Mormonism and Mummies: The Tale of Mummies that Fell into the Hands of Joseph Smith Jr.

This story is part of our Mummy Stories collaboration with students of Dr Katie Clary from Coastal Carolina University in the USA. Find out more here: https://www.mummystories.com/single-post/new-mummy-stories



In 1835, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, purchased several Egyptian mummies in Kirtland, Ohio. While the identities of the mummies are unknown, their story is very interesting and disturbing. In the 1830s, Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, wanted to modernize his country and raise money by selling his nation’s artifacts to the world. He hired an Italian man named Antoni Lebolo to find artifacts.[1] Lebolo found many Ptolemaic period artifacts including mummies and documents (which will become important shortly) and sold them off to antiquities dealers in New York City. They came into the hands of a certain Michael Chandler in 1833 who wished to make a profit from these antiquities.[2] After selling many of the artifacts in 1833 and 1834 in Pennsylvania and New York, he only had four mummies left by 1835.


Chandler then heard about a certain man named Joseph Smith, who five years earlier published the Book of Mormon, a sacred text that he claimed to have translated from ancient American plates written in what Smith referred to as “reformed Egyptian.” Smith proclaimed he was a prophet of God and that he was to restore Christ’s church on earth. His new religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was headquartered in Kirtland, Ohio, having left New York a few years earlier.


Chandler then went to see the Latter-Day Saints (commonly called Mormons) on July 3, 1835, to see what the prophet thought of his artifacts.[3] Joseph Smith saw what he had brought but found peculiar interest in the scrolls that came with the mummies. Joseph Smith proclaimed that, after claiming to translate some of the characters, that “much to our joy [we] found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.”[4] Smith wanted to purchase only the papyri, but Chandler insisted that the entire collection be sold to the LDS Church for $2,400.70. Despite having few funds, especially since the LDS Church was building its first temple, Smith had to get as much help from his community to produce enough funds to purchase the entire collection, which Smith eventually did. Until his death, Smith displayed the papyri and mummies for visitors to see, as a testimony of his divine abilities.


The reason Smith claimed he could translate Egyptian was due to his experience in translating the Book of Mormon from “reformed Egyptian,” which was a language that Smith claimed the early Americans used from 600 B.C. to 421 A.D.[5] Joseph Smith eventually translated what he called the Book of Abraham into scripture in 1842, which as of 1880 is authorized canon in the Mormon faith, with equal authority next to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. It is contained in a collection of works known as the Pearl of Great Price, which proclaims that it (the Book of Abraham) is,


A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand upon papyrus.” [6]

Despite his achievements, the original papyri and the mummies were sold off after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844. Despite believing the mummies were royal, they never were identified nor confirmed as such.[7] His wife Emma Smith sold the mummies and papyri to Abel Combs in 1856, who then sold two of the mummies to the Woods Museum in Chicago, which was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871. The mummies were destroyed, and the rest of Michael Chandler’s mummies were all but lost. The only mummies related to the ones purchased by Smith are two heads that were purchased by a man named Samuel Morton in Philadelphia from Chandler before he came to Kirtland.[8] These mummy heads were then purchased by the Penn Museum in 1960 where they, despite being shown at BYU for a short period, are kept today.


Despite these two mummies surviving the horrors of the 19th century antiquities market, the ones that fell into the hands of the Mormon church are forever gone. These mummies, presumably being of such importance, would probably see this as not only isfet, but as the worst possible fate they could ever have had. To be not only owned but disregarded, toyed with, and totally destroyed would be a horror no Egyptian ever thought of.


Personally, as someone who has studied this subject for some time, I cannot imagine being a pawn in the formulation of someone’s most controversial beliefs (pre-mortal existence, plurality of gods, etc.) that have led to much scrutiny which his followers have to endure to this day. I would never want to be used to formulate a belief system that goes against my own, and to not be cared for at all would be horrific. Above all, to have documents that relate to my faith be used to form theology that has no resemblance to mine would make me livid.


In conclusion, the story of Joseph Smith’s mummies is a cautionary tale that exposes the worst elements of Egyptomania, and the treatment of human remains. Not only were the mummies mishandled and misused, but they were also almost entirely destroyed, and their identities still have not been identified. I am glad the Penn Museum is keeping these mummy heads from public display, as they have been through more than enough trouble and deserve to finally be at some degree of peace. If these mummy heads can be kept from public display, so too can mummies that are intact be removed from their display cases.


[1] Mitchel, Paul. “Tangled Afterlives: How an Egyptian Papyrus Became the Mormon Book of Abraham.” Expedition, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016) [2] Grooters, John, host. The Lost Book of Abraham. 2002. Institute for Religious Research, 56 minutes [3] Mitchel, Paul. “Tangled Afterlives: How an Egyptian Papyrus Became the Mormon Book of Abraham.” Expedition, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016) [4] Joseph Smith, “History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838],” 596. [5] Book of Mormon Evidence. “Mummies of Joseph Smith & North America.” October 1, 2019. Book of Mormon Evidence [6] The Pearl of Great Price: A Selection from the Revelations, Translations, and Narrations of Joseph Smith, First Prophet, Seer, and Revelator to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013. [7] Muhlestein, Kerry. “Joseph Smith and Egyptian Artifacts: A Model for Evaluating the Prophetic Nature of the Prophet’s Ideas about the Ancient World.” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no 13 (2016): 35-82 [8] Mitchel, Paul. “Tangled Afterlives: How an Egyptian Papyrus Became the Mormon Book of Abraham.” Expedition, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016)/





Bibliography


Grooters, John, host. The Lost Book of Abraham. 2002. Institute for Religious Research, 56 minutes


Book of Mormon Evidence. “Mummies of Joseph Smith & North America.” October 1, 2019. Book of Mormon Evidence


Mitchel, Paul. “Tangled Afterlives: How an Egyptian Papyrus Became the Mormon Book of Abraham.” Expedition, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016)


The Pearl of Great Price: A Selection from the Revelations, Translations, and Narrations of Joseph Smith, First Prophet, Seer, and Revelator to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013


Muhlestein, Kerry. “Joseph Smith and Egyptian Artifacts: A Model for Evaluating the Prophetic Nature of the Prophet’s Ideas about the Ancient World.” BYU Studies Quarterly 55, no 13 (2016): 35-82


Smith, Joseph Jr., “History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838],” 596