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Professor Henry Caswall, a professor, reverand and skeptic of Joseph Smith, visited Nauvoo on April 18 & 19, 1842. Caswell claims to have given Joseph Smith a very old Greek Psalter to examine and asked him what it was. (A Psalter is a volume containing the Book of Psalms and which often contains other devotional material. In the early Middle Ages Psalters were amongst the most popular types of manuscripts, rivaled only by the Gospel Books.) Caswell knew that Joseph was involved with translating other ancient documents, such as the Book of Mormon from Reformed Egyptian and the Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri, therefore Caswall most likely wanted to see if he could trick Joseph with his ancient Greek manuscript. Professor Caswell reported that Joseph examined the ancient document and replied that it was a Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Caswall knew Joseph was wrong as this was a known Greek Psalter and definitely not Egyptian. Caswall says that he told this incident to Mormon apostle Dr. William Richards who said "Sometimes Mr. Smith speaks as mere man. If he gave a wrong opinion respecting the book, he spoke as a mere man."
Overview of LDS position
From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
John A. Widtsoe, while a member of the Quorum of the 12, wrote the following about Henry Caswall:
Overview of Critics' position
What is at issue is Joseph Smith's ability as a translator, one of his roles or duties as claimed in D&C 124:125 "I give unto you my servant Joseph to be a presiding elder over all my church, to be a translator, a revelator, a seer, and prophet." It is asserted today that Joseph could translate with the use of a Urim and Thummim, a peepstone (or seerstone) and through direct revelatory means; he could do so unaided by physical media (such as plates or papyri). If Joseph was indeed a "translator," as God says he was, one would think he would also be an "identifier" as well—in other words, if he could translate ancient records, he should at the very least be able to identify the language of ancient records presented to him. There is an acknowledged problem regarding the translation of the Book of Abraham and associated papyri, and in his attempt regarding the Kinderhook Plates. The Greek Psalter incident may be another.
Joseph Smith Jr. is credited with at least some translation/identification work on five different ancient writings. The first three are taught officially in church and known to all members. They are:
The most notable translation is of course the Book of Mormon. As the angel took back the gold plates from which the BOM was translated, there really is little to look at to determine the accuracy of Joseph's translating ability of the BOM. However, since Joseph translated some other documents as well, it's prudent to examine whatever source documents that may exist for those translations. If it can be proved that Joseph translated other ancient documents correctly, when he would have no knowledge of how to do so, it would go a long way to help validate Joseph's ability as a seer and translator.
Most LDS are of course familiar with the first three translations. And some LDS are somewhat familiar with the Kinderhook Plates but very, very few members are aware of Joseph's encounter with a Greek Psalter in 1842.
Professor Henry Caswall, a professor and skeptic of Joseph Smith, visited Joseph on April 19, 1842. He gave Joseph Smith a very old Greek Psalter to examine and asked him what it was. (A Psalter is a volume containing the Book of Psalms and which often contains other devotional material.) In the early Middle Ages Psalters were amongst the most popular types of manuscripts, rivaled only by the Gospel Books.
Joseph of course translated the Book of Mormon from Reformed Egyptian and he also translated the Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri so he apparently knew Egyptian well enough to translate it and professor Caswall wanted to see what he thought about this ancient Greek manuscript.
Joseph examined the ancient document and replied that it was a Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Professor Caswall of course knew Joseph was wrong as this was a known Greek Psalter and definitely not Egyptian.
Professor Caswall then informed the Prophet that it was but a plain Greek Psalter. Joseph then left the scene.
Professor Caswall told this incident to Mormon apostle Dr. William Richards who said "Sometimes Mr. Smith speaks as mere man. If he gave a wrong opinion respecting the book, he spoke as a mere man."
Several people reportedly witnessed the event as illustrated below in a book published by Professor Caswall which discusses the incident:
Here is the actual account as shown in the newspaper from 1843:
Henry Caswall's experience with Joseph Smith at Nauvoo on 18-19 April 1842 expresses the frustration of an increasing number of LDS students with Joseph's ability to translate ancient documents. Caswall was a visiting minister from England who was shown the Egyptian papyri. He decided to test Joseph's credibility by presenting him with a known, ancient Greek psalter for his examination. Caswall, who probably exaggerates Joseph's frontier grammar and idiom, said:
He asked me if I had any idea of its meaning. I replied, that I believed it to be a Greek Psalter; but that I should like to hear his opinion. "No", he said; "it ain't Greek at all; except, perhaps, a few words. This book is very valuable. It is a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said: "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics; and them which follows, is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian. Them characters is like the letters that was engraven on the golden plates."
Caswall told this incident to Dr. Willard Richards, a Mormon apostle, to which the Mormon doctor said, "Sometimes Mr. Smith speaks as a prophet, and sometimes as a mere man. If he gave a wrong opinion respecting the book, he spoke as a mere man." I said, "Whether he spoke as a prophet or as a mere man, he has committed himself, for he has said what is not true. If he spoke as a prophet, therefore, he is a false prophet. If he spoke as a mere man, he cannot be trusted, for he spoke positively and like an oracle respecting that which he knew nothing."
While it is true that we have only Caswall's view of this incident, it is consistent with Joseph's pattern of rather quickly determining the value and content of unknown documents that were presented to him.
Professor Caswall published a book called Three Days in Nauvoo. It discusses Professor Caswall's journey to Nauvoo to learn about the Latter-day Saint peoples that lived there and to met the prophet to obtain his opinion regarding the Greek Psalter. The book in it's entirety can be read here:
Here's a few excerpts from Three Days in Nauvoo:
The following excerpt was taken from http://www.centerplace.org/history/ts/v4n23.htm for the Times and Seasons Number 23: October 15, 1843 (pages 352-367):
Critc's comment: This October 1843 editorial confirms that Henry Caswall made a visit to Nauvoo and talked to Joseph Smith in 1842. The editors of this issue of the Times & Seasons were John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff. Of course, John Taylor is well known for his dishonest published denials concerning plural marriage—three times in 1844 as editor of the Times and Seasons and again in an 1850 pamphlet of a public debate he had in France—despite himself taking his first plural wife in December 1843, so he does not have much credibility; and the denial itself is vague and not terribly realistic in my view: Caswell was educated and articulate with no need to suffer any kind of intellectual inferiority among the frontier Mormons. The oh-so-common “speaking as a man” response from Richards gives Caswell’s story a definite air of credibility.
Here is a source for John Taylor's veracity:
We regret that we could not find this issue discussed on the Church's official website. However, we found several responses from LDS apologists and LDS leaders which we cite below.
Per the Neal A. Maxwell Institute
In a review of Grant Palmer's book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, the most prominent pro-LDS organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly known as the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies - FARMS), issued the following in response to the Greek Psalter incident as portrayed by Palmer:
Note: FARMS has their usual disclaimer which they customarily have on virtually every article published on their website: "The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not represent the position of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Editor Comment: According to an article published on the website of the most official, pro-LDS organization there is, they don't seem to question that the Greek Psalter incident took place as described. However they support apostle Richard's assertion that Joseph was just speaking as a man and that Joseph only gave his scholarly opinion to Caswall thus not really harming Joseph's credibility as a prophet, seer and translator.
We support professor Caswall's response to Joseph's error: "Whether he spoke as a prophet or as a mere man, he has committed himself, for he has said what is not true. If he spoke as a prophet, therefore, he is a false prophet. If he spoke as a mere man, he cannot be trusted, for he spoke positively and like an oracle respecting that which he knew nothing."
When Joseph speaks and leads others to assume he is speaking as a prophet then he needs to be accountable for what he says. It's very convenient to say Joseph speaks as a man whenever he's proved wrong and as a prophet whenever his statements can't be proven right or wrong or haven't been proven one way or the other yet.
Joseph Smith did the exact same thing with the Greek Psalter that he did with the Book of Abraham papyri and the Kinderhook Plates. He saw an ancient document, one that he assumed no one in the world could translate and he said that he could translate it and he said what it was. And he was just as wrong with the Greek Psalter as he was with the Book of Abraham papyri and the Kinderhook plates.
We could only wonder what Joseph would have done if professor Caswall would have given this document to Joseph saying instead that he thought it was an ancient religious document as opposed to a Greek Psalter. Would Joseph have come up with additional scripture that would also have some bizarre explanation like the Book of Abraham or the Kinderhook Plates?
Both the critics and defenders of the faith have compelling points to make. The editors of this section give their own opinion:
Did this event even happen?
When researching this incident we can't help but wonder if the event actually occurred as there is so little corroborating evidence of the event and the primary source is professor Caswall himself. We list the following things that support and do not support the event:
Evidence against the event
Evidence supporting the event
Our conclusion is that the event likely happened in some form as this seems like a lot of trouble for professor Caswall to go to e.g. publishing the story, getting a cartoonist to sketch the event, fabricating a follow-up discussion with an apostle about the incident, etc. Also, if even FARMS does not dispute the event took place then why should we?
Professor Caswall likely exaggerated and perhaps embellished some details like Joseph's grammar to make Joseph seem even more ignorant, but based on the above it seems likely that the event probably happened pretty much as Caswall related.
How damaging is this?
If this was the only translation issue that was damaging to the prophet then we would dismiss it as it wasn't really a translation even if Joseph was in error as to the identification of the document.
However, given the more substantial translation problems identified by critics with the Book of Abraham, Kinderhook Plates and the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible, the Greek Psalter incident needs to be scrutinized as well to look for any evidence that Joseph was really an accurate seer and translator.
If Joseph really translated the Book of Mormon from reformed Egyptian characters and if he really translated the Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri then he would know what Egyptian characters are and what they meant. Some defenders of the faith have said that some Greek characters are similar in appearance to some Egyptian Hieroglyphics. That may be true (we haven't studied this to validate this claim). However, since Joseph translated two whole books (over 500 pages) from reformed Egyptian and ancient Egyptian characters, he would have known that the Greek writings were not a Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. His failure to recognize this casts doubt on his ability to translate ancient Egyptian or reformed Egyptian characters.
Although the Greek Psalter incident is the translation effort with the least amount of significance, it further damages Joseph's claims to be a true seer. It's hard for many of us, that have analyzed the accounts of all of the ancient writings that Joseph claimed to have translated, to accept the fact that all of Joseph's translations, that can be proven as accurate, have all been proven to be incorrect. If nothing else, it was another opportunity for Joseph to prove himself to be a seer but he did not.
There is a difference between an isolated incident and a pattern. The Greek Psalter, Book of Abraham, Kinderhook Plates, the Anthon Manuscript, and some would add the Book of Mormon (DNA evidence, anachronisms, lack of archaeological, anthropological, cultural, linguistic, and metallurgical evidence to support claims), reveal a disturbing pattern in Joseph Smith's methods and perhaps his character. The testimony of his mother about his ability to spontaneously make up stories about ancient inhabitants of the Americas and the story he told about Zelph the White Lamanite while on the Zion's Camp March to Missouri are consistent with this pattern. He seemed unable to resist the opportunity to appear as an expert whether he was qualified to offer expert analysis or not. This pattern of deception can also be seen in his tendency to use prevarication to cover up his polygamous activities. It raises serious questions in those who are fair-minded and objective about Joseph Smith's believability and credibility.
Supporting the critics:
Supporting the church: