Oliver Cowdery interprets the vignettes on the papyri.

Dec 22, 1835
Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery, Letter to William Frye, 22 December 1835; rep. Oliver Cowdery, "Egyptian Mummies," Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 3 (December 1835): 233–237

Messenger and Advocate, Oliver Cowdery
Michael H. Chandler, William P. C. Barton, John Redman Coxe, Samuel G. Morgan, Richard Harlan, J. Pancoast, Antonio Lebolo, Muhammad Ali of Egypt, E. F. Rivinus, Joseph Smith, Jr., Oliver Cowdery, Bernardino Drovetti, W. E. Horner, William Frye
Reading Public, William Frye



The public mind has been excited, of late, by reports which have been circulated concerning certain Egyptian Mummies, and a quantity of ancient records, which were purchased by certain gentlemen in this place, last summer.

It has been said, that the purchasers of these antiquities pretend they have the body of Abraham, Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, Joseph, who was sold into Egypt, &c. &c. for the purpose of attracting the attention of the multitude, and gulling the unwary—which is utterly false.

For the purpose of correcting these and other erroneous statements, concerning both the mummies and also the records, we give an extract of a letter written by a friend in this place, who possesses correct knowledge concerning this matter, to a gentleman who resides at a distance.

Who these ancient inhabitants of Egypt are, we do not pretend to say,—neither does it matter to us. We have no idea or expectation, that either of them are Abraham, Abimelech, or Joseph. Abraham was buried on his own possession, "in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron, the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre," which he purchased of the sons of Heth; Abimelech lived in the same country, and for aught we know, died there, and the children of Israel carried Joseph's bones from Egypt when they went out under Moses. Consequently, could not have been found in Egypt in the 19th century. But the records are the most important, concerning which, we refer our readers to the extract for information.


December 22, 1835." }

Yours of the 8th Oct. furnishes matter of importance. You say truly when you say, "Verily, this is a great and marvelous work, indeed." Others may be endowed with a superior ability to myself, and thereby be the better qualified to appreciate the great condescension of our God in lighting up this earth once more with such intelligence from his presence, by the ministering of his holy angels and by his own voice. Be this as it may, with the ability I have I endeavor to be thankful.

That the Lord should again manifest something for the benefit of man in the last days, is perfectly consistent, and so exactly accords with that written by the holy prophets and apostles, that it is apparent to me, that none can reject the fulness of the gospel, except such as are led by an influence other than heavenly, or wil[l]ful blindness.—But so it is, and yet the work spreads and prospers. And considering the weak instruments engaged to spread it, it cannot but be acknowledged that the hand of our God is put forth, to roll on his work, his strange work, in the eyes of the nations. My sincere prayer is, that I may be fully qualified, by his grace, to do the part assigned me, that I may stand when he appeareth.

Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, I may say a few words. This record is beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part, red ink or paint, in perfect preservation. The characters are such as you find upon the coffins of mummies, hieroglyphics, &c. with many characters or letters exactly like the present, (though probably not quite so square,) form of the Hebrew without points.

These records were obtained from one of the catacombs in Egypt, near the place where once stood the renowned city of Thebes, by the celebrated French traveller Antonio Lebolo, in the year 1831. He procured license from Mehemet Ali, then Viceroy of Egypt, under the protection of Chevalier Drovetti, the French Consul, in the year 1828; employed 433 men four months and two days, (if I understood correctly, Egyptians or Turkish soldiers,) at from four to six cents per diem, each man; entered the catacomb June 7th, 1831, and obtained eleven Mummies. There were several hundred Mummies in the same catacomb: about one hundred embalmed after the first order, and deposited and placed in niches, and two or three hundred after the second and third order, and laid upon the floor or bottom of the grand cavity, the two last orders of embalmed were so decayed that they could not be removed, and only eleven of the first, found in the niches. On his way from Alexandria to Paris he put in at Trieste, and after ten days illness, expired. This was in the year 1832. Previous to his decease, he made a will of the whole to Mr. Michael H. Chandler, then in Philadelphia, Pa. his nephew, whom he supposed to have been in Ireland. Accordingly the whole were sent to Dublin, addressed according, and Mr. Chandler's friends ordered them sent to New York, where they were received at the custom house, in the winter or spring of 1833. In April of the same year Mr. Chandler paid the duties upon his Mummies, and took possession of the same. Up to this time they had not been taken out of the coffins nor the coffins opened. On opening the coffins he discovered that in connection with two of the bodies, were something rolled up with the same kind of linen, saturated with the same bitumen, which, when examined, proved to be two rolls of papyrus, previously mentioned. I may add that two or three other small pieces of papyrus, with astronomical calculations, epitaphs, &c. were found with others of the Mummies.

When Mr. Chandler discovered that there was something with the Mummies, he supposed, or hoped it might be some diamonds or other valuable metal, and was no little chagrined when he saw his disappointment. He was immediately told, while yet in the Custom House, that there was no man in that city, who could translate his roll; but was referred by the same gentleman, (a stranger,) to Mr. Joseph Smith, jr. who, continued he, possesses some kind of power or gifts by which he had previously translate similar characters. Bro. Smith was then unknown to Mr. Chandler, neither did he know that such a book or work as the record of the Nephites had been brought before the public. From New York he took his collection to Philadelphia, where he exhibited them for a compensation. The following is a certificate put into my hands by Mr. Chandler, which he obtained while in Philadelphia and will show the opinion of the scientific of that city:

"Having examined with considerable attention and deep interest, a number of Mummies from the Catacombs, near Thebes, in Egypt, and now exhibiting in the Arcade, we beg leave to recommend them to the observation of the curious inquirer on subjects of a period so long elapsed; probably not less than three thousand years ago.—The features of some of these Mummies are in perfect expression. The papyrus, covered with black or red ink, or paint, in excellent preservation, are very interesting. The undersigned, unsolicited by any person connected by interest with this exhibition, have voluntarily set their names hereunto, for the simple purpose of calling the attention of the public, to an interesting collection, not sufficiently known in this city."







—I concur in the above sentiments, concerning the collection of Mummies in the Philadelphia Arcade, and consider them highly deserving the attention of the curious.


While Mr. Chandler was in Philadelphia, he used every exertion to find some one who could give him the translation of his papyrus, but could not, satisfactorily, though from some few men of the first eminence, he obtained in a small degree, the translation of a few characters. Here he was referred to bro. Smith. From Philadelphia he visited Harrisburgh, and other places east of the mountains, and was frequently referred to bro. Smith for a translation of his Egyptian Relic.

It would be beyond my purpose to follow this gentleman in his different circuits to the time he visited this place the last of June, or first of July, at which time he presented bro. Smith with his papyrus. Till then neither myself nor brother Smith knew of such relics being in America. Mr. Chandler was told that his writings could be deciphered, and very politely gave me a privilege of copying some four or five different sentences or separate pieces, stating, at the same time, that unless he found some one who could give him a translation soon, he would carry them to London.

I am a little in advance of my narration; The morning Mr. Chandler first presented his papyrus to bro.—Smith, he was shown, by the latter, a number of characters like those upon the writings of Mr. C. which were previously copied from the plates, containing the history of the Nephites, or book of Mormon.

Being solicited by Mr. Chandler to give an opinion concerning his antiquities, or translation of some of the characters, bro. S. gave him the interpretation of some few for his satisfaction. For your gratification I will here annex a certificate which I hold, from under the hand of Mr. Chandler, unsolicited, however, by any person in this place, which will show how far he believed bro. Smith able to unfold from these long obscured rolls the wonders contained therein:

"Kirtland, July 6th, 1835."

"This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, jr. in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic characters, in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, shown to the most learned: And, from the information that I could even learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, jr. to correspond in the most minute matters."



"Travelling with, and proprietor of Egyptian Mummies."

The foregoing is verbatim as given by Mr. C. excepting the addition of punctuation, and speaks sufficiently plain without requiring comment from me. It was given previous to the purchase of the antiquities, by any person here.

The language in which this record is written is very comprehensive, and many of the hieroglyphics exceedingly striking. The evidence is apparent upon the face, that they were written by persons acquainted with the history of the creation, the fall of man, and more or less of the correct ideas of notions of the Deity. The representation of the god-head—three, yet in one, is curiously drawn to give simply, though impressively, the writers views of that exalted personage. The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of, and near a female figure, is to me, one of the greatest representations I have ever seen upon paper, or a writing substance; and must go so far towards convincing the rational mind of the correctness and divine authority of the holy scriptures, and especially that part which has ever been assailed by the infidel community, as being a fiction, as to carry away, with one might sweep, the whole atheistical fabric, without leaving a vestige sufficient for a foundation stone. Enoch's Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll.—True, our present version of the bible does not mention this fact, though it speaks of the righteousness of Abel and the holiness of Enoch,—one slain because his offering was accepted of the Lord, and the other taken to the regions of everlasting day without being confined to the narrow limits of the tomb, or tasting death; but Josephus says that the descendants of Seth were virtuous, and possessed a great knowledge of the heavenly bodies, and, that, in consequence of the prophecy of Adam, that the world should be destroyed once by water and again by fire, Enoch wrote a history or an account of the same, and put into two pillars one of brick and the other of stone; and that the same were in being at his (Josephus') day. The inner end of the same roll, (Joseph's record,) presents a representation of the judgment: At one view you behold the Savior seated upon his throne, crowned, and holding the sceptres of righteousness and power, before whom also, are assembled the twelve tribes of Israel, the nations, languages and tongues of the earth, the kingdoms of the world over which satan is represented as reigning. Michael the archangel, holding the key of the bottomless pit, and at the same time the devil as being chained and shut up in the bottomless pit. But upon this last scene, I am able only to give you a shadow, to the real picture. I am certain it cannot be viewed without filling the mind with awe, unless the mind is far estranged from God: and I sincerely hope, that mine may never go so far estray [astray], nor wander from those rational principles of the doctrine of our Savior, so much, as to become darkened in the least, and thereby fail to have that, to us, the greatest of all days, and the most sublime of all transactions, so impressively fixed upon the heart, that I become not like the beast, not knowing wither I am going, nor what shall be my final end!

I might continue my communication to a great length upon the different figures and characters represented upon the two rolls, but I have no doubt my subject has already become sufficiently prolix for your patience: I will therefore soon cease for the present.—When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probable idea how large volumes they will make; but judging from their size, and the comprehensiveness of the language, one might reasonable expect to see a sufficient to develop much upon the mighty acts of the ancient men of God, and of his dealing with the children of men when they saw him face to face. Be there little or much, it must be an inestimable acquisition to our present scriptures, fulfilling, in a small degree, the word of the prophet: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

P. S. You will have understood from the foregoing, that eleven Mummies were taken from the catacomb, at the time of which I have been speaking, and nothing definite having been said as to their disposal, I may, with propriety add a few words. Seven of the said eleven were purchased by gentlemen for private museums, previous to Mr. Chandler's visit to this place, with a small quantity of papyrus, similar, (as he says,) to the astronomical representation, contained with the present two rolls, of which I previously spoke, and the remaining four by gentlemen resident here.

Though the Mummies themselves are a curiosity, and an astonishment, well calculated to arouse the mind to a reflection of past ages, when men strove, as at this day, to immortalize their names, though in another manner, yet I do not consider them of much value compared with those records which were deposited with them.

If Providence permits, I will, ere long, write you again upon the propriety of looking for additions to our present scriptures, according to their own literal reading.

Believe me to be, sir, sincerely and truly, your brother in the bonds of the new and everlasting covenant.


To Wm. Frye, Esq. Gilead, Calhoon co. Ill.

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