Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates: Overview and Current Perspectives
On April 23, 1843, six bell-shaped brass plates, covered with undecipherable engravings were unearthed near Kinderhook, Illinois, 70 miles south of Nauvoo. These plates have come to be known as the Kinderhook Plates. A Latter-day Saint was present when the plates were discovered, so news traveled quickly back to the Mormon community in Nauvoo about the discovery of a new set of metal plates with writing on them. Initial LDS reactions were positive and reflected an expectation that these plates would support the ancient origin of the Book of Mormon. Soon after their discovery the Kinderhook Plates were taken to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith so he could examine them.
On Wednesday, May 1, 1843 in the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, the editor of the Mormon Church publication Times and Seasons published an article on this discovery.
The article stated: “Circumstances are daily transpiring which give additional testimony to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
The article went on to say:
The following letter and certificate, will perhaps have a tendency to convince the skeptical, that … even the obnoxious Book of Mormon, may be true; and … that there may have been such [gold] plates as those from which the Book of Mormon was translated.
Mr. Smith has had those [Kinderhook] plates, what his opinion concerning them is, we have not yet ascertained. The gentleman that owns them has taken them away, or we should have given a fac similie of the plates and characters in this number. We are informed however, that he purposes returning with them for translation; if so, we may be able yet to furnish our readers with it (Times and Seasons , vol. 4, pp. 185-87).
The bell-shaped plates were later returned to Joseph Smith and according to historical sources, both Mormon and non-Mormon, he began a translation of the engravings and identified the skeletal remains found with the Kinderhook Plates.
For example, Joseph’s private secretary William Clayton, recorded the following journal entry for May 1, 1843:
I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams County ... President Joseph 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 (An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, ed. George D. Smith, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 1991, p. 100; emphasis added).
For many years, this entry in Clayton’s journal was attributed to Joseph Smith as a first person statement. This is because it was cited as such in the official History of the Church, May 1, 1843, which reads:
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 (History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 372; emphasis added).
For 130 years this statement was accepted as unquestionably accurate. Joseph Smith claimed to have seen the Kinderhook Plates, he identified them as ancient artifacts, and translated part of them. However, since 1980 some LDS scholars and apologists have argued that these statements did not originate with Smith, but rather Clayton himself invented them or merely recorded hearsay.
This raises some interesting questions.
How plausible is this argument raised by some LDS writers? Was it unusual for accounts recorded by Joseph’s scribes to be entered as Joseph’s own words? Who was William Clayton? Was he in a position to accurately know and record Joseph’s words? Was Clayton considered a reliable scribe and a dependable person? Are there other entries in his journals that are accepted without question as the words of Joseph Smith?
Clayton: Intimate Confidante of Joseph Smith
From his conversion to the Mormon Church at age 23 in Preston, England in 1837, to his death in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1879, William Clayton is described as “never swerving in his belief in the church and its leaders” by George D. Smith, editor of An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (p. xvii). In his fifty page introduction to Clayton’s life and journals, George D. Smith includes descriptions of Clayton from close associates and family members who uniformly remember him as a serious, meticulous and dependable person. His daughter spoke of him as “methodical, always sitting in his own armchair, having a certain place at the table … his person was clean and tidy; his hands small and dimpled” (p. liii). G.D. Smith writes:
Long after his death, Clayton was remembered as “the soul of punctuality”; his daughter remembering his “love for order, which he believed was the first law of heaven … he would not carry a watch that was not accurate” (p. xvi).
Mormon leaders recognized Clayton’s gifts and abilities early on, for after being a member of the LDS Church for less than six months he was named second counselor to the president of the British Mission (p. xvi), and later became the first branch president of Manchester (BYU Studies, 27:1, p. 47).
At Clayton’s death, Joseph F. Smith, who would become the sixth President of the LDS Church, noted Clayton’s achievements:
He was a friend and companion of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and it is to his pen to a very great extent that we are indebted for the history of the Church … during his acquaintance with him and the time he acted for him as his private secretary, in the days of Nauvoo (p. lx).
LDS scholars who have studied Clayton’s life have noted his “meticulous detail that was the hallmark of his writing” (p. xx), and also that,
Beginning early in 1842, William Clayton found himself involved in nearly every important activity of Nauvoo, but especially the private concerns of the prophet. For two and a half years, until Joseph’s death in 1844, they were in each other’s company almost daily.
[James B.] Allen [who wrote a biography of Clayton], explains that Clayton was not only Smith’s trusted employee and associate but also his personal friend and confidante. He wrote letters for the prophet, recorded his revelations, ran his errands, and helped prepare the official history of the church (pp. xxii-xxiii).
There would appear to be nothing or no one to detract from Clayton’s ability to accurately record the words of Joseph Smith, and every reason to believe he did so accurately and reliably.
Therefore, one can understand why the leaders of the LDS Church when compiling an authoritative history of the life of Joseph Smith and the Church, would accept without question the accuracy of Clayton’s journal entry for May 1, 1843 that stated:
I have seen 6 brass plates which were found in Adams County ... President Joseph 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 Pharoah king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven & earth (Intimate Chronicle, p. 100, emphasis added).
As LDS leaders constructed a history of Joseph’s life with words recorded by him and others, it would have been easy to justify modifying Clayton’s May 1, 1843 entry so it read as follows when incorporated into the History of the Church:
I insert fac-similes of the six brass plates found near Kinderhook, in Pike County, Illinois, on April 23, by Mr. Robert Wiley and other, 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 (History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 372)
If one does not accept Clayton’s journal entry at face value, about the only alternative is to imply that Clayton did not hear Smith make these statements, but instead was willing and capable of inserting speculative and unsubstantiated ideas and falsely attributing them to Joseph Smith. While this can be granted as a possibility, it certainly seems improbable and highly implausible given what we know of Clayton’s life and character and the high level of confidence placed in him by Joseph Smith and subsequent LDS leaders and scholars.
Equally important in assessing the accuracy of Clayton’s journal entry is the existence of corroborating historical evidence related to Clayton, Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates. For example:
- The Mormons published facsimiles of the plates in a broadside titled "Discovery of the Brass Plates," published at Nauvoo, Illinois, 24 June 1843. This broadside stated in part:
The contents of the Plates, together with a Fac-Simile of the same, will be published in the "Times & Seasons," as soon as the translation is completed (LDS Archives – reproduced in Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax," Ensign 11 [August 1981]:72).
- Joseph Smith hired Clayton specifically to record what he did and said, and “beginning in early 1842, William Clayton found himself involved in nearly every important activity of Nauvoo, but especially the private concerns of the prophet. For two and a half years, until Joseph’s death in 1844, they were in each other’s company almost daily” (Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton, George D. Smith, ed., pp. xxii-xxiii).
- Clayton was with Joseph Smith on the day he records Joseph rendering his verdict on the plates (Intimate Chronicle, p. 100).
- Church Historian George A. Smith affirmed in 1858 that there was an accurate system in place so that the recorded history would be “strictly correct.” The historians and clerks engaged in the work were “eye and ear witnesses of nearly all the transactions recorded in this history, most of which were reported as they transpired, and, where they were not personally present, they have had access to those who were” (Edward Ashment, unpublished article on file, Institute for Religious Research, Appendix A, p. 2)
- The history of Joseph Smith that contains the Kinderhook Plate statement was approved by Brigham Young, who himself was at Joseph Smith’s house and saw the plates there. Young even includes a sketch of one of the plates he saw at Joseph’s house in his diary (Ashment, p. 2).
Thus, numerous historical sources indicate Clayton’s May 1, 1843 journal entry is accurate, and that Joseph considered the Kinderhook Plates ancient artifacts and began a translation of them. This historical evidence, coupled with a complete lack of any evidence to the contrary, was sufficiently convincing that for over 130 years no Mormon seems to have questioned or contested the authenticity of these bell-shaped brass plates.
LDS writer Stanley B. Kimball summarized the extent of LDS acceptance of the Plates as follows:
Over the decades, through the pages of the Times and Seasons, the Nauvoo Neighbor, The Prophet, missionary pamphlets, the Millennial Star, the Desert News, the University Archaeological Newsletter, the Improvement Era, [in] BYU Symposia [and in Visitors’ Centers, and] in books and unpublished reports, LDS scholars and laymen (and at least two RLDS writers) have affirmed and striven to prove the story of the Kinderhook plate incident and tried to make them vouch for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and to defend Joseph’s alleged translation of them (Stanley B. Kimball, “New Light on the Old Kinderhook Plates Problem,” based on a paper read at the 16th annual Mormon History Meeting, Ricks College, May 1-3, 1981, p. 3).
Challenges and Mormon Defense
Due to the historical evidence and the testimony of Joseph Smith, the Mormon community accepted and defended the Kinderhook Plates as genuine artifacts of ancient origin. Non-Mormons, however, at times challenged the LDS view that the plates were ancient artifacts. One such challenge came from Wilbur Fugate who participated in the 1843 discovery of the plates. He gave testimony in an 1879 letter to James T. Cobb that he had been involved in a hoax along with two other men. He claimed that together they had cut out thin pieces of metal and etched markings on them with beeswax and acid. Then they had aged and secretly buried the plates and faked their discovery, inviting a Mormon to be present so word would get back to Joseph Smith (Welby W. Ricks, The Improvement ERA, vol., 65, 1962, pp. 656, 658).
However, Mormon defenders rejected this testimony and even had a surviving original plate examined in June of 1953 by Stanley B. Hill and Edward Pwiiski, two non-LDS engravers, to determine whether it was etched with a sharp object, or engraved with acid. While this testing was not conclusive, there seemed to be evidence the plate was engraved rather than etched. This led Mormon scholar Welby W. Ricks to write:
The plates are now back in their original category of genuine. What scholars may learn from this ancient record in future years or what may be translated by divine power is an exciting thought to contemplate. 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 (Ibid. p. 660).
For over 130 years, from the discovery of these bell-shaped plates in 1843, the consensus Mormon position based on historical evidence was:
1. The Kinderhook Plates appeared to be authentic, ancient artifacts.
2. Joseph Smith saw the plates and had facsimiles made of them.
3. Smith accepted them as authentic, evidenced by his claim to have translated them sufficiently to have determined their origin.
A Sudden Twist in the Trail
All this changed radically in 1980. In that year LDS history professor, Stanley B. Kimball, secured permission from the Chicago Historical Society to do a new series of highly technical tests, including use of a scanning electron microscope and an X-ray fluorescence analysis. These were performed by Professor D. Lynn Johnson of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. The tests were conclusive: this was indeed one of the original plates presented to Joseph Smith in 1843. However, it was not of ancient origin, but rather a modern brass alloy produced in the 19th century. The Kinderhook Plates were just what Fugate had claimed in 1879, “a humbug”. (Stanley B. Kimball, "Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax," Ensign 11 [August 1981]:69-70).
Suddenly, the Kinderhook Plates did not support Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon, but instead raised serious questions about Joseph’s prophetic claims to be able to translate ancient languages.
LDS Scholars Revisit the Issue and Respond
LDS scholar Stanley B. Kimball, who initiated the conclusive testing on a surviving Kinderhook Plate in 1980, also provided the principle Mormon response to these results in an article he wrote for the official Mormon Church magazine, the Ensign. Kimball’s article reported the test results and then sketched out a survey of the historical evidence related to the Kinderhook Plates. Kimball’s conclusions (which have become the most common line of response given by other LDS apologists) can be summarized as follows.
- Joseph was never fooled to begin with. The Kinderhook Plates were a frontier prank that Joseph was exposed to but he did not fall for it.
- Joseph neither claimed to make a translation, nor did he even start a translation.
- Joseph’s statement found in History of the Church that he had translated a portion of the Plates should be attributed to Clayton’s speculation.
- Where Clayton got such an idea is unknown, but it is most likely he was reporting hearsay and then attributed it to Joseph Smith.
Stanley B. Kimball in his article for the Ensign magazine in August 1981, wrote:
Where the ideas written by William Clayton originated is unknown. However, as will be pointed out later, speculation about the plates and their possible content was apparently quite unrestrained in Nauvoo when the plates first appeared. … Whether or not he [Clayton] was present when Joseph Smith saw the plates is unknown (Ensign, August 1981, p. 67, 71).
Origination of William Clayton’s Ideas Unknown
It is notable that Kimball’s conclusions constitute a complete reversal of the previous Mormon position on the Kinderhook Plates. For over 130 years both LDS leaders and the Mormon community accepted them as authentic, ancient records, and as such they were used to support Joseph’s claims to be a true prophet, seer and translator.
Kimball’s article attempts to absolve Joseph Smith by claiming that the contemporary testimony of Clayton and others were based on “hearsay stories circulating in Nauvoo” (Ensign, August 1981, p. 73).
However, at least one other LDS historian has found serious problems with Kimball’s attempts to reinterpret Mormon history, and especially his attack on the reliability of William Clayton’s journal as a source for what Joseph Smith said. Noted LDS scholar and writer Edward H. Ashment took exception to Kimball’s attempts to defuse the Kinderhook Plates issue. Ashment first outlined the compelling historical evidence that closely linked Clayton to Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates (cited earlier in this article). Then, he detailed numerous serious flaws in both Kimball’s arguments and methodology as found in the Ensign article, and concluded with the following:
Kimball argues from the standpoint of argumentum ad opinabilem, in which the argument proceeds from prior belief to empirical conclusion. In this fallacy, the “prior belief” constitutes the categorical premise upon which the conclusion is based. In other words, because Kimball assumes that Smith was a prophet, Smith therefore would not have incorrectly identified and interpreted the Kinderhook Plates. This explains his specious attempt to exculpate Smith by claiming that Clayton’s and others’ contemporary testimonies were based on “hearsay stories circulating in Nauvoo” (1981, 73).
Kimball’s article is an example of religious apologia presented as though it were history. Facts which are not congenial to increased faith in a given dogma are discredited (as Kimball has attempted to do with the 1 May 1843 entry), distorted or excised (Ashment, p. 2).
Kimball appears to impugn Clayton’s reliability to accurately record Joseph Smith’s words only when these now cast shadows on Joseph’s character and claims.
The question facing the investigator today regards the legitimacy of this post-1980 response. When we encounter objective evidence that overturns previous beliefs or at least calls them into question, is it honest or reasonable to then reassess and reinterpret the historical facts so the belief can stand, or is it time to reassess our beliefs and assumptions? The Kinderhook Plates are a known hoax. Joseph Smith identified them as ancient artifacts and claimed to translate a portion of them. An honest wrestling with the issues seems necessary where there is a commitment to spiritual and intellectual integrity.