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The Kinderhook Plates

Many church members have never heard of the Kinderhook Plates or don’t know much of the details.

A brief history

In 1843, six small metal plates were discovered at an American Indian burial ground. When they were brought to Joseph Smith, he said that the engravings were similar to the ones on the Book of Mormon plates. He identified them as telling the story of an ancient Jaredite who was a descendent of Ham. Joseph Smith wrote in the History of the Church:

“I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook… 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.”

So Joseph claimed to have translated some of them and to know what they were about. A year later, likely before he could finish the translation (the Book of Abraham took 7 years), Joseph died. Years later, a farmer who was present at the discovery claimed to have forged the plates to fool or test Joseph Smith. The History of the Church had this to say:

“The public curiosity is greatly excited; and if Smith can decipher the hieroglyphics on the plates, he will do more towards throwing light on the early history of this continent than any man now living…Of this presentation of the matter it is only necessary to say that it is a little singular that Mr. Fugate alone out of the three said to be in collusion in perpetrating the fraud should disclose it, and that he should wait from 1843 to 1879—a period of thirty-six years-before doing so, when he and those said to be associated with him had such an excellent opportunity to expose the vain pretensions of the Prophet-if Fugate’s tale be true—during his life time…Of this presentation of the matter it is only necessary to say that it is a little singular that Mr. Fugate alone out of the three said to be in collusion in perpetrating the fraud should disclose it, and that he should wait from 1843 to 1879—a period of thirty-six years-before doing so, when he and those said to be associated with him had such an excellent opportunity to expose the vain pretensions of the Prophet-if Fugate’s tale be true—during his life time.”

So the church at the time certainly believed that the plates were real and that Joseph was translating them. But similar to the Book of Abraham papyrus, the plates were lost until 1960 when one of them was discovered by a BYU professor.

How did prominent church members initially react to their discovery?

Welby W. Ricks, then President of the BYU Archeological Society, wrote in 1962 (The Kinderhook Plates):

“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.”

As you will find in other posts here, the church has a history of employing scholars and archaeologists that abandon scholarly ethics in favor of blindly supporting the church.

Scientists were able to determine that the plate was not of ancient origin. In 1981 the evidence of the Kinderhook Plates being a hoax was too great for the church to deny any longer. The Ensign, August 1981, pp. 66-70:

“As a result of these tests, we concluded that the plate… is not of ancient origin….the plate was etched with acid; and as Paul Cheesman and other scholars have pointed out, ancient inhabitants would probably have engraved the plates rather than etched them with acid. Secondly, we concluded that the plate was made from a true brass alloy (copper and zinc) typical of the mid-nineteenth century: whereas the ‘brass’ of ancient times was actually bronze, an alloy of copper and tin.”

What does the church say now?

They say Joseph Smith did not complete the translation, therefore did not fall for the hoax and it is evidence of his status as a Prophet. That’s a rather convenient answer, but why did Joseph identify the plates as an ancient record of a Jaredite? How, in his own words, could he have “translated a portion of them”?

Richard Bushman, the LDS historian who authored Rough Stone Rolling, wrote:

“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.”

Personally, I believe Joseph was not aware of the hoax. As with the Book of Abraham papyri, he felt he could make something up and get away with it. So he started his “translation” process, but was never able to complete it because he was killed a year later. The argument that he didn’t complete the translation and therefore did not fall for the hoax is incredibly flimsy. It took him seven years to complete the Book of Abraham, so why are apologists claiming that not finishing this translation in less than a year is some evidence of his prophetic calling?

Next Step: Translation of the Book of Mormon

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