This entry is part 3 of 13 in Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son.

1. Back­ground: On April 16, 1843, Robert Wiley began dig­ging a deep shaft in the mid­dle of an Indi­an mound locat­ed just out­side of Kinder­hook, Illi­nois. The Quin­cy Whig news­pa­per report­ed that Wiley began the exca­va­tion project after dream­ing of buried trea­sure beneath the mound. He ini­tial­ly under­took the exca­va­tion process alone before engag­ing the help of 10 to 12 men to assist him. In time, they unearthed “six plates of brass of a bell shape, each hav­ing a hole near the small end, and a ring through them all, and clasped with two clasps.” A mem­ber of the exca­va­tion team, W.P. Har­ris, took the plates home, washed them, and treat­ed them with sul­fu­ric acid. Once they were clean, he dis­cov­ered that they were cov­ered in strange char­ac­ters resem­bling hieroglyphics.

The plates were briefly exhib­it­ed in the city, and then sent to Joseph Smith. The pub­lic was curi­ous to know if Joseph would be able to deci­pher the sym­bols on the plates. The Times and Sea­sons claimed that the dis­cov­ery of the Kinder­hook plates lent fur­ther cred­i­bil­i­ty to the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.

Joseph’s clerk and pri­vate sec­re­tary, William Clay­ton, record­ed that upon receiv­ing the plates, Joseph sent for his “Hebrew Bible & Lex­i­con,” sug­gest­ing he intend­ed to trans­late the plates. On May 1, 1843, Clay­ton wrote in his jour­nal that Joseph con­firmed that the Kinder­hook plates were gen­uine and that he had trans­lat­ed part of them:

I have seen 6 brass plates … cov­ered with ancient char­ac­ters of lan­guage con­tain­ing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Prest. J. [Joseph Smith, Jr.] has trans­lat­ed a por­tion and says they con­tain the his­to­ry of the per­son with whom they were found and he was a descen­dent of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh King of Egypt, and that he received his King­dom from the ruler of heav­en and earth.” (William Clay­ton, Joseph Smith, Jr.’s sec­re­tary, William Clayton’s Jour­nal, May 1, 1843, as quot­ed in Tri­als of Dis­ci­ple­ship – The Sto­ry of William Clay­ton, a Mor­mon, p. 117.)

Addi­tion­al­ly, the His­to­ry of the Church attrib­ut­es the fol­low­ing state­ment to Joseph Smith: “I have trans­lat­ed a por­tion of [the plates] and find they con­tain the his­to­ry of the per­son whom they were found. He was a descen­dent of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh King of Egypt, and that he received his King­dom from the ruler of heav­en and earth.” (His­to­ry of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 372.)

Joseph Smith thought enough of “the his­to­ry” of this Jared­ite descen­dant of “Ham” to direct Reuben Hed­lock to make wood­cuts of the plates for future pub­li­ca­tion. His­to­ry of the Church, 5:372–79. Just a month before his death, news­pa­pers report­ed that he was “busy in trans­lat­ing them. The new work which Jo. is about to issue as a trans­la­tion of these plates will be noth­ing more nor less than a sequel to the Book of Mor­mon.…” (War­saw Sig­nal, May 22, 1844.) The fact that Joseph Smith was actu­al­ly prepar­ing a trans­la­tion of the plates is ver­i­fied by an arti­cle pub­lished by an LDS news­pa­per, The Nau­voo Neigh­bor, on June 24, 1843. The arti­cle, con­tain­ing fac­sim­i­les of the plates, stat­ed: “The con­tents of the plates, togeth­er with a Fac-sim­i­le of the same, will be pub­lished in the ‘Times and Sea­sons,’ as soon as the trans­la­tion is com­plet­ed.” For years after the dis­cov­ery, the Church her­ald­ed the plates as authentic.

2. Plates Revealed as Fraud: The Kinder­hook hoax, how­ev­er, began to unrav­el in 1855 when W.P. Har­ris, a wit­ness who had helped unearth the plates, wrote a let­ter indi­cat­ing that the plates were fraud­u­lent. (W.P. Har­ris, let­ter to W.C. Flagg, 25 April 1855.) In June 1879, Wilbur Fugate – anoth­er of the orig­i­nal group who recov­ered the plates – con­fessed that the plates were fab­ri­cat­ed in order to under­mine Joseph Smith’s cred­i­bil­i­ty as a prophet. (Wilbur Fugate, let­ter to James T. Cobb, 30 June 1879, in Wel­by W. Ricks, “The Kinder­hook Plates,” Improve­ment Era 65 (Sept. 1962): 656, 658.)

Test­ing Con­firms the Fraud: Some LDS mem­bers ques­tioned whether the Har­ris and Fugate state­ments were cred­i­ble and point­ed to the fact that the arti­facts were not avail­able for inde­pen­dent test­ing, as they were lost about the time of the Civ­il War. In 1920, how­ev­er, one of the plates came into the pos­ses­sion of the Chica­go His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety. Wel­by W. Ricks, Pres­i­dent of the BYU Archae­o­log­i­cal Soci­ety, hailed the dis­cov­ery as a vin­di­ca­tion of Joseph Smith’s work:

A recent redis­cov­ery of one of the Kinder­hook plates which was exam­ined by Joseph Smith, Jun., reaf­firms his prophet­ic call­ing and reveals the false state­ments made by one of the find­ers.… The plates are now back in their orig­i­nal cat­e­go­ry of gen­uine.… 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, reprint­ed from the Improve­ment Era, Sept. 1962.)

In 1965, the LDS church grant­ed per­mis­sion to George M. Lawrence, a Mor­mon physi­cist, to exam­ine the plate. In his report Lawrence wrote: “The dimen­sions, tol­er­ances, com­po­si­tion and work­man­ship are con­sis­tent with the facil­i­ties of an 1843 black­smith shop and with the fraud sto­ries of the orig­i­nal participants.”

In 1980, the Church autho­rized Dr. D. Lynn John­son, a North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty mate­ri­als engi­neer and Lat­ter-day Saint, to use the destruc­tive meth­ods nec­es­sary to accu­rate­ly deter­mine the plate’s age. In so doing, Dr. John­son con­clud­ed that the plate was not of ancient ori­gin. Instead, it was pro­duced in the 1800s in a man­ner exact­ly as the Fugate had claimed. Dr. John­son said: “The plate owned by the Chica­go His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, and known as the Kinder­hook Plates, is made from a brass alloy con­sis­tent with the tech­nol­o­gy of the mid­dle 19th Cen­tu­ry. The char­ac­ters on the plate were formed by etch­ing with acid, prob­a­bly nitric acid.” (D. Lynn John­son, “Analy­sis of the Kinder­hook Plate Owned by the Chica­go His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety,” 10 pp., Nov. 1980.)

Addi­tion­al­ly, fur­ther analy­sis ver­i­fied that the test­ed plate could not have been a forgery of the Kinder­hook Plates, but was in fact one of the actu­al plates dis­cov­ered in Kinder­hook in 1843. These tests con­firmed the state­ments by Har­ris and Fugate about how the tablets were cre­at­ed in April 1843. There­after, the August 1981 edi­tion of the Ensign con­firmed that the plates were a hoax.

Accord­ing to LDS his­to­ri­an Richard Bush­man: “Church his­to­ri­ans con­tin­ued to insist on the authen­tic­i­ty of the Kinder­hook plates until 1980 when an exam­i­na­tion con­duct­ed by the Chica­go His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety, pos­ses­sor of one plate, proved it was a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry cre­ation.” (Bush­man, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 490.)

3. Ques­tions and Con­cerns: The evi­dence (includ­ing the Church’s own pub­li­ca­tions) estab­lish­es that Joseph claimed the Kinder­hook plates were of ancient ori­gin and that he had begun to trans­late them. Also, LDS his­to­ri­an Richard Bush­man, in his book Rough Stone Rolling, relies on the evi­dence to indi­cate that Joseph Smith did start a trans­la­tion of the fraud­u­lent Kinder­hook Plates.

The fraud­u­lent plates raise sev­er­al trou­bling con­cerns. How could the prophet Joseph Smith claim to have trans­lat­ed these invent­ed sym­bols? How can it be true that the made-up sym­bols them­selves pro­vide an account of a descen­dant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, as Joseph claimed? More impor­tant­ly, in light of prob­lems dis­cov­ered with the Book of Abra­ham and the Kinder­hook plates, can Joseph Smith be trust­ed in his claim that he trans­lat­ed a set of gold plates into the Book of Mormon?

4. Impli­ca­tions on Joseph Smith’s Role as Prophet and Seer: Since the gold plates (from which the Book of Mor­mon derived) were tak­en back by the angel Moroni, there is no tan­gi­ble evi­dence to deter­mine whether Joseph trans­lat­ed the plates cor­rect­ly. In that con­text, both the Book of Abra­ham papyri and the Kinder­hook Plates are incred­i­bly valu­able, as they can be objec­tive­ly test­ed to ver­i­fy many of Joseph Smith’s prophet­ic claims.

As out­lined in the Book of Abra­ham sec­tion, Joseph Smith got every­thing wrong about the BOA papyri, the fac­sim­i­les, the names, the gods, the con­text, and the fact that the papyri and fac­sim­i­les were First Cen­tu­ry funer­ary texts. There is not a sin­gle non-LDS Egyp­tol­o­gist who sup­ports Joseph’s claims as they relate to the Book of Abra­ham. Even LDS Egyp­tol­o­gists acknowl­edge there are seri­ous prob­lems with both the Book of Abra­ham and Joseph’s claims. Like­wise, Joseph claimed the Kinder­hook plates were of ancient ori­gin and that he had the abil­i­ty to trans­late the plates. These claims proved to be false.

Joseph Smith made a sci­en­tif­ic claim that he could trans­late ancient doc­u­ments. This is a testable claim. Joseph failed the test with the Book of Abra­ham, and he failed with the Kinder­hook Plates. In light of the his­tor­i­cal evi­dence and Joseph Smith’s back­ground, it is incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to believe Joseph’s claim that he trans­lat­ed the Book of Mor­mon (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the man­ner that will be described hereafter).

Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Leav­ing the Church — Eric Nel­son« Leav­ing the Church, Part 2 — Book of Abra­hamLeav­ing the Church, Part 4 — Book of Mor­mon Translation »






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