There’s a terrible video out there that attempts to explain a faithful perspective of the Kinderhook plates. Incredibly, there are problems with almost every sentence.

Watch the video, then read my response. Please let me know what you think!

The video:

Below is the full transcription of the audio along with my comments.

[transcription]: “In May 1843, six engraved, bell-shaped, brass plates were brought to Nauvoo by people wanting to see if Joseph Smith would translate them.”

No Problems*

*There’s more to the story…

Until the early 1980s, the Mormon Church touted the Kinderhook plates as authentic evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling:

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.

…Joseph Smith, Jun., pronounced them genuine and translated a part of them.

…This much remains. 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.

The “false statements” that this article refers to are found in a letter written by Wilbur Fugate, one of the tricksters, thirty-six years later1. In this letter2, he says that he and a few others chemically etched the plates, hid them, and then pretended to find them again in the presence of two Mormons.

Of course, Fugate’s letter wasn’t full of “false statements”. It turned about to be the truth.

[transcription]: “Decades later, however, one of the men involved in digging up what are now known as the Kinderhook plates, confessed that they were a forgery, perpetrated with the intent of fooling Joseph Smith. Modern scientific testing confirms that they were created using 19th Century methods.”

No Problems*

*There’s more to the story…

As you can see from the Improvement Era quote above, the Mormon Church used to claim that Fugate was lying. They knew that his letter was potentially damaging so they called it “false statements”. But after a more modern analysis revealed that the plates were created using chemical etching, the Mormon Church did a full 180. Suddenly, Joseph never made a translation and was never even very interested in the plates at all:

Joseph Smith did not make the hoped-for translation. In fact, no evidence exists that he manifested any further interest in the plates after early examination of them, although some members of the Church hoped that they would prove to be significant. But the plates never did.

So, when they thought that the plates were real, “Joseph pronounced them genuine and translated a part of them”, but when they realized that the plates were faked, Joseph “did not make the hoped-for translation”.

This is what apologists do: they twist, bend, and flip-flop to make their version of the facts fit their pre-determined conclusions.

[transcription]: “So, did Joseph fall for the hoax? Not quite. He briefly gave these artifacts due consideration but…”

Major Problems*

*Missing major details…

They’re jumping over the most important part of the story. The “due consideration” they’re talking about is found in this quote from William Clayton, who was Joseph’s scribe:

I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams County by some persons who were digging in a mound They found a skeleton about 6 feet from the surface of the earth which was 9 foot high [tracing of plate] The plates were on the breast of the skeleton. This diagram shows the size of the plates being drawn on the edge of one of them. They are 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 & 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 & earth.

This quote is the issue with the Kinderhook plates. I’m not sure how they could have possibly left it out of the video in good faith.

Did Joseph really say that the Kinderhook plates contain the history of a “descendant of Ham”? Many apologists say, “no”, but that’s a pretty weak position.

First of all, there was at least one other eye witness3.

Also, William Clayton’s note was very well known, but Joseph never corrected it. Instead, it was published in the Mormon periodical of the day (Times and Seasons). It was quoted by many in Nauvoo (including Mormon apostles4). It was included in the official History of the Church (where it is still found today5). In each of these documents, the quote was even modified to say, “I, [Joseph] have translated a portion of them…”. This was big news in Nauvoo. People in the surrounding communities were chattering about it all6. Joseph had ample opportunity to correct William’s statement if it was wrong.

He didn’t do that7.

This causes big problems for believers because it gives rise to a lot of uncomfortable questions: Did Joseph really believe that he could interpret the characters on fake plates? Or was he pretending? Did he really believe that he had any understanding of Hebrew and/or Egyptian? Or was he pretending? Did he really see, or think he saw either the Egyptian or Hebrew words for “descendant of Ham” or “Pharaoh” or “ruler of heaven and earth” etc. on the Kinderhook plates? Or was he pretending?

Pretending, or not, the plates were fake and he claimed to know what was written on them. That doesn’t look good for Joseph’s claimed ability to translate ancient languages.

[transcription]: “…but ultimately did not try to acquire them, retain them…”

Major Problems*

*Premature Conclusion…

They don’t know that. Joseph didn’t acquire the Kinderhook Plates, but that’s because the evidence indicates that the plates’ creators didn’t want Joseph to have them. This video conveniently forgets to include this information:

The Mormons wanted to take the plates to Joe Smith, but we refused to let them go. Some time afterward a man assuming the name of Savage, of Quincy, borrowed the plates of Wiley to show to his literary friends there, and took them to Joe Smith. The same identical plates were returned to Wiley8, who gave them to Professor McDowell, of St. Louis, for his Museum.

This is might seem like strange behavior:

They take the time to create a trap for the Mormons but then refuse to let the Mormons take it9. And once the Mormon prophet has a chance to examine them (and make a fool of himself in the process), they promptly take them away and stay quiet about it for 36 years.

Why?

Maybe they figured no one would believe their trick if they were eager to show it to the Mormons. Or maybe they figured that Joseph would uncover their ruse if he had a lot of time to examine them. Or maybe they never intended their trick to go as far as it did10. Any of those scenarios is infinitely more likely than the conclusion that this video jumps to.

Would Joseph Smith have bought the Kinderhook Plates if they were available? We don’t know, but to assert that he never tried to acquire them is not accurate. Once again, this video leaves out big chunks of history and draws premature and inaccurate conclusions.

[transcription]: “…or find them of any value.”

Major Problems*

*Incorrect

To say that Joseph Smith didn’t find any value in the Kinderhook plates is a huge leap that isn’t backed up by the evidence. (See the quote from William Clayton…)

[transcription]: “When the plates were first brought to Joseph, rather than utilize any revelatory tools, such as prayer or a seer stone…”

Some Problems*

*Irrelevant…

I’m not sure I understand why it matters that Joseph didn’t use his “revelatory” power. If William Clayton’s account is accurate, then there are only two options: 1) Joseph was pretending to translate the Kinderhook plates or 2) Joseph thought that he really could translate the Kinderhook plates.

I guess the video is making the point that at least it’s not a knock on his revelatory translation methods, right? But think about it for a minute: Would apologists have conceded that Joseph was fooled if he had claimed to receive the “descendant of Ham” info from God? No. Apologists could simply claim that the Kinderhook plates were just a catalyst for the revelation11.

Either way, apologists would find a way to make it work for them. That’s fine. That’s what apologists do (draw conclusions first and then gather the best evidence to support those conclusion — no matter how far-fetched). It’s our job to determine if we believe those arguments while remembering that they are not objective but apologetic in nature.

[transcription]: “…Joseph sent for his Hebrew Bible and lexicon.”

Major Problems*

*Misleading…

As I mentioned before, this ultimately suggests that Joseph saw (or thought he saw) the Hebrew characters for: “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 & earth” on the Kinderhook plates.

Of course, there is no Hebrew on the Kinderhook plates. Joseph was either pretending or there is some strange coincidence that has yet to be discovered or thunk up.

[transcription]: “An eyewitness remembered him comparing the characters on the plates with his Egyptian alphabet and other said they were being compared to Joseph’s Egyptian papyri.”

Major Problems*

*Misleading…

Personally, I find it to be less than forthcoming for the makers of this video to mention the GAEL and Joseph’s interpretations of the Egyptian papyri as if either of those sources is a legitimate reference for any real understanding of Egyptian. Of course, experts tell us that Joseph’s “translations” in the GAEL, and his interpretations of the characters on the facsimiles are nonsense. For this reason, the Mormon Church now concedes that the Egyptian scrolls might have nothing to do with Abraham:

…Joseph’s translation [might not have been] a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts [might have] provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They [might have] catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.

Apologists aren’t helping their Kinderhook plates arguments when they mention that Joseph used his “understanding” of Egyptian as found in the GAEL or anywhere else, for that matter.

[transcription]: “In other words, Joseph took preliminary steps toward an ordinary translation by comparing the squiggles on these plates to other ancient writings he was familiar with.”

Major Problems*

*Misleading…

An “ordinary translation”? Really?

“…other ancient writings he was familiar with”? 🤮

I’ve been patient with the other stuff, but this is just silly.

Joseph Smith had no ability to translate anything in an ordinary fashion. The Mormon Church itself has said that “Joseph Smith claimed no expertise in any language”12. He wasn’t familiar with ancient writings at all (at least not in terms of being able to interpret them). This is pretty universally agreed-upon by both sides.

If he had any ability at all to translate either Egyptian or Hebrew13 then he would have immediately recognized that the Kinderhook plates contain neither of those languages. He definitely wouldn’t have said that they “contain the history of … a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt…”!

[transcription]: “This apparently produced no findings of any significance.”

Major Problems*

*Incorrect…

I guess my definition of “significant” is different than the creators of this video, because William Clayton’s account seems pretty significant to me.

It’s worth looking at again:

Prest J. has translated a portion and says 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 & earth.

[transcription]: “If he ever sought out a revelatory translation he evidently never received or claimed to have received one.”

Some Problems*

*Irrelevant…

Same comment as when this video mentioned this before: I guess what they’re trying to say is at least Joseph didn’t say the “descendant of Ham” thing while he was receiving revelation from God; he was only pretending to have a knowledge of ancient languages.

Strange… but okay.

[transcription]: “Despite all the anticipation for a full translation nothing ever came.”

Major Problems*

*inconsistent and faulty logic…

Joseph Smith never produced a full translation of the Book of Joseph14 either. Since he only produced fragments of “translations”, must we assume that Joseph didn’t find any value in what he called the Book of Joseph? Or that he thought it was a hoax?

Of course not.

This video exposes a clear double standard in apologists’ treatment of texts that Joseph Smith claimed to be able to translate.


Also, you might remember that the “translation” of the Abraham portion of the Egyptian scrolls15 spanned almost than 7 years16. Just because Joseph didn’t publish a full translation of the Book of Abraham right away didn’t mean that didn’t have plans to do it.

Maybe Joseph would have acquired the Kinderhook plates if he’d had the chance, but maybe the creators of the Kinderhook plates didn’t want Joseph to have them.

Maybe they didn’t trust Joseph or thought that he might discover their ruse if he had a closer look.

There are other, much more likely conclusions, other than see, Joseph wasn’t fooled.


Also, it’s simply not accurate to say that “nothing ever came” and then conveniently leave out William Clayton’s quote. I don’t think that’s very honest.

[transcription]: “The historical evidence suggests that Joseph Smith ultimately did not fall for the hoax.”

Major Problems*

*Faulty logic…

It’s so much easier to say that Joseph didn’t fall for the hoax if you remove Brother Clayton’s quote from the equation. (Maybe that’s why they skimmed over that detail… hmmm.) But considering all the facts, it’s pretty difficult to believe that Joseph didn’t fall for the trick.

It simply doesn’t matter that Joseph didn’t “purchase the plates”, or “hire scribes”, or go into full “translation mode”. William Clayton’s note makes it pretty clear what Joseph thought about the Kinderhook plates (or at least what he wanted others to think about them).

He definitely didn’t give any indication that he thought they were a hoax!

[transcription]: “He never tried to purchase the plates, hire scribes, and go into translation mode as he did with the ancient Egyptian papyri or the Book of Mormon plates…”

Major Problems*

*Inconsistent logic…

As I said before, it just doesn’t matter that he never went into full “translation mode”. He didn’t do that with the Book of Joseph either, and it took him 7 years to complete the Book of Abraham. It’s a huge, contradictory leap to say that Joseph Smith knew that the Kinderhook Plates were a hoax simply for this reason.

[transcription]: “…and now you know why.”

Major Problems*

*Incorrect…

I love this ending. It’s said with such confidence — that they’ve resolved all issues with the Kinderhook plates in under 2 minutes. Simple as that!


Of course, it’s possible that there’s “nothing to see here” with regard to the Kinderhook plates. Maybe Joseph never really claimed to “translate a portion” of the plates after all. (This would mean that multiple accounts that state otherwise would have to be wrong. Of course, this isn’t very likely; but it’s possible.) Or maybe Joseph was just “speaking as a man” (not a prophet) when he said that the Kinderhook plates were the record of a “descendant of Ham…” and that he was being honest and he actually thought he saw similar characters in Hebrew or Egyptian, and really thought that he knew what they meant (but didn’t).

That’s possible17.

But something like this is by far the most likely scenario: admiring followers and interested observers came to Joseph Smith with some ancient-looking, metal plates with awesome writing on them and ask him to interpret them. Joseph then put on a show by comparing his fake Egyptian dictionary18 to the metal plates and then he simply made something up or tried to make it look legit by finding a character that looked similar and then using it to come up with a partial “translation” for his doting audience. Any other explanation requires a lot of strange and highly unlikely scenarios or disregard of the facts.

I don’t blame anyone for finding their way to a faithful explanation of the Kinderhook plates (or anything else for that matter). Faith is up to every individual. However, I do have an issue when the creators of apologetic stuff, like this video, leave out really important information (like William Clayton’s quote). Whether intentional or not, that makes it look like they’re hiding something.

Frankly, I think it’s dishonest.


Footnotes

  1. Some apologists use the fact that Fugate’s letter came thirty-six later to support their arguments. I guess they’re saying that if Fugate, Wiley, and Whitton believed that they fooled Joseph, they would have published their trick immediately. But even if that were so, what the creators of thought of their trick doesn’t matter. Those around the Mormon prophet were clearly under the impression that Joseph believed he was handling ancient artifacts and that he produced a partial “translation”. Those facts stand apart from the creator’s opinions.
  2. Here’s an excerpt: “Mr. Cobb: I received your letter in regard to those plates, and will say in answer that they are a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. …We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the earth.’ We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke.” (Wilbur Fugate Improvement Era)
  3. A non-Mormon eyewitness wrote what he saw in an article found in the New York Herald, May 30, 1843: “…the plates are evidently brass, and are covered on both sides with hieroglyphics. They were brought up and shown to Joseph Smith. He compared, in my presence, with his Egyptian Alphabet…” (fairmormon.org — cited on 10/29/2018)
  4. Parley P. Pratt wrote: “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” (lds.org)
  5. History of the Church Vol. 5, Chapter 19, Pg. 372
  6. The editor of a nearby paper wrote: “…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.” (History of the Church Vol. 5, Chapter 19, Pg. 378)
  7. Apologists are left with little choice here. William Clayton’s statement is so damning that they have to throw doubt on it (or leave it out of their accounts altogether). I’ve written quite a bit about this topic here.
  8. Robert Wiley was another of the people who made the plates.
  9. Joseph only got a hold of them because another person (who borrowed them) then took them to Joseph without Fugate’s permission.
  10. Fugate didn’t mention anything about exposing Joseph’s fraud to the world, instead he said that their goal was to prove a Mormon prophecy that “truth is yet to spring out of the earth” by way of a joke. This makes it sound like they just wanted to have something to laugh at with their friends and family. We can only guess at the real reason why they didn’t make the plates available to Joseph Smith, but the point is that it seems their goal was never to give them to Joseph.
  11. The Mormon Church has proposed what is referred to as a “catalyst” theory to explain how the Book of Abraham came to be. Since experts agree that nothing in Joseph’s papyri contain anything about Abraham, and since his Egyptian “translations” are nonsense, they’ve come up with this explanation: “…Joseph’s translation [might not have been] a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts [might have] provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They [might have] catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.” (Official LDS Essay).
  12. At least that’s what the official LDS Essay on Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham says, but it’s not true. Joseph claimed to be an expert with languages many times through out his life. There are accounts like this one where he tries to convince people of his linguistic prowess: “Were I a Chaldean I would exclaim, Keed’nauh to-me-roon lehoam elauhayauh dey – ahemayana veh aur’hau lau gnaubadoo, yabadoo ma-ar’gnau comeen tehoat sheamyauh allah (Thus shall ye say unto them: The gods that have not made the heaven and the earth, they shall perish from the earth, and from these heavens.) An Egyptian, Su-e-eh-ni (What other persons are those?) A Grecian, Diabolos basileuei (The Devil reigns.) A Frenchman, Messieurs sans Dieu (Gentlemen without God.)” (Larson, Charles M. By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: a New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri. Inst For Religious, 1992.) Of course, he only ever demonstrated a few phrases, the Egyptian was made up, and the Chaldean is actually Hebrew, but the point is that he fooled people into thinking he was an expert in languages. I couldn’t do that. Could you?
  13. There are records that Joseph studied Hebrew throughout his lifetime, but his understanding of the language was pretty low.
  14. The History of the Church mentions, that “I [Joseph] commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.,–a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.” Interpretations of “the writings of Joseph of Egypt” come from Oliver Cowdery. His notes were published in the Mormon Church’s Messenger and Advocate. He said that it was “…beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part red ink, or paint, in perfect preservation.”. He described a few pictographs along with their interpretations: “The representation of the god-head—three, yet in one, is curiously drawn to give simply, though impressively, the writers views of that exalted personage” also “The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of and near a female figure” finally: “Enoch’s Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll …Enoch wrote a history or an account of the same, and put into two pillars one of brick and the other of stone; and that the same were in being at his (Josephus’) day.” These descriptions make it an almost certainty that Oliver was referring to this papyrus that’s found in the Joseph Smith Papers archive. This article has a fairly good summary of the Book of Joseph.
  15. “In the summer of 1835, an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler arrived at Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, with four mummies and multiple scrolls of papyrus… A group of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland purchased the… artifacts for the Church.” (lds.org)
  16. Joseph and his scribes wrote a little bit during the same summer that the scrolls were purchased (1835) but didn’t complete and publish anything until the spring of 1842. (lds.org)
  17. Kind of in the same way that it’s possible that the earth is flat, I guess.
  18. It’s impossible for me to call it anything else. Joseph’s GAEL contains real Egyptian characters alongside made-up pronunciations and translations. Apologists shrug their shoulders when it comes to the GAEL. I don’t have a problem calling it fraudulent.