Thursday, June 23, 2016

Joseph Smith Receives the Stephens-Catherwood Books

As is frequently, the case, few members know the full story of that which they talk about and some even write about. In the previous article, we outlined how the ancient Maya ruins of Central America became known to the world, and the two men who pioneered those discoveries, building on the little-known work of a few others who preceded them. Here, we will outline how their book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, happened to reach the hands of Joseph Smith. We would also like to point out the time frame in which this took place, which was 1841-1842.
Catherwood’s drawing of Palenque in Mesoamerica
    After the second trip to Central America, both Stephens and Catherwood decided to retire from travel. After publishing their two-volume set, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan in 1841, John Lloyd Stephens was nominated by the Democrats, but ended up on the Whig ticket, for the State Convention to revise the New York Constitution. He became involved in and was instrumental in entering the United States into the Atlantic Ocean steamship business, and became a Director for the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, in which he sailed to Europe and met and interviewed in Potsdam shortly before his death the Lord Fredrich Wilhelm Chritian Karl Gerdinand von Humboldt, who had spent some time exploring Peru.
    Stephens then became Vice President of the newly founded Panama Railroad Company in 1849, and on a visit to Panama and New Granada, after which he traveled  to Bogota, he fell off his mule and sustained severe injuries from which he never fully recovered. He returned to the United States, and was appointed President of the railroad. However, he suffered from a disease of the liver, and died at the age of 46 on October 13, 1852 at his home in New York City.
    After their adventure, Frederick Catherwood went to California in 1849 to capitalize on the Gold Rush and opened a supply store in San Francisco, selling to the miners flocking there. His reputation endured as an artist, and his works were displayed in Manhattan salons and galleries.  Returning from a trip to London aboard the S.S. Arctic in 1854, Catherwood was among the more than 350 passengers who died when the ship was rammed during a thick fog by the steam ship Vesta on 27 September. He was 55 years old.
Before Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan was published in New York, John Milton Bernhisel (left), a Pennsylvania doctor who had found his way to New York City, where he began a medical practice. While in the city, he met LDS missionaries and joined the new church in 1837. Patients remembered him as an “urbane, cultured, and refined physician, making his professional visits in a long frock coat and a high silk hat—a rather formidable antiquarian.” At the conclusion of his examination of female patients, he would often advise: “Cultivate, my dear Madam, as far as possible, a cheerful, happy and contented disposition, and all will be well."
In 1841 be became a Bishop of a New York City ward and came to the notice of President Joseph Smith, who tried to get Berhisel to migrate to Nauvoo. Two years later, he did move and at the Prophet’s insistence, boarded in the Smith home, where he became Joseph’s personal physician and emissary to Governor Ford, and would deliver some of Emma’s children, and attending to Emma Smith after the birth of her son, David Hyrum, five months after the Prophet’s death. Even later he would move to Utah and become a Representative of Utah Territory in the U.S. House of Representatives.
    However, in 1841, as a new Bishop of the Church, he purchased the two-volume set by Stephens and Catherwood. He was so impressed by the work and what he read, that he wanted to give the books to the Prophet. Wilford Woodruff, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, was returning from a mission abroad and passed through New York City on his way to Nauvoo. Dr. Bernhisel gave the books to Woodruff, along with a letter for the Prophet Joseph, and asked Wilford to deliver them to the Prophet when Wilford arrived in Nauvoo. Wilford Woodruff recorded the following in his journal: “September 9, 1841: I received $40 dollars of Dr. John M. Bernhisel for President Joseph Smith also Stephens travels in Central America in 2 volums."
    After arriving in Nauvoo on October 6, 1841, Woodruff recorded in his journal that he met with the Prophet on October 31 and on Sunday, November 7, but made no specific entry about giving the books to Joseph. We do not know the exact day the Prophet received these books, but we do know that Joseph received them because he wrote a thank-you letter to Dr. Bernhisel on November 16, 1841. In the letter, Joseph indicated that he had already read both volumes.
Wilford Woodruff (left) recorded in his journal that during the long trip from New York City to Nauvoo, he managed to read both volumes. He said that the books were some of the “most interesting histories” he had ever read and that they “brought to light a flood of testimony in proof of the Book of Mormon.”
    In his journal, Woodruff placed two entries regarding Stephens’ book: Incidents of travels in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Illustrated by numerous engravings in two vol. I felt truly interested in this work for it brought to light a flood of testimony in proof of the book of mormon in the discovery & survey of the city Copan in Central America A correct drawing of the monuments, pyramids, portraits, & Hieroglyphics as executed by Mr. Catherwood is now presented before the publick is truly a wonder to the world. Their whole travels were truly interesting.”
    On September 16, 1841: “I perused the 2d Vol of Stephens travels In Central America Chiapas of Yucatan & the ruins of Palenque & Copan. It is truly one of the most interesting histories I have ever read.”
The enthusiasm of Wilford Woodruff to link these Central American findings to the Book of Mormon answers some interesting questions. Wilford was present with the Prophet in 1834 when the Joseph Smith was said to have received a revelation about Zelph, the white Lamanite whose bones had been found. Regarding this revelation received by Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal:
    “May 8, 1834: While on our travels we visited many of the mounds which were flung up by the ancient inhabitants of this continent probably by the Nephites & Lamanites. We visited one of those Mounds and several of the brethren dug into it and took from it the bones of a man…Three persons dug into the mound & found a body. Elder Milton Holmes took the arrow out of the back bones that killed Zelph & brought it with some of the bones in to the camp…Brother Joseph had a vision respecting the person. He said he was a white Lamanite. The curse was taken from him or at least in part. He was killed in battle with an arrow…His name was Zelph, a large thick set man and a man of God. He was a warrior under the great prophet Onandagus that was known from the hill Camorah, or east sea to the Rocky mountains. The above knowledge Joseph received in a vision.”
    It should be noted that in this information that was revealed about “Zelph,” nothing directly linked him or the location to the events of the Book of Mormon. The fact that Wilford said that the mounds were flung up “probably by the Nephites & Lamanites” supports the conclusion that, in his mind, there was no “revelation” that these findings were a part of Book of Mormon history. The revelation on Zelph was very interesting, but it did not identify this area as the place where Book of Mormon events took place. As to the Hill Cumorah, of the eight journal entries of some of those present, he is the only one to mention Hill Cumorah, all the others mention East Sea or Atlantic (Ocean).

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