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

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



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


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

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

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

FAIR's Response

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

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


Articles about Joseph Smith

Revelations in Context: "Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture"

"The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013):

Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term "strong drink" certainly included distilled spirits like whiskey, which hereafter the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and "pure wine of the grape of the vine of your own make" (see D&C 89:6). For the next two generations, Latter-day Saint leaders taught the Word of Wisdom as a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly the commandment should be observed. This incubation period gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances. By the early twentieth century, when scientific medicines were more widely available and temple attendance had become a more regular feature of Latter-day Saint worship, the Church was ready to accept a more exacting standard of observance that would eliminate problems like alcoholism from among the obedient. In 1921, the Lord inspired Church president Heber J. Grant to call on all Saints to live the Word of Wisdom to the letter by completely abstaining from all alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Today Church members are expected to live this higher standard.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Sunday, after meeting, going through the gallery which had been occupied by those claiming, no doubt, to be gentlemen, and perhaps, brethren, you might have supposed that cattle had been standing around there and dropping their nuisances. Here and there were great quids of tobacco, and places a foot or two feet square smeared with tobacco juice. I wish the door-keepers, when, in the future, they observe any persons besmearing the seats and floor in this way to request them to leave the house; and, if they refuse and will not stop spitting about and besmearing their neighbors, just take them and lead them out carefully and kindly. It is an imposition for those claiming to be gentlemen to spit tobacco juice for ladies to draw their clothes through and besmear them, or to leave their dirt in the house. We request all addicted to this practice, to omit it while in this house. Elders of Israel, if you must chew tobacco, omit it while in meeting, and when you leave, you can take a double portion, if you wish to. [2]

Kate Holbrook: The Word of Wisdom: Development and Practice


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

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

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

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

As one historian noted:

it appears clear that Joseph Smith never interpreted the [Word of Wisdom] revelation as demanding total abstinence, but stressed moderation and self-control....He had no objections to using tobacco for medicinal purposes. With regard to wine and "strong drink" possibly the most accurate index to the Prophet's position was expressed by Benjamin F. Johnson, who personally knew Joseph: "As a companion, socailly, he was highly endowed; was kind, generous, mirth loving, and a times even convivial. He was partial to a well supplied table and he did not always refuse the wine that maketh the heart glad."[3]

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence suggests that the drinking of tea, coffee, and liquor was [in the 1830s] in general violation of the principle [of the Word of Wisdom], though exceptions can be found. All of these items were used by the Saints for medicinal purposes. Moderate wine-drinking was evidently acceptable to most Church leaders....[27] In short, it would seem that adherence to the revelation to at least 1839 required Church members to be moderately temperate but certainly [did] not [require] total abstinence....[4]

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

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

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

Here's what Joseph said,

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

I called the brethren in and investigated the case, and was satisfied that no evil had been done, and gave them a couple of dollars, with directions to replenish the bottle to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.[5]

The complete prohibition on alcohol was phased in gradually

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

Did Joseph Smith appear in public smoking a cigar right after teaching a sermon on the Word of Wisdom?

This accusation was made by Amasa Lyman, who had already been excommunicated from the Church

Abraham H. Cannon made an entry in his diary stating that Amasa Lyman saw Joseph Smith smoking the cigar immediately after delivering a sermon on the Word of Wisdom and that he immediately afterward "rode through the streets smoking a cigar" in order to try "the faith of the Saints."[6] At the time that Lyman made this accusation, he had already been excommunicated from the Church.

We ought to start with a degree of suspicion when we hear stories like this, because Joseph really did to things on occasion to test the Saints

These sorts of things really call into question a lot of these kinds of stories - especially when they are published long after the events they claim to be portraying (and the cigar story is certainly that). By the time these stories develop, we have these cultural myths being created about Joseph Smith. And so when we have this story about the Amasa Lyman encounter that first shows up in Abraham Canon's journal in 1895, we ought to start with a degree of suspicion. The problem we have with stories like this is that Joseph really did on occasion do things to test the Saints. He liked to go down to the boats at Nauvoo dressed poorly so as to interact with the new converts coming in to Nauvoo and to see what their expectations were. He regularly acted in ways that some thought were inappropriate for a prophet. One of the more widely known stories in the later 19th century was this one, recorded by William Allred and published in 1892:

I was with him [Joseph Smith] in the troubles at DeWitt, Adam-ondi-ahman, and in Far West. I have played ball with him many times in Nauvoo. He was preaching once, and he said it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys. He then related a story of a certain prophet who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time. Another time when I heard him preaching he said if he should tell the people all the Lord had revealed to him, some would seek his life. Even as good a man as old Father C—-, here on the stand, he added, (pointing back to him) would seek his life.[7]

There is this story, and it sounds like something we might expect, but it tends to have problems when we realize that this entire story is based on a much older story about the New Testament apostle John. Here is a version of that story, published by Fracis De Sales, in 1609:

It is necessary sometimes to relax our minds as well as our bodies by some kind of recreation. St. John the Evangelist, as Cassian relates, was one day found by a huntsman with a partridge on his hand, which he was caressing for his recreation. The huntsman asked how such a man as he could spend his time in so poor and mean an occupation? St. John replied: Why dost thou not carry thy bow always bent? For fear, answered the huntsman, that if it were always bent, it would loose its spring and become useless. Be not surprised, then, replied the apostle, that I should sometimes remit a little of the close application and attention of my spirit and enjoy a little recreation, that I may afterward employ myself more fervently in divine contemplation.[8]

Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking tea?

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today

Joseph Smith is reported as drinking tea on a few occasions. Does this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day.

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today. It was not enforced as rigorously, or with the same requirements, in Joseph Smith's day. It was not the strict test of fellowships that it is for the modern member. Many speakers emphasized the Lord's patience in this matter, as applied to both leaders and members.

But, many of the events described are actually concerned about medical practice, not the social or recreational use of these substances. For example, one might be shocked to learn that President Kimball used morphine—however, the morphine was prescribed for cancer pain by a physician.

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal. Why would this be?

In consulting the journal entry, we read: "Saturday, March 11th Too cold last night as to freeze [p.332] water in the warmest rooms in the city. River filled with anchor ice. 8 1/2 o'clock in the office, Joseph said he had tea with his breakfast." [9]

In Joseph's day, some medical thinking held that "hot drinks" (such as tea and coffee) could heat the body and vital fluids. While this was usually regarded as a bad idea that would be dangerous to health:

I found, after maturely considering the subject, that all animal bodies are formed of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Earth and water constitute the solids, and air and fire, or heat, are the cause of life and motion. That cold, or lessening the power of heat, is the cause of all disease; that to restore heat to its natural state, was the only way by which health could be produced;....a state of perfect health arises from a due balance or temperature of the four elements; but if it is by any means destroyed, the body is more or less disordered. And when this is the case, there is always an actual diminution or absence of the element of fire, or heat; and in proportion to this diminution or absence, the body is affected by its opposite, which is cold. And I found that all disorders which the human family were afflicted with, however various the symptoms, and different the names by which they are called, arise directly from obstructed perspiration, which is always caused by cold, or want of heat ....[10]

This entry is from the works of Samuel Thomson, a founder of what became known as "Thomsonian herbalism." There were several Latter-day Saint physicians who were Thomsonians, including (significantly) Willard Richards, who wrote the diary entry we are here considering. The emphasis on loss of heat and lack of stimulation is significant—for it clashed with another set of medical principles, the "orthodox" or "heroic" doctors who came to believe that acute disease was not caused by lack of heat, but by too much energy, heat, or vital force: hence their prescriptions for bleeding, purging, and the like: to lower the energy or "heat." [11] Thus, under normal circumstances an 'energizing', 'hot', or 'stimulating' drink would be inappropriate.

There might, however, be exceptions. Thomson described a local woman who acted as a healer, and his admiration for her skill and methods is clear:

There was an old lady by the name of Benton lived near us, who used to attend our family when there was any sickness. At that time there was no such thing as a Doctor known among us, there not being any within ten miles. The whole of her practice was with roots and herbs, applied to the patient, or given in hot drinks, to produce sweating; which always answered the purpose. [12]

Thus, in a time of extreme cold, a "hot drink" like tea could be seen as a medicinal or preventative treatment which would help maintain health, since it would prevent the loss of the vital heat upon which the body depended. As a Thomsonian physician, Willard Richards (who wrote Joseph's journal for him) would have known and preached this. An "orthodox physician" (wary of heat, and more apt to bleed or purge) would have vigorously disagreed. [13]

By analogy, a modern member would be in violation of the Word of Wisdom if he or she injected morphine as a "recreational" drug. But, if the same drug was administered for a medical reason, the member would not be at fault. (Indeed, we might find fault with someone for refusing a medical treatment to maintain their health or cure an illness.)

That Richards was not surprised or offended by Joseph's consumption of tea on a bitterly cold winter morning demonstrates that Joseph's action was not the scandal that some wish to portray it as.

As one historian observed in 1972:

While the Saints opposed the common use of tea and coffee, it would appear that they had little objection to its occasional use for medicinal purposes. In an age when these items were frequenlty used as a relief for a wide variety of ailments, it would have been imprudent to have entirely forbidden their use.[14]

Did George A. Smith report that some church members left the church after finding that their leaders drank tea and coffee?

George A. Smith clearly intends his audience to see the converts' action as ridiculous

Some critics of the Church hope their readers will be shocked by George A. Smith's admission that Emma Smith offered some new converts a glass of tea. But, why would George A. Smith admit to Joseph committing a grave sin, if such it was? His account provides us with the clues:

I know persons who apostatized because they supposed they had reasons; for instance, a certain family, after having travelled a long journey, arrived in Kirtland, and the prophet asked them to stop with him until they could find a place. Sister Emma, in the mean time, asked the old lady if she would have a cup of tea to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey, or a cup of coffee. This whole family apostatized because they were invited to take a cup of tea or coffee, after the Word of Wisdom was given. [15]

It is significant that George A. Smith says Emma made the offer "to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey." This is not merely a polite offer of something to drink—it is suggesting that the old woman may be particularly vulnerable to having her "vital heat" diminished by the rigors of a long journey exposed to the elements. Emma is probably making a health-related offer, not just offering a social beverage as we would today. Difficulties in assuring clean water supplies also make tea or coffee a sometimes wiser choice for health. Both coffee and tea are made from boiled water, which will kill bacteria. Even without boiling, the tannic acid in tea would kill the bacteria that caused such scourges as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery—all real risks on the American frontier. [16]

George A. Smith clearly intends his audience to see the converts' action as ridiculous—the Word of Wisdom did not forbid the maintenance of health.

Did Willard Richards violate the Word of Wisdom by using tobacco at Carthage Jail?

Joseph Smith obtained some tobacco for a friend while in Carthage Jail prior to being martyred. Doesn't this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day. The tobacco was intended for medicinal purposes.

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. Thomson was the name of the founder of this school of practice, which differed from the practice of the "orthodox" medical doctors, who focused on balancing humors, purging, inducing diarrhea, and so forth.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal

An aspect of Thomsonian medicine was Thomson's enthusiasm for the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal.

Tobacco for Willard Richards

Willard Richards, who was in jail with Joseph, was a Thomsonian physician. This was a branch of pre-modern medical practice which required minimal schooling. Thomson's followers' believed strongly in the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Critics Gerald and Sandra Tanner (p. 33) make a great deal of Joseph asking for a "pipe and tobacco" for Willard Richards. However, when we understand the circumstances, this action makes sense, and it has nothing to do with the Word of Wisdom. In the first place, we must realize that Joseph and Willard were locked in Carthage Jail.

Joseph had sent Stephen Markham out, as previous text unquoted by the Tanners tells us: "'Brother Markham...go get the doctor [i.e., Richards] something to settle his stomach,' [said Joseph,] and Markham went out for medicine. When he got the remedies desired...[the] Carthage Greys gathered round him, put him on his horse, and forced him out of the town at the point of the bayonet." So, Markham could not return, and none of the remedies he had obtained reached the jail. [17]

It is not clear which remedies Markham sought out—but he could not return. A Thomsonian like Richards would have probably seen tobacco as a medicinal drug, however—especially in a pinch when he could get nothing else. This would be particularly true if the tobacco was lobelia—it was the Thomsonian cure-all, literally.

The Tanners complain elsewhere about how in the History of the Church the words "pipe and some tobacco" were replaced by the word "medicine" (p. 471). But, this misses the point in a spectacular way—tobacco was considered a medicine at the time! Modern editors would not make this type of change to a historical text, but one can understand why rather than bother to explain about Thomsonian beliefs and medical practices, the editors of earlier times decided to simply "translate" the reason for the tobacco. The issue only becomes important, after all, when one is unfamiliar with early nineteenth century medicine.

There is further evidence that the tobacco was not seen as a problem by current or later leaders, since John Taylor's later account of the martyrdom in History of the Church mentions it very frankly and matter-of-factly:

Before the jailer came in, his boy brought in some water, and said the guard wanted some wine. Joseph gave Dr. Richards two dollars to give the guard; but the guard said one was enough, and would take no more.

The guard immediately sent for a bottle of wine, pipes, and two small papers of tobacco; and one of the guards brought them into the jail soon after the jailer went out. Dr. Richards uncorked the bottle, and presented a glass to Joseph, who tasted, as also Brother Taylor and the doctor, and the bottle was then given to the guard, who turned to go out. When at the top of the stairs some one below called him two or three times, and he went down.[18]

Since neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom. Leaders would not include this information if it made Joseph look bad. This should be our first clue that something else is going on.[19] Some critics, however, have not sought to understand, but merely to condemn by trusting that their audience will not understand the fine points of early nineteenth century frontier medicine.

Events surrounding the death of Joseph Smith

Summary: To learn more about the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage jail, follow this link.
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph utter a false prophecy and show disregard for the Word of Wisdom in telling Orson Hyde that he would drink wine with him in Palestine?

Joseph's prophecy of drinking wine with Hyde in Palestine is reminiscent of Jesus' promise to the apostles that he would drink of wine when the kingdom of God was come

Joseph's prophecy of drinking wine with Hyde in Palestine is reminiscent of Jesus' promise to the apostles that he would drink of wine when the kingdom of God was come (Luke 22:18) which was reiterated in a revelation to Joseph Smith (D&C 27:5). Joseph prophesied that he would drink with Hyde there—but whether he would go to Palestine in this life was something about which he immediately expressed uncertainty.

Those who offer this criticism make three errors:

  1. they do not cite the entire text
  2. they refuse to consider a fulfillment after this life.
  3. they ignore the Word of Wisdom's application in historical context.

The prophecy: "If I live I [will] take these b[r]ethren through these United States and through the world. I will make just as big a wake as God Almighty will let me"

Joseph was not certain that he would see Palestine during this life. As can be seen below, Joseph (1) prophesied that he would drink wine with Hyde in the Holy Land; and then (2) expressed hope that he would go with the Twelve to the Holy Land, but was aware he might not live, and left the matter to God's will:

Elder Hyde told of the excellent white wine he drank in the east [Palestine]. Joseph prophesied in the name of the Lord that he would drink wine with him in that country. Joseph [said], "From the 6th day of April next, I go in for preparing with all present for a Mission through the United States and when we arrive {page 143} at Maine we will take ship for England and so on to all countries where we are a mind for to go." P[r]e[se]nt: H[yrum] Smith, B[righam] Young, H[eber] C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, W[ilford] Woodruff, Geo[rge] A. Smith, [and] W[illard] Richards.

[Joseph said,] "We must write for John E. Page. We must love the whole Quorum. We must send Kings and Queens to Nauvoo and we will do it. We must all start from this place. Let the 12 [Apostles] be called in on the {page 143} 6th of April and a notice be given for a special conference on the platform on [the] House of the Lord. We are sure to go as we live till spring. If I live I [will] take these b[r]ethren through these United States and through the world. I will make just as big a wake as God Almighty will let me."[20]

In Joseph's day, wine was not forbidden by the Word of Wisdom

Once again, critics count on their audience thinking that the prophets have commanded the same degree of observance of the Word of Wisdom throughout Church history.


Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

To learn more about Joseph Smith: Word of Wisdom

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

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

Said Brigham Young in 1861:

Some of the brethren are very strenuous upon the "Word of Wisdom", and would like to have me preach upon it, and urge it upon the brethren, and make it a test of fellowship. I do not think I shall do so. I have never done so. [21]

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

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

Supposing he had given the Word of Wisdom as a command, how many of us would have been here? I do not know; but he gave this without command or constraint, observing that it would be pleasing in His sight for His people to obey its precepts. Ought we not to try to please our Heavenly Father? [22]

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

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

The observance of the Word of Wisdom, or interpretation of God's requirements on this subject, must be left, partially, with the people. We cannot make laws like the Medes and Persians. We cannot say you shall never drink a cup of tea, or you shall never taste of this, or you shall never taste of that....[23]

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

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

President Woodruff said he regarded the Word of Wisdom in its entirety as given of the Lord for the Latter-day Saints to observe, but he did not think that Bishops should withhold recommends from persons who did not adhere strictly to it. [24]

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

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

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

[In 1902] Joseph F. Smith urged stake presidents and others to refuse recommends to flagrant violators but to be somewhat liberal with old men who used tobacco and old ladies who drank tea. Habitual drunkards, however, were to be denied temple recommends. [25]

By 1905, the Council of the Twelve were actively preaching that no man should hold a leadership position if he would not obey the Word of Wisdom. [26] On 5 July 1906, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve began using water instead of wine for their sacrament meetings. [27] By 1915, President Joseph F. Smith instructed that no one was to be ordained to the priesthood or given temple recommends without adherence. [28] Heber J. Grant became President of the Church in 1918, and he continued the policy of Word of Wisdom observance; after that time temple attendance or priesthood ordination required obedience to the principle. Thus, the Church membership had eighty-five years to adapt and prepare for the full implementation of this revelation. [29] By 1933, the General Handbook of Instructions listed the Word of Wisdom as a requirement for temple worship, exactly 100 years after the receipt of the revelation by Joseph Smith. [30]

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

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

The reason undoubtedly why the Word of Wisdom was given—as not by 'commandment or restraint' was that at that time, at least, if it had been given as a commandment it would have brought every man, addicted to the use of these noxious things, under condemnation; so the Lord was merciful and gave them a chance to overcome, before He brought them under the law. [31]

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


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

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

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

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

FAIR's Response

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

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


Articles about Joseph Smith

Revelations in Context: "Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture"

"The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013):

Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term "strong drink" certainly included distilled spirits like whiskey, which hereafter the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and "pure wine of the grape of the vine of your own make" (see D&C 89:6). For the next two generations, Latter-day Saint leaders taught the Word of Wisdom as a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly the commandment should be observed. This incubation period gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances. By the early twentieth century, when scientific medicines were more widely available and temple attendance had become a more regular feature of Latter-day Saint worship, the Church was ready to accept a more exacting standard of observance that would eliminate problems like alcoholism from among the obedient. In 1921, the Lord inspired Church president Heber J. Grant to call on all Saints to live the Word of Wisdom to the letter by completely abstaining from all alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Today Church members are expected to live this higher standard.[32]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Sunday, after meeting, going through the gallery which had been occupied by those claiming, no doubt, to be gentlemen, and perhaps, brethren, you might have supposed that cattle had been standing around there and dropping their nuisances. Here and there were great quids of tobacco, and places a foot or two feet square smeared with tobacco juice. I wish the door-keepers, when, in the future, they observe any persons besmearing the seats and floor in this way to request them to leave the house; and, if they refuse and will not stop spitting about and besmearing their neighbors, just take them and lead them out carefully and kindly. It is an imposition for those claiming to be gentlemen to spit tobacco juice for ladies to draw their clothes through and besmear them, or to leave their dirt in the house. We request all addicted to this practice, to omit it while in this house. Elders of Israel, if you must chew tobacco, omit it while in meeting, and when you leave, you can take a double portion, if you wish to. [33]

Kate Holbrook: The Word of Wisdom: Development and Practice


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

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

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

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

As one historian noted:

it appears clear that Joseph Smith never interpreted the [Word of Wisdom] revelation as demanding total abstinence, but stressed moderation and self-control....He had no objections to using tobacco for medicinal purposes. With regard to wine and "strong drink" possibly the most accurate index to the Prophet's position was expressed by Benjamin F. Johnson, who personally knew Joseph: "As a companion, socailly, he was highly endowed; was kind, generous, mirth loving, and a times even convivial. He was partial to a well supplied table and he did not always refuse the wine that maketh the heart glad."[34]

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence suggests that the drinking of tea, coffee, and liquor was [in the 1830s] in general violation of the principle [of the Word of Wisdom], though exceptions can be found. All of these items were used by the Saints for medicinal purposes. Moderate wine-drinking was evidently acceptable to most Church leaders....[27] In short, it would seem that adherence to the revelation to at least 1839 required Church members to be moderately temperate but certainly [did] not [require] total abstinence....[4]

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

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

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

Here's what Joseph said,

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

I called the brethren in and investigated the case, and was satisfied that no evil had been done, and gave them a couple of dollars, with directions to replenish the bottle to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.[35]

The complete prohibition on alcohol was phased in gradually

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

Did Joseph Smith appear in public smoking a cigar right after teaching a sermon on the Word of Wisdom?

This accusation was made by Amasa Lyman, who had already been excommunicated from the Church

Abraham H. Cannon made an entry in his diary stating that Amasa Lyman saw Joseph Smith smoking the cigar immediately after delivering a sermon on the Word of Wisdom and that he immediately afterward "rode through the streets smoking a cigar" in order to try "the faith of the Saints."[36] At the time that Lyman made this accusation, he had already been excommunicated from the Church.

We ought to start with a degree of suspicion when we hear stories like this, because Joseph really did to things on occasion to test the Saints

These sorts of things really call into question a lot of these kinds of stories - especially when they are published long after the events they claim to be portraying (and the cigar story is certainly that). By the time these stories develop, we have these cultural myths being created about Joseph Smith. And so when we have this story about the Amasa Lyman encounter that first shows up in Abraham Canon's journal in 1895, we ought to start with a degree of suspicion. The problem we have with stories like this is that Joseph really did on occasion do things to test the Saints. He liked to go down to the boats at Nauvoo dressed poorly so as to interact with the new converts coming in to Nauvoo and to see what their expectations were. He regularly acted in ways that some thought were inappropriate for a prophet. One of the more widely known stories in the later 19th century was this one, recorded by William Allred and published in 1892:

I was with him [Joseph Smith] in the troubles at DeWitt, Adam-ondi-ahman, and in Far West. I have played ball with him many times in Nauvoo. He was preaching once, and he said it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys. He then related a story of a certain prophet who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time. Another time when I heard him preaching he said if he should tell the people all the Lord had revealed to him, some would seek his life. Even as good a man as old Father C—-, here on the stand, he added, (pointing back to him) would seek his life.[37]

There is this story, and it sounds like something we might expect, but it tends to have problems when we realize that this entire story is based on a much older story about the New Testament apostle John. Here is a version of that story, published by Fracis De Sales, in 1609:

It is necessary sometimes to relax our minds as well as our bodies by some kind of recreation. St. John the Evangelist, as Cassian relates, was one day found by a huntsman with a partridge on his hand, which he was caressing for his recreation. The huntsman asked how such a man as he could spend his time in so poor and mean an occupation? St. John replied: Why dost thou not carry thy bow always bent? For fear, answered the huntsman, that if it were always bent, it would loose its spring and become useless. Be not surprised, then, replied the apostle, that I should sometimes remit a little of the close application and attention of my spirit and enjoy a little recreation, that I may afterward employ myself more fervently in divine contemplation.[38]

Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking tea?

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today

Joseph Smith is reported as drinking tea on a few occasions. Does this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day.

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today. It was not enforced as rigorously, or with the same requirements, in Joseph Smith's day. It was not the strict test of fellowships that it is for the modern member. Many speakers emphasized the Lord's patience in this matter, as applied to both leaders and members.

But, many of the events described are actually concerned about medical practice, not the social or recreational use of these substances. For example, one might be shocked to learn that President Kimball used morphine—however, the morphine was prescribed for cancer pain by a physician.

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal. Why would this be?

In consulting the journal entry, we read: "Saturday, March 11th Too cold last night as to freeze [p.332] water in the warmest rooms in the city. River filled with anchor ice. 8 1/2 o'clock in the office, Joseph said he had tea with his breakfast." [39]

In Joseph's day, some medical thinking held that "hot drinks" (such as tea and coffee) could heat the body and vital fluids. While this was usually regarded as a bad idea that would be dangerous to health:

I found, after maturely considering the subject, that all animal bodies are formed of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Earth and water constitute the solids, and air and fire, or heat, are the cause of life and motion. That cold, or lessening the power of heat, is the cause of all disease; that to restore heat to its natural state, was the only way by which health could be produced;....a state of perfect health arises from a due balance or temperature of the four elements; but if it is by any means destroyed, the body is more or less disordered. And when this is the case, there is always an actual diminution or absence of the element of fire, or heat; and in proportion to this diminution or absence, the body is affected by its opposite, which is cold. And I found that all disorders which the human family were afflicted with, however various the symptoms, and different the names by which they are called, arise directly from obstructed perspiration, which is always caused by cold, or want of heat ....[40]

This entry is from the works of Samuel Thomson, a founder of what became known as "Thomsonian herbalism." There were several Latter-day Saint physicians who were Thomsonians, including (significantly) Willard Richards, who wrote the diary entry we are here considering. The emphasis on loss of heat and lack of stimulation is significant—for it clashed with another set of medical principles, the "orthodox" or "heroic" doctors who came to believe that acute disease was not caused by lack of heat, but by too much energy, heat, or vital force: hence their prescriptions for bleeding, purging, and the like: to lower the energy or "heat." [41] Thus, under normal circumstances an 'energizing', 'hot', or 'stimulating' drink would be inappropriate.

There might, however, be exceptions. Thomson described a local woman who acted as a healer, and his admiration for her skill and methods is clear:

There was an old lady by the name of Benton lived near us, who used to attend our family when there was any sickness. At that time there was no such thing as a Doctor known among us, there not being any within ten miles. The whole of her practice was with roots and herbs, applied to the patient, or given in hot drinks, to produce sweating; which always answered the purpose. [42]

Thus, in a time of extreme cold, a "hot drink" like tea could be seen as a medicinal or preventative treatment which would help maintain health, since it would prevent the loss of the vital heat upon which the body depended. As a Thomsonian physician, Willard Richards (who wrote Joseph's journal for him) would have known and preached this. An "orthodox physician" (wary of heat, and more apt to bleed or purge) would have vigorously disagreed. [43]

By analogy, a modern member would be in violation of the Word of Wisdom if he or she injected morphine as a "recreational" drug. But, if the same drug was administered for a medical reason, the member would not be at fault. (Indeed, we might find fault with someone for refusing a medical treatment to maintain their health or cure an illness.)

That Richards was not surprised or offended by Joseph's consumption of tea on a bitterly cold winter morning demonstrates that Joseph's action was not the scandal that some wish to portray it as.

As one historian observed in 1972:

While the Saints opposed the common use of tea and coffee, it would appear that they had little objection to its occasional use for medicinal purposes. In an age when these items were frequenlty used as a relief for a wide variety of ailments, it would have been imprudent to have entirely forbidden their use.[44]

Did George A. Smith report that some church members left the church after finding that their leaders drank tea and coffee?

George A. Smith clearly intends his audience to see the converts' action as ridiculous

Some critics of the Church hope their readers will be shocked by George A. Smith's admission that Emma Smith offered some new converts a glass of tea. But, why would George A. Smith admit to Joseph committing a grave sin, if such it was? His account provides us with the clues:

I know persons who apostatized because they supposed they had reasons; for instance, a certain family, after having travelled a long journey, arrived in Kirtland, and the prophet asked them to stop with him until they could find a place. Sister Emma, in the mean time, asked the old lady if she would have a cup of tea to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey, or a cup of coffee. This whole family apostatized because they were invited to take a cup of tea or coffee, after the Word of Wisdom was given. [45]

It is significant that George A. Smith says Emma made the offer "to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey." This is not merely a polite offer of something to drink—it is suggesting that the old woman may be particularly vulnerable to having her "vital heat" diminished by the rigors of a long journey exposed to the elements. Emma is probably making a health-related offer, not just offering a social beverage as we would today. Difficulties in assuring clean water supplies also make tea or coffee a sometimes wiser choice for health. Both coffee and tea are made from boiled water, which will kill bacteria. Even without boiling, the tannic acid in tea would kill the bacteria that caused such scourges as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery—all real risks on the American frontier. [46]

George A. Smith clearly intends his audience to see the converts' action as ridiculous—the Word of Wisdom did not forbid the maintenance of health.

Did Willard Richards violate the Word of Wisdom by using tobacco at Carthage Jail?

Joseph Smith obtained some tobacco for a friend while in Carthage Jail prior to being martyred. Doesn't this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day. The tobacco was intended for medicinal purposes.

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. Thomson was the name of the founder of this school of practice, which differed from the practice of the "orthodox" medical doctors, who focused on balancing humors, purging, inducing diarrhea, and so forth.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal

An aspect of Thomsonian medicine was Thomson's enthusiasm for the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal.

Tobacco for Willard Richards

Willard Richards, who was in jail with Joseph, was a Thomsonian physician. This was a branch of pre-modern medical practice which required minimal schooling. Thomson's followers' believed strongly in the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Critics Gerald and Sandra Tanner (p. 33) make a great deal of Joseph asking for a "pipe and tobacco" for Willard Richards. However, when we understand the circumstances, this action makes sense, and it has nothing to do with the Word of Wisdom. In the first place, we must realize that Joseph and Willard were locked in Carthage Jail.

Joseph had sent Stephen Markham out, as previous text unquoted by the Tanners tells us: "'Brother Markham...go get the doctor [i.e., Richards] something to settle his stomach,' [said Joseph,] and Markham went out for medicine. When he got the remedies desired...[the] Carthage Greys gathered round him, put him on his horse, and forced him out of the town at the point of the bayonet." So, Markham could not return, and none of the remedies he had obtained reached the jail. [47]

It is not clear which remedies Markham sought out—but he could not return. A Thomsonian like Richards would have probably seen tobacco as a medicinal drug, however—especially in a pinch when he could get nothing else. This would be particularly true if the tobacco was lobelia—it was the Thomsonian cure-all, literally.

The Tanners complain elsewhere about how in the History of the Church the words "pipe and some tobacco" were replaced by the word "medicine" (p. 471). But, this misses the point in a spectacular way—tobacco was considered a medicine at the time! Modern editors would not make this type of change to a historical text, but one can understand why rather than bother to explain about Thomsonian beliefs and medical practices, the editors of earlier times decided to simply "translate" the reason for the tobacco. The issue only becomes important, after all, when one is unfamiliar with early nineteenth century medicine.

There is further evidence that the tobacco was not seen as a problem by current or later leaders, since John Taylor's later account of the martyrdom in History of the Church mentions it very frankly and matter-of-factly:

Before the jailer came in, his boy brought in some water, and said the guard wanted some wine. Joseph gave Dr. Richards two dollars to give the guard; but the guard said one was enough, and would take no more.

The guard immediately sent for a bottle of wine, pipes, and two small papers of tobacco; and one of the guards brought them into the jail soon after the jailer went out. Dr. Richards uncorked the bottle, and presented a glass to Joseph, who tasted, as also Brother Taylor and the doctor, and the bottle was then given to the guard, who turned to go out. When at the top of the stairs some one below called him two or three times, and he went down.[48]

Since neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom. Leaders would not include this information if it made Joseph look bad. This should be our first clue that something else is going on.[49] Some critics, however, have not sought to understand, but merely to condemn by trusting that their audience will not understand the fine points of early nineteenth century frontier medicine.

Events surrounding the death of Joseph Smith

Summary: To learn more about the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage jail, follow this link.
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph utter a false prophecy and show disregard for the Word of Wisdom in telling Orson Hyde that he would drink wine with him in Palestine?

Joseph's prophecy of drinking wine with Hyde in Palestine is reminiscent of Jesus' promise to the apostles that he would drink of wine when the kingdom of God was come

Joseph's prophecy of drinking wine with Hyde in Palestine is reminiscent of Jesus' promise to the apostles that he would drink of wine when the kingdom of God was come (Luke 22:18) which was reiterated in a revelation to Joseph Smith (D&C 27:5). Joseph prophesied that he would drink with Hyde there—but whether he would go to Palestine in this life was something about which he immediately expressed uncertainty.

Those who offer this criticism make three errors:

  1. they do not cite the entire text
  2. they refuse to consider a fulfillment after this life.
  3. they ignore the Word of Wisdom's application in historical context.

The prophecy: "If I live I [will] take these b[r]ethren through these United States and through the world. I will make just as big a wake as God Almighty will let me"

Joseph was not certain that he would see Palestine during this life. As can be seen below, Joseph (1) prophesied that he would drink wine with Hyde in the Holy Land; and then (2) expressed hope that he would go with the Twelve to the Holy Land, but was aware he might not live, and left the matter to God's will:

Elder Hyde told of the excellent white wine he drank in the east [Palestine]. Joseph prophesied in the name of the Lord that he would drink wine with him in that country. Joseph [said], "From the 6th day of April next, I go in for preparing with all present for a Mission through the United States and when we arrive {page 143} at Maine we will take ship for England and so on to all countries where we are a mind for to go." P[r]e[se]nt: H[yrum] Smith, B[righam] Young, H[eber] C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, W[ilford] Woodruff, Geo[rge] A. Smith, [and] W[illard] Richards.

[Joseph said,] "We must write for John E. Page. We must love the whole Quorum. We must send Kings and Queens to Nauvoo and we will do it. We must all start from this place. Let the 12 [Apostles] be called in on the {page 143} 6th of April and a notice be given for a special conference on the platform on [the] House of the Lord. We are sure to go as we live till spring. If I live I [will] take these b[r]ethren through these United States and through the world. I will make just as big a wake as God Almighty will let me."[50]

In Joseph's day, wine was not forbidden by the Word of Wisdom

Once again, critics count on their audience thinking that the prophets have commanded the same degree of observance of the Word of Wisdom throughout Church history.


Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

To learn more about Joseph Smith: Word of Wisdom

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

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

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

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

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

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

Wednesday, 3.—Called at the office and drank a glass of wine with Sister Jenetta Richards, made by her mother in England, and reviewed a portion of the conference minutes.[51]


Articles about Joseph Smith

Revelations in Context: "Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture"

"The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013):

Nevertheless, it required time to wind down practices that were so deeply ingrained in family tradition and culture, especially when fermented beverages of all kinds were frequently used for medicinal purposes. The term "strong drink" certainly included distilled spirits like whiskey, which hereafter the Latter-day Saints generally shunned. They took a more moderate approach to milder alcoholic beverages like beer and "pure wine of the grape of the vine of your own make" (see D&C 89:6). For the next two generations, Latter-day Saint leaders taught the Word of Wisdom as a command from God, but they tolerated a variety of viewpoints on how strictly the commandment should be observed. This incubation period gave the Saints time to develop their own tradition of abstinence from habit-forming substances. By the early twentieth century, when scientific medicines were more widely available and temple attendance had become a more regular feature of Latter-day Saint worship, the Church was ready to accept a more exacting standard of observance that would eliminate problems like alcoholism from among the obedient. In 1921, the Lord inspired Church president Heber J. Grant to call on all Saints to live the Word of Wisdom to the letter by completely abstaining from all alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco. Today Church members are expected to live this higher standard.[52]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Sunday, after meeting, going through the gallery which had been occupied by those claiming, no doubt, to be gentlemen, and perhaps, brethren, you might have supposed that cattle had been standing around there and dropping their nuisances. Here and there were great quids of tobacco, and places a foot or two feet square smeared with tobacco juice. I wish the door-keepers, when, in the future, they observe any persons besmearing the seats and floor in this way to request them to leave the house; and, if they refuse and will not stop spitting about and besmearing their neighbors, just take them and lead them out carefully and kindly. It is an imposition for those claiming to be gentlemen to spit tobacco juice for ladies to draw their clothes through and besmear them, or to leave their dirt in the house. We request all addicted to this practice, to omit it while in this house. Elders of Israel, if you must chew tobacco, omit it while in meeting, and when you leave, you can take a double portion, if you wish to. [53]

Kate Holbrook: The Word of Wisdom: Development and Practice


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

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

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

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

As one historian noted:

it appears clear that Joseph Smith never interpreted the [Word of Wisdom] revelation as demanding total abstinence, but stressed moderation and self-control....He had no objections to using tobacco for medicinal purposes. With regard to wine and "strong drink" possibly the most accurate index to the Prophet's position was expressed by Benjamin F. Johnson, who personally knew Joseph: "As a companion, socailly, he was highly endowed; was kind, generous, mirth loving, and a times even convivial. He was partial to a well supplied table and he did not always refuse the wine that maketh the heart glad."[54]

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence suggests that the drinking of tea, coffee, and liquor was [in the 1830s] in general violation of the principle [of the Word of Wisdom], though exceptions can be found. All of these items were used by the Saints for medicinal purposes. Moderate wine-drinking was evidently acceptable to most Church leaders....[27] In short, it would seem that adherence to the revelation to at least 1839 required Church members to be moderately temperate but certainly [did] not [require] total abstinence....[4]

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

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

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

Here's what Joseph said,

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

I called the brethren in and investigated the case, and was satisfied that no evil had been done, and gave them a couple of dollars, with directions to replenish the bottle to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.[55]

The complete prohibition on alcohol was phased in gradually

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

Did Joseph Smith appear in public smoking a cigar right after teaching a sermon on the Word of Wisdom?

This accusation was made by Amasa Lyman, who had already been excommunicated from the Church

Abraham H. Cannon made an entry in his diary stating that Amasa Lyman saw Joseph Smith smoking the cigar immediately after delivering a sermon on the Word of Wisdom and that he immediately afterward "rode through the streets smoking a cigar" in order to try "the faith of the Saints."[56] At the time that Lyman made this accusation, he had already been excommunicated from the Church.

We ought to start with a degree of suspicion when we hear stories like this, because Joseph really did to things on occasion to test the Saints

These sorts of things really call into question a lot of these kinds of stories - especially when they are published long after the events they claim to be portraying (and the cigar story is certainly that). By the time these stories develop, we have these cultural myths being created about Joseph Smith. And so when we have this story about the Amasa Lyman encounter that first shows up in Abraham Canon's journal in 1895, we ought to start with a degree of suspicion. The problem we have with stories like this is that Joseph really did on occasion do things to test the Saints. He liked to go down to the boats at Nauvoo dressed poorly so as to interact with the new converts coming in to Nauvoo and to see what their expectations were. He regularly acted in ways that some thought were inappropriate for a prophet. One of the more widely known stories in the later 19th century was this one, recorded by William Allred and published in 1892:

I was with him [Joseph Smith] in the troubles at DeWitt, Adam-ondi-ahman, and in Far West. I have played ball with him many times in Nauvoo. He was preaching once, and he said it tried some of the pious folks to see him play ball with the boys. He then related a story of a certain prophet who was sitting under the shade of a tree amusing himself in some way, when a hunter came along with his bow and arrow, and reproved him. The prophet asked him if he kept his bow strung up all the time. The hunter answered that he did not. The prophet asked why, and he said it would lose its elasticity if he did. The prophet said it was just so with his mind, he did not want it strung up all the time. Another time when I heard him preaching he said if he should tell the people all the Lord had revealed to him, some would seek his life. Even as good a man as old Father C—-, here on the stand, he added, (pointing back to him) would seek his life.[57]

There is this story, and it sounds like something we might expect, but it tends to have problems when we realize that this entire story is based on a much older story about the New Testament apostle John. Here is a version of that story, published by Fracis De Sales, in 1609:

It is necessary sometimes to relax our minds as well as our bodies by some kind of recreation. St. John the Evangelist, as Cassian relates, was one day found by a huntsman with a partridge on his hand, which he was caressing for his recreation. The huntsman asked how such a man as he could spend his time in so poor and mean an occupation? St. John replied: Why dost thou not carry thy bow always bent? For fear, answered the huntsman, that if it were always bent, it would loose its spring and become useless. Be not surprised, then, replied the apostle, that I should sometimes remit a little of the close application and attention of my spirit and enjoy a little recreation, that I may afterward employ myself more fervently in divine contemplation.[58]

Did Joseph Smith violate the Word of Wisdom by drinking tea?

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today

Joseph Smith is reported as drinking tea on a few occasions. Does this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day.

The Word of Wisdom was enforced differently in the 19th century than today. It was not enforced as rigorously, or with the same requirements, in Joseph Smith's day. It was not the strict test of fellowships that it is for the modern member. Many speakers emphasized the Lord's patience in this matter, as applied to both leaders and members.

But, many of the events described are actually concerned about medical practice, not the social or recreational use of these substances. For example, one might be shocked to learn that President Kimball used morphine—however, the morphine was prescribed for cancer pain by a physician.

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal

Joseph's use of tea may have been an exceptional event, worthy of note in his journal. Why would this be?

In consulting the journal entry, we read: "Saturday, March 11th Too cold last night as to freeze [p.332] water in the warmest rooms in the city. River filled with anchor ice. 8 1/2 o'clock in the office, Joseph said he had tea with his breakfast." [59]

In Joseph's day, some medical thinking held that "hot drinks" (such as tea and coffee) could heat the body and vital fluids. While this was usually regarded as a bad idea that would be dangerous to health:

I found, after maturely considering the subject, that all animal bodies are formed of the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Earth and water constitute the solids, and air and fire, or heat, are the cause of life and motion. That cold, or lessening the power of heat, is the cause of all disease; that to restore heat to its natural state, was the only way by which health could be produced;....a state of perfect health arises from a due balance or temperature of the four elements; but if it is by any means destroyed, the body is more or less disordered. And when this is the case, there is always an actual diminution or absence of the element of fire, or heat; and in proportion to this diminution or absence, the body is affected by its opposite, which is cold. And I found that all disorders which the human family were afflicted with, however various the symptoms, and different the names by which they are called, arise directly from obstructed perspiration, which is always caused by cold, or want of heat ....[60]

This entry is from the works of Samuel Thomson, a founder of what became known as "Thomsonian herbalism." There were several Latter-day Saint physicians who were Thomsonians, including (significantly) Willard Richards, who wrote the diary entry we are here considering. The emphasis on loss of heat and lack of stimulation is significant—for it clashed with another set of medical principles, the "orthodox" or "heroic" doctors who came to believe that acute disease was not caused by lack of heat, but by too much energy, heat, or vital force: hence their prescriptions for bleeding, purging, and the like: to lower the energy or "heat." [61] Thus, under normal circumstances an 'energizing', 'hot', or 'stimulating' drink would be inappropriate.

There might, however, be exceptions. Thomson described a local woman who acted as a healer, and his admiration for her skill and methods is clear:

There was an old lady by the name of Benton lived near us, who used to attend our family when there was any sickness. At that time there was no such thing as a Doctor known among us, there not being any within ten miles. The whole of her practice was with roots and herbs, applied to the patient, or given in hot drinks, to produce sweating; which always answered the purpose. [62]

Thus, in a time of extreme cold, a "hot drink" like tea could be seen as a medicinal or preventative treatment which would help maintain health, since it would prevent the loss of the vital heat upon which the body depended. As a Thomsonian physician, Willard Richards (who wrote Joseph's journal for him) would have known and preached this. An "orthodox physician" (wary of heat, and more apt to bleed or purge) would have vigorously disagreed. [63]

By analogy, a modern member would be in violation of the Word of Wisdom if he or she injected morphine as a "recreational" drug. But, if the same drug was administered for a medical reason, the member would not be at fault. (Indeed, we might find fault with someone for refusing a medical treatment to maintain their health or cure an illness.)

That Richards was not surprised or offended by Joseph's consumption of tea on a bitterly cold winter morning demonstrates that Joseph's action was not the scandal that some wish to portray it as.

As one historian observed in 1972:

While the Saints opposed the common use of tea and coffee, it would appear that they had little objection to its occasional use for medicinal purposes. In an age when these items were frequenlty used as a relief for a wide variety of ailments, it would have been imprudent to have entirely forbidden their use.[64]

Did George A. Smith report that some church members left the church after finding that their leaders drank tea and coffee?

George A. Smith clearly intends his audience to see the converts' action as ridiculous

Some critics of the Church hope their readers will be shocked by George A. Smith's admission that Emma Smith offered some new converts a glass of tea. But, why would George A. Smith admit to Joseph committing a grave sin, if such it was? His account provides us with the clues:

I know persons who apostatized because they supposed they had reasons; for instance, a certain family, after having travelled a long journey, arrived in Kirtland, and the prophet asked them to stop with him until they could find a place. Sister Emma, in the mean time, asked the old lady if she would have a cup of tea to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey, or a cup of coffee. This whole family apostatized because they were invited to take a cup of tea or coffee, after the Word of Wisdom was given. [65]

It is significant that George A. Smith says Emma made the offer "to refresh her after the fatigues of the journey." This is not merely a polite offer of something to drink—it is suggesting that the old woman may be particularly vulnerable to having her "vital heat" diminished by the rigors of a long journey exposed to the elements. Emma is probably making a health-related offer, not just offering a social beverage as we would today. Difficulties in assuring clean water supplies also make tea or coffee a sometimes wiser choice for health. Both coffee and tea are made from boiled water, which will kill bacteria. Even without boiling, the tannic acid in tea would kill the bacteria that caused such scourges as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery—all real risks on the American frontier. [66]

George A. Smith clearly intends his audience to see the converts' action as ridiculous—the Word of Wisdom did not forbid the maintenance of health.

Did Willard Richards violate the Word of Wisdom by using tobacco at Carthage Jail?

Joseph Smith obtained some tobacco for a friend while in Carthage Jail prior to being martyred. Doesn't this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day. The tobacco was intended for medicinal purposes.

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. Thomson was the name of the founder of this school of practice, which differed from the practice of the "orthodox" medical doctors, who focused on balancing humors, purging, inducing diarrhea, and so forth.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal

An aspect of Thomsonian medicine was Thomson's enthusiasm for the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal.

Tobacco for Willard Richards

Willard Richards, who was in jail with Joseph, was a Thomsonian physician. This was a branch of pre-modern medical practice which required minimal schooling. Thomson's followers' believed strongly in the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Critics Gerald and Sandra Tanner (p. 33) make a great deal of Joseph asking for a "pipe and tobacco" for Willard Richards. However, when we understand the circumstances, this action makes sense, and it has nothing to do with the Word of Wisdom. In the first place, we must realize that Joseph and Willard were locked in Carthage Jail.

Joseph had sent Stephen Markham out, as previous text unquoted by the Tanners tells us: "'Brother Markham...go get the doctor [i.e., Richards] something to settle his stomach,' [said Joseph,] and Markham went out for medicine. When he got the remedies desired...[the] Carthage Greys gathered round him, put him on his horse, and forced him out of the town at the point of the bayonet." So, Markham could not return, and none of the remedies he had obtained reached the jail. [67]

It is not clear which remedies Markham sought out—but he could not return. A Thomsonian like Richards would have probably seen tobacco as a medicinal drug, however—especially in a pinch when he could get nothing else. This would be particularly true if the tobacco was lobelia—it was the Thomsonian cure-all, literally.

The Tanners complain elsewhere about how in the History of the Church the words "pipe and some tobacco" were replaced by the word "medicine" (p. 471). But, this misses the point in a spectacular way—tobacco was considered a medicine at the time! Modern editors would not make this type of change to a historical text, but one can understand why rather than bother to explain about Thomsonian beliefs and medical practices, the editors of earlier times decided to simply "translate" the reason for the tobacco. The issue only becomes important, after all, when one is unfamiliar with early nineteenth century medicine.

There is further evidence that the tobacco was not seen as a problem by current or later leaders, since John Taylor's later account of the martyrdom in History of the Church mentions it very frankly and matter-of-factly:

Before the jailer came in, his boy brought in some water, and said the guard wanted some wine. Joseph gave Dr. Richards two dollars to give the guard; but the guard said one was enough, and would take no more.

The guard immediately sent for a bottle of wine, pipes, and two small papers of tobacco; and one of the guards brought them into the jail soon after the jailer went out. Dr. Richards uncorked the bottle, and presented a glass to Joseph, who tasted, as also Brother Taylor and the doctor, and the bottle was then given to the guard, who turned to go out. When at the top of the stairs some one below called him two or three times, and he went down.[68]

Since neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom. Leaders would not include this information if it made Joseph look bad. This should be our first clue that something else is going on.[69] Some critics, however, have not sought to understand, but merely to condemn by trusting that their audience will not understand the fine points of early nineteenth century frontier medicine.

Events surrounding the death of Joseph Smith

Summary: To learn more about the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage jail, follow this link.
Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Did Joseph utter a false prophecy and show disregard for the Word of Wisdom in telling Orson Hyde that he would drink wine with him in Palestine?

Joseph's prophecy of drinking wine with Hyde in Palestine is reminiscent of Jesus' promise to the apostles that he would drink of wine when the kingdom of God was come

Joseph's prophecy of drinking wine with Hyde in Palestine is reminiscent of Jesus' promise to the apostles that he would drink of wine when the kingdom of God was come (Luke 22:18) which was reiterated in a revelation to Joseph Smith (D&C 27:5). Joseph prophesied that he would drink with Hyde there—but whether he would go to Palestine in this life was something about which he immediately expressed uncertainty.

Those who offer this criticism make three errors:

  1. they do not cite the entire text
  2. they refuse to consider a fulfillment after this life.
  3. they ignore the Word of Wisdom's application in historical context.

The prophecy: "If I live I [will] take these b[r]ethren through these United States and through the world. I will make just as big a wake as God Almighty will let me"

Joseph was not certain that he would see Palestine during this life. As can be seen below, Joseph (1) prophesied that he would drink wine with Hyde in the Holy Land; and then (2) expressed hope that he would go with the Twelve to the Holy Land, but was aware he might not live, and left the matter to God's will:

Elder Hyde told of the excellent white wine he drank in the east [Palestine]. Joseph prophesied in the name of the Lord that he would drink wine with him in that country. Joseph [said], "From the 6th day of April next, I go in for preparing with all present for a Mission through the United States and when we arrive {page 143} at Maine we will take ship for England and so on to all countries where we are a mind for to go." P[r]e[se]nt: H[yrum] Smith, B[righam] Young, H[eber] C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, W[ilford] Woodruff, Geo[rge] A. Smith, [and] W[illard] Richards.

[Joseph said,] "We must write for John E. Page. We must love the whole Quorum. We must send Kings and Queens to Nauvoo and we will do it. We must all start from this place. Let the 12 [Apostles] be called in on the {page 143} 6th of April and a notice be given for a special conference on the platform on [the] House of the Lord. We are sure to go as we live till spring. If I live I [will] take these b[r]ethren through these United States and through the world. I will make just as big a wake as God Almighty will let me."[70]

In Joseph's day, wine was not forbidden by the Word of Wisdom

Once again, critics count on their audience thinking that the prophets have commanded the same degree of observance of the Word of Wisdom throughout Church history.


Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

To learn more about Joseph Smith: Word of Wisdom

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

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

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

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

FAIR's Response

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

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

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

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

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

Wine was used at the Sacrament in Kirtland and one Saturday Joseph the Prophet sent someone to the store to buy wine for the next day. Joseph started then to go home and on the way an angel of God met him and told him to buy no more wine of the enemies for the Sacrament, but use water, until they should make wine new themselves for their enemies would try to kill the saints with poison in wine.[71]


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

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

Joseph claimed to be able to translate a Greek psalter.

Author's sources:

FAIR's Response

Fact checking results: This claim is false

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


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

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

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

There is no other evidence of Caswall's claim save his anti-Mormon work. That Caswall took no steps in Nauvoo to get Joseph on record is fatally suspicious, since this was the entire reason he claimed to be there. He is also clearly attempting to make Joseph Smith appear uncouth and ignorant, having him say "them plates" and "them characters", when this contrasts markedly with other known examples of Joseph's speaking and writing style at the time. [72] Furthermore, Joseph was familiar enough with Greek to recognize Greek characters, and so is unlikely to have mistaken them for an unknown language—even if we believe Joseph was attempting to deceive Caswall, it seems unlikely he would fail to recognize the characters of a language he had studied.

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

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

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

He [Joseph Smith] has a downcast look, and possesses none of that open and straightforward expression which generally characterizes an honest man. His language is uncouth and ungrammatical, indicating very confused notions respecting syntactical concords. When an ancient Greek manuscript of the Psalms was exhibited to him as a test of his scholarship, he boldly pronounced it to be a "Dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said, "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics, and them which follows is the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian language. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates." [73]

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

Of this claim, John Taylor would later say:

Concerning Mr. Caswall, I was at Nauvoo during the time of his visit. He came for the purpose of looking for evil. He was a wicked man, and associated with reprobates, mobocrats, and murderers. It is, I suppose, true that he was reverend gentleman; but it has been no uncommon thing with us to witness associations of this kind, nor for reverend gentlemen; so called, to be found leading on mobs to deeds of plunder and death. I saw Mr. Caswall in the printing office at Nauvoo; he had with him an old manuscript, and professed to be anxious to know what it was. I looked at it, and told him that I believed it was a Greek manuscript. In his book, he states that it was a Greek Psalter; but that none of the Mormons told him what it was. Herein is a falsehood, for I told him. Yet these are the men and books that we are to have our evidence from. [74]

An earlier, more detailed account from Caswall

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

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

[p. 35] On entering the house, chairs were provided for the prophet and myself, while the curious and gaping crowd remained standing. I handed the book to the prophet, and begged him to explain its contents. He asked me if I had any idea of its meaning. I replied, that I believed it to be a Greek Psalter; but that I should like to hear his opinion. "No," he said; "it ain't Greek at all; except, perhaps, a few words. What ain't Greek, is Egyptian ; and what ain't Egyptian, is Greek. This book is very valuable. It is a dictionary of Egyptian Hieroglyphics." Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said : "Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics; and them which follows, is [p. 36] the interpretation of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates." Upon this, the Mormons around began to congratulate me on the information I was receiving. "There," they said ; "we told you so we told you that our prophet would give you satisfaction. None but our prophet can explain these mysteries." The prophet now turned to me, and said, "this book ain't of no use to you, you don't understand it." "Oh yes," I replied; "it is of some use; for if I were in want of money, I could sell it, and obtain, perhaps, enough to live on for a whole year." "But what will you take for it?" said the prophet and his elders. "My price," I replied, "is higher than you would be willing to give." "What price is that?" they eagerly demanded. I replied, "I will not tell you what price I would take; but if you were to offer me this moment nine hundred dollars in gold for it, you should not have it." They then repeated their request that I should lend it to them until the prophet should have time to translate it, and promised me the most ample security; but I declined all their proposals. [75]

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

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

It will be recollected by some, that a Mr. Caswall, professing to be an Episcopal minister, came to this city some twelve or eighteen months ago. He had with him an old manuscript, professing to be ignorant of its contents, and came to Joseph Smith, as he said, for the purpose of having it translated. Mr. Smith had a little conversation with him and treated him with civility, but as the gentleman seemed very much afraid of his document, he [Joseph] declined having any thing to do with it. [76]

There are suspicious differences between Caswall's accounts

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

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

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

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

Joseph studied Greek and would have recognized Greek letters

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

On 20 November 1835, Oliver Cowdery returned from New York and brought Joseph a Hebrew and Greek lexicon. [77] On 23 December 1835, Joseph wrote that he was "at home studying the greek Language..." [78]

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

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


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

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

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

FAIR's Response

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

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


Articles about Joseph Smith


What are the Kinderhook Plates?

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

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

A set of small plates, engraved with characters of ancient appearance, were purported to have been unearthed in Kinderhook, Illinois, in April 1843. The so-called "Kinderhook plates" have been something of an enigma within the Mormon community since they first appeared. While there are faithful LDS who take a number of different positions on the topic of these artifacts, most have concluded that they were fakes.

Joseph Smith appears to have had the plates in his possession for about five days.

Joseph Smith's personal secretary, William Clayton said,

President Joseph has translated a portion [of the Kinderhook plates], and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found; and he was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom through the ruler of heaven and earth.

Chemical analysis performed by the Chicago Historical Society on one of the plates in 1981 showed that the plates were fake.[79] Before the release of the CHS' analysis, criticism of the episode from those outside of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was infrequent.[80] After the release, criticism became much more frequent.[81] All critics have believed that this episode brings into question any claim of "inspiration" that Joseph used to translate the Kinderhook Plates and by extension any other revelations he received.

Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL)

However, Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL). (The GAEL was composed in Kirtland about the time of the translation of the Book of Abraham.) Joseph found one of the most prominent characters on the plates to match a character on the second page of characters in the GAEL. Both were boat shaped. The GAEL interpretation of this boat-shaped character included everything that William Clayton said Joseph said.

Corroborating this is a letter in the New York Herald for May 30th, 1843, from someone who signed pseudonymously as "A Gentile." Research shows "A Gentile" to be a friendly non-Mormon then living in Nauvoo by the name of Sylvester Emmons.[82] He wrote:

The plates are evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hieroglyphics. They were brought up and shown to Joseph Smith. He compared them, in my presence, with his Egyptian Alphabet…and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.

We know that Joseph was interested in languages. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and German in a secular manner. Therefore, we can easily believe that he attempted to translate the Kinderhook plates without assuming prophetic powers, which powers consequently remain credible.

There are 11 important documents to deal with when dealing with the Kinderhook Plates. This article examines all of them.

There exist several accounts that describe the plates. Not all of the account agree on the details.

William Clayton 1 May 1843

I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams 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. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth. [83]

Charlotte Haven 2 May 1843

Charlotte Haven claimed to have heard from a friend that Joseph:

said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written...thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them. So a sequel to that holy book may soon be expected.[84]

Brigham Young 3 May 1843

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.[85]

The Quincy Whig 3 May 1843

The Quincy Whig (a newspaper from a local town near Kinderhook) published their reaction to the plates. It reads:

Finally, a company of ten or twelve repaired to the mound, and assisted in digging out the shaft commenced by Wiley. After penetrating the mound about 11 feet, they came to a bed of limestone, that had apparently been subjected to the action of fire, they removed the stone, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found SIX BRASS PLATES, secured and fastened together by two iron wires, but which were so decayed, that they readily crumbled to dust upon being handled. The plates were so completely covered with rust as almost to obliterate the characters inscribed upon them; but after undergoing a chemical process, the inscriptions were brought out plain and distinct... [86]

Times and Seasons Editorial 3 or 4 of May 1843

Mr. Smith has had those plates, what his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained. The gentleman that owns them has taken them away, or we should have given a fac simile of the plates and characters in this number. We are informed however, that he purposes returning with them for translation; if so, we may be able yet to furnish our readers with it.

Joseph Smith Journal 7 May 1843

Joseph Smith's journal entry for 7 May 1843 reads:

May 7[th] Sunday 1843. forenoon visited by several gentlemen concerning the plates which were dug out of a mound near quncy [Quincy] sent by Wm Smith to the office for Hebrew Bible & Lexicon— Mr Vickers the wire dancer called. A.M.— court of 1st Preside[n]cy met & adjond [adjourned] one week, 2 P.P. [p.m.] 399President not well— councellors acted.—

evening preaching by Elder [Orson] Hyde text Luke 21 chapter.[87]

Parley P. Pratt's account 7 May 1843

Parley P. Pratt's account conflicts with Clayton's in some regards:

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. [88]

Comparison of Clayton and Pratt Accounts of Kinderhook Plates

Story Element Clayton Account Clayton Correct? Pratt Account Pratt Correct?
Skeleton Yes Incorrect Yes Incorrect
Size skeleton 9 feet Incorrect Normal size Incorrect
Depth buried 6 feet Incorrect 15 feet Incorrect
Location plates On breast of skeleton Incorrect No mention N/A
Dig site Adams county Incorrect Pike county Correct
Cement vase No mention Correct Mention Incorrect

John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff broadside 24 June 1843

The contents of the Plates, together with a Fac-simile of the same, will be published in the ‘Times & Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed.[89]

Wilbur Fugate 30 June 1879

Wilbur Fugate, one of the perpetrator's of the hoax, wrote a few decades later:

Our plans worked admirably. A certain Sunday was appointed for the digging. The night before, Wiley went to the Mound where he had previously dug to the depth of about eight feet, there being a flat rock that sounded hollow beneath, and put them under it. On the following morning quite a number of citizens were there to assist in the search, there being two Mormon elders present (Marsh and Sharp). The rock was soon removed but some time elapsed before the plates were discovered. I finally picked them up and exclaimed, 'A piece of pot metal!' Fayette Grubb snatched them from me and struck them against the rock and they fell to pieces. Dr. Harris examined them and said they had hieroglyphics on them. He took acid and removed the rust and they were soon out on exhibition. Under this rock (which) was dome-like in appearance (and) about three feet in diameter, there were a few bones in the last stage of decomposition, also a few pieces of pottery and charcoal. There was no skeleton found. [90]

Later he declared in affidavit:

Those plates are a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. … None of the nine persons who signed the certificate knew the secret, except Wiley and I. We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.’ [The quote is from Parley P. Pratt’s 1837 missionary tract Voice of Warning.] We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them. Bridge Whitton cut them out of some pieces of copper; Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates. When they were finished we put them together with rust made of nitric acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron, covering them completely with the rust.[91]

Stanley Kimball Article (Ensign, Aug 1981)

Stanley Kimball published findings demonstrating the plates 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.[92]

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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that is accurate, but will still probably misread readers because it doesn't explain the whole story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Joseph Smith attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates?

This data was introduced by Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video

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

Don Bradley presented compelling evidence during his 2011 FAIR Conference presentation that Joseph Smith did indeed attempt to translate a character on the Kinderhook Plates.[93] Bradley noted that William Clayton's account is likely representing personal and specific knowledge acquired from Joseph Smith, since evidence indicates that he made his journal entries that day while he was at the Prophet's home. Clayton's account states that

Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.

Bradley noted that one of the most prominent characters on the Kinderhook Plates (a symbol shaped like a boat), when broken down into its individual elements matched a symbol found on page 4 (the second page of characters) of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), often referred to as the "Egyptian Alphabet. The GAEL provides meanings for the individual symbols, and the meaning assigned to the particular symbol found on the plates supports the translation reported to have been provided by Joseph.

The conclusion is that Clayton's account appears to be accurate, that Joseph did attempt to translate "a portion" of them by non-revelatory means, and the translation provided matches a corresponding symbol and explanation in the GAEL.

  • As William Clayton noted in his journal, Joseph "translated a portion" of the Kinderhook plates. Joseph attempted to translate one of the characters on the plates by matching it to a similar character on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), a document that was produced in the same timeframe as the Book of Abraham. It is from the GAEL that he derived the "descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh" meaning.


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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that tells part of the story, but will still probably misread readers.

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

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

What does Joseph's attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates tell us about his "gift of translation?"

Joseph's attempt to translate manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God"

A critical graphic from "mormoninfographics" states that "Joseph didn't discern the fraud. The LDS Church now concedes it's a hoax. What does this tell us about Joseph Smith's gift of translation?"

Simply put, Joseph's attempt to translate the plates manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God."

Why is the statement of William Clayton regarding the Kinderhook Plates in History of the Church written as if Joseph Smith himself said it?

History of the Church was written in the "first person" after Joseph's death

It should be noted that the critical "mormoninfographic" includes a portion of a quote from History of the Church that is written as if it came from Joseph Smith.

The graphic is correct, but it is useful to know the actual source of the quote used by History of the Church.:

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Could the "Egyptian Alphabet" used in an attempt to translate the Kinderhook plates have actually been the Anthon transcript?

Summary: A non-Mormon made the following statement regarding the Kinderhook Plates: ""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..." Why does the non-Mormon eyewitness say that the "Egyptian Alphabet" was "from the plates which the Book of Mormon was translated?"

Don Bradley, "‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates"

Don Bradley,  Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference, (August 2011)
So, a larger conclusion that we can draw is that we’ve got both the smoking-gun – the GAEL that he uses to translate, and we’ve got an eyewitness. We know exactly how Joseph Smith attempted to translate from the Kinderhook plates and obtain the content that Clayton says he did. A larger conclusion, then, that we can draw is that Joseph Smith translated from the Kinderhook plates not by revelation, but by non-revelatory means.

Click here to view the complete article

Learn more about the Kinderhook plates
Key sources
  • Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video
  • Saints (lds.org 2018) "Kinderhook Plates"
  • Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax," Ensign 11 no. 8 (August 1981), 66–74.off-site
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • Ask the Apologist: How do we explain the early comments about the Kinderhook Plates? FAIR link
Online
Video
  • "The Kinderhook plates," BH Roberts Foundation print-link. Video version: "Was Joseph Smith tricked by the Kinderhook Plates?,"  (5 January 2024). video-link.
  • Don Bradley 2011 FairMormon Conference Presentation

  • The Interpreter Foundation

  • Saints Unscripted "Do the Kinderhook Plates Prove Joseph Smith Was a False Prophet?"

Print
  • Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:372. Volume 5 link
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Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Notes

  1. "The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013)
  2. Deseret News (11 May 1870): 160; reprinted in Brigham Young, "Fortieth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Millennial Star 32 no. 22 (31 May 1870), 346. See discussion of the history in Robert J. McCue, "Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 66–77.off-site
  3. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 38. The cited material is [Letter from BF Johnson to George F. Gibbs, 1903.]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972. Page numbers cited within text.
  5. Millennial Star 21:283
  6. October 1895 entry in theDiary of Abraham H. Cannon, Volume 19
  7. [citation needed]
  8. [citation needed]
  9. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 331.
  10. J.U. and C.G. Lloyd, "Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, and a history of the Thomsonian Materia Medica, as shown in "The New Guide to Health," (1835) and the literature of that day, &c." in Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica No. 11, Reproduction Series No. 7 (1909): 26. off-site (italics added)
  11. Lester E. Bush, Jr., "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth Century Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 49.
  12. Lloyd, 12. (emphasis added)
  13. Bush, 55
  14. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 23-24.
  15. George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses 2:214.
  16. Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses (New York, Walker Publishing Co., 2005), 135, 179.
  17. History of the Church, 6:616. Volume 6 link
  18. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  19. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  20. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 294.
  21. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:35.
  22. Ezra T. Benson, Journal of Discourses 11:367.
  23. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 14:20.
  24. Minutes of First Presidency and Council of Twelve Meeting, Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” May 5, 1898, Church Archives; cited in Thomas G. Alexander, "The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 78–88.off-site
  25. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  26. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 79.
  27. This exception had been permitted by the Word of Wisdom from the beginning (see D&C 89:5-6), though it was also clear that what one used for the sacramental emblems was not of primary doctrinal importance (see D&C 27:).
  28. Alexander, "Principle to Requirement," 82.
  29. See discussion in Joseph Fielding McConkie and Craig J. Ostler, Revelations of the Restoration: A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants and Other Modern Revelations (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1964), Doctrine and Covenants 89:2.
  30. McConkie and Ostler, ibid.
  31. Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report (October 1913), 14.
  32. "The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013)
  33. Deseret News (11 May 1870): 160; reprinted in Brigham Young, "Fortieth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Millennial Star 32 no. 22 (31 May 1870), 346. See discussion of the history in Robert J. McCue, "Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 66–77.off-site
  34. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 38. The cited material is [Letter from BF Johnson to George F. Gibbs, 1903.]
  35. Millennial Star 21:283
  36. October 1895 entry in theDiary of Abraham H. Cannon, Volume 19
  37. [citation needed]
  38. [citation needed]
  39. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 331.
  40. J.U. and C.G. Lloyd, "Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, and a history of the Thomsonian Materia Medica, as shown in "The New Guide to Health," (1835) and the literature of that day, &c." in Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica No. 11, Reproduction Series No. 7 (1909): 26. off-site (italics added)
  41. Lester E. Bush, Jr., "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth Century Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 49.
  42. Lloyd, 12. (emphasis added)
  43. Bush, 55
  44. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 23-24.
  45. George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses 2:214.
  46. Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses (New York, Walker Publishing Co., 2005), 135, 179.
  47. History of the Church, 6:616. Volume 6 link
  48. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  49. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  50. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 294.
  51. History of the Church 5:380.
  52. "The Word of Wisdom: D&C 89," Revelations in Context on history.lds.org (11 June 2013)
  53. Deseret News (11 May 1870): 160; reprinted in Brigham Young, "Fortieth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Millennial Star 32 no. 22 (31 May 1870), 346. See discussion of the history in Robert J. McCue, "Did the Word of Wisdom Become a Commandment in 1851?," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 66–77.off-site
  54. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 38. The cited material is [Letter from BF Johnson to George F. Gibbs, 1903.]
  55. Millennial Star 21:283
  56. October 1895 entry in theDiary of Abraham H. Cannon, Volume 19
  57. [citation needed]
  58. [citation needed]
  59. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 331.
  60. J.U. and C.G. Lloyd, "Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson, and a history of the Thomsonian Materia Medica, as shown in "The New Guide to Health," (1835) and the literature of that day, &c." in Bulletin of the Lloyd Library of Botany, Pharmacy and Materia Medica No. 11, Reproduction Series No. 7 (1909): 26. off-site (italics added)
  61. Lester E. Bush, Jr., "The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth Century Perspective," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1981), 49.
  62. Lloyd, 12. (emphasis added)
  63. Bush, 55
  64. Paul H. Peterson, "An Historical Analysis of the Word of Wisdom," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, 23-24.
  65. George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses 2:214.
  66. Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses (New York, Walker Publishing Co., 2005), 135, 179.
  67. History of the Church, 6:616. Volume 6 link
  68. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  69. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  70. Joseph Smith, An American Prophet's Record:The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, edited by Scott Faulring, Significant Mormon Diaries Series No. 1, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1989), 294.
  71. off-site
  72. Craig L. Foster, "Henry Caswall: Anti-Mormon Extraordinaire," Brigham Young University Studies 35 no. 4 (1995-96), 144–159.
  73. Henry Caswall, The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century, or, the Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints : To Which Is Appended an Analysis of the Book of Mormon (London: Printed for J. G. F. & J. Rivington, 1843), 223. off-site
  74. [John Taylor,] "Three Nights: A Public Discussion between the Revds. C. W. Cleeve, James Robertson, and Philip Cater, and Elder John Taylor of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France" (Liverpool: John Taylor, 1850), 5. off-site
  75. Rev. Henry Caswall, The City of the Mormons: Or, Three Days at Nauvoo in 1842 (London: Rivington, 1842), 5, 35–36.
  76. Unsigned author, "Reward of Merit," Times and Seasons 4 no. 23 (15 October 1843), 364. off-site GospeLink
  77. Dean Jessee, Ron Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (editors), The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1: 1832–1839 (Church Historian's Press, 2008), 107. ISBN 1570088497.
  78. Dean Jessee, Ron Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (editors), The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1: 1832–1839 (Church Historian's Press, 2008), 135. ISBN 1570088497.
  79. Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 11 (August 1981).
  80. Notable works that mentioned it are William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons: From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 (New York: Macmillan, 1902) and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Modern Microlm, 1969).
  81. Edward J. Decker and Dave Hunt, The God Makers: A Shocking Exposé of What the Mormon Church Really Believes (Eugene, OR: Harvest, 1984), 99–115; Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, 4th ed.(Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987); John Ahmanson, “The Book of Mormon," Ahmanson’s Secret History: A Translation of Vor Tids Muhamed, trns. Gleason L. Archer, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), 75–102; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 30–34, 259; Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts (American Fork, UT: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 77–80.
  82. 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, eds. Michael Hubbard McKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 499–502.
  83. William Clayton Diary, 1 May 1843. Printed in William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), 100.
  84. Charlotte Haven, "A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo," Overland Monthly 16, no. 96, December 1890, 630; letter written May 2, 1843.
  85. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University
  86. Quincy Whig Wednesday, 3 May 1842.
  87. "Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 2, 10 March 1843–14 July 1843," p. [195], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-2-10-march-1843-14-july-1843/203
  88. Parley P. Pratt letter to John Van Cott, Sunday, 7 May 1843, original in John Van Cott correspondence, Church Archives.
  89. See "A Brief Account of the Discovery of the Brass Plates Recently Taken from a Mound near Kinderhook, Pike County, Illinois," (Taylor & Woodruff, June 24, 1843).
  90. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date; cited in Welby W. Ricks, "The Kinderhook Plates," reprinted from Improvement Era (September 1962).
  91. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date
  92. Stanley Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 10 (August 1980).
  93. Don Bradley, "President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," FAIR Conference 2011.
Articles about Joseph Smith


What are the Kinderhook Plates?

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

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

A set of small plates, engraved with characters of ancient appearance, were purported to have been unearthed in Kinderhook, Illinois, in April 1843. The so-called "Kinderhook plates" have been something of an enigma within the Mormon community since they first appeared. While there are faithful LDS who take a number of different positions on the topic of these artifacts, most have concluded that they were fakes.

Joseph Smith appears to have had the plates in his possession for about five days.

Joseph Smith's personal secretary, William Clayton said,

President Joseph has translated a portion [of the Kinderhook plates], and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found; and he was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom through the ruler of heaven and earth.

Chemical analysis performed by the Chicago Historical Society on one of the plates in 1981 showed that the plates were fake.[1] Before the release of the CHS' analysis, criticism of the episode from those outside of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was infrequent.[2] After the release, criticism became much more frequent.[3] All critics have believed that this episode brings into question any claim of "inspiration" that Joseph used to translate the Kinderhook Plates and by extension any other revelations he received.

Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL)

However, Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL). (The GAEL was composed in Kirtland about the time of the translation of the Book of Abraham.) Joseph found one of the most prominent characters on the plates to match a character on the second page of characters in the GAEL. Both were boat shaped. The GAEL interpretation of this boat-shaped character included everything that William Clayton said Joseph said.

Corroborating this is a letter in the New York Herald for May 30th, 1843, from someone who signed pseudonymously as "A Gentile." Research shows "A Gentile" to be a friendly non-Mormon then living in Nauvoo by the name of Sylvester Emmons.[4] He wrote:

The plates are evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hieroglyphics. They were brought up and shown to Joseph Smith. He compared them, in my presence, with his Egyptian Alphabet…and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.

We know that Joseph was interested in languages. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and German in a secular manner. Therefore, we can easily believe that he attempted to translate the Kinderhook plates without assuming prophetic powers, which powers consequently remain credible.

There are 11 important documents to deal with when dealing with the Kinderhook Plates. This article examines all of them.

There exist several accounts that describe the plates. Not all of the account agree on the details.

William Clayton 1 May 1843

I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams 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. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth. [5]

Charlotte Haven 2 May 1843

Charlotte Haven claimed to have heard from a friend that Joseph:

said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written...thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them. So a sequel to that holy book may soon be expected.[6]

Brigham Young 3 May 1843

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.[7]

The Quincy Whig 3 May 1843

The Quincy Whig (a newspaper from a local town near Kinderhook) published their reaction to the plates. It reads:

Finally, a company of ten or twelve repaired to the mound, and assisted in digging out the shaft commenced by Wiley. After penetrating the mound about 11 feet, they came to a bed of limestone, that had apparently been subjected to the action of fire, they removed the stone, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found SIX BRASS PLATES, secured and fastened together by two iron wires, but which were so decayed, that they readily crumbled to dust upon being handled. The plates were so completely covered with rust as almost to obliterate the characters inscribed upon them; but after undergoing a chemical process, the inscriptions were brought out plain and distinct... [8]

Times and Seasons Editorial 3 or 4 of May 1843

Mr. Smith has had those plates, what his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained. The gentleman that owns them has taken them away, or we should have given a fac simile of the plates and characters in this number. We are informed however, that he purposes returning with them for translation; if so, we may be able yet to furnish our readers with it.

Joseph Smith Journal 7 May 1843

Joseph Smith's journal entry for 7 May 1843 reads:

May 7[th] Sunday 1843. forenoon visited by several gentlemen concerning the plates which were dug out of a mound near quncy [Quincy] sent by Wm Smith to the office for Hebrew Bible & Lexicon— Mr Vickers the wire dancer called. A.M.— court of 1st Preside[n]cy met & adjond [adjourned] one week, 2 P.P. [p.m.] 399President not well— councellors acted.—

evening preaching by Elder [Orson] Hyde text Luke 21 chapter.[9]

Parley P. Pratt's account 7 May 1843

Parley P. Pratt's account conflicts with Clayton's in some regards:

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. [10]

Comparison of Clayton and Pratt Accounts of Kinderhook Plates

Story Element Clayton Account Clayton Correct? Pratt Account Pratt Correct?
Skeleton Yes Incorrect Yes Incorrect
Size skeleton 9 feet Incorrect Normal size Incorrect
Depth buried 6 feet Incorrect 15 feet Incorrect
Location plates On breast of skeleton Incorrect No mention N/A
Dig site Adams county Incorrect Pike county Correct
Cement vase No mention Correct Mention Incorrect

John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff broadside 24 June 1843

The contents of the Plates, together with a Fac-simile of the same, will be published in the ‘Times & Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed.[11]

Wilbur Fugate 30 June 1879

Wilbur Fugate, one of the perpetrator's of the hoax, wrote a few decades later:

Our plans worked admirably. A certain Sunday was appointed for the digging. The night before, Wiley went to the Mound where he had previously dug to the depth of about eight feet, there being a flat rock that sounded hollow beneath, and put them under it. On the following morning quite a number of citizens were there to assist in the search, there being two Mormon elders present (Marsh and Sharp). The rock was soon removed but some time elapsed before the plates were discovered. I finally picked them up and exclaimed, 'A piece of pot metal!' Fayette Grubb snatched them from me and struck them against the rock and they fell to pieces. Dr. Harris examined them and said they had hieroglyphics on them. He took acid and removed the rust and they were soon out on exhibition. Under this rock (which) was dome-like in appearance (and) about three feet in diameter, there were a few bones in the last stage of decomposition, also a few pieces of pottery and charcoal. There was no skeleton found. [12]

Later he declared in affidavit:

Those plates are a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. … None of the nine persons who signed the certificate knew the secret, except Wiley and I. We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.’ [The quote is from Parley P. Pratt’s 1837 missionary tract Voice of Warning.] We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them. Bridge Whitton cut them out of some pieces of copper; Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates. When they were finished we put them together with rust made of nitric acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron, covering them completely with the rust.[13]

Stanley Kimball Article (Ensign, Aug 1981)

Stanley Kimball published findings demonstrating the plates 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.[14]

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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that is accurate, but will still probably misread readers because it doesn't explain the whole story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Joseph Smith attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates?

This data was introduced by Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video

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

Don Bradley presented compelling evidence during his 2011 FAIR Conference presentation that Joseph Smith did indeed attempt to translate a character on the Kinderhook Plates.[15] Bradley noted that William Clayton's account is likely representing personal and specific knowledge acquired from Joseph Smith, since evidence indicates that he made his journal entries that day while he was at the Prophet's home. Clayton's account states that

Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.

Bradley noted that one of the most prominent characters on the Kinderhook Plates (a symbol shaped like a boat), when broken down into its individual elements matched a symbol found on page 4 (the second page of characters) of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), often referred to as the "Egyptian Alphabet. The GAEL provides meanings for the individual symbols, and the meaning assigned to the particular symbol found on the plates supports the translation reported to have been provided by Joseph.

The conclusion is that Clayton's account appears to be accurate, that Joseph did attempt to translate "a portion" of them by non-revelatory means, and the translation provided matches a corresponding symbol and explanation in the GAEL.

  • As William Clayton noted in his journal, Joseph "translated a portion" of the Kinderhook plates. Joseph attempted to translate one of the characters on the plates by matching it to a similar character on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), a document that was produced in the same timeframe as the Book of Abraham. It is from the GAEL that he derived the "descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh" meaning.


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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that tells part of the story, but will still probably misread readers.

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

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

What does Joseph's attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates tell us about his "gift of translation?"

Joseph's attempt to translate manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God"

A critical graphic from "mormoninfographics" states that "Joseph didn't discern the fraud. The LDS Church now concedes it's a hoax. What does this tell us about Joseph Smith's gift of translation?"

Simply put, Joseph's attempt to translate the plates manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God."

Why is the statement of William Clayton regarding the Kinderhook Plates in History of the Church written as if Joseph Smith himself said it?

History of the Church was written in the "first person" after Joseph's death

It should be noted that the critical "mormoninfographic" includes a portion of a quote from History of the Church that is written as if it came from Joseph Smith.

The graphic is correct, but it is useful to know the actual source of the quote used by History of the Church.:

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Could the "Egyptian Alphabet" used in an attempt to translate the Kinderhook plates have actually been the Anthon transcript?

Summary: A non-Mormon made the following statement regarding the Kinderhook Plates: ""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..." Why does the non-Mormon eyewitness say that the "Egyptian Alphabet" was "from the plates which the Book of Mormon was translated?"

Don Bradley, "‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates"

Don Bradley,  Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference, (August 2011)
So, a larger conclusion that we can draw is that we’ve got both the smoking-gun – the GAEL that he uses to translate, and we’ve got an eyewitness. We know exactly how Joseph Smith attempted to translate from the Kinderhook plates and obtain the content that Clayton says he did. A larger conclusion, then, that we can draw is that Joseph Smith translated from the Kinderhook plates not by revelation, but by non-revelatory means.

Click here to view the complete article

Learn more about the Kinderhook plates
Key sources
  • Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video
  • Saints (lds.org 2018) "Kinderhook Plates"
  • Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax," Ensign 11 no. 8 (August 1981), 66–74.off-site
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • Ask the Apologist: How do we explain the early comments about the Kinderhook Plates? FAIR link
Online
Video
  • "The Kinderhook plates," BH Roberts Foundation print-link. Video version: "Was Joseph Smith tricked by the Kinderhook Plates?,"  (5 January 2024). video-link.
  • Don Bradley 2011 FairMormon Conference Presentation

  • The Interpreter Foundation

  • Saints Unscripted "Do the Kinderhook Plates Prove Joseph Smith Was a False Prophet?"

Print
  • Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:372. Volume 5 link
Navigators
Sub categories

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Notes

  1. Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 11 (August 1981).
  2. Notable works that mentioned it are William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons: From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 (New York: Macmillan, 1902) and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Modern Microlm, 1969).
  3. Edward J. Decker and Dave Hunt, The God Makers: A Shocking Exposé of What the Mormon Church Really Believes (Eugene, OR: Harvest, 1984), 99–115; Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, 4th ed.(Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987); John Ahmanson, “The Book of Mormon," Ahmanson’s Secret History: A Translation of Vor Tids Muhamed, trns. Gleason L. Archer, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), 75–102; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 30–34, 259; Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts (American Fork, UT: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 77–80.
  4. 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, eds. Michael Hubbard McKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 499–502.
  5. William Clayton Diary, 1 May 1843. Printed in William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), 100.
  6. Charlotte Haven, "A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo," Overland Monthly 16, no. 96, December 1890, 630; letter written May 2, 1843.
  7. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University
  8. Quincy Whig Wednesday, 3 May 1842.
  9. "Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 2, 10 March 1843–14 July 1843," p. [195], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-2-10-march-1843-14-july-1843/203
  10. Parley P. Pratt letter to John Van Cott, Sunday, 7 May 1843, original in John Van Cott correspondence, Church Archives.
  11. See "A Brief Account of the Discovery of the Brass Plates Recently Taken from a Mound near Kinderhook, Pike County, Illinois," (Taylor & Woodruff, June 24, 1843).
  12. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date; cited in Welby W. Ricks, "The Kinderhook Plates," reprinted from Improvement Era (September 1962).
  13. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date
  14. Stanley Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 10 (August 1980).
  15. Don Bradley, "President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," FAIR Conference 2011.
Articles about Joseph Smith


What are the Kinderhook Plates?

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

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

A set of small plates, engraved with characters of ancient appearance, were purported to have been unearthed in Kinderhook, Illinois, in April 1843. The so-called "Kinderhook plates" have been something of an enigma within the Mormon community since they first appeared. While there are faithful LDS who take a number of different positions on the topic of these artifacts, most have concluded that they were fakes.

Joseph Smith appears to have had the plates in his possession for about five days.

Joseph Smith's personal secretary, William Clayton said,

President Joseph has translated a portion [of the Kinderhook plates], and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found; and he was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom through the ruler of heaven and earth.

Chemical analysis performed by the Chicago Historical Society on one of the plates in 1981 showed that the plates were fake.[1] Before the release of the CHS' analysis, criticism of the episode from those outside of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was infrequent.[2] After the release, criticism became much more frequent.[3] All critics have believed that this episode brings into question any claim of "inspiration" that Joseph used to translate the Kinderhook Plates and by extension any other revelations he received.

Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL)

However, Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL). (The GAEL was composed in Kirtland about the time of the translation of the Book of Abraham.) Joseph found one of the most prominent characters on the plates to match a character on the second page of characters in the GAEL. Both were boat shaped. The GAEL interpretation of this boat-shaped character included everything that William Clayton said Joseph said.

Corroborating this is a letter in the New York Herald for May 30th, 1843, from someone who signed pseudonymously as "A Gentile." Research shows "A Gentile" to be a friendly non-Mormon then living in Nauvoo by the name of Sylvester Emmons.[4] He wrote:

The plates are evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hieroglyphics. They were brought up and shown to Joseph Smith. He compared them, in my presence, with his Egyptian Alphabet…and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.

We know that Joseph was interested in languages. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and German in a secular manner. Therefore, we can easily believe that he attempted to translate the Kinderhook plates without assuming prophetic powers, which powers consequently remain credible.

There are 11 important documents to deal with when dealing with the Kinderhook Plates. This article examines all of them.

There exist several accounts that describe the plates. Not all of the account agree on the details.

William Clayton 1 May 1843

I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams 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. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth. [5]

Charlotte Haven 2 May 1843

Charlotte Haven claimed to have heard from a friend that Joseph:

said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written...thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them. So a sequel to that holy book may soon be expected.[6]

Brigham Young 3 May 1843

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.[7]

The Quincy Whig 3 May 1843

The Quincy Whig (a newspaper from a local town near Kinderhook) published their reaction to the plates. It reads:

Finally, a company of ten or twelve repaired to the mound, and assisted in digging out the shaft commenced by Wiley. After penetrating the mound about 11 feet, they came to a bed of limestone, that had apparently been subjected to the action of fire, they removed the stone, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found SIX BRASS PLATES, secured and fastened together by two iron wires, but which were so decayed, that they readily crumbled to dust upon being handled. The plates were so completely covered with rust as almost to obliterate the characters inscribed upon them; but after undergoing a chemical process, the inscriptions were brought out plain and distinct... [8]

Times and Seasons Editorial 3 or 4 of May 1843

Mr. Smith has had those plates, what his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained. The gentleman that owns them has taken them away, or we should have given a fac simile of the plates and characters in this number. We are informed however, that he purposes returning with them for translation; if so, we may be able yet to furnish our readers with it.

Joseph Smith Journal 7 May 1843

Joseph Smith's journal entry for 7 May 1843 reads:

May 7[th] Sunday 1843. forenoon visited by several gentlemen concerning the plates which were dug out of a mound near quncy [Quincy] sent by Wm Smith to the office for Hebrew Bible & Lexicon— Mr Vickers the wire dancer called. A.M.— court of 1st Preside[n]cy met & adjond [adjourned] one week, 2 P.P. [p.m.] 399President not well— councellors acted.—

evening preaching by Elder [Orson] Hyde text Luke 21 chapter.[9]

Parley P. Pratt's account 7 May 1843

Parley P. Pratt's account conflicts with Clayton's in some regards:

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. [10]

Comparison of Clayton and Pratt Accounts of Kinderhook Plates

Story Element Clayton Account Clayton Correct? Pratt Account Pratt Correct?
Skeleton Yes Incorrect Yes Incorrect
Size skeleton 9 feet Incorrect Normal size Incorrect
Depth buried 6 feet Incorrect 15 feet Incorrect
Location plates On breast of skeleton Incorrect No mention N/A
Dig site Adams county Incorrect Pike county Correct
Cement vase No mention Correct Mention Incorrect

John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff broadside 24 June 1843

The contents of the Plates, together with a Fac-simile of the same, will be published in the ‘Times & Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed.[11]

Wilbur Fugate 30 June 1879

Wilbur Fugate, one of the perpetrator's of the hoax, wrote a few decades later:

Our plans worked admirably. A certain Sunday was appointed for the digging. The night before, Wiley went to the Mound where he had previously dug to the depth of about eight feet, there being a flat rock that sounded hollow beneath, and put them under it. On the following morning quite a number of citizens were there to assist in the search, there being two Mormon elders present (Marsh and Sharp). The rock was soon removed but some time elapsed before the plates were discovered. I finally picked them up and exclaimed, 'A piece of pot metal!' Fayette Grubb snatched them from me and struck them against the rock and they fell to pieces. Dr. Harris examined them and said they had hieroglyphics on them. He took acid and removed the rust and they were soon out on exhibition. Under this rock (which) was dome-like in appearance (and) about three feet in diameter, there were a few bones in the last stage of decomposition, also a few pieces of pottery and charcoal. There was no skeleton found. [12]

Later he declared in affidavit:

Those plates are a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. … None of the nine persons who signed the certificate knew the secret, except Wiley and I. We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.’ [The quote is from Parley P. Pratt’s 1837 missionary tract Voice of Warning.] We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them. Bridge Whitton cut them out of some pieces of copper; Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates. When they were finished we put them together with rust made of nitric acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron, covering them completely with the rust.[13]

Stanley Kimball Article (Ensign, Aug 1981)

Stanley Kimball published findings demonstrating the plates 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.[14]

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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that is accurate, but will still probably misread readers because it doesn't explain the whole story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Joseph Smith attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates?

This data was introduced by Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video

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

Don Bradley presented compelling evidence during his 2011 FAIR Conference presentation that Joseph Smith did indeed attempt to translate a character on the Kinderhook Plates.[15] Bradley noted that William Clayton's account is likely representing personal and specific knowledge acquired from Joseph Smith, since evidence indicates that he made his journal entries that day while he was at the Prophet's home. Clayton's account states that

Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.

Bradley noted that one of the most prominent characters on the Kinderhook Plates (a symbol shaped like a boat), when broken down into its individual elements matched a symbol found on page 4 (the second page of characters) of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), often referred to as the "Egyptian Alphabet. The GAEL provides meanings for the individual symbols, and the meaning assigned to the particular symbol found on the plates supports the translation reported to have been provided by Joseph.

The conclusion is that Clayton's account appears to be accurate, that Joseph did attempt to translate "a portion" of them by non-revelatory means, and the translation provided matches a corresponding symbol and explanation in the GAEL.

  • As William Clayton noted in his journal, Joseph "translated a portion" of the Kinderhook plates. Joseph attempted to translate one of the characters on the plates by matching it to a similar character on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), a document that was produced in the same timeframe as the Book of Abraham. It is from the GAEL that he derived the "descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh" meaning.


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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that tells part of the story, but will still probably misread readers.

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

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

What does Joseph's attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates tell us about his "gift of translation?"

Joseph's attempt to translate manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God"

A critical graphic from "mormoninfographics" states that "Joseph didn't discern the fraud. The LDS Church now concedes it's a hoax. What does this tell us about Joseph Smith's gift of translation?"

Simply put, Joseph's attempt to translate the plates manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God."

Why is the statement of William Clayton regarding the Kinderhook Plates in History of the Church written as if Joseph Smith himself said it?

History of the Church was written in the "first person" after Joseph's death

It should be noted that the critical "mormoninfographic" includes a portion of a quote from History of the Church that is written as if it came from Joseph Smith.

The graphic is correct, but it is useful to know the actual source of the quote used by History of the Church.:

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Could the "Egyptian Alphabet" used in an attempt to translate the Kinderhook plates have actually been the Anthon transcript?

Summary: A non-Mormon made the following statement regarding the Kinderhook Plates: ""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..." Why does the non-Mormon eyewitness say that the "Egyptian Alphabet" was "from the plates which the Book of Mormon was translated?"

Don Bradley, "‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates"

Don Bradley,  Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference, (August 2011)
So, a larger conclusion that we can draw is that we’ve got both the smoking-gun – the GAEL that he uses to translate, and we’ve got an eyewitness. We know exactly how Joseph Smith attempted to translate from the Kinderhook plates and obtain the content that Clayton says he did. A larger conclusion, then, that we can draw is that Joseph Smith translated from the Kinderhook plates not by revelation, but by non-revelatory means.

Click here to view the complete article

Learn more about the Kinderhook plates
Key sources
  • Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video
  • Saints (lds.org 2018) "Kinderhook Plates"
  • Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax," Ensign 11 no. 8 (August 1981), 66–74.off-site
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • Ask the Apologist: How do we explain the early comments about the Kinderhook Plates? FAIR link
Online
Video
  • "The Kinderhook plates," BH Roberts Foundation print-link. Video version: "Was Joseph Smith tricked by the Kinderhook Plates?,"  (5 January 2024). video-link.
  • Don Bradley 2011 FairMormon Conference Presentation

  • The Interpreter Foundation

  • Saints Unscripted "Do the Kinderhook Plates Prove Joseph Smith Was a False Prophet?"

Print
  • Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:372. Volume 5 link
Navigators
Sub categories

Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Notes

  1. Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 11 (August 1981).
  2. Notable works that mentioned it are William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons: From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 (New York: Macmillan, 1902) and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Modern Microlm, 1969).
  3. Edward J. Decker and Dave Hunt, The God Makers: A Shocking Exposé of What the Mormon Church Really Believes (Eugene, OR: Harvest, 1984), 99–115; Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, 4th ed.(Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987); John Ahmanson, “The Book of Mormon," Ahmanson’s Secret History: A Translation of Vor Tids Muhamed, trns. Gleason L. Archer, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), 75–102; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 30–34, 259; Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts (American Fork, UT: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 77–80.
  4. 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, eds. Michael Hubbard McKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 499–502.
  5. William Clayton Diary, 1 May 1843. Printed in William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), 100.
  6. Charlotte Haven, "A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo," Overland Monthly 16, no. 96, December 1890, 630; letter written May 2, 1843.
  7. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University
  8. Quincy Whig Wednesday, 3 May 1842.
  9. "Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 2, 10 March 1843–14 July 1843," p. [195], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-2-10-march-1843-14-july-1843/203
  10. Parley P. Pratt letter to John Van Cott, Sunday, 7 May 1843, original in John Van Cott correspondence, Church Archives.
  11. See "A Brief Account of the Discovery of the Brass Plates Recently Taken from a Mound near Kinderhook, Pike County, Illinois," (Taylor & Woodruff, June 24, 1843).
  12. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date; cited in Welby W. Ricks, "The Kinderhook Plates," reprinted from Improvement Era (September 1962).
  13. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date
  14. Stanley Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 10 (August 1980).
  15. Don Bradley, "President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," FAIR Conference 2011.
Articles about Joseph Smith


What are the Kinderhook Plates?

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

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

A set of small plates, engraved with characters of ancient appearance, were purported to have been unearthed in Kinderhook, Illinois, in April 1843. The so-called "Kinderhook plates" have been something of an enigma within the Mormon community since they first appeared. While there are faithful LDS who take a number of different positions on the topic of these artifacts, most have concluded that they were fakes.

Joseph Smith appears to have had the plates in his possession for about five days.

Joseph Smith's personal secretary, William Clayton said,

President Joseph has translated a portion [of the Kinderhook plates], and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found; and he was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom through the ruler of heaven and earth.

Chemical analysis performed by the Chicago Historical Society on one of the plates in 1981 showed that the plates were fake.[1] Before the release of the CHS' analysis, criticism of the episode from those outside of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was infrequent.[2] After the release, criticism became much more frequent.[3] All critics have believed that this episode brings into question any claim of "inspiration" that Joseph used to translate the Kinderhook Plates and by extension any other revelations he received.

Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL)

However, Joseph Smith "translated" a portion of those plates, not by claiming inspiration, but by comparing characters on the plates to those on his "Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language" (GAEL). (The GAEL was composed in Kirtland about the time of the translation of the Book of Abraham.) Joseph found one of the most prominent characters on the plates to match a character on the second page of characters in the GAEL. Both were boat shaped. The GAEL interpretation of this boat-shaped character included everything that William Clayton said Joseph said.

Corroborating this is a letter in the New York Herald for May 30th, 1843, from someone who signed pseudonymously as "A Gentile." Research shows "A Gentile" to be a friendly non-Mormon then living in Nauvoo by the name of Sylvester Emmons.[4] He wrote:

The plates are evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hieroglyphics. They were brought up and shown to Joseph Smith. He compared them, in my presence, with his Egyptian Alphabet…and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.

We know that Joseph was interested in languages. He studied Greek, Hebrew, and German in a secular manner. Therefore, we can easily believe that he attempted to translate the Kinderhook plates without assuming prophetic powers, which powers consequently remain credible.

There are 11 important documents to deal with when dealing with the Kinderhook Plates. This article examines all of them.

There exist several accounts that describe the plates. Not all of the account agree on the details.

William Clayton 1 May 1843

I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams 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. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth. [5]

Charlotte Haven 2 May 1843

Charlotte Haven claimed to have heard from a friend that Joseph:

said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written...thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them. So a sequel to that holy book may soon be expected.[6]

Brigham Young 3 May 1843

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.[7]

The Quincy Whig 3 May 1843

The Quincy Whig (a newspaper from a local town near Kinderhook) published their reaction to the plates. It reads:

Finally, a company of ten or twelve repaired to the mound, and assisted in digging out the shaft commenced by Wiley. After penetrating the mound about 11 feet, they came to a bed of limestone, that had apparently been subjected to the action of fire, they removed the stone, which were small and easy to handle, to the depth of two feet more, when they found SIX BRASS PLATES, secured and fastened together by two iron wires, but which were so decayed, that they readily crumbled to dust upon being handled. The plates were so completely covered with rust as almost to obliterate the characters inscribed upon them; but after undergoing a chemical process, the inscriptions were brought out plain and distinct... [8]

Times and Seasons Editorial 3 or 4 of May 1843

Mr. Smith has had those plates, what his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained. The gentleman that owns them has taken them away, or we should have given a fac simile of the plates and characters in this number. We are informed however, that he purposes returning with them for translation; if so, we may be able yet to furnish our readers with it.

Joseph Smith Journal 7 May 1843

Joseph Smith's journal entry for 7 May 1843 reads:

May 7[th] Sunday 1843. forenoon visited by several gentlemen concerning the plates which were dug out of a mound near quncy [Quincy] sent by Wm Smith to the office for Hebrew Bible & Lexicon— Mr Vickers the wire dancer called. A.M.— court of 1st Preside[n]cy met & adjond [adjourned] one week, 2 P.P. [p.m.] 399President not well— councellors acted.—

evening preaching by Elder [Orson] Hyde text Luke 21 chapter.[9]

Parley P. Pratt's account 7 May 1843

Parley P. Pratt's account conflicts with Clayton's in some regards:

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. [10]

Comparison of Clayton and Pratt Accounts of Kinderhook Plates

Story Element Clayton Account Clayton Correct? Pratt Account Pratt Correct?
Skeleton Yes Incorrect Yes Incorrect
Size skeleton 9 feet Incorrect Normal size Incorrect
Depth buried 6 feet Incorrect 15 feet Incorrect
Location plates On breast of skeleton Incorrect No mention N/A
Dig site Adams county Incorrect Pike county Correct
Cement vase No mention Correct Mention Incorrect

John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff broadside 24 June 1843

The contents of the Plates, together with a Fac-simile of the same, will be published in the ‘Times & Seasons,’ as soon as the translation is completed.[11]

Wilbur Fugate 30 June 1879

Wilbur Fugate, one of the perpetrator's of the hoax, wrote a few decades later:

Our plans worked admirably. A certain Sunday was appointed for the digging. The night before, Wiley went to the Mound where he had previously dug to the depth of about eight feet, there being a flat rock that sounded hollow beneath, and put them under it. On the following morning quite a number of citizens were there to assist in the search, there being two Mormon elders present (Marsh and Sharp). The rock was soon removed but some time elapsed before the plates were discovered. I finally picked them up and exclaimed, 'A piece of pot metal!' Fayette Grubb snatched them from me and struck them against the rock and they fell to pieces. Dr. Harris examined them and said they had hieroglyphics on them. He took acid and removed the rust and they were soon out on exhibition. Under this rock (which) was dome-like in appearance (and) about three feet in diameter, there were a few bones in the last stage of decomposition, also a few pieces of pottery and charcoal. There was no skeleton found. [12]

Later he declared in affidavit:

Those plates are a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. … None of the nine persons who signed the certificate knew the secret, except Wiley and I. We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.’ [The quote is from Parley P. Pratt’s 1837 missionary tract Voice of Warning.] We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them. Bridge Whitton cut them out of some pieces of copper; Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates. When they were finished we put them together with rust made of nitric acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron, covering them completely with the rust.[13]

Stanley Kimball Article (Ensign, Aug 1981)

Stanley Kimball published findings demonstrating the plates 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.[14]

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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that is accurate, but will still probably misread readers because it doesn't explain the whole story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Joseph Smith attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates?

This data was introduced by Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video

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

Don Bradley presented compelling evidence during his 2011 FAIR Conference presentation that Joseph Smith did indeed attempt to translate a character on the Kinderhook Plates.[15] Bradley noted that William Clayton's account is likely representing personal and specific knowledge acquired from Joseph Smith, since evidence indicates that he made his journal entries that day while he was at the Prophet's home. Clayton's account states that

Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.

Bradley noted that one of the most prominent characters on the Kinderhook Plates (a symbol shaped like a boat), when broken down into its individual elements matched a symbol found on page 4 (the second page of characters) of the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), often referred to as the "Egyptian Alphabet. The GAEL provides meanings for the individual symbols, and the meaning assigned to the particular symbol found on the plates supports the translation reported to have been provided by Joseph.

The conclusion is that Clayton's account appears to be accurate, that Joseph did attempt to translate "a portion" of them by non-revelatory means, and the translation provided matches a corresponding symbol and explanation in the GAEL.

  • As William Clayton noted in his journal, Joseph "translated a portion" of the Kinderhook plates. Joseph attempted to translate one of the characters on the plates by matching it to a similar character on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), a document that was produced in the same timeframe as the Book of Abraham. It is from the GAEL that he derived the "descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh" meaning.


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

This shows the hostile "Mormoninfographic" that tells part of the story, but will still probably misread readers.

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

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

What does Joseph's attempt to translate the Kinderhook Plates tell us about his "gift of translation?"

Joseph's attempt to translate manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God"

A critical graphic from "mormoninfographics" states that "Joseph didn't discern the fraud. The LDS Church now concedes it's a hoax. What does this tell us about Joseph Smith's gift of translation?"

Simply put, Joseph's attempt to translate the plates manually tells us that he didn't attempt to translate the plates using the "gift and power of God."

Why is the statement of William Clayton regarding the Kinderhook Plates in History of the Church written as if Joseph Smith himself said it?

History of the Church was written in the "first person" after Joseph's death

It should be noted that the critical "mormoninfographic" includes a portion of a quote from History of the Church that is written as if it came from Joseph Smith.

The graphic is correct, but it is useful to know the actual source of the quote used by History of the Church.:

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Could the "Egyptian Alphabet" used in an attempt to translate the Kinderhook plates have actually been the Anthon transcript?

Summary: A non-Mormon made the following statement regarding the Kinderhook Plates: ""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..." Why does the non-Mormon eyewitness say that the "Egyptian Alphabet" was "from the plates which the Book of Mormon was translated?"

Don Bradley, "‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates"

Don Bradley,  Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference, (August 2011)
So, a larger conclusion that we can draw is that we’ve got both the smoking-gun – the GAEL that he uses to translate, and we’ve got an eyewitness. We know exactly how Joseph Smith attempted to translate from the Kinderhook plates and obtain the content that Clayton says he did. A larger conclusion, then, that we can draw is that Joseph Smith translated from the Kinderhook plates not by revelation, but by non-revelatory means.

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Learn more about the Kinderhook plates
Key sources
  • Don Bradley, "'President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," Proceedings of the 2011 FAIR Conference (August 2011). link video
  • Saints (lds.org 2018) "Kinderhook Plates"
  • Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax," Ensign 11 no. 8 (August 1981), 66–74.off-site
Wiki links
FAIR links
  • Ask the Apologist: How do we explain the early comments about the Kinderhook Plates? FAIR link
Online
Video
  • "The Kinderhook plates," BH Roberts Foundation print-link. Video version: "Was Joseph Smith tricked by the Kinderhook Plates?,"  (5 January 2024). video-link.
  • Don Bradley 2011 FairMormon Conference Presentation

  • The Interpreter Foundation

  • Saints Unscripted "Do the Kinderhook Plates Prove Joseph Smith Was a False Prophet?"

Print
  • Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:372. Volume 5 link
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Source(s) of the criticism
Critical sources

Notes

  1. Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 11 (August 1981).
  2. Notable works that mentioned it are William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons: From the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 (New York: Macmillan, 1902) and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Archaeology and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Modern Microlm, 1969).
  3. Edward J. Decker and Dave Hunt, The God Makers: A Shocking Exposé of What the Mormon Church Really Believes (Eugene, OR: Harvest, 1984), 99–115; Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, 4th ed.(Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987); John Ahmanson, “The Book of Mormon," Ahmanson’s Secret History: A Translation of Vor Tids Muhamed, trns. Gleason L. Archer, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1984), 75–102; Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 30–34, 259; Jeremy T. Runnells, CES Letter: My Search for Answers to My Mormon Doubts (American Fork, UT: CES Letter Foundation, 2017), 77–80.
  4. 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, eds. Michael Hubbard McKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2020), 499–502.
  5. William Clayton Diary, 1 May 1843. Printed in William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), 100.
  6. Charlotte Haven, "A Girl’s Letters from Nauvoo," Overland Monthly 16, no. 96, December 1890, 630; letter written May 2, 1843.
  7. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University
  8. Quincy Whig Wednesday, 3 May 1842.
  9. "Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 2, 10 March 1843–14 July 1843," p. [195], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 30, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-december-1842-june-1844-book-2-10-march-1843-14-july-1843/203
  10. Parley P. Pratt letter to John Van Cott, Sunday, 7 May 1843, original in John Van Cott correspondence, Church Archives.
  11. See "A Brief Account of the Discovery of the Brass Plates Recently Taken from a Mound near Kinderhook, Pike County, Illinois," (Taylor & Woodruff, June 24, 1843).
  12. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date; cited in Welby W. Ricks, "The Kinderhook Plates," reprinted from Improvement Era (September 1962).
  13. W. Fugate to Mr. Cobb, 30 June 1879, Mound Station, Illinois and Fugate affidavit of same date
  14. Stanley Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be Nineteenth Century Hoax," Ensign 10 (August 1980).
  15. Don Bradley, "President Joseph Has Translated a Portion': Solving the Mystery of the Kinderhook Plates," FAIR Conference 2011.


Notes