When Napoleon invaded Egypt he opened it up to a wave of Western exploration that the country had never known. Soon after his defeat there many European countries sent consuls to Egypt with one major goal: bring back amazing antiquities; and that is exactly what they did. The man who oversaw Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, Mohammed Ali, was eager to seek Western European help in modernizing his country. He, and most Muslims of the time, also viewed the ancient Egyptian monuments as relics of abominable paganism. So, he was happy to trade monuments for modernization, and a flood of artifacts flowed from Egypt into European museums, creating the foundation for some of the greatest museums of the world, such as the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Berlin Museum.[i]

One of the key figures in the excavation game played in Egypt was an Italian who worked for the French government named Antonio Lebolo. Lebolo helped create many important collections, including making major contributions to the Turin Museum and the Louver. He also sold smaller groups of artifacts to private collectors. One such small group, 11 mummies and a handful of papyrus, made its way to the U.S. This was the first large collection of Egyptian antiquities to arrive in the States.

This prize show made its way around the country, setting up in hotel lobbies and advertising in local papers. People flocked from all around to see actual Egyptian mummies. At some point a man named Michael Chandler came to either own the collection or to take care of it on behalf of its owners. For some time he made his living off of traveling with the mummies, but eventually he started to sell them. By the time he had sold all but four of the mummies, one of his friends, a man named Benjamin Bullock, convinced him to take the mummies and papyri to Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio. Bullock had heard from his cousins the Kimballs, who had joined the Mormon church, that Joseph Smith could read Egyptian. He was exceedingly curious as to whether or not his cousins’  prophet could read the papyri, so he prevailed upon Chandler to travel to Kirtland.[ii]

When Bullock and Chandler arrived in Kirtland, in July of 1835, they stayed at the Rigby Inn, not far from the halfsemi-erected temple. Father Rigby had not joined the Mormon church, and at that point would not allow his son, John, to do so either. But John believed what Joseph Smith taught, and would eventually both join the church and marry Benjamin Bullock’s daughter. Bullock too would become a believer. But before any of these things would happen, they would both play an important role in the formation of Mormon scripture. For Bullock and Chandler convinced the Rigbys to send young John over to the Prophet and ask him to come see the papyri. The Prophet promised he would do so early the next morning. When he did see the papyri he was immediately interested, and was allowed to take them to his home to study them. Sometime during his study he learned through revelation that the papyri contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt. He very much wanted the papyri, but Chandler would not sell them separately from the mummies. So, even in the midst of trying to finance the last stages of building the Kirtland Temple, the prophet found a few followers who supplied enough money for the papyri and mummies to be purchased. Thus one of the most interesting sagas of Mormon scriptural history began.

Many people have questions about the Book of Abraham. It is an interesting, yet complex subject.[iii] In order to help people find answers to these questions, I will write a series of columns, each addressing a separate subject. In these essays I will attempt to be fully forthcoming and transparent, honestly talking about the answers we have, the mistakes we have made, the incorrect assumptions people have long believed, and the answers we don’t have. This first column will only be a history of the papyri. Other subjects, such as the source of the Book of Abraham, the interpretations of the Facsimiles, the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, etc., will follow in future columns. These columns will not be heavily footnoted. They are instead designed to be read quickly by the lay reader, the honest seeker for truth, and to have just enough notes to point people who want more to places where they can read further. Further, a new book I have written, Let’s Talk about the Book of Abraham, has just been released that is designed to be very readable yet is more in-depth than we will be able to do here. The story of the Book of Abraham is interesting and complex enough to fill more than one volume of books, but here we give a more condensed version.[iv]

Once Joseph Smith received the papyri, he immediately began translating them. He also seems to have quickly begun to try to make an alphabet and grammar of Egyptian just after doing some translation, a topic more fully discussed in my book. The Prophet and some of his close companions spent time working on the papyri during July. August and September were taken up with other business, such as traveling for conferences. No translation efforts seem to have been made during those months. However, on October 1st efforts were made again. The most consistent period of translation seems to have taken place in late November. For a few weeks Joseph Smith spent time almost every day working with the papyri. As the year ended he took up the study of Hebrew, and seems to have left the study of Egyptian and the papyri behind, almost completely. He would return to it just a little, just a few times during the rest of his life.

This does not mean that he did not always maintain an active interest in translating more and publishing his translations. For the next few years dozens of visitors would come to see the mummies and papyri at his house, at Frederick G. Williams’ house, and at the temple. They may also have briefly been at the John Johnston Inn, but the evidence is inconclusive on this point. As the Church started to experience high degrees of apostasy in Kirtland, some of the disaffected members sought to take the papyri and mummies from the prophet. Various stratagems and hiding places were employed to keep them safe, until they were secreted away to Missouri, after Joseph Smith had moved there.

While the Prophet was in Liberty Jail, most of the Saints moved to Quincy Illinois. We do not know exactly how the mummies and papyri got there, but we do know that Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith started charging a small fee for people to come and see the mummies in the home they were using in Quincy. These two had gotten to the point where their age made it difficult for them to provide for themselves, yet showing the mummies for a small fee was within their abilities. Lucy would support herself this way for the rest of her life.

Eventually the mummies moved to Nauvoo, where they stayed with the Prophet for the rest of his life. Wherever the mummies were, Lucy Mack Smith showed them to visitors, sometimes taking the lead even when her son was present. After a few years in Nauvoo, the Prophet became the editor of the Church’s semi-monthly newspaper, The Times and Seasons. Almost immediately he used this venue to begin to publish his translation of the Book of Abraham. In the March 1st edition he published Facsimile One, its explanation, and Abraham 1:1-2:18. In the next edition, March 15th, Facsimile Two, its explanation, and the rest of the text of the Book of Abraham was printed. A few editions later, on May 15th, Facsimile Three and its explanation were published. The newspaper promised that more of the book would be printed, but it never was.

When Joseph Smith was killed, his mother maintained possession of the antiquities and showed them to visitors for several years. For a short time she stayed with her daughter, Lucy, but for most of the rest of her life she stayed with Emma and displayed her “curiosities” there. Within two weeks of Mother Smith’s death, Emma and her new husband, Louis Biddamon, sold the mummies and papyri. This was most likely in an effort to try to pay off some of Joseph’s debt that Emma had inherited.

Emma sold the mummies and papyri to a man named Abel Combs. Combs sold most of the collection to a man who put them in the St. Louis museum. At least two mummies and the two long papyri rolls were taken there. We do not know where the other two mummies went. For a long time we thought the entire collection was at the St. Louis Museum. After some time they were sold to a museum in Chicago. That museum was burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The catalogues of the museum from before the fire list the mummies and papyri as being part of the Museum’s collection. They are not listed as being part of the collection that survived the fire. This is not surprising; both mummies and papyri are very flammable.

It was not until almost 100 years later that any members of the Church learned that not all of the papyri had been sold to the St. Louis Museum. It turns out that Combs had given some of his papyri to his housekeeper, whose daughter inherited them, whose son eventually sold them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The people at the Met understood the connection between the papyri and Joseph Smith. While they did not purchase them until the 1940’s, they had been shown them in 1918, along with a receipt signed by Emma Smith that stated they were the papyri that had belonged to her husband, Joseph. Yet the museum was not sure how to approach the Church or what kind of a reaction the papyri would receive publicly. So they waited.

In 1967 an Egyptian scholar at the University of Utah who specialized in the latest phase of the Egyptian language, Coptic, was doing research in the Met. While going through the part of their collection that was not on display, he happened upon the papyri that Joseph Smith owned. He also recognized their connection with Mormons. Because he knew some prominent Mormons he agreed to act as a go-between for the museum. Soon the Met gave the ten fragments they had to the First Presidency as a gift.[v] These were paired with a fragment the Church had long owned but had not recognized, and an intense study of what was became known as the “Joseph Smith Papyri,” began. From that time until now the papyri, their relationship with the Book of Abraham, their ability to say something about Joseph Smith as a prophet and translator, their value as Egyptian artifacts, and their history have been an unceasing point of research and writing. The LDS Church’s recent statement on the Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham is an important part of that research and writing path. We will explore some of the other topics mentioned above in future columns. We cannot yet write the end of the history of the Joseph Smith Papyri, for it still continues.

[i] For more on all of this see Kerry Muhlestein, “European Views of Egyptian Magic and Mystery: a Cultural Context for the Magic Flute,” BYU Studies 43/3 (2004), 137-148; and Kerry Muhlestein “Prelude to the Pearl: Sweeping Events Leading to the Discovery of the Joseph Smith Papyri,” in Prelude to the Restoration: from Apostasy to the Restored Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book/BYU Religious Studies Center, 2004), 130—141.

[ii] Clara Fullmer Bullock, Life Story of Benjamin Bullock III (Alberta, 1952), 9, 11-15, 17.

[iii] For some examples of attempts to answer questions about this, see John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000);Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham,” in The Religious Educator 11/1 (2010): 90-106; and Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Egyptian Papyri and the Book of Abraham B(?) A Faithful, Egyptological Point of View” in No Weapon Shall Prosper, Robert L. Millett, ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 217-241.

[iv] For more the reader can listen to a series of lectures I did on this, available on cd, entitled “Understanding the Book of Abraham, a Guided Tour,” published by Covenant Communications.

[v] H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1995), 236; John Gee, A Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 9.