Monday, June 29, 2015

More on the Kinderhook Plates

Dear Madame L,

Thanks for answering my question about the Kinderhook Plates. It seems like you're saying there are two questions for historians and LDS believers to consider: Were the plates authentic or a forgery, and did Joseph Smith translate them or not.

Also, it seems like you're saying the people in Joseph Smith's time thought they were authentic, though after examination in the 1980s they were found to be a modern hoax; and that Joseph Smith did not translate them. Yet you mentioned in your post that some of his closest friends wrote in their journals that Joseph Smith did make some kind of translation.

Also, I have read that in the History of the Church, the entry for May 1, 1843, Joseph Smith himself wrote, "I have translated a portion of them,” referring to the plates.

Can you please clarify?


Still Wondering

Dear Wondering,

Thanks to you for asking about this again. I've found another source, an article by Brian M. Hauglid: "Did Joseph Smith Translate the Kinderhook Plates?" published in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 93–103.

I haven't read the whole book, just this one article, which is available online.  Here's what I've learned:

One of the Kinderhook Plates, from the online article cited
That entry in the History of the Church wasn't actually written by Joseph Smith and it wasn't added to the history until 1909. It was based on William Clayton's May 1843 journal entry. Here's what he wrote in his journal in 1843:

“I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams County. . . . President Joseph has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.”

Hauglid notes that changing Clayton's journal entry to first person and attributing it to Joseph Smith was "unfortunate" but also was done in the 19th century, and done in other instances in the History of the Church.

As I mentioned in my previous post about the Kinderhook Plates,  it's possible and even likely that, as Hauglid mentions (quoting another historian), "...that Clayton’s journal entry may be based on speculation circulating at the time..." This possibility is supported by the fact that Clayton's journal and Parley P. Pratt's letter on the subject had significant discrepancies.

Still, let's suppose that Joseph Smith did take the time to translate even a little bit of the plates in the same way he had translated the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. If he did, and if he thought those plates were anything at all like the Book of Mormon, the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Doctrine and Covenants, Hauglid writes, "he would have steered the text through the same process" that he put those sacred scriptures through, the "three important phases [of] transcription, publication, and distribution." And he didn't do any of that.

Hauglid speculates, "Perhaps Joseph inspected the plates and tried to translate them but received no revelation, and, recognizing the stupor of thought, lost interest and moved on to other things."

Or, maybe Joseph thought of his look at these plates as a scholarly exercise. He had been studying Hebrew and Egyptian. "He was particularly interested in ancient languages and may have encouraged experiments in learning Egyptian while he translated the Book of Abraham. It is possible that he saw the Kinderhook Plates as an occasion for attempting (if futilely) a scholarly study of an ancient language rather than an inspired translation of ancient characters. Rather than carrying the experiment forward, however, he may have abandoned it almost immediately and made no attempt to establish the translation as scripture."

Hauglid speculates further: "Or perhaps Joseph sincerely believed that the Lord had led him to another sacred record that could be translated to provide the Saints with additional scripture, but when no inspiration came he quickly abandoned the Kinderhook Plates. It may also be that both Joseph the scholar and Joseph the prophet tried to do something with the plates, but nothing really came of either approach. Although William Clayton gives fairly strong evidence that Joseph attempted to translate at least some of the plates, apparently Joseph did not go far enough for the conspirators to spring the trap."

Because that's what the hoaxters intended, was for Joseph to make a translation that they could then show was incorrect.

A footnote in Hauglid's article refers to Don Bradley's presentation, “Joseph Smith’s Translation from the Kinderhook plates: A Historical Mystery,” given at the Thirteenth Annual Mormon Apologetics Conference of FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) on August 5, 2011, which I referenced in my previous post on this subject.

Hauglid notes a detail pointed out by Bradley, which I didn't write about in my earlier post, but which again points to the idea that Joseph Smith didn't think of the Kinderhook Plates as ancient scripture but as an interesting scholarly relic: "...evidence that a character on the Kinderhook Plates resembles one found on page 4 of the GAEL [the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language]. The description of the character also corresponds closely to Clayton’s description. Bradley argues that the use of the GAEL indicates that Joseph Smith took a secular interest in the plates rather than a revelatory one."

1 comment:

AskTheGeologist said...

Thanx, I had wondered about this issue. It's clear that Joseph abandoned any effort to translate the KP pretty quickly.