Translating the Kinderhook Plates

The Kinderhook plates provide an interesting incident in Church History that provide an interesting test case for how Joseph Smith approached translation.  What are these plates?  What can we learn about Joseph Smith from the incident?  Well, Mark Ashurst-McGee and Don Bradley recently sat down with Kurt Manwaring for an interview to discuss what they found during their scholarly analysis of the Kinderhook Plates story.  What follows here is a co-post, a shorter post with some quotes and discussion, but feel free to hop on over to full interview here.

They explained the story of the Kinderhook plates as follows:

Mark Ashurst-McGee: It was in early 1843 that Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormon Christianity, translated a portion of the Kinderhook plates. These six small plates of brass—each covered on both sides with mysterious inscriptions—have become known as the “Kinderhook plates” because they were extracted from an Indian burial mound near the small village of Kinderhook in western Illinois. Kinderhook was about seventy miles downriver from Nauvoo, then the center of gathering for the Latter-day Saints.

Over the years since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, Joseph Smith had become widely known for his claim to have been led by a heavenly messenger to an ancient record inscribed on a set of gold plates, buried in a hill in western New York, and to have translated the record by means of a spiritual gift from God. Given the obvious similarity between the gold plates of the Book of Mormon and the brass plates from Kinderhook, the Kinderhook plates were brought to Smith.

Don Bradley: Joseph Smith kept the plates at his house for about a week and translated at least part of them. According to William Clayton, Joseph Smith’s private clerk, Smith had “translated a portion” of the plates and said that they contained “the history of the person with whom they were found . . . a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

About a week later, church apostle Parley Pratt wrote about the Kinderhook plates in a letter to a cousin. Pratt relayed that the plates contained “the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.” While also associating the plates with the Jaredites, one of the peoples in the Book of Mormon, Pratt basically agreed with what Clayton had written about the plates being associated with a descendant of Ham.

Mark Ashurst-McGee: But here is the big problem: Decades later, one of the men who was present when the plates were disinterred revealed that the plates and their “discovery” were a hoax.

Wilburn Fugate claimed that he and Robert Wiley had made the plates with some help from local blacksmith Bridge Whitton, and then planted the plates in the burial mound the night before they were unearthed. Scientific testing has now confirmed the modern manufacture of the plates.

Don Bradley: It comes as no surprise then that the episode is a cause célèbre in anti-Mormon literature, which repeatedly uses a phrase that has almost become a slogan: “only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.”

The problem in this pithy passage is an unstated assumption that when the Prophet translated the plates he was acting as a prophet—that he believed he was translating by revelation or that he was presenting his translation as a revelatory translation. It turns out that this assumption is demonstrably false.

Ashurst-McGee and Bradley confirmed that the best analysis of the physical plates confirms that they were modern forgeries (that’s an interesting technical discussion to check out) and that Pratt and Clayton are probably accurate in recording the incident, i.e., Joseph Smith really did briefly work on translating the plates.

That translation process, however, is the interesting bit.  As the interviewees explain:

Mark Ashurst-McGee: This is the real issue! Smith’s journal entry for 7 May 1843 notes that on this day he met with a group of men who had come to ask about the plates. The journal entry also notes that a Hebrew lexicon was sent for. This suggests that an ordinary linguistic approach was being taken in terms of translating characters from the plates.

Don Bradley: One of the men visiting with Joseph Smith was non-Mormon Sylvester Emmons (who would later edit the infamous Nauvoo Expositor). According to Emmons, “He [Smith] compared them [the Kinderhook plates] in my presence with his Egyptian alphabet, which he took from the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.”

The “Egyptian alphabet” is a reference to the “Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet” (or sometimes “Egyptian Alphabet”), a manuscript Egyptian-to-English lexicon that had been created by Smith and others in connection with the translation of the Book of Abraham. Emmons, unfamiliar with the various works of Latter-day Saint scripture, mistakenly associated the Egyptian Alphabet with the Book of Mormon but observed that a comparison between characters in this manuscript notebook and characters on the plates had been made and had been made favorably.

Because of this favorable comparison of characters, Emmons wrote, Smith would “be able to decipher them.” In other words, Smith would be able to use the Egyptian Alphabet lexicon to produce an ordinary translation, as would any other ordinary translator using a lexicon in his or her work.

In fact, the Egyptian Alphabet includes a character that resembles a prominent character on the plates and this character in the Egyptian Alphabet has an English interpretation that substantially overlaps what Clayton wrote about the translation of the plates.

Here’s a chart showing the similarities of content:

… Whatever you make of the original production of the Egyptian Alphabet in 1835, here in 1843 with the Kinderhook plates, you see Joseph Smith using it as an ordinary translation tool. He did this openly within a group of onlookers that included both church members and non-members.

They take this to indicate that the effort to translate the Kinderhook Plates was not necessarily an inspired process so much as an extension of Joseph Smith’s interest in languages, with him using a resource that had been previously developed to work on a traditional translation (even though the actual plates being translated were bogus).  Hence, as Kurt Manwaring summarized their argument: “So, Joseph Smith’s translation effort, or mistranslation, was for only one character and it was a natural, not supernatural, translation attempt. This seems to exonerate him from the false-prophet argument.”

This makes sense, though there is still some grey area to consider here related to the Egyptian Alphabet and Joseph Smith’s translation projects.  As Jonathan Green has pointed out:

If I can disagree somewhat with Bradley and Ashurst-McGee on one point: I don’t think the distinction between academic and revelatory translation is as clear as they treat it. It’s not easy to distinguish the methods or the products of academic from prophetic translation. …

Bradley and Ashurst-McGee conclude that the Kinderhook plates incident provides a “glimpse into the mental universe of Joseph Smith.” I would like to propose that this glimpse extends specifically into the act of prophetic translation itself. The episode indicates some important things about Joseph Smith’s approach to translating ancient records.

  • The translation process was linguistic and mediated by the characters on the plates. The artifacts were not merely tokens, talismans, or catalysts. Joseph Smith did not wave his hands over the plates and then see a vision inspired by them. Instead he set to work by applying prior experience and linguistic aids to attempt a reading.
  • The translation process was not just inspired by the characters on the records, but also controlled by them. Joseph Smith did not continue translating beyond the one interpretable character.
  • The translation process was both linguistic and expansive. The two are not opposites or mutually exclusive. In the Kinderhook incident, we see one character generating sentences; we go from noun to narrative.

Rather than a strictly academic endeavor or a curious incident in early church history, the Kinderhook episode may provide us with our clearest glimpse into the process of revelatory translation in action. What we find there may be more widely applicable.[1]

In a subsequent post, Green explained that it might be applicable in understanding how Joseph Smith approached translating the Book of Mormon from the golden plates.  “I propose that the translation process for the Book of Mormon anticipated the process Joseph Smith attempted with the Kinderhook plates, in that the characters mediated and controlled the translation; that it involved the unfolding of a character’s full meaning and syntactic articulation similar to the system that motivates the ‘Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language’; and that it was based on interpreting visual indications of augmentation, diminishment and combination as seen in the ‘Specimen of Pure Language’ and the [Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language]. The translation process did not involve Joseph Smith narrating a vision or repeating an auditory dictation. It entailed the textual rendering into English of ancient characters.”[2]  In this way, there is likely a link between the translation of the Book of Mormon and the incident with the Kinderhook Plates.

Mark Ashurst-McGee offered his own rebuttal to Green’s initial post, giving examples of supernatural translation (Book of Mormon), natural translation (classwork in the Hebrew school in Kirtland), then noted that: “There is very strong evidence that Smith attempted to translate by the natural method of character matching and lexicon use. I can find no real indication that Smith attempted to translate by revelation.  So, again, while Smith may have mixed in a revelatory method with his scholarly method—a plausibility that we entertained—there is no good evidence for that.”[3]  While there may be a link between the Book of Mormon and the Kinderhood Plates translations, there is also clear evidence that there are very important differences between the two projects as well.

While I’ve brought up these discussions in passing, there really isn’t a lot of room to discuss in more detail here.  As always, feel free to hop on over to the full 10 Questions interview here to get some more of those details, or peruse some of the posts in the Footnotes.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Jonathan Green, “Learning from Kinderhook,” Times and Seasons, October 26, 2020, https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2020/10/learning-from-kinderhook/

[2] Jonathan Green, “How the Book of Mormon was translated: a proposal,” Times and Seasons, November 5, 2020, https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2020/11/how-the-book-of-mormon-was-translated-a-proposal/

[3] See comments to Jonathan Green, “Learning from Kinderhook,” Times and Seasons, October 26, 2020, https://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2020/10/learning-from-kinderhook/

3 comments for “Translating the Kinderhook Plates

  1. I saw the headline and thought, “Didn’t I have a post about this not long ago?” And there it is in the footnotes!

    In any case, it’s nice to see Kinderhook returned to its rightful place as an odd and potentially interesting episode in church history, rather than a metonym for faith-shaking history.

  2. Yeah. After reading your posts on it back when they came out, when reading this interview, I thought “this sounds familiar. I think we had some relevant discussions on the blog about this a while back…”

  3. Chad: Sent you an an email at Timesandseasonsblog_at_gmail.com on Nov 9. Could you answer please? Thanks.

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