Forgeries related to Mormonism/Mark Hofmann

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If Gordon B. Hinckley was a prophet, why was he fooled by Mark Hofmann?

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But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.

—Doctrine and Covenants 10:37
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Question: What are the Hofmann forgeries and the Salamander Letter?

The Church purchased several alleged nineteenth-century documents from Mark Hofmann which were later identified as forgeries

Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the First Presidency, purchased several apparently nineteenth-century documents from Mark Hofmann which were later identified as forgeries.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson explains:

Some of you may remember hearing about a man named Mark Hofmann, now serving a prison sentence in Utah for murder. He was an expert forger of historical documents. Some of these were tied to U.S. history, but several related to Church history. One was a purported letter from Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps reporting that Joseph Smith found the gold plates led by a spirit who “transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole” where the plates were. Another was a supposed transcript of a blessing given by the Prophet to his son Joseph Smith III in 1844 declaring his son to be his rightful successor as head of the Church. [20]

Some left the Church when these documents were publicized saying it was clear that Joseph Smith’s testimony concerning his visions was false or that they could no longer consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the true Church. Not long afterward these and other documents were shown to be forgeries. I wondered, do those who were so troubled believe again now, and when other questions arise, as they always do, will they leave again? In matters of faith, a spiritual witness is essential if one is to avoid being “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” [21] With a Spirit-derived assurance in place, you can go forward in the Lord’s work and continue deepening your relationship with your Heavenly Father while pursuing or awaiting answers. If you determine to sit still, paralyzed until every question is answered and every whisper of doubt resolved, you will never move because in this life there will always be some issue pending or something yet unexplained.[1]

Hofmann made the decision to lie and cover his lies with murder. As tragic as such choices are, LDS doctrine would not expect God to typically intervene via a prophet, or personally, to prevent a person bent on making wicked choices from carrying out his or her plans.(See DC 10:37 If God did so routinely, unfettered choice would be threatened.


Question: If Gordon B. Hinckley were a true prophet, why did he not discern the nature of the Hofmann forgeries?

Prophets are not omniscient nor are they infallible

Critics of the Church raise the question: If Gordon B. Hinckley were a true prophet, why would he be fooled into buying the forgeries? Would he not be able to discern the fraud? [2]

The assumption that President Hinckley should have discerned the nature of the forgery stems from incorrect expectations of what a prophet is. Prophets are not omniscient nor infallible. The Church bought the documents when assured by experts that they were genuine.

Prophets do not generally act to take away the free agent choices of others. President Hinckley's decision to purchase the documents allowed them to be examined, and kept them available for further study so that the forgery could be discovered. (Had a private collector, especially one hostile to the Church, acquired the documents, access might have been much more difficult.)

Some think it strange that a prophet could have been deceived. President Hinckley's public statements make it clear that he was not entirely convinced of the document's provenance, but provisionally accepted the judgment of the experts. (For a discussion of the decision to promptly make the document public when owned by the Church by an author who declared the document a forgery early on, see Rhett S. James, "Writing History Must Not Be an Act of Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 395–414. [{{{url}}} off-site].)

The Lord made it clear to Joseph Smith that a prophet is not granted to know all the designs of those who seek to destroy the Church:

But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter. (DC 10:37)

The LDS doctrine of agency requires that those who plot evil be allowed a certain latitude, though (as President Hinckley prophetically noted) permanent harm to the Lord's work will not be permitted.


Question: Was President Hinckley suspicious that the Salamander letter might not be authentic?

President Hinckley advised caution in accepting the documents' authenticity

President Hinckley, at a Young Adult fireside broadcast from Temple Square, spoke about Martin Harris and others mentioned in the Salamander Letter, and advised caution in accepting the documents' authenticity. He was careful not to proclaim that they were authentic:

As most of you know, recently there have been great stirrings over two old letters. One was purportedly written in 1825 by Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell. If it is genuine, it is the oldest known product of Joseph Smith’s handwriting. It concerns the employment of Joseph by Mr. Stowell, who was engaged in a mining operation looking for old coins and precious metals. The other carries the date of October 23, 1830, and was purportedly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps.

I acquired for the Church both of these letters, the first by purchase. The second was given to the Church by its generous owner. I am, of course, familiar with both letters, having held them in my hands and having read them in their original form. It was I, also, who made the decision to make them public. Copies were issued to the media, and both have received wide publicity.

I knew there would be a great fuss. Scholars have pored over them, discussed them, written about them, differed in their opinions, and even argued about them.

I am glad we have them. They are interesting documents of whose authenticity we are not certain and may never be. However, assuming that they are authentic, they are valuable writings of the period out of which they have come. But they have no real relevancy to the question of the authenticity of the Church or of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.

Much has been said about the Martin Harris/W. W. Phelps letter. I ask: Shall two men, their character, their faith, their lives, the testimonies to which they gave voice to the end of their days, be judged by a few words on a sheet of paper that may or may not have been written by the one and received by the other?

If you have been troubled in any way by press reports concerning this letter, I ask only that you look closer at the man who presumably wrote it and at the man who presumably received it Martin Harris and W. W. Phelps.

The letter is dated subsequent to the declaration of the Testimony of the Three Witnesses, one of whom was Martin Harris. In language unequivocal and certain he and his associates had declared to the world: "Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record,...And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.... And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon."

Would Martin Harris have mortgaged his farm, eventually losing it, to pay for the printing of the Book of Mormon if he had thought of that book as a fraud? He endured ridicule, persecution, and poverty. He lived to the age of ninety-two and died in full faith, voicing his testimony of the truth of the Book of Mormon to the end of his life.

What about W. W. Phelps? Five years subsequent to the date of the letter, he wrote: "Now, notwithstanding my body was not baptized into this Church till Thursday, the 10th of June 1831, yet my heart was there from the time I became acquainted with the Book of Mormon; and my hope, steadfast like an anchor, and my faith increased like the grass after a refreshing shower, when I for the first time, held a conversation with our beloved Brother Joseph whom I was willing to acknowledge as the prophet of the Lord, and to whom, and to whose godly account of himself and the work he was engaged in, I owe my first determination to quit the folly of my way, and the fancy and fame of this world, and seek the Lord and His righteousness."

This is the same man who wrote that majestic and marvelous hymn of tribute to the Prophet Joseph — "Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah! Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer. Blessed to open the last dispensation, Kings shall extol him, and nations revere."

He had no doubt concerning the divine origin of the Book of Mormon or the divine calling of him who was the instrument in the hands of the Almighty in bringing it forth. William W. Phelps died as a high priest in Salt Lake City in full faith.

Marvelous and enduring love and loyalty of the kind shown by these two men do not come from an experience with a "salamander" as we generally interpret that word.

Would these two men have so endured, so declared their testimonies, and so lived out their lives in faith had there been any doubt about the way in which the Book of Mormon plates were received from the hands of Moroni and translated by the gift and power of God?[3]


Church reaction to forgeries

Summary: Did the Church acquire the "Salamander letter" with the intent of 'suppressing' it? The reality is that the historical record is clear that the Church did nothing to hide the Hofmann "Salamander Letter," even though to some it appeared to pose problems for the Church's story of its origins.


Notes

  1. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, "The Prophet Joseph Smith," Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional (24 September 2013).
  2. Criticisms related to President Hinckley's inability to detect the Mark Hofmann forgeries are raised in the following publications: Richard Abanes, One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), 424 ( Index of claims ) (See here for a response to this issue for this individual work.); Jerald and Sandra Tanner, The Changing World of Mormonism (Moody Press, 1979), 337.( Index of claims ); Watchman Fellowship, The Watchman Expositor (Page 3)
  3. Gordon B. Hinckley, "First Presidency Message: Keep the Faith," Ensign (September 1985), 3.. off-site