The Kinderhook Plates

 

In this section we want to briefly examine the Kinderhook plates, looking at what they are, what the history tells us regarding Joseph Smith's interactions with them, how the church has treated them, and what conclusions we can draw about the Kinderhook plates and Joseph Smith's truth claims to being a prophet.

What are the Kinderhook plates?

Timeline of the LDS church's claims regarding the Kinderhook plates

Common apologetic arguments about Kinderhook plates

Conclusion about the Kinderhook plates and Joseph Smith

What are the Kinderhook plates?

As the story was known at the time: On April 16, 1843, a man named Robert Wiley began an excavation in Kiderhook, IL after having the same dream three nights in a row to dig for artifacts. Because the dig was so exhaustive, he asked for additional help, and ultimately found what are now known as the "Kinderhook plates" along with skeletal remains and other artifacts about ten feet deep.

The Kinderhook plates were a group of six l-shaped brass plates covered in unknown symbols. Among the group digging with Wiley was a member of the LDS church, and word spread quickly of the discovery and ultimately reached Joseph Smith. Soon after, Joseph Smith translated a portion of the plates according to his scribe, William Clayton. The entry from the History of the Church reads: "I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook... 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." (History of the Church, pg 372)

The news of the Kinderhook plates were told in other places as well, with the Times and Seasons writing an article including the following: "We learn there was a Mormon present when the plates were found, who it is said, leaped for joy at the discovery, and remarked that it would go to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon - which it undoubtedly will." (Times and Seasons p186-187, BYU archive) This was followed up by the publication of a 'broadside' in the Nauvoo Neighbor that included the Times and Seasons editorial, facsimiles of all twelve sides of the plates, and the note that “the contents of the plates... will be published in the ‘Times and Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed.” (Text portion of Nauvoo Neighbor broadside)

It is worth noting that it took Joseph Smith years to reveal the 'translation' of the papyrus now known as the Book of Abraham after purchasing the mummies and scrolls, and unfortunately Joseph was killed at Carthidge about a year following this discovery. This will of course lead to endless speculation about what Joseph might have done with the Kinderhook plates had he lived.

Until 1980, the LDS church claimed that the Kinderhook plates were authentic and proof of Joseph Smith's abilities and truthfulness of a prophet. However in 1981, the church was forced to change their narrative on the Kinderhook plates as testing proved the plates were a hoax as creators had claimed. From the August 1981 Ensign: "A recent electronic and chemical analysis of a metal plate (one of six original plates) brought in 1843 to the Prophet Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, appears to solve a previously unanswered question in Church history, helping to further evidence that the plate is what its producers later said it was—a nineteenth-century attempt to lure Joseph Smith into making a translation of ancient-looking characters that had been etched into the plates."

Below we will look at the timeline of the Kinderhook plates combined with the church narrative regarding their authenticity in order to get a better picture of what the church believed about the plates until they were proven a hoax by science, leaving no doubt that they were indeed a hoax intended to prove Joseph Smith a false prophet.

Timeline of the LDS church's claims regarding the Kinderhook plates

April 16, 1843: Robert Wiley begins his dig in Kinderhook, IL, which leads to the 'discovery' of the Kinderhook plates.

May 1, 1843: William Clayton makes a journal entry about the Kinderhook plates, with Joseph's partial translation included in his notes. "I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams [Pike] County by some persons who were digging in a mound. They found a skeleton about 6 feet from the surface of the earth which was 9 foot high. [At this point there is a tracing of a plate in the journal.] The plates were on the breast of the skeleton. This diagram shows the size of the plates being drawn on the edge of one of them. They are covered with ancient characters of language containing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Pres[iden]t J[oseph]. 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 Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth." (William Clayton Journal, entry of 1 May 1843, as cited in James B. Allen, Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 117)

May 1, 1843: The Times and Seasons prints a Letter to the Editor discussing the Kinderhook plates, their history, and the hope that it "would go to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon - which it undoubtedly will." (Times and Seasons p186-187, BYU archive)

 
 

(Times and Seasons editorial - May 1, 1843)

May 7, 1843: Apostle Parley Pratt comments on the Kinderhook plates, comparing their look to the Book of Abraham papyrus: "Six plates having the appearance of Brass have lately been dug out of a mound by a gentleman in Pike Co. Illinois. They are small and filled with engravings in Egyptian language and contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah. His bones were found in the same vase (made of Cement). Part of the bones were 15 ft. underground.…A large number of Citizens have seen them and compared the characters with those on the Egyptian papyrus which is now in this city." (Reprinted in Ensign, August 1981, page 73)

May 10, 1843: The Nauvoo Neighbor republishes the Times and Seasons letter along with facsimiles of all 12 sides of the Kinderhook plates. They also include the note at the end that states “the contents of the plates... will be published in the ‘Times and Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed,”implying that members were given the impression that a full translation was forthcoming.

(Nauvoo Neighbor 'Broadside' - May 10, 1843)

May 10, 1843: The Nauvoo Neighbor republishes the Times and Seasons letter along with facsimiles of all 12 sides of the Kinderhook plates. They also include the note at the end that states “the contents of the plates... will be published in the ‘Times and Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed,”implying that members were given the impression that a full translation was forthcoming.

December 1, 1843: The Times and Seasons makes another reference to the Kinderhook plates: "Why does the circumstance of the plates recently found in a mound in Pike county, III., by Mr. Wiley, together with ethnology and a thousand other things, go to prove the Book of Mormon true? - Answer: Because it is true!" (Times and Seasons, page 406)

June 30, 1879: Wilbur Fugate writes to James Cobb in Salt Lake City, telling him that the Kinderhook plates were a hoax intended to trick Joseph Smith into translating the plates. It describes how the plates were faked, and the process of how they were uncovered and brought to Joseph Smith. (Full text of affidavit)

December 1890: In the Overland Monthly, they report about the discovery of the Kinderhook plates: "Charlotte Haven said that when Joshua Moore "showed them to Joseph, the latter said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written, and if Mr. Moore could leave them, he thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them." (Overland Monthly, Dec. 1890, page 630)

1895: Well known LDS historian BH Roberts not only declares his belief in the Kinderhook plates, but goes on to attack Fugate's claim they were a hoax in his book New Witness for God: "Of this presentation of the matter it is only necessary to say that it is a little singular that Mr. Fugate alone out of the three said to be in collusion in perpetrating the fraud should disclose it, and that he should wait from 1843 to 1879-a period of thirty-six years-before doing so, when he and those said to be associated with him had such an excellent opportunity to expose the vain pretensions of the Prophet-if Fugate's tale be true? For while the statement in the text of the Prophet's Journal to the effect that the find was genuine, and that he had translated some of the characters and learned certain historical facts concerning the person with whose remains the plates were found, may not have been known at the time to the alleged conspiritors to deceive him, still the editor of the Times and Seasons-John Taylor, the close personal friend of the Prophet-took the find seriously, and expressed at once explicit confidence in an editorial in the Times and Seasons, of May 1st, 1843, that the Prophet could give a translation of the plates. And this attitude the Church, continued to maintain; for in The Prophet, (a Mormon weekly periodical, published in New York) of the 15th of February, 1845, there was published a fac-simile of the Kinderhook plates, together with the Times and Seasons editorial and all the above matter of the text. How easy to have covered Joseph Smith and his followers with ridicule by proclaiming the hoax as soon as they accepted the Kinderhook plates as genuine! Why was it not done? The fact that Fugate's story was not told until thirty-six years after the event, and that he alone of all those who were connected with the event gives that version of it, is rather strong evidence that his story is the hoax, not the discovery of the plates, nor the engravings upon them." (New Witnesses for God, p. 63)

March 1904: Article in the Improvement Era confirms the LDS church believed in the Kinderhook plates:

"Certain bell-shaped plates are said to have been discovered in a mound, in the vicinity of Kinderhook, Pike county, Illinois, by Robert Wiley, in 1843, and taken to Joseph Smith. Now, I wish to ask: 1. Were these plates translated by Joseph Smith? 2. If so, what were their contents? 3. Where are they? 4. Are they considered of any value in confirming the Book of Mormon? 5. Is there anything about them in any of the Church works?

1 and 2: Near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois-between fifty and sixty miles south and east of Nauvoo-on April 23, 1843, a Mr. Robert Wiley, while excavating a large mound, took from said mound six brass plates of bell shape, fastened by a ring passing through the small end, and fastened with two clasps, and covered with ancient characters. Human bones together with charcoal and ashes were found in the mound, in connection with the plates which evidently had been buried with the person whose bones were discovered. The plates were submitted to the Prophet, and speaking of them in his journal, under date of May 1, 1843, he says: "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."

3: The plates were later placed in a museum in St. Louis, known as McDowell's, which was afterwards destroyed by fire, and the plates were lost.

4: The event would go very far towards confirming the idea that in very ancient times, there was intercourse between the eastern and western hemispheres; and the statement of the prophet would mean that the remains were Egyptian. The fair implication, also, from the prophet's words is that this descendant of the Pharaohs possessed a kingdom in the new world; and this circumstance may account for the evidence of a dash of Egyptian civilization in our American antiquities.

5: The whole account of the finding of the plates, together with the testimony of eight witnesses, besides Mr. Wiley, who were acquainted with the finding of the relics, as also the statement from the prophet's history, is found in the Millennial Star, vol. 21: pp. 40-44." (Improvement Era. Vol. VII. March 1904. No. 5.)

1961: Included in the Commentary on the Book of Mormon: "But, on the other hand, we have the fact before us, that the skeleton of the Pharaoh, found in Kinderhook, Illinois, referred to previously, was dug out of a large mound. After penetrating about eleven feet the workers came to a bed of limestone that had been subjected to the action of fire. They removed the stones, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found the skeleton. This was evidently a burial chamber, as with the bones, which appeared to have been burned, was found plenty of charcoal and ashes. From this fact it is evident that some of the mounds are of very ancient date, as it is not supposable that this man would be the only one of his race and nation to be buried in this manner. We also suggest that this colony of Egyptians may have originated the style of architecture in this country in which so many find resemblances to the Egyptian, and which is specially characterized by the erection of vast truncated pyramids." (George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl, Commentary on the Book of Mormon, edited and arranged by Philip C. Reynolds, 6:232. (1961))

September 1962: The president of the BYU Archaeological Society, Welby W. Ricks, wrote the following in the Improvement Era magazine: "A recent discovery of one of the Kinderhook plates which was examined by Joseph Smith, Jun., reaffirms his prophetic calling and reveals the false statements made by one of the finders. ...

[The find] solved a seventy-four-year-old controversy and put the plates back into the category of 'genuine' which Joseph Smith, Jun., had said they were in the first place.

...What scholars may learn from this ancient record in future years or what may be translated by divine power is an exciting thought to contemplate. This much remains. Joseph Smith, Jun., stands as a true prophet and translator of ancient records by divine means and all the world is invited to investigate the truth which has sprung out of the earth not only of the Kinderhook plates, but of the Book of Mormon as well." (Improvement Era, September 1962)

1979: LDS Apostle Mark E. Peterson published a book called Those Gold Plates!, in which he offers the following on the Kinderhook plates: "There are the Kinderhook plates, too, found in America and now in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society. Controversy has surrounded these plates and their engravings, but most experts agree they are of ancient vintage." (page 3, Those Gold Plates, Mark E. Peterson)

1980: The Chicago Historical Society, possessor of one plate, commenced on testing the plate in order to understand its origins and thus proved once and for all it was a nineteenth-century creation.

August 1981: The LDS Ensign magazine finally concedes the Kinderhook plates are a hoax after scientific testing determines that Fugate's story of creating the hoax was correct. "As a result of these tests, we concluded that the plate owned by the Chicago Historical Society is not of ancient origin. We concluded that the plate was etched with acid; and as Paul Cheesman and other scholars have pointed out, ancient inhabitants would probably have engraved the plates rather than etched them with acid. Secondly, we concluded that the plate was made from a true brass alloy (copper and zinc) typical of the mid-nineteenth century; whereas the "brass" of ancient times was actually bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Furthermore, one would expect an ancient alloy to contain larger amounts of impurities and inclusions than did the alloy tested."

Common Apologetic Arguments Regarding the Kinderhook Plates

We want to highlight a few of the common apologetic responses to the Kinderhook plates after reviewing the timeline above. This will help to give a fuller picture of both the Kinderhook plates, and how the church has shifted their approach following the 1980 testing that proved they were indeed a hoax. For now, we will focus on the main apologetic arguments from FAIR since they are the most well known of the apologetic sites:

FAIR Claim: 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.

Our Response: We now know that the GAEL is completely wrong, which is why the Book of Abraham has been proven by every non-LDS scholar to be completely false. The fact that Joseph believed to receive the GAEL through inspiration during the Book of Abraham translation further proves that his inspired works were not from God, but from his own creations.Last, I want to put pictures of the two symbols that we are only now told is why Joseph use the translation for the Kinderhook plates that he did:

 

The picture on the left is from the Kinderhook plates, while the picture on the right is from Joseph Smith's GAEL. While they both feature the 'boat' shape, there are way too many differences otherwise to consider them the same shape. This really illustrates just how wrong Joseph Smith was in his translation ability - a single Egyptian hieroglyphic does not translate into a paragraph of text. Joseph Smith did not know this at the time, which is why we took the liberty of translating as he saw fit, but we now know that this is not how Egyptian works. In a lot of ways, the Kinderhook plates further prove that the Book of Abraham (and Joseph's method of producing it) is the product of Joseph Smith, and not from God.

Before we move to the next argument I want to highlight a quote that FAIR uses in this apologetic response of the "similar" boat shaped hieroglyphic. FAIR continues: 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." (end of FAIR text)

Do you notice the "..." between Egyptian Alphabet and 'and they are evidently the same characters?" You might think it's a long winded response so they cut it for space... but it's not. Here is the full quote, with what FAIR decided to leave out:

“The plates were evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hyerogliphics (sic). They were brought up and shown to Joseph Smith. 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.”

Now why would FAIR leave out "which he took from the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated" if they are not trying to gaslight their reader into thinking they are the crazy one for having questions? Even if this "Gentile" was confused between the 'plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated" and the papyrus that the Book of Abraham was taken from, why not be upfront instead of deceiving the reader? As we have illustrated over and over through the LDS essays and other timelines, the answer is obvious.

 

And, by the way, Joseph Smith was still using the character from the 'gold plates' he copied down in December of 1843, which gives more credibility that this 'Gentile' was correct in their approach. From the diary of Reverend George Moore: "Called on the "Prophet Jo [Joseph] Smith." His carriage was at the door and he was about going away, but he received me very kindly, asked me into his house. I remained about 10 minutes. He was very communicative. We conversed about the golden plates, which he professes to have dug up and translated into the Book of Mormon. "Those plates are not now in this country," he said--"they were exhibited to a few at first for the sake of obtaining their testimony--no others have ever seen them--and they will never again be exhibited." He showed me some specimens of the hieroglyphics, such as, he says, were on the gold plates." (Diary, pp. 105-106.)

FAIR Claim: The quote in question was written in William Clayton's journal. It was rewritten in the first person (as if Joseph Smith had said it himself) when it was included in History of the Church. Clayton's journal is the primary source, which was used in History of the Church (a secondary source).

The quote by William Clayton is indeed accurate: Joseph Smith did attempt to translate a portion of the Kinderhook Plates. This is explained in the following section.

Our Response: First, I want to note that FAIR is not nearly as dismissive of William Clayton as some have been, so we give them credit there. Some church historians (only after science proved the plates to be a fraud) have sought to diminish Clayton's notes in the journal in order to say that Joseph Smith did not try to translate any of the Kinderhook plates.

The bottom line is that William Clayton was one of Joseph's most trusted men in the Nauvoo era, and that Clayton was with Joseph that day as he undertook another polygamous wife on the same day as the Kinderhook notes. Furthermore, everyone in the church lauded the Kinderhook plates until they were proven to be a fraud, so blaming Clayton's journal as being incorrect now seems beyond dishonest.

Our Conclusion About the Kinderhook Plates

The Kinderhook plates will always be a mystery, because Joseph Smith did translate a portion of them but never was able to finish before his death. That alone will always lead to the mystery of whether or not he intended to translate further, or if he was truly 'not interested' in them as apologists now claim.

On our summary of church problems page, we do not cite the Kinderhook plates as any type of 'smoking gun' against the church's truth claims. The reason is simple: Joseph Smith never translated the plates beyond the paragraph we have, as wrong and incorrect of a translation it may be. It is important to remember that the Book of Abraham took years to be released, so in our opinion it is very likely that had Joseph Smith lived longer he likely would have had further interactions with the Kinderhook plates.

But he didn't live longer, so we can't assume anything beyond what we do have. So at the end of the day, there are a few key takeaways that we see regarding the Kinderhook plates:

1. Joseph Smith's GAEL was completely wrong: We already knew that Joseph Smith's GAEL was unequivocally wrong, which is why this puts the Book of Abraham on even worse footing. That apologists have to turn to Joseph Smith using the GAEL to try and diminish the problems with the portion he did translate is even more telling, because even apologists know that the GAEL is a completely incorrect document that will always be attached to the Book of Abraham.

2. Church leaders do not have any sense of discernment: We touched on this in our summary page, but the "prophets, seers, and revelators" of the church do not have any sense of discernment. Joseph Smith could have proven himself a prophet of God by telling the Kinderhook plate diggers that it was a hoax set to make him look like a fraud, but instead he incorrectly translated a portion of them. Further church leaders could have used their power as seers to determine that the plates were a hoax, but even insisted that the letter from Fugate proclaiming the plates a fraud was a lie! Why are we to believe this church has any direct revelation from God when they continue to fall for frauds (Kinderhook plates and Mark Hoffman) that give them a chance to prove themselves? The bottom line is that this church has no more ability to see what is ahead of them than your or me, and that has been proven time and time again.

3. Joseph Smith couldn't help himself: Again, Joseph Smith could have told the group that discovered the Kinderhook plates that they were a fraud, but he didn't. And in translating a portion of the plates, Joseph Smith once again proved that his translation abilities were non-existent. The Book of Abraham has been proven completely incorrect by the Rosetta Stone, and the church has been forced to invent evidence of additional scrolls to try and account for Joseph getting everything wrong that we actually do have. It is highly recommended to read our LDS annotated essay on the Book of Abraham to see the many parallels between the Book of Abraham and the Kinderhook plates. Joseph Smith often would make up material to prove his authority, and this can be seen here, the Book of Abraham, the Greek Psalter, and by writing himself into the Book of Moses, which he himself brought forth. It is a pattern with Joseph Smith, and while the Kinderhook plates are not a 'smoking gun' due to the small material we have, it fits into Joseph Smith's pattern of making it up as he went along perfectly.

Thank you for reading, and please email us if you have any comments, corrections, or suggestions at ldsdiscussion@gmail.com. As we state in the essays, we know a lot of this material is new to members, and that the material can be difficult to read. It was for us as well, but knowing the truth is always better than hiding from it. If you need more resources, please email us as well - we can provide more resources to read on these topics, great podcasts that go into more detail, and support groups for those going through a faith crisis so that you know you're not alone, and you're not crazy.