FAIR: Joseph Smith didn't act in prophet's role during translation of Kinderhook plates
Though the Kinderhook plates have often been used to disprove the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s seer-ship, evidence exists to show that Joseph had begun to translate the plates out of curiosity rather than as his role as a prophet, Don Bradley said Friday afternoon as part of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research conference presentations.
Bradley, who is pursuing a master's in history at Utah State University and specializes in early Mormon history, said that accounts from church members William Clayton and Parley P. Pratt, as well as an anonymous article from an individual outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, bring legitimacy to the fact that Joseph did not place as much importance into the materials as he did the plates that led to the Book of Mormon or the papyri that was translated as the Book of Abraham.
The plates were fabricated by Wilbur Furgate, Robert Wiley and Bridge Whitton and buried near Kinderhook, Ill., in 1843, all with the intent to misdirect Mormon leaders, including the Prophet and Parley P. Pratt.
Furgate wrote to his associate James Cobb in June 1879 that he had read a scripture in Pratt’s journals, Psalm 85:11, which says that “truth shall spring out of the earth,” a reference that Latter-day Saints understand applies to the Book of Mormon. Furgate wanted to bait Pratt’s belief by “prov(ing) the prophecy by way of joke.”
Clayton’s account records how he had gone to Joseph Smith’s home in Nauvoo the morning of May 1, 1843. Later, Clayton shared supper with Joseph. It’s there where it’s possible Clayton could have heard about the plates, Bradley said.
Pratt said that he had sincerely believed in the authenticity of the plates, writing to John Van Cott in May 1843 that the plates contained the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham, the son of Noah, with the engravings in the Egyptian language.
However, Bradley said that Clayton and Pratt disagreed somewhat on the finding of the plates, for which neither was present. But Clayton also believed that the plates contained the geneology of a descendant of Ham.
It’s the account of a man who wasn't a member of the LDS Church that provides perhaps the most interesting detail, Bradley said. The nonmember, whom historical accounts record was a friend of the church, identified himself as “a Gentile” when he published a letter to the New York Herald on May 30, 1843. The “Gentile” said that he was an eyewitness of the plates, that they have close similarities to the Book of Mormon plates, and that they indeed were “filled with engravings in the Egyptian language” after its text was compared with that of the Egyptian papyrus that became part of the Pearl of Great Price.
But despite the deception that Furgate, Wiley and Whitton accomplished, Bradley said there is a difference between Joseph’s approach to the plates as he began to translate them before his matyrdom the following year as compared to his work in translating the plates that are the Book of Mormon today.
During the course of the presentation, Bradley referred often to the research of Mark Ashurst-McGee, an LDS Church historian and one of the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers. Ashurst-McGee’s theory is that Joseph translated the Kinderhook plates “not as a prophet, but as a man who was intrigued with and dabbled in languages.” Furthermore, Joseph could have obtained the content Clayton says he obtained from the Kinderhook plates merely by matching the most-related figures on the Egyptian alphabet before not feeling the spiritual conviction to move forward, Bradley said.
Bradley referenced the criticism of James Bales, a Bible professor who taught at Harding University in Arkansas for nearly 40 years, who said that Joseph’s initial translation of the Kinderhook plates proves that “only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.”
“However, this case is as Joseph said, ‘a prophet is a prophet only when acting as such,’ ” Bradley said.
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