The Interview: In this episode of the Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales interviews Mark Ashurst-McGee, co-author of a new in-depth study of the Kinderhook plates saga.
It is well-known that Joseph Smith claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon by “the gift and power of God” from a set of golden plates that he found in a stone box buried in a hill near his home. Lesser known is his later translation from a collection of brass plates disinterred from an Indian burial mound near Kinderhook, Illinois, located about seventy miles downstream from Nauvoo. The History of the Church records that Joseph Smith “translated a portion” of these plates and declared that they contained “the history of the person with whom they were found,” who was “a descendant of Ham.” That official narrative dominated the legacy of this second set of plates for over a century. Nevertheless, controversy always swirled around the affair.
This recital is a strange episode in early Mormon history, but the history of the interpretation of the story is even more peculiar. Years after the event, two of the men who were present when locals discovered the plates claimed that they made the plates with help from the village blacksmith, inscribed them with characters, planted them in the mound, and then led an unsuspecting group of curious locals to “discover” them as part of a hoax. Rejecting this contention, considering the revelation of a supposed hoax to be the real hoax, Latter-day Saints used the Kinderhook plates for decades as supporting evidence for the validity of the golden plates and their translation into the Book of Mormon.
In the late nineteenth century, several publications promoted the testimony of one of the scammers as evidence of the Kinderhook forgery. Critics of Mormonism used this revelation to attack Joseph Smith’s legitimacy as a prophet and an inspired translator. Soon detractors distilled the anti-Mormon argument into a pithy slogan: “Only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.” In light of the slur, Latter-day Saints doubled down, insisting that the forgery claims were lies, the plates were genuine, and they supported the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims.
Despite these confident declarations, Latter-day Saint contentions later proved erroneous. Rigorous scientific testing in 1980 demonstrated conclusively that the plates were modern forgeries rather than pre-Columbian creations. Many wondered how these new findings spoke to Joseph Smith’s purported rendering.
Latter-day Saint historian Stanley Kimball problematized any simple resolution to the mystery when he examined the drama further by turning to the contested statement of Joseph Smith regarding the translation. At about the same time scientific evidence confirmed the fraudulent origin of the plates, Church historians discovered the actual source of Joseph Smith’s declaration on the translation as found in the History of the Church. As it turns out, Joseph Smith never wrote that he had translated from the Kinderhook plates. Instead, researchers learned that early Latter-day Saint chroniclers extracted this information from the diary of Joseph Smith’s private secretary, William Clayton.
In an article in the Ensign, the official magazine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Stanley Kimball revealed the modern fabrication of the Kinderhook plates, but at the same time he revealed the true source of the words attributed to Joseph Smith and argued that William Clayton was wrong when he wrote about Joseph Smith translating from the plates.
In this new study, Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee provide analysis of Clayton’s relationship with Joseph Smith, his diary-keeping practices, and the broader context of the entire journal entry that served as the basis for the statements inserted in the History of the Church. They argue that Clayton knew very well what he was writing about and that Smith did, in fact, translate “a portion” of the Kinderhook plates.
In a close examination of the other vital sources related to Smith’s translation attempt, Bradley and Ashurst-McGee contend that Smith’s translation was not a prophetic translation like that of the Book of Mormon. Additionally, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith saw it that way or that he presented it to others in that way. To the contrary, all of the evidence, as they show, indicates that Smith viewed his brief translation effort as a secular translation, that he attempted it while referencing dictionaries, and that he did so in the presence of several members and non-members.
Anti-Mormon critics have used the Kinderhook plates episode to attack Smith’s prophetic claims, insisting that “only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.” On the other hand, Joseph Smith taught, “A prophet is not always a prophet,” and a prophet is a prophet, “only when he is acting as such.” Ashurst-McGee explains that when Joseph Smith attempted to translate the Kinderhook plates, he was not acting as a prophetic translator but rather as a secular translator. Therefore, the translation of the Kinderhook plates speaks to Joseph Smith’s personal study of languages and his confidence in his linguistic abilities rather than a divine calling.
In “President Joseph Has Translated a Portion”: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates,” Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee lay out the evidence for their conclusions, showing exactly how the mistaken translation took place and how Joseph Smith came up with his interpretation of the plates.
About our Guest: Mark Ashurst-McGee holds a PhD in history from Arizona State University and has trained at the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents. He is a senior historian in the Church History Department and the Senior Review Editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project, where he serves as a specialist in document analysis and documentary editing methodology. In addition to co-editing several volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers (Church Historians Press, 2008–), he co-edited Foundational Texts of Mormonism (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Producing Ancient Scripture (University of Utah Press, 2020).
Referenced Work: Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee. “President Joseph Has Translated a Portion”: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates.” In Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Modern Christianity. Edited by Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020.
This podcast is cross-posted with the permission of LDS Perspectives Podcast.