Kinderhook Plates

The Kinderhook Plates were a hoax devised to expose Joseph Smith's claim as a prophet of God to be false. It is one of the hotly debated episodes of Mormon Church history between believers and anti-Mormons. The Kinderhook Plates were six bell-shaped brass plates that appeared to have ancient writings engraved upon them. Several well-respected Mormons were taken by the hoax and the episode has been perpetuated in Mormon Church documents. Anti-Mormons misconstrue these opinions as official doctrine and point to it as proof that if Joseph Smith was not able to divine that the Kinderhook Plates were a fake then he must have been a false prophet and all the scriptures he translated were his inventions, not divinely inspired. However, the evidence does not prove anything except that anti-Mormons will use anything to try and discredit Joseph Smith.

In May 1843, the Mormon Church publication Times and Seasons reported that the plates were unearthed near the town of Kinderhook, Illinois. It was also reported that the plates were in Nauvoo and Joseph Smith would undertake a translation of these plates, just as he had with the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon, and the Egyptian papyri that resulted in the Book of Abraham. Several years after the death of Joseph Smith, Wilbur Fugate claimed that the Kinderhook Plates were a hoax. Two letters also revealed the plates as fabricated, one by W.P. Harris in 1855, the man who had taken the plates to Nauvoo after their discovery, and one by Mr. Fugate in 1878, who helped conceive the hoax. The Kinderhook Plates were thought to be authentic throughout the Mormon Church. One of the Mormon Church leaders, Parley P. Pratt, had made a statement years before that "Truth is yet to spring out of the earth," just as the Book of Mormon had. An account of the Kinderhook Plates was included in the History of the Church. This account was thought to be written by Joseph Smith himself but is now known to have been taken from the journal of William Clayton and modified to the first person of Joseph. It claimed that a portion of the plates were translated and told of a descendent of Ham through the pharaohs of Egypt.

The Kinderhook Plates were in Nauvoo for five days at the end of April 1843. There is a lack of evidence concerning what exactly happened. It is generally thought that Joseph Smith probably saw them, but much more than that is unknown. It is possible that he made some speculation concerning the plates, but this was his opinion and not revelation. The lack of mention of the Kinderhook Plates in any of the personal writings of Joseph makes the possibility of an attempted translation dubious. He did record a meeting with several persons concerning the plates, but nothing further. During the translation of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham and any substantial undertaking he wrote at length about his daily affairs. It is unknown where the rumor of a translation by Joseph Smith began. Parley P. Pratt gave an account that contradicts Clayton's in many aspects. Perhaps the most important evidence would be the actual translation, for which there is no record of it ever having existed or been attempted.

The question of the Kinderhook Plates' authenticity was debated back and forth for years. The plates had disappeared during the Civil War but in the 1960s one of the plates was discovered in the Chicago Historical Society Museum. Several tests were conducted in which one expert would confirm their ancient origin and then another would offer a contradictory conclusion. Finally, destructive testing was granted in 1981 and it verified the plates were of 19th century origin. Anti-Mormons have used this evidence as vindication for their claim against Joseph Smith. Because of the mention of the Kinderhook Plates in the records of Mormons of the time it is supposed by some that Joseph Smith had attempted a translation and now doubt could be thrown upon his other translations of ancient records and his prophetic claim. However, it is doubtful that Joseph Smith showed much interest in the Kinderhook Plates at all.

Whether or not Joseph Smith believed the Kinderhook Plates were of ancient origin, there is no indication that he gave any attention to them beyond whatever initial interest he had. Several second or third-hand accounts of the time discuss and speculate about the plates, but there is no evidence that Joseph gave them much attention or translated any part of them. The hoax may have worked inasmuch as it captured the attention of the Mormons and was perpetuated in Church records, but fails to discredit the prophet Joseph Smith in any way.