Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates

Dear Madame L,

Have you heard of the Kinderhook Plates? These thin metal plates were supposedly found in a mound with other Native American artifacts, and brought to Joseph Smith for translation.And Joseph Smith supposedly translated them.

A few years later, the guy who made these metal plates by engraving on them with acid said it was a hoax. So, if Joseph Smith was a real prophet, how could he claim to translate some writings that were just faked?


Just Wondering

Dear Wondering,

Thanks for telling me about this. I had not heard of the Kinderhook Plates, so I looked them up in some reliable online sources in order to answer your question.

All the details you mention in your question are correct---except for one: Joseph Smith did not "translate" these plates the way the hoaxers thought he would, and not the way his detractors have said he did.

Facsimile of the Kinderhook Plates, from Aug. 1981 Ensign magazine

As you will recall, Joseph translated the Book of Abraham papyri through the power and gift of God. He apparently used the Urim and Thummim to help with the translation, as LDS scholar H. Donl Peterson notes:
In the historical documents currently possessed by the Church, Joseph Smith never described fully the actual process he used in translating ancient documents. ...  He did, in several instances, refer to the book of Abraham as a translation (HC 4:543, 548); and when the installments of the book of Abraham were published in the Millennial Star, it was described as being "translated by Joseph Smith" (July 1842, p. 34). Both Wilford Woodruff (in his journal) and Parley P. Pratt (in the July 1842 Millennial Star ) maintained that the translation was done by means of the Urim and Thummim...  
And, as he translated, he made what has come to be called the JS GAEL, or the Joseph Smith  Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language.

Shortly after the  Kinderhook Plates were "discovered" on April 23, 1843, they were brought to Joseph so he could translate them. But there is no indication in the historical record that he actually did translate them in the same way that he translated the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.

In fact, Parley P. Pratt and William Clayton reported different details about the plates and the other supposed artifacts found with them and wrote different versions of Joseph's supposed "translation."

From the August 1981 Ensign magazine: 
It seems, then, that there was considerable talk about the plates in Nauvoo—and apparently as much misinformation and hearsay was current among people as there was fact. Pratt heard of a discovery in Pike County; Clayton said Adams County. Clayton said that the find was made six feet underground; Pratt, fifteen. Elder Pratt spoke of a cement vase—an item mentioned in no other account. Clayton mentioned a skeleton nine feet tall—also unmentioned in any other account. Clayton said that the plates gave a history of an Egyptian; Pratt mentioned a Jaredite.
It's unclear whether Joseph ever made a translation, even an off-the-cuff comparison of a character from the plates with a character in his GAEL. If he did, it appears that he only compared one character that was repeated prominently on the top of many of the plates with a character he was familiar with from the Book of Abraham---was not and has never claimed by reputable scholars to be a "translation" in the sense of the ancient scriptures he actually did translate.

(For more on the possibility that he even made a comparison of any characters, see this fascinating 2011 speech by LDS historian Don Bradley.)

Some anti-Mormons have suggested that when one of the journal-writers close to Joseph wrote, "President Joseph has translated a portion," that means they saw Joseph make a translation that was as valid as his translations of true ancient scriptures. I suggest, though, that these journal-writers they were being as accurate in that case as when they wrote about the plates' discovery. 

There was popular discussion and a lot of hearsay about the plates at that time. Importantly, the plates were taken away from Nauvoo before Joseph could have actually taken a careful look at them, and he was martyred a year after they were "discovered."

Pratt wrote in a letter to a friend on May 7, 1843, "A large number of Citizens have seen them and compared the characters with those on the Egyptian papyrus which is now in this city.”  Thus it appears that it was not the Prophet Joseph Smith who tried to "translate" the plates at all.

One of the hoaxers, Wilbur Fugate, wrote to an anti-Mormon in Salt Lake City that he and the other creator of the plates had made up the whole story in order to trick the Mormons. In doing so, he admitted to having falsely signed a certificate as to the authenticity of the plates and their discovery; in other words, he admitted to having been a liar and a deceiver.

He also claimed to have sent the plates to an antiquarian, who said "...that there were no such Hyeroglyphics known, and if there ever had been, they had long since passed away."

He added, "Then Smith began his translation.” This is another lie: the plates were never returned to Nauvoo after supposedly being sent away, and Joseph died a martyr the following year.

As important is the fact that that neither Joseph nor any of the Saints in Nauvoo tried to keep these plates or buy them, as they had done with the Book of Abraham papyri, even though the owner of the plates, Robert Wiley, wanted to sell them and indeed tried to sell them to "The National Institute" and various antiquarian societies.

If you want more information about the Kinderhook Plates, this article in the Aug. 1981 Ensign magazine gives a thorough and scholarly chronology of the plates' discovery and travels, with historical details from letters, journals, and newspaper reports of the time.

If you want to know more about Joseph Smith the Prophet, please read this brilliant speech by William E. Berrett, which I would like to just go ahead and paste into this post, because he has studied the life and accomplishments of Joseph Smith. He shows how Joseph went from uneducated ignorance of even the English language to learning Egyptian and modern languages. He shows with specific examples Joseph Smith's zeal for learning, his faith, his love for the people, his leadership skills, and his humility. He shows Joseph's faults and flaws, his acknowledgement of those faults and flaws, and his continual efforts to overcome them.

He shows us the Prophet, a man --- but yet called of God to lead and serve, to restore the gospel in its fullness to the Earth. He concludes:

Yes, here was an unusual man, in whom were combined five great elements: intelligence, a zeal for learning, an unusual faith in God, a power of introspection, a love of people. In combination they made him a fit instrument in the hands of God to restore the Church in these latter days, qualities which, if we possess and cultivate, give us the elements whereby we, too, may become useful.

As Joseph Smith rode from Nauvoo toward Carthage, he met Stephen Markham and was asked, “Joseph, where are you going?” Joseph’s answer rings down the ages: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but I am calm as a summer’s morning. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and all men.” Would that all of us could say that!

Of all Americans, probably Joseph Smith has left us the most writings that look into the recesses of a man’s heart. In the six great volumes that we sometimes refer to as The History of the Church and sometimes as The Documentary History, we see into the inmost recesses of his mind. I have said, and repeat here, “I believe that I know him better than I have known any man in this life save my own father.” By it I mean I know how he would react to every temptation. I know what his counsel would be to me in almost every situation in which I might find myself. He is a great companion. I recommend him to you.

I bear you my solemn witness that I know that he is a prophet of the living God, and that the Church of which we are members, founded by him, is directed by Jesus Christ. May the Lord bless you with like testimony, I pray in the name of the Master. Amen.
I also recommend him, the Prophet Joseph Smith, to you.

1 comment:

AskTheGeologist said...

This is both beautiful and elegant. Thanx.