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

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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?[1]

Notes

  1. Gordon B. Hinckley, "First Presidency Message: Keep the Faith," Ensign (September 1985), 3.. off-site