Overview of The Kinderhook Plates
In our previous overviews, we have looked at Joseph Smith's translations of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham. This overview will cover the Kinderhook Plates, which have been a major point of contention between church apologists and critics. What I want to explore below is not just the history of Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates, but how the church taught about the Kinderhook Plates after Joseph's death all the way up until the 1980s.
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 Kinderhook, 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 Carthage 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)
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 faithful historian and General Authority 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.)
1930: B.H. Roberts takes William Clayton's journal entry and converts it to a first person account to be included in the History of the Church. This cements Joseph Smith's partial translation of the Kinderhook Plates as a credible event as they are being included in one of the most important volumes of material in church history at that point. Below is the entry that was included in the History of the Church:
"Comment of the Prophet on the Kinderhook Plates.
I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. Robert 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." (History of the Church, 5:372–79)
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: An article in the 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." (Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax, Ensign, 1981)
Common Apologetic Arguments Regarding the Kinderhook Plates
The Connection Between the Kinderhook Plates and the Book of Abraham's GAEL
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: This is an interesting apologetic argument because we now know that the GAEL is completely wrong, which is why the Book of Abraham has been proven by every non-church affiliated Egyptian 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. 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 underscores just how incorrect Joseph Smith was in his translation ability beginning with the simple fact that a single Egyptian hieroglyphic does not translate into a paragraph of text. Joseph Smith did not know this at the time, which is why he translated the Egyptian papyri as he saw fit, but we now know that this is not how Egyptian works. To that point, 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.
Beyond that, there is a very key and important point to understand in this argument. John Gee, one of the most well known Egyptian scholars employed by the church, follows Hugh Nibley's argument that the GAEL was effectively reverse-engineered by the scribes. What that means is that they wrote the text of the Book of Abraham on the manuscript pages, and then the scribes later went back in and would attempt to match the symbols from the Egyptian papyri to the alphabet on their own and without Joseph Smith's help.
Gee and Nibley make this argument because the only other approach, and the one that the evidence is clear on, is that Joseph Smith got the translations wrong and that we have the extant papyrus fragment that the Book of Abraham was translated from. I cover that in great detail in the first part of the Book of Abraham overview, so I won't rehash all of that here.
But the very important point is that the church's apologists are now arguing that Joseph Smith saw the Kinderhook Plates and then went back to the GAEL and studies the symbols to see if he could use the GAEL to decipher the Kinderhook Plates. In this case, we are told that Joseph Smith saw the similar boat shape and thus gave a sample of translation to William Clayton to write down in the journal which was then spoken of throughout the church.
What that means is that Joseph Smith believed the symbols on the GAEL to match the corresponding translations, which means that John Gee's assertion that the scribes reverse-engineered the symbols is, again, completely contradicted by the evidence. In other words, had the scribes merely been randomly writing in symbols, Joseph Smith would've looked at the GAEL here, realized that someone was tampering with his Egyptian alphabet and grammar, and then would have fixed the GAEL himself, not made that translation to William Clayton, and probably had a stern talking to with the scribes who altered his work.
This is a very long way way of saying that this sample of translation from Joseph Smith on the Kinderhook Plates further shows that he was responsible for the symbols and translations on the GAEL, which tells us that Joseph Smith not only could not translate Egyptian, but that we have the extant papyrus fragment that the Book of Abraham was translated from as I discussed in the Book of Abraham overview.
It is for this reason that the Kinderhook Plates are so vitally important, because they shine further light on the Book of Abraham translation issues as well as show us that the leaders after Joseph Smith defended them as real because they believed that they were genuine to the point that they called Fugate, who admitted it was a hoax, the hoaxer. This is very damning for the reliability of both discernment and spiritual witness in the church, and is incredibly important to understand how these issues tie into so many of these problems with church scriptures and history.
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." (Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates,” Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith's Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, p. 499–502)
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 FAIR just cut out the unimportant text 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 keep this information from the reader? 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 put the quote in full and note that this person probably was confused on the source?
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.)
Questions About William Clayton's Journal Entry
Once science proved the Kinderhook Plates to be a hoax, the church immediately began looking for a way to absolve Joseph Smith of the partial translation that they had spent the previous 140 years defending as proof of his work as a prophet. The easiest target was William Clayton, the personal scribe of Joseph Smith who recorded Joseph's partial translation. From the 1981 Ensign article that revealed that the Kinderhook Plates were indeed a hoax:
"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. …”
Where the ideas written by William Clayton originated is unknown. However, as will be pointed out later, speculation about the plates and their possible content was apparently quite unrestrained in Nauvoo when the plates first appeared. In any case, this altered version of the extract from William Clayton’s journal was reprinted in the Millennial Star of 15 January 1859, and, unfortunately, was finally carried over into official Church history when the “History of Joseph Smith” was edited into book form as the History of the Church in 1909...
William Clayton evidently had access to the plates at some point, for in his journal entry of Monday, May 1, he included a tracing of one of the plates. (Whether or not he was present when Joseph Smith saw the plates is unknown.) Two days later, on Wednesday, Brigham Young also drew an outline of one of the Kinderhook plates in a small notebook/diary that he kept. Inside the drawing he wrote: “May 3—1843. I had this at Joseph Smith’s house. Found near Quincy.”" (Kimball, Ensign 1981)
The idea that it is unknown where Clayton got Joseph's partial translation is absolutely ridiculous. Clayton was Joseph's personal scribe, and he was with Joseph Smith on the day that they were introduced to the Kinderhook Plates. We know that Clayton was with Joseph because not only was he at Smith's home, but he officiated a marriage between Joseph Smith and his seventeen year old polygamous wife, Lucy Walker. We covered Joseph's marriage to Lucy Walker in our second polygamy overview,
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 during the day and officiated one of Joseph Smith's marriages is further proof of just how trusted Clayton was.. 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 and, again, an argument that only comes out of necessity.
Joseph Smith Never Made the Translation Anyway
As I outlined in the timeline above, the church not only believed that Joseph Smith made a partial translation of the Kinderhook Plates, but that they were authentic and ancient. There is no honest way to argue otherwise, which is what makes the apologetic response since science proved them a hoax all the more nonsensical.
From the 1981 Ensign article that finally admitted the Kinderhook Plates were a hoax:
"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.
Joseph Smith did not make the hoped-for translation. In fact, no evidence exists that he manifested any further interest in the plates after early examination of them, although some members of the Church hoped that they would prove to be significant. But the plates never did."
While I agree that no evidence exists that Joseph Smith had interest in the plates beyond his partial translation of them, this apologetic is beyond disingenuous and is completely rewriting the history of the church. They thought this event was so valuable that they defended Joseph's partial translation for 140 years and included it in their History of the Church. One only needs to re-read the timeline I outlined above to know just how ridiculous this is, and I think the timeline speaks for itself.
The Kinderhook plates will always be a mystery, because Joseph Smith did translate a portion of them but never continued them 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.
I want to be clear that I do not feel that the Kinderhook plates are a '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 as it may be. It is important to remember that the Book of Abraham took years to be released, so in my opinion it is very likely that had Joseph Smith lived longer he likely would have had further interactions with the Kinderhook plates.
The one caveat to that is that Joseph Smith liked to work within scenarios where he was in complete control of the situation. The Book of Mormon translation was born out of the story of the gold plates, which only Joseph Smith actually saw in the physical sense, and he was the vehicle to getting the witness testimony that they saw them whether we want to believe it was in a vision or a physical manifestation. We have a lot of conflicting stories on the witnesses, so, just like the Kinderhook Plates, we will never know exactly what happened.
On that note, it should be noted that the Kinderhook Plates also had witness statements just like the Book of Mormon to the point that the church pointed it out in the predecessor to the Ensign (and now Liahona) magazine, the Improvement Era. I quoted it above in a longer quote, but to repeat it here:
"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.)"
This is a good reminder that witness testimonies for these kinds of finds are simply not reliable, which is why I do not place any value on the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses due to their conflicting statements. I will cover this in a later overview, but we have this exact kind of testimony for the book, Sacred Roll and Book, written by the founder of the Shakers, Ann Lee.
While the witnesses for the Kinderhook Plates, Book of Mormon, and the Sacred Roll and Book are not equal, their common threads are and that will be important to remember as we look at spiritual witnesses in a future overview.
The point with regards to the Kinderhook Plates is that I find it quite possible that Joseph Smith was not eager to translate them because he did not control their origin. The Book of Abraham took seven years to be completed, and that was with papyri that Joseph Smith purchased and knew were at least authentic. With the Kinderhook Plates, it is possible that the unknown origins made Joseph Smith cautious about diving in, knowing that he was not in control of the story of their origins.
One last point on this topic is that Joseph Smith also claimed to have the Book of Joseph in another scroll that was purchased with the Book of Abraham, but never was able to translate it before his death. It could just be that Joseph Smith did not have time to tackle the Kinderhook Plates given that at this point he was constantly running from the law, married to dozens of women, and having to hold together a lot of issues within the church.
I want to make a few final points about the Kinderhook Plates, because while I do not believe they are a smoking gun against Joseph Smith, I believe they provide some invaluable information to understanding Joseph Smith's claims to being a prophet as well as the Book of Abraham.
The Kinderhook Plates Cement the GAEL as a Work by Joseph Smith
First, the Kinderhook Plates again affirm that Joseph Smith's GAEL was completely wrong. We already knew that Joseph Smith's translation of the Egyptian papyri (which led to the creation of the 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 of the Kinderhook Plates he did translate is even more telling, because even apologists know that the GAEL is an incorrect document that will always be attached to the Book of Abraham.
As I outlined above, the Kinderhook Plates also cement the GAEL as being correct in Joseph Smith's mind, and not a reverse-engineered alphabet by scholars as some church funded Egyptologists want to argue. Because Joseph Smith went back and utilized a symbol from the GAEL, we can safely say that he approved of the symbols being matched to the translations, just as the extant papyrus fragment would tell us. This is a very important development for the Book of Abraham that the Kinderhook Plates confirm for us.
The Kinderhook Plates and a Lack of Discernment Among Prophets, Seers, and Revelators
The second big point here is that the leaders of the church do not have the ability to discern truth. I touched on this in the overview on changes to revelations, but the "prophets, seers, and revelators" of the church do not have any sense of discernment. For almost 140 years the church not only defended the Kinderhook Plates as authentic, ancient plates, but they actually called the claim that it was a hoax by William Fugate the actual hoax. This is something that the leaders of the church should have been able to pray about, receive confirmation that they were not ancient, and reveal that to the church. Instead they continued to have confirmations that they were authentic until science proved once and for all that they were indeed, as Fugate claimed, a hoax.
Furthermore, this was yet another incident where Joseph Smith could have proven himself a prophet of God by telling the Kinderhook plate creators that it was a hoax set to make him look like a fraud, but instead he incorrectly translated a portion of them. In our Lost 116 Pages overview I noted that Joseph Smith received a revelation that God will not suffer Joseph Smith to be revealed as a fraud, yet here it happens again once Smith is not in control of the situation.
Just as with the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith has been proven incorrect in his translation, and while the apologetic response is that he did not attempt to translate these plates with the gift and power of God, he did use the GAEL which he claimed was received through the gift and power of God. That is a massive problem the moment you stop privileging Joseph Smith and view him as you would any other religious leader claiming to speak for God.
Every church leader since Joseph Smith could have also used their power as prophets, seers, and revelators to determine that the plates were a hoax, but instead 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 time and time again? The Mark Hoffman incident is another example where the church completely fell for a fraudulent work with no ability to discern that they were being duped. 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.
Joseph Smith Always Wanted to Be Seen as Having the Answers
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 theories of additional scrolls to try and account for Joseph getting everything wrong. If you haven't read our overviews on the Book of Abraham, I highly recommend that you do in order 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 his story of Zelph the white Lamanite. It is a common occurrence with Joseph Smith and any charismatic leader, 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 being able to make up theology and revelation whenever he felt the need to do so. Because he knew that church members all looked to him as a prophet of God, he was always willing to speak in the voice of God, and in this case provided a partial translation of the Kinderhook Plates to create excitement among the church rather than to say that he was unable to decipher their meaning.
This presents a very stark contrast to church prophets, seers, and revelators since Joseph Smith who avoid giving answers or revelations to the problems of the day, and instead speak in the most vague terms as to not be pinned down to a prophecy or doctrine. Again, this is where the Kinderhook Plates holds a lot of value in understanding the history of Mormonism - it tells us not just about the history of the event itself, but how the church responded to it until science finally proved that the plates were a hoax.
Science Again Forces the Church to Change Positions
The last comment I wanted to make about the Kinderhook Plates is that the only reason the church abandoned its defense of them is that science forced their hands. As I outlined above, the church believed the plates were real despite the claims of their finder, William Fugate, that they were a deliberate hoax. The reason the church defended the plates is because they knew that Joseph Smith provided the partial translation, which gave them a confirmation that they were authentic and ancient.
This is a problem that is not isolated to the Kinderhook Plates, which is why this topic is so important to understanding church history. Remember that in our overview about DNA and the Book of Mormon that the church was forced to change the introduction of the Book of Mormon after DNA proved that the Native Americans have nothing to do with the idea of Lamanites, but are descended from Asia.
We can also see the church making changes to Book of Mormon geography over the last 150 years due to advances in science telling us that there were no large battles such as te ones described in the Book of Mormon as well as the anachronisms which has forced apologists to develop the 'loose translation' model for Joseph Smith.
Just like the Kinderhook Plates, advancements in Egyptian scholarship has forced the church to abandon any pretense that Joseph Smith made a literal translation of the writings of Abraham 'by his hand, upon papyrus.' That has led the church's employed Egyptologists to create new theories such as the 'lost scroll' and 'catalyst theories,' both of which are proven false with just a surface look at the evidence.
And, last, this is the exact same scenario that the church found itself in with regards to the Mark Hofmann forgeries, when the church paid hundreds of thousands of dollars on documents that were completely fabricated. Much like the Kinderhook Plates, the leaders of the church insisted that those documents were legitimate, which shows not just a lack of discernment, but who refuse to admit they got it wrong until they have no other option.
The point is that the church's truth claims cannot survive basic scrutiny, and even today we are seeing more and more evidence that the church has taught incorrect doctrine that has been disproven by science whether it's belief in the Tower of Babel being a literal story, dark skin being a curse from God, or gay members of the church 'choosing to be gay.'
If the church was true, these issues would be confirmed by science, not completely debunked by it. The Kinderhook Plates themselves might not be a smoking gun, but they are yet another piece of the puzzle that shows us that not only is the church not led by God, but that Joseph Smith left his fingerprints all over it.
Next section: Overview of Joseph Smith's Translations