“I Cannot Read It”

Brant Gardner

Reference: Nephi is basing this verse on the second part of Isaiah 29:11, having used the “sealed book” part previously: “And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed.” According to Isaiah, the book is “sealed” as to its meaning. The learned man who should have known how to read the book fails because his learning did not include spiritual vision. If it had, he would have had the key with which to unseal the book. Isaiah’s passage condemns the presumption of worldly wisdom. Nephi is again transforming meaning to describe an event to come.

Joseph Smith’s story in the Pearl of Great Price describes Martin Harris’s visit to Charles Anthon:

Sometime in this month of February [1828], the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:
“I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.
“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.” (JS—H 1:62–66)

History: Harris’s visit occurred in February 1828, early in the translation process, before the loss of the 116 manuscript pages (book of Lehi). It seems doubtful that the book of Lehi would have contained Nephi’s impassioned vision, which was apparently written as the conclusion to his personal record. Both the nature of this vision and the lack of any mention of this prophecy in Martin Harris’s story reinforce the hypothesis that it had nothing to do with prompting his visit to Anthon.

Of course, Anthon denied having given any encouragement to Martin Harris. B. H. Roberts reprinted two letters from Charles Anthon referring to that event:

Some years after this, viz., in 1834, Professor Anthon, in a letter to Mr. E. D. Howe, of Painesville, Ohio, made a statement as to what took place on the occasion of Martin Harris’ visit to him, and I give that statement below in full. By way of introduction it should be said, however, that Mr. E. D. Howe at the time (1834) was connected with a Dr. Hurlburt in the production of an anti-“Mormon” book, and the report of Harris’ interview with the learned professor having become known, Mr. Howe wrote to Professor Anthon making inquiries about it, hoping, perhaps, that the fact of the interview might be denied. This is the letter he received in reply to his inquiries:


New York, February 17, 1834

Dear Sir: I received your letter of the 9th, and lose no time in making a reply. The whole story about my pronouncing the Mormon inscription to be reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics is perfectly false. Some years ago, a plain, apparently simple-hearted farmer called on me with a note from Dr. Mitchell, of our city, now dead, requesting me to decipher, if possible, the paper which the farmer would hand me. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick—perhaps a hoax. When I asked the person who brought it how he obtained the writing, he gave me the following account: A gold book consisting of a number of plates, fastened together by wires of the same material, had been dug up in the northern part of the state of New York, and along with it an enormous pair of spectacles. These spectacles were so large that if a person attempted to look through them, his two eyes would look through one glass only, the spectacles in question being altogether too large for the human face. “Whoever,” he said, “examined the plates through the glasses was enabled not only to read them, but fully to understand their meaning.” All this knowledge, however, was confined to a young man, who had the trunk containing the book and spectacles in his sole possession. This young man was placed behind a curtain in a garret in a farm-house, and being thus concealed from view, he put on the spectacles occasionally or rather looked through one of the glasses, deciphered the characters in the book, and having committed some of them to paper, handed copies from behind the curtain to those who stood outside. Not a word was said about their being deciphered by the gift of God. Everything in this way was effected by the large pair of spectacles. The farmer added that he had been requested to contribute a sum of money toward the publication of the golden book, the contents of which would, as he was told, produce an entire change in the world, and save it from ruin. So urgent had been these solicitations, that he intended selling his farm and giving the amount to those who wished to publish the plates. As a last precautionary step, he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had at that time been made by the young man with spectacles. On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and I communicated my suspicions to him to beware of rogues. He requested an opinion from me in writing, which, of course, I declined to give, [emphasis Roberts’s] and he then took his leave, taking his paper with him. I am thus particular as to the contents of the paper, inasmuch as I have frequently conversed with friends on the subject since the Mormon excitement began, and well remember that the paper contained anything else but Egyptian hieroglyphics. Some time after the farmer paid me a second visit. He brought with him the gold book in print, and offered it to me for sale. I declined purchasing. He then asked permission to leave the book with me for examination. I declined receiving it, although his manner was strangely urgent. I adverted once more to the roguery which, in my opinion, had been practiced upon him, and asked him what had become of the gold plates. He informed me they were in a trunk with the spectacles. I advised him to go to a magistrate and have the trunk examined. He said the curse of God would come upon him if he did. On my pressing him, however, to go to a magistrate, he told me he would open the trunk if I would take the curse of God upon myself. I replied that I would do so with the greatest willingness, and would incur every risk of that nature, provided I could only extricate him from the grasp of the rogues. He then left me. I have given you a full statement of all that I know respecting the origin of Mormonism and must beg of you as a personal favor to publish this letter immediately, should you find my name mentioned again by these wretched fanatics.
Yours respectfully,
[signed] CHAS. ANTHON.
In addition to this acknowledgment of the visit of Martin Harris to him with the transcript of the Nephite characters, Professor Anthon subsequently made another acknowledgment of Martin Harris’ visit, in a letter written to Rev. Dr. T. W. Coit, Rector of Trinity church, Rochelle, West Chester county, New York, in answer to a note of inquiry from that gentleman, concerning the professor’s connection with the Book of Mormon.


New York, April 3, 1841

Rev. and Dear Sir: I have often heard that the Mormons claimed me for an auxiliary, but as no one until the present time has even requested from me a statement in writing, [emphasis Roberts’s] I have not deemed it worth while to say anything publicly on the subject. What I do know of the sect relates to some of the early movements; and as the facts may amuse you, while they will furnish a satisfactory answer to the charge of my being a Mormon proselyte, I proceed to lay them before you in detail.
Many years ago—the precise date I do not now recollect,—a plain-looking countryman called upon me with a letter from Dr. Samuel L. Mitchell, requesting me to examine, and give my opinion upon a certain paper, marked with various characters, which the doctor confessed he could not decipher, and which the bearer of the note was very anxious to have explained. A very brief examination of the paper convinced me that it was a mere hoax, a very clumsy one too. The characters were arranged in columns, like the Chinese mode of writing, and presented the most singular medley that I ever beheld. Greek, Hebrew and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, either through unskilfulness or from actual design, were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects, and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac. The conclusion was irresistible, that some cunning fellow had prepared the paper in question for the purpose of imposing upon the countryman, who brought it, and I told the man so without any hesitation. He then proceeded to give me the history of the whole affair, which convinced me that he had fallen into the hands of some sharper, while it left me in great astonishment at his simplicity.
The countryman told me that a gold book had been recently dug up in the western or northern part (I forget which), of our state, and he described this book as consisting of many gold plates like leaves, secured by a gold wire passing through the edge of each, just as the leaves of a book are sewed together, and presented in this way the appearance of a volume. Each plate, according to him, was inscribed with unknown characters, and the paper which he handed me, a transcript of one of these pages.
On my asking him by whom the copy was made, he gravely stated, that along with the golden book there had been dug up a very large pair of spectacles! so large in fact that if a man were to hold them in front of his face, his two eyes would merely look through one of the glasses, and the remaining part of the spectacles would project a considerable distance sideways! These spectacles possessed, it seems a very valuable property, of enabling any one who looked through them, (or rather through one of the lenses,) not only to decipher the characters on the plates, but also to comprehend their exact meaning, and be able to translate them!
My informant assured me that this curious property of the spectacles had been actually tested, and found to be true. A young man, it seems, had been placed in the garret of a farm-house, with a curtain before him, and having fastened the spectacles to his head, had read several pages in the golden book, and communicated their contents in writing to certain persons stationed on the outside of the curtain. He had also copied off one page of the book in the original character [sic], which he had in like manner handed over to those who were separated from him by the curtain, and this copy was the paper which the countryman had brought with him.
As the golden book was said to contain very great truths, and most important revelations of a religious nature, a strong desire had been expressed by several persons in the countryman’s neighborhood, to have the whole work translated and published. A proposition had accordingly been made to my informant, to sell his farm, and apply the proceeds to the printing of the golden book, and the golden plates were to be left with him as a security until he should be reimbursed by the sale of the work. To convince him more clearly that there was no risk whatever in the matter, and that the work was actually what it claimed to be, he was told to take the paper, which purported to be a copy of one of the pages of the book, to the city of New York, and submit it to the learned in that quarter, who would soon dispel all his doubts, and satisfy him as to the perfect safety of the investment.
As Dr. Mitchell was our “Magnus Appollo” [sic] in those days, the man called first upon him; but the Doctor, evidently suspecting some trick, declined giving any opinion about the matter, and sent the countryman down to the college, to see, in all probability, what the “learned pundits” in that place would make of the affair.
On my telling the bearer of the paper that an attempt had been made to impose on him and defraud him of his property, he requested me to give him my opinion in writing about the paper which he had shown me. I did so without hesitation, partly for the man’s sake, and partly to let the individual “behind the curtain” see that his trick was discovered. The import of what I wrote was, as far as I can now recollect, [emphasis Roberts’s] simply this, that the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetical characters, and had, in my opinion, no meaning at all connected with them. The countryman then took his leave, with many thanks, and with the express declaration that he would in no shape part with his farm, or embark in the speculation of printing the golden book.
The matter rested here for a considerable time, until one day, when I had ceased entirely to think of the countryman and his paper, this same individual to my great surprise paid me a second visit. He now brought with him a duodecimo volume, which he said was a translation into English of the “Golden Bible.” He also stated that notwithstanding his original determination not to sell his farm, he had been induced eventually to do so, and apply the money to the publication of the book, and received the golden plates as a security for repayment. He begged my acceptance of the volume, assuring me that it would be found extremely interesting, and that it was already “making great noise” in the upper part of the state. Suspecting now, that some serious trick was on foot, and that my plain-looking visitor might be in fact a very cunning fellow, I declined his present, and merely contented myself with a slight examination of the volume while he stood by. The more I declined receiving it, however, the more urgent the man became in offering the book until at last I told him plainly that if he left the volume, as he said he intended to do, I should most assuredly throw it after him as he departed.
I then asked him how he could be so foolish as to sell his farm and engage in this affair; and requested him to tell me if the plates were really of gold. In answer to this latter inquiry, he said, that he had not seen the plates themselves, which were carefully locked up in a trunk, but that he had the trunk in his possession. I advised him by all means to open the trunk and examine its contents, and if the plates proved to be gold, which I did not believe at all, to sell them immediately. His reply was, that if he opened the trunk, the “curse of Heaven would descend upon him and his children. However,” added he, “I will agree to open it, provided you take the ‘curse of Heaven’ upon yourself, for having advised me to the step.” I told him I was perfectly willing to do so, and begged he would hasten home and examine the trunk, for he would find he had been cheated. He promised to do as I recommended, and left me, taking his book with him. I have never seen him since.
Such is a plain statement of all I know respecting Mormons. My impression now is, that the plain-looking countryman was none other than the Prophet Smith himself, who assumed an appearance of great simplicity in order to entrap me, if possible, into some recommendation of his book. That the Prophet aided me by his inspiration in interpreting the volume, is only one of the many amusing falsehoods which the Mormonites utter, relative to my participation in their doctrines. Of these doctrines I know nothing whatever, nor have I ever heard a single discourse from any of their preachers, although I have often felt a strong curiosity to become an auditor, since my friends tell me that they frequently name me in their sermons, and even go so far as to say, that I am alluded to in the prophecies of scripture!
If what I have here written shall prove of any service in opening the eyes of some of their deluded followers to the real designs of those who profess to be the apostles of Mormonism, it will afford me satisfaction equalled [sic], I have no doubt, only by that which yourself will feel on this subject.
I remain, very respectfully and truly,
your friend,
[signed] CHAS. ANTHON.
[B. H. Roberts continues:] It will be observed that there is a discrepancy between the letter written by Professor Anthon to the Rev. Mr. Coit and the one he sent to E. D. Howe. In the latter he states that he refused to give his opinion in writing on the characters submitted to him; but in his letter to Rev. Coit he says that he gave a written opinion to Harris without hesitation, and to the effect that the marks on the paper appeared to be an imitation of various alphabetical characters that had no meaning at all connected with them. According to Martin Harris’ statement Professor Anthon gave him a certificate to the effect that the characters submitted were genuine, and that the translation accompanying them was correct; but upon hearing that the existence of the Nephite plates was made known to Joseph Smith by a heavenly messenger, he requested the return of the paper he had given to Martin Harris, and he destroyed it, saying that the visitation of angels had ceased, etc., etc.…
The statements of Professor Anthon and Martin Harris are very contradictory, but the sequence will show that there is much that supports the statement of Martin Harris in the main as true; while the anxiety of the professor to disconnect himself as far as possible from any association with “these wretched fanatics,” will account for his version of the incident. The object of Mr. Harris in presenting these transcribed characters to the learned professors was, undoubtedly, to learn if they were true characters, or only the idle invention of Joseph Smith. That the answers of both Professor Anthon and Dr. Mitchell were in favor of their being true characters is evidenced by the fact that Martin Harris returned immediately to Joseph Smith, in Harmony, made his report, and thence went to Palmyra to arrange his business affairs that he might hasten back to Harmony to become the amanuensis of the Prophet in the work of translation. This Martin Harris would not likely have done if Professor Anthon’s answer had been what that gentleman represents it to have been in his letters to Mr. Howe and the Rev. Coit; nor is it likely that Martin Harris would have ventured, subsequently, to have furnished the money to pay for the publication of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, had he been assured by the professor that the whole thing was a “hoax” or a “scheme” to cheat him out of his money.

Roberts is quite correct about the outcome of the encounter between Harris and Anthon. Whatever the encounter’s precise nature, Harris was sufficiently satisfied that he was willing to commit his financial resources to the Book of Mormon’s publication. As Roberts points out, this result would have been unlikely if Anthon had been as negative as his two letters suggest. There is evidence that Harris’s account was more accurate than Anthon’s later remembrances. Robert F. Smith, Gordon C. Thomasson, and John W. Welch report an interesting facet of this story:

Shortly [after Martin Harris’s visit to Charles Anthon], in 1831 W. W. Phelps wrote a letter in which he reported that Anthon had translated the Book of Mormon characters and declared them to be “the ancient shorthand Egyptian.” This is a most telling clue, for where else, except from Anthon, would Harris and hence Phelps have gotten this precise phrase, the phrase shorthand Egyptian? It was not part of Harris’s environment or education. Indeed, the phrase is so singular that it appears only this one time in LDS history.
On the other hand, this precise term was known to scholars, Anthon included. In 1824 Champollion had used an equivalent term, “tachygraphie,” in his landmark Préçis du système hieroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens (a copy of which Anthon owned), to describe hieratic Egyptian script. In June 1827, this book was reviewed in the American Quarterly Review, calling hieratic Egyptian script “short-hand” Egyptian. Anthon knew this review: He owned a copy and he cited it in his Classical Dictionary. Anthon would have read this review only months before Harris’s visit.
Thus it becomes highly probably that Phelps indeed heard this peculiar phrase from Harris, who in turn got it from Anthon, the only person involved who was likely to have known it.

Ironically, even had Anthon enthusiastically declared the characters authentic, his opinion would have had no value among current scholars. In 1828, very few scholars were experts in translating Egyptian (and Anthon was not among them, though scholars of the classics would have been interested in any ancient language). The Rosetta Stone had been discovered in 1799, but Champollion first described his translation in 1822. Anthon may have been able to recognize Egyptian characters, but there is no indication that he could have translated them, even if they had been Egyptian hieroglyphics. However, they were not.

There are two important points to remember about this incident. First, it satisfied Martin Harris’s mind about publishing the Book of Mormon; and second, he remembered Anthon as saying something sufficiently like, “I cannot read a sealed book,” that Harris apparently saw it as fulfilling scripture. This impression would have been cemented when Joseph Smith translated this section of Nephi, apparently in June 1829. Harris would certainly have seen himself in this passage as an instrument of fulfilling prophecy.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2