Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What Did Ohioans in Joseph Smith's Day Think about Egyptian Hieroglyphs? What was in the Air?

What did Ohioans in Joseph Smith's day think about the nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs?

The Maumee Express, dated 18 November 1837 (page 2), gives us the answer.

In a notice entitled "Antique," we read that "The Currators (sic) of the Albany Institute [Albany, New York] acknowledge the donation of a copy in plaster of the Rosetta Stone, now in the British Museum, from Henry James Esq."

The notice, doubtless published in various states, goes on to say: "The interest of this piece of antiquity is increased by the fact that all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion concerning the hieroglyphic language of Egypt, originated in a study of the inscription on it."

One thing to admire about this little notice is how it tosses off the relevant names and information without elaboration. Ohioans, and other Americans, back in 1837 knew more about "all the discoveries of Dr. Young and Champollion" than do Ohioans today. Professor John T. Irwin notes how these sensational discoveries impacted Americans. For instance, by 1831 Edward Everett was already writing lengthy, and widely-distributed, articles on the question of Champollion's priority over Thomas Young, while at once dismissing the old ideas of Athanasius Kircher with snorts of disdain: "utterly baseless," "laboriously absurd" (John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, 4-5). I'm just looking over the shoulder of a typical Ohio farmer in 1837, as he opens his newspaper, and nods knowingly.

Egyptology was born with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Why? The stone bore a text in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Thereafter the world knew that "the hieroglyphic language of Egypt" was a running script as Greek was a running script. 1799 thus marks a clean break between timeless speculations about the nature of the script and what scholars and savants now plainly saw on the Stone. The news went everywhere--even to the American frontier.

And to the South--and even to Hawaii, where the work of Young, Champollion, and Rosselini was pondered beneath the palms of Kona and Waikiki. The Edgefield Advertiser (South Carolina), dated 12 April 1838 (pg. 1), has much to say about the work of Champollion. "The genealogical and chronological table of Abydos, discovered in 1818, by Mr. Bankes, so well studied, explained, and commented upon by Champollion [see, they knew a lot about all this], and which is universally regarded as the most interesting and precious monument which has been drawn from the ruins of ancient Egypt since the celebrated stone of Rosetta" (the italic added).
Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

The above newspaper articles, a mere sampling of the conversation, manifest both keen interest and an easy familiarity--not to know about these matters in 1837 would be like not knowing about the railroad or the steam engine.

And what of the Yankee Prophet Joseph Smith, a man familiar with Everett's Boston and still living in Ohio in 1837? Egyptology was born several years before he was; "Dr. Young and Champollion" were household names before he reached his twenties, before he begin to speak of translating Egyptian texts. Does anyone honestly think that Joseph Smith could have made claims about translating Egyptian hieroglyphs (in fact, two differing though related systems of hieroglyphs) over a sixteen year period, without hearing many things about one of the most stunning discoveries of the modern world? This is a man who--like everyone else, I suppose--chatted of Napoleon and Swedenborg with friends. When he spoke of translating Egyptian, would not Young, Champollion, and "the celebrated stone of Rosetta," come forcibly to every mind?

"By the power of God," writes Joseph Smith to James Arlington Bennet in 1843, "I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics" (History of the Church 6:74.)

And of what nature were these hieroglyphics?

In Mormon 9:32, Moroni tells us:

"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."

What a clear statement to the world, a statement first published in March 1830, that Egyptian characters, or hieroglyphs, reflect the (changeable) "manner of speech." They are a) phonetic in make-up and thus b) can be altered to reflect phonological change. Indeed, given the unceasing changes in the Egyptian language, the hieroglyphs, a mixed system of logograms, syllabograms, and alphabet, were often reformed, reworked, re-tweaked, resignified, and revalued by the scribes themselves. We don't have a purely ideographic system on the gold plates, or some undefinable symbolic system of mysterious import. In fact there's no mystery: Moroni says that the Egyptian characters write words, and they can write them just as the words are meant to be pronounced. (Again, see Irwin, American Hieroglyphics, on what was available to contemporaneous Americans on the phonetic nature of Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

Further consider how the Prophet Joseph Smith, in 1838, 
describes the title page of the Book of Mormon. Note the dates: 1799 marks the discovery of the Rosetta Stone; 1802, its date of acquisition by the British Museum; 1819 sees Thomas Young's decipherment of two royal names; 1822 marks Champollion's breakthrough announcement on the nature of the script and alphabetic values; 1823, Young publishes his Egyptian alphabet, "as extended by M. Champollion"; 1828 sees Joseph Smith's first translations from the Book of Mormon; 1830, the publication of that volume; 1835, his purchase of the mummies and papyri and first translations of the Book of Abraham; 1838, his statement about the hieroglyphic system and translation of the title page of the Book of Mormon; 1842, his publication in an American newspaper of the Book of Abraham, including explanations of the hieroglyphic words and representations found in three Egyptian vignettes. (See Thomas Young: Natural Philosopher, by Alexander Wood, 237.) The end was not yet: a coherent description of the hieroglyphic system came only with Richard Lepsius.

When speaking of the particular gold plate that made up Moroni's ancient title page, the Prophet correlates one plate to one page. And bear in mind that each plate was 6" in width, 8" in length, and that the translation of the title page comprises a heading and two paragraphs. Again, here is no mystical, pre-decipherment "reading" of hieroglyphs as Symbol in which each sign contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of either esoterica or Scripture. 

Here, too, Joseph Smith speaks of these same phonetically based Egyptian hieroglyphs as a "running" script, even as Hebrew was a running script. His scribe, Oliver Cowdery, later jotted down a few of these hieroglyphs in a private manuscript: two signs write out Book Mormon (the expected construct form) for "The Book of Mormon"; two additional signs write "the Interpreters of Languages." (The Prophet notes that the hieroglyphs on the plates ran from right to left, so that may well be how we are also to read the signs in Oliver's manuscript.)

In Mosiah 1 we learn that Lehi, "he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians, therefore he could read these engravings," then afterwards taught the same "to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children" (Mosiah 1:4). We even read of a palace school. All this shows a system of writing (however difficult) susceptible to mastery by all comers--and the coming generations. It has nothing of the atmosphere of the recondite symbolic system which pre-decipherment scholarship attached to the hieroglyphs.

Should Joseph Smith's understanding of the hieroglyphic and hieratic writing on certain Egyptian papyri he owned be any different? No. Consider the Prophet's Explanation of Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham. He tells us that the name of a Pharaoh can be "given in the characters above his head," by which we are to understand that a royal name consists of more than one hieroglyphic sign. That's how "Dr. Young and Champollion" got their start, is it not?

Recall further how he says that the ancients considered both iconography so well as the writing to be "hieroglyphics," something every reader of Wilkinson's popular Reading Egyptian Art knows today (Abraham 1:14). The astute reader of the explanations of the Book of Abraham facsimiles will further note the succinct "translation" (that is, interpretation) given for each several representation, or hieroglyph. Each icon has one principal significance, though Brother Joseph also observes how "in this case" a particular representation may signify such-and-such, which establishes that in yet another case it may signify something else, an observation, notes Hugh Nibley, that would ring true for any ancient Egyptian scribe.

Speaking of Hugh Nibley, we recall what he says about Joseph Smith and the Egyptian understanding of the Wadjet Eye: in explaining the hypocephalus, Brother Joseph zeros in on the one or two Wadjet Eyes, as expressing "key words" for the Egyptian "Priesthood," as they certainly do. In this case, the Prophet clearly recognizes (again) that the iconic and the hieroglyphic often coincide or overlap.

And there are times in which the astute modern interpreter may take paragraphs, or even pages, to unpack the various connotations of even a single hieroglyph qua icon. Forget Athanasius Kircher and consider dusting off your copy of Reading Egyptian Art or taking a peek at the encyclopedic Woerterbuch. Then read again what Professor Erik Hornung has written about the nature of Egyptian logic, that is, how the Egyptians themselves viewed their own world (hint: not like we do). After all, without some understanding of how a particular system of writing, or a peculiar system of logic, works, how could anyone even begin to weigh in on the matter of Joseph as Translator?

We might, accordingly, probe what appears in the latest BYU Religious Education Review (Winter 2017), widely distributed throughout the Church Education System (CES), including hints, long swirling, about Joseph Smith never having intended to canonize the Book of Abraham, or whether he, though indeed revealing Abraham's record under inspiration, only thought he was translating from an Egyptian papyrus. 


"While it does not appear that Joseph Smith or his associates drew directly upon earlier scholarship regarding ancient Egypt, they shared with such scholars assumptions about the Egyptian language. For instance, they believed the language was mysterious, symbolic, and closely linked to Hebrew and other languages that reflected a more refined and 'pure' language" (Robin Scott Jensen, "The Joseph Smith Papers and the Book of Abraham," 10).

A new volume in the Joseph Smith Papers will accordingly show "a thorough introduction and contextualization" of any writing associated with the Prophet and Egypt (p.11). Well and good, though I hope "contextualization" is not just a code word for another kind of canonization. "Every wind" may "minister questions"; settling accounts is a different matter. While anyone gifted with knowledge and wisdom certainly must join in the conversation, "that all may be profited thereby," there are two things nobody has the charge to do: 1) focus so much on reconstructing the nature of prophetic translation, that we forget to treasure the translated; 2) go far beyond what the Gospel Topics essays judiciously say of translation. Both ideas are captured in the words of Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who once said of Abraham's records: "Would that the Prophet had gone on in his translation or revelation, as the case may be" (See Doctrine and Covenants 46:12;  Elder Quentin L. Cook, Conference Report, April 2012; Bruce R. McConkie, "The Doctrinal Restoration," in Joseph Smith Translation: the Restoration of Plain and Precious Things, 21). 

In the same vein, Hugh Nibley wrote an entire volume about the Joseph Smith Book of Breathings, "because such a great fuss was being made by everyone over a scrap of papyrus," yet never pondering what was on that papyrus. Nibley went on in his translation--and the results provide us with anything but a run-of-the-mill funerary text, instead they afford the best commentary on "the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham" to date (see Doctrine and Covanants 110; 1 Timothy). That Joseph Smith, Ohio, 1835, should possess not only a Book of Breathings but also a hypocephalus is itself a marvelous work and a wonder.

Some introductory words will always be in order about the ideas of Brother W.W. Phelps, the Prophet's friend. Phelps held odd, even wild, notions about language, but remember, the very fact of the Rosetta Stone, a trilingual, overturned, in a trice, any "earlier scholarship" and corresponding "assumptions." That understanding, among academics at least, was bruited about in both England and the United States long before the Book of Mormon came on the scene. And, as we shall see, Phelps held to a sort of stereoscopic view of the hieroglyphs anyway, as being both symbolic and also a running script.

As for Hebrew or Egyptian reflecting "a more refined and 'pure' language," recall not only Joseph's insights about both Hebrew and Egyptian scripts almost casually "altered" and "reformed" following the normal flow of linguistic change, but also how the Lord tells the Brother of Jared that the powerful language in which he will record his visions, "even to the overwhelming of men to read them"--so Moroni--will yet be a "confounded," mixed or mixed-up, unintelligible language--in a word, "nonsense" (see Mormon 9; Ether 3 and 4 and 12).

The Prophet revealed in 1830 that the early Patriarchs wrote "in the language of Adam" and "by the spirit of inspiration": "And [that] by them their children were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled" (Moses 6:5-6). Yet nowhere does he associate the same with either the eminently alterable Egyptian or Hebrew, for which, he repeatedly gives us to understand, the scripts were mere vehicles, and the more unwieldy and difficult the better, for "sealing up" a sacred message from profane view.

In fact, the Prophet's view clearly is one of all languages, ancient and modern, being subject to continuous "corruption" (see Omni), "alteration," and "confounding." And scripts are for "stumbling" and "misplacing" words, a matter of complaint and keen embarrassment (so Ether 13). "While our latitude and longitude can be determined in the Hebrew with far greater accuracy than in the English version" (Edwin Parry, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 159), "far greater accuracy" refers to the question of reading from the original rather than the target language; it also notably falls short of "a perfect accuracy." In a similar vein, he praised Luther's Bible for its far greater accuracy. 

Many of our best minds grapple with Joseph Smith, his journals, letters, and the Scriptures of the Restoration, and they do so to an admiration. These are minds trained in history, manuscripts, rhetoric, logic, and in the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Yet even Aristotle, especially Aristotle, il Maestro di color che sanno, the master of those who know, would have to unlearn all his logic, toss in his own PhD, before hoping to grasp something of that Egyptian mind.

As for the mind and soul of Joseph Smith the Translator, this is what he himself had to say:

"Had I inspiration, revelations, and lungs to communicate what my soul has contemplated in times past, there is not a soul in this congregation but would go to their homes and shut their mouths in everlasting silence on religion till they had learned something" (Teachings: Joseph Smith, Chapter 45).

And what of inspired translation: our talk or our silence? Oliver, Peter-like, dared to try--and sank. Even so, a verse or two in the Book of Mormon likely attest his bold steps. The Lord promised Oliver another go at it (Doctrine and Covenants 8-9). The record of Abraham, and other papyri, appeared. Oliver, ecstatic over the discovery, hastily went to work again--and gave it over. As for W.W. Phelps, he jotted down a few lines of hieratic; then, underneath, produced a few corresponding lines of English, and in his unpublished notes, announced a translation. The translation, although "preserving a very nice balance between the number of words in each" language, three lines to four, did not match the hieratic (Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers"). At once, the attempt at translation shows a Phelps more attuned to Champollion than to Horapollo. Still, Joseph Smith, despite the divine promise of a "gift of translation," never entrusted "the work of translation" to Oliver again, nor did he entrust it to W.W. Phelps, Warren Parrish, and so on. After publishing a portion of the Book of Abraham in 1842, further progress on the papyri was held back until the 1970's, when Hugh Nibley unveiled the pearl of great price that was the Book of Breathings to a startled world.

Other associates, notably Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff, though expressing deep interest in the papyri, were too wise to take such things on. To translate was Joseph's calling. Brigham Young, however, later gave a copy of The Pearl of Great Price to Harvard Library. John Taylor brought the same volume before the Church for its vote. The Church voted to consider it a Standard Work, thus fulfilling both Joseph's statement about the Book of Abraham as "the sacred record" and the revelation that promises "other records have I" (Doctrine and Covenants (9:2).

Where Prophets know, we don't know much--neither are we able to learn, it would seem. Line-upon-line applies "to the residue of men" (see Moroni 7). For now, we remain what Paul calls "babes in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1). (But see Ether Chapter 4.)

One panel on the hypocephalus (8) also "Contains writings that cannot be revealed unto the world," which concisely states a typical Egyptian decorum about texts, such as this one, that activate the moment of Resurrection of the United Ba of Re-Osiris. Panel 8 is the culminating statement on the hypocephalus panels, a blessing correctly identified by the Prophet as pertaining to "the Holy Temple of God." We progress in knowledge: these "writings" about the resurrection are for the Egyptian priesthood conceptually linked to the Wadjet Eye--something every student knows today. 

How many readers in Ohio or Illinois knew such a thing in, say, 1837?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Angels and Mothers

It’s good to be here every Sunday and to listen to the Words of Christ. Nephi said that after we receive the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, we can “speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels,” “and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.” When we speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, we speak with the tongue of angels, and we speak the words of Christ (see 2 Nephi 31-32).

Never forget, you young people, that every week, from this pulpit and in your classes, inspired men and women speak in tongues, for they speak the words of Christ in the tongue of angels, and they shout praises, even when they whisper.

There is no speech so much like the tongue of angels, as the words spoken by mothers. My mother first told me the story of the First Vision, when Joseph Smith, at age 14, saw the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove—“and also many angels.” She also was the first to tell me about the day in Carthage, Illinois, when Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred by a large group of angry men who refused to accept Joseph as a Prophet of God.

At home we listened to records of Bible songs and stories, and just about everything else, and it was in a Sunday School class taught by my mother that I first remember seeing a blue Book of Mormon, with a colorful picture of Abinadi and King Noah.

My mother’s mother was also our Primary teacher, the first to tell me the stories of all the Latter-day Prophets: Brigham Young, John Taylor, and the others. President Thomas S. Monson is the Lord’s Prophet today.

Both of my grandmothers and also my mother shared with me, as a child and teen, special times in which they had met or spoken with living prophets. My grandmother told me about Elder Matthew Cowley, a modern apostle. There was a dinner party in Los Angeles, the very night Elder Cowley passed away. After dinner, as Elder Cowley was walking out the door, my grandmother heard his brother say to him, “Matt, take good care of yourself, so that you will live a long time!” Elder Cowley answered: “Life is Eternal!” The Lord had revealed to him that he would die that weekend and this faithful apostle viewed his homecoming to God as “a beautiful thing.” 

Brothers and Sisters, never fear death again! Because of Jesus Christ Life is Eternal.

You have all had a special experience in meeting Sister Harriet Uchtdorf and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, an apostle and counselor to President Monson. Just Thursday night I was remembering what he taught us about the Holy Ghost, and I’m glad to recall it again today. He said:

“This afternoon, I have felt even more how inspiring the Holy Ghost is. Here we have a translator. Often, we sit in meetings, not quite understanding the words that are spoken or how they all fit together. When we trust God and listen to the Holy Ghost, He will translate the words into a personal message to us. Whether you are 4 or 40 or 84, the message will be translated by the Holy Ghost.”

My mother also taught her seven children to listen to the voice of the Holy Ghost when we pray and to listen to His voice to protect us from danger or to guide us. The Lord guides mothers by the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, the tongue of angels. I testify that the Lord, as Mormon said, “sent angels to minister unto the children of men,” and I know that He also sends all righteous women to minister unto children and to everyone everywhere, so that all might begin to “exercise faith in Christ" (see Moroni 7).

To all you sisters, Happy Mother’s Day!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

President Thomas S. Monson: "Like unto Moroni"

President Thomas Spencer Monson always gives us his all, even though that all means a stay in the hospital the day after General Conference. And what is a General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Is it not the means by which everything "which had hitherto been a weak place, had now, by the means of [the Prophet and the First Presidency], become strong" (Alma 49:17)? President Monson always lives up to his foreordained mission "to fortify and strengthen" in time of temporal and spiritual danger, and he does so in solemnity and with a broad, broad smile.

He could have others read his Conference talks, delegate most of the work, but what do we see? Whether weary or not, President Monson continues in mighty prayer, and revelation flows from heaven. He is a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator to the 7.5 billion neighbors we all share. And we all become witnesses, throughout the wide world, of the tremendous spiritual, mental, and, yes, physical, work of prayer and preparation to announce five new temples and a new General Relief Society presidency.

That's "like unto Moroni" energetic leadership for someone in his 90th year. But, then, as his secretary once said: "He never puts anything off." President Thomas S. Monson is "like unto Moroni" in energy, thanksgiving, and understanding. His example, teachings, direction, and revelations all breathe prophetic life into our times. Years ago, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said President Monson was "most like Nephi," "a modern Nephi:" we walk as did those of old, blessed with living prophets and apostles. He reminds others of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Today, I think of Captain Moroni! Just wait! "Like unto Moroni," the Prophet will promptly "be up and doing" (Alma 60:24).

Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto [Thomas S. Monson--or even young Tommy Monson] behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.

What are we, then, promptly to do with heart and hand? Build these temples, labor within them, study the examples of energetic, faithful Nephi, Moroni, and the Sons of Helaman--and especially their mothers-- reach out to refugees and the homeless with the never-failing pure love of Christ, as exemplified by the Relief Society, and (can there be more?) give it our All!

April 6, 2017
President Thomas S. Monson was back to work today, with the First Presidency:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Peru in a Time of Floods and a Time of Conference: Help and Hope

As I've watched footage of rains and flooding in Northern Peru, I've also remembered one of the most moving talks ever given by a Prophet of God.

Speaking at a worldwide Christmas Devotional just a month after Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998, President Gordon B. Hinckley, voice breaking, invited himself to give a little Honduran girl whom he had met "a little taste of candy":

"I would hope that at this Christmas season, when there will be no gift-giving among these devastated people, this small orphan girl might receive perhaps a little taste of candy, something sweet and delicious. . .I must see that that happens. Perhaps just a little will be present enough for that tiny child in La Lima, Honduras."

At the right time, perhaps some friends of Peru might also consider making a like gift of candy and toys--and shoes and socks to replace those ruined by wading through mud and water. It may seem odd, but it would be more than symbolic aid. Even a little chocolate could be meaningful succor for children who have passed through much. We always bless the children everywhere and in any way we can.

And we can expect miracles in Peru, as ever and always in the storms that shake the nations--miracles like those reported during Hurricane Mitch:

"Concerns remain about the spread of disease, particularly conjunctivitis, foot fungus, and mosquito-carried dengue and malaria. 'While there are problems of health among the members, there are not any serious cases,' reported one stake president in Honduras."

The faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may face many trials by storm, even death, as with the case of the orphaned child, but signs and miracles will nevertheless "follow them that believe" (see Mark 16:17). As ever, there will be "assurance of protection" (Alma 50:12).

Now, today and tomorrow, anyone wishing to donate to Peru's flood victims should stick to a very few tried and tested organizations. One hopes that the Peruvian Red Cross is already reaching even the most out-of-the-way places--and they are certainly raising a lot of money. And we must never forget the power of Fast Offerings. As President Henry B. Eyring reminds us, the Fast Offering may go to bless distant Saints in the moment of storms or local Saints, our own neighbors, in the storms of the daily lives. For example, I rejoice in the Fast Offerings that bless those I love in my refugee branch as much as I rejoice in those that will bless Peru or Columbia in this desperate season (see; The Peruvian Red Cross:

Some have filmed recent Church donations, gratefully received by the First Lady of Peru and dutifully shipped to Paita for distribution, now on discount at a store in Sullana. It is shocking to see what the Church donates put up for sale in shops, but it's also rather to be expected--and nobody to blame. At least it's not still on the docks, while Piura drowns.

Distribution, much less equitable distribution, seems to be an ever-present challenge. Everything's in a state of flux and chaos. The Peruvian Armed Forces, with its 400,000 active and reserve personnel, deserves everyone's lasting gratitude for overseeing distribution, repairing roads and bridges, reaching out to--and even helicoptering-into--the ignored shanty towns and isolated villages. The Peruvian Government, national and local, must unleash its full powers and resources to help those affected. It's time for Peru to stand up and minister to her own with power. And the time has passed forever for writing off the very poor. I remember walking the sands of Porvenir, Trujillo's most destitute district. Porvenir registers the future, a name of hope, given in desperation. Today, Porvenir is both underwater and without water.

The coming future, el porvenir, must see not only Peru but all America efficiently and effectively standing up to her own needs, including the needs of the millions who drown in generational poverty. And today all peoples must stand for Syria, for Mosul, for Burundi, for South Sudan. The lives of countless thousands of refugees rest on our shoulders, and we must place them on our shoulders as loving and nurturing fathers and mothers, kings and queens. It's imperative that we turn to Arabic, to understanding, to peace.

Peru's available resources, leadership, volunteer forces, and yes, the essential donations from abroad, must be put to effective, aggressive use. Fresh plans must sketch infrastructure imperatives and safe urban growth. We recall Alma's account of how a motivating Moroni, "a man of a perfect understanding. . . who did labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety of his people," fortified cities, in a manner never before known among the Nephites, against the recurrent attacks of their enemies, attacks reminiscent of the twenty-year cycle that generates pounding rains, furious lightning storms, overflowing rivers, and rushing flash floods (or huaicos). Moroni's bold and energetic fortifications, including his building of new cities along a defensive perimeter, saved the Nephites from sweeping destruction (see also Helaman 5:15).

Alma 48:8-9 reads: Yea, [Moroni] had been strengthening the armies. . . erecting small forts, or places of resort; throwing up banks of earth round about. . . and also building walls of stone to encircle them about, round about their cities and the borders of their lands; yea, all round about the land," including "their weakest fortifications": "And thus [Moroni] did fortify and strengthen the land." 

Does your country need a creative, energetic, and effective leader like Moroni? As Elder Matthew Cowley would say: "Be that Leader!"

And as President Henry B. Eyring reminded us in October 2014, continuing revelation in times of crisis serves to magnify the efforts of the Priesthood to bless victims of floods--and even burst dams! After the Teton Dam disaster, Brother Eyring saw how effective Priesthood leadership brought about the following responses from a government official who at first spoke to regional leaders, who happened to be stake presidents, bishops, and Elders' Quorum presidencies, with a dominant, perhaps domineering, "voice of authority": "After a few minutes, the man [with his deputies] from the federal disaster agency said, 'I think that I will just sit down and watch for a while.'" "The next morning the leader of the federal team arrived 20 minutes before the report and assignment meeting was scheduled to begin. I stood nearby. I heard him say quietly to the stake president, 'President, what would you like me and the members of my team to do?'"

What that man saw I have seen in times of distress and testing all over the world" (

Local, efficient, heroic Latter-day Saint leadership, under Priesthood direction and unidos el norte, el centro y el sur, may have to show overwhelmed mayors, mayors who could yet be Moroni's, how to reinforce or build both infrastructure and the bonds of community. Faithful Priesthood bearers, after all, carry on in the promise of Moses and Enoch--to "have power over many waters," and even "to turn" waters "out of their course[s]." In the Priesthood, we learn from the Scriptures, is "power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course" (Moses 1; Joseph Smith Translation Genesis 14:30; see President Henry B. Eyring, Priesthood Session of General Conference, 1 April 2017). Such promises will find fulfillment, in some manner symbolic or literal, in the New Peru, a Peru proof against the desolating floods that come every couple of decades or so.

News reports of hundreds Latter-day Saint youth in Lima preparing blankets and other essentials for the victims shows us how the Scriptures on Priesthood directed service will find fulfillment in Peru. These youth of Lima, Trujillo, Piura, the promise of the land, are receiving "their first lessons" in their foreordained mission "to fortify and strengthen the land" in time of temporal and spiritual danger (see Doctrine and Covenants 138; Alma 48:9). We mistake to perceive youth as weak, for Youth in Action has the power to make weak things strong: so that everything "which had hitherto been a weak place, had now, by the means of Moroni, become strong" (Alma 49:14). "Like unto Moroni," who was but 25 when called to leadership, these youth will so fortify their land that all will gain "assurance of protection" (Alma 50:12).

As President Kuczynski said to the Latter-day Saint youth: "Sigamos su ejemplo" (May we follow your example). The same thing may be said of all Peruvian youth who feel "called to serve."

The day has come for the nurturing and sustaining Priesthood of God to lift the suffering land and lamb to its bosom, place her upon its shoulders, and carry Peru to higher ground. Elder Carlos G. Godoy, 43, an Area Seventy from Lima, Peru, was called today, 1 April 2017, to the office of General Authority Seventy, only the second Peruvian to be so called to general church service. As many are already noting on social media, God is mindful of Peru in her hour of need. Hay un gran porvenir preparado por Peru. Let us together, throughout the Americas, help rebuild a great nation. She will then guard her own fortresses well.

Notes: Updated after Priesthood Session of General Conference, 1 April 2017; see discourse of President Henry B. Eyring. See Facebook postings by Brother Alfredo Ladislao Mardini Gonzales and others (1 April 2017).

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Floods of Memory and Today's Torrential Destruction: That's Mi Peru

*Severe rains will continue through much of April: Donate to the Peruvian Red Cross at 

Peru stirs a kaleidoscope of images, reflections, and memories. We glimpse that line of conquistadores grimly, inexorably, riding down to Cajamarca--where they will kill Atahualpa; we shield our eyes at the glory of Korikancha, Cuzco's Golden Temple of the Sun; we wonder at the "two-l llama" ("that's a beast," says Ogden Nash); Machu Picchu rises green from the Andean mists. 

"Entonces en la escala de la tierra he subido entre la atroz maranna de las selvas perdidas hasta ti, Macchu Picchu" (Pablo Neruda). 

Peru sits enthroned with Egypt and the Arabian tales, sultans and sultanas, above the open panorama of history; at once, she quietly and deeply grips each human heart. Peru is yours and she is mine.

Since Christmas, I've been listening to sierran huaynos in both Spanish and Quechua. Some rake the ears; others pour like crystal streams from the misty fastnesses--down the quebradas like a torrent. I have a new Quechua grammar lying about, beckoning. I often carry it around like a prize. I may one day even leaf through a chapter or tackle a verbal paradigm, though it's enough to carry it around, or move it from shelf to shelf and never too far away.

The Spanish Conquest at long last ends. I've discovered the triumphant music of Edith Ramos Guerra. She stands in the Korikancha and sings El Pajonal. Singing doesn't suffice to describe the effect Ms. Ramos has on her hearers: she calls, she summons. She commands with a bracing, aggressive lordship--sultana de las sultanas--the songs of Puno, the South that I do not know--and yet I know it. I know it in the way we all know Puno and Cuzco and the Inka in his glory, before Pizarro comes. I watch the Miski Takiy (Sweet Music) TV sensation on YouTube, which features Andean musicians performing in the open mountain air against a backdrop of shooting fountains of the purest water. Shooting fountains of clean water. Here rises a phoenix from the burnt out decades of Andean terrorism and police state militarism, ambiguously brutal beyond imagining, phoenix from the subjugating centuries. I'm going to cut the Passive Mode ("the Andeans were conquered") out of my new Queshwa grammar.

I don't know why I listen to these songs. But the heirs of the Inka Empire won--and they didn't need Mao.

My deeply held Peru, deeper yet and stranger for being something beyond imagination, certainly includes the memory of a visit to a small home, at evening, in the North--so far away it seems tonight:

We spoke of Lehi and the Liahona,
Of desert ways, where sighting can be tough.

"My papi has a compass too," she said,
and ran and brought it.

It was heavy.

"It guides his boat when out at sea.
and brings him safely home to us."  

Seared in my senses is the acrid poverty, the sharp nasal tang, the sand forever blowing in the eyes, the spluttering of a candle, the incandescence of a rich wick lamp piercing the darkness of a room washed in blue walls and holding,
precariously, a rough, unsteady table. I attest the struggle to provide simple fare for that table, I affirm the hospitality of the North, a dry land, cut by small rivers coursing down from the fabled Andes--from Cajamarca. I call to mind the little river towns, rising proud from desert sands, not far from the sea, Mamacocha, source of all her woes.

There sits the noblest little kingdom of them all, on the banks of the Rio Chira, two-l Sullana: "Del chira eres la perla, sultana de las sultanas." I dream of walking along the river-- or of "paseos en las canoas"--I fall into the reverie of her blue heaven. I sometimes even search this demesne online, circumscribing, even besieging her, on GoogleMaps. I spy green Marcavelica, just over the Chira, rich in groves of mango and papaya. I visit a juice bar. I Google Sullana's Villa del Mar and check the closing times, pronounce on the menu. Sullana is what she is and may be a fickle sultana, but there's a stateliness about the Chira, a lazy peace attending the Plaza.

The vision snaps like the bridge of San Luis Rey, a bridge of ropes that Inka Pachacuti suspended over space and time.

I just watched a video of Sullana. A huaico runs through it--a torrential flood of devastating mud and rocks and wood (in Quechua, wayq'u). I scan footage shot from helicopter: The entire North appears to be underwater. And las lluvias e inundactiones promise to continue through April. Piura, la Primera Ciudad of the North, saw 2.17" of rain in the last 24 hours; she averages less than 3" a year (25" since January). Thirst, hunger, homelessness, joblessness, and torrential sickness have all begun--and promise to continue. And children always pay the greatest price. All 2017 will be eaten up by las lluvias e inundaciones--and by the home lost, the street lost, the harvests and the jobs that will never be. Long long ago, the wayq'u swept away the great civilizations of the North; now the huaico lays waste to the ephemeral homes of the very poor. Rivers overflow their banks ruining vast swathes of acreage and pasture (see Enrique Planas, "Los moches y El Nino: asi castigaba al norte el dios Aiapaic," in Luces, 20 March 2017;

One thing I remember about Peru with no nostalgia whatsoever: children and babies die at a startling rate. It's a plain fact--like Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg percentages (described in Crime and Punishment). You see it, hear of it--and pass on because you can't tilt at the "awful arithmetic." Yet Thornton Wilder, summing up the lesson of the snapped bridge of San Luis Rey, responds brilliantly: "each of the five lost lives was a perfect whole" (see Luke 13:4 and also "Second Reading: Jonathan Yardley on Thornton Wilder's 'Bridge of San Luis Rey,'" Washington Post, 7 December 2009).

Once I strove with all abandon to save a baby's life. The effort was as deliberate as it was tenuous, the sand impeding every long step. How could I help a baby, when it took so long to walk even twenty-five or fifty feet? The rope bridge frays above the yawning abyss. Yield to the percentages; it's all so foolish--even embarrassing. Abandon the quixotic; accept Peru as she is, fickle sovereign, sultana de las sultanas--or just keep kicking up sand, step-by-step.

The baby lived. Mother and child had been seen and summarily dispatched just a day or two before--one of a dozen such cases, I fear. But now a sultanic nurse gave something more than a sharp word and cursory review. And she lived. It was the mother I was fighting for, so desperate in her straw shack, fragile windbreak, a spot of quiet cut out from the world. There she could weep over her loss and Who was she in a Dickensian world?

Yet she stepped back into the sun. She called for help. Two Elders heard that call. Before, during, and after the priesthood blessing, I weighed the awful percentages. I thought, too, of how the baby just might live, perhaps even grow into adulthood--"a perfect whole"--a young lady that brought joy to her parents. She held that Divine birthright, though you couldn't actually see the title clenched in her tiny hands. At least she could live another year or two; she could even do all the living she wanted. What did I have to do with it? And I never think of it. Not then, not since.

I guess she's there now, en el norte.

*Donate to the Cruz Roja Peruana

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Running from the Truth about Joseph Smith, the Book of Abraham Translation, and Little Red Riding Hood

The claim persists: the Prophet Joseph Smith believed that he was translating the Book of Abraham from the fragments of a Book of Breathings, as evidenced by particular, single, hieratic signs taken from a fragmentary sheet of papyrus and placed alongside paragraphs of copies of the first chapter or so of the Abraham translation. In light of this perceived correspondence between the signs and the translation, many leapt to the conclusion that for the Prophet one hieratic sign mysteriously produced one paragraph yield of text. 

And, without further ado, that spells fraud!

Writing some 46 years ago in an article so flawed that critics insist we must never refer to it, Hugh Nibley noted how "the disproportion between the length of Egyptian signs and English sentences is labored as the principal argument against the Book of Abraham." 


"One needs no knowledge of Egyptian to point out that a dot and two strokes can hardly contain the full message of an English paragraph of a hundred words or more. In 1967 a Mr. Heward passed around handbills at a General Conference pathetically asking, 'Why should anyone want to fight the truth?'--the 'truth' being his own great discovery that if somebody translated a single dot as the story of Little Red Riding Hood something must be out of joint: 'Could a single dot carry that much meaning?' Mr. Heward asked with eminent logic." 


"In 1970 Messrs. Howard and Turner bring forth as the crowning evidence against Joseph Smith Mr. Dee J. Nelson's sensational find that the hieratic word ms.t is translated by Joseph Smith with a paragraph of 132 words. It never occurred to anyone to ask, in the glad excitement, whether this was really Joseph Smith's work, and whether ms.t was ever believed by anyone to contain a story of 132 words" (Hugh Nibley, "The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers").

"It never occurred to anyone to ask!" That was then--full half-a-century ago. Today we mustn't look askance at science, consensus, academics, newsreaders, singers, historians, grad students, weather reports. We dare not question authority.

And we mustn't touch Nibley's biased work today; still, for decades one thing has remained quite clear to me: "a single dot" cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, carry over "as the story of Little Red Riding Hood." And yet the critics insist to this day that Joseph Smith, blindly following the prevailing notions of his times about hieroglyphic writing, unpacks single, stand-alone, ideograms into lengthy and detailed narrative, narrative which includes explanations of nouns like Rahleenos and Mahmackrah (which can take more than one spelling), discussions of priestly offices in both Canaan and Egypt, and the dramatic rescue of Abraham by an angel as well as the poetic words of revelation spoken by that same heavenly messenger. These are squiggles that scan.

Because such claims are put forward in the matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone that all readers associate with adulthood, scientific law, and talk shows, the reader is inexorably chilled into submission. We can't downplay that effect, that chilling; for from the moment we first tune in, society tells us both what to think and how to think it. A forced entertainment and eerie smiles may lull the effect, but nary a newsreader in the world but who tells us all to behave or die: "Don't drive in today's storm!" Fearful images accompany the commands. The rhetorical secret to argument in our day is tone, that tone which scolds: "You're not going to be told twice!"

No wonder so many wind up thinking that the Book of Abraham has been proved wrong--dead and definitively wrong. To think otherwise invites the scold, the grin, the double-quick double-click, a simple chart or two. And no wonder many fail to see that the critics' principal argument rests upon the basis of "a dot and two strokes" or an owl sign. An argument made--in print!--by an Egyptologist!--and everyone throws up their hands in happy defeat. Yet it's ironic how the one class of people who never care about what any one Egyptologist, or even any particular group of Egyptologists, might say about anything, are the Egyptologists themselves. But isn't that the case with all scientists, academics, literary critics, freshmen, and the like? 

And now, we turn to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: %! 

What we know about the Book of Mormon, or should have known, also explodes the persistent claim of the critics about how Joseph Smith went about translating the Book of Abraham.

"By the power of God," writes Joseph Smith to James Arlington Bennet in 1843, "I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics," History of the Church 6:74.)

What were these hieroglyphics?

In Mormon 9:32, near the end of his record, Moroni tells us:

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.

What a clear statement to the world, a statement first published in March 1830, that Egyptian characters, or hieroglyphs, reflect the "manner of speech," that is to say, are phonetic in make-up, and can even be altered to reflect phonological change. Indeed, given the unceasing changes in the Egyptian language, the hieroglyphs were often reformed, reworked, re-tweaked, resignified, and revalued by the scribes themselves. We don't have a purely ideographic system here, or some undefinable symbolic system of mysterious import. In fact there's no mystery: the Egyptian characters write words, and they write them just as the words are meant to be pronounced.

Now note how the Prophet Joseph Smith describes the title page of the Book of Mormon. When speaking of the particular gold plate that made up Moroni's ancient title page, the Prophet correlates one plate to one page. And bear in mind that each plate was 6" in width, 8" in length, and that the English translation of the title page comprises a heading and two paragraphs. Again, here is no mystical, pre-decipherment "reading" of hieroglyphs as Symbol in which each sign contains of itself sufficient capacity to supply many sentences of esoterica or of Scripture. 


But the drumbeat continues: Joseph Smith held that a single Egyptian sign packs in a verbal outpour. That's what everyone believed back then, we are told. He accordingly wrestles with each little character, for each unfolds vistas of narrative, vision, and doctrine. 

That may describe Athanasius Kircher (it doesn't); Joseph Smith can speak for himself. And his comments on the Book of Mormon title page date from 1838/1839, three to four years after he translated the first chapter of the Book of Abraham, and three years before he translated the rest! Brother Joseph, who compares the Egyptian writing on the last plate to "all Hebrew writing in general," sees all hieroglyphs, formed or reformed or whatever, as a "running" script. That's his word. "Running": nothing could be more clear (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 60-61; History of the Church 1:71-72 = "History of the Church," Book A-1, 34-35.).

For Joseph Smith, then, should we follow his own crystalline descriptions of the nature of Egyptian writing, the 11 pages of unbroken narrative that make up the content of the published Book of Abraham would have been translated from several continuous, and presumably intact, sheets of papyrus (the translations tellingly show no gaps). Now, that's not theory ("the missing roll theory"), that's how Joseph Smith himself describes the nature of hieroglyphic text. 

The fragmentary Book of Breathings thus has nothing to do with the making of the Abraham narrative. 

Someone recently posted: Joseph Smith failed to translate the Book of Abraham!

That's become a meme, and like most memes cannot stand up to a moment of investigation. Memes make up the quintessence of the ephemeral.

Think it through: Joseph Smith failed to translate the Book of Abraham!

Then what is this book I see before me?

My answer: Joseph Smith did indeed translate the Book of Abraham. How do I know? I have a copy of the translation--and so do millions upon millions of others. And there are many, many translations made from that first translation.

While it's clear that the Prophet Joseph did not derive the book from the Breathings document, I don't profess to understand how the Prophet Joseph translated; neither do I know how anyone translates his translation from English to, say, Quechua. But I know that what got translated, and that what still gets translated, is the word of God and contains the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ to this generation, even to Abraham's limitless seed.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

BYU, Hugh Nibley, and Collegiality--and, of course, the Scriptures

My hope is to encourage students of the Scriptures in faithful and lasting scholarship, the kind of scholarship that will endure to bless the rising generations. We travel together as journeymen, fellow readers and fellow writers. How grateful I am, in our pilgrimage and fellowship, for the nurturing words of modern prophets and apostles who foster Gospel Scholarship. I find no exceptions!

I am also grateful for Brigham Young University and for the tutelage of Truman G. Madsen, Hugh Nibley, and gifted teachers and writers there and everywhere else. BYU's tradition of fine Gospel Scholarship continues today--and we all rejoice over the Church History Department--but I have a warning about the immediate future. 

Hugh Nibley's articles, books, lectures, and speeches, from the 40's on, provided students with a reason for their faith in the historicity of the Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Pearl of Great Price. Lionized by countless readers as he was and is, it remains clear that Nibley's purpose was always to stir students to greater thought, faith, and endeavor, never to seek any laurels. And as it ever is with the best scholarship, his contributions also met, from the very beginning, a perennial backlash from some of the faculty at BYU as well as members of the local intellectual community. He was never exempt from critique, and even a few of his colleagues in Religious Education and History joined in the chorus. I doubt that many attacks surface publicly today at BYU; it's more likely he is increasingly unread, his contributions ignored or brushed aside. He's labeled an apologist, a word he never used, or would have used. 

Yet because so many of the false ideas about Scripture being paraded throughout BYU and the Latter-day Saint Community today were also deftly deflected by him decades ago, I share a letter written today (found below) as a defense not so much of the man, but of his contribution to Biblical and Book of Mormon scholarship. I wrote the letter to a student who says that she was not permitted to discuss Hugh Nibley at BYU without facing what she describes as "increasingly intense" backlash from both students and faculty. 

Now for the warning--or a dozen or so questions worthy of our consideration. 

Many press on with high praise of the kind of Gospel Scholarship that Madsen and Nibley represent. yet, while praising, might we somehow fail to distinguish present moments of jejune or bricolage "apologetics" from what we find in Nibley's balanced and logical prose? And if you find yourself swirling about in a pool of "suppose" or "plausible," it's time to get out and dry off. Scholarship, like poetry, takes a spot of work--and an abundance of l'esprit de finesse. Can it even be taught? It can be taught to be recognized. All who teach must face the question: Are we fostering or are we damaging that delicate unfolding?

Latter-day Saints everywhere ought periodically to reflect on the matter of Scripture and scholarship. Do we accept the historicity of the Bible or don't we? Do we receive the Book of Mormon as it was intended to be received? Or are we past all that? Have we grown up? Do new Doktorvaters command our allegiance? Do our PhD's now compel us to set things straight about just what the Bible is and what it is not? Is it time to let fellow Mormons know, in word and in blog, just how hopelessly uninformed they all are when it comes to reading and understanding Scripture? Are Leviticus and Deuteronomy just mumbo-jumbo? or of post-exilic priestly mint? Did Nephi drop the ball on Deutero-Isaiah? Do we need a revolution in Scriptural understanding to save the Church? Is the Internet about to do us in? 

Or do we need to go back to the telling question: If you don't believe this, and you don't credit that, then what exactly do you hold to any longer?

Or do we need to look differently at contradictions between current scholarship, even consensus, and our own beliefs? Such contradictions should help to prod the faithful to undertake new journeys of discovery. Some of the journeys may be of lasting worth to all humankind: I think, for instance, of the recent work of Lincoln H. Blumell on Luke's account of Gethsemane. And of what worth is any scholar, writer, or artist who faints before consensus and contradiction? 

The Lord has in store great opportunities for the diligent Latter-day student. 

We may look at the challenge of searching for knowledge primarily as an effort to defend truth, if we wish, but the challenge certainly embraces more than that. We can help cut new paths, discover and decipher new findings, revisit and reinterpret stolid consensus. The Lord, who permits all the thorny contradictions, also gives us the accompanying challenges not only to try our faith but to test our mettle and to foster our intellects. He wishes to use us to bless all mankind with greater views on both the Holy Scriptures and also on the full history of His dispensational dealings with the children of men. Much will be required--and it won't help for any of us to sideline much that has been given.

Hugh Nibley never yielded "an inch to the Gentiles." That's what he said. That's what he asked of his students and of his university and community. "You receive no witness, until after the trial of your faith."

And now to the letter about the "cool scribe" and the art of cheerful scholarship, which speaks to the matter of whether we should occasionally appreciate the contributions of our own teachers, or just toss them into the wastebin; of whether we should listen to any contributor, or only to those who reciprocally call us Rabbi.

Thank you, Dear Sister M.,

News of gleeful attacks in BYU classrooms on the contributions of Hugh Nibley and other notable teachers comes as no surprise.

Some professors confuse lectern-thumping fatwas for expressions of truth and intelligence. Reading through the new biography of Truman Madsen, I don't see cynicism. It's all about joy and gospel service at BYU and everywhere else; it's all about the joyous quest for greater light and truth.

Mircea Eliade often writes of a phenomenon he termed "kill the teacher," a compelling Freudian wish to turn on one's Doktorvater, or even a favorite teacher. It's much more than reassessment. This drive to overturn reputations, cast doubt on the teacher's soundness, or even sanity, is a very common psychological malady at the university. Heroic in flavor, it unwittingly betrays a certain herd mentality, a lack of independent thought. Whether maturity, therapy, reading books, or plain humility is the cure, science cannot yet determine. 

Moroni records how Jesus taught him "in plain humility."

Although standards remain non-negotiable, scholarship ought to be a cheerful, joyous enterprise and colloquium, an on-going effort in which (a very few) errors prove not fatal but instructive, and much collegiality and openness to the contributions of others must thrive. 

John Baines, Professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, laments the lack of collegiality in his own discipline. He further censures the encrusted lack of openness to any contributor not belonging to the professional guild. (The article to read is "Restricted Knowledge, Hierarchy, and Decorum: Modern Perceptions and Ancient Institutions," JARCE 27:1-23.) 

The style of collegiality I favor follows the model put forth in Ancient Egyptian Wisdom Literature of the kbob, or cool scribe (controlled, efficient, mannerly), versus the hot-headed scribbler (pushy, self-willed, angry). A jar overflowing with pure, cool water becomes the hieroglyphic signature of the cool scribe; the hothead explodes "like fire in hay."

Yours Truly,
Val Sederholm