26. What is the meaning of the embarrassing Kinderhook Plates episode wherein primary sources show that Joseph “translated” forged items with meaningless symbols created by Wilbur Fugate to expose Joseph’s dishonesty? Does this incident not raise deep suspicions about Joseph’s claims to be a seer and revelator?
In his History of the Church, Joseph Smith discusses six brass plates “covered with ancient characters” and a skeleton which “must have stood nine feet high” found by nine locals as they explored the area around Kinderhook, Illinois.3
Joseph also wrote, “I have translated a portion of them, and 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…” 4
Years later, Wilbur Fugate, a member of the group that found them, admitted to having forged the plates in a hoax intended to expose Joseph Smith.5
In 1980, permission was obtained to accurately determine the plate’s age. The resulting electronic and chemical analyses resolved that the plate was not of ancient origin. Rather, they were created in the 1800s in a manner exactly as the hoaxsters had claimed. Also, further analysis verified that this could not have been a forgery of the Kinderhook Plates, but was, in fact, one of the actual plates discovered in Kinderhook in 1843.
“John Taylor, the personal friend of Joseph’s – took the find seriously, and expressed implicit confidence in his editorial that the Prophet could give a translation of the plates. And this attitude the Church continued to maintain”
In another matter, like the Kinderhook misadventure, Professor Henry Caswall, a professor, reverend and skeptic of Joseph Smith, visited Nauvoo on April 18 & 19, 1842. Caswell claims to have given Joseph Smith a very old Greek Psalter to examine and asked him what it was. It is likely that Caswall wanted to see if he could trick Joseph with his ancient Greek manuscript. Professor Caswall reported that Joseph examined the ancient document and replied that it was a Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. This was, of course, wrong as it was a very well-known Greek Psalter and not Egyptian.
“I had not the opportunity of observing his eyes, as he appears deficient in that open, straightforward look which characterizes (sic) an honest man. I heeled the way to his house, accompanied by a host of elders, bishops, preachers, and common Mormons. On entering the house, chairs were provided for the prophet and myself, while the curious and gaping crowd remained standing. I handed a book the to the prophet, and begged him to explain its contents. He asked me if I had any idea of its meaning. I replied, that I believed it to be a Greek Psalter, but that I should like to hear his opinion.”
“No,” he said; “it ain’t Greek at all, except, perhaps a few words. What ain’t Greek is Egyptian, and what ain’t Egyptian is Greek. This book is very valuable. It is a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics.” Pointing to the capital letters at the commencement of each verse, he said,
“Them figures is Egyptian hieroglyphics, and them which follows is the interpretation (sic) of the hieroglyphics, written in the reformed Egyptian. Them characters is like the letters that was engraved on the golden plates.”
Upon this, the Mormons around began to congratulate me on the information I was receiving. “There,” they said, “we told you so – we told you that our prophet would give you satisfaction. None but our prophet can explain these mysteries!”
“The error of taking a Greek Psalter for a specimen of Egyptian hieroglyphics sufficiently proves the slender pretensions of Mr. Joseph Smith to be a mystery-expounder.” [sic] 7
1 Walters, Wesley P., Joseph Smith Among the Egyptians, 1973
2 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. III, No.2 (Stanford: DialoguFoundation, 1968), p.68.
3 History of the Church, 5:372-79
4 “Ancient Records,” Times and Seasons (1843 May 1). Vol. IV, No. 12, pp. 186-87
5 Kimball, Stanley B., (1981). Kinderhook Plates brought to Joseph Smith appear to be a nineteenth-century hoax. Ensign
6 History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 379
7 Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal, v. 11, pp. 330-331, 1842