Saturday, March 11, 2017

What are the Kinderhook plates?

First, why is this important? Here’s why: The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, claimed to have supernaturally translated golden plates that contained ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. This translation became the Book of Mormon. If Smith was a true prophet of God, would he be able to translate other, unrelated ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics? More importantly, when presented with a fake, would a true prophet of God to be honest enough to admit he has no idea what the hieroglyphics mean? The work of a true prophet should be able to stand up to honest examination.

Discovery of the plates
One issue deserving of examination involves six bell shaped brass plates unearthed near Kinderhook, Illinois. On April 23, 1843, Robert Wiley had been digging at a mound when the plates, which appeared to be engraved with ancient hieroglyphics, were discovered. This archaeological find was certified by nine men, including Wiley. Because Joseph Smith was living in nearby Nauvoo, Illinois and had a reputation at that time as one who was able to translate ancient inscriptions, the plates were brought to him for analysis. Smith apparently claimed to have translated some of these plates. Reported in the official LDS History of the Church, May 1, 1843, were the following diary entries of Joseph Smith:
·         ““[May 1, 1843:] I insert fac similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike county, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. R. Wiley and others, while excavating a large mound.”
·         “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.”[1]

The Saint Louis Gazette also reported that Smith was:
“…busy in translating them.  The new work which Jo. Is about to issue as a translation of these plates will be nothing more nor less than a sequel to the Book of Mormon.”[2]

Furthermore, the Mormon’s own publication, Times and Seasons, confirmed the belief that the Prophet was in the process of translating the plates:
“Why does the circumstance of the plates recently found in a mound in Pike County, Illinois by Mr. Wiley … go to prove the Book of Mormon true? – Ans. Because it is true!”[3]

The real story
It is difficult to determine how far this would have gone because, on June 27, 1844, Joseph Smith was murdered by an angry mob while incarcerated at the Carthage, Illinois jail. About a month after he died, three men admitted to creating the plates as a hoax and planting them at the mound near Kinderhook to be “discovered”. These statements were admitted on the Latter Day Saints’ (LDS) own official website:
·         “In an 1855 letter, Mormon writer W. P. Harris stated, ‘Bridge Whitton [a blacksmith in Kinderhook, Illinois] said to me that he cut and prepared the plates and he (B. Whitton) and R. Wiley engraved them themselves, and that there was nitric acid put upon them the night before they were found to rust the iron ring and band. And that they were carried to the mound, rubbed in the dirt and carefully dropped into the pit where they were found.’”[4]

·         “The other item was a letter written in 1879 by Wilbur Fugate (another of those present at the excavation of the plates) to an anti-Mormon in Salt Lake City. Fugate declared that the alleged discovery of the Kinderhook plates was ‘a HUMBUG, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. … None of the nine persons who signed the certificate [a document included in the Times and Seasons article] knew the secret, except Wiley and I.’”[5]

Scientific testing
In 1980, one of the plates was brought for testing to Professor D. Lynn Johnson of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, who performed scanning electron microscope and an X-ray fluorescence analysis. Because the amount of copper and zinc used (73% and 24% respectively) in the plate was found to be consistent with 19th century manufacture, in addition to other results obtained during the testing, it was determined the plate is not of ancient origin. Stanley B. Kimball, LDS history professor, stated:
“The conclusion, therefore, is that the Chicago plate is indeed one of the original Kinderhook plates, which now fairly well evidences them to be faked antiquities.”[6]

Expert examination of the plates
James Henry Breasted (1865-1935), University of Chicago ancient Egyptian expert, who wrote the five volume set Ancient Records of Egypt: Historical Documents from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest, reported his analysis of the Kinderhook plates in a letter. Dr. Breasted wrote in 1906 as the Mormon Church was still claiming that Smith had begun to translate the plates:
“The ‘Kinderhook Plates’ are, of course, childish forgeries, as the scientific world has known for years.”
            “Smith tried to deceive people into thinking that he had translated some of the plates.”
And, this is the crucial point that Breasted makes:
“Where we can check up on [Joseph] Smith as a translator of plates, he is found guilty of deception. How can we trust him with reference to his claims about the Book of Mormon?”
            “as Charles A. Shook well observed … ‘Only a bogus prophet translates bogus plates.’”[7]

The LDS response
The standard response from the Mormon Church now is that the translation story is exaggerated and Joseph Smith was never fooled by the plates. The official LDS website makes the following statements:
·         “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”
·         “there is no evidence that the Prophet Joseph Smith ever took up the matter with the Lord”
·         “So it is that in the 100-year battle of straw men and straw arguments, Joseph Smith needs no defense—he simply did not fall for the scheme.”[8]

But, documentary evidence shows that Smith believed these were genuinely found in an archaeological dig and there is no written record he ever thought they were forgeries. The LDS response to the diary statements is that the quotes were not written by Smith himself, but rather found in the journal of William Clayton. The details surrounding the diary entry are ambiguous enough that it may be accurate to state Clayton was the one who made the entry. Nevertheless, Clayton was admittedly a confidant of Joseph Smith and a well respected Mormon. And, here’s the curious part:  For about 130 years, these statements were officially attributed to Smith by the LDS church. This is like a witness whose story changes in court on the stand. Which story should we believe; the first one or the second? The church was willing to attribute the diary quote to Smith as long as the plates were assumed to be genuine. Then, when the plates were proven to be fraudulent, the story changed.

So, what’s the big deal?
Several possibilities exist for the events that occurred in 1843:  One, Joseph Smith was sincere regarding what he thought the plates stated and he simply made an honest mistake. In other words, his translation to that point was sincere, but he just got it wrong. Two, Smith truly thought he heard from God concerning the translation and was mistaken in that fact. This would be more disturbing if Smith thought he was hearing from God. Three, and most damning, Smith had no idea what the engravings meant and he made up the partial translation story. None of these three options bode well for Smith’s reliability as a prophet or as a translator of ancient inscriptions. The point is that Joseph Smith was unreliable regarding the Kinderhook plates and was likely outright deceptive. Since he was shown to be untrustworthy in this instance, how can he be trusted to have translated the alleged plates that led to the Book of Mormon?

Credit where it is due
Stanley Kimball is to be applauded for submitting the plate for rigorous scientific testing. We must alter our beliefs to conform with the truth, not vice versa. Our hope and prayer is that those in the LDS church are willing to do the same with other claims of Joseph Smith and be honest enough to follow the results wherever they lead.

[1] Smith, Joseph, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: 1967), vol. 5, p. 372.
[2] Warsaw Signal, May 22, 1844, cited in The God Makers, by Ed Decker and Dave Hunt, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1984), p. 99.
[3] Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, p. 405.
[4] W. P. Harris to W. C. Flagg, 25 April 1855 in "A Hoax: Reminiscences of an Old Kinderhook Mystery," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 5 (July 1912):272.
[5] Wilbur Fugate, Mound Station, Illinois, 30 June 1879 letter to James T. Cobb, Salt Lake City, as quoted in Wilhelm W. Wyl (Wymental), Mormon Portraits (Salt Lake City, 1888), pp. 207–8.
[6] Kimball, Stanley, B., “Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax,” Ensign, Aug 1981, 66.
[7] Church News, Jan. 16, 1982. Pp 4-6; Eastern Standard Times, June 1983, p. 10; cited in The God Makers, p. 100.

[8]Kimball, p. 66.

No comments: