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. (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. 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.
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. Bradley and Ashurst-McGee also consider the possibility of translations mixing both academic and supernatural approaches.
Bradley and Ashurst-McGee conclude that the Kinderhook plates incident provides a “glimpse into the mental universe of Joseph Smith.” 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.
 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.
 “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, circa July–circa November 1835,” p. 4, The Joseph Smith Papers.
 Bradely and Ashurst-McGee, 466.
 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.
 Bradley and Ashurst-McGee, 515.
 Bradley and Ashurst-McGee, 523.
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