Kinderhook Plates Hoax

 When Joe Smith claimed to translate a portion of the Kinderhook plates, excitement grew in Nauvoo, Illinois. For many years the LDS "church" claimed that the plates were genuine. In 1965, Mormon physicist George M. Lawrence was allowed to examine and make "some non-destructive physical studies of the surviving plate." In his "Report of a Physical Study of the Kinderhook Plate Number 5," George Lawrence concluded: "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."

When Mormon apologists did not accept George Lawrence's findings, Mormon scholar Stanley P. Kimball was able "to secure permission from the Chicago Historical Society for the recommended destructive tests."

After scientists completed the chemical and electrical tests, Stanley B. Kimball, writing in the Mormon periodical Ensign, admitted that the Kinderhook plates were a hoax:

"A recent electronic and chemical analysis of a metal plate . . . brought in 1843 to the Prophet Joseph Smith . . . 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 . . . is not of ancient origin . . . 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." (Ensign, August 1981, pp. 66-70).

After Mormons officially acknowledged the hoax, they tried to downplay Joe Smith's involvement; however, documented records contradict Mormon apologists. Contemporaneous records show that Smith had claimed to translate a portion of the plates.

Some farmers went fishing for false prophet, and they caught a big one. In 1843, they etched characters from a Chinese tea box onto metal plates, and they put acid on the metal to simulate the appearance of age. The farmers buried the plates and some bones in an Indian burial mound, and then dug them up again in the presence of a few Mormons. Some Mormons took the plates to Joe Smith, who "translated" a portion of them. Joe Smith's Mormon periodical Times and Seasons said that these bones belonged to "a person, or a family of distinction, in ages long gone by, and that these plates contain the history of the times, or of a people, that existed far - far beyond the memory of the present race" (Times and Seasons, vol. 4, p. 187).

In an entry to the History of the Church, an attribution to Joe Smith says:

"I insert fac-similes 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. They found a skeleton about six feet from the surface of the earth, which must have stood nine feet high. The plates were found on the breast of the skeleton and were covered on both sides with ancient characters."

"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).

The plates were brought to Nauvoo, where Charlotte Haven, in a letter dated May 2, 1843, said that when Joshua Moore "showed them to Joseph, the latter 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" (Overland Monthly, 16 December 1890, p. 630).

William Clayton, Joe Smith's private secretary, wrote in his journal:

"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. [Joe Smith] 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" (William Clayton's Journal, May 1, 1843, as cited in Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton a Mormon, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987, p. 117).

Brigham Young, who would be the second head of the Mormon "church," made the following diary comment next to a sketch he drew of one of the plates, "May 3th 1843 I took this at Joseph Smiths house found near Quincy." (Diary of Brigham Young, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah).

On May 7, 1843, Mormon "apostle" Parley P. Pratt, after learning of Joe Smith's partial translation of the plates as containing the genealogy of a Jaredite descendant of Ham, wrote in a letter:

"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." (Ensign, 11 August, 1981, p 73).

Eleven years after Smith's death, the Manuscript History of the Church (Book D-1) detailed Smith's having translated a portion of the Kinderhook plates. Mormon officials obviously would not have made this acknowledgment unless they believed that Smith had, indeed, translated a portion of the plates.

On January 15, 1844, the Times and Seasons bragged that Joe Smith's "translation" of part of the Kinderhook plates helped to authenticate the Book of Mormon:

"Why does the circumstance of the plates recently found in a mound in Pike county, III., by Mr. Wiley, together with ethnology and a thousand other things, go to prove the Book of Mormon true? - Ans. Because it is true!" (Times and Seasons, vol. 5, p. 406)

The History of the Church devotes seven full pages to the Kinderhook plates. Included in the story are Smith's partial "translation" of the plates and drawings of the plates (vol. 5, pp. 372-379).

A Warsaw Signal piece about the Kinderhook plates reported that Joe 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. . . ." (Warsaw Signal, May 22, 1844)

Joe Smith had the Mormon newspaper Nauvoo Neighbor publish a broadside advertising his upcoming completed translation of the plates. On June 24, 1843, the Nauvoo Neighbor printed a facsimile of the plates, together with this promotion: "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."

As late as 1962, Welby W. Ricks, who was President of the BYU Archaeological Society, touted the Kinderhook plates as vindication of Joe Smith's supernatural abilities as a translator of cryptic writing:

"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 Improvement Era, Sept. 1962).

James D. Bales observed:

"What does it all add up to? Does it merely mean that one of the 'finds' which the Latter Day Saints believed supported the Book of Mormon does not support it, and that there is no real blow dealt to the prophetship of Joseph Smith? Not at all, for as Charles A. Shook well observed - in a personal letter to the author - 'Only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.' Where we can check up on Smith as a translator of plates, he is found guilty of deception. How can we trust him with reference to his claims about the Book of Mormon? If we cannot trust him where we can check him, we cannot trust him where we cannot check his translation. . . . Smith tried to deceive people into thinking that he had translated some of the plates. The plates had no such message as Smith claimed that they had. Smith is thus shown to be willing to deceive people into thinking that he had the power to do something that could not be done" (The Book of Mormon? 1958, pp. 98-99).