Excerpt from Answering Mormon Scholars Vol. 2, pages 118-123.
The Kinderhook Plates
In his attack on our book, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon, Mormon professor William J. Hamblin tried to downplay our work on the Kinderhook plates:
The Tanners relish in linking Joseph Smith with this early nineteenth-century forgery . . . This topic has been analyzed in detail, and it has been demonstrated that Joseph Smith was only mildly interested in the Kinderhook plates. Whatever the significance of this forgery for early Latter-day Saint history, it has absolutely no relevance for the modern study of Book of Mormon antiquities. (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, vol. 5, pages 269-270)
Dr. Hamblin is certainly not correct in his statement that Joseph Smith was only mildly interested in the Kinderhook plates. Smith was, in fact, extremely interested in them. He accepted these forged plates without question and even went so far as to “translate” a portion of the fake writing found on the plates. Later the perpetrators of the fraud confessed that the Kinderhook plates were modern forgeries created specifically for the purpose of entrapping Joseph Smith.
On May 1, 1843, the Mormon Church’s own publication, Times and Seasons, reprinted an article which claimed that a “resident in Kinderhook” dreamed “three nights in succession” that in a mound near his home “there were treasures concealed.” Ten or twelve men dug into the mound and “found SIX BRASS PLATES.” The plates were later brought to Nauvoo. In a letter written from that city, dated May 2, 1843, 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, December 1890, page 630).
There is definite proof that Joseph Smith claimed he had translated a portion of the plates. The evidence comes from the diary of William Clayton, Joseph Smith’s private secretary. Clayton wrote the following:
I have seen 6 brass plates . . . covered with ancient characters of language containing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth. (William Clayton’s Journal, May 1, 1843, as cited in Trials of Discipleship—The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon, page 117)
The information in Clayton’s journal was deemed so important that it was used as a basis for the story of the Kinderhook plates which is printed in the History of the Church. The following is attributed to Joseph Smith:
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, vol. 5 page 372)
Since Clayton’s journal was apparently used as the major source for the statement attributed to Joseph Smith in the History of the Church, it shows that the highest leaders of the church at the time the History was compiled believed that Joseph Smith did, in fact, “translate a portion” of the plates. It is evident that President Brigham Young and other church leaders seriously believed in Joseph Smith’s work on the Kinderhook plates for at least eleven years after the plates were discovered.
In 1854, eleven years after Joseph Smith translated a portion of the plates, the account was written into the “Manuscript History of the Church,” Book D-1. It is obvious that the Mormon leaders would never have added this material to the Manuscript History unless they thought it was true.
According to Dr. W. Wyl’s book, a “Mormon elder” told him that in “1858” the Apostle Orson Pratt said that he “was well convinced the plates were a fraud” (Mormon Portraits, 1886, page 211). Nevertheless, the story became an important part of Joseph Smith’s History of the Church, and is still found in that work!
On January 15, 1844, the Mormon publication, Times and Seasons, boasted that the Kinderhook plates helped prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon:
Why does the circumstance of the plates recently found in a mound in Pike county, Ill., by Mr. Wiley, together with ethnology and a thousand other things, go to prove the Book of Mormon true? —Ans. Because it is true! (Times and Seasons, vol. 5, page 406)
Significantly, over seven pages in the History of the Church are devoted to the Kinderhook plates. These pages not only contain the statement that Joseph Smith translated a portion of the plates but also drawings of the plates (see vol. 5, pages 372-379)
At the time of the Civil War the Kinderhook plates were lost. Some time in the 1960s, however, M. Wilford Poulson, who taught at Brigham Young University, told us that he found one of the original plates in the Chicago Historical Society Museum, but it was mislabeled as one of the original gold plates of the Book of Mormon. The plate that he found has been identified as no. 5 in the facsimiles found in the History of the Church. While Professor Poulson’s research led him to believe that the plate was a forgery, in 1962 Welby W. Ricks, who was President of the BYU Archaeological Society, hailed the discovery as a vindication of Joseph Smith’s work.
In 1965, however, George M. Lawrence, a Mormon physicist, was given permission to examine and make “some non-destructive physical studies of the surviving plate.” In his report Lawrence wrote: “The dimensions, tolerances, composition and workmanship are consistent with the facilities of an 1843 blacksmith shop and with the fraud stories of the original participants.”
Unfortunately, some Mormon scholars would not accept his work as conclusive. In 1980, however, the Mormon scholar Stanley P. Kimball was able “to secure permission” to have some experts make “some very sophisticated analytical” tests on the plate. Professor Kimball described the results of the tests in the official Mormon Church publication, The Ensign, August 1981, pp. 66-70:
A recent electronic and chemical analysis of a metal plate . . . brought in 1843 to the Prophet Joseph Smith . . . 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. . . .
As a result of these tests, we concluded that the plate . . . is not of ancient origin. . . . 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.
In The Mormon History Association Newsletter, June 1981, Stanley B. Kimball was quoted as saying:
The time has come to admit that the Kinderhook Plate incident of 1843 was a light-hearted, heavy-handed, frontier-style prank, or “joke” as the perpetrators themselves called it. That from the beginning anti-Mormons seized upon the incident to discredit Joseph Smith should not deter us from consigning the episode to the limbo of faked antiquities and to place forever the Kinderhook Plates on the bosom of the Cardiff Giant.
The implications of this matter are very serious indeed. As noted above, both the Clayton journal and the History of the Church claim that Joseph Smith “translated a portion” of the Kinderhook plates and found that they contain the history of “a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt . . .” Besides these references, there is other contemporary evidence that Joseph Smith “translated a portion” of the plates. On May 7, 1843, Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote a letter containing the following:
“Six plates having the appearance of Brass have lately been dug out of the 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.” (The Ensign, August 1981, page 73)
The reader will notice that Apostle Pratt’s account agrees with that published in the History of the Church in stating that the Kinderhook plates contain information about a descendant of “Ham.”
If Joseph Smith had not been murdered in June, 1844, it is very possible he might have published a complete “translation” of these bogus plates. Just a month before his death, it was reported that he was “busy in translating them. The new work which Jo. is about to issue as a translation of these plates will be nothing more nor less than a sequel to the Book of Mormon . . .” (Warsaw Signal, May 22, 1844).
The fact that Joseph Smith was actually preparing a translation of the plates is verified by a broadside published by the Mormon newspaper, The Nauvoo Neighbor, in June, 1843. On this broadside, containing facsimiles of the plates, we find the following: “The contents of the plates, together with a Fac-simile of the same, will be published in the Times and Seasons, as soon as the translation is completed.”
One Mormon scholar has argued that the “brevity” of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Kinderhook plates “precludes the possibility” that Joseph Smith’s “abilities as a translator” might be “called into question.” We cannot agree with this conclusion. Joseph Smith’s work on these fraudulent plates casts serious doubt upon his ability as a translator of Mormon scriptures like the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.
In order for Smith to derive as much information as he did from the Kinderhook plates it would have been necessary for him to have “translated” a significant number of words. The reader will remember that the History of the Church says that he translated “a portion of them.”
Since Joseph Smith made a false translation of both the Kinderhook plates and the Book of Abraham found in the Pearl of Great Price, it casts a serious shadow of doubt over his work on the Book of Mormon. James D. Bales made this perceptive observation regarding the importance of the Kinderhook episode:
What does it all add up to? Does it merely mean that one of the ‘“finds” which the Latter Day Saints believed supported the Book of Mormon does not support it, and that there is no real blow dealt to the prophetship of Joseph Smith? Not at all, for as Charles A. Shook well observed—in a personal letter to the author—“Only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.” Where we can check up on Smith as a translator of plates, he is found guilty of deception. How can we trust him with reference to his claims about the Book of Mormon? If we cannot trust him where we can check him, we cannot trust him where we cannot check his translation. . . . Smith tried to deceive people into thinking that he had translated some of the plates. The plates had no such message as Smith claimed that they had. Smith is thus shown to be willing to deceive people into thinking that he had the power to do something that could not be done. (The Book of Mormon? 1958, pages 98-99)
It is very clear from the evidence that we have presented that professor Hamblin was very far from the mark when he stated that “Joseph Smith was only mildly interested in the Kinderhook plates.” The plates were, in fact, very important to Smith, and he obviously desired to use them to help validate his own Book of Mormon.
It seems very strange that Joseph Smith did not detect that he was being set up. As we mentioned above, the church’s Times and Seasons reprinted an article from another paper concerning the matter. The article was taken from the Quincy Whig and contained information that should have tipped Joseph Smith off that he was falling into a trap. To begin with, the perpetrators had a story which was somewhat similar to the account of Smith’s discovery of the gold plates. The reader may remember that before Joseph Smith found the plates, he had three visitations from the angel in one night. According to the article cited in the Mormon publication, Times and Seasons, a “young man by the name of Wiley, a resident in Kinderhook, dreamed three nights in succession, that in a certain mound in the vicinity, there was treasures concealed” (Times and Seasons, vol. 4, page 186).
When the treasure diggers dug into the mound they “found SIX BRASS PLATES, secured and fastened together by two iron wires . . .” (Ibid., page 187). In 1842, Joseph Smith said the Book of Mormon plates were “bound together in a volume as the leaves of a book, with three rings running through the whole” (History of the Church, vol. 4, page 537). Although the Book of Mormon plates were supposedly made of gold, the text of the book itself frequently mentions that the Nephites also had “the plates of brass” (see 1 Nephi 3:12) which contained sacred writing. The Kinderhook forgers undoubtedly did not have access to any significant amount of gold, and even if they did have some gold they probably would not have trusted Joseph Smith with it. Consequently, they used brass plates to entice Smith to make a translation.
Like the Book of Mormon, the brass plates had “characters or hieroglyphics” on them which nobody was able to read. The article suggested that bones found in the mound might have belonged to “a person, or a family of distinction, in ages long gone by, and that these plates contain the history of the times, or of a people, that existed far—far beyond the memory of the present race” (Times and Seasons, vol. 4, page 187).
Not surprisingly, Joseph Smith agreed with the suggestion that the bones might have belonged to a person or persons of importance and that the writing contained a history of an ancient people that had become extinct. The reader will remember that he asserted that he translated a portion of the plates and found that “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, vol. 5 page 372).
This certainly fits with Joseph Smith’s pattern of exaggerating the importance of things he encountered. For example, in Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? pages 1-2, we demonstrated that Smith claimed the hill within just a few miles of his house known to Mormons as the Hill Cumorah was no ordinary hill. On this very hill two of the greatest battles in history were fought. Both the Nephite and the Jaredite civilizations met their fate on this relatively small hill in New York.
When the Mormons went to Missouri, Joseph Smith said that the Garden of Eden was there, and he also claimed to find the very altar on which Adam offered sacrifices! While traveling toward Independence, Missouri, Joseph Smith discovered the “skeleton of a man.” As noted earlier, this was no ordinary skeleton. It was revealed to Joseph Smith by “the spirit of the Almighty” that “the person whose skeleton” was before him was “Zelph,” a “white Lamanite” and a “man of God,” who was killed during the “last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites” (History of the Church, vol. 2, pp. 79-80).
In 1835, a man came to Kirtland, Ohio, with some mummies and Egyptian papyri. Joseph Smith purchased both the mummies and the papyri and made some startling statements about what he had obtained. Josiah Quincy, who visited Joseph Smith at Nauvoo, reported the following:
“And now come with me,” said the prophet “and I will show you the curiosities.”. . . There were some pine presses fixed against the wall of the room. These receptacles Smith opened, and disclosed four human bodies, shrunken and black with age. “These are mummies,” said the exhibitor. “I want you to look at that little runt of a fellow over there. He was a great man in his day. Why, that was Pharaoh Necho, King of Egypt!” Some parchments inscribed with hieroglyphics were then offered us. . . . “That is the handwriting of Abraham, the Father of the Faithful,” said the prophet. “This is the autograph of Moses, and these lines were written by his brother Aaron. Here we have the earliest account of the Creation, from which Moses composed the First Book of Genesis.”. . . We were further assured that the prophet was the only mortal who could translate these mysterious writings, and that his power was given by direct inspiration. (Figures of the Past, as cited in Among the Mormons, edited by William Mulder and Russell Mortensen, New York, 1958, pages 136-137)
The reader will notice that Joseph Smith made the astounding claim that he found the very “handwriting of Abraham” on one of the papyrus documents. He claimed, in fact, that this document contained the Book of Abraham and that God gave him the power to translate it. This book is now accepted by the Mormons as scripture and is one of the four standard works of the church.
After his death the papyri were lost. Consequently, Egyptologists were not able to examine Smith’s translation. In 1967, however, the church announced that the papyri had been rediscovered in Metropolitan Museum of Art. Not long after the papyri were brought to light a number of prominent Egyptologists examined them and found that they were all pagan documents which were buried with mummies.
One of the rolls of papyrus which Joseph Smith claimed was written by Joseph of Egypt was actually the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.” The Egyptologist James Henry Breasted said that the Book of the Dead is “chiefly a book of magical charms” (Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt, 1969, page 308).
Mormon writers have admitted that this is the case. On page 9 of the Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, Brigham Young University, March, 1, 1968, we find this statement:
The Book of the Dead is a collection of ancient Egyptian funerary texts consisting of spells and incantations understood to assist the soul of the departed dead during his perilous journey through the afterlife. It would presumably be pagan in spirit and have nothing to do with any scripture written by Abraham.
The papyrus scroll Joseph Smith “translated” as the “Book of Abraham” turned out to be nothing but the Egyptian “Book of Breathings.” The Book of Breathings is just a condensed version of the Book of the Dead. According to Egyptologists, the papyrus scroll Joseph Smith obtained was not written until near the time of Jesus Christ—about 2,000 years after the time of Abraham! This, of course, completely nullifies Joseph Smith’s statement to Josiah Quincy that the papyrus contained “the handwriting of Abraham.” Interestingly, the same false claim appears in the introduction to “The Book of Abraham” which is found in the current printing of the Pearl of Great Price: “The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”
While the names of at least fifteen Egyptian gods or goddesses are mentioned on the papyrus, Egyptologists have not found a word about either Abraham or his religion. For more information on the Book of Abraham see our book Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? pages 294-369-D.
Joseph Smith published his translation of the Book of Abraham in the Times and Seasons in 1842. Since the science of Egyptology was only in its infancy at that time, his detractors were unable to disprove Smith’s claims concerning the Book of Abraham. As early as 1860, however, the Egyptologist T. Deveria did work with the very poor facsimiles printed in the Book of Abraham and discovered significant evidence that Joseph Smith did not have the slightest idea of what the Egyptian papyrus contained. It was not until 1967, however, that Egyptologists were able to see actual photographs of the papyrus. It was not long after that that they were able to demonstrate that Joseph Smith’s purported translation was spurious.
It was about a year after the publication of the Book of Abraham that Joseph Smith began his “translation” of the Kinderhook plates. Although we do not know whether the author of the article in the Quincy Whig had any knowledge of the hoax to entrap Joseph Smith, it almost seems that there was a deliberate attempt to get the Mormon prophet interested in making a translation of the plates. In the Quincy Whig article cited in the Mormon publication, Times and Seasons, we find what appears to be an appeal to Joseph Smith’s ego:
Some pretend to say, that Smith the Mormon leader, has the ability to read them. If he has, he will confer a great favor on the public by removing the mystery which hangs over them. 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. . . .
The plates above alluded to, where exhibited in this city last week, and are now, we understand, in Nauvoo, subject to the inspection of the Mormon Prophet. The public curiosity is greatly excited, and 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. (Quincy Whig, as cited in Times and Seasons, vol. 4, pages 186-187)
On June 30, 1879, W. Fugate wrote a letter in which he confessed the hoax:
I received your letter in regard to those plates, and I will say in answer that they are a humbug, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. . . .
We read in Pratt’s prophecy that “Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.” We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them. Bridge Whitton cut them out . . . Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates. (The Kinderhook Plates, by Welby W. Ricks, reprinted from the Improvement Era, September 1962)
Whether or not the writer of the article in the Quincy Whig knew the plates had been forged, it is obvious that Joseph Smith fell for the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Since Joseph Smith did not know the difference between ancient and modern brass plates, as the evidence clearly shows, and was oblivious to the fact that the hieroglyphics were forged, we cannot have any confidence in his work. While the Mormon leaders are supposed to have special powers of discernment, Joseph Smith certainly did not demonstrate a capability to discern when he was being tricked. Even the present leader of the church, the prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, was taken in by Mark Hofmann’s forgeries and actually bought some of these documents for the church! In one instance he paid Hofmann $15,000 for a forged letter which was purportedly written by the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith.
For a complete treatment of the Kinderhook affair see our book, Mormonism—Shadow or Reality? pages 111-115, 125G-125I.
Facsimile of Kinderhook plates in History
(The plate with the red box around it is the plate in the photographs above.)