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TitleHistorical Overview
Publication TypeBook Chapter
Year of Publication2000
AuthorsGee, John
Book TitleA Guide to the Joseph Smith Papyri
PublisherFoundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
CityProvo, UT
KeywordsBook of Abraham; Book of Abraham Translation; Joseph Smith Papyri; Latter-day Saint History (1820-1846)

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Historical Overview

Early History of the Papyri

In the early part of the nineteenth century, Antonio Lebolo, an antiquities dealer working under the consul general of Egypt, plundered several tombs in Thebes in southern Egypt. Some of the antiquities he sold; others he kept. Among those he kept were eleven mummies that he brought home to Italy.

After Lebolo’s death, his family sent the mummies through the shipping company of Albano Oblasser to sell in America to the highest bidder. The highest bidder was Michael Chandler, who, having failed to find valuables inside the mummies other than some papyri, took them around as part of a traveling curiosity show. After two years on the road, Chandler’s mummy show reached Kirtland, Ohio, then the headquarters of the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.1

Joseph Smith, prophet of the church, examined the several papyrus rolls and, after commencing “the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics,” said that “one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.”2 In early July of 1835, Joseph Coe, Simeon Andrews, Joseph Smith, and others paid Chandler $2400 for four mummies and at least five papyrus documents, including two or more rolls3 (see charts on pages 10–13).

History of the Translation of the Book of Abraham

Joseph Smith began translating the papyri in early July 1835. The current text of the Book of Abraham was translated by the end of the month. He left off translation in August 1835 to visit the Saints in Michigan.4 Revelation pertaining to the Book of Abraham was not received again until 1 October 1835.5 Translation continued through 25 November 1835, but Joseph then set aside the papyri to study Hebrew, finish the Kirtland temple and dedicate it, and, later, deal with troubles in Missouri. While Joseph slightly revised the translation preparatory to its publication in 1842, there is no other evidence that he worked on the translation of the existing Book of Abraham after 1835 (see chart on opposite page).

We have no firsthand evidence that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim or a seer stone in translating the Book of Abraham. Nor did Joseph apparently use any grammars or dictionaries in preparing his translations. Joseph Smith himself never discussed how he translated the Book of Abraham. Nevertheless, Warren Parrish, one of the scribes involved in the translation during late 1835, stated, “I have set [sic] by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hiero-glyphicks [sic] as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven.”6

History of the Publication of the Book of Abraham

In early 1842 Joseph Smith, Willard Richards, and Reuben Hedlock prepared the text for publication in the Times and Seasons. Only three installments were published, which included about one quarter of what Joseph Smith translated. Unfortunately the location of the original manuscripts of his translation is presently unknown and thus about three quarters of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham is lost. The three facsimiles made to accompany the translation of the Book of Abraham were cut to actual size by Reuben Hedlock.

In 1851 Franklin D. Richards, then the newest apostle of the church and the new president of the European Mission headquartered in England, found that the church members in England—the location with the largest concentration of Latter-day Saints in the world at the time—had almost no church literature. Elder Richards included the Book of Abraham in “a choice selection from the revelations, translations, and narrations of Joseph Smith,” published as The Pearl of Great Price.7 It was “not adapted, nor designed, as a pioneer of the faith among unbelievers”; instead it was designed for the Saints to “increase their ability to maintain and to defend the holy faith by becoming possessors of it.”8 The facsimiles of the Book of Abraham were recut with this edition and succeeding editions, becoming increasingly more inaccurate with subsequent editions.

In 1878 the Pearl of Great Price was published in Utah. Two years later it was canonized by a vote of the general conference. The longest-used edition was published in 1907; it had the most inaccurate copies of the facsimiles and continued to be used until the 1981 English edition restored Hedlock’s original facsimiles. The 1981 edition has been the standard edition ever since (see chart on opposite page).

Later History of the Papyri

When Joseph Smith bought the papyri, the outer ends of the papyrus scrolls were already damaged. To prevent further damage, the outside portions of some of the papyri were separated from their rolls, mounted on paper, and placed in glass frames. The remainder of the rolls were kept intact.

In Nauvoo Joseph Smith turned over the mummies and papyri to his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, to free himself from the obligation of exhibiting the papyri and to provide his widowed mother with means to support herself. She kept the mummies and papyri for the rest of her life, exhibiting them to interested visitors for twenty-five cents a person. On 26 May 1856, less than two weeks after Mother Smith died, Emma Smith (Joseph’s widow), her second husband, Lewis C. Bidamon, and her son, Joseph Smith III, sold the mummies and the papyri to Abel Combs.9

Abel Combs split up the papyri. Some he sold to the St. Louis Museum, including at least two of the rolls and at least two of the mummies; some of the mounted fragments he kept. The St. Louis Museum sold the rolls and mummies to the Wood Museum in Chicago. The Wood Museum burned down in the Chicago Fire of 1871, and presumably the papyri and mummies were destroyed with it. The mounted fragments passed from Abel Combs to the hands of Edward and Alice Heusser. In 1918 Alice Heusser offered the papyri to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At the time, the museum was not interested. In 1947 Ludlow Bull, the associate curator of the Department of Egyptian Art, purchased the papyri for the Metropolitan Museum from Edward Heusser. On 27 November 1967 the Metropolitan Museum presented the fragments of the papyri to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church published the papyri two months later in the Improvement Era;10 the current numbering system of the papyri derives from this publication. To the disappointment of many, while these remaining fragments contained the original drawing for Facsimile 1, they were not the portion of the papyri that contained the text of the Book of Abraham (see charts on pages 10–13).


  1. A more detailed account of the history of the papyri may be found in H. Donl Peterson, The Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 36–118.
  2. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1950), 2:236.
  3. For the price, see Peterson, Story of the Book of Abraham, 6–7. For the number of papyri, see John Gee, “A Tragedy of Errors,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 4/1 (1992): 108–9.
  4. See History of the Church, 2:253.
  5. See ibid., 2:286.
  6. Warren Parrish, letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, 15 February 1838, 3.
  7. The Pearl of Great Price (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1851), title page.
  8. Franklin D. Richards, “Preface” in The Pearl of Great Price (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1851), v.
  9. See Peterson, Story of the Book of Abraham, 203–4.
  10. See “New Light on Joseph Smith’s Egyptian Papyri,”  Improvement Era 71/2 (1968): 40–41.