SHIELDS header banner /w logo

42 Questions


Question 20
Reformed Egyptian and the Charles Anthon Affair

The Book of Mormon declares that nobody can read "Reformed Egyptian" because it was "altered" (Mormon 9:32-34).  Yet Joseph related the story of Martin Harris (Joseph Smith 2:62-64) visiting Professor Anthon, who supposedly said that the translation of the characters was "correct."  How would Anthon know if they were correct, if The Book of Mormon is true?   Also, what is the reconciliation with the fact that Professor Anthon publicly denied the details of the story as related by Harris and went on to say that he told Harris that the whole thing was a hoax?

Response: by Malin Jacobs

We don't know exactly what Professor Anthon told Martin Harris because the story passed through Joseph Smith and Joseph Smith's scribe before being put on paper many years later.  However, Harris was not behaving like a country bumpkin.  Desiring to verify the genuineness of the characters he consulted the best available scholars.  Apparently Anthon satisfied Harris, since he thereafter mortgaged his farm for $3,000 (equivalent to $58,000 purchasing power in the year 20041) to finance the printing of the Book of Mormon, something he surely would not have done had Anthon actually originally told him “the whole thing was a hoax.”  On the other hand, Anthon had nothing to lose, and the preservation of his reputation to gain, by denying Harris’ account of the meeting.  Forty years later (1868) in a Commemorative Address, Anthon's successor at Columbia College acknowledged the problem the Harris-Anthon affair created for Anthon's reputation.2

Professor Anthon could not have known if the translation was correct for two reasons: (1) The Book of Mormon "Reformed Egyptian" was undecipherable by the learned, and (2) In 1828 only the bare rudiments of translating "Normal Egyptian" were known.  The foundation work in Hieroglyphic and Demotic Egyptian had just been completed.3  There were no published tools to aid students of Egyptian. Budge’s Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics didn't exist until 1920.  However, Anthon kept abreast of the latest in Egyptian scholarship4 and could recognize Egyptian characters.  He probably did tell Harris that the characters were genuine, as Arial Crowley later demonstrated.5  Anthon was fudging when he told Harris the translation was correct.  Anthon undoubtedly saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of Egyptology by getting his hands on the plates that were the source of the characters.  According to Harris, it was only after hearing the Angel story that Anthon retracted the certificate attesting to the authenticity of the characters.  After the retraction, Anthon probably did tell Harris that the characters were a hoax.

There are major differences between Anthon's account and Harris' account.  Whom are we to believe?  Consider the evidence.  It has been noted that following their encounter Harris willingly funded publication of the Book of Mormon.  His story and actions were consistent.  Anthon, on the other hand, left two conflicting written accounts of his meeting with Harris.  For reasons that will become obvious, critics of the church rarely mention the second account.

In a letter to Eber D. Howe dated Feb. 17, 1834,6 Anthon stated:

Dear Sir:

I received your letter of the 9th and lose no time in making a reply. . . .

He requested an opinion from me in writing, which, of course, I declined to give, and he then took his leave, taking his paper with him. [emphasis added]

In a letter to Rev. T. W. Coit dated April 3, 1841,7 Anthon stated:

Rev. and Dear Sir:

I have often heard that the Mormons claimed me for an auxiliary, but as no one until the present time has ever requested from me a statement in writing, I have not deemed it worth while to say anything publicly on the subject. . . .

On my telling the bearer of the paper that an attempt had been made to impose on him and defraud him of his property, he requested me to give him my opinion in writing about the paper which he had shown to me.  I did so without hesitation. . . (Emphasis added)

Contradictions: (1) In 1841 Anthon stated that no one had requested a statement in writing from him.  In 1834 Eber D. Howe had made such a request, and Anthon couldn't honor that request fast enough.  (2) Did Anthon give Harris a written opinion?  In 1834 Anthon said no, but in 1841 he said yes.  Therefore, Harris' is the more consistent and plausible account.  That is, Anthon gave Harris a written opinion that the characters were genuine and rescinded and destroyed it upon hearing the Angel Moroni story.

Sidney B. Sperry summed up Anthon's written contradictions best when he wrote

We shall not call Professor Anthon a prevaricator -- let our readers judge him for themselves -- rather we shall take the charitable view that the learned gentleman was roundly embarrassed at being connected with the unpopular Mormons and did his best to squirm out of his predicament.8

First known discussion:  B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, II:73, (The Deseret News., Salt Lake City, Utah: 1909)


1. See “How Much is That Worth Today” at the web site:

2. What Did Charles Anthon Really Say? in John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City Utah: 1992), p. 74.  Hereafter referred to as Reexploring.  This article was originally published in 1985 as a F.A.R.M.S. Update, which was revised in 1990.

3. Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was completed by 1824.  He had been working on the problem since 1808, and on 17 September, 1822, read before the Academy of Inscriptions his "Lettre à M. Dacier."  The culmination of his Rosetta Stone work was his Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Egyptiens (Paris, 1824, 2nd ed., 2 vols., 1828).

4. Anthon referred to Champollion’s work in his expansion of John Lempriere’s A Classical Dictionary.  First published in 1788 by Lempriere, Anthon added 4000 new entries (including some Egyptian) to Lempriere’s work beginning in 1825.  The Lempriere/Anthon work underwent an additional six editions by 1828.  See Stanley B. Kimball, "The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems," BYU Studies 10, No. 3 (1970) pp. 325-352.  Kimball found Anthon’s copy of Champollion's work at Cornell University. See also Reexploring, p. 73-74, where is given the information that early L.D.S. convert W. W. Phelps used the term "Egyptian Shorthand" in a letter.  The article provides evidence that this term likely came to Phelps from Harris, who almost certainly got it from Anthon.

5. Ariel L. Crowley, About the Book of Mormon (Ariel L. Crowley, Idaho City, Idaho: 1961), pp. 5-26.  The three articles between these pages were originally published in the Improvement Era in January through March of 1942.  Crowley provided a photographic comparison of over 100 characters from the Anthon Transcript with the same characters found in genuine Egyptian documents located in several museums.  The various "deformed English" theories of how Joseph Smith might have invented the characters, proposed by a number of critics, crumble under Crowley's research.

6. Originally published in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 1834, chapter xviii.  The letter appears in full in B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, Century One (Brigham Young University Press, Provo, UT: 1965), pp. 102-104. Hereafter referred to as Roberts, CHC.

7. Clark, Rev. John A., D.D.,  Gleanings By the Way (Philadelphia:  W. J. & J. K. Simon; New York:  Robert Carter, 1842).  The full letter appears on pp. 233-238, and the two excerpted portions appear on pp. 233 and 235 respectively.  This book can be found online by searching for the title on Google Book Search at  The entire letter also appears in Roberts, CHC I, pp. 104-107, with a typo:  The word "ever" in the first excerpt appears in Roberts as "even," which appeared in the previous version of this answer.  We quoted the letter from Roberts, as we were unaware of the online availability of the original source.  Our thanks to Richard Stout of Wilmington, DE, for pointing out Roberts' typo and the online availability of the original source in a letter to Malin Jacobs dated March 8, 2009.  That typo has been corrected in this revision.  In addition, Gleanings By the Way has been reprinted in paperback by Applewood Books (MA) in 2007, and (as of April 5, 2009) is available from

8. Sidney B, Sperry, Answers to Book of Mormon Questions (Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, UT: 1967), p. 57.