One of the articles to have recently been published in the Journal of Mormon Studies that has generated a lot of buzz is about a Pure Language Project and the Grammar and Alphabet documents produced by Joseph Smith and his associates in Kirtland, Ohio. And while the article by Michael MacKay and Daniel Belnap is, as the authors put it, “limited to the ivory tower of university journal access,” they did do a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.
First and foremost, what is the Pure Language Project that MacKay and Belnap discuss? They explain in the interview that it is their name for “Joseph Smith’s attempt to create a “pure language” following the experience of the February 1832 vision”:
According to section 76, which recounts this vision, v. 114-116 describes what we call an “epistemic” problem. In verse 116 in particular, the Prophet was told that there was no way he could truly communicate what he and Sidney Rigdon had just experienced adequately and comprehensively: “neither is man capable to make them known.”
From what we can tell, this divine explanation led Joseph to attempt to codify a communication system which could respond to the epistemic problem, i.e., a “pure” language that had the ability to communicate comprehensively and accurately everything the speaker/writer was attempting to communicate.
As Joseph Smith would put it to W. W. Phelps in a November 27, 1832 letter: “Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.” He seems to have worked to create that delivery over the years.
The second major part of the picture to understand is the nature of the Egyptian Language Documents. Stephen Cranny and Jonathan Green referred to these documents as ‘Mormonism’s Voynich manuscript’ because much ink has been spilt by academics trying to make sense of these documents. MacKay and Belnap gave their explanation:
It all starts in the summer of 1835, when Joseph Smith participated in a project that would produce a fascinating set of texts, referred to today as the Egyptian Language Documents (ELD), used and compiled mostly in Kirtland, but also consulted and expanded in Nauvoo. (Egyptian Alphabet, Grammar and Alphabet, and The Book of Abraham Manuscripts.) The purpose of these documents has been debated for decades.
The key point to the debates is that the Grammar and Egyptian Alphabet have been seen as being related to the translation of the Book of Abraham, with implications for the historicity of that document.
As for MacKay and Belnap’s contribution:
Our central claim in this article is that they were not created to help Joseph Smith produce the Book of Abraham, but instead they were part of what we call “the pure language project.” We demonstrate this by examining documents from 1832 to 1843 that constitute the pure language project. …
From our research into this attempt, we saw relationships between the prophet’s pure language project and the attempt to establish a “grammar” and “alphabet” from the newly-acquired Egyptian texts. More plainly, though identified as the Egyptian grammar and alphabet, we believe these documents (more commonly recognized as the ELD) expand conceptually the cosmology first identified in 1832 rather than attempting to “translate” the text which would become known as the “Book of Abraham.”
MacKay added that the topic “is dense and complicated” and “our research is certainly not the final response, nor is there a historical narrative that assures us that Joseph Smith was cognizant of an intentional project, called the pure language project.” But he did also explain some of why they felt there were links between the series of documents they grouped together as the Pure Language Project:
There are several consistent elements found in each document that make up the bulk of our argument. Starting with 1) the “Caractors” document, 2) the pure language document, 1832, 3) the Phelp’s letter, 1835, 4) the Egyptian Alphabets, 1835, 5) the Grammar and Alphabet, 1835.
The following lists the consistencies found across these documents, which we are referring to as the pure language project. The common elements (1. structure, 2. Characters, 3. Concepts, 4. Not Egyptian.) in each document is our strongest evidence.
They elaborate on those points in the full interview (and I recommend reading their piece to delve into this deeper).
A key point is that the symbols used in the documents seem to have been drawn from an eclectic set of origins.
The characters used as part of the pure language documents link them together. These five characters appear in these documents in the exact same order.
Characters in the Book of Mormon “Caractors” document were used in the Phelps letter.
Characters from the Phelps letter are found in the Egyptian Alphabet. … Some of the characters in the Phelps letter and the Egyptian Alphabets are found in the Grammar and Alphabet. …
The Egyptian Alphabet documents also eventually copy Egyptian characters from the papyri, but they never translate them or give them definitions. The format is also non-sensical. The Egyptian they used from the papyri had a syntax, in which the order of the characters mattered for the message. They copied the Egyptian in the same order with no regard for syntax, as if that order of characters could be transferred to an alphabet. This suggests that they were playing with Egyptian, not translating it.
The symbols seems to have been played with over the years, with some of the hieroglyphics being included with them.
As an aside from the interview, there may have been some masonic influences in the characters being used and the overall effort of the Pure Language Project. As Cheryl Bruno, et al wrote:
Mormon Freemason Clinton Bartholomew has pioneered an investigation into the six consecutive characters … in Phelps’s “Specimen” letter and repeated in the “Alphabet” document. Five out of the six characters come from the Royal Arch. Using both the Royal Arch and the [aiq bkr] ciphers, Bartholomew demonstrates a correlation between the definitions Smith gave for the hieroglyphs and their English and Hebrew letters. Additionally, he points to evidence that Smith was taking his conception of the interrelationship between the Adamic, Hebrew, and Egyptian languages directly from Masonic texts. …
It is clear that the Egyptian project was important to the early Latter-day Saints who worked on it, but scholars have been unable to explain exactly what they were doing. Freemasonry may provide a solution that has not yet been considered: the project was an experiment with the creation of a Masonically based Mormon ritual. (Cheryl L. Bruno, Joe Steve Swick III, Nicholas S. Literski, Method Infinite: Freemasonry and the Mormon Restoration, Advanced Reading Copy (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2022) 164-165.)
It would be an interesting connection to explore in the context of MacKay and Belnap’s work.
Returning to the interview, Dan Belnap explained what the implications of their research are:
The first is that the text of the Book of Abraham does not appear to have emerged from the Egyptian Alphabet(s) and Egyptian Grammar. Instead, the evidence seems to suggest that the translation was already provided and that it was used as part of the construction of the pure language.
Second, the pure language project was an important part of Joseph Smith’s ministry from 1832-1835 and we have not given it its due in church history, or, indeed, in its place in our own current worship. …
It is worth noting that we do not claim that the ELD has nothing to do with the Abrahamic papyri—just that we don’t believe the ELD is the mechanism by which the translation of the Book of Abraham came about.
As Jonathan Green observed: “‘The Pure Language Project’ in the current volume of the Journal of Mormon History is the best explanation to date of the significance of the documents relating to the Egyptian papyri.”
For more on the Pure Language Project, head on over to read the full interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.