Church reaction to the Hofmann forgeries

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Church reaction to the Hofmann forgeries

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Question: Did the Church purchase documents such as Mark Hofmann's "Salamander letter" with the intent of hiding and suppressing them?

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

One critic claims that the Church acquired Mark Hofmann's "Salamander letter" with the intent of suppressing it, or "hiding history." [1]

3 January 1984: Hofmann tried to persuade both President Hinckley and the Church Historical Department to purchase the "Salamander Letter." Both declined:

Lyn Jacobs [an associate of Hofmann's] visited the Historical Department to talk to don Schmidt. He showed Schmidt [the salamander letter]....Jacobs suggested it might be one the church would like to own. Jacobs said he wanted a ten-dollar Mormon gold piece for it. The most coveted item among collectors of Mormon money, the rare coin was extremely valuable. Schmidt thought Jacobs had an inflated idea of the letter's worth and told him he would never get what he was asking....Knowing that the price he was asking exceeded what Schmidt and [supervising general authority Elder G. Homer] Durham were authorized to spend for acquisitions, Jacobs had already made an appointment with Gordon Hinckley...

Jacobs again offered to give the letter to the church in exchange for a ten-dollar Mormon gold piece, whose value Jacobs would later approximate at from sixty to over one hundred thousand dollars. Like Schmidt and Durham, Hinckley said he felt the asking price was too high. Jacobs then offered to trade the letter for a copy of A Book of Commandments, valued by Jacobs at thirty to forty thousand dollars. Hinckley considered the offer briefly, then said of the letter, 'I don't know if we really want it.'

...After Jacobs failed to persuade Hinckley to buy the letter, he went back to see Schmidt [in the Historical Department]. Schmidt tried to convince Jacobs that he was asking too much for the document, explaining that only if he dropped his price to a reasonable figure would the church consider buying it.

'What's that?" Schmidt recalled Jacobs saying when he mentioned a 'reasonable figure.'

'Well,' Schmidt responded, 'you get down there, and I'll tell you when it's reasonable.'

'You have to have it,' Jacobs insisted of the letter.

'No, I don't have to have it,' Schmidt replied. 'No such thing.'

Later, Hofmann tried his own hand at offering it to the Historical Department through Schmidt. Hofmann left the document with Schmidt, who took it in to his supervisor, Earl Olson. 'He and I read it carefully,' Olson recalled. 'Remarked that it did not ring true, and that it bore too much resemblance to the story in Howe's 'Mormonism Unveiled' [sic; the actual title is Mormonism Unvailed]. We invited Elder Durham to sit down with us and read it, then brought out Howe's book and compared the stories. This was reported to Pres. Hinckley. It was decided that we should not purchase the letter....[2]

This is a strange series of events if the Church or its leaders were determined to suppress or hide the letter, or somehow impair its study.

President Hinckley at first refused to purchase the Salamander Letter

Note that President Gordon B. Hinckley first saw the Salamander Letter on this date, but refused its purchase. He wrote soon thereafter:

We have nothing to hide. Our enemies will try to make much of this letter, but any fair-minded individual who will read it in terms of the time it was written and the language of the day will not see it as detrimental to the history of those events connected with the restoration of the gospel.[3]

Thus, President Hinckley was aware that the letter could be used as a weapon against the Church, but he did not move to buy it, and did nothing to prevent it passing into other hands.

January - April 1984: Steven F. Christensen purchases the Salamander Letter and donates it to the Church

6 January 1984: Steven F. Christensen purchases Salamander Letter from Hofmann for $40,000.[4]

7 March 1984: Christensen issues a press release:

It is true that I am the owner of a letter written by Martin Harris to William W. Phelps, dated October 23, 1830. "While it is hoped that the letter is authentic, professional tests have not yet been performed on the document. Before I will release transcripts or photographs of the document to the public, I wish to first determine the document's historicity as much as possible. I have therefore sought the help and advice of competent historians to assist me in determining the reliability of the contents of the letter.

Until the above referenced research and tests have further progressed, I do not feel at liberty to share the full contents of the letter. It is unfortunate that publicity of the document has preceded its historical authentication. This has lead to some cases of misstatement as well as numerous phrases being taken out of context.[5]

12 April 1985: Steven F. Christensen, who had purchased the Salamander Letter from Hofmann on 6 January 1984, donated it to the Church. President Hinckley accepted the donation.

28 April 1985: The Church News published the full text of the Salamander Letter

The First Presidency included a statement, quoting President Hinckley:

No one, of course, can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document. However, at this point we accept the judgment of the examiner that there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the Church had many enemies. It is, however, an interesting document of the times.[6]

23 June 1985: President Hinckley, at a Young Adult fireside broadcast from Temple Square: "I knew there would be a great fuss...They are interesting documents of whose authenticity we are not certain and may never be"

Gordon B. Hinckley:

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?[7]

16 August 1985: Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke to the issues raised by the documents (as yet unknown as forgeries): "Readers should be skeptical about the authenticity of such documents"

Dallin H. Oaks:

Some recent news stories about developments in Church history rest on scientific assumptions or assertions, such as the authenticity of a letter. Whether experts or amateurs, most of us have a tendency to be quite dogmatic about so-called scientific facts. Since news writers are not immune from this tendency, news stories based on scientific assumptions should be read or viewed with some skepticism...

The contents of most media stories are dictated not by what is necessary to a full understanding of the subject but by what information is currently available and can be communicated within the limitations of time and space.

As a result, the news media are particularly susceptible to conveying erroneous information about facts, including historical developments that are based on what I have called scientific uncertainties. This susceptibility obviously applies to newly discovered documents whose authenticity turns on an evaluation of handwriting, paper, ink, and so on. Readers should be skeptical about the authenticity of such documents, especially when there is uncertainty where they were found or who had custody of them for 150 years. Newly found historically important documents can be extremely valuable, so there is a powerful incentive for those who own them to advocate and support their authenticity. The recent spectacular fraud involving the so-called Hitler diaries reminds us of this, and should convince us to be cautious.[8]

October 1985 - August 1987: The forgery is exposed and the Church comments on it

15 October 1985: Two Hofmann bombs murder Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets.

16 October 1985: Hofmann injures himself with one of his own bombs.

16 October 1986: After an exhaustive search of its holdings and archives, the Church denies possessing an "Oliver Cowdery history." (It would be learned the next day that Hofmann was the source of the rumor that such a history existed.)[9]

31 July 1987: The Church released a statement to the media after Hofmann's confession and interview with prosecutors.

6 August 1987: Elder Dallin H. Oaks gives an address at BYU on the Hofmann episode and the media and scholarly community's behavior.

October 1987: The Church publishes a list of forged documents that had been referenced in the Ensign so that readers would not refer to them in error

18 October 1995: President Hinckley states "I frankly admit that Hofmann tricked us"

After Hofmann's lies and murders were revealed, President Hinckley said:

I frankly admit that Hofmann tricked us. He also tricked experts from New York to Utah, however. We bought those documents only after the assurance that they were genuine. And when we released documents to the press, we stated that we had no way of knowing for sure if they were authentic. I am not ashamed to admit that we were victimized. It is not the first time the Church has found itself in such a position. Joseph Smith was victimized again and again. The Savior was victimized. I am sorry to say that sometimes it happens.[10]

It is clear that the Church did not seek to hide the potentially damaging letter or its text.

Mark Hofmann gave anonymous tips to the media,[11]informing them that the Church had a hidden "Oliver Cowdery History" in their vaults.[12] This claim was repeated uncritically. The Church denied having such a document.[13] It is, of course, virtually impossible to prove such a negative—how could the Church prove it didn't have something or didn't destroy it?

Ironically, some modern critics continue to spread Hofmann's lies about his forgeries after he has confessed them. And, a retired CES teacher, Grant Palmer, published a book whose explanation of the Book of Mormon's origin derived from material in Hofmann's forgery, twenty years after it was shown to be a fraud.[14]

Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional, ""The Prophet Joseph Smith""

Elder D. Todd Christofferson,  Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional, (24 September 2013)
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.

Click here to view the complete article

Dallin H. Oaks 6 August 1987 remarks on the Mark Hofmann forgeries


  1. Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Anchor, 2004), xx.
  2. Richard E. Turley, Jr. Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 81, 83. ISBN 0252018850 Google books
  3. Gordon B. Hinckley Journal, 10 February 1984.
  4. Turley, Victims, 83.
  5. Cecelia Warner, "The "Martin Harris Letter": Fact, Fiction. . . Fate," Sunstone no. (Issue #50) (January 1985). off-site
  6. Church News, 28 April 1985.
  7. Gordon B. Hinckley, "First Presidency Message: Keep the Faith," Ensign (September 1985): 3.
  8. Dallin H. Oaks, Address to CES teachers, 16 August 1985.
  9. Dawn Tracy, “Hofmann Told Others He Was Shown Secret LDS History,” Salt Lake Tribune (17 Oct. 1986): C-13; see the belated admission of this connection, despite repeatedly using the claims about the Cowdery history without revealing its source in “Tried to Kill Self, Mormon Artifacts Dealer Says,” Los Angeles Times (1 Aug. 1987): 29.
  10. Interview with Gordon B. Hinckley, 18 October 1995.
  11. Los Angeles Times (13 June 1985) Part 1: 3.
  12. Dawn Tracy, “Hofmann Told Others He Was Shown Secret LDS History,” Salt Lake Tribune (17 Oct. 1986) :C-13.
  13. Church Public Communications Department, No Oliver Cowdery History Found, News Release (16 Oct. 1986): 3–4. The whole document is quoted extensively in Anonymous, "News of the Church: Rumor Concerning Early Oliver Cowdery History Refuted by Church Researchers," Ensign (December 1986): 71.
  14. Louis Midgley, "Prying into Palmer (Review of: An Insider's View of Mormon Origins)," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 365–410. off-site

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims