Part 34: CES Letter Prophet Questions [Section H]
by Sarah Allen
I am what some people on the internet commonly refer to as a “basic white girl.” Most of my preferences are mainstream and wholly unoriginal. I like Converse and Vans, the color pink, s’mores, steel water bottles, canvas messenger bags, Friends, unicorns, Harry Potter, murder mysteries, Funko Pops, Apple products, baking shows, fun nail art, and playing with makeup. I like wearing leggings and yoga pants, because at a certain point you stop caring so much about looking cute and just want to be comfortable. Even though I normally prefer listening to various subgenres of rock music, I still love boybands and other cheesy pop music. I like Fall, Halloween, pumpkin spice flavoring, and wearing sweaters and flannel shirts. And, most importantly for this week’s post, I love true crime.
I’ve loved it since well before it was popular, back when reading about serial killers and kidnapped kids as a hobby was considered strange for some reason. I said a few weeks ago how much I like stories, and that’s why I like history so much, because it’s just a giant collection of stories woven together. That’s the same reason I like true crime: because of the stories. As a storyteller myself, I’ve always found what human beings are capable of doing to one another far scarier and more interesting than any supernatural danger could ever be. True crime focuses heavily on those different stories and the real people involved in them, and to me, it’s fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measure.
My family moved to Utah in the early ‘80s when I was about 3 years old. One of the things that fed my interest in true crime while growing up was hearing horror stories about things like the Hi-Fi Murders and Ted Bundy’s killing spree through Utah and the way he used his membership in the Church as a shield to hide behind while doing it. [Note: Some of those crimes are horrific and you should be aware of that before clicking on either of those links if you’re unfamiliar with them.]
We members of the Church tend to be trusting of people in general, particularly when they’re other members. Most of us try our best to be honest in our dealings with our fellow men, so we believe the same of others. We tend to give people the benefit of the doubt even when we perhaps shouldn’t, and there are predators out there who can and will abuse that inherent trust in order to prey on the innocent. Ted Bundy taught our community that better than perhaps anyone else ever could have, but a very close second to him was another deceptive murderer that I also grew up hearing stories about: Mark Hofmann, the subject of today’s post.
This case was back in the news just a few months ago when Netflix released a 3-part documentary on the topic titled Murder Among the Mormons, so many of you may be familiar with it. For those who aren’t, I’m going to give a brief overview of what happened and then address Jeremy’s commentary.
Mark Hofmann was born in Salt Lake City, UT, on December 7, 1954, and grew up as a member of the Church. He served a mission to England and then married his wife, Dorie, in the temple, though he later admitted he’d stopped believing in the Church or in Heavenly Father or the Savior as a young teenager. During that time period, he discovered the thrill of duping people into believing his lies and the feelings of superiority it gave him. Later, he admitted he came to crave that feeling of power he had over his victims.
As a teen, he taught himself forgery techniques by altering coins in his coin collection to appear more rare than they really were in order to impress other collectors. Around this same time, he began teaching himself how to pass a polygraph test, which he successfully did during the murder investigation. He and his friends also apparently used to make and set off bombs for fun, which gave him plenty of practice for later.
In 1980, Hofmann made his first “lost Church document” forgery, the Anthon Transcript (this is the document of characters copied from the Book of Mormon that Martin Harris brought to Charles Anthon to authenticate). He based it off of descriptions of the document that still remain, and claimed to have found it tucked inside an old Bible he’d obtained. Once this document was successfully authenticated by historians, the Church bought it and notable figures like Hugh Nibley publicly enthused about what it could lead to. Hofmann dropped out of med school to become a dealer of rare books and manuscripts, and basically made his living for the next five years by producing and selling forgeries.
Labeled a “master forger,” “the most skilled forger this country has ever seen,” and “the greatest forger ever caught,” among other things, Hofmann created and sold forged signatures and documents not only from notable figures in LDS Church history, but also American and British history, including names like Joseph Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, George Washington, Mark Twain, John Adams, Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickenson, Paul Revere, John Hancock, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Myles Standish, Nathan Hale, Francis Scott Key, John Milton, John Brown, and Button Gwinnett. The documents included a “formerly lost” poem by Emily Dickenson; the “Oath of a Freeman,” which would have been the oldest surviving document ever printed in the United States, the last copy of which went missing in 1647; a blessing supposedly given to Joseph Smith III naming him as Joseph’s successor as leader of the Church; and the infamous Salamander Letter, which the bulk of Jeremy’s issues are about.
One of his ways to embarrass the Church while feigning to be a faithful member, beyond just creating documents that cast doubt on the Church’s history and truth claims, was to call up the press as an anonymous source and claim they had certain documents in their possession. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t, but the Church would then be forced to either admit they had them but were still trying to authenticate them, or that they didn’t have them and it was just a rumor. Neither of those stances were believed by the press, who engaged in an active campaign to paint the Church as trying to hide damaging documents from its members and the public.
It’s unknown how many forgeries Hofmann passed on, nor have they found all of them. They’ve found somewhere in the neighborhood of 450-500 so far, so there were a lot of them. He passed along genuine items as well, and on others, he only made tiny alterations to increase their value. He would also forge small, innocuous documents well in advance in order to pave the way for bigger forgeries coming later. Because of that, it’s hard to know exactly what was a forgery and what wasn’t.
Many of these forged items were originally confirmed as genuine not only by Church historians, but also American history antiquarians, the FBI, the Library of Congress, the US Treasury, the American Antiquarian Society, and Charles Hamilton, a handwriting expert specializing in signature authentication who is considered “the nation’s pre-eminent detector of forged documents.”
As noted by Public Square Magazine, in 2002 it was pointed out by Jennifer Larson—an antiquarian bookseller and forgery expert, particularly of Hofmann’s work—that none of Hofmann’s forgeries were ever discovered as such until the murder investigation was underway. They were never realized to be forgeries from anyone involved in their authentication. He fooled everyone until law enforcement found forgery materials in his basement and were trying to establish a motive for the bombings.
By 1985, however, Hofmann’s operation was becoming increasingly shaky. He was deeply in debt, over $1 million in the hole, and he was selling more and more documents in advance before he’d even created them yet. He’d use that money to pay off creditors, but then find himself indebted all over again to the new clients. He couldn’t work fast enough to keep up with his promises, and clients were starting to ask where the documents were that they’d already paid for. People were also starting to become suspicious that the same man was making all of these big discoveries even though he had plausible stories for all of them. He would claim, among other things, that due to his notoriety in the field, others who found the documents would take them to him to verify and sell on their behalf.
One thing he was trying to sell at the end was a collection of documents once belonging to former Apostle turned bitter Church critic William McLellin, which was supposedly quite damaging to Joseph’s reputation. (Remember, McLellin was the man who ransacked Joseph’s home while he was in Liberty Jail, then went and tried to get the jailers to allow him to flog Joseph afterward.) A collection of letters, journal entries, and papers belonging to McLellin was rumored to have existed at one time, but had been missing for well over a century and its contents were unknown. (Two collections of his papers have since been found; one was buried in the Church archives and hadn’t been examined in so long, no one knew it was even there.)
Hofmann had a meeting set one afternoon with a man named Steven Christensen to have the fake collection authenticated in order to close the sale they’d arranged. The only problem was, the meeting was fast approaching and Hofmann hadn’t yet created the collection he was supposed to bring with him.
In order to buy himself more time, he left a nail bomb outside of Christensen’s office the morning of the scheduled meeting, then left another bomb on the front porch of a man named J. Gary Sheets, Christensen’s former boss. This second bomb was to throw off suspicion against Hofmann and direct the police toward Sheets’s business, CFS Financial Corp., which was in the middle of a high-profile collapse amid allegations of being a pyramid scheme. Christensen had left the company at some point before the bombings due to the allegations, and was in process of trying to ward off a bankruptcy filing over it all. It was a messy situation, and was the perfect cover to divert attention away from Christensen’s scheduled meeting with Hofmann.
The bombs went off, killing both Christensen and Kathleen Sheets, Gary’s wife, and injuring Christensen’s secretary. Initially, the plan worked. Hofmann was not a suspect yet. He had a meeting later that afternoon with Elder Oaks, which he attended. An eyewitness’s description of him and his distinctive jacket was announced to the press, and he was worried the police would come to his house that night and expose him, so his family stayed overnight with his parents. This was, he said, in order to keep them safe. As one of his business associates was just murdered, he claimed to worry for his family’s safety when really, he just wanted to keep them from finding out about the forgeries.
The next day, a third bomb went off inside Hofmann’s car, badly injuring him and making him the prime suspect in the earlier bombings. For a long time, the story was that he was stalking a third victim, waiting for the right moment to plant the bomb on them. In a recently released letter he wrote to the parole board, though, found at the most recent link above, he stated he was trying to commit suicide. However, Hofmann is known for lies and deceit, and he enjoys the power and rush of fooling people, so it’s unclear whether this is true or not.
The police searched his house and found some very suspicious items in his basement, where his workshop was, so he was their prime suspect. It was then that they started discovering the forgeries, as they found those items and were attempting to figure out what his motive might have been. He was subsequently arrested and eventually accepted a plea deal for a life sentence instead of the death penalty, and has been in prison since 1987. (Despite some rumors to the contrary, the Church was not involved in arranging that plea deal in order to avoid having some Apostles testify under oath.)
So, what are Jeremy’s objections to all of this? Sadly, there are many, and more sadly still, the vast majority of them are based on inaccurate information. He begins:
In the early to mid-1980s, the Church paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive and valuable antiquities and cash to Mark Hofmann – a con man and soon-to-be serial killer – to purchase and suppress bizarre and embarrassing documents into the Church vaults that undermined and threatened the Church’s story of its origins. The documents were later proven to be forgeries.
Once again, there are a lot of things wrong with this opening paragraph. First of all, the Church did not pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in antiquities and cash to Mark Hofmann. He received some items the Church had duplicates of that, according to then-Elder Oaks, were “of indeterminate value,” and they paid him $57,100 in cash in total. Other documents were given to the Church by private donors who may have paid Hofmann more. You can see a breakdown of some of these costs at around the 2:30 mark of this Saints Unscripted video. Richard Turley Jr. puts the total cost of the cash and antiquities combined at approximately $100,000, not multiple hundreds of thousands as Jeremy claims.
Second—and this is where my inner geek light is going to shine bright and clear—Mark Hofmann is not a serial killer. He’s a spree killer, and there is a difference. Federal law defines serial killings as three or more murders committed by the same person, though some sources say there needs to be four murders and others, like the FBI, will accept two before making the classification. Serial killers have what is called a “cooling off period” between murders, however. They may kill multiple people at the same time and location, but then they take a break because their urge is satisfied. They go back to their normal, every-day lives like nothing happened. As with any addict, that “hit” tides them over until the pressure builds up inside them again and they can’t stop obsessing about it. That down time can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few decades between kills and the next murder will be otherwise unrelated to the first aside from some superficial similarities, usually in the victim’s appearance or profession.
Spree killers, on the other hand, commit two or more murders at separate locations in a short space of time, without that cooling off period, and there’s usually an external catalyst or motive for the murders rather than just that driving need serial killers feel. The murders come one after another, like with the D.C. Snipers, and the identity of the killers typically comes out during the course of the short spree. This is different from serial killers, who often go undetected for years.
Third, these documents were not purchased in order for the Church to suppress them. Unless they were still being authenticated, most of them were published shortly after they were obtained, including the most embarrassing ones. The infamous Salamander Letter was published in full, along with a big, glaring headline saying “Letter Authenticated,” in the Church News in 1985, shortly after it was gifted to the Church.
- The lack of discernment by the Brethren on such a grave threat to the Church is troubling.
Why? The Lord didn’t expect His prophets to be able to read minds, and He advised they would only be able to discern someone’s motives some of the time. D&C 10:37 states that clearly:
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.
Personally, what I find troubling about this is that Jeremy wants to hold the Brethren to higher standards than the Lord does. Seeing as the Savior is the one who sacrificed His life for their sins, and it’s His Church they’re called to lead and His Priesthood they’re called to bear, I don’t think any of the rest of us have the right to usurp His role in setting the terms we need to follow here on Earth. If He won’t demand His servants have perfect discernment in all things regarding all people, I don’t think Jeremy has the right to demand to it, either.
- Speeches by Elder Dallin H. Oaks and President Gordon B. Hinckley offered apologetic explanations for troubling documents (Salamander Letter and Joseph Smith III Blessing) that later ended up, unbeknownst to Elder Oaks and President Hinckley at the time of their apologetic talks, being proven complete fakes and forgeries.
That’s a pretty big distortion of what those talks actually said. You can read them both here and judge for yourselves:
- Elder Oaks: Reading Church History
- President Hinckley: The Joseph Smith III Document and the Keys of the Kingdom
“Reading Church History” is a fantastic talk all about being skeptical of what you read and learning how to evaluate sources, spot biases, and fact-check what you’re learning. I love this talk, and it’s actually a great recap of a lot of the things I’ve been trying to say throughout this series. Nearly every single thing he says in it is an argument against the tactics used in the CES Letter. In fact, I’m seriously considering taking a week to highlight it in detail the way I’ve done with a few other talks so far. It’s so relevant to what we’re talking about that I think it’d be highly beneficial.
His portion regarding the Salamander Letter was using it to show the need to investigate deeper rather than just accepting the surface explanation. He was talking about analyzing information we come across. One definition of “analyze” is: “Examine methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of (something, especially information), typically for purposes of explanation and interpretation.” That’s what he was doing with the word “salamander.”
I’m sure you’ve all noticed the many times I’ve cited the 1828 version of Webster’s Dictionary to point out that in Joseph Smith’s day, sometimes words had different meanings than they do in ours. Language constantly evolves. That’s a fact. President Oaks was doing the same thing here, but he was not trying to spin it or defend it. He was saying that with deeper research, sometimes things can take on a different meaning than they otherwise would if you just accepted it at face value. He was using it as an example of what it means to analyze something.
He also was not saying that he believed the letter was genuine. He said pretty plainly that he was skeptical and that we as Latter-day Saints should be careful about where we put our trust. But at the same time, he couldn’t just come out and say, “This letter is a fake,” without any evidence when numerous historians, including those from the Church Historian’s Office, were all confirming it was authentic. Do you remember when we talked about Joseph and Oliver being very deliberate with their word choice and saying things were “strictly true”? Because that’s what President Oaks was doing here, being very careful and deliberate with his word choice. The press had been going crazy with unjustified attacks against the Church. He would’ve been immediately labeled a “science-denier” and given the critics ammunition for yet another PR nightmare for the Church. So, rather than openly invite that, he skirted the line. But anyone reading that entire talk honestly, instead of a few paragraphs removed from all relevant context, would know exactly what he was saying.
“The Keys of the Kingdom” is less skeptical, seemingly accepting the blessing as legitimate, though again, President Hinckley is careful in his wording. Here are a few lines with emphasis added to show what I mean:
“I think I should like to say a few words this afternoon about the recently discovered transcript of a blessing, reported to have been given January 17, 1844, by Joseph Smith to his eleven-year-old son. … The document is evidently in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock, who served as clerk to the Prophet. … Take for instance this man, Thomas Bullock, whose hand evidently recorded the document we are discussing. If he wrote that blessing, he knew about it. It was reportedly found among papers left at his death….”
“If,” “reportedly,” “evidently.” Those are not words of certainty. They’re words of uncertainty. This is not the open skepticism shown in President Oaks’s talk, but it’s also not a ringing endorsement of authenticity. Unlike the Salamander Letter, this is also a blessing we’re pretty confident was actually given to Joseph Smith III. The record of the blessing—if one ever existed—was lost so we don’t know what Joseph actually said to his son, but there is some evidence that a blessing of some kind was given to him at or around that time. While President Hinckley may not have been sure the document was authentic, he was willing to accept that it was. He wasn’t willing to accept it meant what outside critics claimed it did, but he was willing to give the blessing at least the appearance of authenticity.
This talk was also not an “apologetic explanation.” Jeremy uses that term in various places to mean “making excuses.” The talk was clarifying the difference between a father’s blessing and an ordination and stating why we believe our line of succession is the true one.
Yet again in red, capital letters, as Jeremy loves to do when he’s emphasizing something as hard as he can, he states:
THE FOLLOWING IS ELDER OAKS’ 1985 DEFENSE OF THE FAKE SALAMANDER LETTER (WHICH OAKS EVIDENTLY THOUGHT WAS REAL AND LEGITIMATE AT THE TIME):
He was not defending the letter and he did not think it was real. An honest reading of the full talk would prove that, though I don’t have the space to quote it verbatim here.
“Another source of differences in the accounts of different witnesses is the different meanings that different persons attach to words. We have a vivid illustration of this in the recent media excitement about the world salamander in a letter Martin Harris is supposed to have sent to W.W. Phelps over 150 years ago. All of the scores of media stories on that subject apparently assume that the author of that letter used the word salamander in the modern sense of a ‘tailed amphibian.’
One wonders why so many writers neglected to reveal to their readers that there is another meaning of salamander, which may even have been the primary meaning in this context of the 1820s. That meaning, which is listed second in a current edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, is ‘a spirit supposed to live in fire’ (2d College ed. 1982, s.v. ‘salamander’). Modern and ancient literature contain many examples of this usage.
A spirit that is able to live in fire is a good approximation of the description Joseph Smith gave of the angel Moroni: a personage in the midst of a life, whose countenance was ‘truly like lightning’ and whose overall appearance ‘was glorious beyond description’ (Joseph Smith-History 1:32). As Joseph Smith wrote later, ‘The first sight [of this personage] was as though the house was filled with consuming fire’ (History of the Church, 4:536). Since the letter purports only to be Martin Harris’s interpretation of what he had heard about Joseph’s experience, the use of the words white salamander and old spirit seem understandable.
In view of all this, and as a matter of intellectual evaluation, why all the excitement in the media, and why the apparent hand-wringing among those who profess friendship with or membership in the Church? The media should make more complete disclosures, but Latter-day Saint readers should also be more sophisticated in their evaluation of what they read.”
Before moving on to Jeremy’s next paragraph, I just wanted to take a quick moment to point out, even in this supposed defense of the letter, the doubting language being used: “a letter Martin Harris is supposed to have sent,” “the letter purports only to be Martin Harris’s interpretation of what he had heard about Joseph’s experience,” “Latter-day Saint readers should also be more sophisticated in their evaluation of what they read.” Does any of that sound like he believed that letter was true? It sure doesn’t to me, and the rest of the talk is even more blunt about his disbelief.
So, what just happened? Elder Oaks defended and rationalized a completely fake and made up document that Mark Hofmann created while telling “Latter-day Saint readers” to be “more sophisticated in their evaluation of what they read.”
No, that’s not what he was doing. Something else he says in this same talk is, “An individual historical fact has meaning only in relation to other events. Outside that context, a single fact is almost certain to convey an erroneous impression. … In short, readers need to be sensitive to the reality that historical and biographical facts can only contribute to understanding when they are communicated in context.”
Meaning, stating things out of context doesn’t provide any illumination whatsoever if you’re trying to thoroughly understand something. You have to provide the context. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do with these posts, provide enough history and context so that those quotes and events Jeremy cherry-picks and posts in the CES Letter make sense. Once you understand the context, those seemingly controversial things are a lot less controversial. And once you read the full text of that talk, these controversial paragraphs Jeremy quoted after removing them from all context become a lot less controversial, too.
- There was significant dishonesty by President Hinckley on his relationship with Hofmann, his meetings, and which documents that the Church had and didn’t have.
No, there wasn’t. Jeremy’s linked source goes to the wrong place, so I wasn’t sure what he was trying to imply. I assumed it was regarding a forged document called the Stowell letter (supposedly written by Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell and referencing things like treasure-digging and magical, occult-like practices), which the Church eventually published in full. There was some minor controversy over it because the Church hadn’t yet published it, but Hofmann was telling the press they had it.
The Church spokesman at the time told them they didn’t have it, because he misunderstood the First Presidency’s message that they had it, but it wasn’t ready for publication yet because they were still going over it. Apparently, the wording was vague, so he thought it wasn’t in their archives and told the press that. When President Hinckley discovered that he was making those statements, the spokesman was called up to his office and the situation was clarified. The spokesman then released a statement to the press, particularly those papers he had given statements to earlier, acknowledging the error and taking full responsibility for it.
However, Reddit user WooperSlim left a comment on the original post showing that the Wikipedia page Jeremy cited had been updated, and the source was supposed to go to this footnote, specifically this part:
“Early in the investigation, friends of Mark Hofmann and Steven Christensen repeatedly told the detectives that they had been present when Hofmann and Christensen received telephone calls from Gordon Hinckley. Toll records showed Hofmann placed several calls to Hinckley’s office from his car telephone during the week before the bombings. … But Hinckley spoke of Hofmann as if he barely recognized his name. Repeatedly when he was asked about the document dealer, Hinckley answered, “I can’t remember.” Lindsay, 267
He said he couldn’t remember what Hofmann had told him about the McLellin Collection, but said he was certain Hofmann had never mentioned that it contained any material that would be embarrassing to the church. And while it was true that he had purchased documents from Hofmann over the years, Hofmann could not have construed from anything he ever said that he was acting as an agent—formally or informally—to acquire anything for the church.
It’s important to remember that President Hinckley was Acting President of the Church at that time, as President Kimball’s health was quite poor. The bombings took place on October 15, 1985, and President Kimball died exactly three weeks later on November 5, 1985. Because of those additional duties, President Hinckley was incredibly busy, traveling around the world 26 times in less than five years, in addition to his responsibilities here in the United States. During that time, he met with a lot of people about a lot of different things. He and Hofmann were not close, and while they’d had some contact, President Hinckley did not remember many of the exact details of those conversations, and eventually had to use Church records to help refresh his memory of some of them.
Hofmann, however, had led his friends to believe that he and President Hinckley were much closer than they actually were, so those friends were backing up Hofmann’s statements to the police. They all thought Hofmann had been hired by President Hinckley to find and collect those old documents, which was not true. It didn’t come out until much later just how dishonest and manipulative Hofmann really was and how many lies he’d told to cover his tracks. His friends didn’t realize he’d been lying to them about his relationship with President Hinckley, and they believed Hinckley was the one who was lying about the situation. That all fed into the narrative Hofmann had been spreading around that the Church was lying and trying to hide things that were embarrassing to them.
- Just hours following the bombings on the morning of October 15, 1985, murderer Mark Hofmann met with Elder Dallin H. Oaks in the Church Office Building:
“He’s just killed two people. And what does he do? He goes down to the church office building and meets with Dallin Oaks. I can’t even imagine the rush, given Hofmann’s frame of reference, that this would have given him. To be there standing in front of one of God’s appointed apostles, after murdering two people, and this person doesn’t hear any words from God, doesn’t intuit a thing. For Hofmann that must have been an absolute rush. He had pulled off the ultimate spoof against God.” – The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery, p.232
That quote’s a little hyperbolic, isn’t it? I love and respect President Oaks, but he is not God. He is a man, and men can’t read minds. Yet again, being a prophet, seer, and revelator does not give him omniscience.
Elder Oaks had a serial murderer right in front of him in his office just hours after Hofmann killed two people (Oaks later admits this meeting). What does this say about the discernment of the Brethren when they can’t discern a murderer and con man, hell-bent on destroying Mormonism, right under their noses?
- A) President Oaks never attempted to hide that meeting and in fact called the FBI to tell them about it the very next day after Hofmann’s third bomb went off, so his “later admitting it” is hardly shocking; B) Mark Hofmann is not a serial killer, as we discussed before, but yes, he was a murderer at that point; and C) why don’t we let President Oaks explain why he didn’t discern that Hofmann was evil at the time?
As everyone now knows, Hofmann succeeded in deceiving many: experienced Church historians, sophisticated collectors, businessmen-investors, national experts who administered a lie detector test to Hofmann, and professional document examiners, including the expert credited with breaking the Hitler diary forgery. But why, some still ask, were his deceits not detected by the several Church leaders with whom he met?
In order to perform their personal ministries, Church leaders cannot be suspicious and questioning of each of the hundreds of people they meet each year. Ministers of the gospel function best in an atmosphere of trust and love. In that kind of atmosphere, they fail to detect a few deceivers, but that is the price they pay to increase their effectiveness in counseling, comforting, and blessing the hundreds of honest and sincere people they see. It is better for a Church leader to be occasionally disappointed than to be constantly suspicious.
The Church is not unique in preferring to deal with people on the basis of trust. This principle of trust rather than suspicion even applies to professional archives. During my recent visit to the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, I was interested to learn that they have no formal procedures to authenticate the many documents they acquire each year. They say they consider it best to function in an atmosphere of trust and to assume the risk of the loss that may be imposed by the occasional deceiver.
He gave that answer back in 1987 and it’s on the Church’s website as soon as you search for Hofmann’s name, the fourth entry down the list. Jeremy clearly did not do much to find answers to his questions if he couldn’t find this talk himself.
- Ultimately, the Church was forced to admit it had, in the First Presidency Vault, documents (McLellin Collection) that the Church previously denied it had. The McLellin documents were critical for the investigation of the Hofmann murders.
The Church was not “forced to admit” it had part of the McLellin collection. They didn’t know it existed at the time, as even Jeremy’s own highly critical source (written by Gerald and Sandra Tanner of the infamous Lighthouse Ministry) agreed. It was discovered during an extensive search of the archives so they could turn over all Hofmann forgeries to the police for their investigation and nobody outside of the Church and the FBI knew it existed until Richard Turley’s book confirmed it—which is what the Tanners were griping out. There wasn’t a trial, so there hadn’t been any need to announce them publicly. The Church released the papers at the same time the book came out, though—Turley had a level of access to Church documents and the journals of the people involved that other authors didn’t, so if you’re going to read any book on the subject, it should be his—and you can read them online here. So, nobody “forced” them to release anything. They voluntarily released the papers themselves after telling Turley they’d found the collection in their archives. If they hadn’t confirmed it to Turley and then announced it themselves, nobody would ever know it even existed.
- While these “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” were being duped and conned by Mark Hofmann’s forgeries over a four-year period (1981-1985), the Tanners – considered some of the biggest critics of the Church – actually came out and said that the Salamander Letter was a fake. Even when the Salamander Letter proved very useful in discrediting the Church, the Tanners had better discernment than the Brethren did. While the Tanners publicly rejected the Salamander Letter, the Church continued buying fakes from Hofmann and Elder Oaks continued telling Latter-day Saints to be more sophisticated.
The Tanners were the first to make the accusation publicly, yes, but not until late 1984/early 1985. The Church was being more circumspect in light of the brutal shellacking they were taking from the press at the time (see President Oaks’s talk above about discernment for details). They were already being consistently accused of lying and trying to hide things embarrassing to the Church. Coming out and saying they thought the letter was a fake without any proof to back it up, especially when everyone who looked at the letter besides the Tanners insisted it was legitimate, would have made everything that much worse.
Additionally, the Church leaders are not perfect, and President Hinckley was quite clear they were duped by Hofmann just like everyone else was:
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.
So, that’s Mark Hofmann. I’ll wrap up the Prophets section and maybe highlight that talk from President Oaks next week, and then we can finally move on from this one to something new. I am short on space, though, so I’ll just say this: prophets are not Gods. They are humans. Expecting perfection from mortality is frustrating and futile. Don’t fall into that trap. You’ll only end up disappointed.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.