Sacred Writings from the Tombs of Egypt

H. Donl Peterson

H. Donl Peterson, “Sacred Writings from the Tombs of Egypt,” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 137–54.

H. Donl Peterson was a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University when this was published.

The prophet Abraham, who lived nearly 4000 years ago, is one of the most honored men the world has ever known. Christians, Moslems, and Jews alike, who constitute nearly half of the world’s population, revere his name as a man of God. Has any other man been more highly regarded by so many people? The Lord stated:

. . . Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed of him (Gen. 18:18).

Not only would Abraham’s seed be numerous, but also righteous and important (Gen. 17:6–7). The apostle Matthew opened his biography of Christ with a simple but profound sentence: “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). The righteous of the earth are known by two titles, the “seed of Christ” and “the seed of Abraham” (See Mosiah 5:7 and Gal. 3:29).

Abraham’s brief biography is recorded by Moses in the book of Genesis (see Gen. 11–25). How sad it is that more is not known of this great man of God who has had such an impact upon this world’s history.

The purpose of this chapter is to review the Egyptian background of the Abrahamic papyrus, the roles of the Lebolo family and Michael Chandler and the prophet’s purchase of and attitude toward the documents. Joseph Smith claimed that some of the writings of father Abraham have been preserved, were acquired by this latter-day seer in the year 1835, and were translated through divine means.

I will attempt to trace the sacred writings of Abraham from their disinterment in Upper Egypt until they identified, purchased, translated, and published by the Prophet Joseph Smith and his associates.

The Ravishing of Egypt

The story of Egypt is one of the longest and most fascinating accounts in the annals of history. The footprints in the sands of time are deeply imbedded along the River Nile. Shortly after the flood of Noah the land of Egypt was settled by Egyptus and her colony (Abr. 1:21–27). Egypt developed one of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world and for nearly two millennia dominated the Middle-East. Her decline began with the Babylonian invasion in the sixth century B.C. The Babylonians were followed by other oriental overlords who sequentially conquered that once proud land: the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Turks. In 1798 the major powers of Europe were far more advanced industrially and militarily than were the oriental nations. Napoleon, who had dreams of world conquest, invaded Egypt in 1798. Commanding over 38,000 soldiers and accompanied by a corps of scientists and artists, he planned to sever England’s lifeline to India and the rich treasures of the Far East. Bonaparte set sail from Toulon, France, on 19 May 1798, commanding a navy of 328 ships, landing near Alexandria about six weeks later. The 167 scientists and technicians brought with them a large library of books covering every conceivable title relevant to Egypt and the Nile as well as many crates of scientific apparatus and measuring instruments. That scientific community reported a major find on 19 July 1799. A large basalt stone measuring 3 feet 9 inches long, 2 feet 4 inches wide and 11 inches thick, was discovered near Rosetta. It had been inscribed in three scripts: hieroglyph, demotic, which is a cursive Egyptian script, and Greek. The scholars correctly reasoned that this large black stone would provide a key to interpreting the hieroglyphs if the same message were carved in all three languages. Those who could read both the Greek and Demotic languages found that the message in those two languages was the same so we then had a key to interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphics. The French artists also made great contributions with their detailed sketches of the temples, tombs, and monuments as well as with their work in cartography and geography. France’s military presence in Egypt was very brief. Only 2 1/2 months after Napoleon invaded Egypt, England’s Admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson, destroyed much of Napoleon’s fleet as it lay in anchor in Abukir Bay. At that time the British navy did not have ground troops to invade Egypt, but about a year later Napoleon abandoned his stranded troops and shortly thereafter the French invaders were forced to surrender to a British army.

France had ruled Egypt for only three years but her influence had some lasting consequences. One writer stated that the abortive French expedition had two effects: (1) it awakened the Egyptian political leaders to the importance of Egypt to European politics, and (2) it created a “dramatic explosion of knowledge about ancient Egypt” in Europe as a result of the publication of the commission’s report (Fagan 76).

Brian Fagan has aptly described the sensation which the monumental commission publication, Description de l’Egypte, caused. The twenty-four volume work was published serially between 1809 and 1813.

The sumptuous and magnificently illustrated folios caused a sensation in European cultural and scholarly circles. They depicted the riches of Egyptian antiquity with a vivid accuracy that had never been witnessed before. The delicate lines and colors of paintings and inscriptions were brilliantly executed on a large scale format which made every minor detail spring to the entranced eye. It is difficult for us living in a world of instant communication and of easy familiarity with the pyramids and other antiquities of the Nile to understand the tremendous impact of the Description. Here for the first time was revealed a marvelous, flourishing early civilization whose monuments had stood the test of thousands of years of wars and neglect. Temple after temple, pyramid after pyramid, artifact after artifact—Denon and his colleagues laid out before a delighted public a romantic and exciting world of exotic and fascinating antiquity (77).

The British expropriated all the antiquities of the French expedition, including the Rosetta Stone, and shipped them to England. After the English drove the French forces from the valley of the Nile, Egypt once again was left to local control. The Turkish overlords, in far away Istanbul, paid little attention to the land of Egypt and no strong central government existed. The void was filled by a Macedonian, Mohammed Ali, who rose to power through a successful military career. A powerful and ruthless man, he ruled Egypt between 1805–1849. He had great ambition and realized that he needed Western technology to accomplish his goals, so he welcomed European innovators, promoters and industrialists into Egypt. The Nile valley was open to many visitors who were interested in antiquities and looting. Ali capitalized on the situation by allowing the foreigners to plunder the tombs and strip the country of her antiquities in exchange for their skills and fortunes.

The Ransacking

The two European arch rivals who wielded the greatest influence with Ali were England and France. The consuls general of these two powerful and very competitive nations, Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti respectively, were the most influential Europeans in Egypt. The rivalry was so intense that these two antagonists, in an effort to avoid violence, drew dividing lines through the Theban temples and cemeteries to mark each respective country’s sphere of influence.

A Piedmontese soldier, Antonio Lebolo, who had served under Bonaparte, was exiled after the fall of Napoleon. He fled to Egypt to find work and in exile began a new life. He was employed by Drovetti, who at Napoleon’s defeat was relieved of his post in the French government. Drovetti continued to have great influence with Mohammed Ali and remained in Egypt to work in the digs in Upper Egypt (Beauvois 13–14:806–07). After demonstrating his leadership capabilities, Lebolo was selected to superintend Drovetti’s excavations in the Theban area. The French and English were digging on both sides of the Nile, in Karnak and Thebes on the eastern shore, as well as in the tombs on the West Bank. The West Bank, opposite Thebes, is honeycombed with numerous underground burial chambers. An early 19th century visitor, Edward Montule, described that unusual scene:

But it is not the object of this short description to dwell on the ruins of Thebes, of which it will be sufficient to mention that the most remarkable are the temples at Carnac [sic] and at Luxor, on the east side of the Nile. On the opposite bank are the temple of Gournou, partly buried in the sand, the Memnonium where anciently was the colossal statue of Osymandyas, and the two sitting gigantic figures, each fifty-two feet high, which remain in their original position. It was from the Memnonium that Mr. Belzoni brought the colossal bust of the young Memnon, as it has been called, now deposited in the British Museum.

Such are some of the most striking monuments of the magnificence of the former inhabitants of Thebes; but the present natives of Gournou, the most independent of any of the Arabs in Egypt, and greatly superior to them all in cunning and deceit, live in the entrance of the caves, or ancient sepulchres mentioned above. Here, having made some partitions with earthen walls, they form habitations for themselves, as well as for their cows, camels, buffaloes, sheep, goats, and dogs. They cultivate a small tract of land, extending from the rocks to the Nile; but even this is in part neglected, for they prefer, to the labours of agriculture, the more profitable but disgusting employment of digging for mummies. Aware of the eagerness with which these articles are purchased by strangers, they make and arrange collections of them, and Mr. Belzoni has frequently seen in the dwellings of the Arabs, magazines as it were, well stocked with mummies, the empty wooden cases in which they had been contained, large pieces of asphaltum, much used and prized by painters, and other objects of antiquity procured from these caverns.

The natives also break up the wooden cases for fuel, with which together with the bones of mummies, the asphaltum and rags, which embalmed and enveloped them, they heat the ovens in which they bake their bread . . . .

Some of them [the cut rocks], though now much defaced, shew that they were originally of great magnificence, richly ornamented, and of surprising extent; but, in general, the sepulchres at Gournou are the pits where the Arabs dig for mummies (106).

The exploring of tombs has been glamorized in recent years in several movies and novels. Belzoni, a contemporary of Lebolo, details the not-so-romantic reality of 19th century spelunking.

Gournou is a tract of rocks, about two miles in length, at the foot of the Libyan mountains, on the west of Thebes, and was the burial-place of the great city of a hundred gates. Every part of these rocks is cut out by art, in the form of large and small chambers, each of which has its separate entrance; and, though they are very close to each other, it is seldom that there is any interior communication from one to another. I can truly say, it is impossible to give any description sufficient to convey the smallest idea of those subterranean abodes, and their inhabitants. There are no sepulchres in any part of the world like them; there are no excavations, or mines, that can be compared to these truly astonishing places; and no exact description can be given of their interior, owing to the difficulty of visiting these recesses. The inconveniency of entering into them is such, that it is not every one who can support the exertion.

A traveller is generally satisfied when he has seen the large hall, the gallery, the staircase, and as far as he can conveniently go: besides, he is taken up with the strange works he observes cut in various places, and painted on each side of the walls; so that when he comes to a narrow and difficult passage, or to have to descend to the bottom of a well or cavity, he declines taking such trouble, naturally supposing that he cannot see in these abysses any thing so magnificent as what he sees above, and consequently deeming it useless to proceed any farther. Of some of these tombs many persons could not withstand the suffocating air, which often causes fainting. A vast quantity of dust rises, so fine that it enters into the throat and nostrils, and chokes the nose and mouth to such a degree, that it requires great power of lungs to resist it and the strong effluvia of the mummies. This is not all; the entry or passage where the bodies are is roughly cut in the rocks, and the falling of the sand from the upper part or ceiling of the passage causes it to be nearly filled up. In some places there is not more than a vacancy of a foot left, which you must contrive to pass through in a creeping posture like a snail, on pointed and keen stones, that cut like glass. After getting through these passages, some of them two or three hundred yards long, you generally find a more commodious place, perhaps high enough to sit. But what a place of rest! surrounded by bodies, by heaps of mummies in all directions; which, previous to my being accustomed to the sight, impressed me with horror. The blackness of the wall, the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air, the different objects that surrounded me, seeming to converse with each other, and the Arabs with the candles or torches in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies, absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described. In such a situation I found myself several times, and often returned exhausted and fainting, till at last I became inured to it, and indifferent to what I suffered, except from the dust, which never failed to choke my throat and nose; and though, fortunately, I am destitute of the sense of smelling, I could taste that the mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow. After the exertion of entering into such a place, through a passage of fifty, a hundred, three hundred, or perhaps six hundred yards, nearly overcome, I sought a resting-place, found one, and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a band-box. I naturally had recourse to my hands to sustain my weight, but they found no better support; so that I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour, waiting till it subsided again. I could not remove from the place, however, without increasing it, and every step I took I crushed a mummy in some part or other. Once I was conducted from such a place to another resembling it, through, a passage of about twenty feet in length, and no wider than that a body could be forced through. It was choked with mummies, and I could not pass without putting my face in contact with that of some decayed Egyptian; but as the passage inclined downwards, my own weight helped me on: however, I could not avoid being covered with bones, legs, arms, and heads rolling from above. Thus I proceeded from one cave to another, all full of mummies piled up in various ways, some standing, some lying, and some on their heads. The purpose of my researches was to rob the Egyptians of their papyri; of which I found a few hidden in their breasts, under their arms, in the space above the knees, or on the legs, and covered by the numerous folds of cloth, that envelop the mummy (241–45).

Whether all explorers were as insensitive as Belzoni is questionable, but it is safe to say that human beings, dead or alive, were very expendable in Egypt in the early 19th century.

Lebolo, like the other antiquarians, lived in a tomb in Gournah on the West Bank of the Nile as he directed Drovetti’s excavations near Thebes. A wealthy, titled Piedmontese, Count Carlo Vidua, spoke of Lebolo’s work and graciousness. In a letter from Cairo to Pio Vidua dated 20 June 1820, he describes a visit to Seti I’s tomb after it had been cleared of its great quantity of rubble.

But, among so many marvelous things, that are possible to be admired at Thebes, the most curious one of all is the valley where the kings’ sepulchres lay. It is rather a lonely valley, arid, horrible, in which some holes like caverns are seen. Entering these caverns, long galleries, halls, chambers, and cabinets are found, in short, they are underground palaces, all covered with painted bas-relieves; and it is very marvelous. It is wonderful the preservation of the colors, the amount of the works, the scrupulous attention used to make them. Lately, a new one was discovered which surpasses all the others in beauty, in the perfection of the work, and in execution. I visited it two times. The second time I spent the whole day there, examining everything; it was already late evening, and I couldn’t move myself away from there.

I dined inside there in a beautiful hall, much more elegant than our ballrooms. Also, I believe that, considering all, this sepulcher of the king of Thebes is a much more sumptuous dwelling than the dwellings of our living European kings. Who, do you think, gave me the honor of those sepulchres, and who reigns in Thebes in exchange of the dead king? A Piedmontese. Mr. Lebolo from Canavese, formerly a police officer in the service of France, came to Egypt and was employed by Mr. Drovetti in the excavations, which he does continuously in Thebes. Our Piedmonteses really have a ready spirit, and are capable of succeeding in everything; from police officer to antiquities is a big jump. Well, Mr. Lebolo works successfully in his new career; he found beautiful pieces for the Drovetti museum; and since he was allowed by him to do some excavations of his own, he gathered for himself a small collection, which will bring him a moderate fortune. In those ten days that I lived in Thebes, Mr. Lebolo accompanied me, took me everywhere, had me come to dinner at his house, which is among monuments and half embedded in tombs, all filled with mummies, papyri, and little statues. An Egyptian bas-relief was the top of the door; we made fire with pieces of mummies’ coffins. Mr. Lebolo commands those Arabs; sometimes he has about 200 or 300 at his command; the Turkish commander respects him for fear of Mr. Drovetti. Oh, if Sesostri had lifted his head up, and had seen a Piedmontese commanding in the city with one hundred doors! When you see count Lodi, tell him that we drank to his health among the ruins of Thebes. Mr. Lebolo served for some time in Piedmont with the carabineers and spoke very highly of his leader. He was also under count of Agliano in Savoy. To show my gratitude to such courtesy from this Canavese-Theban man, I took the task of sending a letter to his family, which I include here, praying you to make sure that it will reach its destination (Letters #34).

A French minerologist and antiquarian, Frederic Cailliaud, said of his visit to Lebolo’s cave which was amid the rubble on the West Bank of the Nile:

When we arrived in Gourna, Mr. Lebolo brought me to his house where together we opened the tomb where he had collected the antiquities. I, have personally broken off the seal of the trunk containing the papyri and one after the other one I inspected them, but as I had foreseen the strong one with Hieroglyphics does not exist. I found three of them with hieratic and Greek characters which nonetheless will be of great interest for the knowledge of Hieroglyphics (Letter).

Lebolo probably ended his excavating by 1821–22. Exactly when or where he discovered the eleven mummies connected with LDS Church history is uncertain. The account given to Oliver Cowdery by Michael H. Chandler states only:

The records were obtained from one of the catacombs in Egypt, near the place where once stood the renowned city of Thebes, by the celebrated French traveler, Antonio Sebolo, in the year 1831. He procured license from Mehemet Ali, then Viceroy of Egypt, under the protection of Chevalier Drovetti, the French Consul, in the year 1828, and employed four hundred and thirty-three men, four months and two days (if I understand correctly)—Egyptian or Turkish soldiers, at from four to six cents per diem, each man. He entered the catacomb June 7, 1831, and obtained eleven mummies. There were several hundred mummies in the same catacomb; about one hundred embalmed after the first order, and placed in niches, and two or three hundred after the second and third orders, and laid upon the floor or bottom of the grand cavity. The two last orders of embalmed were so decayed, that they could not be removed, and only eleven of the first, found in the niches. On his way from Alexandria to Paris, he put in at Trieste, and, after ten days’ illness, expired. This was in the year 1832. Previous to his decease, he made a will of the whole, to Mr. Michael H. Chandler, (then in Philadelphia, Pa.,) his nephew, whom he supposed to be in Ireland. Accordingly, the whole were sent to Dublin, and Mr. Chandler’s friends ordered them to New York, where they were received at the Custom House, in the winter or spring of 1833 (History of the Church 2:348–49; hereafter HQ.

Documents located in recent years have corrected some of the erroneous statements that are reported in the History of the Church. Some dates are in error, the place of Lebolo’s death is wrong, the willing of the mummies to Chandler is not correct, and Lebolo’s name is incorrectly spelled Sebolo.

Lebolo died in his home town of Castellamonte 19 February 1830. [1] His last will and testament made out on 17 November 1829, does not mention the mummies, nor does the 88-page detailed inventory of his holdings. Lebolo’s will and other codicils were located in the State Archives in Turin in November 1984. The documents connecting Lebolo to the eleven mummies were located by a Latter-day Saint couple, Adrian and Jerilyn Comollo, as they studied the Lebolo family’s legal documents. On 30 July 1831, Pietro Lebolo, Antonio’s eldest son, was authorized by the family heirs to go to Trieste to check on a merchant and ship owner, Albano Oblasser (also spelled Oblassa), who was supposed to have sold the eleven mummies and to have sent the proceeds to the family. The authorization reads:

Special power of attorney from Giovanni Meuta, guardian of the children Guiseppe, Giovanni and Tomaso Lebolo to the head of Mr. Pietro Lebolo [Lebolo’s only surviving son from the first marriage] from Castellamonte.

It authorized Pietro to go to Trieste and check on the following items:

(1) Eleven mummies given by him [Antonio Lebolo] to Mr. Albano Oblassa so that he [Oblassa] would arrange to sell them.

(2) Mr. Gustavo Bourlet owes Antonio Lebolo 1800 fiorini and Mr. Bourlet agrees to sell a Turkish scarf worth 300 fiorini and to reimburse Mr. Lebolo.

(3) Mr. Giovan Batista Gauttier and Rosa Gauttier owners of a menagerie of foreign animals both debtors to Antonio Lebolo for 2,150 fiorini. . . .

Pietro Lebolo was given “all and complete power to summon to any court or Magistrate said Oblassa, Bourlet and Gauttier, and propose against them all the reasons he might believe as necessary, in order to receive said credits . . .” (Giacomo Buffa Notorial papers. State Archives, Turin, Italy).

Another relevant document was found in some 1833 notarial papers. In this document, the Lebolo family authorized a friend of theirs living in Philadelphia to learn why the family had not received payment from the New York shipping company which had been responsible for selling the eleven mummies. As no further documents were found on this matter, it is assumed that the Lebolo family received satisfactory recompense, or the matter would have been continued. The 5 October 1833, document reads:

Special power of attorney from Pietro Lebolo in favor of Francesco Bertola, Professor of Veterinary Medicine.

. . . Pietro Lebolo has called and calls as his special procurator Francesco Bertola son of the living Francesco also born in Castellamonte, Piedmont and living in Philadelphia, Professor of Veterinary Medicine . . . [who] receives the authority to claim the 11 mummies and other antique objects located in various boxes belonging to the deceased Antonio Lebolo who sent them to Albano Oblasser of Trieste. Albano Oblasser sent them to New York to the house of Mr. M’Leod and (Guillespie) of (Maitland) and Kennedy. Mr. Bertola has authority to sell them to whomever he thinks will fulfill the conditions, pay the amount that the procurator will decide and he will send the same through quittance, and in case of dispute he will protect the interests of the Misters constituents and he will take care of all of the problems that might come up in order to obtain a quick liquidation of such objects. . . . (F. Clemente Calonzo Notorial records. State Archives, Turin Italy).

Michael H. Chandler

Michael H. Chandler, an Irish immigrant who had settled in Philadelphia, acquired the eleven mummies from New York City. How he learned of them is presently unknown. Mummies were still a novelty in the states in 1833 and they brought a high price of $400–$600 apiece. How Chandler could afford to procure the eleven mummies and pay the large freight bill is unknown. But we do know that two Philadelphia merchants, William Craig and Winthrop Sargent, took Michael Chandler to court over a several year period between 1838 and 1855, attempting to reclaim a $6,000 debt (Proceedings, Court of Common Pleas, Geauga County, Chadron, Ohio). This would be a fair price for such a cache, [2] but no documents have been located which definitely link the mummies to the lawsuit. We also know that Chandler sold several mummies in the Philadelphia area shortly after receiving them. He advertised in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Harrisburg newspapers about his traveling exhibit.

The following advertisement appeared in the U.S. Gazette, a Philadelphia newspaper, on 3 April 1833:

The largest collection of Egyptian mummies ever exhibited in this city, is now to be seen at the Masonic Hall. . . .

They were found in the vicinity of Thebes, by the celebrated traveler Antonio Lebolo and the Chevalier Drovetti, General Consul of France in Egypt.

Some writings on Papirus [sic] found with the Mummies, can also be seen, and will afford, no doubt, much satisfaction to Amateurs of Antiquities.

Admittance 25 cents, children half price. . . .

This newspaper account does allow us to conclude that Chandler had acquired the mummies prior to 3 April 1833. Since New York City and Philadelphia are over 100 miles apart, and it would have taken time to ship them to Philadelphia, to make arrangements to display them, and to properly advertise them, Chandler must have claimed the eleven mummies at least by the middle of March 1833.

It appears that he sold two of the mummies rather soon from an ad in the Daily Intelligencer, another Philadelphia newspaper, dated 9 April 1833, six days later:

A collection of nine bodies, said to have been found in the vicinity of Thebes, by the celebrated traveller Antonio Lebolo, and the Chevalier Drovetti . . . , is now to be seen at the Masonic Hall, in Chestnut Street, above Seventh. Besides these, several rolls of Papyrus, obtained at the same time, are also exhibited . . . (emphasis added).

The Philadelphia Saturday Courier carried the following statement on 25 May 1833.

Nine mummies, found not long since in the vicinity of Thebes in Egypt, are being exhibited in Philadelphia. . . . Seven years ago, Mr. Peale of the New York Museum gave $1800 for one of these specimens, which may now be obtained for less than a fourth part of the sum. A strange market, indeed, for the proud land of the pyramids to come to. Its mummies would seem to be more of worth than its men.

On 9 September 1833, Chandler displayed the mummies in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The headline in The Harris burg Chronicle states: “Six Egyptian Mummies now exhibiting in the Masonic Hall, Harrisburg” (emphasis added). Then a 27 March 1835, article in a Painesville, Ohio Telegraph stated: “I send you a description of four Mummies, now exhibiting in this place” (emphasis added). These four remaining mummies were also offered for sale at the same time in the Cleveland Advertiser. [3] These were the four mummies that were purchased by Joseph Smith and his associates. Michael Chandler was anxious to meet Joseph Smith for he had unsuccessfully taken the Egyptian papyri to several experts in the eastern states seeking an interpretation. Several people, some facetiously no doubt, had mentioned to him that Joseph Smith the Mormon prophet could read Egyptian, since the Mormons claimed that the Book of Mormon had been translated from Egyptian. Chandler brought his papyrus to Joseph Smith and was informed that the writings could be translated. Joseph showed Chandler a copy of some Egyptian characters that had been copied from plates of gold and noted some similarities. The prophet interpreted a few characters to Mr. Chandler’s satisfaction. Impressed by what he saw and heard, Michael Chandler voluntarily presented to the prophet the following certificate:

Kirtland, July 6, 1835

This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, showed to the most learned; and, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, Jun., to correspond in the most minute matters.

Michael H. Chandler,

Traveling with, and proprietor of, Egyptian Mummies (HC 2:235).

The prophet felt impressed that the Church should purchase the papyri although he did not know their content at that time. Joseph did not want to buy the mummies, but Chandler explained that the papyri enhanced the collection and he would not sell the writings without the mummies. The price was fixed at $2400, a very large sum in those days.

With Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps serving as scribes, Joseph began the translation and reported “much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.” (HC 2:236). Joseph continued, “a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth” (Ibid.)

Throughout the balance of his life, the Prophet spoke very reverently of the sacred documents that came into his hands. The following is a small sampling from his journal entries:

[1 Oct. 1835] This afternoon I labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with Brothers Oliver Cowdery and W. W. Phelps, and during the research, the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding . . . (HC 2:286).

[16 Dec. 1835] I exhibited and explained the Egyptian records . . . and explained many things concerning the dealing of God with the ancients, and the formation of the planetary system (334).

[20 Dec. 1835] Brothers Palmer and Taylor called to see me. I showed them the sacred records to their joy and satisfaction . . . (Ibid.)

Five years after the papyri were purchased, Joseph’s scribe made this entry:

[18 June 1840] The time has now come, when he [Joseph Smith] should devote himself exclusively to those things which relate to the spiritualities of the Church, and commence the work of translating the Egyptian records, the Bible, and wait upon the Lord for such revelations as may be suited to the conditions and circumstances of the Church (HC 4:137).

The Prophet temporarily assumed the editorship of the Church newspaper, Times and Seasons, when the first installments of the book of Abraham were published in March of 1842. This was his way of publicly endorsing before the Church the contents of the Abrahamic translation, as well as other significant documents that he would publish. The announcement read in part:

To Subscribers

This paper commences my editorial career, I alone stand responsible for it, and shall do for all papers having my signature hence forward. . . (Times and Seasons, [1 March 1842] 3:710).

Joseph Smith

Eleven months later Elder John Taylor, the editor of the Times and Seasons, encouraged the subscribers not to allow their subscription to expire because of the important material that was soon to be published. He wrote, “We would further state that we had the promise of Br. Joseph, to furnish us with further extracts from the Book of Abraham” (Ibid, [1 Feb. 1835] 4:95).

The book of Abraham was a lengthy record. Oliver Cowdery wrote in 1835 shortly after Joseph Smith acquired the papyri:

When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probable idea how large volumes they will make; but judging from their size, and the comprehensiveness of the language, one might reasonably expect to see a sufficient to develop much upon the mighty acts of the ancient men of God, and of his dealing with the children of men when they saw him face to face. Be there little or much, it must be an inestimable acquisition to our present scriptures, fulfilling, in a small degree, the word of the prophet: For the earth shall be full of knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Messenger and Advocate [Dec. 1835] 4:236).

After visiting Kirtland, a non-member had been told that the writings of Abraham and Joseph, when published, would require “a larger volume than the Bible . . . to contain them” (Peterson 16).

Unfortunately the last 17 months of Joseph Smith’s life were times of great hardship and the book of Abraham was never finished.

Some Major Contributions of the Book of Abraham

Even though we do not have the entire book of Abraham, or any of the book of Joseph, that which we do have is very significant. Some of the major contributions of the book of Abraham to the scriptures are:

  1. The ten generations between Noah and Abraham are only briefly alluded to in the Bible. The Abrahamic account provides some valuable information from this missing segment of the biblical account.
  2. The importance of the Holy Priesthood in Abraham’s day, as well as ours, is taught.
  3. The clashes between the idolatrous world and the Lord’s faithful and the differences that persisted are explained.
  4. The Abrahamic covenant is clarified.
  5. The planetary system, as understood by the ancients, is revealed for our day.
  6. Perhaps the best statement in the standard works on man’s pre-earth life is recorded in Abraham 3.
  7. The Abrahamic account clarifies the reason Abraham had Sarai state that she was his sister. The Lord commanded him to.
  8. Sacred truths pertaining to the temple ordinances are mentioned in Abraham.
  9. New insights about the creation are contained in the writings of Abraham.

The five chapters of the book of Abraham that are canonized in the Pearl of Great Price are of priceless value to those who prize the words of the prophets. The words of the Lord through the prophet Abraham are truly a pearl of great price. It is anticipated that, at some future welcome day, the Lord will yet share with his Saints the complete writings of Father Abraham.


Beauvois, E. “Drovetti.” Nouvelle Biographie Générale. 46 vols. Paris: Fermin Didot, 1852–1878.

Belzoni, G. Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia. London: John Murray, 1822.

Buffa, Giacomo Notarial papers. State Archives, Turin, Italy; a photographic copy is in possession of writer.

Calonzo, F. Clemente. Notarial papers. State Archives, Turin, Italy; a photographic copy is in the possession of the writer.

Cowdery, Oliver. “Egyptian Mummies.” Messenger and Advocate (December 1835) 2:233–237.

Fagan, Brian M. The Rape of the Nile Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.

History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols. Ed. B. H. Roberts. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1948.

Letter to Mr. Drovetti from F. Cailliaud, 23 August 1820, from the Marro Collection (Turin); a xeroxed copy is in possession of the writer.

Letters of Count Carlo Vidua. 2 vols. Turin: Cesare Balbo, 1834.

Montule, Edward De. Travels in Egypt During 1818 and 1819. London: G. Sidney, 1821.

Peterson, H. Donl. A Study Guide for the Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987.

Smith, Joseph. ‘To Subscribers.” Times and Seasons (15 Mar 1842) 3:710.

Taylor, John. “Notice.” Times and Seasons (1 Feb 1843) 4:95.


[1] The records at the St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Parish at Castellamonte, Italy, cover the Lebolo family for several generations. Antonio Lebolo’s death entry reads: “Lebolo Antonius, the wife of whom is Anna Dufour, African woman, son of Petri and Marianna Meuta, aged fifty years, sacramentally assisted, died on Feb. 19th, 1830, and was buried the following day.”

In the notarial papers of Giacomo Buffa, now kept in the State Archives in Turin, Italy, a document states: “Description of the opening of the will of the late Antonio Lebolo from Castellamonte” and dated 19 Feb. 1830.

“Guiseppe Lebolo [Antonio’s brother] has called the above mentioned misters . . . who are in my presence and reaffirm the news of the death of Antonio Lebolo in the night between the 18th and 19th of this month”; a photographic copy of the document is in the possession of the writer.

[2] It is noted that Mr. Peale of the New York Museum paid $1800 for a mummy in the 1820’s. The Philadelphia Saturday Courier ad quoted in this paper (25 May 1833) states that a mummy may now be purchased for less than one fourth part of $1800. Joseph Smith paid $600 per mummy for the last four mummies Chandler had.

[3] The last two sentences of a brief article in the Cleveland Advertiser dated Thursday, 26 March 1835, states: “Specimens of the ancient method of writing on papyrus, found with the mummies, as also shown by Mr. Chandler, whose intelligent conversation adds much interest to the exhibition. The collection is offered for sale by the proprietor.”