As we begin our study of the Old Testament, including the great Patriarch Abraham, and read from the Book of Abraham, it is worth pausing to consider how blessed we are to have the writings of this fabled man of God. Our gratitude for his writings, and for the prophet Joseph Smith who translated them for us, can be increased as we look at the reaction of those who first received these writings. The example of Wilford Woodruff is particularly inspiring for me.

Michael Chandler was an Ireland native who immigrated to the United States in 1828. At some point in the early 1830s he either acquired or began representing those who had acquired several Egyptian mummies and a smattering of papyri. These artifacts were taken to a number of cities where people paid to see the exhibits.[1] Eventually it was decided to sell the collection, which started to happen piece-meal. Chandler brought the dwindling collection to Ohio to see if he could finish selling it. He arrived in Kirtland in July of 1835, bringing with him four mummies, two papyrus scrolls, and a number of papyrus fragments. Chandler showed these antiquities to Joseph Smith, and the Prophet immediately translated a portion of the papyri. He felt impressed that the Saints needed to acquire these writings, so he purchased the collection from Chandler.

Michael Chandler’s Exhibition Advertisement in The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1833.

Soon the Prophet announced that the papyri contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph of Egypt, and he began translating the writings of Abraham. He translated much, perhaps all, of the Book of Abraham by the end of 1835. He may have even translated more of Abraham’s writings than we currently have in our Pearl of Great Price. November of 1835 seems to be the high point of translation activity. By December the Prophet began to focus on other things, and he would not return to working on the papyri until 1842.

When Joseph Smith first received the papyri, Woodruff had been a member of the Church for 18 months. Soon after his baptism on December 31, 1833, he had traveled to Kirtland in order to be part of Zion’s Camp. With this group he marched to Missouri, where he remained for some time. In January of 1835, he went on a mission to Arkansas and Tennessee. He was still on that mission when Joseph acquired the papyri and translated from it during the second half of 1835.

Woodruff returned to Kirtland a full year later in November of 1836. He learned of the great many things that had happened in Kirtland during his absence. Among the most significant of these was the translation of the Book of Abraham and the construction and dedication of the Kirtland Temple. He wrote of this in his journal entry for November 25, 1836:

After walking into the Pulpets, erected for the Priesthoods & viewing the curtains all bespeaking that grandure, solemnity & order that nothing Short of wisdom from God could invent, we then visited the upper rooms & there viewed four Egyptian Mumies & also the Book of Abram Written by his own hand & not ownly the hieroglyphicks but also many figures that this precious treasure Contains are Calculated to make a lasting impression upon the mind which is not to be erased.[2]

Kirtland Temple interior showing pulpits and veil Courtesy of the Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In Kirtland, one of the things a busy Woodruff became involved in was creating a map of the area around Kirtland. This map was created by drawing the shoreline of Lake Erie and then creating a grid system in which the names of Kirtland and all its surrounding communities. We can surmise that this was done during Woodruff’s stay in Kirtland, which lasted from November of 1836 through late May of 1837.[3] This map has an interesting tie with the Book of Abraham.

Sometime after Woodruff drew the map it was, for unknown reasons, no longer needed. Instead, when Joseph Smith or one of his associates decided to glue some of the papyri fragments to paper in an effort to preserve them, the pieces of papyrus known today as fragments II and IV were glued to Wilford’s map, which was cut into two different pieces in order to accommodate the two fragments.

About a year and a half later, on July 8, 1838, Joseph Smith received a revelation that called the Quorum of the Twelve to serve missions in Britain (see Doctrine & Covenants 118:4-5). They were instructed to leave the next spring from Far West, Missouri. By then, the Saints had fled Far West. Still, desiring to fulfill every part of the revelation, Brigham Young and 24 others, including Elder Woodruff, met in Far West and departed from there for the mission to England. It was there, in Far West, that Wilford Woodruff was ordained an apostle.

John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Theodore Turley arrived in Liverpool in January of 1840.[4] While laboring in places such as Staffordshire and Herefordshire, Elder Woodruff found great success in converting large numbers of people to the Restored Gospel. He also served and found success in London. While he was there, he found experiences that drew him back to Joseph Smith’s papyri and the Book of Abraham.

One experience, at the British Museum. Is recorded in his journal on October 19th, 1840:

Though I felt interested in a visit to evry apartment of this Museum which is considerd the greatest collection in the world & open to the free inspection of the publick, yet I felt the more deeply interested in that Part Called the gallery of Antiquities esspecially the Egyptian. The Antiquities consists mostly of Greek, Roman Jewish & Egyptian, & some british…

Among the Egyptian Antiquities, is a large number of Tombs coffins, mumies, Hieroglyphics & Papyri enough if translated into the English language to make one hundred volums as large as the Bible. I felt more interested in this part than any thing I saw as they were from three to four thousand years of age, & would no doubt if translated have revealed many glorious things Sacred & historical concerning the early ages of the world Abram & the Prophets &c.

Having formed a intimate acquaintance with one of the overseers of the gallery of Antiquities, He explained many things to us concerning those things which were interesting unto us.[5] 

It seems likely that the connection Woodruff made between the Egyptian antiquities and Abraham was because of that same connection having been made for him as he viewed the mummies and papyri in the Kirtland Temple. The combination of the Church’s Egyptian antiquities and the things he viewed in the British Museum seems to have sparked a deep interest in the ancient relics of Egypt for Elder Woodruff.

A few weeks later, on November 3rd, he visited the museum again. It appears that while there he communed once again with the Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the museum, a Mr. Palmer. We can surmise that Elder Woodruff’s relationship with this keeper had led to Mr. Palmer inviting Woodruff to return for a somewhat private tour. Of this day Elder Woodruff wrote “Elder Smith & myself again visited the British Museum. I having formed a private or intimite acquaintance with Mr W. Palmer the keeper of the Egyptian Antiquities & It being a private day not open to public exibition he accompanied us through the various appartment & spent several hours in explaining to us the most important things relating to the whole collection of Egyptian Jewish Greek & Roman antiquities which were vary interesting.”[6]

Elder Woodruff ended his British mission in April of 1841 and arrived in Nauvoo in October of that year. While Woodruff had developed a great deal of respect for Joseph Smith’s prophetic call and abilities since his conversion to the gospel, it was during the end of 1841 and the beginning of 1842 that he worked closely with the Prophet in a way that allowed him to see and comment on Joseph’s role as a seer in a more intimate way. On one occasion, Elder Woodruff wrote “The Twelve or a part of them spent the day with Joseph the Seer & he unfolded unto them many glorious things of the kingdom of God the privileges & blessings of the priesthood &c. I had the privilege of seeing for the first time in my day the URIM & THUMMIM.”[7]

At the beginning of 1842 Joseph Smith was inspired that he, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff should take over management of the Church’s newspaper, The Times and Seasons. It was in connection with this responsibility that Joseph Smith published his translation of the Book of Abraham in that newspaper, beginning work in February of 1842. The Prophet spent time on translating and editing the Book of Abraham during that month, though we cannot tell if the “translation” consisted of working on putting Hebrew phrases into the text, or actually translating new portions of the papyrus.[8]

We do not know the extent of Woodruff’s involvement in preparing the Book of Abraham for publication, but it is clear that he was affected in at least some ways by it. For example, on February 19th, a few days before Joseph’s journal starts to record his Book of Abraham activity, Woodruff recorded:

…The Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the urim & Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam, which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us.

Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God. Joseph has had these records in his possession for several years but has never presented them before the world in the English language untill now. But he is now about to publish it to the world or parts of it by publishing it in the Times & Seasons, for Joseph the Seer is now the Editor of that paper & Elder Taylor assists him in writing while it has fallen to my lot to take charge of the Business part of the esstablishment.

I have had the privilege this day of assisting in setting the TIPE for printing the first peace of the BOOK OF ABRAHAM that is to be presented to the inhabitants of the EARTH in the LAST DAYS.

My Soul has been much edifyed of late from time to time in hearing Joseph the Seer convers about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Truly GOD is with him & is making him mighty in wisdom & knowledge & I am convinced for myself that none of the Prophets Seers or Revelators of the Earth have ever accomplished a greater work than will be accomplished in the Last days through the mercy of God By JOSEPH THE SEER.[9]

Elder Woodruff’s excitement about the Book of Abraham is readily apparent in this journal entry. His involvement in the publication of the Book of Abraham has been often overlooked. If we look to Joseph Smith’s journal to see when the prophet was working on the publication of his translation of Abraham’s writings, we see him mention working on it on February 23rd, March 1st, 4th, 8th and 9th. During this same time period Elder Woodruff mentions working in the printing office on Feb 19th, as mentioned above, and also each day from February 11th-26th. Of this stretch, Woodruff wrote that all of it was spent in the printing office and that “Nothing remarkable transpired with us during the week excepting we prepared A plate for making a cut at the commencement of the Book of Abraham which is to be published in the 9 no. of the 3 Vol of the Times & Seasons which will be interesting to many of the inhabitants of the earth.”[10] Thus it is clear that Woodruff was heavily involved in the publication of the Book of Abraham, in some aspects more than the Prophet himself was.

Publication of the Book of Abraham in March 1, 1842 edition of The Times and Seasons.

This continued for some time. Woodruff records that February 28th and March 3-4 were spent in the printing office. The March 1st edition of The Times and Seasons, the date representing when it was likely typeset, although the paper was not finished printing until around the 4th, contained what we now call Abraham 1:1-2:18 and Facsimile One. The successful publication of that portion of the translation was immediately followed by more publication work. March 7th to 10th, the 14th, 16th, 18th, and 19th were all spent by Woodruff working in the printing office.

Of this last day he wrote that “We struck off about 500 No of the 10 No 3 vol of Times & Seasons which contained the portion of the Book of Abraham that gave his account of Kolob, Oliblish, God siting upon his Throne The Earth, other planets & many great & glorious things as revealed to Abraham through the power of the priesthood. The truths of the Book of Abraham are truly edifying great & glorious which are among the rich treasures that are revealed unto us in the last days.”[11] The rest of the current text of the Book of Abraham, and Facsimile Two were published in this edition. It is Woodruff’s journal that lets us know that the actual publication date of the March 15th issue was March 19th.

Publication of the Book of Abraham in May 16, 1842 edition of The Times and Seasons.

Nothing more of that book of scripture was published in April or the first May edition of The Times and Seasons. The second May publication of the newspaper contained a printing of Facsimile Three. Woodruff worked consistently in the printing office throughout May, so he would have been a part of publishing that portion of our scripture as well. John Taylor also worked diligently on these publications along with Woodruff, as they were both overseen by Joseph Smith.

Perhaps Elders Taylor’s and Woodruff’s involvement in publishing the Book of Abraham, and the exuberance over it that Woodruff’s journal exhibits, indicates that their involvement in its canonization is not coincidental. A decade after Elder Woodruff’s visit to London, Franklin D. Richards had included transcriptions of The Times and Seasons publications of these writings of Abraham in a booklet he created in Liverpool, England which he titled The Pearl of Great Price. Copies of this booklet made its way across the plains with saints emigrating from England, and soon became known in the Salt Lake Valley. It was not until John Taylor was leading the Church in his capacity as the senior Apostle, with Wilford Woodruff filling the next-most-senior position, that the work on making this booklet into something more began in earnest.

It was on October 10, 1880, that John Taylor was formally made the President of the Church, and Wilford Woodruff was officially made the President of the Quorum of the Twelve. It was that same day that the Pearl of Great Price, including the Book of Abraham, was canonized. One would suppose that as someone who had so enthusiastically witnessed Joseph Smith’s seeric abilities as he worked on the Book of Abraham, that President Wilford Woodruff would have felt just as enthusiastic in raising his hand to support its canonization on that October day.

Kerry Muhlestein received his B.S. from BYU in Psychology with a Hebrew minor. He has taught courses in Hebrew and Religion at BYU, BYU-Hawaii and the UVSC extension center, and courses in History at Cal Poly Pomona and UCLA. He is the director of the BYU Egypt Excavation Project. He has served as the chairman of a national committee for the American Research Center in Egypt and serves on their Research Supporting Member Council. He has also served on a committee for the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, and currently serves on their Board of Trustees and as a Vice President of the organization. He is involved with the International Association of Egyptologists and has worked with Educational Testing Services on their AP World History exam. He and his wife, Julianne, are the parents of six children.

This article was published in cooperation with the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation. For more information on their mission to transcribe and publish all Wilford Woodruff’s writings, please visit wilfordwoodruffpapers.org.

NOTES


[1] “BYU Professor Tracing Path of Book of Abraham Papyri,” Ensign, (June, 1985), 75-76.

https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1985/06/news-of-the-church/byu-professor-tracing-path-of-book-of-abraham-papyri?lang=eng

[2] “Journal (December 29, 1833 – January 3, 1838),” p. 113-114, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed January 8, 2022, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/b048a7c5-6b6b-438a-bce7-262d5ba297d8/page/ed2cead6-b7f8-45f1-9c7f-5da7ec03faec

[3] Kerry Muhlestein and Alex Baugh, “Preserving the Joseph Smith Papyri Fragments: What Can We Learn from the Paper on Which the Papyri were Mounted?” The Journal of Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 22/2 (2013): 67-83.

[4] Cynthia Doxey Green, “Wilford Woodruff: Missionary in Herefordshire,” in Alexander L. Baugh and Susan Easton Black, eds., Banner of the Gospel: Wilford Woodruff (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book Co., 2010), 149-150.

[5] The visit is recorded for the day of October 19, but this part is under his description of returning on December 9th. See “Journal (January 1, 1840 – December 31, 1840),” p. 195-196, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed January 8, 2022, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/a304ab9d-910a-40ea-a121-858616d49cff/page/84edba5c-3797-4a31-abaf-ba4adc5093e5

[6] “Journal (January 1, 1840 – December 31, 1840),” p. 205, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed January 8, 2022, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/a304ab9d-910a-40ea-a121-858616d49cff/page/41065e50-68db-4ded-a06d-2bff990d4a42

[7] “Journal (January 1, 1841 – December 31, 1842),” p. 122, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed January 8, 2022, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/a9d1a2cb-18fe-445d-a5e4-350caaf63442/page/18514a77-9924-4236-8538-7c348353ff09

[8] Kerry Muhlestein and Megan Hansen, “‘The Work of Translating’: the Book of Abraham’s Translation Chronology,” in Spencer Fluhman, Brent L. Top, eds., Let Us Reason Together: Reflections on the Life of Study and Faith, Essays in Honor of Robert L. Millet, (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2015), 139-162. Since this article, others have commented on what was translated during the Nauvoo period, but have done so without bringing any new information or analysis to the table and while avoiding interacting with the existing work already done on this topic.

[9] “Journal (January 1, 1841 – December 31, 1842),” p. 134, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed January 8, 2022, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/3b738c16-75b7-4cb6-a0ed-1bf682fa554e/page/46a50900-b577-4e5c-9fd9-6b2347845fc1

[10] “Journal (January 1, 1841 – December 31, 1842),” p. 135, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed January 8, 2022, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/a9d1a2cb-18fe-445d-a5e4-350caaf63442/page/2bfcc3ea-da03-47b0-b5c4-3109f47fbc67

[11] “Journal (January 1, 1841 – December 31, 1842),” p. 138, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed January 8, 2022, https://wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/3b738c16-75b7-4cb6-a0ed-1bf682fa554e/page/f81af798-c970-45ec-893a-aa6909c817ab