Sponsored by BYU Studies — Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee recently won the Mormon History Association’s best article award for their analysis of the Kinderhook plates episode in early church history. Both scholars also contributed to Producing Ancient Scripture, a volume detailing Joseph Smith’s translation efforts.
What is the basic story of the Kinderhook plates in Latter-day Saint history?
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.
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Joseph Smith is important to us as a religious figure—as the founding prophet of the church and as the prophetic translator of the Book of Mormon and other scriptures—so it is natural to assume the any translation he would have performed would have been a prophetic or revelatory translation.
The problem is that this portrait of the Smith of religious legacy is not necessarily the Smith of actual history, who was very interested in languages, spent considerable time studying Hebrew and other languages, and even engaged in ordinary (non-revelatory) translation.
OK, so how do we deal with this?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Don and I have written two book chapters (basically articles) on the subject—one in A Reason for Faith and one in Producing Ancient Scripture—but we’re excited to answer questions here, because the Question-and-Answer format is actually a great way to get at this subject.
This enigmatic episode raises a number of questions.
Who created the Kinderhook plates and why?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: As mentioned it was three men from the Kinderhook area: Wiburn Fugate, Robert Wiley, and Bridge Whitton. One of Fugate’s sons later wrote that his father was “a free thinker and essentially opposed to the Mormons, thousands of whom had colonized in Illinois.” Time and again, wherever the Latter-day Saints had gathered in settlements, they had garnered the resentment of the earlier settlers in the area—especially when their swelling numbers began posing a threat at the ballot box.
Don Bradley: Mormon missionaries proselytizing in Illinois and throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world commonly used apostle Parley Pratt’s A Voice of Warning as a conversion tool. In the spring of 1843, Fugate and Wiley were perusing the ubiquitous missionary tract. According to Fugate, they “read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth would spring up out of the earth’” and “concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke.”
They decided to make their own set of inscribed metal plates, like the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, bury them in an Indian mound, and lead a group of unsuspecting locals to unearth the forgery.
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Two Latter-day Saints may have been invited along as the prank’s primary targets, or in any case were its most immediate victims. A nearby newspaper reported that one of them “leaped for joy at the discovery, and remarked that it would go to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
In Fugate’s own assessment, the forgery of the plates and the ruse of digging had worked “admirably.” He and his co-conspirators apparently had not planned for the plates to be taken to Nauvoo and translated by Joseph Smith. In a sense, the joke exceeded their wildest dreams when that happened. But then nothing much came from Smith’s brief and quickly abandoned translation effort.
Let me just back up a bit: Is it possible that the Kinderhook plates are actually ancient?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Although five of the six plates have been lost, a sole surviving plate is housed at the Chicago History Museum. In 1980, Mormon historian Stanley B. Kimball received permission to have it scientifically tested. Fugate had written that he and Wiley made the inscriptions “by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates.”
If the Kinderhook plates had been made in the Americas before European contact, they would most likely have been engraved with a stylus of some sort, rather than being acid etched. Testing with a scanning electron microscope showed that the characters on the plates were etched with acid, not engraved with a tool, and testing with a scanning auger microprobe found traces of etching acid in the character grooves.
Don Bradley: Most important, destructive testing and metallurgical analysis showed that the metal was a relatively fine alloy, consistent with nineteenth-century manufacturing techniques and unlike the crude alloys of antiquity.
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Furthermore, the inscriptions on the plates don’t exhibit the character and character combination frequencies that you find in genuine language. Altogether, these results determined conclusively that the Kinderhook plates were of modern manufacture.
Did Joseph Smith really translate from the Kinderhook plates?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Yes, he did. Joseph Smith’s private secretary, William Clayton, wrote in his journal on 1 May about the Kinderhook plates and then wrote that “Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found & 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 & earth.”
Apostle Parley P. Pratt similarly wrote that the plates contained “the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.”
Did William Clayton know what he was talking about?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Some apologists have argued against this, but there is every indication that he did. Clayton’s journal entry for this day—including his tracing of one of the plates—shows that he was with Smith on 1 May in Smith’s home, personally saw all of the plates there, handled at least one of the plates, and had his pocket-sized journal with him at the time.
Don Bradley: Clayton spent much of that day with Joseph Smith and continued updating his journal entry throughout day as the two of them interacted. So, when Clayton records that “Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain” certain ideas, he is reporting what he had heard from Joseph himself.
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Furthermore, given Clayton’s meticulous and matter-of-fact clerical habits, the things he wrote about Smith’s translation and what Smith said are likely accurate.
What was the method of translation for the Kinderhook plates?
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:
What is the Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: In addition to the Egyptian papyri and the Book of Abraham translation manuscripts, there are several other manuscripts from this period that are clearly related to both.
This curious collection of documents—commonly referred to in secondary literature as the “Kirtland Egyptian Papers”—are in the handwriting of Smith and others who were clerically assisting him in 1835. A text titled “Egyptian Alphabet” exists in three versions. Another document, derived from the “Egyptian Alphabet” text, is a bound volume with the expanded title “Grammar & A[l]phabet of the Egyptian Language.”
Going beyond the initial “Egyptian Alphabet” text, the book also included a few rules of grammar. The formatting of these documents in a tabular format and lexicographical style, combined with their interest in the “alphabet” and “grammar” of the Egyptian language, indicate an approach to understanding the papyri that was at least partly academic in intent and style.
The running heads on the pages of the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” bear the shortened title “Egyptian Alphabet.” At some point in time, a label was placed on the spine with the same shortened title. Like the loose-leaf copies of the “Egyptian Alphabet” text that preceded it, the “Egyptian Alphabet” notebook is really more of a lexical text—a sort of dual-language dictionary with Egyptian characters and corresponding definitions or interpretations in English.
The inscriptions in the book—with several blank pages between sections—indicate that the project fell far short of initial expectations. This enigmatic document continues to be a subject of debate in the Book of Abraham historicity wars.
Don Bradley: True, yet all this can be a red herring in terms of the Kinderhook plates. 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.
Did Joseph Smith ever translate any more of the Kinderhook plates?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: He apparently planned to, and he apparently didn’t.
Don Bradley: Right, Smith was murdered before ever returning to finish either the Book of Abraham or the Kinderhook plates.
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. But is there anything else we can learn from this episode beyond his method of translation?
Mark Ashurst-McGee: Yes, there is. It affirms Smith’s genuine interest in languages. Also, this curious episode provides a glimpse into the mental universe of Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints.
The content that Joseph Smith found in the Egyptian Alphabet (see table above) was usable for translation because it made sense of the Kinderhook plates within his mental universe. He (and other Saints) inhabited a providential cosmos and continent that had been previously inhabited by peoples brought there by the Lord, with prophets and kings among them who had kept records and had buried them in the earth to come forth in the last days.