This past weekend, we were blessed to hear from the prophets and some of our other church leaders during General Conference, and Sunday is Easter. The messages to focus on our Savior, avoid contention, and increase our ability to receive personal revelation, including from our patriarchal blessings, hit me especially hard this year. The very nature of this series, and of the previous one I did, means that I am wallowing in contention and things that cause the Spirit to flee. Though the tone of this letter is less overtly hostile than that of the CES Letter, the intent and the manipulations behind the words are identical. Because I’m surrounding myself with this kind of thing, sometimes it does diminish my capacity for personal revelation. It also means that sometimes, I don’t react with as much compassion and empathy as I’d like to.
This kind of material stirs up ill feelings in me toward the authors and that has a tendency to spread to other situations. There was a notable example just this past week. I went through a difficult experience that left me very upset and stressed out. With my emotions heightened, I didn’t react with as much understanding and grace as I probably should have. Because I learned of it shortly after working on last week’s post, that fed into how I was feeling and made it worse than it otherwise would have been. Conference was the balm of Gilead that I needed.
More than that, I was reminded again just how important it is to have the Spirit with us, guiding us and testifying of the truth, during these difficult times. It’s even more vital to have His influence with you when you’re reading and studying this kind of material.
Today’s topic is a big, full-color illustration of this principle. There’s a perfectly rational explanation for everything we’re about to discuss, but the ability to hear the Spirit and discern fact from fiction is key.
I am, of course, talking about the Kinderhook Plates.
To give a brief overview, a group of men in Kinderhook, Illinois—a small town located about 70 miles south of Nauvoo—forged a set of six small, metal, bell-shaped plates and scratched images on them. They then buried them in the ground and staged a dig where they “found” them. The plates made the papers and generated a fair bit of interest. In the audience that day happened to be a few members of the Church who eventually took the plates up to Joseph to see if he could translate them.
Joseph examined them in the presence of several other people, consulted a few resources, and gave a few remarks about them and their possible meaning. There is no further mention of them in Latter-day Saint history for decades, until a short mention of them ended up in what eventually became B.H. Roberts’s History of the Church compilation.
A few of those involved admitted to it being a hoax, but this wasn’t definitively proven until 1980. Until that time, the plates were not well-known, though several critics did point to them and some past Church leaders and historians did defend them as being real. Since 1980, they’ve been a much more common source of attack against the Church. We’ll discuss everything in more detail as we go along, but that’s the gist of it.
The Kinderhook Plates are six brass plates engraved by men from Illinois for the purpose of exposing Joseph Smith as someone who could not divinely translate ancient writings. This chapter covers the background, Joseph’s translation, the forgery claim, the 1953 test results, and the 1980 test results.
Not exactly. That was the common thought for a long time, and in fact, I said something similar when I responded to the CES Letter on this topic. But Mark Ashurst-McGee reached out to share some additional research he’d done with Don Bradley for a book titled Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity. Their chapter is titled “’President Joseph Has Translated a Portion’: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates,” and is probably the best source of information about this subject to date.
As they explain:
…[W]hile Fugate proudly admitted to being involved in the forging and planting of the plates, he did not boast of any ruse to get to the plates delivered to Smith. Instead he recounted that “the Mormons wanted to take the plates to Joe Smith, but we refused to let them go.” …One of Fugate’s sons, who related that the joke was well-known within his family, described the Kinderhook hoax not as an elaborate trap meant to ensnare the Mormon prophet upriver in Nauvoo, but rather “a little plan by which to startle the natives.” … The hoax was apparently only a community affair, not the well-laid trap for Joseph Smith that almost all historians, producers of anti-Mormon literature, Mormon apologists, and other writers have assumed. As Fugate explained, “the plates were made simply for a joke”—a little prank on the neighbors.
So, it was meant to be a prank, but not one made on Joseph. It had nothing to do with “exposing Joseph Smith as someone who could not divinely translate ancient writings.” They were just trying to play a joke on their community, and then it spiraled out to be a bigger issue than they’d anticipated.
“On April 23, 1843, a group of men excavated an old earth mound just outside the town of Kinderhook, Illinois, and came up with a most interesting find. The excavation was headed by Robert Wiley, a local merchant. After digging down about twelve feet, they came upon “fire burned rock, charcoal, ashes, and badly decomposed human bones. Near the [corner] a bundle was found that consisted of six plates of brass of a bell shape, each having a hole near the small end, a ring through them all and clasped with two clasps. The plates appeared to have some kind of writing on them but were so badly oxidized they could not be clearly distinguished until Dr. W. P. Harris, MD, treated them with a dilute solution of sulphuric acid which made them perfectly clear. They were completely covered with “hieroglyphics” on both sides. A certificate stating the facts of the find was drawn up and signed by nine of the men present and sent to nearby newspapers.” (Welby W. Ricks, The Kinderhook Plates, The Improvement Era, September 19, 1962)
This information is taken from an article from the old Improvement Era magazine, found on pages 636-637 and then continued on pages 656-660. Between B.H. Roberts defending the plates in the History of the Church and elsewhere, and when they were confirmed a hoax in 1980, this Improvement Era article from 1962 is the only defense of the plates in any official Church publication that I am aware of.
There were a few other mentions here and there. For example, Mark E. Peterson mentioned them briefly in a book in 1979, before they were confirmed a hoax, and just said that they were generally considered to be genuine due to the information contained in this Improvement Era article. However, none of these mentions were in official Church publications.
The article was written because two professional engravers examined the sole remaining plate and declared that the symbols were engraved, not etched with acid. Etching would prove them false, as that method was relatively new in 1843. Because they were confirmed engraved at that time, it was a sign that they were genuine, and the author clearly believed that they were.
This passage details Joseph’s experience with the plates.
“I insert facsimiles 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.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, May 1, 1843, vol.5 p.372)
Joseph claimed to translate the characters on the plates. He stated that the body they were found with was descended from Ham.
Nope. As I’ve mentioned before, the History of the Church was written to sound as though Joseph was speaking, when in reality, the comments were taken from multiple different sources and authors.
This bit was actually modified from William Clayton’s personal diary entry from May 1, 1843. Rather than saying “I have translated a portion,” it actually said, “President Joseph has translated a portion.”
Brigham Young was also with Joseph at the time he was studying the plates and recorded in his own journal:
“May 3rd 1843 I took this [sketch at right] at Joseph Smiths house found near Quincy.”
Yes, this one’s correct, aside from some typos. In addition to Brigham Young and William Clayton, we have several other contemporary mentions of the Kinderhook Plates. Notably, Willard Richards discussed it in Joseph’s own journal, though it only said that he sent for his Hebrew Bible and lexicon for research. The journal entry didn’t discuss any translation attempts.
Other contemporary mentions include: one from Nauvoo resident Charlotte Haven, who said that she heard from an anonymous friend that Joseph said the characters looked similar to those on the Book of Mormon, and that with God’s help he might be able to translate them; a letter from Parley P. Pratt to his cousin John Van Cott, in which he said that the writing was Egyptian and that Joseph had compared them to the papyrus rolls; a letter from the editor of the Times and Seasons (at that time, John Taylor) in which it was said that Joseph saw the plates and “what his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained”; and an anonymous letter to the New York Herald thought to be from Sylvester Emmons in which it says that Joseph compared the symbols to his Egyptian Alphabet papers. Other accounts can be found at FAIR.
There is no record of Joseph ever having personally said that the Kinderhook Plates were genuine or that he was able to translate them.
But what we do have is much more interesting: multiple sources saying that Joseph consulted various resources such as his Egyptian Alphabet papers, the papyrus rolls, and his Hebrew Bible and lexicon while he examined the plates.
You see, what it actually appears Joseph did was not to translate the plates by the gift and power of God, the way he did with the golden plates or the Egyptian papyri. Joseph, an avid but not fluent student of ancient languages, pulled out some of his books and papers and compared the symbols on the Kinderhook Plates to them.
He found one image on one plate that looked a bit like a deconstructed image in the GAEL (the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language book found among the Kirtland Egyptian Papers), and described what it would mean if the definition was accurate. Mormonr has a handy image showing this, which you can see here.
The definition given beside the dish symbol in the GAEL says it means “honor by birth, kingly power by the line of Pharaoh, possession by birth, one who reigns upon his throne universally — possessor of heaven and earth and of the blessings of the earth.”
This fits in with Abraham 1:21, which says:
Now this king of Egypt was a descendant from the loins of Ham, and was a partaker of the blood of the Canaanites by birth.
What did the definition supposedly given by Joseph say? That the owner of the plates seemed to be:
“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.”
That is word-for-word what you get when you combine the GAEL definition with Abraham 1:21. That was Joseph’s great translation effort. He compared the symbols to the ones he’d already copied down, found one that looked kind of similar, and simply read off the definition he’d come up with from the GAEL. He never claimed divine revelation for the translation, he never said it came by the power of God, he simply compared the symbols to ones he already had on hand.
- The Forgery Claim
In a letter, Wilbur Fugate, one of the men present during the excavation, claimed to have helped craft the plates.
“I received your letter in regard to those plates, and will say in answer that they 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 up out of the earth.” We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them, Bridge Whitton cut them out 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.
Our plans worked admirably. A certain Sunday was appointed for 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.” (Letter of Wilbur Fugate to James T. Cobb, 8 April 1878, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison, WI)
While this does appear to be the official date of the letter, it’s commonly attributed to June 30, 1879, when Fugate was deposed. If you see the two different dates and get confused, that’s why. The date is the least interesting thing about it, though. It goes through all of the details of how the hoax was perpetrated and is a short but fascinating read.
After the publication of this letter in W.W. Wyl’s anti-LDs Mormon Portraits, the Kinderhook Plates and Joseph’s examination of them became a subject of controversy. It wasn’t a common avenue of attack, but it was a persistent one until 1980. That’s when the criticisms really began to take off.
Faithful LDS members disregarded Fulgate’s story and held to Joseph’s translation of the plates and maintained that the plates were in fact ancient artifacts.
Yeah, some definitely did, especially after the engravers mistakenly confirmed that they were genuine. But even among Latter-day Saints, they weren’t really a topic of much knowledge or interest during the 20th Century.
- 1953 Test Results
Addressing the forgery claim of Wilbur Fugate, the Church used two professional engravers to examine the Kinderhook plates. The Improvement Era article goes on to state:
“Mr. Fugate said Wiley and he had etched the plates. Yet two professional engraves were invited to view the plates in 1953 and give their unbiased opinion about them – which they did freely and without charge. They stated clearly that the plate was engraved with a pointed instrument.”
“The plates are now back in their original category of genuine. What scholars may learn from this ancient record in future years or what may be translated by divine power is an exciting thought to contemplate. This much remains. Joseph Smith, Jun., stands as a true prophet and translator of ancient records by divine means and all the world is invited to investigate the truth which has sprung out of the earth not only of the Kinderhook plates, but of the Book of Mormon as well.” (Welby W. Ricks, The Kinderhook Plates, The Improvement Era. September 19, 1962)
The assessment was that the plates were authentic and Joseph was a true prophet. As late as the printing of this 1962 article, every prophet from Joseph Smith to David O. McKay believed the plates to be authentic.
I think it’s a stretch to say that “every prophet from Joseph Smith to David O. McKay believed the plates to be authentic.” We can’t confirm that at all. Most of the prophets never mentioned them. Only about 3-4 of them ever did. Even Joseph himself apparently asked that the plates be authenticated before he continued to try to translate them.
But even if they all did, it doesn’t matter much to me. I don’t expect my leaders to be perfect. They’re human beings, not divine ones, and as such, they make mistakes just like I do. Sometimes, they’re wrong. That doesn’t change their calling from God. It just means that I need to cut them some slack occasionally and, like it says in the Doctrine and Covenants, receive their words in all patience and faith.
- 1980 Test Results
It wasn’t until 1980, that LDS professor Stanley P. Kimball was able to secure permission to perform more scientific testing on the plates. In the August 1981 Ensign, the Church published an article detailing the processes, results and conclusion.
Yes. It’s an interesting article, though more research has since been done and some parts of it are badly out of date.
“These tests, involving some very sophisticated analytical techniques, were performed by Professor D. Lynn Johnson of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University.
Dr. Johnson used a scanning electron microscope (SEM) to examine the grooves that form the characters on the plate to determine whether they were cut or scratched with a tool or whether they were etched with acid. A scanning Auger microprobe (SAM) was used to detect any nitrogen residues that might have been left in the grooves as a result of etching with nitric acid.
The irregular, grainy texture characteristic of acid etching is evident, not a striated surface that would have been produced by an engraving tool. A thorough SEM examination of the characters on the plate brought Dr. Johnson to the conclusion that the characters on the plate were indeed prepared by acid etching, not by any form of tooling, scratching, or cutting.
It became apparent during the SEM study that a residue of some kind was present in some of the grooves. The scanning Auger microprobe (SAM) was used to analyze these residues. A clear indication of nitrogen was detected, which would be consistent with a copper nitrate residue and could indicate that nitric acid was used in the etching, as those who reportedly originated the deception had claimed.”
“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. (Stanley P. Kimball, Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax, Ensign, 1981)
Like I said, interesting stuff! Science is cool, you guys. Though, again, that line about it being a hoax directed squarely at Joseph instead of at the community or members of the Church at large has since been shown to likely be incorrect.
- Wilbur Fugate, Robert Wiley, and Bridge Whitton fashioned fake ancient plates out of copper and iron. Using acid, they etched counterfeit hieroglyphics.
Yep. This is true.
- The plates were taken to Joseph Smith where he pronounced them genuine and translated the “ancient characters.”
Not exactly. There’s no actual evidence he “pronounced them genuine” or that he ever personally described what he did as “translating.” It’s also clear that it was an attempted translation of only one “ancient character.”
- The entire body of the Church believed in the authenticity of the plates.
Eh, again, I think that’s a stretch. Some certainly did, including some noted historical members and leaders. But I’m pretty sure that most of that “entire body of the Church” had never heard of them and didn’t have any idea whether they were authentic or not. Even today, there are many members who have never heard of them, particularly those outside of the United States.
And, frankly, I don’t know that the “entire body of the Church” has ever unanimously agreed on anything.
- Wilbur Fugate claimed he, Wiley and Whitton made the plates as a joke.
Yep. He wasn’t the only one. Fugate’s son also spoke out at one point, and allegedly so did Bridge Whitten, one of the conspirators. That one can’t be confirmed because it was found in a letter by one of the witnesses at the dig, a W.P. Harris. Harris claimed in an 1855 letter that Whitten had confessed to him that it was a hoax, but that letter wasn’t found until 1912.
- A 1953 observation claims the plates are genuine; reinforcing the Church’s position.
True—and the two engravers who made that observation were not LDS and had nothing to gain by lying about the matter.
- After further scientific testing, it was concluded that the Kinderhook Plates were absolutely not genuine.
Also true, as we went over.
The fraudulent Kinderhook plates raise several troubling concerns. How could the prophet Joseph Smith believe they were authentic and claim to have translated the symbols as an account of a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt?
There is no evidence that Joseph ever claimed they were genuine, and in fact, according to Fugate’s own letter, there is evidence to suggest that he wanted them authenticated:
“We understood Jo Smith said [the plates] would make a book of 1200 pages but he would not agree to translate them until they were sent to the Antiquarian society at Philadelphia, France, and England.”
I’m not sure how those six tiny plates were supposed to create a book of 1200 pages, but that was probably local rumor and not anything official. So, again, we can’t corroborate this, but it is a secondhand account of Joseph’s intentions by one of the guys who fabricated the plates.
This also puts into question Joseph’s translations of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham characters.
No, it doesn’t. Joseph never claimed to translate the Kinderhook Plates by any revelatory means. We don’t even have record of him claiming to have translated them at all. All evidence shows that Joseph spent a week or two looking over them curiously, and then never mentioned them again. He never gave an explanation for that, so it’s unclear why he dropped them. According to the Church History Topic page on this topic:
Whether Joseph suspected the forgery, thought of attempting a revelatory translation but experienced a “stupor of thought,” or merely took a scholarly interest in the purported ancient writings (like other amateur linguists of the time) remains unconfirmed by historical accounts. Whatever he thought of the plates, he quickly lost interest in them.
We don’t know why he lost interest in them. But we do know that there is no account at all of Joseph ever trying to translate the Kinderhook Plates by the gift and power of God. No firsthand accounts, and no second- or thirdhand accounts, either. All of the accounts only say that he consulted other resources while examining the plates. There is no doubt he was interested in them, and there’s no doubt he made a preliminary examination of them. There is no doubt that he found a symbol that looked similar and said “Hey, this might be what this means.” But we don’t have his exact words on that occasion, and he never took it any farther than that.
Joseph, though trying to learn ancient languages, could not translate by ordinary means. He did not have that ability. He didn’t speak the languages he was translating from. He had to translate through the Spirit and through the power of God, because he did not have that ability on his own.
But when he looked at the Kinderhook Plates, he didn’t attempt a revelatory translation. He attempted a secular one, and then quickly abandoned it. As it says at Book of Mormon Central:
Joseph took preliminary steps toward an* ordinary *translation by comparing the squiggles on these plates to other ancient writings he was familiar with. This apparently produced no findings of any significance. If he ever sought out a revelatory translation, he evidently never received or claimed to have received one.
The evidence from Joseph Smith’s journal for early May 1843 indicates that, “whatever JS initially thought about the plates, he soon lost interest in them.” The numerous entries in Joseph’s journal indicate that Joseph was busy entertaining several guests, holding court, attending business and religious meetings, overseeing economic transactions, and much more—but only one brief mention of the Kinderhook Plates is made. Some evidence even suggests Joseph wanted them examined by the Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia, so perhaps Joseph even suspected their fraudulence or had concluded that they were not religiously significant….
While some critics try to use this story as evidence that everything about Joseph Smith was a fraud, the historical evidence suggests that Joseph ultimately did not fall for the hoax—he never tried to purchase the plates, hire scribes, and go into translation mode, like he did with the ancient Egyptian papyri he had purchased in Ohio. He never produced a “Book of Kinderhook.” Whatever Joseph Smith may have thought of the Kinderhook plates, the Lord could not be fooled. God would not and did not reveal a translation of these bogus artifacts.
The more universal message from the Kinderhook incident is that Joseph’s ability to translate … was a gift from God, and only worked when God enabled him to do His will.
I also think this episode speaks volumes in another way: as an evidence of the Book of Mormon.
If Joseph was faking it all along, why didn’t he come up with a fake translation? They were tiny plates and there were only a handful of them. All he needed to do was invent a simple two-page letter or history supposedly from the author. It would’ve been easy if he’d also faked the entire Book of Abraham, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. But he didn’t. Why not?
And, more importantly, if Joseph perpetrated his own hoax with the Book of Mormon, why did he initially believe he could attempt a translation of the Kinderhook Plates? To me, that actually says that he didn’t fake the gold plates. He genuinely believed that it was possible that metal plates found buried in the ground in a strange language could be translated into scripture because it had happened to him before.
This incident is not the smoking gun critics seem to think it is. In fact, to me, it’s a strong testament of the truthfulness and historicity of the Book of Mormon and of Joseph’s divine call as the prophet of the Restoration. Those are things that the Holy Ghost continually reaffirms to me. And when I study and ponder this incident, the Spirit whispers to me that this is not evidence of Joseph being a fraud. It’s evidence that he’s not one.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.
Michael Shurtleff says
I really appreciate you doing this work. I know it is easy to think, “why am I doing this? Am I wasting my time or unnecessarily mud-wrestling with people who just want to get everyone muddy?” Will anyone who is insincere see anything but a bunch of nuance and intricacy that they view as evidence of lack of truth and clarity?” But, for sincere people , this gives us a more solid foundation, gives us detail to potentially help people who are more swayed by temporary factual murkiness, and reinforcement of our view that all things can be rationally explained in ways that don’t involve our glass house of testimony being shattered because we fail to block one little stone that is thrown at it.
Keep up the diligent work. When thinking about the work of writing and arguing and contending it makes me think of Captain Moroni. He contended most of his life and then finally retired to his home. That must have been a sweet release from a life of contending. I have often wondered how he could have a typical “spiritual” life as a military commander in wartime situations.
I sometimes fear that I am more like Pahoran. (not that I view Pahoran in a negative light) I hate conflict. I often vacillate. I don’t know whether there is a way to be in conflict and not be tainted, but it seems Captain Moroni, as well as Mormon and Moroni, experienced a lot of that and Mormon said that they should keep trying to help the unbelievers so they wouldn’t come under condemnation.
So…I think there is a peace and confidence that can be found down deep somewhere that we are sustaining and defending the kingdom of God that we can tap into even while we are contending.
Perhaps if the audience in our minds while we write is those sincere people out there who are looking for more healthy approaches we can feel the love more than if we focus on the insincere writers of the anti Mormon literature who make us feel contentious
Perhaps that circles back around to Captain Moroni. I suppose he wasn’t thinking so much about wanting to kill lamanites and dissenters as he was trying to save his people. We probably can contend with more grace and spirit if we are not trying to “kill” the anit-mormons, but trying to save our own people. 🙂
The Kinderhook Plates have become one of several litmus tests that can be applied to critical attacks on the prophetic all of Joseph Smith. It signals that the critic either does not understand the circumstances surrounding Joseph’s interaction and lack of interest in the plates, or the critic has a very low bar for what can constitute a valid criticism.
If you encounter a critical work that includes the Kinderhook Plates, then you are pretty safe to assume that reading the work is a waste of time.
Sarah Allen says
Thanks, guys! I really appreciate you and your kind comments.