In A Brief Autobiography, the Bay Roberts native, Samuel A. B. Mercer (1879-1969), stated that his most interesting article, written for a popular audience, had been “Joseph Smith as Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” published in The Utah Survey in 1913. By attacking the ability of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-44), the founder of Mormonism, to translate Egyptian, Mercer unleashed a storm of controversy within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As late as 1958, the so-called “1912 Controversy” was a cause celebre for Mercer and, as late as 1970, an irritant for the Church.
The Episcopal Bishop of Utah, Franklin Spencer Spalding (1865-1914), was, according to his biographer, “the first missionary among the Mormons to make a serious effort to understand Mormonism.” Even Mormons regarded him “as eminently fair and true.” In his pamphlet, Joseph Smith, Jr., As a Translator, published in 1912, Spalding attempted “to show by the only original texts that can be tested that Joseph Smith wasn’t a reliable translator of ancient language.”
Spalding consulted a professor at Chicago’s Western Theological Seminary, Samuel Mercer, in his capacity as an Egyptologist. The latter suggested they send to some “of the world’s best Egyptian philologists” the three facsimiles of the original Egyptian text from the Book of Abraham, along with Smith’s partial translation, to test independently his ability as a translator. The jury members represented an impressive body of scholarship: Archibald Sayce (1845-1933), Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), James Henry Breasted (1865-1935), Arthur C. Mace (1874-1928), John Peters, Eduard Meyer (1855-1930) and Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing (1873-1956). All of them were in practically uniform agreement that the meaning of the facsimiles’ hieroglyphics was completely different from Smith’s translation.
Mercer, in his article, “Joseph Smith as Interpreter and Translator of Egyptian,” formed his “judgment from the opinion of competent experts.” He blasted the Mormons for believing something that “required only a glance to find out that the interpretation and translation were absolutely wrong in every detail.”
In what can only be described as an ironic twist, in 1956, Mercer, despite his devastating attack on key Mormon documents more than four decades earlier, sold his personal Egyptian library to Brigham Young University!
Harvard University’s librarian, S. Lyman Tyler, knew BYU would respect and utilize Mercer’s Egyptology collection. Informed of the interest, the Newfoundlander decided that BYU would be a suitable home for his material. He seemed determined to permit nobody but the Mormons to have it.
The Mormons agreed to Mercer’s price, which was a mere fraction of what other institutions, including Harvard, had been anxious to pay. The collection was shipped to BYU.
The surprisingly large collection consists almost entirely of books, including a wealth of bound periodicals. Many of the items are now exceedingly rare and valuable. This put BYU in possession of nearly all the Egyptian sources Mercer had used in writing his many books.
Mercer’s library was not kept together as a unit. Fortunately, shelf lists were made as the books were being catalogued, and a label, identifying its provenance, was placed in each volume. This list was microfilmed in 1957. By late 1991, the Mercer collection was located in a single building, and was in the process of being re-catalogued and redistributed under headings such as History, Religion, Philology and Geography. Plans were underway to bring the entire collection together in one room.
BYU professor, Hugh Nibley (1910-2005), subsequently spent hundreds of hours among Mercer’s books. There are no personal papers, but Nibley felt the human touch was nevertheless present in comments Mercer had made on his books. His countless penciled annotations are a good indication of what he was doing and thinking. Nibley acknowledged in 1990 that he felt inclined to take it easy on Mercer, in view of the great favour he had done for the Mormons. In his personal dealings with Mercer, Nibley found him to be kind and unfailingly courteous. Dealing with him was a pleasure. In 1968, a year before Mercer died, Nibley wished him well.