The Nauvoo Origins of the Book of Abraham

JSP AbrahamYesterday, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released their newest volume: Revelations and Translations, Volume Four: The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen. The book is another hallmark for the project, as its deep research and exhaustive contextualization will add much to an already popular topic. There is material for scholars interested in all sorts of questions: what did Joseph Smith mean by “translation”? How were the Egyptian documents related to the Book of Abraham project? What do these texts tell us about modern definitions of “scripture” in America? And for those most dedicated to either proving or dismissing Mormonism’s truth claims, there will always be questions concerning historicity.

But while the Book of Abraham is typically associated with the Kirtland period, where Joseph Smith resides during the 1830s when he purchased the papyri, I (surprise, surprise) am more interested in its connection to Nauvoo-era Mormonism. In short, I believe the latter portions of the Abrahamic text were not only produced in Nauvoo, but were both representative of and instigative for Nauvoo’s overall social regenerative project.

Though you’ll have to wait for my book, hopefully out late next year, to get the full argument, here’s a taste.

First, some nuts and bolts regarding the Book of Abraham documents. Joseph Smith purchased a collection of Egyptian papyri from a traveling showman in 1835, immediately declared it contained the sacred story of the biblical patriarch Abraham, and then set out to translate it. (The word “translate,” of course, is performing a lot of interpretive work in that sentence, but I have to set that aside for the moment.) However, it appears he only made it partly through the project, as the Kirtland-era manuscripts currently housed in the LDS Library only feature a portion of what is now the Book of Abraham. (To be specific: only the text that goes through chapter 2, verse 18.) It is possible Smith continued and completed the whole text in Kirtland, but the archival evidence is sparse.

However, things picked up again a half-decade later, once the Mormons were settled in Nauvoo. Their first few years in Illinois had brought a welcome period of peace, which allowed new projects. A couple things happened in late-1841 and early-1842 that were especially noteworthy: first, the creation of a municipal government freed Smith from many civic duties, and the elevation of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles did the same in the ecclesiastical sphere; second, Smith and the Twelve took control of the city newspaper, which they promised would contain new items of immense spiritual importance; and third, Smith was provided a new office, in the upstairs of a formidable brick store, that provided the space to perform his sacred work. Then, in February 1842, word began to spread that the prophet was once again turning to his Abraham translation. The Times & Seasons, with Smith listed as editor, began publishing the text in March, including portions that exceeded what were found in the Kirtland manuscripts.

Why would Smith turn to Abraham at that particular moment? The reasons were numerous. He was currently overseeing a massive city project that fused religion and politics in controversial ways, an initiative that often caused him to look back to past biblical models for guidance. He was also introducing new doctrines concerning humanity and the eternities, which included the evolving practice of baptisms for the dead. And finally, Smith’s still-clandestine practice of polygamy was still in its development stage and needed a more formulated theological structure. Put simply, Joseph Smith was in the midst of reorienting society according to the pattern of the priesthood, and Abraham provided a mode of governance.

The day after the new Abrahamic verses rolled off the printing press, Smith pronounced their doctrines at a large outdoor gathering. “God has made certain decreas which are fixed & unalterable,” he explained; “for instance God set the sun, the moon, the stars in the heavens, & givn them their laws conditions, & bounds which they cannot pass except by his command.” Because they follow divine orders, they “all move in perfect harmony in there sphere & order & are as wonders, lights & signs unto us.” This emphasis on cosmology drew directly from the new scriptural texts—what is now Abraham 3 is a discourse on the order of the starry heavens—but it also pointed to a more tangible point: that God structured both the heavens and the earth, and his priesthood authority orchestrated how society should operate. God’s house was a house of order, and the individualist strain of antebellum culture threatened to jostle the divine society out of place. If “the inhabitants of this city [wish to] escape the power of the…destroyer,” Smith explained, they must follow prophetic leadership.[1]

The fruits of what I call the “Abrahamic project” were immediate and tangible. If society was to be patterned after this patriarchal priesthood, then it was necessary to inaugurate relevant institutions. The very weeks he worked on the new translation, Joseph Smith was inducted into Masonry. The fraternal order was especially relevant given its emphasis on antiquitous authority—some claimed it hearkened back to Abraham—and its rituals seemed reflective of the Egyptian papyri. Smith then appropriated those rituals into a new liturgical practice referred to as the “order of the priesthood,” also known as the endowment. Further, that same March also witnessed the creation of the Female Relief Society, which the prophet urged should “move according to the ancient Priesthood.” With these initiatives, Smith was dedicated to establishing a “kingdom of priests,” both male and female, just like the patriarchal order promised in Abraham’s text.

But perhaps the most controversial implementation of the Abrahamic project concerned plural marriage. Smith was sealed to his first plural wife, Louisa Beman, a year previous, with a half-dozen since then, but the practice remained inchoate. It was not until the Spring of 1842 that a more robust theological understanding and systematic unfolding took place. After the publication of the Book of Abraham, Smith turned increasingly to young and single women as polygamous wives. Plural marriage was to be a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise for numerous offspring, whether in life or the eternities, sealed through the patriarchal priesthood power. When Smith dictated a revelation in July 1842 that contained the sealing ordinance between himself and Sarah Ann Whitney, it drew on the language of priesthood lineage; when he dictated another in July 1843 to convince his wife, Emma, it referred to polygamy as “the works of Abraham.”

It is impossible to tell the story of Nauvoo without the Book of Abraham. The text’s emphasis on the centrality of priesthood priesthood order, as told through the structured cosmology, shaped how society functioned. It was both a theological treatise and a manifesto of the state. The City of Joseph could only be achieved through the Legacy of Abraham.


[1] Joseph Smith, discourse, Wilford Woodruff journal, March 20, 1842. While the Times & Seasons issue that contained the relevant excerpt from the Book of Abraham was dated March 15, Woodruff’s diaries noted that it was not printed until the 19th. Further, the text’s use of stars to signify the position and agency of humanity was reflective of a broader trend in American political discourse during the era.