Stephen Owen Smoot and Dr. Stephen D. Ricks, Asian and Near Eastern Languages
During his prophetic career, Joseph Smith spent considerable time and effort towards the study of both modern and ancient languages. Historical evidence indicates that Joseph studied, or at least expressed interest in studying, Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian, Latin, and German. Although his study of these languages was evidently limited, and although he never became proficient in these languages, Joseph Smith nevertheless employed his understanding of these languages in his doctrinal discourses that in many instances led him to formulate creative theological innovations. Although he wasn’t a skilled linguist, and his understanding of some of these languages (particularly Hebrew and Egyptian) was highly idiosyncratic, the true value in Joseph’s study of languages was that it catalyzed inspiration that led him to elucidate prophetic insight.
For this research we focused on historical sources directly related to Joseph Smith, e.g. original journals, scriptural productions, minutes of meetings, transcriptions of sermons, and other related materials that were either generated by Joseph or his close associates. We then attempted to situate Joseph’s understanding of these languages within the context of his own prophetic goals. We were also careful to distinguish those sources undeniably produced by Joseph from the material produced (or, in some cases, even ghost-written) by his associates such as William W. Phelps, Oliver Cowdery, and Frederick G. Williams.
The results of our research were fruitful. By surveying the historical sources, we were able to reconstruct a timeline of Joseph Smith’s study of languages and better understand its significance. Joseph’s first effort to undertake the study of ancient languages began in the summer of 1835, when a collection of Egyptian papyri came into the hands of the Church. Although the extent of his participation is debated, shortly after this acquisition Joseph and his associates undertook an effort to create a “grammar and aphabet [sic]” of the Egyptian language. That next January Joseph and his associates hired Joshua Seixas to teach them biblical Hebrew. As Seixas certified in March 1836, at the end of the course, “Mr Joseph Smith Junr has attended a full course of Hebrew lessons under my tutelage.” At the same time Joseph was briefly exposed to Greek. Two journal entries from November and December 1835 indicate that Joseph studied Greek with the help of a Greek lexicon brought to him by Oliver Cowdery.
Once the tumultuous events of 1838 Missouri Mormon War had passed, and once he had settled in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith returned to his study of languages. Upon his return from a mission in Germany and Israel, apostle Orson Hyde instructed Joseph in German during the winter of 1842–43. Joseph’s study of both Hebrew and German were augmented in 1843 with the arrival of German Jewish convert Alexander Neibaur, who further instructed Joseph in these two languages. Finally, although it is more difficult to determine when he began his study of Latin, Joseph employed various Latin phrases in both Nauvoo-era scriptural and non-scriptural (mainly legal) documents. One must be cautious, however, when evaluating how much Latin Joseph Smith possibly knew, as we have no indication that he formally studied Latin, and some of the material from Joseph Smith that uses Latin phrases (such as his 1844 presidential platform) was ghost-written by W. W. Phelps.
Given the demands of his calling, Joseph Smith never spent much time studying these languages. His involvement in the Egyptian alphabet and grammar project was likely very limited, and he only studied Greek and German informally with the help of a few friends. Similarly, even his study of Hebrew, which was undertaken with the help of a professional Hebrew teacher, probably amounted to little more than the equivalent of a college semester. Nevertheless, Joseph’s brief exposure to these languages was a catalyst for inspiration. Particularly in Nauvoo, Joseph used Hebrew, German, and Greek as springboards to launch into revelatory doctrinal innovations. For example, Joseph’s study of the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1, which uses the masculine plural noun ʾělōhîm for the subject “God,” led him to reveal and formulate his teaching that the premortal council was comprised of an assembly of deities presided over by God the Father (cf. Abraham 3–4). Joseph made similar use of Greek and German in his Nauvoo-era sermons, to say nothing of his production of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price–––an inspired translation of the writings of Abraham obtained from Joseph’s interaction with the Egyptian papyri he received in 1835.
Although Joseph Smith never became a linguistic expert, his study of languages proved beneficial for the Saints as it directly led him to reveal some of more distinct LDS teachings about the nature of God, man, the cosmos, and the plan of salvation. Joseph’s study of languages also provides a glimpse into his character. Although having never received a formal education, Joseph was evidently a very inquisitive, intelligent, and idealistic man who sought after learning whenever opportunity afforded it.
- Barney, Kevin “Examining Six Key Concepts in Joseph Smith’s Understanding of Genesis 1:1.” BYU Studies 39/3 (2000): 107-124.
- Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
- Brown, Samuel. “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden.” Church History 78/1 (March 2009): 26-65.
- Jessee, Dean C., Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers. 9 vols. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2008–.
- Nibley, Hugh. “The Meaning of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.” BYU Studies 11/4 (1971): 350-99. Reprinted in Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Abraham (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2009), 502-568.
- Zucker, Louis. “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Summer 1968): 41-55.