Site icon Times & Seasons

II. What Joseph Smith Would Have Known About Champollion

Before we get to the heart of my argument – which is coming up next in a long post with a detailed look at what’s in the GAEL – we need to look at what Joseph Smith and his associates would have known about Champollion and the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics by 1835.

Prior installments:

I. Putting the grammar back in GAEL

John Gee has asked the right question: “What was known about Egyptology in Joseph Smith’s day?”[1] Gee’s account of Egyptology’s disciplinary history in the United States offers an admirable level of detail and nuance; disciplinary knowledge matters. What he misses, though, are the off-ramps from scholarly discourse to popular dissemination that are most relevant for the GAEL.

In the early 1830s, a reasonably literate person in New England could have read in some detail about what Champollion had discovered in at least the following two sources. The first is J. G. H. Greppo’s Essay on the Hieroglyphic System of M. Champollion, with a preface and notes by Moses Stuart and translation by Moses’ son Isaac, published in Boston in 1830.[2] Gee notes that Greppo’s work wasn’t available in the Manchester Public Library, but the publication does show that knowledge of Champollion was available in New England.[3] Direct consultation of Greppo wouldn’t have been necessary, but it isn’t entirely implausible; Sam Brown suggests another of Moses Stuart’s works, his 1831 grammar of Hebrew, as the model for the layout of the GAEL in columns.[4]

The second source is an extensive article, “Hieroglyphics,” in the Encyclopædia Americana, published in Philadelphia in 1831, that drew on Greppo and other sources.[5] For the question of what Joseph Smith and his associates are likely to have known, it’s these venues for disseminating and popularizing scholarly advances that are the key documents. They were as accessible or even more accessible than other works that have been cited as evidence for a strictly 19th-century context for Joseph Smith’s revelations.

Both Greppo and the Encyclopædia Americana article describe Champollion’s breakthrough as recognizing that Egyptian hieroglyphs could be used not just as iconic or metaphoric representations of things or concepts, but phonetically – first in one name on the Rosetta Stone, then with additional names, and then with words of all kinds from all stages of Egyptian literature. The Encyclopædia Americana article describes how Champollion

discovered the principle on which these signs were chosen to express one certain sound; it is this, that the hieroglyphic of any object might be used to represent the initial sound of the name of that object. The following table shows this more clearly: the first column gives the letter expressed by a hieroglyphic; the second, the English name of the object represented; and the third, the corresponding word in the Coptic (i. e., Egyptian) language.

“Hieroglyphics,” Encyclopædia Americana vol. 6 (1831), p. 312 (not all rows shown

What the table summarizes is both the principle of phonetic representation and the potential for multiple hieroglyphs to be used for one sound, or to represent multiple related sounds. The Encyclopædia Americana article further explains, “The rule which may be considered as having generally guided, in choosing between so many signs for the same sound, was, to take that sign which seemed most appropriate to the meaning of the word which was to be written phonetically. If the name of a king was to be written, those phonetic hieroglyphics would be taken, which represented things of a noble character.” (I assume Egyptology has specified the relationship more precisely in the meantime; what’s important here is what Joseph Smith and his associates were likely to know.)

It can be expected that Joseph Smith and his associates would have known at least this much about the decipherment of Egyptian. If they had consulted the translation of Greppo’s essay directly, they could even have viewed a table of hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic characters along with their associated sounds.

J.-G.-Honoré Greppo, Essay on the Hieroglyphic System of M. Champollion (1830), plate 2

* * *

Next time: the GAEL as evidence of what Joseph Smith and his associates did know about the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics.


[1] Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” 435.

[2] John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (JHU Press, 2016), 6–8.

[3] Gee, “Joseph Smith and Ancient Egypt,” 434; Givens and Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, 116; Lindsay, “A Precious Resource with Some Gaps,” 85–86.

[4] Samuel Morris Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 199 n. 31.

[5] “Hieroglyphics,” in Encyclopædia Americana vol. 6 (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1831), 312.

Exit mobile version