ translating them.”3

Charles Anthon also stated that the paper Harris showed him included no translation. In a letter written in 1834, Anthon said explicitly that “no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles.”4 Sloan admits that there is no good reason to doubt Anthon’s statement at least in this regard: “Having admitted that the characters were presented to him, Anthon had little incentive to lie about whether or not he saw a translation.”5 One should keep in mind that in 1834, when Anthon made this statement, Joseph had not claimed to have provided a translation for Anthon or other scholars to examine; this was a claim he made later in the 1838 account excerpted in Joseph Smith–History. Thus, Anthon’s statement on the matter was not an attempt to contradict Joseph and should be taken seriously as reflecting the facts.

A third testimony, and the earliest one that addresses the issue in any way, comes from a letter written in 1831 by early convert W. W. Phelps, who became a close associate of Joseph Smith. According to Phelps, Harris took a paper with “one or two lines of the characters” to Anthon “who translated and declared them to be the ancient shorthand Egyptian.”6 Since Phelps was in no way involved in this incident, he is clearly dependent on someone else for his information, either Martin Harris or Joseph Smith. From this statement by Phelps, it is clear that in 1831 Joseph was claiming that the paper presented to Anthon contained characters copied from the plates but not a translation of those characters. In this regard, Phelps’s statement agrees with Joseph’s 1832 History, although it contradicts that account with regard to whether Anthon could translate the characters.

Finally, there is the extant document that is commonly understood to be the Anthon transcript itself. We will say more about this document later in this article. For now, we will simply point out that it does not contain an English translation of any of the supposed ancient characters. Thus, if this document is the Anthon transcript or a copy of it, we have documentary evidence corroborating the three testimonies of Anthon, Joseph Smith’s 1832 History, and W. W. Phelps’s 1831 letter that the transcript contained characters but no translation of them.

All of the sources prior to the account that Joseph produced in 1838 are consistent with this conclusion. That account, which is now Mormon scripture, is the first account on record in which the claim is made that the paper included a translation of some of the characters. Since prior to 1838 both Joseph and Anthon had stated independently that the paper was only a transcript of some characters, with no translation, we must conclude that such was almost certainly the case and that Joseph’s later statement in 1838 is incorrect. Further consideration will reinforce this conclusion beyond any reasonable doubt.

(2) Anthon did not and could not have validated a translation of the characters.

One aspect of Joseph Smith’s version of the Anthon incident is literally impossible: Even if there had been a translation on the paper that Harris had, neither Anthon nor Mitchill could possibly have evaluated any translation of the supposed characters from the gold plates, as Joseph claimed in the official account in Joseph Smith–History. Two facts prove this point beyond reasonable doubt.

First, according to the Book of Mormon itself, the Egyptian characters in which it was written were “reformed” or “altered” by the Nephites to such an extent that no other people knew their language and no one could by natural knowledge read or understand it (Mormon 9:32-34). LDS scholar Stanley Kimball makes the wry observation that “even a reincarnated Egyptian could not have translated the characters.”7 Therefore, if one accepts the Book of Mormon statement as indicative of the nature of the characters that Anthon and Mitchill would have been shown, they could not possibly have deciphered them sufficiently to translate them or to confirm the accuracy of someone else’s translation.

Second, the study of ancient Egyptian texts was in its infancy in 1828; not even the most erudite scholar at the time could have validated a translation of any Egyptian hieroglyphic text, let alone a translation of an otherwise unknown, altered form of Egyptian. Anthon was an accomplished scholar and well-versed in classical languages such as Greek and Latin, but he could not read ancient Egyptian. Nor did anyone else in the Western Hemisphere have any inkling of how to translate ancient Egyptian texts. The statement in Joseph Smith–History that Anthon declared “that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian,” assumes there was a body of scholarship available to Anthon with a good number of ancient Egyptian texts and translations of varying quality that he was able to compare with Joseph’s supposed translation of the characters. No such body of scholarship existed anywhere on earth in 1828.

Mormon scholar John Gee made an inadvertently damaging admission in the course of critiquing an amateur publication purporting to have translated the Anthon transcript: “Scripts that actually have been solved—such as hieroglyphic Hittite, Maya, cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, hieratic, demotic, and Ugaritic—all have immense bodies of texts. I cannot recall a single example of someone being able to decipher an unknown language written in an undeciphered script that was attested in only a single, small, monolingual document.”8 Yet that is exactly what the Anthon transcript would have been in 1828 when, according to Joseph Smith, Anthon and Mitchill each independently validated his translation of the characters on the transcript. Absolutely no other documents in the supposed language script of the gold plates were extant in 1828 or at any other time in modern history.

A commentary on Joseph Smith–History by three Mormon scholars admits that Anthon could not have validated a translation of characters from the gold plates: “How much Professor Anthon would have known about ancient Egyptian demotic or hieratic writing is debatable. He was skilled in classical languages, not in Egyptian. Further, the characters on the plates had been modified by the Nephites such that they may have had little resemblance to their original form. As a result, Anthon would have been unable to tell if the translation was correct.”9

The impossibility of Anthon doing what is claimed in Joseph Smith–History has received little comment by Mormon scholars. One scholar who did attempt to address the problem was Stanley Kimball. Yet his comments on the matter appear to be throw-away suggestions that even he does not take seriously. Kimball suggests that “even though the statement of Martin Harris is now contained in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith was only reporting what Martin Harris said happened and was not necessarily vouching for what Dr. Anthon and Dr. Mitchill reputedly had said.”10 A simple reading of the excerpt from Harris in its context in Joseph Smith–History will quickly invalidate the idea that Joseph might have been reporting what Martin said without intending to present Martin’s statement as factual. The reason Joseph quoted Martin was clearly to enhance the credibility of the account by quoting the sole eyewitness (other than Anthon).

Kimball also suggests that Anthon and Mitchill might have stated that the transcription was correct and that Harris misunderstood them to mean that the translation was correct.11 It is rather implausible that Harris might have misunderstood both scholars in this same way. Such a misunderstanding depends entirely on the similarity of the words transcription and translation, requiring that both scholars referred to the “transcription” with no context or further elaboration that would have made their meaning clear to Harris. Furthermore, this explanation merely creates a different problem, since they also could not have made such an assessment of Joseph’s transcription (copying) of the characters. Remember that the Book of Mormon claims that it was written in Egyptian characters that had been so altered that no other people could have read them (a point that Kimball himself noted).

Kimball’s suggestions, then, are not serious attempts to address the difficulty. A more creative solution was proposed by David Sloan, who hypothesized that the “translation” Harris showed Anthon was an “alphabet of reformed Egyptian” that “consisted of a random list of characters with no independent meaning.”12 Sloan compares the product of Joseph’s efforts at that point in early 1828 to the “Egyptian alphabet and grammar” that Joseph tried to develop for the Book of Abraham in 1835. He suggests that “the initial translation described in the 1839 history was an unsuccessful attempt by the Prophet Joseph Smith to translate the actual English text of the Book of Mormon.”13 Like the Egyptian alphabet Joseph tried to develop for translating the Book of Abraham, “the reformed Egyptian alphabet [of the Book of Mormon] may also well have been a failed experiment that Joseph Smith considered to be a translation.”14 This proposal really suffers from the same problem as the others considered so far. Because the “reformed Egyptian” characters of the gold plates were said to be unrecognizable to anyone because the Nephites had altered them, Anthon and Mitchill would not have been able to recognize or validate the characters, nor could they comment positively on the “translation” even as a simple list of characters and English equivalents.

The impossibility of this part of Joseph Smith’s account of the origins of the Book of Mormon is an extremely serious problem. The fact is that there are significant contradictions between what the Book of Mormon says and what Joseph Smith–History says about Anthon’s and Mitchill’s assessment of the transcript. At least one of these LDS scriptures must be in serious error. 

Book of Mormon versus Joseph Smith–History
Book of Mormon (1830) Joseph Smith–History (1838)
The learned man would not be able to read it (2 Nephi 27:18). Anthon (the learned man) was able to read the characters and verify that the translation was correct (JS-H 1:64).
The characters on the plates were a form of Egyptian characters altered or reformed by the Nephites, and therefore unknown to anyone else (Mormon 9:32). The characters on the plates were identified by Anthon as “Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic” (JS-H 1:64).
The Lord “prepared means for the interpretation” of the plates because no one could read them using their natural knowledge (Mormon 9:34). Anthon was able to decipher the translated characters using his natural knowledge and verify Joseph’s translation (JS-H 1:65).

To review: Joseph Smith claimed that Martin Harris reported that Anthon and Mitchill had both independently confirmed the accuracy of Joseph’s translation of the characters on the transcript. Joseph made this claim, in words attributed to Harris, in order to enhance the credibility of the Book of Mormon. Yet it is logically impossible for Anthon or Mitchill to have expressed any judgment on the accuracy of a translation of a text that neither of them could possibly have deciphered. When this point is taken in conjunction with the strong evidence that there was no supposed translation of the characters on the transcript, as Joseph claimed for the first time in his 1838 account, it follows that both were false claims that Joseph simply made up.

(3) Anthon probably did say that some of the characters looked like characters from various ancient languages, but not that they represented an actual language script.

Immediately after their admission that Anthon could not have validated Joseph Smith’s translation of a small portion of the gold plates, Draper, Brown, and Rhodes attempt to salvage something in Joseph’s account by asserting, “He could, however, make a reasonable guess about the ancient nature of the characters.”15 He could indeed; but what exactly did he say about them?

First of all, Anthon himself twice stated in writing that he had not authenticated the characters. In letters written in 1834 and 1841, Anthon dismissed the characters as meaningless. The paper, he said in the first letter (written to E. D. Howe), “consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets.” The paper included “Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways,” and “contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics.’”16 In his 1841 letter (to Thomas Coit), Anthon recalled that the characters consisted of “Greek, Hebrew, and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, either through unskilfulness or from actual design,” that “were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects.” He concluded that “the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetic characters, and had in my opinion no meaning at all connected with them.”17

While it is reasonable to be cautious about accepting everything Anthon said at face value, there is independent evidence supporting Anthon’s description of the characters. Joseph Smith’s official account claims that Anthon identified the characters as “Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic” (JS-H 1:64), agreeing with Anthon’s letters in saying that he thought the paper included characters from several languages (although Joseph’s list of languages differs from Anthon’s). According to John A. Clark, Martin Harris told him before the Book of Mormon was published that Anthon “thought the characters in which the book was written very remarkable, but he could not decide exactly what language they belonged to,” suggesting again that the characters appeared to derive from different languages.18 We can be reasonably certain, then, that Anthon told Harris that the characters included a mix of different types of characters from various languages. Anthon could not have expressed that assessment and yet authenticated the characters as representing a meaningful written text.

Additionally, as has already been pointed out, the Book of Mormon states that the characters were an altered form of Egyptian characters, not a mix of authentic characters from several different types of languages. If the Book of Mormon was written in an unrecognizable script, Anthon could not have pronounced the characters authentic. The most he could have done was to compare individual characters to similar-looking characters in various ancient languages, as both he and Joseph Smith attested he did.

The evidence that Anthon compared the characters on the transcript to characters from a variety of disparate language scripts undermines one of the more sophisticated arguments Mormons have put forward in defense of Joseph Smith’s account. In 1831 W. W. Phelps wrote a letter in which he stated that Harris took a paper with “one or two lines of the characters” to Anthon “who translated and declared them to be the ancient shorthand Egyptian.”19 Robert F. Smith, Gordon C. Thomasson, and John W. Welch argued that Anthon must have been the source of the expression “shorthand Egyptian” because “this precise term was known to scholars, Anthon included,” but would not have been known to laymen such as Harris and Phelps.20 The authors pointed out that a review of Jean-François Champollion’s landmark book on ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic21 included a statement “calling hieratic Egyptian script ‘short-hand’ Egyptian.”22 They further observed that Anthon cited that review in his Classical Dictionary. “Thus it becomes highly probable that Phelps indeed heard this peculiar phrase from Harris, who in turn got it from Anthon, the only person involved who was likely to have known it. Anthon probably mentioned shorthand Egyptian because he was struck by obvious similarities in the transcript to hieratic or demotic Egyptian.”23

The evidence cited by these authors to show that what Anthon really said was that the characters looked like “shorthand Egyptian” is far too tenuous. As a careful reading of their quotation from the review of Champollion reveals, the review does not actually use the “peculiar phrase” in question; it does not, that is, use the expression “shorthand Egyptian.” What the review says is that hieratic was “originally merely a species of short-hand, introduced to save the labour of a full delineation of the latter,” referring to hieroglyphic.24 (Notice that the LDS scholars’ article places quotation marks around the word “short-hand” alone.) Thus the verbal similarity amounts to only the one word “shorthand,” which though unusual is not sufficient to establish a genealogical relationship between the review and the use of the word by Phelps via Anthon through Harris. Furthermore, the entry on “Aegyptus” in Anthon’s dictionary that the Mormon scholars cite does indeed refer to the review, but merely as one of several references pertaining to the subject of ancient Egyptian language. On the same page as that citation, Anthon makes the same observation about hieratic as the review but he uses different words to express the idea: “The characters of the hieratic are, for the most part, obvious running imitations or abridgments of the corresponding hieroglyphics.”25 If anything this statement might suggest that Anthon likely did not himself use the specific word “shorthand” to describe the relationship between hieratic and hieroglyphic. In any case, the connections are too tenuous to support the claim that Anthon told Harris that the transcript’s characters were “shorthand Egyptian.”

If Anthon compared some of the characters on the paper Harris showed him to characters from a mixture of different kinds of language scripts, this fact may account for the disconnect between what Anthon claimed he told Harris and what Harris claimed Anthon told him. From Anthon’s perspective, the mixture of characters was evidence of fraud; he thought that the markings were a random mix of characters from different languages along with other markings that were not genuine textual characters at all. From Harris’s perspective, the fact that some of the markings looked like genuine ancient characters was apparently sufficient evidence of authenticity to satisfy him. This explanation adequately accounts for the fact, which few have ever questioned, that “Harris came back to Harmony convinced that Joseph’s work was genuine and that he could translate the record.”26 Joseph Smith’s representation of the incident, according to which Harris was convinced because Anthon had authenticated the characters and validated Joseph’s translation until he found out an angel was involved, must be rejected, since as has been explained it would have been impossible for Anthon to do either.

What, then, about the paper extant today that is commonly known as the Anthon transcript? According to John Gee, “The transcript was in the possession of Oliver Cowdery, who gave it to David Whitmer; it then passed to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [now called the Community of Christ] with the rest of David Whitmer’s manuscripts.”27 The paper has the word “Caractors” (said to be Joseph’s usual misspelling) written across the top, with seven lines of characters underneath—and no translation (see the image at the beginning of this article).

Although the paper may be the Anthon transcript, it does not fully correspond to anyone’s description of the transcript. For example, although it does contain characters resembling those of a variety of language scripts including Greek, Hebrew, and Roman, as Anthon had stated, as well as various crosses, it does not have moons or stars. Perhaps most significantly, the characters are not placed in vertical columns, as Anthon had remembered. Nor are its characters a mix of “Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic” characters, as Joseph Smith later claimed Anthon had said (JS-H 1:64).

 

The authenticity of the paper remains uncertain. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “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.”28 If it is the Anthon transcript, however, it is not written in Egyptian characters—not hieroglyphic, not hieratic (the so-called “shorthand”), and not demotic. No scholar—Mormon or non-Mormon—identifies the characters of that transcript as a form of Egyptian or any other Old World language. If the Anthon transcript is genuine or even a reliable copy, then, it constitutes further evidence for the conclusion that Anthon could have neither authenticated the characters nor validated a translation of them.

Sometimes the Anthon transcript is said to be the original-language text of a portion of the Book of Mormon. If this were so, it would be natural to try to correlate the lines of characters on the transcript with a specific passage in the Book of Mormon. One Mormon couple published a book in 1999 arguing that the Anthon transcript was the original text of Ether 6:3-13.29 Among the many problems with their argument, as Gee noted in the review cited earlier, the transcript was produced when Martin Harris was Joseph’s main associate and scribe, and therefore (if it was copied from the gold plates at all) would have come from the plates on which was based the text of the lost 116 pages—and therefore not part of the Book of Mormon.30

While some uncertainty remains as to the authenticity of the extant document identified as the Anthon transcript, there is no reason to be uncertain as to whether Anthon had authenticated characters on the paper shown to him as ancient Egyptian. The evidence decisively proves he did not do so and indeed logically could not have done so.

(4) It is unclear whether or not Anthon wrote a “certificate” which he then tore up, but it could not have said what Joseph claimed.

Charles Anthon never commented on the story found in Joseph Smith–History, which was not published until 1842. However, he did write two letters commenting on his meeting with Martin Harris, and those letters contradict Joseph’s later account in important respects. One of these issues concerns the alleged “certificate” that Joseph says Anthon wrote authenticating the characters and validating the accompanying translation.

LDS writers often seek to discredit Anthon’s testimony by pointing to “glaring inconsistencies” in his two accounts,31 even though they do not view outright logical impossibilities in Joseph Smith’s accounts as similarly damaging. Anthon incorrectly stated at the beginning of his 1841 letter that it was written in response to the first request he had received for a statement on the subject, when in fact he had written the letter to E. D. Howe seven years earlier in response to a similar request. This is not a discrepancy in Anthon’s account of the event in question and so may be ignored. However, Anthon does seem to have contradicted himself in an important respect. In his 1834 letter he stated that he had declined to write a statement for Harris about the characters on the transcript, but in his 1841 letter he says that he had done so “without any hesitation.”32 It is likely that when he said in 1834 that Harris had “requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving,”33 Anthon meant that he had refused a request from Harris to write an affirmative statement declaring the characters authentic. The words “of course” suggest this was Anthon’s meaning, since it is obvious why he would refuse to write a statement authenticating the characters but not why he would refuse to write one discrediting them. In his 1841 letter, by contrast, Anthon states that he agreed to write down his opinion of the transcript “without any hesitation, partly for the man’s [Harris’s] sake, and partly to let the individual ‘behind the curtain’ [Joseph Smith] see that his trick was discovered.”34 In other words, Anthon said he agreed to write for Harris a statement denying the authenticity of the characters on the transcript. This explanation seems somewhat more likely than that Anthon was contradicting himself.

 

On the other hand, that Anthon was contradicting himself also remains a possible assessment. Anthon may have written for Martin Harris something to the effect that some of the markings looked like characters from various ancient languages. He may even have taken back and torn up the statement. The account in Joseph Smith–History claims that Anthon tore up the certificate because he didn’t believe in angels visiting people any more. This may be half true.35 According to Anthon’s letters, he thought that Harris was being defrauded; perhaps he tore up his paper after realizing that his statement was going to be used out of context to promote what he considered a fraud.

In any case, even supposing that Anthon had written something for Harris and then taken it back, it would not have said what Joseph claimed. Anthon certainly did not authenticate the characters as representing an authentic ancient language script, and he absolutely could not have validated a translation by Joseph of a script that the Book of Mormon itself says no one outside the Nephite culture could have read.

(5) Dr. Mitchill clearly did not validate the characters or authenticate Joseph’s translation.

Everything that has been said about the impossibility of Anthon authenticating the characters or validating the translation applies equally to Samuel Mitchill. He could not have done either of those things.

Furthermore, according to letters from both Anthon himself (1834) and from Joseph’s supporter William W. Phelps (1831), both written earlier than the 1838 account in Joseph Smith–History, Harris visited Mitchill and then Anthon, not the other way around. According to these accounts, Mitchill had no opinion about the paper Harris showed him and so referred him to Anthon.36 This makes far more sense than Joseph’s account, since, had Mitchill authenticated the characters, one would have expected Harris to ask Mitchill for a certificate of authenticity as he asked Anthon. In any case, it is certain that Mitchill could not have validated any translation of the characters, since no one could have done so.

Conclusion

The core claims of Joseph Smith’s official, scriptural account of the Anthon visit do not withstand reasonable scrutiny. Anthon could not have validated Joseph’s translation of the characters on the transcript (even if Joseph had provided one, which as we have seen he clearly did not). The evidence also shows that Anthon did not authenticate the characters, though he may well have told Harris that some of the markings resembled characters from different ancient languages. Perhaps that was enough to satisfy Harris, who may have ignored Anthon’s criticisms of the whole. It is even barely possible that Harris had induced Anthon to write a statement to that effect which Anthon then tore up when he realized it would be used to promote what he clearly thought was a fraudulent work. In any case, Anthon did not and could not authenticate the characters as part of a coherent or meaningful language, and he certainly did not validate Joseph’s translating abilities. Not only is this conclusion a blow to the credibility of the Book of Mormon, it constitutes strong evidence that Joseph deliberately falsified his account of its origins in a text that Mormons accept as inspired scripture.

 

NOTES


1. Stanley B. Kimball, “The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems,” BYU Studies 10 (1970):332-34 (325-52).

2. The text of this History may be found in several places, e.g., Early Mormon Documents, edited by Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:30, hereafter abbreviated as EMD.

3. David E. Sloan, “The Anthon Transcripts and the Translation of the Book of Mormon: Studying It Out in the Mind of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 (1996):62-63 (57-81).

4. EMD, 4:379.

5. Sloan, “Anthon Transcripts,” 68.

6. EMD, 3:6-7.

7. Kimball, “Anthon Transcript,” 335.

8. John Gee, “Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript,” FARMS Review of Books 12/1 (2000):4 (1-4).

9. Richard D. Draper, S. Kent Brown, and Michael D. Rhodes, The Pearl of Great Price: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2005), 369.

10. Kimball, “Anthon Transcript,” 334-35; the point is repeated later, 338.

11. Ibid., 335.

12. Sloan, “Anthon Transcripts,” 77.

13. Ibid., 69.

14. Ibid., 75.

15. Draper, Brown, and Rhodes, Pearl of Great Price, 369.

16. EMD, 4:380.

17. EMD, 4:383-85.

18. In two articles published in 1842, Clark recounted his conversations with Martin Harris before the Book of Mormon was published, probably in 1828 (although Clark said it was 1827). Clark, who reported that Harris showed him the paper, insisted that the markings did not look like authentic hieroglyphics or any other language, though he noticed one marking that could be taken for a Hebrew letter. See John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia: Simon, 1842; reprint, Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books), 224, 228-31, and in EMD, 2:266-68.

19. EMD, 3:6-7.

20. Robert F. Smith, Gordon C. Thomasson, and John W. Welch, “What Did Charles Anthon Really Say?” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 73 (73-76).

21. Jean-François Champollion, Préçis du Système Hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens, 2 vols. (Paris: Treuttel Wurtz, 1824).

22. Smith, Thomasson, and Welch, “What Did Charles Anthon Really Say,” 74.

23. Ibid.

24. Robert Walsh, ed., “Article VI,” American Quarterly Review 1/2 (June 1827): 450 (438-58).

25. Charles Anthon, A Classical Dictionary, 4th ed. (New York: Harper, 1848), 45.

26. Draper, Brown, and Rhodes, Pearl of Great Price, 371.

27. John Gee, “The Hagiography of Doubting Thomas,” FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998):171 (158-83). This article is a review of Stan Larson, Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon.

28. Daniel W. Bachman, “Anthon Transcript,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:44 (42-44).

29. Stan and Polly Johnson, Translating the Anthon Transcript (Parowan, UT: Ivory Books, 1999).

30. Gee, “Some Notes on the Anthon Transcript,” 3-4.

31. E.g., Kimball, “Anthon Transcript,” 339.

32. EMD, 4:384.

33. Ibid., 4:379.

34. Ibid., 4:384.

35. On the other hand, it is possible that the reference in Joseph Smith–History 1:65 to Anthon expressing disbelief in modern angelic appearances is a fictitious use of the motif of Joseph Smith’s critics being dogmatically opposed to modern occurrences of the supernatural. This is an extremely common motif in Joseph Smith’s writings and even occurs earlier in the same short account (1:21).

36. Charles Anthon, letter to E. D. Howe, 17 Feb. 1834, and William W. Phelps to E. D. Howe, 15 Jan. 1831; both in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: By the author, 1834), 270, 273; also in EMD, 3:6-7; 4:378.