Thoughts on Language: Joseph Smith and Pure Language

By the end of November 1830, Joseph Smith had produced the verse in the Book of Moses that says Adam kept a book of remembrance “in the language of Adam” and that his children “were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled” (Moses 6:5-6). In March 1832, he revealed that the Lord “established the foundations of Adam ondi Ahman” (D&C 78:15). It is unclear from the revelation whether at this time Smith understood Adam-ondi-Ahman to be an actual place or an idea, but it is likely that he believed the words were part of a restoration of Adamic language. That same month he produced question-answer dialogue entitled “A Sample of Pure Language.” There he gives “the meaning of the pure word” Ahman as “the being which made all things in all its parts.” The Son of God is called “Son Ahman,” humans are called “Sons Ahman,” and angels are called “Ahman Angls-men.” From this translation, we can see Smith would define Adam-ondi-Ahman as something like “Adam with or near to God.” It is also clear that Smith believed traces of the original Adamic language—words like “sons,” “men,” and “angls”—have survived in English.

Joseph Smith’s pursuit of the Adamic tongue continued throughout his life. On several occasions when Church members began speaking in tongues, Smith identified it as the Adamic language. In a “History of Brigham Young” published in the Millennial Star of 1863, Brigham Young tells of being asked to pray at a meeting of brethren. “In my prayer I spoke in tongues. As soon as we arose from our knees the brethren flocked around [Joseph Smith], and asked his opinion concerning the gift of tongues that was upon me. He told them it was the pure Adamic language,” that “it is of God.” Elizabeth Ann Whitney recalled that in a meeting where Joseph Smith, Senior gave the first patriarchal blessings in Kirtland, she “received the gift of singing inspirationally, and the first Song of Zion ever given in the pure language was sung by me then, and interpreted by Parley P. Pratt, and written down.”The song tells of ancient patriarchs, starting with Adam, bestowing mighty blessings on their families. It ends, “As Adam blest his family/In Adam-ondi-Ahman,/So shall our aged father bless/His seed who dwell in righteousness/Upon the land of Zion.” Whitney adds that “The Prophet Joseph promised me that I should never lose this gift if I would be wise in using it and his words have been verified.”

In his encyclopedic article on the history of Smith’s quest to gain access to the Adamic language published in the scholarly journal Church History (78, no. 1 [March 2009], 26-65), Samuel Brown demonstrates that Smith clearly believed “that ancient records and their constitutive hieroglyphs, typified by the Egyptian, provided a key to recovering the language of primitive humanity spoken in the Garden of Eden and the sacred names by which language first touched creation.” Brown further shows that in his attempted translations of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, Smith saw both “a strong attachment to the Garden” and a connection to pure language. For example, Smith identified one Egyptian glyph as “the place appointed of God for the residence of Adam; Adam ondi=Ahman” [sic.] Brown’s essay is a must-read for anyone trying to understand Joseph Smith’s Adamic-language project.

Nevertheless, one can see from these brief examples that Joseph Smith’s preoccupation with recovering the Adamic language has a great deal in common with the quest of Renaissance philosophers. Both believed that such a recovery is possible, and Smith seems to follow in the path of those who believed that traces of that primal tongue are found in languages both ancient and current. But what was Joseph Smith’s reason for wanting to recover a lost Adamic tongue? I believe a key to understanding the purpose behind Jospeh Smith’s quest is found in a previously unknown example of “pure language” that was only recently published in the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations. I’ll leave that for next time.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Language: Joseph Smith and Pure Language

  1. The verse (stanza?) you quoted looks like it could fit into "Adam-ondi-Ahman" (#49 in the current hymnbook), which is credited to W.W. Phelps. Is there a relationship?

    I’ll be interested to see where you go in the next installment. Given the findings of modern linguistics and philology, it’s hard to take seriously Joseph Smith’s specific ideas about the sources and evolution of language. The question then becomes: What was his goal? How can these forays into primitive linguistics be framed in terms of Joseph’s prophetic mission? I suspect that answer has something to do with the idea of perfected/ongoing communication between God and humanity: an extension of the idea that the heavens are not closed.

    It’s interesting to speculate that the scriptural injunction of the gospel being preached in every human tongue was then reversed, in Joseph Smith’s understanding, to the idea that every people (as part of coming to God) would learn God’s language. The gift of tongues, then, becomes a gift of perfected communication that operates in both directions.

    Seen from this perspective, the goal of humans speaking the divine language from Joseph Smith’s time can be reframed so that rather than literally learning a new (old) Adamic tongue, the goal is realized through earthly languages becoming divine through a process of spiritual purification. In some ways, this is parallel to the reframing of the idea of "gathering to Zion" as not being about coming to one central physical location, but rather about the entire earth becoming Zion through a spiritual "gathering" throughout the world. For me, this kind of reframing helps me to make sense of an aspect of Joseph Smith’s life that otherwise could easily seem simply peculiar and irrelevant to modern circumstances.

  2. boyd says:

    Wonderful comments, Jonathan. I talk about the Phelps song in another part of the paper I’m working on, but I confess I never noticed the similar ways the Whitney song and Phelps song scan.

    Whitney talks about her song in an article published in the Women’s Exponent on November 1, 1878. But the first patriarchal blessings given by JS, Senior were given on Dec. 18, 1833. Phelps wrote his song sometime in 1832 or 33, so, if Whitney’s account is correct, they would have been written about the same time. The two songs are also, obviously, about Adam-ondi-Ahman.

    I really like your point about the gospel being taught in every tongue being reversed for Joseph, and that this was about communication between the heavens and the earth. I think that’s spot on, and I promise I’ll show you why I think so. Thanks.

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