Forgeries related to Mormonism/Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates
This page is based on an answer to a question submitted to the FAIR web site, or a frequently asked question.
Given the evidence that the Kinderhook plates were fraudulent, how can one explain the following things?
- Why did William Clayton claim that Joseph Smith had translated a portion of the plates?
- Where did the translation described by Clayton come from if the plates were actually fake?
- By what means did Joseph attempt to translate the plates?
Joseph Smith's personal secretary, William Clayton said,
President Joseph has translated a portion [of the Kinderhook plates], and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found; and he was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom through the ruler of heaven and earth.
The Kinderhook plates were fakes, thus bringing into question any claim of "inspiration" that Joseph used to translate them and by extension any other revelations he received.
However, Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL). (The GAEL was composed in Kirtland about the time of the translation of the Book of Abraham.) Joseph found one of the most prominent characters on the plates to match a character on the second page of characters in the GAEL. Both were boat shaped. The GAEL interpretation of this boat-shaped character included everything that William Clayton said Joseph said.
Corroborating this is a letter in the New York Herald for May 30th, 1843, from someone who signed as "A Gentile." Research shows "A Gentile" to be a friendly non-Mormon then living in Nauvoo:
The plates are evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hieroglyphics. They were brought up and shown to Joseph Smith. He compared them, in my presence, with his Egyptian Alphabet…and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.
We know that Joseph was interested in languages. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and German in a secular manner. Therefore, we can easily believe that he attempted to translate the Kinderhook plates without assuming prophetic powers, which powers consequently remain credible.
For a complete treatment of the subject, see *See: “President Joseph has Translated a Portion": Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates by Don Bradley, 2011 FAIR Conference.
A set of small plates, engraved with characters of ancient appearance, were purported to have been unearthed in Kinderhook, Illinois, in April 1843. The so-called "Kinderhook plates" have been something of an enigma within the Mormon community since they first appeared. While there are faithful LDS who take a number of different positions on the topic of these artifacts, most have concluded that they were fakes.
Joseph Smith appears to have had the plates in his possession for about five days.
Did Joseph Smith attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates?
Don Bradley presented compelling evidence during his 2011 FAIR Conference presentation that Joseph Smith did indeed attempt to translate a character on the Kinderhook Plates.  Bradley noted that William Clayton's account is likely representing personal and specific knowledge acquired from Joseph Smith, since evidence indicates that he made his journal entries that day while he was at the Prophet's home. Clayton's account states that
- Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.
Bradley noted that one of the most prominent characters on the Kinderhook Plates (a symbol shaped like a boat), when broken down into its individual elements matched a symbol found on page 4 (the second page of characters) of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), often referred to as the "Egyptian Alphabet. The GAEL provides meanings for the individual symbols, and the meaning assigned to the particular symbol found on the plates supports the translation reported to have been provided by Joseph.
The conclusion is that Clayton's account appears to be accurate, that Joseph did attempt to translate "a portion" of them by non-revelatory means, and the translation provided matches a corresponding symbol and explanation in the GAEL.
- [note] Don Bradley, "President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," 2011 FAIR Conference, August 5, 2011.