Joseph Smith/Translator/Greek psalter
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Did Joseph Smith misidentify a Greek "psalter" as a containing "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics?
Questions and Answers
Question: Did Joseph Smith misidentify a Greek "psalter" as a containing "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics?
There is no other evidence of Henry Caswall's claim save his anti-Mormon work
It is claimed that an ancient text of Greek psalms (a "psalter") was misidentified by Joseph Smith as a containing "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics.
There is no other evidence of Caswall's claim save his anti-Mormon work. That Caswall took no steps in Nauvoo to get Joseph on record is fatally suspicious, since this was the entire reason he claimed to be there. He is also clearly attempting to make Joseph Smith appear uncouth and ignorant, having him say "them plates" and "them characters", when this contrasts markedly with other known examples of Joseph's speaking and writing style at the time.  Furthermore, Joseph was familiar enough with Greek to recognize Greek characters, and so is unlikely to have mistaken them for an unknown language—even if we believe Joseph was attempting to deceive Caswall, it seems unlikely he would fail to recognize the characters of a language he had studied.
Those who tell this story rarely provide the source details for the tale, and do not inform their readers about John Taylor's witness regarding Caswall's later dishonesty.
An English clergyman from Missouri named Henry Caswall visited Nauvoo in 1842 and claimed that Joseph identifed a Greek psalter as a "Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics"
On 19 April 1842, an English clergyman from Missouri named Henry Caswall visited Nauvoo, and would later claim that he had shown Joseph Smith a Greek psalter, which the Prophet claimed to translate:
He [Joseph Smith] has a downcast look, and possesses none of that open and straightforward expression which generally characterizes an honest man. His language is uncouth and ungrammatical, indicating very confused notions respecting syntactical concords. When an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalms was exhibited to him as a test of his scholarship, he boldly pronounced it to be a "Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said, "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics, and them which follows is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian language. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates." 
John Taylor: "Concerning Mr. Caswall, I was at Nauvoo during the time of his visit. He came for the purpose of looking for evil"
Of this claim, John Taylor would later say:
Concerning Mr. Caswall, I was at Nauvoo during the time of his visit. He came for the purpose of looking for evil. He was a wicked man, and associated with reprobates, mobocrats, and murderers. It is, I suppose, true that he was reverend gentleman; but it has been no uncommon thing with us to witness associations of this kind, nor for reverend gentlemen; so called, to be found leading on mobs to deeds of plunder and death. I saw Mr. Caswall in the printing office at Nauvoo; he had with him an old manuscript, and professed to be anxious to know what it was. I looked at it, and told him that I believed it was a Greek manuscript. In his book, he states that it was a Greek Psalter; but that none of the Mormons told him what it was. Herein is a falsehood, for I told him. Yet these are the men and books that we are to have our evidence from. 
An earlier, more detailed account from Caswall
That Caswall is not being entirely honest is demonstrated by another version of the same tale which he published the year earlier:
[p. 5] I had laid aside my clerical apparel, and had assumed a dress in which there was little probability of my being recognized as a " minister of the Gentiles." In order to test the scholarship of the prophet, I had further provided myself with an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalter written upon parchment, and probably about six hundred years old….
[p. 35] On entering the house, chairs were provided for the prophet and myself, while the curious and gaping crowd remained standing. I handed the book to the prophet, and begged him to explain its contents. He asked me if I had any idea of its meaning. I replied, that I believed it to be a Greek Psalter; but that I should like to hear his opinion. "No," he said; "it ain't Greek at all; except, perhaps, a few words. What ain't Greek, is Egyptian ; and what ain't Egyptian, is Greek. This book is very valuable. It is a dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said : "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics; and them which follows, is [p. 36] the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates." Upon this, the Mormons around began to congratulate me on the information I was receiving. "There," they said ; "we told you so we told you that our prophet would give you satisfaction. None but our prophet can explain these mysteries." The prophet now turned to me, and said, "this book ain't of no use to you, you don't understand it." "Oh yes," I replied; "it is of some use; for if I were in want of money, I could sell it, and obtain, perhaps, enough to live on for a whole year." "But what will you take for it?" said the prophet and his elders. "My price," I replied, "is higher than you would be willing to give." "What price is that?" they eagerly demanded. I replied, "I will not tell you what price I would take; but if you were to offer me this moment nine hundred dollars in gold for it, you should not have it." They then repeated their request that I should lend it to them until the prophet should have time to translate it, and promised me the most ample security; but I declined all their proposals. 
The Times and Seasons noted somewhat sardonically that Caswall had returned home and been 'rewarded' with status in his own denomination because of his attacks on the Church
The newspaper gave a version of events which seems to accord much better with the facts than Caswall's claim that Joseph was anxious to translate the psalter but Caswall refused to sell or lend it:
It will be recollected by some, that a Mr. Caswall, professing to be an Episcopal minister, came to this city some twelve or eighteen months ago. He had with him an old manuscript, professing to be ignorant of its contents, and came to Joseph Smith, as he said, for the purpose of having it translated. Mr. Smith had a little conversation with him and treated him with civility, but as the gentleman seemed very much afraid of his document, he [Joseph] declined having any thing to do with it. 
There are suspicious differences between Caswall's accounts
In his first version, Caswall claims that he told Joseph and the Mormons what the book was–a copy of the Psalms in Greek. Despite this warning, the bumbling Joseph that Caswall wishes us to see presses blindly on, utterly confident in his ability. The prophet and Mormons are also extraordinarily anxious to purchase the Psalter or borrow it with "the most ample security," but Caswall will not do so. Extraordinary! He has come to Nauvoo, he tells us, with the firm intent of exposing Joseph Smith as a charlatan. In front of a mass of witnesses, Joseph makes claims about the contents of a book that Caswall knows to be Greek, and the prophet offers to translate the document. Caswall, however, refuses to let him continue, refuses to loan it, and tries to discourage the Mormons from even thinking about buying it. Why? If Joseph committed himself publicly, in print, on the document's contents, Caswall would have iron-clad proof that Joseph could not translate.
Joseph walked right into Caswall's trap, and Caswall then goes to great length to spring the prophet from it? His claim does not stand up.
Caswall also claimed at first to have disguised his identity as a minister (the better to fool Joseph and the Mormons) but the Times and Seasons noted that Caswall had claimed to be an Episcopal minister. Caswall's second account likewise says nothing about him hiding his identity.
It is not surprising, then, that critics often cite the later, less-detailed version(s) of Caswall's tale, which omit many of the absurdities in Caswall's claim. Critics make his charge look plausible, when the earliest document demonstrates that it is not, and that Caswall (as John Taylor claimed) was not above hiding or altering the facts to suit his polemical purpose.
Joseph studied Greek and would have recognized Greek letters
Joseph Smith's journal reveals that Joseph actually studied a bit of Greek well before Caldwell's visit.
On 20 November 1835, Oliver Cowdery returned from New York and brought Joseph a Hebrew and Greek lexicon.  On 23 December 1835, Joseph wrote that he was "at home studying the greek Language..." 
Joseph was probably not a great scholar of Greek. But, Caldwell's claim that he was able to deceive Joseph with a Greek psalter seems pretty implausible when we realize that Joseph had studied a book on Greek. Joseph would not even need to be able to read the psalter to recognize Greek letters—learning such letters is the first task of any Greek student.
This, coupled with the other absurdities in Caswall's tale, and his efforts to make Joseph appear as a simple ignorant yokel make his tale even more unlikely.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Craig L. Foster, "Henry Caswall: Anti-Mormon Extraordinaire," Brigham Young University Studies 35 no. 4 (1995-96), 144–159.
- Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints : To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: Printed for J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 223. off-site
- [John Taylor,] "Three Nights: A Public Discussion between the Revds. C. W. Cleeve, James Robertson, and Philip Cater, and Elder John Taylor of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France" (Liverpool: John Taylor, 1850), 5. off-site
- Rev. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons: Or, Three Days at Nauvoo in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 5, 35–36.
- Unsigned author, "Reward of Merit," Times and Seasons 4 no. 23 (15 October 1843), 364. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- Dean Jessee, Ron Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (editors), The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1: 1832–1839 (Church Historian's Press, 2008), 107. ISBN 1570088497.
- Dean Jessee, Ron Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (editors), The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1: 1832–1839 (Church Historian's Press, 2008), 135. ISBN 1570088497.