In 1843, six men claimed to have unearthed ancient metal plates from a burial mound. They were eventually brought to Joseph Smith. Critics have claimed Joseph was fooled by what was eventually revealed to be a fraud. What is the truth of this claim?
This is the tenth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 10: What were the Kinderhook Plates?
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights Episode 10:
What were the Kinderhook Plates?
Joseph Smith: …that the Lord your God should come out in the fulness of His wrath upon you, that ye be cut off, and destroyed forever.
Martin Harris: [repeating the last words]…that ye be cut off, and destroyed forever… Written.
Joseph: Emma writes better than you do.
Martin Harris: Yes. She did well. But, I am not with child.
Joseph: True enough. Shall we continue?
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox, and we are joined today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat. Thank you for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thank you for having me.
CBF: Gerritt, can you tell me more about the Kinderhook plates?
GD: The Kinderhook plates are this set of metal plates that are found in 1843. They’re found in this Indian burial mound, and they’re found in the presence of some Latter-day Saints. And so they’re, of course, very excited about them, and they’re eventually taken to Nauvoo. Now, one of the things about Latter-day Saints is, unlike the rest of the Christian world, they don’t believe that every prophetic utterance that’s ever been made has been already discovered. They believe that there’s more scripture, they believe that there’s more records, and so there’s excitement because of that. ‘Here’s further evidence of the Book of Mormon. There’s more plates that clearly some ancient inhabitants have put here.’ And in fact, the Church’s newspaper will say, ‘These plates have been found, and Joseph’s even translated a part of them.’
The reason why this is a kind of controversial topic is, the reality of these plates is that they ARE forged. Some men decided that they would try to trick Joseph and the Mormons by manufacturing these plates. And then, themselves hiding them in this burial mound, and then just so happening like, ‘Oh, let’s look what’s in this burial mound. Oh, my goodness, it’s plates!’ You know, finding it very convenient.
When Joseph gets them, he apparently seems to attempt to make a secular translation, or at last tries to figure out what they are. He will take his Hebrew lexicon, and his Egyptian alphabet, which is a record of Egyptian characters that he had made. And he compares those characters to the characters on these fraudulent plates. Of course, he doesn’t know they’re fraudulent.
There doesn’t seem to be a general attempt to translate these plates by Joseph Smith. We don’t have any manuscript of that. We don’t have any scribes who’ve said that they worked on it. Joseph is shown the plates, Joseph clearly looks at the plates, he studies the characters on the plates, but he doesn’t ever undertake to translate them generally. He certainly looks at them. That’s sometimes used by people to say, ‘Well, if Joseph was a real prophet, then how come he didn’t know immediately that those plates were fraudulent plates? Why would he even try to look at them?’ It’s interesting that for critics, who I’m sure would agree that prophets are not infallible, how desperately they think that our prophets should know everything instantly.
CBF: Mm hm.
GD: A really good example of this from Joseph’s own life, I think, is phrenology. So, phrenology is something that is not in vogue today, but it was the idea—when you talk about Science in the 19th Century, I mean, none of it resembles anything that we talk about today—but there were people who really believed that you could scientifically,— big air quotes—“scientifically” determine an entire person’s intelligence, their personality, their proclivities, by measuring their head. So, if you measured different parts of their head, you could figure out, ‘Oh, obviously, this person’s going to be more intelligent.’ Now, phrenology has a very negative history because it’s used by racist, white Americans and Europeans, but it’s also very popular in the United States. And Joseph has not just one, but two phrenology readings. We know the dimensions of Joseph Smith’s head, down to—because he had a phrenology reading.
CBF: Because of phrenology.
GD: We have his chart. So clearly, Joseph, like the rest of the culture, thought that phrenology was a real thing. Important people, smart people were saying that it was, and so he went and had a reading. If you ask Joseph in 1840, ‘Is phrenology scientific?’ He probably went, ‘Well, everyone, they’re saying that it is, so, YEAH, I guess so.’ Well in 1841, Joseph tells a Church meeting that he had a revelation since then that phrenology is of the Devil. But he didn’t know that until he had that revelation.
GD: So, I think that we can’t expect prophets to know things before they know them.
GD: It’s an odd expectation of a prophet. They’re absolutely men and women, that they’re inspired by God, but they also have to know everything that I know, and if they didn’t know it the way that I know it, then that means they must be being dishonest. I think that Joseph has a natural curiosity of anything dealing with Native Americans because of his experience translating The Book of Mormon, and when someone says, ‘Hey, we found these plates…’
CBF: He’s going to want to look at them.
GD: Of course! But for whatever reason, one thing we know is there is NO transcription of these plates, there is no, ‘Here’s the translation of it.’
CBF: So, you mentioned that Joseph didn’t know what he knew, until he knew it. What sources do we have on Joseph’s process for seeking revelation?
GD: You can’t ever say that it’s exactly the same way, because Joseph certainly receives some revelations that he isn’t expecting at all, right? Doctrine and Covenants Section 27, when he’s on his way out to go buy wine for the sacrament, and an angel appears to him.
Maybe Joseph had been contemplating very deeply about, ‘You know, what CAN we use for the Sacrament?’ But he doesn’t say that he was. An angel just appeared and gave it to him. But MOST other revelations come as a consequence of questions that he is deeply thinking about and studying on a secular level before he has that religious experience. Everyone knows the story of the Word of Wisdom. This is a perfect example of — there is a real, practical temperance movement that’s around him. There is a real practical need, that the floor is filthy because everyone is spitting their tobacco juice on it, and that causes him to ask the question of, you know, ‘What about this thing?’ that you get this expansive revelation from the Lord, that makes this fundamental part of who Latter-day Saints are today.
That’s generally how Joseph receives it. He generally has a question about something, thinks about it himself, he spends time on it himself, and then eventually receives the answer from God. And that’s how Joseph describes how other people should receive revelation, in fact, that it should not be something that comes easy to them. When he’s talking to the Council at Fifty, minutes—there’s a group of men whose job it is to write the Constitution for the Kingdom of God on Earth. So imagine, that’s a little heavy, right? I mean, it’s just the constitution of where Jesus is going to reign when he comes. And they are really struggling with it, and they eventually ask Joseph, ‘Can you just receive this by revelation? Because that way, you know, it will be right.’
GD: And Joseph responds, ‘No, it’s necessary that you exercise all of your energy in this thing, so that you can tell where revelation comes from.’
GD: Obviously God has the ability to speak to people however God chooses to speak to people, but in general, God seems to allow Joseph to wrestle with a question, to think about it, to wonder about it, until eventually giving him that revelation. Which is similar to what we see in the scriptures, right? I mean, Nephi is really worried about going to find food BEFORE God tells him where to find food, right? The Brother of Jared has the practical problem of lighting those barges and is clearly thinking about it before he asks God how it’s going to happen.
And so I think that maybe we need just a little bit more charity for people in the past. I know it’s tough, we study history, ‘cause we already KNOW all the answers. ‘Well they should just know that this is the case.’ Well they don’t know. And they have to come to understand the same way we come to understand.
CBF: I love that. I love how applicable that is to US —
CBF: —on a personal level. That we can judge others for things we think are right and they maybe don’t know yet, and we can judge ourselves for not understanding everything that we want to already have an understanding of.
CBF: But it comes little by little.
GD: I feel like if you are frustrated because you don’t understand every aspect of Church history and doctrine, that’s called ‘being a person.’ No normal person could be able to do this, examine these things, without having some questions.
Our church is founded because of a question, so of course you’re going to have questions. The reality of that is what do you do WITH the question. Do I seek an answer as an attempt to build my faith, or do I allow the question to destroy the things that I already believe? And I think that Joseph is sure of what he believes.
GD: So, it’s not a question for him of whether or not he’s going to believe anymore. And so I think in some cases he becomes a little bit casual about things like that, in the sense that, could he have immediately prayed and asked God, ‘Hey is this really from…?’ I suppose he could have. But he didn’t. The revelation comes to Joseph WHEN it’s needed. So sure, a critic might say, ‘Well, why would Joseph not immediately say, “This is a fraud”?’ There are a lot better questions you can ask if we’re asking why doesn’t God intervene. Why does God have the children of Israel in bondage in Egypt for 400 years? Like a hundred years isn’t enough. Or 200 years.
The question of why does God not intervene when WE expect Him to, is actually the question of all religion. It’s the question of faith in an all-powerful God that isn’t always manipulating us like marionette puppets.
CBF: Thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.
CBF: And thank you for joining us. Be sure to watch next time.