Critics have tried to paint Joesph Smith in a bad light with this event in church history, but Joseph never pursued the plates unearthed in Kinderhook, Illinois in 1843 and nothing was ever published. This video covers many of the details involved which helps show how misguided the criticisms are and the whole episode is much ado about nothing!
Okay. So in this video I want to talk about the Kinderhook plates. This is an episode of Church history that is not that familiar to a lot of people, although critics really pound on this. And so I really wanted to talk about it and give some detail there. First of all, I do want to say this is one of those issues where critics, they think micro look at something and blow it out of proportion and make a lot of assumptions that are incorrect. If you look at this picture on the screen, here’s a man looking at something saying “It’s a wall.” If you look at the next picture, you step back and look at the full picture, it’s clearly an elephant there. You can see other parts of the elephant thinking it’s different pieces here.
So looking at the full picture, there’s no concern with the Kinderhook plates. So let’s go through this. What are the Kinderhook plates? Well, if look at the screen here, Kinderhook was a town about 70 miles to the south of Nauvoo in Pike County, Illinois. In 1843, in the spring of 1843 there was a group that was digging an Indian mound. There was a man who said he had a dream of a treasure in this Indian mound. He had it three nights in a row. So they went and started digging and they found these bell-shaped plates. If you look up on the screen here, there are some copies of the facsimiles of what these look like. There were six of them, holes in the top and they had a ring through them when they found them. So there were some onlookers there when they were digging, they were latter-day saints.
They wanted to borrow the plates, they took them up to Joseph. They were in Nauvoo for five days there when that happened. So there are two big issues that are having questions about this. One, are these authentic plates of ancient origin? They look like they have hieroglyphics on them if you look at the facsimiles. And then also did Joseph Smith try and translate these? Was there a translation done? So there are two … there are some excellent resources that I’m going to put on the video here. One is an article written in 1981 by Stanley Kimball, a great historian, did a lot of work on this. And then also Don Bradley did a lot of recent work, presented at the FairMormon Conference in 2011, so I’ll put a link to about an hour long presentation there if you want to get into a lot of details. But Stanley Kimball, and then this was in the Ensign in August 1981.
He says, “In spite of the considerable excitement they generated in Nauvoo after their discovery, the plates were allowed to leave the saints, apparently without fanfare. No known record exists which intimates that Joseph Smith or those around him ever purchased or attempted to purchase the plates (as were the mummies associated with the Book of Abraham papyrus), even though their owner was prepared to sell them.” The owner, Wilbur Fugate, he said that Joseph Smith said he would not agree to translate these unless they were sent to these antiquarian societies in Philadelphia, France, and England, of which they were actually sent off to there and these societies came back with an analysis that these hieroglyphics are unknown. And if they were at one point in existence, there’s no record of them in anywhere else to this point, at that point. So in 1879, this Wilbur wrote a letter stating that this had been a hoax. They created this and explained how they did it. Some wondered why he took so long to maybe reveal this.
It could’ve been two reasons. One, the hoax didn’t work. Number two, maybe they were trying to sell, it does look like they were trying to sell these, and so they would have looked like frauds if they admitted at that point. So it came much later. Now these actually were, there was a lot of confusion about these for a long time. In fact, they were unknown where the plates were. One of them turned up in the Chicago Historical Society in 1920. And there’s a nick on the plate that was actually an effect simile, so they could identify that as one of the originals there. But so this did allow having an actual plate that could be tested. In the 60s it was tested at BYU with mixed results. In the 80s at Northwestern University, they were able to identify through a special kind of electron microscope, a scanning electron microscope, that the plates had been etched rather than in engraved. So etching came about in the 1400s. It wasn’t of ancient origin.
Anciently it would’ve been engraved. Also, the alloy, the metals were tested and found to be common for the 19th century and not ancient alloys. So it became very clear that this was a hoax. This had been made up. So if you look here, one of the things I’m going to show up on the screen here. Again another piece from the Ensign, Stanley Kimball’s article, “It is hard to imagine that the Prophet Joseph Smith wouldn’t have been intrigued by the plates. When they were first shown to him, he may well have noted certain correspondence between some characters on the plates and reformed Egyptian and contemplated the possibility of authenticity and translation. But how much of the conjecture that was current in Nauvoo at the time might be attributed to him would be a speculation itself, impossible to verify from the available accounts. The one account that was published and in the Times and Seasons, whose editors were equally as intimate with Joseph Smith as William Clayton and Parley P. Pratt, could only report that ‘Mr. Smith has had those plates. What his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained.'”
So here’s where the challenge comes. There is from critics, they point to The History of the Church produced in 1909 there on page 372, talking about the Kinderhook plates, there is this quote from this is supposedly from the Prophet Joseph Smith, and it’s not, but I’ll explain that, but it says here “I have translated a portion of them and find they contain a history of a person with whom they were found,” so there were bones found with the plates. “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.” Now, if you look at the screen again, Stanley Kimball said, “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 person’s 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 19th 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.’ This altered version of the extract from William Clayton’s journal was reprinted in the Millennial Star in 1859 and unfortunately was finally carried over into the Official Church History when the History of Joseph Smith was edited into book form as the History of the Church in 1909. Where the ideas written by William Clayton originated is unknown. However, speculation about the plates and their possible content was apparently quite unrestrained in Nauvoo when the plates first appeared.”
And so Parley P. Pratt and William Clayton had talked about different things that Joseph had said about this here, but if you look back side by side, here’s the journal of William Clayton and the History of the Church. You can see right next to each other how this was actually just a transcription from the journal of William Clayton. Now, why did William Clayton say this? Now this is a detail that Don Bradley did a tremendous amount of research on, has done an excellent job reporting if you want to watch, again, like I said, the FairMormon Conference. He did an excellent job of going through this possibility of how this may have taken place. Looking at one specific character in the Kinderhook plates, it was fairly prominent on the top of one of the plates, it looked kind of like a boat. And Joseph may have recognized that, he called for something that had been created as part of the process of doing the Book of Abraham.
I’ll talk about this in that separate video of the Book of Abraham, but he recognized some of this that they had done some different analysis and thinking on different characters and when they did this, it was called the GAEL, grammar and alphabet of the Egyptian language, GAEL. And they would break apart hieroglyphics and try and have what they thought were possible translations of it. And what Don Bradley did is he.. If you look on the screen, this specific character, and then if you look right here, the way he deconstructed that symbol on the left hand side going down and then on the right hand side you can see from the GAEL there that that’s boat-like character. And it’s interesting as he showed this on the big screen. If you look in the blue it says, “Their kingly power by the line of Pharaoh.” And from William Clayton’s journal, it says, “Through the loins of Pharaoh, King of Egypt.” And if you look down it says, “Possessor of heaven and earth.” And look it over again on William Clayton on the left, “Ruler of heaven and earth.”
So it does look like this is probably where Joseph may have been just comparing characters and thought that there might have been one match. This is the only character that had any kind of a match with anything that they had done with the GAEL. So he may have done that. There’s an eye witness that this showed up in the New York Herald. This was a Gentile eyewitness, he was a friendly non latter-day saint in Nauvoo. And this was in the, as I said, New York Herald, and it was talking about what had happened on May 7th, 1843, if you look at this highlighted section, he says here, “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, which he took from the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.” And there he didn’t get that that was not the Book of Mormon, it was the book of Abraham, but that to him he was confused.
Some had thought these were Book of Mormon characters from the Anthon transcript, but he says, “And they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.” So we do have an eye-witness there that Joseph was looking at this Egyptian alphabet and the plates at the same time. So you can put two and two together and see that’s how it was. Nothing was ever published. Nothing was ever went farther than that essentially. So I love the way, and I want to finish this video with some powerful quotes from Don Bradley, one of the FairMormon conference, one of a chapter from the book A Reason for Faith that he wrote a chapter on this with Mark Ashurst-McGee.
So in the closing of FairMormon presentation, so we have James D. Bales saying, this is in the 1940s, saying, “Only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.” We got Joseph Smith saying, “A prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such. And when a prophet is just comparing characters in two documents, he is not acting as such.” And then in the book A Reason for Faith, he finishes that chapter saying, “For over a century, many have argued as to whether the Kinderhook plates episode revealed Joseph Smith as a true or false prophet. Yet a closer examination of the relevant historical sources reveals Joseph Smith acting neither as an inspired prophet nor as a fraudulent imposter, instead it reveals an enthusiastic yet amateur linguist.”
“There is a more general lesson to be learned here. Many arguments for and against Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims upon closer examination turn out to be much more complex than originally framed or simply fall apart because they are based on assumptions that turn out to be incorrect. A careful and historically grounded approach is best in evaluating such arguments.” So it’s just like I started the video, the wall, as you expand down and look at the full picture was really an elephant. Hope you enjoyed the video and subscribe for more content. Thanks.
Ensign Article: Aug 1981, Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a 19th Century Hoax, Stanley Kimball https://www.lds.org/ensign/1981/08/ki…
YouTube Video: Don Bradley 2011 Fairmormon Presentation on Kinderhook Plates research: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQ1eo…
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.