Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates
The May 1, 1843 LDS publication Times and Seasons reported the discovery of six brass plates with unusual characters inscribed upon them in a mound near Kinderhook, Illinois and commented:
“The plates above alluded to, were exhibited in this city last week, and are now, we understand, in Nauvoo, subject to the inspection of the Mormon Prophet. 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.” - Times and Seasons, Vol. 4, pp. 186-187, 1843.
According to the LDS History of the Church itself, Smith did inspect the plates and claimed to translate part of them:
“I insert fac-simile 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....
“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.” - History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 372.
It was later disclosed, however, that the bell-shaped brass plates with their strange writing were produced by modern-day hoaxers!
One of the perpetrators of the hoax admitted in a sworn statement that he, W. Fugate, and his two friends, Robert Wiley and Bridge Whitton, concocted the hoax in the hope of exposing the LDS Prophet. He said that Bridge Whitton cut the bell-shaped pieces of metal, and he (Fugate) and Wiley
“made the hieroglyphics [another statement indicates that the characters were ‘copied from the lid of a Chinese tea-chest’] by making the 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 rest.”
They made sure a Mormon Elder (J. R. Sharp) was present when Fugate and others “discovered” the plates while digging in the mound. A Mormon finally was “allowed” to take the plates to Joseph Smith. - from a sworn signed statement by Fugate as reprinted in the LDS’ Improvement Era, Sept. 1962.
Even before Mr. Fugate admitted the hoax, W. P. Harris, one of the witnesses present when the plates were “discovered,” reported on discovering the hoax:
“I washed and cleaned the plates and subsequently made an honest affidavit to the same. But since that time, Bridge Whitten said to me that he cut and prepared the plates and he (B. Whitten) and R. Wiley engraved them themselves, and that there was nitric acid put upon them the night before that they were found to rust the iron ring and band. And that they were carried to the mound, rubbed in the dirt and carefully dropped into the pit where they were found. Wilbourn Fugit appeared to be the chief, with R. Wiley and B. Whitten.” - Letter by W. P. Harris of April 25, 1855.
Two engravers examined the remaining Kinderhook Plate (now in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society) in 1962 and stated their belief that the plate had been “engraved with a pointed instrument and not etched with acid” as the hoaxer Fugate had claimed. However, in 1965, a thorough, scientific examination was made by the Mormon physicist, George M. Lawrence.
Lawrence’s examination showed: the plates are a zinc-copper brass (x-ray diffraction lines, density, color, and stretch measurements are, when taken together, consistent only with a 77% copper - 23% zinc BRASS:
“a useful, definite statement is that it is not the natural copper found in objects made by the Indians of the Great Lakes Region.” and that “the dimensions, tolerances, composition and workmanship are consistent with the facilities of an 1843 blacksmith shop and the fraud stories of the original participants. The characteristics of the inscription grooves can be reproduced in great detail using the simple acid-wax technique, contrary to the judgment of the engravers.”
Using exactly the same acid-wax technique described by Fugate, Mr. Lawrence “was able to make more uniform inscriptions than the actual ones.” Lawrence went on to say:
“Some other characteristics of the acid-beeswax process, are rounded groove ends and bottoms. Soft copper gives less angular groove edges than harder metals such as yellow brass or steel. There is an absence of striations (scratches) along the length of the groove. There sometimes is an extra area of etching action when two lines join obliquely - caused by acid working under the narrow wedge of displaced wax between the two lines. Most grooves cross at exactly the same depth with no markings to show which groove was made last. The flatness of the metal is not disturbed in the neighborhood of the groove. Bubbles formed in the etching process form irregularities or lumps along the length of the groove. The size of these irregularities can be controlled somewhat by 'stirring' or diluting the acid.
“The above characteristics of this type of etching were found on the actual Kinderhook plate.
“The plate has, as trim, long grooves along the side and bottom edge that could have been made by a sharp knife with some pressure. On these grooves the metal is deformed and traces can be seen on the reverse side. This is not true of the inscriptions though many are deeper than the knife marks. Attempts by me to reproduce the inscriptions by scratching were not successful.” – “Report of a Physical Study of the Kinderhook Plate Number 5.”, pp. 2-3.
Mr. Lawrence further observed from the appearance of the surface and very close, consistent tolerances of the plate that “the plate was cut from sheet which had been rolled" from 1/32” standard plate (brass plate like this was “first rolled in the U.S. in Connecticut in 1832”); the holes had been punched (with a standard 1/8” punch); and the dimensions, tolerances, composition and workmanship are consistent with the facilities of an 1843 blacksmith shop. They are not consistent with ancient dimensions, tolerances, composition, and workmanship!
Some Mormons, however, still would not accept the results of these tests. They argued that non-destructive tests weren’t conclusive enough. So, in 1980 Mormon scholar Stanley P. Kimball managed
“to secure permission from the Chicago Historical Society for the recommended destructive tests. 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.” - The Ensign, Aug. 1981, p. 69, (an official LDS Church publication).
Prof. Kimball writes:
“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....
“As a result of these tests, we concluded that the plate owned by the Chicago Historical Society is not of ancient origin. We concluded that 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.” - The Ensign, August 1981, pp. 66, 70.
Mormon scholar Bruce Owens learned from a letter from George Metcalf, Museum Specialist, Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution (Nov. 14, 1968) that “the plate engraved by the village blacksmith [had been] copied from the lid of a CHINESE TEA-CHEST.” In order to test this statement, Mr. Owens wrote to Charles T. Sylvester of the U.S. Embassy in Taipei, Taiwan and received this reply from him:
“I am sorry that I took so long to answer your letter of November 18, however, it took us a little time to find someone qualified to answer your questions. According to Professor Li Hsueh-Chih of Academia Sinica and National Taiwan University the language on the inscriptions which you sent is that of the Lo tribe in Yunnan Province in the south west of mainland China.”
Another letter confirming this identification was received by Owens from an expert on languages of China's minor tribes, Kun Chang, Department of Oriental Languages, University of California, Berkeley: “The inscriptions enclosed seem to be the ideographs used by the Lolo tribes in Yunnan.”
Incidentally, the Yunnan Province is an area of China in which the principal occupation is agriculture, and one of the major products is tea. - Americana, 1957.
Dr. Edward Hope of the United Bible Societies, who made a careful study of the “fac-similes” of the 6 Kinderhook Plates, although not denying that the characters inscribed on the Kinderhook plates are Lolo (and variations of them), insisted in a 26 August 1976 letter that the language (the order in which those characters are presented on the plates) “is not Lo or Lolo.”
Dr. Hope states that “if the Kinderhook plates were copied from a Chinese tea chest the similarity to certain Lolo symbols would be explained.” However, he positively states, the language of the inscription is not Lolo and, in fact,
“it is highly unlikely that the Kinderhook plates represent the written form of any human language. If one examines the symbols, and the sequence of symbols, it becomes very plain that many of them are 'variations' on other nearby symbols. When taken with the surprising lack of repetition, it certainly looks as if someone were making the symbols up, and avoiding repetitions. The middle plate in the bottom row is especially suspect. Most of this plate is simply variations on two symbols. It was either done by someone with less imagination than the others, or was done in a hurry. There is no way this plate could represent a human language.”
So, apparently the hoaxers picked various symbols at random from the tea-chest lid and put them (with variations since there were probably insufficient symbols found on the lid to avoid repetitions) on the plates. This would have destroyed any semblance of an actual language that may have been present on the original Chinese tea-chest lid. (If, indeed, there was any real language found on the lid - it could have merely been ornamented with Lo symbols.)
What we have, then, are plates consistent with 1843 materials and workmanship inscribed (with an acid method described by the hoaxers - whereas an engraving procedure using pointed instruments would be expected) with characters used by a Chinese tea-producing tribe. None of these things have been found to be consistent with materials, workmanship, writing characters, etc. that have been found in the New World and, in fact, would not be found anywhere in the world before the time of Columbus!
Even the renowned James H. Breasted, Prof. of Egyptology at the University of Chicago for many years, stated in a 1914 letter that the “Kinderhook Plates are, of course, childish forgeries, as the scientific world has known for years.”
But the LDS Church refused to admit the hoax until August 1981 when the LDS scholar Professor Stanley P. Kimball’s report on the results of the extremely accurate destructive analytical tests was published (as quoted above - p. 2).
Now that the Church has finally admitted that the plates were a hoax, a few of those Church apologists who attempt to explain Smith’s “translation” of them are forced to discredit the official Church History itself by claiming that the words quoted there as Joseph Smith's are in reality someone else’s false statement!
They claim that the words attributed to Smith: “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” were copied from William Clayton's Journal (and slightly altered to be in Smith’s own words).
But William Clayton was Joseph Smith's trusted scribe and
“beginning in early 1842, then, William Clayton became involved in nearly every important activity in Nauvoo, including the private concerns of the Prophet....He became an intimate friend and confidant of Joseph Smith, writing letters for him, recording revelations, and performing important errands. As a scribe he kept the sacred ‘Book of the Law of the Lord’; was officially designated to write the history of the Nauvoo temple; helped prepare the official history of Joseph Smith (indeed, his personal journals became the source for many entries in that history); and kept various other books...for almost two and a half years, until Joseph's death in 1844, they were in each other's presence almost daily.” - Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 6, 1979, pp. 42-43.
So when Clayton wrote in his journal that Joseph Smith translated a portion of the Kinderhook plates and said they contained a history of “a descendant of Ham,” we have no reason to doubt that Joseph Smith claimed just that!
Furthermore, LDS Apostle Parley Pratt wrote in a letter (published in the LDS publication, The Ensign, August 1981, p. 73) dated May 7, 1843 (six days after the entry in Clayton's journal):
“Six plates having the appearance of Brass have lately been dug out of a mound by a gentleman in Pike Co. Illinois. They are small and filled with engravings in Egyptian language and contain the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.”
In addition, there is further information that Smith was working on a complete "translation" of the Kinderhook Plates and would undoubtedly have published it if he had not been murdered in June 1844. The Mormon newspaper, The Nauvoo Neighbor, in June 1843, printed reproductions of the Kinderhook Plates and 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.”
There is really no reason for not believing that Joseph Smith claimed that he had translated a portion of the Kinderhook Plates and that they contained a history of a descendant of Ham. He clearly did so and obviously was working on a complete “translation” of these fake plates at the time of his death.
As Charles Shook noted, “only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.”
How can we possibly have faith in a prophet whose “translations” invariably prove false whenever the original documents “translated” by him are made available to modern observation? How, then, can we believe his “translations” of other “scriptures” when their original “plates” are not even available for comparison?