2. Kinderhook Plates Proclaimed Ancient Records by Joseph
On April 23, 1843 a set of brass plates was discovered in an Indian mound near Kinderhook, Illinois. When presented to Joseph, he pronounced them to be authentic ancient records:
"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.
Also note this source entry from the diary of William Clayton, Joseph's private secretary and scribe (this same diary has been a reference for many revelations published in the Doctrine and Covenants):
"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. 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, p. 117)
Charlotte Haven, a somewhat antagonistic non-Mormon who was visiting her sister (a Mormon) in Nauvoo at the time, wrote a letter on May 2, 1843 that gives the following account:
"We hear very frequently from our Quincy friends through Mr. Joshua Moore, who passes through that place and this in his monthly zigzag tours through the State, traveling horseback. His last call on us was last Saturday [April 29] and he brought with him half a dozen thin pieces of brass, apparently very old, in the form of a bell about five or six inches long. They had on them scratches that looked like writing, and strange figures like symbolic characters. They were recently found, he said, in a mound a few miles below Quincy. When he 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."
Parley P. Pratt said in a letter to a friend on May 7, 1843:
"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. His bones were found in the same vase (made of Cement). Part of the bones were 15 ft. underground…A large number of Citizens have seen them and compared the characters with those on the Egyptian papyrus which is now in this city."
Unfortunately for the Mormon position, it was later revealed that the plates were forgeries. On April 25, 1856, W. P. Harris, who was one of the nine witnesses to the discovery of the plates, wrote a letter in which he stated that the plates were not genuine:
"…I was present with a number at or near Kinderhook and helped to dig at the time the plates were found…[I] made an honest affidavit to the same…since that time, Bridge Whitten said to me that he cut and prepared the plates and he…and R. Wiley engraved them themselves…Wilbourn Fugit appeared to be the chief, with R. Wiley and B. Whitten." (The Book of Mormon? , by James D. Bales, pp. 95-96)
At the time of the Civil War the Kinderhook plates were lost. M. Wilford Poulson, a former teacher at B.Y.U. and a student of early Mormon history, found one of the original Kinderhook plates in the Chicago Historical Society Museum, but it was mislabeled as one of the original gold plates of the Book of Mormon. The plate Poulson found has been identified as number 5 in the facsimiles found in the History of the Church. Except for an acid blotch on one side, the plate is in excellent condition. Poulson did a great deal of research concerning the Kinderhook plates and was convinced that they were made in the 1840's as W. Fugate claimed.
In 1965, George M. Lawrence, a Mormon physicist, was given permission 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," Lawrence wrote:
"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."
Since Lawrence was only allowed to make non-destructive tests, some Mormon scholars would not accept his work as conclusive. In 1980, however, the Mormon scholar Stanley P. Kimball was able "to secure permission from the Chicago Historical Society for the recommended destructive tests." Professor Kimball described the results of the tests in the official Mormon Church publication, Ensign, August 1981, pp. 66-70:
"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."
For nearly 140 years, the LDS church defended Joseph's partial translation of the Kinderhook plates (in fact there are several pages dedicated to the story of the Kinderhook plates in the 7-volume History of the Church) but as soon as they discovered beyond any reasonable doubt that the Kinderhook plates were fake, they tried to distance themselves from the whole situation by claiming "…there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever concluded the plates were genuine…"(Ensign , August 1981, pp. 66-70). Apparently a partial translation of them as recorded by Joseph's personal secretary and witnessed by several Mormon Elders was plenty of evidence for the nearly 140 years in which the LDS church defended Joseph's translation of the plates.
Apologists claim that Joseph was not fooled and had no intention of translating the plates. However, if he had not been murdered in June 1844, it is very possible that he would have published a complete "translation" of these bogus plates. Just a month before his death it was reported that he was "busy in translating them. The new work…will be nothing more nor less than a sequel to The Book of Mormon…" (Warsaw Signal, May 22, 1844) The fact that Joseph was actually preparing to print a translation of the plates is verified by a broadside published by the Mormon newspaper, The Nauvoo Neighbor, in June 1843. On this broadside, containing facsimiles of the plates, we find the following:
"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."
In a letter dated April 8, 1878, Wilbur Fugate recalled:
"We understood Jo Smith said [the plates] would make a book of 1200 pages but he would not agree to translate them until they were sent to the Antiquarian society at Philadelphia, France, and England."
On November 15, 1843 Robert Wiley wrote a letter to J. J. Harding suggesting that he was interested in selling the plates to "the National Institute," and that he was also interested in the "opinions of your different Entiquarian friends." In reference to having the plates examined by "the Antiquarian society at Philadelphia, France, and England," Wilbur Fugate stated:
"They were sent and the answer was that there were no such Hyeroglyphics known, and if there ever had been, they had long since passed away. Then Smith began his translation."
The evidence is clear that Joseph did attempt a translation of the Kinderhook plates, and proclaimed them to be authentic ancient records.
Joseph's capacity for spinning tales based on such artifacts was illustrated on other occasions. During the march of Zion's Camp to Missouri, Joseph stopped near an Indian mound on the Illinois River and excavated a skeleton from near its surface. He then pronounced:
"This man in mortal life was a white Lamanite, a large, thick-set man, and a man of God. His name was Zelf. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains. The curse of the red skin was taken from him, or, at least in part."
Joseph noted an arrowhead still lodged between two ribs, and proceeded to describe in vivid detail the great battle in which Zelf had been killed. Brigham Young took the arrowhead, and others carried off the leg and thigh bones for souvenirs. (History of the Church, Vol. 2, pp. 79-80; and "Elder Kimball's Journal," Times and Seasons, Vol. 6, p. 788)
As another example, someone discovered the ruins of what seemed to be an altar on the north bank of the Grand River in Daviess County, Missouri. After examining it, Joseph declared:
"This is the valley of God in which Adam blessed his children, and upon this very altar Adam himself offered up sacrifices to Jehovah. This place is Tower Hill, and at its feet we will lay out a city which shall be called Adam-ondi-Ahman. Here Adam, the Ancient of Days, shall come to visit his people. He shall sit on a throne of fiery flame, as predicted by Daniel the prophet, 'with thousand thousands ministering unto him and ten thousand times ten thousand standing before him.'" (History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 35; Doctrine and Covenants 117:8; and John Corrill: Brief History of the Church, p. 28)
Stanley Kimball indicated that accounts related to Joseph's statements on the authenticity of the Kinderhook plates are confused and conflicting, and that Joseph may not have ever made such a statement:
"It seems, then, that there was considerable talk about the plates in Nauvoo-and apparently as much misinformation and hearsay was current among people as there was fact. Pratt heard of a discovery in Pike County; Clayton said Adams County. Clayton said that the find was made six feet underground; Pratt, fifteen. Elder Pratt spoke of a cement vase-an item mentioned in no other account. Clayton mentioned a skeleton nine feet tall-also unmentioned in any other account. Clayton said that the plates gave a history of an Egyptian; Pratt mentioned a Jaredite.