Originally published on 12/3/2018 (updated on 8/9/2020)
There’s an interesting video out there that does a good job of quickly summarizing the most recent apologetic arguments surrounding the Kinderhook Plates.
Watch the video, then read my response. Please let me know what you think!
Below is the full transcription of the audio along with my comments.
Of course, it’s possible that there’s “nothing to see here” with regard to the Kinderhook Plates. Maybe Joseph never made any type of translation, even though William Clayton and at least one other person said they saw him do it. And maybe Joseph just never thought it was important to correct the news that was going abroad among the twelve apostles, and newspapers, and recorded in the official History of the Church.
Or maybe Joseph did fall for the trick, but wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. Maybe he sincerely believed that he had enough “ordinary” knowledge of ancient languages that he could actually interpret the characters that were carved into the Kinderhook Plates (even though his short education in ancient languages was more likely to convince him that he wasn’t an expert). Maybe he actually believed that the interpretations and pronunciations he consulted in the GAEL were correct even though that theory is contradicted by BofA apologetics. Maybe he was being sincere, even though he had a history of being deceptive about his knowledge of languages.
But something like this is by far the most likely scenario: admiring followers and interested observers came to Joseph Smith with some ancient-looking, metal plates with awesome writing on them and ask him to interpret them. Joseph then put on a show by comparing his fake Egyptian “dictionary” to the metal plates and then simply made something up or tried to make it look legit by finding a character that looked similar and then use it to come up with a partial “translation” for his doting audience.
That explanation fits all of the evidence and is by far the most likely that I’ve heard. The problem is that it means that Joseph Smith was willfully deceiving people into thinking he could translate when he couldn’t.
I don’t blame anyone for finding their way to a faithful explanation of the Kinderhook Plates (or anything else for that matter). Faith is up to every individual. However, I do have an issue when the creators of apologetic stuff, like this video, leave out really important information. Whether intentional or not, that makes it look like they’re hiding something.
Frankly, I think it’s dishonest.
- Some apologists use the fact that Fugate’s letter came thirty-six later to support their arguments. I guess they’re saying that if Fugate, Wiley, and Whitton believed that they fooled Joseph, they would have published their trick immediately. But even if that were so, what the tricksters thought of their trick doesn’t matter. The fact remains that Joseph Smith claimed that the fake plates were authentic and then produced a “translation” (see below). That fact that he was fooled stands apart from the creator’s opinions.
- Here’s an excerpt: “Mr. Cobb: I received your letter in regard to those plates, and will say in answer that they are a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. …We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.’ We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke.” (Wilbur Fugate Improvement Era)
- As far as I can tell, Mormon apologists now concede that Joseph made the “translation”, but they used to make arguments like this one: “…Clayton did not quote Joseph directly—he only reported what he thought was happening. Whether Joseph actually told Clayton that he had translated the plates, or whether Clayton was simply reporting what he heard from a variety of sources, is not clear.”. (<a href="source) The LDS official response from 1981 echos this theory.
- Mormon apologists also frequently use the “Joseph didn’t actually write that” tactic to discard disturbing information. The biggest problem with this argument is that he did very little writing himself — scribes did almost all of it for him. This is from a Deseret News article: “…capable men served as [Joseph’s] personal scribes, assistants and secretaries until at the time of his death, he had amassed an entire office staff. In his collection of 10 journals alone, which consist of 1,500 pages, a mere 35 — or 2 percent — are in the Prophet’s own handwriting.” (Deseret News) Apologists use this information selectively. They call into question anything that bothers them (because Joseph didn’t write it) but they don’t apply the same skepticism to information that happens to confirm their beliefs, even though it’s written by the same scribes.
- The entire article can be found here. (Thanks to /u/AmbitiousSet5 for finding it.) This apologetic article discusses this quote a bit.
- The editor of a nearby paper wrote: “…The plates above alluded to were exhibited in this city last week, and are now, we understand, in Nauvoo, subject to the inspection of the Mormon Prophet. The public curiosity is greatly excited; and if Smith can decipher the hieroglyphics on the plates, he will do more towards throwing light on the early history of this continent than any man now living.” (History of the Church Vol. 5, Chapter 19, Pg. 378)
- See the quote above.
- History of the Church Vol. 5, Chapter 19, Pg. 372
- As mentioned in this article, there is overwhelming evidence that Joseph made a translation, so apologists now concede this point.
- Robert Wiley was another of the people who made the plates.
- I can’t find any content of this letter besides this excerpt. While it would be safer and more thorough to read the “1200 pages” quote in context, I’ll assume that the letter exists (or existed) and that the meaning is self-evident.
- For an example, This article uses the fact that Joseph wouldn’t translate until the plates were authenticated to mean that, “Joseph did not dedicate much time to them”. It’s certainly true that it doesn’t look like Joseph spent much time with the plates — but the implication that he wasn’t fooled is another matter. The article later says, “This may suggest that Joseph was either skeptical about the authenticity of the Kinderhook plates or he simply did not have the time to deal with them, but regardless of the reason, he did not make their translation a priority.” Of course, this argument neglects to consider that a translation of the Book of Joseph was never produced, and it took seven years for Joseph to produce the Book of Abraham. Also, this was a tenuous time for the Mormon Church (one year before the prophet’s murder). Producing new scripture was likely superseded by existential threats.
- Joseph had “Caractors” from the Golden Plates sent to Dr. Charles Anthon for authentication. See Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith History 1:64-65
- Joseph obtained this note of authentication from Michael Chandler, the man who sold the artifacts to the Mormon Church: “This is to make known to all who may be desirous, concerning the knowledge of Mr. Joseph Smith, jr, in deciphering the ancient Egyptian hierogliphic characters, in my possession, which I have, in many eminent cities, shown to the most learned: And, from the information that I could ever learn, or meet with, I find that of Mr. Joseph Smith, jr. to correspond in the most minute matters.” Certificate from Michael Chandler, 6 July 1835,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed May 20, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/certificate-from-michael-chandler-6-july-1835/1
- Of course, Michael Chandler was neither an expert in Egyptology nor impartial (since he sold the artifacts to Joseph).
- This article on churchofjesuschrist.org says that Willey “was interested in selling the plates to ‘the National Institute,’”
- Fugate didn’t mention anything about exposing Joseph’s fraud to the world, instead he said that their goal was to confirm the Mormon prophecy that “‘truth is yet to spring out of the earth’ … by way of a joke”.
- Of course, there was no Hebrew on the Kinderhook Plates. But the reason, Joseph’s confidence to translate Hebrew is important, is that he reportedly used his “Hebrew lexicon” to examine the Kinderhook Plates. We need to determine how likely it is that Joseph actually believed he could translate Hebrew. Or conversely: how likely it is that Joseph faked it all.
- Here’s an interesting article about Joshua Seixas, their Hebrew teacher: Dialogue — A Journal of Mormon Thought
- Mormon scholar, Brian Hauglid, said in this presentation that Joseph soon stopped his efforts in the GAEL after learning how languages and translation really work. (It should be mentioned that, while Brian is a believing Mormon and has led many important efforts with the JSP project and has authored many faith-centered books on the topic, his recent opinions have diverted from the mainstream apologists. He has even called the “scholarship” of fellow apologists Gee and Muhlestein “abhorrent”.)
- Here’s Brian Hauglid‘s take on the topic.
- Why would Joseph’s scribes have the confidence to reverse engineer such a document without knowing where to begin on the papyri and no basis for a real understanding of how Egyptian worked? Why would they add pronunciations for Egyptian characters if they were just trying to match the BofA text with hieroglyphics? Why would they completely invent characters in places where the papyri had worn away? And why would Joseph have confidence in such a document?
- The Mormon Church has proposed what is referred to as a “catalyst” theory to explain how the Book of Abraham came to be. Since experts agree that nothing in Joseph’s papyri contain anything about Abraham, and since his Egyptian “translations” are nonsense, they’ve come up with this explanation: “Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham. … According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.” (Official LDS Essay).
- I think it’s important to remember that apologetics, by definition, starts with a conclusion, and then seeks for evidence to support that conclusion. This is a non-scientific approach that will allow you to come to any conclusion that you want. (The fact that you can find evidence that Bigfoot exists, that we never landed on the moon, and that the the earth is flat doesn’t mean that those things are correct.).
- There’s no justification for this claim except for the fact that it fits with their faithful conclusions. As I mentioned previously, Hauglid, discredits this theory in this presentation.
- Why would Joseph’s scribes have the confidence to reverse engineer such a document without knowing where to begin on the papyri and no basis for a real understanding of how Egyptian worked? Why would they add pronunciations for Egyptian characters if they were just trying to match the BofA text with hieroglyphics? Why would they completely invent characters in places where the papyri had worn away?
- Hauglid agrees that the GAEL predates the BofA text.
- I’ve actually heard some believers go there. They’ve told me that they believe it’s possible that God revealed the Book of Abraham to Joseph through silly words like Zub zool—oan and convinced him that they were actual Egyptian words.
- Remember that if Joseph believed that the GAEL was inspired by God, we must explain why God would deceive him into thinking that incorrect translations, and pronunciations, and made-up characters were actual Egyptian translations. On the other hand, if Joseph believed that the GAEL was an uninspired and uneducated attempt by Joseph’s scribes to reverse-engineer an Egyptian to English dictionary, then it’s a real stretch to believe that Joseph would trust it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
- That’s a very shaky assumption in my opinion. A total of 16 characters listed in the GAEL are associated with “Ham”, God, King, or Pharaoh:
- “Kah ton num: a lineage with whom a record of the fathers was intrusted by tradition of Ham”
- “Ho-e-oop A prince of the royal blood a true desendant from Ham”
- “Ah lish The first Being— supreme intillegence;”
- “Zaol: Sign[i]fying the lineage that lawfully hold the keys of the Kingdom of God by promise.”
- “Beth, The place appointed of God ”
- “Alkebeth, ministers of God”
- “Bethku= …appointed of God”
- “Ahme=as= God without begining or end”
- “Ha e oop hah— honor by birth, kingly power by the line of Pharoah.”
- “Phah ho e oop. Royal blood or pharoah”
- “Zaol: Sign[i]fying the lineage that lawfully hold the keys of the Kingdom of God by promise.”
- “Phah=eh. Kingly or first king”
- “Ho=e-oop=hah: a king”
- “Alkebeth, ministers of God, high priests, kings”
- “Jah=ho=e=oop; An ambassador: one delgated with Kingly power”
- “Ho e oop— A prince of the line of the Pharoahs”
And if you use about as much imagination as apologists are using, you can find just about every character in the GAEL multiple times in the Kinderhook Plates. To determine this for myself, I took three characters from the GAEL that have similar meanings to Joseph’s “translation” of the Kinderhook Plates. I then tried to find similar characters on the plates themselves. (I gave myself a lot of creative license because, in my opinion, so do the apologists when they claim to have matched characters.) Here’s the result.
- See LDS official essay on Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.
- The original document can be found here in the JS Papers Project.
- “Thickets.” Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Lyman. Bushman and Jed Woodworth, Vintage Books, 2007, pp. 484–484.
- Improvement Era