We just passed the 175th anniversary of an episode, inconsequential in itself, that kicked off a fascinating chain of events that may well have an impact on the 2012 election.
On June 30, 1835, a traveling showman named William Chandler rolled into the little town of Kirtland, Ohio. Chandler had purchased from the estate of a French adventurer named Antonio Lebolo a collection of genuine Egyptian mummies and hieroglyphic writings on papyrus, that Lebolo had stolen during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt. Chandler’s investment was profitable, as Americans were willing to pay good money to gawk at such exotic artifacts. The problem with the hieroglyphics, though, was that no one knew what they meant. Except for one man: Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, who claimed to have a divine gift for translating “Reformed Egyptian.” So Chandler made his way to Kirtland, where Smith was then operating, to see if Smith had any interest in his collection.
Chandler hit a gusher. Smith instantly pronounced the writings to be the work of the biblical prophet Abraham himself, written in his own hand, and yes indeed he could translate them if given a little time. Shrewd businessman Chandler wanted cash; Smith raised the then-staggering sum of $2,400 from his congregation to buy the entire collection, including the mummies.
It took Smith several years to complete the translation, during which time he was occupied with other matters such as establishing a fraudulent bank, marrying dozens of wives, and touching off a minor civil war in Missouri. But when it finally was published in 1842, The Book of Abraham had a huge impact on Mormon theology. Among other things, it firmly established Mormon teaching on race.
According to The Book of Abraham, black people are descendants of Ham, the cursed son of Noah, and are therefore barred from the Mormon priesthood. Moreover, everyone’s place in the world is determined by the conduct of their unincarnated souls in the “pre-mortal” world. The “noble and great” among these souls are born white; those who transgressed against God’s commandments before birth are born dark, with the exact odiousness of their sin reflected in their degree of darkness. As Apostle Mark E. Petersen explained in 1954: “[C]an we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China, or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Latter-day Saints. These are rewards and punishments.” Joseph Fielding Smith, the 10th President of LDS, presented the same idea in his book Doctrines of Salvation: “There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less.”
A natural corollary of God’s decision to separate the races based on pre-mortal performance is that man should not thwart God’s will by putting them back together again, especially through the evil of miscegenation. As Apostle Petersen said, “I think the Lord segregated the Negro, and who is man to change that segregation? It reminds me of the scripture on marriage, ‘what God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’ Only here we have the reverse of the thing – what God hath separated, let no man bring together again.” In earlier times, Mormon President Brigham Young had been blunter: “Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so.” The 20th century LDS Juvenile Instructor was just as blunt: “[We] believe it to be a great sin in the eyes of our heavenly Father for a white person to marry a black one. And further, that it is a proof of the mercy of God that no such race appears able to continue for many generations.”
In 1978, after decades of intense pressure and boycotts from civil rights advocates, the Mormon President claimed to receive a new revelation, and without explanation or apology reversed the ban on ordination of black priests. Nothing in the rest of Mormon race theology changed, though; the formal announcement of the revelation in the Mormon press carefully included warnings of past presidents against the dangers of miscegenation, and a year later a revised edition of Bruce McConkie’s highly influential book Mormon Doctrine, while acknowledging the removal of the ban on black priesthood, continued to preach that “the race and nation in which men are born in this world is a direct result of their pre-existent life.”
Thus, The Book of Abraham has had a major influence on American life, which makes the story of its “translation” all the more intriguing. When Chandler arrived in Kirtland, the Rosetta Stone had been discovered, and European scholars were making progress in unlocking the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics. But no one in America knew that. Smith thus felt safe in publishing, along with his “translation,” drawings of portions of the papyrus fragments themselves. When scholars saw these, they immediately recognized them as a sample of a common Egyptian document called The Book of the Dead, placed in tombs as a reference manual for the deceased to navigate their way through the afterlife. Once The Book of the Dead had been translated, it became clear that it had absolutely nothing to do with Abraham, black people, or sins committed by souls before they were born.
Indeed, when illustrations from The Book of the Dead were placed alongside the excerpts from the original papyri that appeared in every Mormon publication of The Book of Abraham, even a layman could see how similar they were. The official Mormon response was that this was irrelevant, because only small portions of Chandler’s papyri were reprinted in the books, and Smith must have worked primarily from the unpublished portions. What’s more, there was some darned bad luck: the papyri Smith had used had been sent to a museum in Chicago, where they were conveniently destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871. So everyone would just have to keep taking it on faith that Smith’s translation was accurate.
Imagine the shock among the Mormon leadership in 1967, when Smith’s original papyri were found in an old, dusty storage bin located in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, along with a bill of sale signed by Joseph Smith’s first wife. Now they could be translated by trained scholars, using all the tools that had been gained from the Rosetta Stone and a century of Egyptology research. And they turned out to be … drum roll … The Book of the Dead, period. A longtime elder and lecturer of the LDS Church named Dee Jay Nelson, who had been trained in the study of the Egyptian language, analyzed the recovered manuscript with great care. Nelson and his wife then resigned from the Church, saying simply that: “We do not wish to be associated with a religious organization which teaches lies.” Smith simply fabricated The Book of Abraham from his fertile imagination – as is almost certainly the case with The Book of Mormon as well, though in that case the proof is not as airtight because we don’t have the original plates Smith claimed to have been translating. The LDS Church, though, continues to revere The Book of Abraham as the word of God.
What makes The Book of Abraham story so juicy today is the prospect of the 2012 presidential election. Given the sorry state of the economy, many pundits expect the Republican nominee will be the acknowledged financial turnaround expert, Mitt Romney. The press treats Romney’s Mormon religion with kid gloves, making it almost a badge of honor that he is so proud to belong to a maligned minority faith. What they don’t tell you, which needs to be shouted from the rooftops, is that ten years before LDS changed its stance on black priesthood, Mitt Romney freely chose to become a Mormon missionary, pushing The Book of Abraham, Mormon Doctrine, the Juvenile Instructor, and the Mormon hatred for miscegenation with all the ruthless efficiency for which he is well-known. What’s more, he will be running against the world’s most famous product of miscegenation, Barack Obama. Isn’t this a storyline? What am I missing?