On April 23, 1843, near the town of Kinderhook, Illinois, a man named Robert Wiley excavated a large mound of earth and discovered some ancient plates. In a letter to the May 1, 1843 edition of the Times and Seasons,1 the discovery was described like this:
“a bundle was found that consisted of six plates of brass, of a bell shape, each having a hole near the small end, and a ring through them all, and clasped with two clasps, the ring and clasps appeared to be of iron very much oxydated, the plates appeared first to be copper, and had the appearance of being covered with characters. It was agreed by the company that I should cleanse the plates: accordingly I took them to my house, washed them with soap and water, and a woolen cloth; but finding them not yet cleansed I treated them with dilute sulphuric acid which made them perfectly clean, on which it appeared that they were completely covered with hieroglyphics that none as yet have been able to read. Wishing that the world might know the hidden things as fast as they come to light, I was induced to state the facts, hoping that you would give it an insertion in your excellent, paper for we all feel anxious to know the true meaning of the plates, and publishing, the facts might lead to the true translation.”
Published in the Times and Seasons along with this letter was this declaration:
We the citizens of Kinderhook, whose names are annexed, do certify and declare that on the 23d April, 1843, while excavating a large mound, in this vicinity, Mr. R. Wiley took from said mound, six brass plates of a bell shape, covered with ancient characters. Said plates were very much oxidated–the bands and rings on said plates mouldered into dust on a slight pressure. The above described plates we have handed to Mr. Sharp for the purpose of taking them to Nauvoo.
Rob’t Wiley W. P. Harris G. W. F. Ward
W. Longnecker Fayette Grubb Ira S. Curtis
Geo. Deckenson W. Fugate J. R. Sharp
As stated in the declaration, the plates were taken to Nauvoo and presented to Joseph Smith. Here is the front and back of the six plates:2
In the official History of the Church published in 1856, it describes Joseph Smiths’ version of the events:3
Monday, May 1.—I rode out with Lucien Woodworth, and paid him £20 for the Nauvoo House, which I borrowed of William Allen.
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.
I have translated a portion of them, and find 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.
In 1879, Wilbur Fugate, one of the men who submitted the declaration that was published in the Times and Seasons, said that the plates were a hoax. In a letter to James T. Cobb in Salt Lake City, Mr. Fugate said:4
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. Whitton is dead. I do not know whether Wiley is or not. None of the nine persons who signed the certificate knew the secret, except, Wiley and I. We read in Pratt’s prophecy that “Truth is yet to spring up out of the earth.” We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our plans and executed them, Bridge Whitton cut them (the plates) out of some pieces of copper; Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with acid and putting it on the plates. When they were finished we put them together with rust made of nitric acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron, covering them completely with the rust. Our plans worked admirably.
Despite Mr. Fugate’s claim and other evidence that suggested the Kinderhook Plates were a hoax, the church continued to stand by the claim that they were authentic. By this time, the plates had been lost, so at the time there was no way to analyze the plates themselves.
Then, in the 1960’s one of the plates was discovered by a member of the BYU faculty at the Chicago Historical Society Museum. When the plate was first discovered and analyzed, it was believed that the symbols had been engraved with a pointed instrument and not etched with acid as Mr. Fugate claimed. Based upon this observation, in the September 1962 edition of the Improvement Era (an official magazine of the church like the Ensign is today) an article stated that the discovery of this plate reaffirmed Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and proved that Mr. Fugate lied when he said he etched the plates with acid.5
In 1980, the plate was analyzed again by Professor D. Lynn Johnson of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. Dr. Johnson used a scanning electron microscope and a scanning Auger microprobe to determine that the Kinderhook Plates were, as Mr. Fugate said, etched with acid. This proved conclusively that the plates were indeed fake.
In the August 1981 Ensign, the church admitted the Kinderhook Plates were a hoax.6 However, rather than admitting that Joseph Smith had been fooled, the church instead claimed that Joseph Smith never said he translated them.
How did the church explain Joseph Smith’s statement that he “translated a portion of them” and that it was written by “a descendant of Ham,” a character from the Old Testament? They said that this claim was actually written by Joseph Smith’s scribe William Clayton and that it was unknown where William Clayton got this information. In other words, after almost 140 years of claiming the Kinderhook Plates were evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and ability to translate, the church then claimed that Joseph Smith never actually said he translated them.
Does that make any sense? William Clayton was Joseph Smith’s scribe. It makes the most sense that he wrote what Joseph Smith told him to write. Up until the tests in 1980 which proved the plates were fake, the church claimed they were authentic. It seems awfully convenient to then state, when they were proved fake, that Joseph Smith didn’t really translate them.
Keep in mind that Doctrine and Covenants sections 129, 130, and a few other sections were taken from William Clayton’s writings when he was Joseph Smith’s scribe. In other words, the words written on paper by William Clayton when he was a scribe for Joseph Smith have been canonized which means the church considers them the words of Christ. And yet, when it comes to the Kinderhook Plates, the church claims William Clayton is unreliable. How convenient. Why is William Clayton a good enough scribe to put his writings in the scriptures, but not a good enough scribe when he said Joseph Smith translated the Kinderhook Plates?
What makes the most sense is that Mr. Fugate was correct that the plates were a hoax and that Joseph Smith, rather than being able to translate them, fell for the hoax.
If Joseph Smith could be so easily fooled by such a hoax, that tells me he was not a prophet. Rather, it tells me he was a fraud.
3 http://archive.org/stream/historyofchurcho05churrich#page/372/mode/2up (link goes to 1909 edition)