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Did the Kinderhook Plates Really Fool Joseph Smith?

Joseph Smith’s journal entry for 7 May 1843 notes that on this day he met with a group of men who had come to ask about the Kinderhook plates.

What were the Kinderhook plates? Did the Prophet Joseph Smith fall for a hoax? What do and don’t we know about the story? In this interview, Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee look the the history of Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook forgeries.


What is the story of the Kinderhook plates in Latter-day Saint history?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: It was in early 1843 that Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormon Christianity, translated a portion of the Kinderhook plates. These six small plates of brass—each covered on both sides with mysterious inscriptions—have become known as the “Kinderhook plates” because they were extracted from an Indian burial mound near the small village of Kinderhook in western Illinois. Kinderhook was about seventy miles downriver from Nauvoo, then the center of gathering for the Latter-day Saints.

In a sense, the joke exceeded their wildest dreams when that happened.

Over the years since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, Joseph Smith had become widely known for his claim to have been led by a heavenly messenger to an ancient record inscribed on a set of gold plates, buried in a hill in western New York, and to have translated the record by means of a spiritual gift from God. Given the obvious similarity between the gold plates of the Book of Mormon and the brass plates from Kinderhook, the Kinderhook plates were brought to Smith.


Don Bradley: Joseph Smith kept the Kinderhook plates at his house for about a week and translated at least part of them. According to William Clayton, Joseph Smith’s private clerk, Smith had “translated a portion” of the plates and said that they contained “the history of the person with whom they were found . . . a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”

About a week later, Church Apostle Parley Pratt wrote about the Kinderhook plates in a letter to a cousin. Pratt relayed that the plates contained “the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.”

While also associating the Kinderhook plates with the Jaredites, one of the peoples in the Book of Mormon, Pratt basically agreed with what Clayton had written about the plates being associated with a descendant of Ham.


Mark Ashurst-McGee: But here is the big problem: Decades later, one of the men who was present when the Kinderhook plates were disinterred revealed that the plates and their “discovery” were a hoax.

Wilburn Fugate claimed that he and Robert Wiley had made the Kinderhook plates with some help from local blacksmith Bridge Whitton, and then planted the plates in the burial mound the night before they were unearthed. Scientific testing has now confirmed the modern manufacture of the plates.


Don Bradley: It comes as no surprise then that the episode is a cause célèbre in anti-Mormon literature, which repeatedly uses a phrase that has almost become a slogan: “only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.”

The problem in this pithy passage is an unstated assumption that when the Prophet translated the Kinderhook plates he was acting as a prophet—that he believed he was translating by revelation or that he was presenting his translation as a revelatory translation. It turns out that this assumption is demonstrably false.


Mark Ashurst-McGee: Joseph Smith is important to us as a religious figure—as the founding prophet of the Church and as the prophetic translator of the Book of Mormon and other scriptures—so it is natural to assume the any translation he would have performed would have been a prophetic or revelatory translation.

The problem is that this portrait of the Joseph Smith of religious legacy is not necessarily the Joseph Smith of actual history, who was very interested in languages, spent considerable time studying Hebrew and other languages, and even engaged in ordinary (non-revelatory) translation.

BYU Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine Gerrit Dirkmaat discusses the Kinderhook Plates on episode 10 of the Interpreter Foundation’s series, “Insights: Witnesses of the Book of Mormon.”

OK, so how do we deal with this?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Don and I have written two book chapters (basically articles) on the subject—one in A Reason for Faith and one in Producing Ancient Scripture—but we’re excited to answer questions here, because the question-and-answer format is actually a great way to get at this subject.

This enigmatic episode of the Kinderhook plates raises a number of questions.


Who created the Kinderhook plates?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: As mentioned the Kinderhook plates were created by three men from the Kinderhook area: Wiburn Fugate, Robert Wiley, and Bridge Whitton. One of Fugate’s sons later wrote that his father was “a free thinker and essentially opposed to the Mormons, thousands of whom had colonized in Illinois.”

Time and again, wherever the Latter-day Saints had gathered in settlements, they had garnered the resentment of the earlier settlers in the area—especially when their swelling numbers began posing a threat at the ballot box.


Don Bradley: Mormon missionaries proselytizing in Illinois and throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world commonly used apostle Parley Pratt’s A Voice of Warning as a conversion tool. In the spring of 1843, Fugate and Wiley were perusing the ubiquitous missionary tract. According to Fugate, they “read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth would spring up out of the earth’” and “concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke.”

They decided to make their own set of inscribed metal plates, like the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, bury them in an Indian mound, and lead a group of unsuspecting locals to unearth the forgery.


Mark Ashurst-McGee: Two Latter-day Saints may have been invited along as the prank’s primary targets, or in any case were its most immediate victims. A nearby newspaper reported that one of them “leaped for joy at the discovery, and remarked that it would go to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”

In Fugate’s own assessment, the forgery of the Kinderhook plates and the ruse of digging had worked “admirably.” He and his co-conspirators apparently had not planned for the Kinderhook plates to be taken to Nauvoo and translated by Joseph Smith.

In a sense, the joke exceeded their wildest dreams when that happened. But then nothing much came from Smith’s brief and quickly abandoned translation effort.


Is it possible that the Kinderhook plates are actually ancient?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Although five of the six Kinderhook plates have been lost, a sole surviving plate is housed at the Chicago History Museum. In 1980, Mormon historian Stanley B. Kimball received permission to have it scientifically tested. Fugate had written that he and Wiley made the inscriptions “by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates.”

If the Kinderhook plates had been made in the Americas before European contact, they would most likely have been engraved with a stylus of some sort, rather than being acid etched. Testing with a scanning electron microscope showed that the characters on the plates were etched with acid, not engraved with a tool, and testing with a scanning auger microprobe found traces of etching acid in the character grooves.


Don Bradley: Most important, destructive testing and metallurgical analysis showed that the metal was a relatively fine alloy, consistent with nineteenth-century manufacturing techniques and unlike the crude alloys of antiquity.


Mark Ashurst-McGee: Furthermore, the inscriptions on the Kinderhook plates don’t exhibit the character and character combination frequencies that you find in genuine language. Altogether, these results determined conclusively that the Kinderhook plates were of modern manufacture.


Did Joseph Smith really translate from the Kinderhook plates?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Yes, he did. Joseph Smith’s private secretary, William Clayton, wrote in his journal on 1 May about the Kinderhook plates and then wrote:

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.

William Clayton

Apostle Parley P. Pratt similarly wrote that the Kinderhook plates contained “the genealogy of one of the ancient Jaredites back to Ham the son of Noah.”


Did William Clayton know what he was talking about?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Some apologists have argued against this, but there is every indication that he did. Clayton’s journal entry for this day—including his tracing of one of the plates—shows that he was with Joseph Smith on 1 May in the Prophet’s home, personally saw all of the Kinderhook plates there, handled at least one of the plates, and had his pocket-sized journal with him at the time.


Don Bradley: Clayton spent much of that day with Joseph Smith and continued updating his journal entry throughout day as the two of them interacted. So, when Clayton records that “Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain” certain ideas, he is reporting what he had heard from Joseph Smith himself.


Mark Ashurst-McGee: Furthermore, given Clayton’s meticulous and matter-of-fact clerical habits, the things he wrote about Smith’s translation and what Smith said are likely accurate.


What was the method of translation for the Kinderhook plates?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: This is the real issue! Joseph Smith’s journal entry for 7 May 1843 notes that on this day he met with a group of men who had come to ask about the Kinderhook plates. The journal entry also notes that a Hebrew lexicon was sent for.

This suggests that an ordinary linguistic approach was being taken in terms of translating characters from the plates.


Don Bradley: One of the men visiting with Joseph Smith was non-Mormon Sylvester Emmons (who would later edit the infamous Nauvoo Expositor). According to Emmons:

He [Smith] compared them [the Kinderhook plates] in my presence with his Egyptian alphabet, which he took from the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and they are evidently the same characters. He therefore will be able to decipher them.

The “Egyptian alphabet” is a reference to the “Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet” (or sometimes “Egyptian Alphabet”), a manuscript Egyptian-to-English lexicon that had been created by Smith and others in connection with the translation of the Book of Abraham.

Emmons, unfamiliar with the various works of Latter-day Saint scripture, mistakenly associated the Egyptian Alphabet with the Book of Mormon but observed that a comparison between characters in this manuscript notebook and characters on the plates had been made and had been made favorably.

Because of this favorable comparison of characters, Emmons wrote, Smith would “be able to decipher them.” In other words, Joseph Smith would be able to use the Egyptian Alphabet lexicon to produce an ordinary translation, as would any other ordinary translator using a lexicon in his or her work.

In fact, the Egyptian Alphabet includes a character that resembles a prominent character on the plates and this character in the Egyptian Alphabet has an English interpretation that substantially overlaps what Clayton wrote about the translation of the plates.

Here’s a chart showing the similarities of content:

A chart comparing Joseph Smith's translation with the Egyptian definitions

What is the Egyptian Grammar and Alphabet?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: In addition to the Egyptian papyri and the Book of Abraham translation manuscripts, there are several other manuscripts from this period that are clearly related to both.

This curious collection of documents—commonly referred to in secondary literature as the “Kirtland Egyptian Papers”—are in the handwriting of Joseph Smith and others who were clerically assisting him in 1835.

A text titled “Egyptian Alphabet” exists in three versions. Another document, derived from the “Egyptian Alphabet” text, is a bound volume with the expanded title “Grammar & A[l]phabet of the Egyptian Language.”

Going beyond the initial “Egyptian Alphabet” text, the book also included a few rules of grammar. The formatting of these documents in a tabular format and lexicographical style, combined with their interest in the “alphabet” and “grammar” of the Egyptian language, indicate an approach to understanding the papyri that was at least partly academic in intent and style.

The running heads on the pages of the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” bear the shortened title “Egyptian Alphabet.” At some point in time, a label was placed on the spine with the same shortened title. Like the loose-leaf copies of the “Egyptian Alphabet” text that preceded it, the “Egyptian Alphabet” notebook is really more of a lexical text—a sort of dual-language dictionary with Egyptian characters and corresponding definitions or interpretations in English.

The inscriptions in the book—with several blank pages between sections—indicate that the project fell far short of initial expectations.

This enigmatic document continues to be a subject of debate in the Book of Abraham historicity wars.


Don Bradley: True, yet all this can be a red herring in terms of the Kinderhook plates. Whatever you make of the original production of the Egyptian Alphabet in 1835, here in 1843 with the Kinderhook plates, you see Joseph Smith using it as an ordinary translation tool.

He did this openly within a group of onlookers that included both Church members and non-members.


Did Joseph Smith ever translate any more of the Kinderhook plates?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: He apparently planned to, and he apparently didn’t.


Don Bradley: Right, Joseph Smith was murdered before ever returning to finish either the Book of Abraham or the Kinderhook plates.


So, Joseph Smith’s translation effort, or mistranslation, was for only one character and it was a natural, not supernatural, translation attempt. This seems to exonerate him from the false-prophet argument. But is there anything else we can learn from this episode beyond his method of translation?

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Yes, there is. It affirms Joseph Smith’s genuine interest in languages. Also, this curious episode provides a glimpse into the mental universe of Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints.

The content that Joseph Smith found in the Egyptian Alphabet (see table above) was usable for translation because it made sense of the Kinderhook plates within his mental universe.

He (and other Saints) inhabited a providential cosmos and continent that had been previously inhabited by peoples brought there by the Lord, with prophets and kings among them who had kept records and had buried them in the earth to come forth in the last days.

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Further reading

Kinderhook Plates resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

12 replies on “Did the Kinderhook Plates Really Fool Joseph Smith?”

Mark Ashurst-McGee: Although five of the six Kinderhook plates have been lost, a sole surviving plate is housed at the Chicago History Museum. In 1980, Mormon historian Stanley B. Kimball received permission to have it scientifically tested. Fugate had written that he and Wiley made the inscriptions “by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates.”

Since only one of the Kinderhook plates is extant, and since it was created by acid etching, I wonder if that lone plate might be one of Mark Hofmann’s productions. Has anyone looked into that at all? It seems like exactly the kind of thing Hofmann might have come up with, and it would have the ironic twist of being a forgery of a forgery.

Hi Jack! The Chicago History Museum (then the Chicago Historical Society) acquired the plate in 1920. Mark Hofmann was born in 1954. So, the plate was not produced by Mark Hofmann. Conversely, it has every indication of being the genuine forgery.

Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the information.

You wrote: “The Chicago History Museum (then the Chicago Historical Society) acquired the plate in 1920.”

Unless Hofmann somehow forged the acquisition record. I’m mostly kidding about that. Makes you think, though, doesn’t it? 🙂

“Conversely, it has every indication of being the genuine forgery.”

The “genuine forgery.” Wow, that’s wonderful. Too bad it couldn’t be a forged forgery. That would be even better!

Thanks again!

The institution’s acquisition number for the plate is “1920.487”–reflecting the year in which they acquired it. The plate there was examined in 1953, as reported in Welby Ricks, “The Kinderhook Plates,” Improvement Era, September 1962, 637.

“The plate there was examined in 1953, as reported in Welby Ricks, “The Kinderhook Plates,” Improvement Era, September 1962, 637.” Well, shoot. I can dream, can’t I?

Thanks for the information. It’s nice to have that completely cleared up. Seriously, I appreciate the whole post and especially your responses to my comments.

Could the pranksters have had access to the Prophet’s Egyptian Alphabet work, and used that to make the forgery look like something Joseph would recognize? That would make sense of the matter to me.

Related question, how do we answer the critics’ claim that the Prophet was lying about his ability to translate, since his Egyptian Alphabet was wrong?

“Could the pranksters have had access to the Prophet’s Egyptian Alphabet work, and used that to make the forgery look like something Joseph would recognize?”

This is theoretically possible, but HIGHLY implausible. The Egyptian alphabet documents were kept among Joseph Smith’s private papers in Nauvoo–about 70 miles upriver from Kinderhook. Prior to the “discovery” of the plates near Kinderhook, there is no indication of the forgers ever being in Nauvoo, of meeting Joseph Smith, or of somehow gaining access to the his Egyptian alphabet documents. The similarity between one character (of many) from the Egyptian alphabet documents and one character (of many) from the Kinderhook plates is entirely random.

“Related question, how do we answer the critics’ claim that the Prophet was lying about his ability to translate, since his Egyptian Alphabet was wrong?”

Joseph Smith explicitly claimed that he had translated the Book of Mormon by the power of God. This obviously entails a claim to an ability to translate and to translate accurately (though not by his own faculties). While we do not have a similarly explicit statement from Smith regarding the Book of Abraham, this can be inferred without too much fuss. The production method for the Egyptian alphabet has obvious similarities and obvious differences. It obviously involves a concept of translation–whether natural or supernatural (and, if natural, either accurate or inaccurate). It obviously has content related to the Book of Abraham. Don Bradley, my co-author in this blogpost, points out that the Egyptian alphabet documents also have content not found in the Book of Abraham and that the Book of Abraham has content not found in the Egyptian alphabet documents. Thus, neither source can be entirely derivative of the other. It is a complex situation. But here are a few basic observations: The Book of Abraham, like the Book of Mormon, is a scriptural narrative of prophetic lives and teachings. The Egyptian Alphabet is not. The Book of Abraham, like the Book of Mormon, was presented as scripture (e.g, with versification). The Egyptian Alphabet is presented in a lexical format. There were plans to publish the Egyptian Alphabet, but there is no indication of how it would be presented (whether as scripture or as something else).

Joseph Smith had some rudimentary proficiency in Hebrew and had spent some time studying other languages as well. He explicitly expressed his desire to one day become a master of languages: “I am determined to persue the study of languages untill I shall become master of them, if I am permitted to live long enough, at any rate so long as I do live I am determined to make this my object, and with the blessing of God I shall succeed to my sattisfaction” (Journal, 1836.02.17). But Smith never achieved this goal. In one sermon, he announced he would “turn linguist” and then engaged in some biblical translation for his audience. But Smith never (that we know of) claimed to have achieved his goal of becoming a master of languages. While he had hoped that God would bless him in his efforts to learn languages, this was a different effort than using the divine Gift of Translation for the translation of the golden plates. The 1836 quotation given above comes from Smith amidst his efforts to STUDY and LEARN the Hebrew language from a Hebrew instructor in a Hebrew class, including classroom exercises in translation and translation homework. Many of this journal entries and actions from the same period implicitly carry the same meaning that he is studying Hebrew and trying to learn how to translate by his own natural efforts (not with the supernatural gift of translation).

Therefore, there are two plausible scenarios for the production of the Egyptian alphabet documents. One scenario is that Smith was using the divine gift (or supposed gift or falsely claimed gift) of supernatural translation (like with his translation of the Book of Mormon). The other scenario is that Smith was engaged in a scholarly effort (like with his translations that were a part of his Hebrew study). And, there is also a third scenario that is some mixture of the two.

Matthew Grey has argued (quite well imho) that Smith launched his study of Hebrew because it was believed that it would help in understanding the recently acquired Egyptian papyri. This suggests the second scenario (natural translation efforts). However, as mentioned above, it can be fairly inferred (imho) that the Book of Abraham is to be understood as a supernatural translation. Also, how do you guess at all of the content (including proper nouns) in the Egyptian alphabet? So, again, this is a complex situation. The Egyptian alphabet material is something that is obviously related to and yet different from the Book of Abraham.

I am very interested in the Egyptian alphabet documents and have tried to keep up with the literature on them, but alas I am no expert. I’ve said about all I have to say on the nature of their production.

However, let my try to get back to your question: “how do we answer the critics’ claim that the Prophet was lying about his ability to translate, since his Egyptian Alphabet was wrong?” We need to interrogate that part about Joseph Smith stating something “about his ability to translate.” With the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith is explicitly stating or implicitly inferring his ability to translate by the supernatural method of the Gift of Translation (and thus to translate accurately). With his Hebrew study, Joseph Smith is explicitly stating and implicitly inferring his imperfect efforts to learn to translate by the natural method of scholarly translation (and thus to ATTEMPT to translate accurately). There are two kinds of Joseph Smith translation here, each with a different stance toward translation ability. Thus, the fact that the Egyptian alphabet documents do not accord with modern Egyptological interpretation does not necessarily imply that “the Prophet was lying about his ability to translate.” As Smith himself clarified, a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such. On some occasions, like the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, Smith was acting as a prophet. On other occasions, like his Hebrew study and the Kinderhook plates, he was acting as a linguist. To get right at it, “the critics’ claim that the Prophet was lying about his ability to translate” is a claim that is based on the assumption that Smith was claiming the produce the Egyptian alphabet documents by the divine gift of translation. That assumption is clearly uncertain.

So, again, “how do we answer the critics’ claim that the Prophet was lying about his ability to translate, since his Egyptian Alphabet was wrong?” We don’t have to answer that claim because that claim is based on an assumption that is uncertain. We can simply point out that Joseph Smith translated by both natural and supernatural means and that he did not claim infallibility for his natural translation efforts. Rather, he was explicitly attempting to learn in the natural, incremental, and imperfect way that anyone learns any scholarly subject. This may apply to the Egyptian alphabet documents just as it applies to Smith’s Hebrew study, his attempted translation of the Kinderhook plates, and his turning linguist in the pulpit. To be clear, I’m not claiming that this position is ironclad or even unproblematic. I’m merely noting that it is one of the plausible scenarios.

Thank you Mark for your detailed response! That makes a lot of sense. He had a divine/accurate gift of translation that God let Joseph use solely for bringing scripture into the world. But he also had a personal passion with languages and translating and wanted to develop that interest separately. And the way people were to distinguish between the two was when the Prophet said a translation was given by the gift and power of God. I’ve seen contemporary uses of that phrase in relation to the Book of Mormon, I’m trying to find one (or similar phrasing/suggestion) regarding the Book of Abraham, do you know of any?

You don’t get anything directly from Joseph Smith that is as clear as his statements about the Book of Mormon. You do get explicit statements from others. So, for example, you have John Whitmer writing that “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.” Also, the style of the published presentation of the Book of Abraham seems to imply that it is to be taken as scriptural. But no, I do not know of anything like this directly from Joseph Smith.

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