"A prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such"--Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:265.
Oft repeated, and much repeated of late, is the assertion that no on-the-spot, eyewitness account exists of Joseph Smith translating from the Egyptian papyri. Warren Parrish, scribe, gives but a one-line summary of his work, and three years after the fact: "I have set by his side and penned down the translation of Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven" (Painesville Republican, 5 February 1838). The lack of such an account leaves a unbridgeable gap in understanding: How did the Prophet translate the Book of Abraham? What of the papyri? Owing to the supposed absence of an eyewitness account showing how the "work of translation" unfolded, an account that brings both papyri and the act of translation to one table, it's as commonly believed as not that the Prophet did not translate from the papyri he owned at all; instead, he "translated" by receiving a revelation about a lost record. As for the Egyptian artifacts, though so very physically present, these played the role of "catalyst" or "springboard" to the revealed "translation."
Joseph Smith was indeed given the translation of the Book of Abraham by revelation, but the words of Abraham were also inkbrushed onto a specific papyrus in his keeping, according to a clear statement in his last sermon, given on June 16, 1844, and recorded by Thomas Bullock: "I learned it by translating the papyrus now in my house."
From that date, Sunday, June 16, 1844, we move forward a mere eleven days to Thursday, June 27 and Martyrdom; and we move back exactly one month to Wednesday, May 15. These are days of witness, days of final--and lasting--doctrinal explanations to his hearers and of the final demonstrations of his prophetic power to teach new Christian doctrines, prophesy of future events, and, uniquely, to translate "by the gift and power of God." And so, the ministry of a Prophet closed as it began, with gifts, knowledge, and prophecy.
The assertion about there being no contemporaneous eyewitnesses linking papyri to spiritual interpretation is untrue. On Thursday, May 16, 1844, young Josiah Quincy, later mayor of Boston, wrote his "very darling wife" about what it was like for him and Charles Francis Adams to spend an entire day with the Mormon Prophet.
So what was it like?
Thursday, May 16, 1844 (describing the events of the previous day, the 15th).
"We passed the whole day in his society and had one of the most extraordinary conversations I ever participated in he preached for us
prophesied for us interpreted hieroglyphics for us exhibited his mummies and took us to his temple which he is now erecting on a most majestic
site of hewn stone."
Jed L. Woodworth, "Josiah Quincy's 1844 Visit with Joseph Smith," BYU Studies 39/4
Joseph Smith, to honor his esteemed guests, and to satisfy their wishes, was more than willing, by grace, to demonstrate for them in "an extraordinary conversation," exactly What it meant to be a Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and Translator, charged with spiritual gifts and powers. It seems most unusual--there was absolutely no reticence--but that is who and what Joseph Smith professed to be, and, as he clearly intended, what they saw and heard that day left a lasting and "extraordinary" impression on both men. That is what they came to see and to hear, after all, and that is what they were given--but only by the kindness of God. What Brother Joseph chose to share yet reverberates; for many who have since read Quincy's and Adams's various accounts of the experience have likewise sensed something of what it was like to share a whole day with a Prophet. How it impressed this reader as a child!
Josiah Quincy uses many active verbs to describe to his wife what an energetic and inspired Joseph Smith did and said that day, mundane and otherwise, but it is a special few that describe his renowned prophetic gifts:
On greeting them:
He "blessed us."
Then, throughout the day:
"He preached for us,
prophesied for us,
interpreted hieroglyphics for us."
Latter-day Saints will fondly note where this "extraordinary conversation" ultimately led--to the Holy Temple.
Jed Woodworth has edited the letter to a perfection and sorted out how it correlates with the other, more famous, and more whimsical, accounts of Quincy and Adams, including Adams's diary. (Quincy's ten-page journalizing on the visit has never been archived.) Yet as we take up this priceless letter, we must also momentarily set these other records aside. We must take that rare fresh look at a much repeated conversation. What this letter does better than all other accounts, in their paint and detail, is to capture, with succinctness, the interview as a manifestation of spiritual charisma, something Joseph Smith himself described as that special moment when a Prophet speaks and acts as a Prophet, something Scriptures describe as a Prophet speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost.
These two men might as well have find themselves suddenly alongside Nephi, as he journeyed in the wilderness from Jerusalem, a man who "opened his mouth and it was filled" (Doctrine and Covenants 64), or, again, with seeric king Mosiah, when he interpreted engravings on a large stone by the power of God, a stone others carried into his presence. And whether Mosiah interpreted the writings one or many times for the benefit of wondering court visitors, each time the mysterious characters had to succumb once again to the seeric vision.
All this is to throw together the "extraordinary" with the diurnal. Brother Joseph's clothing and home, said Quincy, were both somewhat "dirty"; the "conversation" came pure.
And note how message takes second place to the act itself--really, a demonstration in three acts. What mattered was the sign, the expression: what we might call the prophetic "speech-act." These guests wanted to see prophecy in action, not learn doctrine. The men wondered about Joseph as Minister of the Gospel: He preached by the power of the Holy Ghost. And note that he "preached for us," not "to us." They marveled at his claims to be a Prophet: he accordingly prophesied. They had wondered at his translation and publication of New Scripture--a unique and curious pretense--to satisfy that wonderment, he interpreted hieroglyphs from a roll of papyrus.
And note it well, the Prophet did not show them a copy of the translated Book of Abraham printed in the Times and Seasons newspaper, or anything like that: What I translated. No. He took up the papyrus to show them How I "interpreted hieroglyphics." And it makes no difference whether he had preached to this particular theme or translated that particular line before, the gift--with assertion, yes, but no fanfare--was both summoned and manifested in their immediate present and in their profane presence.
The pair were given to understand that they were witnessing the "act" of divine translation itself, firsthand, and in expression of authoritative charisma. Adams's diary records that Joseph Smith concluded the demonstration with these words: "I say it!"
Who said it? Brother Joseph, with due humility, once taught: "A prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such." On May 15, 1844, 15 years to the day of the appearance of John the Baptist and his ordination to the Priesthood, Joseph Smith certainly "was acting as such."
As remarkable as it all sounds, such odd conjunction of the mundane and the highly charged appears from time-to-time in accounts others left of their own encounters with Joseph Smith, when he took up, in their very presence, the prophetic mantle. He might preach many times from a particular text or two found in Mark or Matthew; he might repeatedly prophesy of judgments on Missouri--or the like--but for each new hearer the experience was doubtless startling and unique: their chance to meet a Prophet "acting as such."
What does it mean to translate as seer and revelator? How does that differ from other acts of translation? What does it mean to prophecy? How does the preaching of a living prophet differ from that of other men? The questions all collapse into one: What does one see, hear, and feel in the presence of a working Prophet of God? Or, What can one see, hear, and feel? The answer may depend on the individual observer. And what does it mean when each of us is also told "that it is by my power [that] you can read them [the Revelations] one to another" (Doctrine and Covenants 18:35). The Lord invites us to read His Scriptures, but when we read "in spirit and in truth," "they shall be read by the power of Christ" (John 4:24; 2 Nephi 27:11).
Many, it would appear, were those who passed a spell in the Book of Mormon "translation room" back in Pennsylvania, in 1829 through 1830, and, as did Adams and Quincy, witnessed an act of prophetic translation. What they reportedly observed of translation, and what the Bostonian pair observed, do not essentially differ. The action partook of no mystic element. Without ceremony, a man dictated, or claimed to dictate, into plain English, characters found in "records of ancient date" (Mosiah 8:13).
"These were days never to be forgotten," writes scribe Oliver Cowdery, who, "day after day," as he puts it, witnessed pretty much the full act. These were long days of listening to an ordinary voice dictate, but along with the seemingly
mundane, he attests that the entire work unfolded "by the inspiration of heaven," a reality certainly lost on the merely curious observer.
Day after day--or just today--let us walk and talk with Joseph Smith as he took up the prophetic mantle and spoke and prophesied and translated by what he called "the unspeakable power of the Holy Ghost." And remember: What is unspeakable is not all to be understood, or even at all to be understood. Yet we can attest that we have heard, in extraordinary conversation, God's voice speaking through a living Prophet, from Joseph Smith to Thomas S. Monson, in our walk today. (See, again, Doctrine and Covenants 18:34-36).