Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Answering the CES Letter # 10

This post was written by Neal Rappleye

The CES Letter features a single page on the Kinderhook plates, which consists of a quote from Richard Bushman, ripped from context, and then an infographic which contains: (1) a picture of the one surviving Kinderhook plate; (2) the facsimiles of the plates originally published in the Nauvoo Neighbor in June 1843; (3) a map of Illinois with information about the discovery of the plates; (4) the entry from the History of the Church on the Kinderhook plates, wherein Joseph Smith declares “I have translated a portion of them”; (5) a report of metallurgical tests determining the remaining Kinderhook plate was a 19th century hoax. At the bottom of the Infographic is the conclusion:

Joseph couldn’t discern the fraud. The LDS Church now concedes it’s a hoax. What does this tell us about Joseph Smith’s gift of translation?
Pretty damning, huh? The clear and intended implication is that Joseph’s “gift of translation” was as much a hoax as the Kinderhook plates. There is just one problem: the infographic isn’t telling the full story. All one needs to do to realize that there is more to the story is look up the full context of the Richard Bushman quote at the top of the page. Bushman’s conclusion about this episode is considerably different:
After the first meeting, no further mention was made of translation, and the Kinderhook plates dropped out of sight. Joseph may not have detected the fraud, but he did not swing into a full-fledged translation as he had with the Egyptian scrolls. The trap did not quite spring shut, which foiled the conspirators’ original plan. Instead of exposing the plot immediately, as they had probably intended to do, they said nothing until 1879, when one of them signed an affidavit describing the fabrication.[1]
Why is Bushman’s conclusion so different from that provided in the CES Letter inforgraphic? Let’s review what we know from the primary sources.

The Kinderhook Plates in Nauvoo
In the first week of May 1843, news spread rapidly throughout Nauvoo of six bell shaped brass plates with engravings on them, which had arrived in the city and been examined by Joseph Smith. The plates had been dug up a week or so earlier in Kinderhook, Illinois, about 60 miles south of Nauvoo.[2] They were brought to Nauvoo in the hopes that Joseph Smith would translate them, and the Times and Seasons, then under the editorship of John Taylor, proclaimed confidently, “We have no doubt, however, but Mr. Smith will be able to translate.”[3]
Anticipation of a forth coming translation was indeed very high. Charlotte Haven, a non-Mormon in Nauvoo at the time, heard from a friend that Joseph “said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written” and “thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them. So a sequel to that holy book may soon be expected.”[4] In a letter to John Van Cott, Parley P. Pratt gave a brief report of the plates and said, “you will hear more soon on this subject.”[5] A non-Mormon who was there when Joseph Smith examined the plates noted that Joseph believed he would “be able to decipher them,” and told the editor of the New York Herald, “You may expect something very remarkable pretty soon.”[6]
Even the editor of the Quincy Whig evidently tried to stoke the fires, albeit with somewhat of a sarcastic tone, practically daring Joseph to translate them. “Some pretend to say, that Smith the Mormon leader, has the ability to read them. … if Smith can decipher the hieroglyphics on the plates, he will do more towards throwing light on the early history of this continent, than any man now living.”[7]
Over a month later, however, the expected translation was nowhere to be seen.[8] Ultimately, no translation was ever published, nor has any manuscripts purporting to the Kinderhook translation ever turned up. With so much anticipation, from Mormons and non-Mormons alike, why didn’t Joseph ever deliver a Book of Kinderhook?

Joseph Smith’s Translation Effort
Multiple sources indicate that when he was shown the plates, Joseph called for various linguistic resources to decipher the text. Joseph Smith’s journal (in the handwriting of Willard Richards) indicates that when Joseph was shown the plates, he sent “for Hebrew Bible & Lexicon.”[9] According to a non-Mormon eyewitness, “He compared them in my presence with his Egyptian alphabet, which he took from the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and they are evidently the same characters.”[10] Apparently, Joseph Smith made an effort at translating them by non-revelatory means.
Even though the non-Mormon associated the “Egyptian alphabet” with the Book of Mormon, Parley P. Pratt indicated that the engravings on the Kinderhook plates were being “compared [to] the characters with those on the Egyptian papyrus which is now in this city.”[11] It therefore seems likely that it was the bound volume labeled “Egyptian Alphabet” on the spine, found among the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which contains some of the Egyptian characters from the Joseph Smith Papyri copied over with “interpretations” written next to them.[12] These documents are somewhat controversial in Mormon history, but for our purposes it is enough to say that they seem to reflect an effort to decipher the Egyptian papyri.[13]

The Results of Joseph’s Translation
The outcome of this comparative effort is likely what lies behind William Clayton’s declaration, “President Joseph has translated a portion of them.”[14] Historians Mark Ashurst-McGee and Don Bradley pointed out that a sort of “boat-shaped” character in the “Egyptian Alphabet” is defined as:
Honor by birth; kingly power by the line of Pharaoh; possession by birth; one who reigns upon his throne universally—possessor of heaven and earth, and of the blessings of the earth.[15]
A similarly-shaped character, with a few extra markings, appears on one of the Kinderhook plates.[16] Thus, Ashurst-McGee and Bradley reason that Joseph saw the two similar characters and reasoned that the plates “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.”[17]
From here, Joseph may have further attempted to make sense of the plates using translation tools like his “Egyptian Alphabet,” but ultimately failed to make heads or tails of the rest of markings. He may have even sought out revelation as to their meaning, but if he did, it appears none ever came.[18] After the plates were in Nauvoo for only a few days, Joseph let them go and never bothered with them again.[19]

Whatever one thinks of Bradley and Ashurst-McGee’s theory about the correlation of the boat-shaped figures, the fact remains that no full-blown translation of the Kinderhook plates exists today, there is no evidence that Joseph ever attempted to permanently procure the plates (unlike the Book of Abraham papyri), or that scribes were ever commissioned to write for Joseph as he translated. Other than a couple short paraphrases, no translation of the Kinderhook plates exists. Furthermore, multiple sources, including Joseph Smith’s own journal entry, indicate that the attempt at translating them was made using translation tools, not revelation.[20]
So, returning to the question asked in the CES Letter, what does the Kinderhook plates incident tell us about Joseph’s gift of translation? It tells me that it was a gift that only came to him when it was given by God. As such, this story actually strengthens my testimony. If Joseph just made up all his translations, and if he didn’t detect the forgery of the Kinderhook plates, then there is no reason we shouldn’t have a Book of Kinderhook right now. But we don’t. Here was the perfect opportunity for Joseph Smith to flub up, but as Bushman put it, “the trap did not quite spring shut.”

Recommended Reading
Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2016), 93–115.
Mark Alan Wright, “Joseph Smith and Native American Artifacts,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Bluemell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2015), 131–133.
Brian M. Hauglid, “Did Joseph Smith Translate the Kinderhook Plates?” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2011), 93–103.
Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 489–490.

[1] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 490, emphasis added.
[2] W. P. Harris, Letter to the Editor, Times and Seasons 4, no. 12, May 1, 1843, 186.
[3] “Ancient Records,” Times and Seasons 4, no. 12, May 1, 1843, 186.
[4] Charlotte Haven, “A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo,” Overland Monthly 16, no. 96, December 1890, 630; letter written May 2, 1843.
[5] Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt to John Van Cott, May 7, 1843; in Brian M. Hauglid, “‘Come & Help Build the Temple & City’: Parley P. and Orson Pratt’s Letter to John Van Cott,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 155.
[6]  “A Gentile,” letter to James Gordon Bennett, May 7, 1843, in “Late and Interesting from the Mormon Empire on the Upper Mississippi,” New York Herald, May 30, 1843.
[7] “Singular Discovery—Material for Another Mormon Book,” Times and Seasons 4, no. 12, May 1, 1843, 186–187; originally published in the Quincy Whig 6, no. 2, May 3, 1843.
[8] “A Brief Account of the Discovery of the Brass Plates Recently Taken from a Mound near Kinderhook, Pike County, Illinois,” (Taylor & Woodruff, June 24, 1843), a broadside published by John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, still promised, “The contents of the Plates, together with a Fac-simile of the same, will be published in the ‘Times & Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed.”
[9] JS Journal, May 7, 1843. See Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, and Brent M. Rodgers, eds., Journals, Volume 3: May 1843–June 1844, The Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historians Press, 2015), 13.
[10] “A Gentile,” letter to Bennett, May 7, 1843.
[11] Pratt to Van Cott, May 7, 1843; in Hauglid, “Come & Help Build,” 155.
[12] Non-Mormons, like the “Gentile” and Charlotte Haven would understandably be more familiar with the Book of Mormon than the Book of Abraham, and thus conflate the Egyptian documents which copied characters from the papyri with Egyptian characters copied from the Book of Mormon plates.
[13] Critics argue that these of Joseph Smith’s working “translation” documents for the Book of Abraham, but it seems more likely (to me, anyway) that they were created after the Book of Abraham was translated. Thus, one possibility is that they are an effort to use the already translated Book of Abraham as a sort of “Rosetta Stone” to work out the meaning of the Egyptian characters.
[14] An Intimate Chronicle: The Journal of William Clayton, ed. George D. Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1995), 100. Contrary to the impression one might get from only reading the CES Letter, no firsthand declaration of translation from Joseph Smith survives. The History of the Church entry was taken from this journal entry by William Clayton and transformed into a firstperson statement after Joseph Smith’s death.
[15] Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” in A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine and Church History, ed. Laura Harris Hales (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2016), 107.
[16] See Brandley and Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” 108 for side-by-side pictures of each character. Some might protest that the two are not the same and that the symbol on the Kinderhook plate must be “deconstructed” for this theory to work, but such “deconstruction” of single characters is exactly what we see in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. So while this might seem odd to us, it was perfectly natural to Joseph Smith and his colleagues. Brandley and Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” 107.
[17] An Intimate Chronicle, 100. Parley P. Pratt similarly said, “contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.” Hauglid, “Come & Help Build,” 155.
[18] See Brian M. Hauglid, “Did Joseph Smith Translate the Kinderhook Plates?” in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2011), 93–103.
[19] Hedges, et al., eds., Journals 3, 13 n. 28: “Evidence suggests that they arrived in Nauvoo by 29 April and that they remained there at least through 3 May; whether or not JS had them when this 7 May journal entry was recorded is unknown. They may also have been in Nauvoo for a time in June 1843, when the Nauvoo Neighbor published a broadside featuring facsimiles of the plates. … No further mention of the plates is made in JS’s journal after this 7 May entry, and no translation endorsed by JS has been located, suggesting that whatever JS initially thought about the plates, he soon lost interest in them.”
[20] See Bradley and Ashurst-McGee, “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates,” 110 for a similar conclusion.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Theistic Evolution: Is it a position?

Yesterday in the Facebook group, Millennial Mormonism, I started a poll that asked for positions on the question of the origin of life. The three options were as follows :1) Darwinian evolution 2) Intelligent Design 3) Creationism. My friend, Jaxon Washburn, who is one the groups administrators, asked what the differences were among the positions, so I answered as follows:
Sure. Darwinism is the belief that humans evolved from a common ancestor shared with other primates. It is seen as an unguided process, due to natural selection acting on random mutation. Darwinism does not mean that you don't believe in a God. Intelligent Design says that natural selection is not a satisfactory explanation because life looks designed. They use the idea of irreducible complexity to back this up, which states that certain organisms (such as the bacterial flagellum) likely came about by design. Creationism states that a God created the world through fiat creation. All three views are compatible with belief in a deity. Does that help?

Later on, my good friend Stephen Smoot (the group's other administrator) added a fourth option: Theistic evolution (this position would eventually be the one with the most votes). For those unfamiliar with the term, theistic evolution is the belief that evolution has occurred but was overseen by a deity. It differs from Intelligent Design theory because while both agree that a deity is behind the origin of life, theistic evolution does not think this can be shown scientifically while Intelligent Design theory does believe it can.

However, as a person who is sympathetic to the deflationary theory of truth, I see theistic evolution as a non-position for the following reason: It is adding a word without adding a difference. It is the equivalent of going from the statement "Roses are red" to "It is true that roses are red." It is the same statement, but words are added that do not make the statement any different.

As I mentioned in my definitions to Jaxon, evolution does not affirm or deny the existence or providence of a deity; it is neutral. Darwin himself said this in the conclusion of On the Origin of Species:
I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. We see this even in so trifling a circumstance as that the same poison often similarly affects plants and animals; or that the poison secreted by the gall-fly produces monstrous growths on the wild rose or oak-tree. I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator. (pg. 428)
While some people like Richard Dawkins believe that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist, Darwin had no such intention in mind. He remained a believer in God until the end of his life (though he was an agnostic in the sense that he did not believe you could conclusively show that God existed) and also wrote letters to friends telling them that his theory was not incompatible with belief in a deity.

If you accept what Darwin and modern biology show us, you are an evolutionist. Evolution does not ask for a theological commitment or non-commitment, so it is unnecessary to label oneself a theistic evolutionist when being an evolutionist is sufficent.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Traditio: William Dembski and Michael Shermer

Many who read this blog will know that I am a ardent critic of the pseudo-scientific theory known as Intelligent Design. However, my friend Dan Peterson recently posted on his blog some quotes from leading proponents of the theory, so I though a traditio talking about the subject might be helpful.

William Dembski is a philosopher and theologian and a former senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, the organization that researches and promotes Intelligent Design. He is the author of several books, including Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology.

Michael Shermer is a historian of science and founder of The Skeptics Society. He is the author of many books, including Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design (which I review here) and The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People.

Here is the link to their debate.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Traditio: Thomas S. Monson

As most people by now know, President Thomas S. Monson will not be in attendance at the upcoming General Conference. In addition to President Monson, Robert D. Hales of the Council of the Twelve Apostles will also be absent. I hope that both know that while they will not be present, they still have our sustaining vote and prayers.

President Monson has been the only president of the Church since I have been a member (September 6, 2009) and I will be very sad when he passes. He cannot be replaced, he is one of a kind.

This talk, given in 2011 (while I was serving a full-time mission in Alabama) is one that has touched me greatly. Hope that you all enjoy it.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Traditio: Donald J. Trump

For those who do not know, President Donald J. Trump addressed the United Nations for the first time this week. Among the things he discussed was North Korea, calling North Korea premier Kim Jong-un "Rocket Man", and saying that if North Korea attacked the United States he might have no choice but to completely destroy North Korea. While I do agree with the sentiment that if North Korea attacks the United States, the latter will have no choice but to counter-strike. It was inappropriate for the president to express ideas of violence to a community dedicated to peace. It is not wrong for a president to look out for his country's best interest, but the United Nations is about looking beyond yourself and thinking about the world-wide community.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mormonism and Humanism

My last article received a lot of comments on Facebook, and a recurring theme of the comments was that it is not coherent to be both a Mormon and a humanist. I plan to show why a person can be both, and perhaps, more importantly, that they should be both.

A good place to start would be in defining what is meant by the term humanism. A working definition would be that humans have intrinsic moral value by virtue of their being human. So, humanists see humans as important by nature and see their flourishing as an essential component of morality.

The idea of humanism was first developed in the Renaissance. However, in our modern era, most people who identify as humanists are secular humanists and say that a person can have moral worth and value even though they reject the existence of a God.

Since many early humanists were Roman Catholic, it is simply false to claim that humanism and religion are incompatible ideas. As far as Mormonism is concerned, Mormons take the humanistic ideal to an extreme, stating that not only do humans have intrinsic worth, but that divinity itself involves being human rather than being abstract, as in classical theism. Mormonism requires humanism, and it was no mistake that Mormon theologian, Sterling McMurrin, points this out in his book, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion, when he states:
It is perhaps not entirely inaccurate to describe Mormonism as a kind of naturalistic, humanistic, theism. (The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion pg.3)
Mormonism and humanism have the same end goal: human flourishing and human happiness. Not only are they compatible ideas, they are complementary ideas.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Calm Down John

Yesterday, Mormon Stories Podcast host and psychologist, John Dehlin, said the following on Facebook:
To critics of the work I/we do with Mormon Stories Podcast and the Open Stories Foundation:
You can disagree with me. You can question my effectiveness. I love and welcome those types of discussions.
Two things that aren't negotiable between us are:
1) My worth.
2) My motives.
You are not welcome to discuss those things with me. And I will do my best to extend you the same courtesy.
John Dehlin, Mormon Stories Podcast Host

I have criticized John Dehlin several times on this blog, and one of the recurring themes of those posts is that John is very good at attacking straw-men, but takes little to no interest in refuting arguments that scholars give, instead choosing to call his opponents apologists (which he is for the other side as I explain here.)

I have not, and neither have many of John's prominent critics (Stephen Smoot, Robert Boylan, Daniel C. Peterson, etc) criticized John's worth as a person, and his motives are irrelevant. As a Latter-day Saint and a humanist, I believe that all people (which includes John and other people with whom I disagree) have moral worth and significance by virtue of their being human; John certainly fits that category. That does not mean that I cannot question John's arguments (or lack thereof) or his hasty generalizations of Latter-day Saint doctrine and practice.

As for John's motives, those are known only to him and are not for me to judge. He has, contrary to popular belief, done some good in the world and he should be applauded for that. Overall, I agree with John's statement, but the problem is that it is a red herring since John's critics are not attacking what he is claiming they are; they are attacking his rhetoric and specious arguments.

John, you have worth and your motives are known only to you. I give you my word that I will not criticize what you deem off limits, though I would caution you to do the same to Latter-day Saint scholars and apologists.