“I Cannot Read a Sealed Book”: Resources on Martin Harris, Charles Anthon, and the Sealed Book


This week, for the Come, Follow Me curriculum, we study Nephi’s prophetic interpretation and commentary (2 Nephi 25–30) on the Isaiah chapters he just quoted (2 Nephi 12–24). As part of this prophecy, Nephi draws on additional words of Isaiah (Isaiah 29), adapting and expanding on them to prophecy of events in the restoration.  In particular, Nephi prophetically described an incident in which a man took some of the words from the Book of Mormon to the “learned” who asked for him to bring the book so they could read (translate) it. When the learned is informed that the book is sealed, he responds “I cannot read it,” or as it appears in Isaiah, “I cannot read it; for it is sealed” (2 Nephi 27:15–18; Isaiah 29:11–12).

This is widely believed to be referring to the incident in which Martin Harris went and visited Charles Anthon. In the most popular version of this story, Martin appeared to Charles Anthon and showed him characters copied from the plates, and Anthon gave Martin a certificate “certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters.” Upon learning from Martin that the book was revealed by an angel of God, however, Anthon tore up the certificate and asked Martin to bring him the plates. Martin remembered, “I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them,” to which Anthon replied, “I cannot read a sealed book.”[1]

As noted in the Come, Follow Me Sunday School manual (quoting from Revelations in Context), “Anthon later denied the details of Martin’s account of their meeting.” Indeed, we have a few sources from Anthon and others who heard Anthon talk about the incident, and unsurprisingly they tell a bit of a different story—specifically denying having given any kind of positive identification of the characters.

So who should we believe? What really happen? Well, as tends to happen in history, the truth is somewhere in the middle, but in my view there are several reasons for accepting the gist of Martin’s version of events. To facilitate further study for those with questions or who may be interested in learning more about Martin’s visit to Charles Anthon and other scholars, I’ve put together the following list of resources.

Church Resources

Martin Harris’s Consultations with Scholars,” Church History Topics

All is Lost,” in Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, vol. 1—The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018), 46–48.

McBride, Matthew. “The Contributions of Martin Harris,” in Revelations in Context: The Stories Behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Matthew McBride and James Goldberg (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016), 3–4.

KnoWhys (from Book of Mormon Central)



Primary Sources

Morris, Larry E., ed., A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 224–249.

In-Depth Historical Analysis

Bennett, Richard E. “‘Read This I Pray Thee’: Martin Harris and the Three Wise Men of the East,” Journal of Mormon History 36, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 178–216.

Bennett, Richard E. “‘A Nation Now Extinct,’ American Indian Origin Theories as of 1820: Samuel L. Mitchill, Martin Harris, and the New York Theory,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture 20, no. 2 (2011): 30–51.

Bennett, Richard E. “Martin Harris’s 1828 Visit to Luther Bradish, Charles Anthon, and Samuel Mitchill,” in The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey et al. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 103–115.

Bennett, Richard E. “‘A Very Particular Friend’—Luther Bradish,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, edited by Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015), 63–82.

Black, Susan Easton and Larry C. Porter. Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2018), 88–101.

Bradley, Don. The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2019), 15–35.

Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 63–66.

Cloward, Robert A. “Isaiah 29 and the Book of Mormon,” in Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 191–247.


Kimball, Stanley B. “The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems,” BYU Studies 10, no. 3 (1970): 325–352.

MacKay, Michael Hubbard. “‘Git Them Translated’: Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 83–116.

MacKay, Michael Hubbard, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Robin Scott Jensen. “The ‘Caractors’ Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters,” Mormon Historical Studies 14, no. 1 (2013): 131–152.

MacKay, Michael Hubbard and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat. From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith’s Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University and Deseret Book, 2015), 39–59.



[1] See Larry E. Morris, ed., A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 240–241 for the full account.

Comments

  1. Thanks Stephen! I wanted to spend some time talking about this subject in my upcoming Sunday school lesson, and this list of resources is very helpful.
    D. Marlowe

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