Learning from Kinderhook

In their chapter “‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion”: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates,” Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee have published the definitive account of Joseph Smith’s 1843 encounter with the Kinderhook plates.[1] (See also Mark Ashurst-McGee’s series of posts over at Juvenile Instructor.) The plates were widely considered authentic until the late nineteenth century and treated as a faith-promoting discovery much later than that, and they weren’t conclusively shown to be forgeries until 1980. The last several decades have been dominated by the accusation that Joseph Smith had produced a translation based on a forgery, and the rejoinder that he hadn’t translated anything at all. Bradley and Ashurst-McGee analyze all the sources and determine that Joseph Smith did attempt a translation—of one character. Moreover, his method of translation was to look up the character in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language.[2] It was an academic rather than a revelatory translation, they conclude.

After several years of seeing the Kinderhook plates treated as the ultimate faith-shaking scandal in early church history, I’m underwhelmed. I’m grateful to Bradley and Ashurst-McGee for putting in the work so that after the better part of two centuries, we can finally learn what the Kinderhook incident teaches.

What we see most clearly is how Joseph Smith’s assumptions about the Kinderhook plates were formed by his previous experience.

  • He was convinced that ancient records on metal plates could be found buried in the earth.
  • He was convinced that writing on ancient records could be read and interpreted.
  • He was convinced that his prior work was a reliable guide to newly discovered records. When encountering new ancient texts, he attempted to integrate them into his prior experience.[3]

We can dismiss “con man” theories of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career: if you run a Three-card Monte scam, and one day someone stops you on the street and says you can win big by following the card, the last thing you would do is agree to play their game. The best explanation for Joseph Smith’s confident assumptions about the Kinderhook plates is that he had previously retrieved ancient records on metal plates and translated them. It’s unlikely he would have been so confident if he never had any plates, had manufactured them himself or had sanctified an etched rock. Whatever the gold plates may have been, the experience of finding and translating them had a profound and lasting effect on Joseph Smith.

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; even prophets can use a dictionary. Michael MacKay and Brian Hauglid each make similar points (in general, not with specific reference to the Kinderhook plates) in their chapters.[4] Bradley and Ashurst-McGee also consider the possibility of translations mixing both academic and supernatural approaches.[5]

Bradley and Ashurst-McGee conclude that the Kinderhook plates incident provides a “glimpse into the mental universe of Joseph Smith.”[6] 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.

The ultimate lesson of Kinderhook may be this: don’t be too hasty to seize on some incident in church history as proof of either truth or fraud. Making sense of history can be a slow process, and the narrow focus on proof/disproof makes it difficult to recognize the real insights waiting to be gleaned.

———-

[1] Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion”: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates,” in Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid. eds., Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity (University of Utah Press, 2020), 452-523.

[2] “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, circa July–circa November 1835,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers.

[3] Bradely and Ashurst-McGee, 466.

[4] Michael Hubbard MacKay, “Performing the Translation: Character Transcripts and Joseph Smith’s Earliest Translating Practices,” in Producing Ancient Scripture, 93-94; Brian Hauglid, “‘Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham”: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Egyptian Language and His Translation of the Book of Abraham,” in Producing Ancient Scripture, 364-5.

[5] Bradley and Ashurst-McGee, 515.

[6] Bradley and Ashurst-McGee, 523.

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This is the GIF referenced by Mark Ashurst-McGee in comments below, and I approve of this message.

Don't be hasty

16 comments for “Learning from Kinderhook

  1. I wish to express my appreciation to Jonathan Green for this superb reading of the evidence that Don Bradley and I presented in our chapter.

    I would also like to offer a brief rejoinder on the central issue that he raises—whether Joseph Smith’s translation from the Kinderhook plates was a mixture of natural and supernatural translation methods—which goes to the heart of the chapter we wrote.

    As Green states it: “I don’t think the distinction between academic and revelatory translation is as clear as they [Bradley and Ashurst-McGee] treat it. It’s not easy to distinguish the methods or the products of academic from prophetic translation; even prophets can use a dictionary.” Now, Green does acknowledge that we did “consider the possibility of translations mixing both academic and supernatural approaches.” Putting these together, I think what he is saying is this: While we considered this possibility of a mixture of both methods, the distinction between the two methods is not as clear as we treated it. I’ll agree with Green on this and will try to add some clarity on our position (or at least my own position).

  2. EXAMPLES OF TRANSLATION METHODS

    As an example of supernatural translation in Joseph Smith’s background, I offer the translation of the Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.”

    As an example of natural translation in Joseph Smith’s background, I offer the translation exercises that he did in the Kirtland Hebrew School. Smith and other Latter-day Saints hired a non-Mormon Jewish scholar to teach them Hebrew. They used his academic textbook for their studies. The coursework involved several scholarly exercises. These exercises included translating the Hebrew Bible from Hebrew into English. Here we have Joseph Smith engaged in what is to all appearances a thoroughly natural and traditional and scholarly and academic method of translation. Here is something that he wrote in his journal about it:
    “Wednesday the 17th [February 1836] attended the school and read and translated with my class as usual, and my soul delights in reading the word of the Lord in the original, and I am determined to persue the study of languages untill I shall become master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough, at any rate so long as I do live I am determined to make this my object, and with the blessing of God I shall succeed to my sattisfaction.”
    Here we see that Joseph Smith hopes to receive the blessings of God in his language study, but this is just like nowadays when a Latter-day Saint student prays to God for help before taking a test in any language class in school. It’s just the generic hope for heaven’s blessings in our life endeavors. It’s not really a mixture of natural and supernatural revelation.

    As examples of a mixture of natural and supernatural translation in Joseph Smith’s background I offer the Joseph Smith Translation of the King James Version of the Holy Bible (JST) and the Book of Abraham (BoA). The JST begins with some huge expansions that are presented as the result of supernatural revelation. The JST also includes several hundred modernizations of archaic words and word spellings. The first three chapters of the Book of Abraham, narrating events of his life, seems to be the result of a revelatory translation like the Book of Mormon. The last two chapters of the Book of Abraham, recounting the creation of the earth, show Joseph Smith using his Hebrew manuals to rework the Genesis account as found in the King James Version (see the chapter by Matthew Grey in Producing Ancient Scripture).

  3. So, was Joseph Smith’s translation of the Kinderhook plates natural, supernatural, or some mixture of the two?

    Green writes: “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.”

    Well, this is true. It may do that, as we acknowledged. But let me try to re-summarize two other salient points.

    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.

  4. Enough with the rejoinder. I would like to add how impressed I was with Green’s second set of (bulleted) observations—specifically that “the artifacts were not merely tokens, talismans, or catalysts” and that “the translation process was not just inspired by the characters on the records, but also controlled by them.

    I must admit that I had never thought through the implications in quite these terms. I feel that Green has articulated these points exceptionally well and I thank him for it.

    Finally, I wholeheartedly concur with what Green identifies as what may be the episode’s “ultimate lesson”: “don’t be too hasty to seize on some incident in church history as proof of either truth or fraud” because “making sense of history can be a slow process.”

  5. Mark, thanks for the comments. I don’t want to make the difference between my view and your and Don’s article seem bigger than it is, because at this point most differences are minimal. I’m not trying to argue here that Joseph Smith did in fact combine academic and revelatory modes of translation in the case of the Kinderhook plates. What I might propose is that the translation work in the academic mode for the Kinderhook plates was a step toward a revelatory translation that never got off the ground. So he may have set out with a different end in mind than with a Hebrew exercise, although that end was never realized.

    I’m going to push my proposal a bit farther, but that post still needs to be written. I’ll see what I can do to fix the gif. And again, thanks (and to Don as well) for a great article.

  6. Yes, it is possible that Joseph Smith intended to follow up an initial natural approach with a subsequent supernatural approach. This seems to have happened with the Book of Mormon (as best argued by Mike MacKay in his chapter in Producing Ancient Scripture) and may have happened with the Book of Abraham (as best argued by Chris Smith in his article on the opening verses of BoA).

    Wilburn Fugate later wrote that he had heard that “Jo Smith said they [the Kinderhook plates] would make a book of 1200 pages but he would not agree to translate them until they were sent to the Antiquarian society at Philadelphia, France, and England. They were sent and the answer was that there were no such Hyeroglyphics known and if there ever had been, they had long since passed away. Then Smith began his translation” (slightly edited).

    I don’t know the value of N in this Nth-hand account given over three decades after the fact, but maybe there is some truth to it? [pronounced in Millennial “up-talk”].

    It is also possible that if Smith had ever returned to the plates he would have continued as he had started.

    As eyewitness Sylvester Emmons explained it on the “day of” (1843 May 7), Smith had “compared” the characters on the Kinderhook plates with those in “his Egyptian alphabet,” had found them to be “the same characters,” and would “therefore” be “able to decipher them.” The implication was that any further decipherment would be done by the same method of ordinary translation.

    But maybe that was just Emmons offering his best guess. And, even if he got that idea from Smith, it is possible that Smith had not laid out his whole plan or that he would have later changed his mind or whatever.

    Anyway, I look forward to “that post [that] still needs to be written” and I thank you for fixing the GIF.

  7. The translation process was both linguistic and expansive… In the Kinderhook incident, we see one character generating sentences; we go from noun to narrative.

    Into which category, academic or revelatory, would you put the “expansive” portion of that one character translation?

  8. LastLemming, thanks for asking. That would quite plainly go into the academic category. The expansive translation content was apparently derived rather straightforwardly from the Egyptian grammar book definition for a character that is similar in shape to a large character at the top of one of the sides of one of the plates (the one with the largest heading and with characters in the heading).

  9. On the one hand, this puts a nail in the coffin of the KEP as an cipher or code. Clearly Joseph Smith thought the KEP were legitimate translations – of course, that’s a reasonable belief given Sam Brown’s theories of translation.

  10. Jonathan, you say there are (only?) two conclusions after reading Bradley’s and Ashurst-McGee’s book: (1) we can dismiss “con man” theories of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career; or (2) we can conclude that Joseph’s confidence about the Kinderhook plates was strongly influenced by his previously work in translating. OK, but what about a third conclusion? That is, Joseph was confident about the Kinderhook plates (based on his previous translation experiences), but was wrong about the plates’ origin?

    Yes, dismiss “con man” theories. But why not acknowledge that Joseph was mistaken? Maybe I’m missing the point of your post.

  11. “I can find no real indication that Smith attempted to translate by revelation.”

    Not sure if this is limited to the Kinderhook Plates, but in general the parchment of John in D&C 7 may be a good example .

    Seems I remember a reference to this in your thesis.

  12. Hunter, I think you did miss a few things, actually. The points I suggest are not the only possible conclusions one could reach, and they certainly aren’t meant to be understood as either-or propositions. I’m arguing in favor of all of them.

    Do read Mark’s article. As I mentioned in the first paragraph of the original post, the plates have been recognized as forgeries for 40 years, so the question of correct/mistaken ends up being terrifically uninteresting. What’s interesting is the insight the episode provides on how Joseph Smith approached what he took to be an ancient text.

  13. So, is this more evidence that Joseph Smith created the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar, that it was not the creation of others trying to reverse engineer the translation of the Book of Abraham?

  14. AM, probably not. It’s perfectly conceivable that Joseph Smith could have approved of the work of others and found it useful. My inclination, though, is to think that the priority of one document over the other is the wrong way to think about it.

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