Lessons of Babel

Lessons of Babel

Joseph Smith, the 19th-century prophet of the Mormon Church, saw in the story of the Tower of Babel a metaphor for the "infinitie multiplications of opinion" within the Christian world.

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The source: “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden” by Samuel Brown, in Church History, March ­2009.

Of all the lessons of Genesis, few were taken more seriously by Joseph Smith (1805–44), the 19th-century prophet of the Mormon Church, than the account of the Tower of Babel. Mankind’s effort to build a tower that would “reach unto heaven,” according to the Bible, caused an angry God to “confound” the world’s single original language and scattered people to the corners of the ­earth.

Smith, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believed that the destruction of the universal language of the Israelites led to a confusion of meaning, dis­sension, and religious sectar­ianism that plagued society even into the 1830s, writes Samuel Brown, a physician who is pursuing ­post­residency training at the University of ­Utah.

Smith’s concern was part of a broad intellectual belief, wide­spread in his time, that the corruption of language had led to the “infinite multiplications of opinion,” errors, and strife within the Christian world. ­Philosopher-­critic Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82) thought the problem was not con­fined to religion. “The corrup­tion of man is followed by the corruption of language,” he wrote. Methodist, Unitarian, and Congregationalist writers worried that language had become so degraded that it was impossible to convey religious ­truth.

Joseph Smith believed that ancient languages, particularly the one expressed in Egyptian hiero­glyphs, provided a key to recovering the language of the Garden of Eden. This made it logical for Smith and his followers to purchase four mummies and their papyruses from an entre­preneur who appeared at the temporary Mormon capital of Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835. They paid $2,400, the equivalent of five years’ income for an average farming ­family.

Only a few years earlier, Smith had miraculously translated the ancient Book of Mormon, the religion’s founding text, from a lan­guage known as “Reformed Egypt­ian.” It told the story of America’s “first settlement by a colony that came from the Tower of Babel, at the confusion of languages,” Brown writes. The papyruses Smith ac­quired in 1835 added details to that account, and enabled Smith and his followers to compile what they described as hieroglyphic grammar that would help guide Mormons toward understanding and, in time, speaking God’s ori­ginal ­language.

When the Millennium arrived, Brown writes, believers would stand with the original Adam near the primordial Garden of Eden. They would constitute “a human family united by language and mutual awareness, one whose members called each other by sacred and ancient names.”

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