Welch reviews the Greek Psalter episode, points out problems with Caswall's account.

Academic / Technical Report
John W. Welch

John W. Welch, “Joseph Smith's Awareness of Greek and Latin,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 311–314

BYU Religious Studies Center
John W. Welch
Reading Public

Before he began using Greek more extensively in his sermons, however, Joseph Smith—now settled in Nauvoo—had an encounter on April 19, 1842, with a certain Henry Caswall [spelled variously as Caswall or Caswell], an educated and devoted Anglican who, later that year, published an account claiming to have exposed Joseph Smith as a fraud. Because this incident often comes up in discussions about Joseph’s linguistic abilities, it is worth looking at briefly here. Caswall’s account—various versions of which he published in London under four separate titles between 1842 and 1851[33]—quickly became a favorite piece of ammunition among Joseph’s growing numbers of enemies. The editor of the Warsaw Message, after summarizing Caswall’s claims, concluded with, “Such is the manner in which his [Joseph Smith’s] knavery is sometimes exposed! Yet, strange that people continue to believe him!”[34] The facts, however, do not bear out such boasts.

Essentially, Caswall claimed that he showed to Joseph Smith “an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalter written upon parchment, and probably about six hundred years old,” which he claimed had been in his family for generations. Pretending to be completely sincere, Caswall asked Joseph to identify what the text was. According to Caswall’s account, he suggested to Joseph that the text might be Greek, to which Caswall claimed that Joseph Smith replied, “It ain’t Greek at all. . . . It is a dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics.” Purportedly, Joseph went on: “Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics; and them which follows, is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian . . . like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates.”

Assuming that Caswall actually had such a psalter and that his description of its Greek script was accurate, this would mean that he had an early thirteenth-century Greek text, and thus the Greek script, likely Byzantine, would have looked almost nothing like the standard typeset Greek which was typically used in the nineteenth century. Indeed, there are ample reasons to believe that Joseph, or virtually any other American at the time, would not have recognized a medieval Greek text of the Psalms. And if Caswall’s alleged parchment were written in a short two-column form, this might also explain why, at first glance, it might have looked to Joseph something like a dictionary of short listings—assuming that is what he said—since each row or column would likely begin with a larger and more stylized hand-drawn letter that would look nothing like the printed standard Greek script which Joseph would have been accustomed to. In fact, the entire Greek text, if truly written in a thirteenth-century Byzantine script, would likely be indecipherable to anyone not trained to read medieval Greek scripts. Many good classicists cannot readily read every Greek script any more than all English speakers can read thirteenth-century Old English manuscripts.[35] Many Greek scripts look very unusual and, on first glance to an untrained eye, not completely unlike Egyptian Hieratic script (perhaps something related to what Joseph meant by “reformed Egyptian”), which Joseph knew something about from his work with the Egyptian papyri he had acquired.

As the story ends, Caswall declined to sell his psalter to Joseph, and after he had been shown Joseph’s Egyptian papyri, Joseph “disappeared,” as Caswall said. But if Joseph left in a rush, it was likely to get some work done, as he then spent the rest of that day and the next examining land developments in the north parts of Nauvoo. His journal on April 19, 1842, states that he “Rode out in the city. & examined some land near the north limits.”[36] Although Caswall would soon claim that Joseph had been revealed as a fraud, Joseph seems to have been utterly unimpressed by Caswall’s visit. His journal that day does not mention Caswall or his psalter.

Richard Bushman, in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,[37] wisely makes no mention of this brief, and probably insignificant, few minutes that Joseph had with Caswall, who was just another visitor to Nauvoo. But as Craig Foster has shown,[38] it appears that the encounter did in fact occur: Caswall’s visit was acknowledged and rebutted in a statement in the Times and Seasons published eighteen months later.[39] So while it appears that Caswall did actually meet Joseph, any significance of what happened in their very short encounter may never be known.

Be that as it may, the Caswall encounter probably offers little useful information about Joseph’s abilities or inabilities with Greek. Whether Caswall’s trap was fair or not, or whether it was actually sprung or not, the whole episode was not as damaging as Caswall would go on trumpeting. Because the encounter has been thought to prove that Joseph knew nothing about Greek, one may well ask: Was this a real test of Joseph’s ability to recognize standard Greek fonts? Do the discrepancies between Caswall’s four published versions of this incident make his story inconclusive?[40] What happened to this six-hundred-year-old Greek family heirloom that Caswall purportedly showed to Joseph Smith? And assuming that it actually existed, what did its script actually look like?

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