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The Greek Psalter Incident

Note: Unlike the other church history incidents I have written about, there is some reasonable doubt that the Greek Psalter Incident took place at all. There’s no way for us to know for sure, but I include it here because of the parallels it has to the Book of Abraham and Kinderhook Plates stories. The two most prominent pro-LDS apologist groups, FAIR and The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship take different sides of it. I’m sure both would love to deny the event ever happened, but while FAIR brushes it off as never occurring, the other doesn’t argue its veracity but rather chooses to argue its implications.

Psalters were common manuscripts in the Middle Ages containing the Book of Psalms and sometimes other materials. The incident, as reported in a newspaper in 1843:

“Some time since, Professor Caswell, late of Kemper College, near St. Louis, an Episcopal Clergyman of reputation, being about to leave this country for England, paid a visit to Smith and the Saints, in order that he might be better able to represent the imposture to the British people. It so happened that the Professor had in his possession a Greek Psalter, of great age — one that had been in the family for several hundred years. This book, as a relic of antiquity, was a curiosity to any one — but to some of the Saints, who happened to see it, it was a marvel and wonder. Supposing its origin to have been as ancient, at least, as the Prophet’s Egyptian Mummy, and not knowing but the Professor had dug it from the bowels of the same sacred hill in Western New York whence sprung the holy Book of Mormon, they importuned him to allow ‘brother Joseph’ an opportunity of translating it!

The Professor reluctantly assented to the proposal; and accompanied by a number of the anxious brethren, repaired to the residence of the Prophet. The remarkable book was handed him. Joe took it — examined its old and worn leaves — and turned over its musty pages. Expectation was now upon tip-toe. brethren looked at one another — at the book — then at the Prophet. It was a most interesting scene!

Presently the spirit of prophecy began to arise within him; and he opened his mouth and spoke. That wonderful power, which enables him to see as far through a mill-stone as could Moses or Elijah of old, had already in the twinkling of an eye, made those rough and uncouth characters as plain to him as the nose on the face of the Professor. ‘This Book,’ said he, ‘I pronounce to be a Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics!’

The brethren present were greatly astonished at this exhibition of their Prophet’s power of revealing hidden things. After their exaltation had somewhat subsided, the Professor coolly told them that their Prophet was a base impostor! — and that the book before them was but a plain Greek Psalter! — Joe ‘stepped out.'”

It’s important to remember that Joseph had claimed to translate multiple documents involving Egyptian (Reformed Egyption for the Book of Mormon, Egyptian papyri for the Book of Abraham) before this took place. If he really translated either or both of those, he should have easily been able to identify the Greek Psalter as something other than a Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Heiroglyphics.

As with the Kinderhook plates and the Book of Abraham papyri, he suspected that nobody around him could identify the item, let alone translate it, and made up a response that would elicit delight in the people following him.

Apparently Apostle Willard Richard’s response when confronted by Caswell was:

“Sometimes Mr. Smith speaks as mere man. If he gave a wrong opinion respecting the book, he spoke as a mere man.”

That seems like a rather convenient response when a prophet is shown to have been caught in a lie.

Next Step: The Name of the Church

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