W.W. Phelps assisted with the translation of the Book of Abraham. Amongst believing scholars, there is a bit of a civil war over the Book of Abraham, and Phelps plays a role in that dispute. Dr. Bruce Van Orden will discuss why believing scholars disagree.
GT: I know we talked a little bit about the Civil War. It seems like there’s kind of the Kerry Muhlestein/John Gee camp that basically say there’s some missing papyrus and that’s the real Book of Abraham.
Bruce: I would say the Kerry Muhlestein is not quite as firm on that. He says it’s a possibility. John Gee is really strong on the fact that they’re probably–he’s not 100% sure, either. But, John Gee does believe that there were other papyri.
GT: Okay. Then, you have kind of the more Robin Jensen/Dan Vogel/Brian Hauglid that are kind of more of the catalyst theory, is that fair?
Bruce: Hauglid and Robin Jensen, yes, I’m with them. Dan Vogel, of course, believes that Joseph Smith was not a prophet in the first place. [Vogel doesn’t believe this was] really from God, but [Joseph] concocted this based on what he thought he was coming up with Egyptian alphabet and so forth.
GT: So, as far as the Egyptian alphabet, because I think that there’s a big issue on the timeline there. If I remember right, and correct me if I’m wrong, Muhlestein and Gee basically say, these Egyptian characters were just like an outline, and that’s not really a translation.
Bruce:. That’s what they believe. I actually agree with them.
GT: Oh, you do?
Bruce: On that, that the Joseph Smith dictated the verbiage that’s more or less in the Book of Abraham, now. I believe it came from God. It was inspired. I don’t say that every word was written by Abraham, ever. But I believe it’s inspired writing and the Egyptian alphabet was more of a side project. I do. I agree with that.
GT: Okay, because I think Vogel says, “No, this is the Egyptian character, and this is supposed to be the translation.”
Bruce: Except, it really isn’t, except for what he thinks is in Abraham 1:1-3. I think that Phelps put that in there. I think he [Phelps] thought it was that. I don’t think that Joseph Smith thought that was. We don’t know.
Bruce: But that’s only three verses.
GT: So you think the first three verses of the Book of Abraham are Phelps translation.
Bruce: It’s in his handwriting. I don’t think it’s necessarily Phelps translation. But once it was put in there, I feel that he thought that this project that he was working on, then that Joseph Smith may have participated into a certain extent, the Egyptian alphabet was different from the translation experience, I think. Then, Phelps superimposed what he thought was from the Egyptian figures, hieroglyphics, to those first three verses. We don’t have any other evidence that there’s a connection, specifically.
What are your thoughts on the Book of Abraham translation and the civil war among believing scholars?
W.W. Phelps was editor of the Times & Seasons in 1844 when Joseph Smith was killed. He not only gave the funeral sermon for Joseph & Hyrum but played a critical role in resolving the Succession Crisis. He embraced polygamy, got excommunicated for it for 2 days, and then helped start up the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. Dr. Bruce Van Orden details the last years of his life.
Bruce: Let me say, though, that in the immediate aftermath of the martyrdom, the apostles were in the east. They didn’t hear of Joseph Smith’s death until a few days after it occurred. The only two apostles left in the Nauvoo to lead the Church were Willard Richards and John Taylor, but John Taylor was nearly killed and ineffective for five or six weeks. Phelps had been in on all the councils leading up to the time when Joseph Smith was killed.
GT: Was he kind of a 13th apostle?
Bruce:. In many ways, yes he was. Not officially, though. I don’t want to ever give that impression.
Bruce: But he was in on all the Councils, including the Council of Fifty, and the Nauvoo City things, which was a Church/State operation, no question. Anyway, in the immediate aftermath of the martyrdom, the two men who kept peace and kept the Church in harmony, more or less, for five weeks until the apostles arrived back, were Willard Richards, and his good friend, W.W. Phelps and collaborator. Those two pretty much took care of things for five weeks until the apostles began coming back. Someone had to give the funeral sermon for Joseph and Hyrum, and it was W.W. Phelps who gave the funeral sermon, in which he articulated the teachings of Joseph Smith, about the kingdom of God on the earth, including the political part of it. People have wondered why Phelps gave the funeral sermon. It’s because he was one of the leaders of the Church and one of the two who really was around to take care of things in the immediate aftermath. He, of course, continued to put out the Times and Seasons and even though John Taylor was editor, obviously, was near death. He didn’t run the Times and Seasons. So, Phelps, of course, continued. He wrote all of the story of the martyrdom and reported it all. In fact, he used the word martyrdom. Then, he wrote this poem, which is Praise to the Man who Communed with Jehovah, which we sing. But he wrote that immediately and put it in the Times and Seasons.
GT: When the Saints were on the way west in Winter Quarters, Phelps was assigned to go get a press, because they needed a new press. He went and got it in Boston. That was the press that was used for all of the publications in Salt Lake, including the Deseret News and the Deseret Almanac. Phelps single-handedly put out the almanac for 15 years in Salt Lake on an annual basis, the Deseret Almanac.
GT: So that Deseret Almanac was kind of based on something Thomas Jefferson had done.
Bruce: Well, almanacs had been started in Britain, actually. But Benjamin Franklin had almanacs in America prior to the revolution, even.
Bruce tells us that Phelps played key role for the Deseret News. What are your thoughts about W.W. Phelps?