This is the fifth installment of my “Why I Don’t Believe” series. If you haven’t been following these posts, please read my reasons for doing the series. At first, I debated whether to include a discussion of the Kinderhook Plates, but I think it complements the previous post on the Book of Abraham. So while this post will be subject to revision, I hope you find it interesting.
On April 23, 1843, six bell-shaped brass plates were unearthed from an Indian mound near Kinderhook, Illinois. These plates bore strange engravings and appeared to be of ancient origins. Among those who found the plates were two Mormon Elders. They were excited by the discovery and suggested that the plates be taken to their prophet to be translated. And within a week, the Kinderhook Plates (as they became known) made their way to Joseph Smith.
Unbeknownst to Smith, the plates were a hoax meant to expose him as a charlatan. W. P. Harris, a witness to the Kinderhook Plate’s discovery, wrote the following in an 1856 letter:
“…I was present with a number at or near Kinderhook and helped to dig at the time the plates were found…Bridge Whitten said to me that he cut and prepared the plates and he…and R. Wiley engraved them themselves…Wilbourn [Fugate] appeared to be the chief, with R. Wiley and B. Whitten.”
Fugate himself confessed to being the architect of the hoax, albeit (oddly) decades later:
“I received your letter in regard to those plates, and I will say in answer that they are a humbug, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitten and myself….We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.’ We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them. Bridge Whitton cut them out…Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates.”
Well, their ruse worked. William Clayton, Smith’s scribe and confidant, recorded in his journal 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 Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.”
This is problematic for the church, because, to quote critical author Charles A. Shook, “Only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.”
We have good reason to trust Clayton’s journal entry. Clayton earned a reputation for being meticulous and methodical. So much so, in fact, that Joseph Smith hired him for the specific purpose of accurately detailing Smith’s every word and activity. If Smith trusted Clayton, why shouldn’t we?
Furthermore, we know that Clayton was with Smith the day he wrote the journal entry in question. He was even at Smith’s residence (the Mansion House) when he wrote it. George D. Smith, editor of An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, noted that “William Clayton found himself involved in nearly every important activity of Nauvoo, but especially the private concerns of the prophet. For two and a half years, until Joseph’s death in 1844, they were in each other’s company almost daily.”
Perhaps most importantly, Clayton’s words were deemed so reliable that they were attributed to Smith in the 1856 edition of the History of the Church—and with the blessing of Brigham Young no less. Refer to the image below:
Clayton’s account isn’t the only indication that Smith attempted a translation of the Kinderhook Plates; it enjoys several collaborating evidences.
Charlotte Haven, a non-Mormon writing about her visit of Nauvoo, wrote on May 2, 1843 that “[Smith] said that the figures or writing on them was similar to that in which the Book of Mormon was written, and if Mr. Moore could leave them, he thought that by the help of revelation he would be able to translate them.”
Two month’s after the Kinderhook Plates’ discovery, The Nauvoo Neighbor published a broadside of the fascimiles with this statement: “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.”
And just weeks before his murder in June 1944, The Warsaw Signal (which was admittedly an anti-Mormon paper) reported that Joseph Smith 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…”
LDS apologists contend that because we don’t have Smith’s translation of the Kinderhook Plates, he must have caught on to the deception. But as per the above evidence, it seems possible that, had Smith not been suddenly killed, he would’ve produced a full translation. Also, were the claim that Smith was translating the Kinderhook Plates a mere rumor, he could have easily dispelled it. That obviously didn’t happen, however, as we’re still discussing this controversy.
Another weakness in today’s apologetic response to the Kinderhook Plates is that it represents a total departure from the church’s historical stance.
Just as with the Book of Abraham papyri, the original Kinderhook Plates were lost for many decades. Scientists, consequently, were unable to determine the veracity of the plates—that is, whether they were an ancient American record or a frontier fraud. The LDS Church believed the former was true.
The Kinderhook Plates were taught as evidence for Smith’s prophetic prowess by church leaders (like B. H. Roberts) and in many LDS publications—Times and Seasons, the Nauvoo Neighbor, the Prophet, missionary pamphlets, the Millennial Star, the Desert News, the BYU Archaeological Newsletter, the Improvement Era, and others.
One of the plates was rediscovered in 1920 at the Chicago Historical Society, where it had been mislabeled for decades as a gold plate from the Book of Mormon. Here it is:
Finally, in 1980, the Chicago Historical Society gave scientists permission to perform destructive methods on the plate in order to conclusively ascertain its authenticity. The indisputable results of those tests: The Kinderhook Plates were a 19th-century invention.
By themselves, the Kinderhook Plates may not constitute the most damning evidence against Mormonism. They should nonetheless give Mormons pause. Because at the very least, the Kinderhook Plates force one to believe that either Joseph Smith was fooled by a hoax or that the LDS Church mistakenly espoused the opposite view for nearly 150 years. And neither belief is particularly faith-promoting.
Please visit Mormon Think to learn more about the Kinderhook Plates. The site is an invaluable resource that I often mine.
For those wanting to be in the know, my next post will concern failed Mormon prophesies (though I’m amenable to your suggestions).