Criticism of Mormonism/Books/No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith/Chapter 20

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Response to claims made in "Chapter 20: In the Quiver of the Almighty"

A FairMormon Analysis of: No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, a work by author: Fawn Brodie
Claim Evaluation
No Man Knows My History
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Response to claims made in No Man Knows My History, "Chapter 20: In the Quiver of the Almighty"

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Response to claim: 289 - Joseph permitted the construction of a brewery in Nauvoo and allowed it to be advertised

The author(s) of No Man Knows My History make(s) the following claim:

Joseph permitted the construction of a brewery in Nauvoo and allowed it to be advertised.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

The Word of Wisdom was not as restrictive during the Nauvoo era as it is today. This brewery is also mentioned in D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, Appendix 7: Selected Chronology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-47


Question: Has the implementation and enforcement of the Word of Wisdom changed over time?

Early Latter-day Saints were not under the same requirements for the Word of Wisdom as today's Saints are

Observance of the Word of Wisdom has changed over time, due to on-going revelation from modern-day prophets, who put greater emphasis on certain elements of the revelation originally given to Joseph Smith. Early Latter-day Saints were not under the same requirements as today's Saints are. Latter-Day Saints believe that the Lord reveals his will to men "line upon line, precept upon precept," (Isaiah 28:10-13 and others) and that revelation continues as circumstances change.

"Strong drink" was initially interpreted as hard liquor, and did not include beer or lightly fermented wine

The text of the Word of Wisdom forbids "strong drink" (D&C 89:5, 7), which was initially interpreted as distilled beverages (hard liquor). Beer, unfermented or lightly fermented wine, and cider were considered "mild drinks" (D&C 89:17) and therefore acceptable (note that verse 17 specifically permits "barley...for mild drinks"). The complete prohibition of alcoholic drinks of any kind only became part of the Word of Wisdom following the temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Presidents Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant supported the movement and Grant made complete abstention from alcohol in any form a requirement for a temple recommend in the early 1920s.

Consider also that drinking water in Joseph Smith's day (or during Biblical times) was a gamble because water purity was always questionable; a little alcohol in a beverage ensured that it was free of viruses and bacteria. The development of germ theory in the late 19th century lead to chemical treatments to ensure a safe supply of public drinking water. A strict ban of all alcohol in Joseph Smith's time would have been a death sentence for many Latter-day Saints—especially during the 1832–1833 cholera pandemic, which spread its disease by water.

Tobacco, coffee and tea were not initially prohibited, but instead their use was discouraged

The same sort of "ramping up" of requirements occurred with regard to tobacco, coffee and tea. While use of these items was often discouraged by Church leaders, enforcement was usually light and confined to people who were severe abusers. For example, Brigham Young made the following remarks in April 1870 General Conference:

On Sunday, after meeting, going through the gallery which had been occupied by those claiming, no doubt, to be gentlemen, and perhaps, brethren, you might have supposed that cattle had been standing around there and dropping their nuisances. Here and there were great quids of tobacco, and places a foot or two feet square smeared with tobacco juice. I wish the door-keepers, when, in the future, they observe any persons besmearing the seats and floor in this way to request them to leave the house; and, if they refuse and will not stop spitting about and besmearing their neighbors, just take them and lead them out carefully and kindly. It is an imposition for those claiming to be gentlemen to spit tobacco juice for ladies to draw their clothes through and besmear them, or to leave their dirt in the house. We request all addicted to this practice, to omit it while in this house. Elders of Israel, if you must chew tobacco, omit it while in meeting, and when you leave, you can take a double portion, if you wish to. [1]


Question: How was enforcement of the Word of Wisdom phased in over time?

Brigham Young declined to make the Word of Wisdom a "test of fellowship"

Said Brigham Young in 1861:

Some of the brethren are very strenuous upon the "Word of Wisdom", and would like to have me preach upon it, and urge it upon the brethren, and make it a test of fellowship. I do not think I shall do so. I have never done so. [2]

Ezra T. Benson notes that observing the Word of Wisdom would be "pleasing" to our Heavenly Father

In 1867, Ezra T. Benson exhorted the Saints to live the law, but seemed to realize that not all the Saints of the time had the capacity:

Supposing he had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but he gave this without command or constraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father? [3]

In 1870, Brigham Young left the compliance with the Word of Wisdom up to the individual

In 1870, Brigham Young again emphasized that this was a commandment of God, but that following was left, to an extent, with the people:

The observance of the Word of Wisdom, or interpretation of God's requirements on this subject, must be left, partially, with the people. We cannot make laws like the Medes and Persians. We cannot say you shall never drink a cup of tea, or you shall never taste of this, or you shall never taste of that....[4]

In 1898, the First Presidency noted that bishops should not withhold temple recommends based upon the Word of Wisdom

Just before the turn of the century, in 1898, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve discussed the Word of Wisdom:

President Woodruff said he regarded the Word of Wisdom in its entirety as given of the Lord for the Latter-day Saints to observe, but he did not think that Bishops should withhold recommends from persons who did not adhere strictly to it. [5]

So, even by this date keeping the Word of Wisdom was not a “point of fellowship”—you could still have a temple recommend if you didn’t obey, though the leaders remained clear that it was a true doctrine from the Lord.

By 1902, temple recommends were beginning to be denied to those who did not follow the Word of Wisdom

By 1902, the Church leaders were strongly encouraging the members to keep the law, and were even beginning to deny temple recommends to those who would not. They were, however, still merciful and patient with the older members who had not been born into the system, and for whom change was presumably quite difficult:

[In 1902] Joseph F. Smith urged stake presidents and others to refuse recommends to flagrant violators but to be somewhat liberal with old men who used tobacco and old ladies who drank tea. Habitual drunkards, however, were to be denied temple recommends. [6]

By 1905, the Council of the Twelve were actively preaching that no man should hold a leadership position if he would not obey the Word of Wisdom. [7] On 5 July 1906, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve began using water instead of wine for their sacrament meetings. [8] By 1915, President Joseph F. Smith instructed that no one was to be ordained to the priesthood or given temple recommends without adherence. [9] Heber J. Grant became President of the Church in 1918, and he continued the policy of Word of Wisdom observance; after that time temple attendance or priesthood ordination required obedience to the principle. Thus, the Church membership had eighty-five years to adapt and prepare for the full implementation of this revelation. [10] By 1933, the General Handbook of Instructions listed the Word of Wisdom as a requirement for temple worship, exactly 100 years after the receipt of the revelation by Joseph Smith. [11]

Joseph F. Smith reasoned that the long period of implementation was needed to allow people to overcome addictions

According to Joseph F. Smith, this long period of patience on the part of the Lord was necessary for all—from the newest member to even the leaders:

The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by 'commandment or restraint' was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law. [12]

Thus, we should not expect perfect observance of the Word of Wisdom (especially in its modern application) from early members or leaders. The Lord and the Church did not expect it of them—though the principle was taught and emphasized.


Response to claim: 289 - Joseph gave some of the brethren money to purchase additional whiskey in contradiction to the Word of Wisdom

The author(s) of No Man Knows My History make(s) the following claim:

Joseph gave some of the brethren money to purchase additional whiskey in contradiction to the Word of Wisdom.

Author's sources:
  1. Millennial Star 21:283.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: The author has stated erroneous information or misinterpreted their sources

The author is claiming that the purchase or use of whiskey was "in contradiction to the Word of Wisdom," however, when reading the entire passage from the Millennial Star we see something different. Notice the distinction that Joseph makes between drinking whiskey in a manner which violates the Word of Wisdom, versus using whiskey to remain alert during a "sleepless journey."


Question: Did Joseph Smith give some of the brethren money to purchase whiskey in violation of the Word of Wisdom?

The use of whiskey as a stimulant while traveling was allowed, but abusing it by getting drunk was not

Liquor in judicious amounts was used as a medicinal substance, and seen as a stimulant or restorative against fatigue. This is why Joseph "investigated the case"--he wished to know if the use had been acceptable or to excess. (In a similar way, a modern-day Church leader who heard that a member was using morphine might investigate to discover if such use is appropriate--e.g., under a doctor's supervision in proper prescribed amounts for a legitimate ailment--or whether they were abusing it to get "high".)

Here's what Joseph said,

The company moved on to Andover, where the Sheriff of Lee County requested lodgings for the night for all the company. I was put up into a room and locked up with Captain Grover. It was reported to me that some of the brethren had been drinking whiskey that day in violation of the Word of Wisdom.

I called the brethren in and investigated the case, and was satisfied that no evil had been done, and gave them a couple of dollars, with directions to replenish the bottle to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.[13]

The complete prohibition on alcohol was phased in gradually

Critics of the Church who use this quote as evidence that Joseph disregarded the Word of Wisdom also do not inform readers that the complete prohibition on alcohol was a gradual matter, and so Joseph's judgment on the issue was possible (which explains why no one at the time was shocked or outraged by it). Later nineteenth century Mormons, such as Brigham Young, understood the matter in the same way, and also distinguished between the excessive and judicious use of spirits.


Response to claim: 289 - Joseph was presented with a bottle of wine and he "drank it with relish"

The author(s) of No Man Knows My History make(s) the following claim:

Joseph was presented with a bottle of wine and he "drank it with relish."

Author's sources:
  1. History of the Church 5:380

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

The entry from History of the Church simply states that Joseph "drank a glass of wine with Sister Jenetta Richards." The author has inflated this to an entire bottle of wine that he drank "with relish."

Wednesday, 3.—Called at the office and drank a glass of wine with Sister Jenetta Richards, made by her mother in England, and reviewed a portion of the conference minutes.[14]


Question: In what way did Joseph Smith implement the Word of Wisdom during his lifetime?

Joseph Smith never interpreted the Word of Wisdom revelation as demanding total abstinence

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today. Observance of the Word of Wisdom has changed over time, due to on-going revelation from modern-day prophets, who put greater emphasis on certain elements of the revelation originally given to Joseph Smith. Early Latter-day Saints were not under the same requirements as today's Saints are.

Latter-Day Saints believe that the Lord reveals his will to men "line upon line, precept upon precept," (Isaiah 28:10,13 and others) and that revelation continues as circumstances change.

As one historian noted:

it appears clear that Joseph Smith never interpreted the [Word of Wisdom] revelation as demanding total abstinence, but stressed moderation and self-control....He had no objections to using tobacco for medicinal purposes. With regard to wine and "strong drink" possibly the most accurate index to the Prophet's position was expressed by Benjamin F. Johnson, who personally knew Joseph: "As a companion, socailly, he was highly endowed; was kind, generous, mirth loving, and a times even convivial. He was partial to a well supplied table and he did not always refuse the wine that maketh the heart glad."[15]

Beer, unfermented or lightly fermented wine, and cider were considered "mild drinks" by some and therefore acceptable under at least some circumstances

The text of the Word of Wisdom forbids "strong drink" (D&C 89:5,7), which some (including Joseph) seem to have interpreted as distilled beverages (hard liquor). Beer, unfermented or lightly fermented wine, and cider were considered "mild drinks" by some (D&C 89:17) and therefore acceptable under at least some circumstances (note that verse 17 specifically permits "barley...for mild drinks"). One historian notes that the degree of rigor with which early Saints observed the Word of Wisdom varied:

[23] While the Saints opposed the common use of tea [24] and coffee, it would appear that they had little objection to its occasional use for medicinal purposes. In an age when these items were frequently used as a relief for a wide variety of ailments, it would have been imprudent to have entirely forbidden their use....

[25] The journal of Joseph Smith reveals many instances where Joseph and other Church leaders drank wine and a tolerant attitude towards the consumption of this beverage is particularly noticeable....

[26] Despite the injunction contained in the revelation discouraging the drinking of wine, (except for sacramental purposes) the casual nature of the allusions to this beverage suggest that many Church Authorities did not consider moderate wine drinking in the same category as the use of strong drinks....

Evidence suggests that the drinking of tea, coffee, and liquor was [in the 1830s] in general violation of the principle [of the Word of Wisdom], though exceptions can be found. All of these items were used by the Saints for medicinal purposes. Moderate wine-drinking was evidently acceptable to most Church leaders....[27] In short, it would seem that adherence to the revelation to at least 1839 required Church members to be moderately temperate but certainly [did] not [require] total abstinence....[16]


Response to claim: 289 - Joseph told Robert Thompson that he should "get drunk and have a good spree" or that he would die

The author(s) of No Man Knows My History make(s) the following claim:

Joseph told Robert Thompson that he should "get drunk and have a good spree" or that he would die.

Author's sources:
  1. Diary of Oliver Huntington 3:166

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

That is what Oliver B. Huntington wrote in his history approximately 40 years after Joseph's death. Huntington appears to be relating the tale as evidence of a sort of "fulfilled prophecy." Prior to this passage Huntington had been relating other "promises" made by Joseph that had been fulfilled. However, in this case, it seems more likely that Joseph was simply joking with Brother Thompson rather than predicting his death if he didn't get drunk.

History of the Life of Oliver B. Hungtington 1878-1900.

Robert Thompson was a faithful just clerk for Joseph Smith the Prophet in Nauvoo and had been in his office steady near for quite 2 years Joseph said to Brother Thompson one day, "Robert, I want you to go and get on a buss (bing) go and get drunk and have a good spree; if you don't, you will die."

Robert did not do it. He was very pious exemplary man and never guilty of such an impropriety as he thought that to be. In less than two weeks he was dead and buried.

Wine was used at the Sacrament in Kirtland and one Saturday Joseph the Prophet sent someone to the store to buy wine for the next day. Joseph started then to go home and on the way an angel of God met him and told him to buy no more wine of the enemies for the Sacrament, but use water, until they should make wine new themselves for their enemies would try to kill the saints with poison in wine.[17]


Response to claim: 290 - Joseph claimed to be able to translate a Greek psalter

The author(s) of No Man Knows My History make(s) the following claim:

Joseph claimed to be able to translate a Greek psalter.

Author's sources:

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

This claim from an 1842 anti-Mormon work is riddled with difficulties—including the fact that Joseph had studied Greek, and so would have known Greek characters upon examination.


Question: Did Joseph Smith misidentify a Greek "psalter" as a containing "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics?

There is no other evidence of Henry Caswall's claim save his anti-Mormon work

It was claimed by Henry Caswall that an ancient text of Greek psalms (a "psalter") was misidentified by Joseph Smith as a containing "reformed Egyptian" hieroglyphics.

There is no other evidence of Caswall's claim save his anti-Mormon work. That Caswall took no steps in Nauvoo to get Joseph on record is fatally suspicious, since this was the entire reason he claimed to be there. He is also clearly attempting to make Joseph Smith appear uncouth and ignorant, having him say "them plates" and "them characters", when this contrasts markedly with other known examples of Joseph's speaking and writing style at the time. [18] Furthermore, Joseph was familiar enough with Greek to recognize Greek characters, and so is unlikely to have mistaken them for an unknown language—even if we believe Joseph was attempting to deceive Caswall, it seems unlikely he would fail to recognize the characters of a language he had studied.

Those who tell this story rarely provide the source details for the tale, and do not inform their readers about John Taylor's witness regarding Caswall's later dishonesty.

An English clergyman from Missouri named Henry Caswall visited Nauvoo in 1842 and claimed that Joseph identifed a Greek psalter as a "Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics"

On 19 April 1842, an English clergyman from Missouri named Henry Caswall visited Nauvoo, and would later claim that he had shown Joseph Smith a Greek psalter, which the Prophet claimed to translate:

He [Joseph Smith] has a downcast look, and possesses none of that open and straightforward expression which generally characterizes an honest man. His language is uncouth and ungrammatical, indicating very confused notions respecting syntactical concords. When an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalms was exhibited to him as a test of his scholarship, he boldly pronounced it to be a "Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said, "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics, and them which follows is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian language. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates." [19]

John Taylor: "Concerning Mr. Caswall, I was at Nauvoo during the time of his visit. He came for the purpose of looking for evil"

Of this claim, John Taylor would later say:

Concerning Mr. Caswall, I was at Nauvoo during the time of his visit. He came for the purpose of looking for evil. He was a wicked man, and associated with reprobates, mobocrats, and murderers. It is, I suppose, true that he was reverend gentleman; but it has been no uncommon thing with us to witness associations of this kind, nor for reverend gentlemen; so called, to be found leading on mobs to deeds of plunder and death. I saw Mr. Caswall in the printing office at Nauvoo; he had with him an old manuscript, and professed to be anxious to know what it was. I looked at it, and told him that I believed it was a Greek manuscript. In his book, he states that it was a Greek Psalter; but that none of the Mormons told him what it was. Herein is a falsehood, for I told him. Yet these are the men and books that we are to have our evidence from. [20]

An earlier, more detailed account from Caswall

That Caswall is not being entirely honest is demonstrated by another version of the same tale which he published the year earlier:

[p. 5] I had laid aside my clerical apparel, and had assumed a dress in which there was little probability of my being recognized as a " minister of the Gentiles." In order to test the scholarship of the prophet, I had further provided myself with an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalter written upon parchment, and probably about six hundred years old….

[p. 35] On entering the house, chairs were provided for the prophet and myself, while the curious and gaping crowd remained standing. I handed the book to the prophet, and begged him to explain its contents. He asked me if I had any idea of its meaning. I replied, that I believed it to be a Greek Psalter; but that I should like to hear his opinion. "No," he said; "it ain't Greek at all; except, perhaps, a few words. What ain't Greek, is Egyptian ; and what ain't Egyptian, is Greek. This book is very valuable. It is a dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said : "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics; and them which follows, is [p. 36] the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates." Upon this, the Mormons around began to congratulate me on the information I was receiving. "There," they said ; "we told you so we told you that our prophet would give you satisfaction. None but our prophet can explain these mysteries." The prophet now turned to me, and said, "this book ain't of no use to you, you don't understand it." "Oh yes," I replied; "it is of some use; for if I were in want of money, I could sell it, and obtain, perhaps, enough to live on for a whole year." "But what will you take for it?" said the prophet and his elders. "My price," I replied, "is higher than you would be willing to give." "What price is that?" they eagerly demanded. I replied, "I will not tell you what price I would take; but if you were to offer me this moment nine hundred dollars in gold for it, you should not have it." They then repeated their request that I should lend it to them until the prophet should have time to translate it, and promised me the most ample security; but I declined all their proposals. [21]

The Times and Seasons noted somewhat sardonically that Caswall had returned home and been 'rewarded' with status in his own denomination because of his attacks on the Church

The newspaper gave a version of events which seems to accord much better with the facts than Caswall's claim that Joseph was anxious to translate the psalter but Caswall refused to sell or lend it:

It will be recollected by some, that a Mr. Caswall, professing to be an Episcopal minister, came to this city some twelve or eighteen months ago. He had with him an old manuscript, professing to be ignorant of its contents, and came to Joseph Smith, as he said, for the purpose of having it translated. Mr. Smith had a little conversation with him and treated him with civility, but as the gentleman seemed very much afraid of his document, he [Joseph] declined having any thing to do with it. [22]

There are suspicious differences between Caswall's accounts

In his first version, Caswall claims that he told Joseph and the Mormons what the book was–a copy of the Psalms in Greek. Despite this warning, the bumbling Joseph that Caswall wishes us to see presses blindly on, utterly confident in his ability. The prophet and Mormons are also extraordinarily anxious to purchase the Psalter or borrow it with "the most ample security," but Caswall will not do so. Extraordinary! He has come to Nauvoo, he tells us, with the firm intent of exposing Joseph Smith as a charlatan. In front of a mass of witnesses, Joseph makes claims about the contents of a book that Caswall knows to be Greek, and the prophet offers to translate the document. Caswall, however, refuses to let him continue, refuses to loan it, and tries to discourage the Mormons from even thinking about buying it. Why? If Joseph committed himself publicly, in print, on the document's contents, Caswall would have iron-clad proof that Joseph could not translate.

Joseph walked right into Caswall's trap, and Caswall then goes to great length to spring the prophet from it? His claim does not stand up.

Caswall also claimed at first to have disguised his identity as a minister (the better to fool Joseph and the Mormons) but the Times and Seasons noted that Caswall had claimed to be an Episcopal minister. Caswall's second account likewise says nothing about him hiding his identity.

It is not surprising, then, that critics often cite the later, less-detailed version(s) of Caswall's tale, which omit many of the absurdities in Caswall's claim. Critics make his charge look plausible, when the earliest document demonstrates that it is not, and that Caswall (as John Taylor claimed) was not above hiding or altering the facts to suit his polemical purpose.

Joseph studied Greek and would have recognized Greek letters

Joseph Smith's journal reveals that Joseph actually studied a bit of Greek well before Caldwell's visit.

On 20 November 1835, Oliver Cowdery returned from New York and brought Joseph a Hebrew and Greek lexicon. [23] On 23 December 1835, Joseph wrote that he was "at home studying the greek Language..." [24]

Joseph was probably not a great scholar of Greek. But, Caldwell's claim that he was able to deceive Joseph with a Greek psalter seems pretty implausible when we realize that Joseph had studied a book on Greek. Joseph would not even need to be able to read the psalter to recognize Greek letters—learning such letters is the first task of any Greek student.

This, coupled with the other absurdities in Caswall's tale, and his efforts to make Joseph appear as a simple ignorant yokel make his tale even more unlikely.


Response to claim: 291 - Joseph claimed that he translated a portion of the Kinderhook plates

The author(s) of No Man Knows My History make(s) the following claim:

Joseph claimed that he translated a portion of the Kinderhook plates.

FairMormon Response

Fact checking results: This claim is based upon correct information - The author is providing knowledge concerning some particular fact, subject, or event

Joseph attempted to manually translate a portion of the Kinderhook plates, but he did not attempt to translate them using the "gift and power of God."


Question: What are the Kinderhook Plates?

The Kinderhook Plates are a forged set of metal plates that were given to Joseph Smith to translate

Image of front and back of four of the six Kinderhook plates are shown in these facsimiles (rough copies of even earlier published facsimiles), which appeared in 1909 in History of the Church, 5:374–375. Volume 5 link

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.

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.

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)

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.


Question: Why does History of the Church say that Joseph Smith said "I have translated a portion of them..."?

History of the Church was written by others in the "first person," as if Joseph wrote it himself

The following is from Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax," Ensign, August 1981 off-site

These two oblique references to a “translation” were followed thirteen years later by a more direct published statement that until recently was wrongly thought to have been written by Joseph Smith himself. On September 3 and 10, 1856, the following paragraphs appeared in the Deseret News as part of the serialized “History of Joseph Smith”:

“[May 1, 1843:] I insert fac similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. R. Wiley and others, while excavating a large mound. They found a skeleton about six feet from the surface of the earth, which must have stood nine feet high. The plates were found on the breast of the skeleton, and were covered on both sides with ancient characters.

“I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.” (Then followed a reprint of material from the Times and Seasons article.)

Although this account appears to be the writing of Joseph Smith, it is actually an excerpt from a journal of William Clayton. It has been well known that the serialized “History of Joseph Smith” consists largely of items from other persons’ personal journals and other sources, collected during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and continued after the Saints were in Utah, then edited and pieced together to form a history of the Prophet’s life “in his own words.” It was not uncommon in the nineteenth century for biographers to put the narrative in the first person when compiling a biographical work, even though the subject of the biography did not actually say or write all the words attributed to him; thus the narrative would represent a faithful report of what others felt would be helpful to print. The Clayton journal excerpt was one item used in this way. For example, the words “I have translated a portion” originally read “President J. has translated a portion. …”


Question: Did Joseph Smith attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates?

Joseph Smith attempted to translate a character on the Kinderhood Plates by matching it to his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL)"

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. [25] 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.

  • As William Clayton noted in his journal, Joseph "translated a portion" of the Kinderhook plates. Joseph attempted to translate one of the characters on the plates by matching it to a similar character on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), a document that was produced in the same timeframe as the Book of Abraham. It is from the GAEL that he derived the "descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh" meaning.
  • This data was introduced by Don Bradley at the 2011 FAIR Conference. For a detailed explanation, see Don Bradley "‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," 2011 FAIR Conference.
Kinderhook.plates.don.bradley.description.jpg


Question: Did Joseph attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates using the "gift and power of God?"

Joseph apparently did not attempt to translate by the "gift and power of God". Joseph never translated more than the single character

At the time that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, he only claimed the ability to translate by the "gift and power of God." Over time, Joseph studied other languages and wished to learn to translate by other means. His attempt to use the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (a document that he and others had created) to attempt a translation of the Kinderhook Plates fits in with this desire. Since only a single character "matched," Joseph would have been unable to continue to translate the plates in this manner. This may explain why such a translation was never produced: beyond the single character which happened to match, it would not have even been possible to translate the fraudulent plates either manually or by the "gift and power of God." Therefore, no translation was ever produced.


Notes

  1. Deseret News (11 May 1870): 160; reprinted in Brigham Young, "Fortieth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Millennial Star 32 no. 22 (31 May 1870), 346. See discussion of the history in Robert J. McCue, "Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 66–77. off-site
  2. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:35.
  3. Ezra T. Benson, Journal of Discourses 11:367.
  4. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:20.
  5. Minutes of First Presidency and Council of Twelve Meeting, Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” May 5, 1898, LDS Church Archives; cited in Thomas G. Alexander, "The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 78–88. off-site
  6. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  7. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  8. This exception had been permitted by the Word of Wisdom from the beginning (see DC 89:5-6), though it was also clear that what one used for the sacramental emblems was not of primary doctrinal importance (see DC 27:).
  9. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 82.
  10. See discussion in Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1964), Doctrine and Covenants 89:2.
  11. McConkie and Ostler, ibid.
  12. Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report (October 1913), 14.
  13. Millennial Star 21:283
  14. History of the Church 5:380.
  15. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 38. The cited material is [Letter from BF Johnson to George F. Gibbs, 1903.]
  16. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972. Page numbers cited within text.
  17. off-site
  18. Craig L. Foster, "Henry Caswall: Anti-Mormon Extraordinaire," Brigham Young University Studies 35 no. 4 (1995-96), 144–159.
  19. Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints : To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: Printed for J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 223. off-site
  20. [John Taylor,] "Three Nights: A Public Discussion between the Revds. C. W. Cleeve, James Robertson, and Philip Cater, and Elder John Taylor of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France" (Liverpool: John Taylor, 1850), 5. off-site
  21. Rev. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons: Or, Three Days at Nauvoo in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 5, 35–36.
  22. Unsigned author, "Reward of Merit," Times and Seasons 4 no. 23 (15 October 1843), 364. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  23. Dean Jessee, Ron Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (editors), The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1: 1832–1839 (Church Historian's Press, 2008), 107. ISBN 1570088497.
  24. Dean Jessee, Ron Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (editors), The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1: 1832–1839 (Church Historian's Press, 2008), 135. ISBN 1570088497.
  25. Don Bradley, "President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," 2011 FAIR Conference, August 5, 2011. off-site