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Leonard J. Arrington Diaries – “Mark Hofmann”

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Joseph Smith Book of Mormon Manuscript Found

The manuscript which Martin Harris apparently took to Professor Charles Anthon in New York City in 1828 and which was discovered a few days ago by Mark Hofmann, a student at Utah State University, was shown this afternoon to President Spencer W. Kimball, President N. Eldon Tanner, and President Marion C. Romney in a meeting in the office of the First Presidency in Salt Lake City.

The manuscript, probably the oldest Mormon document extant, was folded between pages of the Book of Proverbs in a King James Bible acquired some time ago by Mr. Hofmann. The Bible, published in Cambridge, England, in 1668, was apparently in the hands of the Smith family of Topsfield, Massachusetts, from the seventeenth century on. There is handwriting in the Bible signed by Samuel Smith, who was apparently either the great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather of Joseph Smith, Jr., the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some time after his acquisition of this Bible, which had a special interest because of the Smith family connection, Mr. Hofmann noted the Joseph Smith, Jr., document.

Because the document was stuck to the pages of the Bible, Mr. Hofmann solicited the assistance of the Special Collections department at the Utah State University library, who helped him open the glued document.

The document contains vertical columns of characters which Joseph Smith said he had personally copied from the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. Dean Jessee, special handwriting expert and historian in the Historical Department of the Church, is convinced that the handwriting is that of Joseph Smith the Prophet. There is every evidence, he declares, that the paper and ink are authentic documents of the 1828 period. 

On the back of the characters, Joseph Smith had written the following: “These characters were diligently copied by my own hand from the plates of gold and given to Martin Harris who took them to New York City but the learned could not translate it because the Lord would not open it to them in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah written in the 29th chapter and 11th verse. [signed] Joseph Smith Jr.”

Danel Bachman, instructor at the LDS Institute of Religion in Logan, who is a friend of Mr. Hofmann has worked with him in authenticating the document and in making the presentation to the First Presidency.

Mr. Hofmann indicates that the document and the Bible in which it was found will be placed in the custody of the Historical Department of the Church, where further studies will be made in regard to its authenticity.

In the meeting today with the First Presidency at which the document was first shown were Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder Boyd K. Packer, both of the Council of Twelve Apostles; Elder G. Homer Durham, managing director of the historical Department; Dr. Leonard J. Arrington, director of the History Division; Dean Jessee, senior research historian of the Historical Department; Danel Bachman, and Mark Hofmann.

President Kimball stated, “It is marvelous that this discovery should have been made by Brother Hofmann during this sesquicentennial year. We are truly grateful to Brother Hofmann for bringing it to our attention and for leaving it in the custody of our Historical Department.”

A returned missionary from England, Mr. Hofmann is a pre-med student at USU and is a collector of LDS historical documents and antiques.

[News Release 3:00 p.m.; LJA Diary, 22 Apr., 1980]

Yesterday was an exciting day at the office. A returned missionary-student at USU, Mark Hofmann, had acquired an old Smith family Bible in which, between two pages partially glued together, he had found a document in the handwriting of Joseph Smith, which was THE DOCUMEN’T the Prophet made for Martin Harris to take to Professor Anthon in 1828. The earliest holograph writing of Joseph Smith! What a miraculous find for this sesquicentennial year. After Dean Jessee and I studied it for a while and decided, tentatively of course, that it was genuine, we showed it to Elder Durham; he arranged a meeting with Elders Hinckley and Packer. We spent sometime with them. They then arranged a meeting with the First Presidency. President Kimball had to change a doctor’s appointment and cancel a meeting with the President of General Electric, but he did so, and the full First Presidency were there. We spent about 30 minutes or so with them. They were fascinated; a number of photos were taken by the Church photographer, and Elder Hinckley asked me to write up a news release which ought to go out this weekend. Quite a thing. 

[LJA to Children, 23 Apr., 1980]

The following is a narrative, according to my understanding, of the Smith Family Bible-Joseph Smith-Martin Harris-Professor Anthon manuscript and its discovery and presentation.

Several years ago a Salt Lake amateur book and antique collector (a person whose name remains unknown at present) purchased a Smith family Bible in Carthage, Illinois at a sale of the estate of a descendent of Catherine Smith, sister of Joseph Smith. This descendent was apparently Mary Hancock, who apparently lived in Carthage for many years. The price he paid for the Bible is not known. The Bible had special interest because it had some pages in the center section in the handwriting of Samuel Smith, who was either the great-grandfather or the great-great-grandfather of Joseph Smith, Jr., the Prophet.

A few weeks ago Mark Hofmann a third-year pre-medical student at Utah State University and member of the Church and former missionary in Bristol, England, purchased on approval this Bible. Again, how much he paid for the Bible has not been disclosed. He has been interested in Mormon memorabilia, specializing in Mormon coins and currency but also acquiring books and other memorabilia. He bought the book on approval, simply because he wanted to verify that the Samuel Smith was indeed one of Joseph Smith’s ancestors, and he thought this might be proved by getting a sample of his handwriting from Topsfield, Massachusetts. The Bible was published in 1668 in Cambridge, England, and is therefore one of the earliest English Bibles published.

In the process of going through the Bible, which he did many times, Mark Hofmann came across two pages in the book of Proverbs which were stuck together, half way into the gutter of the book. Upon examining it closely, he found a document lodged there which had been folded four times so that it was  approximately two and a half or three inches in width. To some extent the document was stuck to the pages and to some extent the document itself was stuck together. 

Mr. Hofmann had been friendly with an instructor at the LDS institute of Religion in Logan, Danel Bachman, and showed him the Bible and ”the find. ” He decided on his own to go to Jeff Simmonds , Special Collections librarian at Utah State University, to help him get the document unstuck. He had previously removed it from the Bible by using a razor blade. By using chemicals, etc., Mr. Simmonds was able to separate the document so that it could be identified.

It was clear to both Mark Hofmann and Jeff Simmonds that this had every appearance of being a document copied by Joseph Smith from the plates and taken by Martin Harris to Dr. Mitchill and Professor Anthon. According to Martin Harris’s story, which has been repeated many times in our Church history, there were two documents, one of which had sketches of characters from the plates, another of which also had characters from the plates with an accompanying translation. This would appear to be only the former.

The document contains characters arranged vertically in several columns. The characters are well articulated, carefully formed, as they were (according to the account on the back) copied from the gold plates. On the right-hand side as one looks at the document, there is a column of smaller characters enclosed in a parallelogram, again arranged vertically. In the lower right-hand column is a kind of medallion of characters within a circle, approximately two and a half inches in diameter. These vertical characters follow the description later given by Professor Anthon, who said the characters were arranged vertically and something like a Mexican zodiac design was also present. 

On the back of the document is the following legend which appears to be in the handwriting of Joseph Smith, with his signature:

These characters were diligently copied by my own hand from the plates of gold and given to Martin Harris who took them to New York City but the learned could not translate it because the Lord would not open it to them in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah written in the 29th chapter and 11th verse. [signed] Joseph Smith Jr.

Mark Hofmann permitted Jeff Simmonds to make a few Xerox copies of the document and failed to give him instruction to “keep it quiet until I wish to release it.” Mark then took the document to Danel Bachman for him to study and give his appraisal. At the same time he, Mark, paid the person from whom he bought the Bible so that he, Mark, was full owner of the Bible and its contents.

All of the above, that is, the separation of the document and its identification, occurred in Logan on Wednesday, April 16. After discussing the matter with Dan Bachman and reading accounts in the documentary History of the Church, the Comprehensive History of the Church, and other sources, Mark then brought the document to Salt Lake City on Friday, April 18, to show it to Dean Jessee, senior research historian in the Historical Department. A member of the department staff since the early 1960s, Dean Jessee is the Historical Department’s handwriting expert. He has worked for many years with Joseph Smith documents and is thoroughly familiar with his handwriting.  Indeed, he is now editing our Joseph Smith holographs for possible future publication. After spending some time with the document, Dean Jessee was willing to say that he believed the document to be genuine and both the handwriting and signature to be by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

By this time Mark Hofmann had begun to realize the significance of the “find” and pledged Brother Jessee to secrecy.

Meanwhile, I was in Logan on Friday, April 18, to attend and speak at the symposium of the Ronald Jensen Historical Farm, a property of Utah State University. Jeff Simmonds was also at the symposium, where he also presented a paper. Jeff, who is not a Latter-day Saint, took me aside and told me about the Joseph Smith-Martin Harris-Professor Anthon manuscript. I asked him if he had a Xerox and he replied in the affirmative. I then asked him if he’d show it to me. He said to wait until the symposium was over and we’d see.

The symposium ended about 5:00 p.m. on Friday. I then followed Jeff to his office in the library, where he showed me the Xerox. He had an extra one he generously gave me to take with me. I of course realized the significance and believed myself, on the basis of study of the Xerox that it must be a genuine document. But I said nothing to anybody about it that weekend.

Monday morning, April 21, I went to Dean Jessee with it and he then told me about his experience the preceding Friday. At the same time I received a telephone call from Dan Bachman telling me about it, he not knowing that I had previously heard about it from Jeff Simmonds. I suggested to him that he ask Mark to telephone Jeff and ask him not to say anything further about it. Dan phoned me later to tell me that Mark had talked with  Jeff, who confessed to him that he had told several people, so that word would be “out” soon. Brother Bachman said that he and Brother Hofmann had planned to come down to Salt Lake City the last of the week, but now they would attempt to come the next day. I urged him to discuss with Brother Hofmann the necessity of making the announcement from the office of the Church rather than for it to come out through some other source. He agreed, although he had previously telephoned Jan Shipps, president of the Mormon History Association, about making the announcement in Palmyra. 

Tuesday morning at 8:00 a.m. I went to Elder Durham’s office and told him about this discovery and showed him the Xeroxes. He immediately understood its importance and telephoned the offices of Elders Hinckley and Packer, asking for an appointment. This was set up for 10:30 a.m. in Elder Hinckley’s office. At 10:20, then, Brother Jessee and myself went to Elder Durham’s office and walked with him over to the Administration Building to Elder Hinckley’s office. Elder Durham explained in some detail the transactions of the previous week and that morning, and showed Elder Hinckley the Xerox copies. After some discussion of the history and other matters, Elder Hinckley called Elder Packer’s office, and he came in and the entire matter was explained also to Elder Packer. They agreed that upon the arrival of the brethren from Logan with the Bible and document, I was to take them to Elder Durham’s office, give them lunch in the Church cafeteria, and that Brother Jessee and I would remain with them until 1:30 p.m., at which time we would walk with Elder Durham and them to Elder Hinckley’s office for an appointment at 1:45 p.m.

Brother Hofmann and Brother Bachman came in to my office at 11:30, which gave me the first opportunity of seeing the original document and Bible. I was convinced that it was a genuine document, and Brother Jessee and I took these two brethren to introduce them to Elder Durham, who also inspected the Bible and document. Elder Durham then went to Rotary Club and Dean Jessee and I took the brethren to lunch in the cafeteria. We got a further understanding of the background of the acquisition and studied the document somewhat further.

At 1:30 Elder Durham, Dean Jessee, Brother Hofmann, Brother Bachman, and myself walked over to the Administration Building to the offices of Elder Hinckley and Elder Packer. The brethren from Logan were presented to Elders Hinckley and Packer, and there was considerable discussion. Elder Hinckley said that he had made an appointment with the First Presidency for 2:15, and so at that time all of us went down to the First Presidency council room on the first floor of the Administration Building. Soon President Kimball, President Tanner, and President Romney came. Also present were Michael Watson, acting as secretary of the First Presidency, and D. Arthur Haycock, President Kimball’s assistant. Elder Hinckley made a statement about the matter to the First Presidency, after which the document was shown by Brother Hofmann, who then responded to various questions of the First Presidency. The discussion went on for approximately half an hour, after which a Church photographer came in and took a picture of Brother Hofmann showing the document and Bible to the First Presidency, and another showing the entire group. The Brethren of the First Presidency were very appreciative of the opportunity of meeting Brother Hofmann and Brother Bachman and of seeing these original documents. Brother Hofmann was acquiescent in the suggestion of Elder Hinckley that he place the document and the Bible in the custody of the Historical Department for a year or two, while we investigate its authenticity from the standpoint of the paper, ink, etc.

As we left the building, Elder Hinckley said he would discuss later with Elder Durham the matter of public announcement. I learned later that this meeting was held at 5:30 and involved a conversation between Elder Hinckley, Elder Durham, and Heber Wolsey, director of Public Communications. It is my understanding that there will be a news conference Monday afternoon at which the announcement will be made. 

[LJA Diary, 24 Apr., 1980]

Thank you for your note of April 24th with enclosed copy of your diary entry concerning the Smith family Bible-Joseph Smith-Martin Harris-Professor Anthon

manuscript. I very much appreciate this. There is one error that I think should be brought to your attention.

On page six, in giving the names of those who were present in the meeting of the First Presidency, you give the name of Michael Malone, acting as secretary of the First Presidency. It should be Michael Watson. Apparently there is an Irishman by the name of Malone somewhere in your mind.

Many thanks. 


[Elder Gordon B. Hinckley to LJA; LJA Diary, 29 Apr., 1980]

Yesterday I received a copy of a letter from Barry Fell, suggesting that the characters on the Joseph Smith-Martin Harris-Professor Anthon manuscript resembled those of archaic Arabic, and that with a little touching up and using phonetics, one could come out with the translation indicated on the attached. Interesting. (see pp. 1a-1e.)

[LJA Diary, 10 Jun., 1980]

Ali-Akbar Habib Bushiri May 27 1980

Babrain, Arabia

Dear Ali-Akbar,

Under separate cover I have mailed to you an inferred decipherment of an illiterate copy of an ancient Arabic text that was recently sent to me by Herm Olson, an attorney at law of Logan, Utah. Accompanying newspaper clippings that came to me with the copy state that it was recently found between the pages of a book, thought to have been a part of the possessions of an owner around 1830-1840. The origin of the material is otherwise not proven. In the text I send you, the JS line is the illiterate version on the document submitted to me (as a half-tone reproduction), and the next line is my interpretation of the original, as I suppose it to have been, though carelessly copied. The first sections are in Maghrabi script, as I believe you will perceive, the rest is in what I have identified as cipher number 19 in the book of ancient alphabets prepared by Ahmed bin Abu-Bekr bin Washish , a Nabataean scholar who in A.H. 241 presented his work to the Egyptian Caliph Abdul Malik bin Manwan. In my library I have a copy of this on the basis of the copy made by the Imperial Legation in Constantinople, soon after its discovery in Cairo during the Napoleonic Wars.

I should be grateful for your comments or suggested corrections and any other information that you or your learned Arab colleagues in Arabia can offer. I have searched the large Islamic collections in the Harvard University for possible source or sources from which this document might have been copied, but so far without finding anything.

The JS document has a second section that includes an illustration of what purports to be a gold dirham, issued by the Al-Muwahid, or “Almohad” (as the Spanish call it) Dynasty in Andalusia. This is remarkable in being lettered in Libyan (Numidian) script. I have, as you are aware, deciphered this script from monuments in North Africa, and have shown to the satisfaction of North African scholars that the language is essentially an early form of Arabic. Beside the coin is written, also in Libyan script, the statement “Characters copied from the gold.” Two lines of small maghrabi characters identify the first of the texts (the one I send you) as part of the “apocryphal book of Nefi”, and the coin as issued by the Andalusian administration of the Al-Muwahid Dynasty’s administration. This later section I will give in detailed decipherment later.

I also send you an unconnected reading, taken from a Kufi seal in the collection of one of my colleagues. Please check the translation.

Thank you for your kindness,


Barry Fell

H.Sc., Ph.D., D.Sc. 


Cc: Herm Olson

[From Barry Fell to Ali-Akbar Habib Bushiri; 27 May, 1980, filed 10 Jun., 1980]

In my meeting with Elder Durham this morning the following transpired:

3. Elder Durham wants me to give him the letter and document of Barry Fell, giving a purported translation of characters in the Anthon manuscript.

[LJA Diary, 12 Jun., 1980]

I ought to record in my diary an important event in the Historical Department. Apparently a week ago, on February 25, Wednesday, Mark Hofmann went to Don Schmidt and said that he had acquired some manuscripts from the Bullock family in Coalville and that they included a “minute” from Thomas Bullock saying that Joseph Smith had set apart his son Joseph the 3rd on January 17, 1844, to succeed him as president of the Church. Don read over the material, read over the note, and said he really wasn’t interested. “This isn’t the sort of thing we’d be interested in in our archives. This is the sort of thing that perhaps the RLDS library ought to have, but I can’t think that we’d be particularly interested.” He did not offer him anything by way of exchange or price for it. Mark was very disappointed–indeed, perhaps a little angry about it.

Mark apparently that day or the next telephoned Richard Howard, historian of the RLDS Church, who expressed great interest, was very eager and wanted to discuss the purchase of it. He effectively said, without committing himself, that he would give him a Book of Commandments. Mark knew very well that a Book of Commandments is worth at least $20,000. So they made a tentative agreement. Richard was to fly out here on Monday.

Word of this apparently got back to Don and Earl Olson late Friday afternoon. One or the other or both of them met with Elder Durham about the matter and Elder Durham thought it was very important and should be taken up with Elder Hinckley. He made contact with Elder Hinckley and they arranged a meeting, Friday evening, with Elder Hinckley. Mark was not in on the meeting. I have the impression that perhaps Dean Jessee was called in also because he was the one who could verify that it was written by Thomas Bullock who at that time was secretary of the Prophet Joseph. 

Elder Hinckley was also very excited, thought we ought to buy it, and though as a minimum we ought to lay the question to the Firs Presidency. He then called President Tanner at his home. President Tanner listened to the presentation and then said, “By all means, we must have it. We must have it in our library. It must be our property.” He instructed Elder Hinckley to instruct Elder Durham to instruct Don to buy it. When the question was raised about where the money would come from, he implied it would have to come out of their budget, and they decided that the only budget they had anything to play with was the Arts & Sites. It would have to come out of the Arts & Sites acquisitions budget.

Don and Earl worried about this, plus the fact that Richard Howard would be out Monday morning.

Mark Hofmann was there Monday morning and had a brief conversation with Dean Jessee and with Earl and Don, who worked out a satisfactory purchase arrangement. I do not know exactly what they gave Mark, but it was an exchange–either some books or pamphlets or coins. And I do know that Don did not regard the items he gave as worth $20,000, although I am sure they were worth more than $10,000. Mark seemed to be satisfied with the offer and accepted it without argument. He then met with Richard Howard who spent much of the morning in our archives examining the handwriting of Thomas Bullock. Richard also met with Don and with Earl. At the time he met with them he apparently had not been told that he would not be able to buy the document. I have not seen anybody who talked with Richard after he learned that he could not purchase it, so don’t know how he took it.

Mark was instructed not to give Richard a Xerox copy. Dean Jessee was also instructed not to give either Richard or Mark an affidavit that it was in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock. Don was instructed by Elder Durham to get either Dean Jessee or Mike Quinn to write an introduction to the document and prepare it for publication. (I forgot one other aspect. When Mark, Don, & Earl met with Elder Durham Saturday morning, at Elder Durham’s suggestion they brought in Mike Quinn as well.)

Obviously, since Don simply traded items for it, no money came out of the Historical Department budget. Don is very happy and proud and he is not telling people that he turned it down once. And everybody is left with a good feeling, as far as I know, except perhaps Richard Howard, and in that case there may not have been a definite understanding between him and Mark Hofmann. At some stage, of course, he’ll be given a Xerox copy.

There is one other thing I neglected to mention. When Richard Howard asked Mark Hofmann what he would like to have in exchange for it, Mark suggested the draft of the characters from the Book of Mormon from the Whitmer Collection, which the RLDS library has had for many years. Mark’s idea was to then trade that to our office and let that be a part of the Book of Mormon characters collection, a very good thought on his part. But of course that is academic, partly because Richard suggested instead the Book of Commandments and partly because he did not get the document.

It will be interesting to see what Richard says in his next column in the Saints’ Herald about this matter. I have the impression that Richard was given a Xerox of it before Mark was instructed not to give him one. If so, he may get the first chance at publication after all. Anyway, it now rests in our archives.

Dean Jessee was good enough to furnish me six pages from his diary about this affair, which I hereby put in my diary as a supplement to the above. 

[LJA Diary, 6 Mar., 1981]

2.20.1981. Mark Hofmann stopped in and showed me a blessing given by Joseph

Smith to his namesake son, dated 1.17.1844 and written by Thomas Bullock in which the boy is promised he will be the successor to his father. Hofmann is apparently about to buy the document, but wants to be sure it is authentic.

2.23.1981. M. Hofmann called to see if there could be a copy of the Smith blessing in the Book of the Law of the Lord. I suggested he go to the First Presidency office and ask Francis Gibbons. A little later in the morning he came in and reported he had been to see Gibbons and was showed the book. Gibbons also told him that they had the George Q. Cannon, Joseph F. Smith, and Francis M. Lyman diaries.

2.25.1981. M. Hofmann came in and said he had offered the Joseph Smith blessing to Don Schmidt but Don showed no interest–suggested he contact the RLDS. I told Hofmann he might try BYU first.

2.26.198l. Received a telephone call from Richard Howard inquiring about the Joseph Smith blessing. Said he was in the process of determining whether or not to buy it. Must present the matter to his First Presidency first. Howard is coming to SLC Monday to see the document. He asked if I would be willing to sign a statement about the handwriting. Told him I probably would but the document needs further study. He suggested he might bring a disinterested handwriting authority and asked if I knew anyone in the area. I told him I knew of no recognized authority this side of LA, but that Ev Cooley or Chad Flake could probably recognize Thomas Bullock’s hand. He quizzed me at some length about the authenticity of the document–could he look at other Bullock writing? Is there any evidence of forgery? What about the paper? Was Bullock employed by Joseph at the time? What does Bullock and Joseph say in their diaries for Jan. 17? Is Joseph Smith’s signature on the back? The answer I didn’t have at tongue tip I told him he could explore when he came. He wants to proceed cautiously with no news coverage or advertising of his visit.

2.27.1981 Friday. M. Hofmann came in about noon and said he had contacted the RLDS about the Smith blessing. He talked at length with Richard Howard. Grant MacMurray, and Madelon Brunson. He has not given them a copy, but allowed them to record his voice as he read the blessing over the phone. He has requested a Book of Commandments and the RLDS Ms of the Anthon transcript, hoping to give the latter to the church. He is scheduled to meet Howard here Monday at 9 a.m. I asked Hofmann if he could leave the original Ms with me for a while to study the handwriting. About 3 he brought it from the bank vault and said he would leave it til Monday. I told him that for security I could have it locked in the HDC vault but he preferred that I lock it in my office instead.

About 4 p.m. I told Earl that Richard Howard is coming Monday and asked about access to the original Joseph Smith papers for 1844 so we could compare some Bullock handwriting. He said there would be no problem; we can get it out Monday. He knew of the blessing but asked about its content. I got the original and showed him. He was startled by its content and asked if Elder Durham had seen it, whereupon we went in to his office and showed him the Ms. He immediately called Gordon Hinckley and finding him out momentarily, dictated the content of the blessing to the secretary and some additional info about the handwriting, etc. While he was dictating Earl asked where all of this new Ms material was coming from–amazed that there was so much important material still being found. I told him I thought there was a lot of stuff still lying around in people’s attics, and if my experience with the Brigham Young family was any indication, a person or organization with any acquisition ability at all could pick up all kinds of new material. Bro. D. asked why Hofmann had not brought the document to the church instead of going to the RLDS. Told him that we had our chance, but that Don had turned it down. He called Don in and asked him the same question. Don replied that he didn’t feel that the document was worth a Book of Commandments–the price is just too high for us. (Yet Hofmann didn’t even approach the RLDS until after he had first offered the Ms to Don) Bro. D. also raised the question how we can answer the issue if the RLDS make a big news announcement about the blessing. I told him Joseph Smith’s final charge to the Twelve was given in March 1844 in which the Prophet told them he had now given them the keys and they could now bear away the Kingdom, but the original source is in the Council of Fifty minutes in the First Presidency vault and unavailable to us. Added that we are consistently being put in a position to fight the dragon with one arm tied, and the Church could benefit from the use of these sources.

Bro. D. suggested we go immediately to Hinckley’s office. Upon entering he was asked if Elder Packer should be called in. H. called but Bro. P. was gone. Bro. Hinckley was given a little background and showed the Ms. He slowly read it out loud and was impressed. Asked what do we do now? Why did Hofmann go to the RLDS? Was given the same story of the high price and that we only have one Book of Commandments in the vault. The question was raised whether we really need the original now that the RLDS have the content of the Ms. Also wondered how we will answer the issue. Bro. D. responded that in actuality the blessing does not constitute an ordination, to which Hinckley responded, “Now Homer, you know that that would not stand up in a court of law.” I mentioned the matter of the Last Charge to the Twelve and the unavailability of the sources. This was discussed some. Bro. Hinckley stated that he knew very little about the Council of Fifty, whereupon Bro. Durham gave him a little discourse on the subject. Hinckley called Packer at his home and discussed the matter, raising some of the same questions. He then called President Tanner at his home; explained the matter and read the blessing; mentioned the cost factor; entertained a question or two; listened and hung up. Said, that settles it. Took his pen and said, excuse me, I must write this down–“We have to have it.- N.E. Tanner” Immediately the whole direction of the conversation shifted and orders were given to obtain the document at whatever the cost. Don was given the charge to contact Hofmann that evening and set the machinery in motion for the church to get the ms. Important to get the deal closed before R. Howard arrives Monday. It was pointed out that a Book of Commandments brings $20,000 and Earl said it would break his acquisition budget; he would be forced to borrow from Florence (Arts and Sites). Bro. Hinckley responded, “I’d rather have a manuscript than a rocking chair.” From that point there were no qualms at all in giving the 20 thou– if need be. But Don thought he could get the Ms for a very reasonable sum because of his friendship with Hofmann. Said that Hofmann had an interest in some of the Church’s gold coins. Earl pointed out that there were three Books of Commandments in President Smith’s safe and that we could get one of them. Hinckley’s response was that it would be better to give the money–it depreciates.

3.2.1981 Monday. Mark Hofmann came in first thing and picked up his manuscript for an 8 a.m. meeting with Elder Durham. A short time later Bro. D. called to bring me up to date on events of the weekend. He said that Don was unable to conclude the matter with Hofmann Friday eve. and that he, Don and Hinckley had discussed the matter on Saturday. Stressed that we have firm instructions from top authority to secure the document for the church, and that he had just met with Hofmann and that he has now agreed to make it available to the Church. He said that Hofmann will try and make Richard Howard feel as good as possible under the circumstances. Said that they would come to me for a statement about the handwriting. He then said, “Now brother Jessee, you can anticipate that a big announcement will be made to the Kansas City Star and it will run something like this; Elder Dean Jessee a leading Mormon authority on handwriting has verified the authenticity of a document that is of great significance. When approached by the KC Star Jessee couldn’t he reached; however his impeccable credentials proves the RLDS position.” He then urged that I not sign anything that would give the enemy any ammunition. I told him I had already told Howard that the document was written by Bullock and I didn’t think my opinion amounted to much but I would see what I could do. 

I Just hung up the phone when in walked Richard Howard, 15 minutes early. I took him in to the search room and got the ball rolling on checking out Bullock material. Pointed out that Joseph’s diary was silent on the 17 Jan 1844, but that he was home that day, and Bullock didn’t keep a diary (at least we don’t have it) during January 1844. Howard met Hofmann at 9 a.m. in the office building lobby and they had invited Mike Quinn and Buddy Younggreen to join them in their discussion. I was not in on this. Later in the morning Howard and Hofmann came in to discuss the handwriting. I told him that I felt it was Bullock’s hand and that I could see no evidence of a forgery. Also that there is a possibility that the writing on the back (“Joseph Smith 3 blessing) could be that of Joseph Smith, but I would not like to make that definite as there are details that are not typical of Joseph’s writing. I told Richard that he ought to get a professional handwriting expert (someone that charges $500 an hour–he said he had one of those in Independence) to give him a written statement and that if I were to do so he still wouldn’t have anything in the eyes of the people he has to convince. When Richard left he was his usual friendly self, but I don’t doubt that he by this time fails to see that something has changed drastically since he called Salt Lake City last week.

3.4.1981 Wed. Learned from Buddy Younggreen that Hofmann apparently received a gold coin in payment for the Joseph Smith blessing–apparently one of the early gold pieces minted in Utah in the 1850s.

3.9.1981 Monday. Hofmann stopped in to say he had sold the Joseph Smith blessing to the Church. I clarified a few points with him. He would not say how much he received, but said he did not ask for a Book of Commandments; got some other item(s) in trade. He did not get as much as the RLDS would have given for it. He said that Don Schmidt showed no interest at all when he first offered the document to him. Had it not been for this disinterest he would never have contacted the RLDS. He said that Don called him Friday eve. the 27 Feb. at the  hospital (his wife had their first baby) and showed a sudden interest in getting the manuscript. He told Don he had made a commitment to Howard to not sell the document or have any other dealing about it until March 2 and he would not renege on that commitment. So subsequently, arrangements were made for Hofmann to see Bro. Durham at 8 a.m. Monday March 2. GHD told him that morning that Elders Hinckley and Packer had requested that he sell the item to the church. With the sudden interest showed over the weekend and also by Howard earlier Hofmann could see that he had probably made a mistake to take it to the RLDS and he was willing that the church have it, but he felt obligated to get out of his commitment with Howard honorably. So when he met with Howard at 9 a.m. that morning and Howard said he needed a statement about the handwriting and final approval from his First Presidency before he could complete the transaction, Hofmann took this opening to gently close the door on the RLDS. Further, Hofmann understood that once the RLDS obtained possession of the document they were planning a news conference. 

[Dean Jessee Diary, 2.20.81-3.9.81; supplement to LJA Diary, filed 9 Mar., 1981]

Elder Gordon B. Hinckley 

Church Headquarters Building

Dear Elder Hinckley:

In anticipation of the inevitability that the blessing pronounced by the Prophet Joseph Smith on his son Joseph III will become public knowledge, we assume that it is to the interest of the church to be able to place it in the proper context.

Our historians can be of help in responding to this challenge. They can do so most effectively if they are allowed access to the relevant documents. Otherwise they are seriously handicapped.

From all we can learn, the Council of Fifty minute book contains the last charge of Joseph Smith to the Twelve given some time after the forementioned blessing. Would it be possible for me, or Dean Jessee, to examine this book, which is in the vault of the First Presidency? This should help us respond to some of the inevitable questions.


Leonard J. Arrington 

[LJA to Gordon Hinckley; LJA Diary, 9 Mar., 1981]

Apparently Mark Hofmann has furnished Xerox copies of the Joseph Smith III ordination to somebody or somebodies. They have been rapidly duplicated, and there are now many copies in circulation. Time magazine has telephoned about it, so has Utah Holiday and other publications. We missed the boat not being allowed to make a public announcement two weeks ago. Because the calls have been coming in last evening and this morning, Earl and Elder Durham have been meeting with Elder Hinckley from 7:30 this morning until now—11:30. Don Schmidt has met with them some of that time. Dean Jessee, who has received some of these telephone calls, has been trying to make contact with Elder Durham and Earl without success. Don has now informed him that all telephone calls should be referred to Public Communications. Don says that they have now definitely determined to make a public announcement here today. Why they don’t consult Dean Jessee, an authority on the subject, is strange, nor would they consult any other historian for background. It would be interesting to know whether they got access to the minutes of the Council of Fifty in 1844 that are in the First Presidency’s office and whether they are using those.

P.M. Ron Esplin said that he had talked with Don Schmidt and that Earl, Elder Durham, and Elder Hinckley had spent all morning going through the minutes of the Council of Fifty in the First Presidency’s vault looking for the last charge to the Twelve. None of them know even the year. It would have been so simple for them to have consulted any one of our historians, who could have given them the right date. That they would pursue this without calling in a single historian is almost unbelievable—it certainly isn’t the Spirit of the Kingdom. It makes one a little resentful, even a little angry. 

[LJA Diary, 17 Mar., 1981]

As indicated earlier in this diary, Elders Hinckley, Durham, and Olson spent several hours in the vault of the First Presidency looking through the minutes of the Council of the Fifty for mention of the occasion when in March 1844 Joseph Smith told the twelve he was removing from his own shoulders the burden of administering the Church and was placing it on the shoulders of the twelve. They did not find this mention in the minutes of the Council of Fifty, which is where they looked.

Over the weekend a certain person got access to Elder Hinckley and pointed out to him that when he asked for information to Elder Durham, it did not reach the historians, who knew things and where they were. He was surprised to learn this. We have now set up a channel whereby Elder Hinckley will also make contact directly with some of our fine historians. The item they are looking for in reference to the Twelve is in the journal of the Twelve, which is also in the vault of the First Presidency, and Elder Hinckley will presumably look for that this week. I hope fully he will call in one of our staff to help him. He is also asking our staff to provide other information in response to other questions.

I am grateful that someone got to him and that he now realizes that this new channel can be very fruitful to him. 

[LJA Diary, 23 Mar., 1981]

I learned this morning something of the arrangements which led to the Church giving the Bullock document to the RLDS church. When Richard Howard discovered that he was not going to be able to buy the document from Mark Hofmann, he was very angry. After his return to Kansas City, ho wrote Mark a three or four page bitter and vitriolic letter. This disturbed Mark. He showed the letter to Elder Durham, and Elder Durham then took the initiative to do what he had planned to do from the beginning: namely, place the document in the hands of the RLDS church. He persuaded Elder Hinckley that it could be very good public relations for the Church and would set well both with our members and with the RLDS people. Elder Hinckley then presented the matter to the Twelve and First Presidency and obtained their approval. They thereupon notified Elder Durham that our Church would give the document without any quid pro quo to the RLDS. Elder Durham made contact with Richard Howard. Richard Howard took the matter up with his president. They decided that they did not want to receive the document as a gift. They did not want to be put in the position of being obligated to us in that respect. They insisted that they would receive it only if allowed to present us a copy of the Book of Commandments. Richard Howard then came, bringing the Book of Commandments, and received the document together with an attestation on one side of Dean Jessee that in his judgment it was indeed the handwriting of Thomas Bullock and was authentic.

Richard Howard seemed to be in a pleasant mood on the second trip. 

[LJA Diary, 31 Mar., 1981]

Ron Walker telephoned yesterday evening to say that Elder Hinckley had telephoned him to tell Ron that he (Elder Hinckley) had met with Eider Packer and with a Seventy–presumably Elder Durham. They had discussed the matter of doing some research, writing, and publishing on the succession question as a result of the Bullock document, and they had decided in the interests of not riling the RLDS that we should refrain from publishing. Thus there will be no pamphlet. Thus we are prohibited from preparing articles for a special issue of BYU Studies. Elder Hinckley gave the impression that he will phone BYU Studies to insure that they will not publish anything.

Ron was very discouraged and disappointed, highly disappointed, and somewhat surprised. This means also that we will not be given access to materials in the Archives of the First Presidency as we had requested and hoped. I told Ron that we should go ahead with encouraging Ron Esplin to prepare his lecture and to submit that for the next issue of BYU Studies. Since Elder Hinckley did not give the instruction to me and told Ron Walker not to tell anyone else of their conversation, I am in a position to tell Ron Esplin to go ahead and publish, because officially I have not been told that this is not wanted. Of course, if BYU Studies does not run it, that raises another question. I think I would recommend to Ron Esplin that he submit it to Dialogue. Ron Walker does not agree with the counsel and thinks it is wrongly based and thinks it was unduly influenced by Elder Durham, who is not well informed. I told Ron Walker that regardless of what happens, the work toward the special issue is out. However, I told him I would encourage Richard Jensen, when he finished other things he is doing for me, to do another article on Thomas Bullock. It could surely be published in a variety of places without any problem. 

[LJA Diary, 15 Apr., 1981]

For Release August 23, 1982

at 10 a.m. (MST)

From L. Don LeFevre

A Provo, Utah, man has acquired the earliest known dated document relating to the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Brent F. Ashworth, an attorney who collects historical documents as an avocation, says he bought from another collector a letter dated January 23, 1829, from Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of the first prophet and president of the Church, Joseph Smith, to her sister-in-law in Vermont.

The letter describes details from ancient records Joseph Smith had begun to translate prior to this time. The 116 pages of manuscript from those records were lost, however, and it was not until April of 1829–three months after the letter was written–that the prophet began translating records which eventually were published as the Book of Mormon, named for an ancient Christian prophet in the western hemisphere.

The letter is complete with an address leaf addressed to “Mrs. Mary Pierce, Royalton, Vt.” The letter is postmarked “Palmyra, New York” with the date of “January 24.” and is signed “Lucy Smith.”

Dean Jessee, a distinguished writer of Church history and a handwriting authority, has examined closely a copy of the letter and has indicated the handwriting is “definitely that of Lucy Mack Smith.”

Jessee says the letter is significant to the Church and Church historians for two reasons: 

1. It is the oldest known letter and the oldest known dated document of any type prior to the organization of the Church. An undated transcript of characters copied from the metal plates and signed by Joseph Smith was recently acquired by the Church. Although undated, the document is believed to date to 1828.

2. Information in the letter about Joseph Smith’s earliest translations-the lost 116 pages-is the first to be seen by modern historians and scholars.

In her letter, Mrs. Smith tells of her son’s work in translating the ancient records found in what is known as the Hill Cumorah, just south of Palmyra. She mentions the loss, “on account of negligence,” of the 116 pages and delivers a synopsis of the contents of the lost manuscript, information she could only have gleaned by having read the manuscript herself or through word of mouth from her son.

The 116 pages were translated from what Joseph Smith called “the large plates,” one of several groupings of records made available to him. After the loss of the manuscript, he did not retranslate the large plates, but instead proceeded to translate the “smaller plates” plus the Prophet Mormon’s “abridgements” or condensed versions of the large plates. The resulting volume was published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.

The letter contains much of the same information now in the first portions of the Book of Mormon. Mrs. Smith speaks of the exodus of a prophet named Lehi and his family from Jerusalem about 600 B.C. to escape the city’s impending destruction by the Babylonians. Lehi and his small group of followers eventually emigrated to the western hemisphere and among their descendants are today’s Indians of the Americas, as well as the Polynesian people.

Jesus Christ, after his resurrection, appeared to the more righteous people in the western hemisphere, gave them his commandments and established his church among them. Civil war eventually brought about the destruction of the great civilizations that had emerged over a thousand-year period after Lehi’s arrival. Records were kept–both religious and secular–and it was these records that were made available to Joseph Smith in the 1820’s and which ultimately led to the formal organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The letter offers two heretofore unknown details about the period of Lehi’s exodus from Jerusalem.

“We knew, from the Book of Mormon, that Lehi left Jerusalem with his own family and the family of a man named Ishmael,” said Earl E. Olson, assistant managing director of the Church’s Historical Department. “But we didn’t know that Ishmael was a brother of Lehi’s wife, Sariah. This is a detail apparently contained in the lost manuscript, since Lucy Mack Smith mentions it in her letter to her sister-in-law.”

Mrs. Smith’s letter also describes how the existence of a “secret society” had helped bring about the destruction of Jerusalem.

“She wrote to her sister-in-law of the evolvement of two separate cultures in the western hemisphere over the years after Lehi’s arrival,” Olson said, “the more advanced Nephites and the primitive Lamanites.”

“She mentioned that the Nephites had a knowledge of the arts and sciences and became a highly cultured people, but they eventually met a fate similar to the people of old Jerusalem,” he said.

Mrs. Smith said in the letter, “but they (the Nephites) had among them that same secret society which had brought Jerusalem and the whole nation of the Jews to destruction, and after many years they became the more wicked than their accursed brethren (the Lamanites), and God seeing that they would not repent of the evil he visited them with extinction.”

Ashworth, who is vice president and general counsel for a health products firm in Spanish Fork, Utah, says he obtained the Lucy Mack Smith letter from another private collector, whose identity he declined to reveal. He has given copies of the letter to the Church Historical Department, but plans to keep the original in his own private collection of historical papers, which he has been gathering for the past 21 years. 

[News Release on Earliest Dated LDS Historical Document; LJA Diary, 23 Aug., 1982]

The big professional news of the week is the public announcement of the Lucy Mack Smith letter to her sister-in-law, dated Jan. 23, 1829, telling about the glorious new work about to begin, and the completion of the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon. It’s a grand letter. I have copies and will give one to Carl & Chris by mail, and to Susan and Dean when they come and to James and Lisa when I see them Wednesday. I have known about it for a couple of months but was specifically admonished by the owner not to tell anybody about it. I respected that and hope it will help my credibility on future discoveries of this nature. It’s the earliest dated document in Church history. A marvelous addition to our history and good proof of the sincerity of our historical claims.

[LJA to Children, 24 Aug., 1982]


A Highly-Confidential Memo to Chris

26 February 1984

1. I am very proud that you have this assignment.

2. I have complete confidence that you will use every effort to be fair to all parties involved.

A little less than a month ago Dean Jessee came by to show me the Harris letter. He was not authorized to show me, but did so on his own responsibility. He had been shown the original by Steve Christensen, who asked him to verify the authenticity as far as he could. Dean said he thought I should be informed and asked me what counsel I had to pass on to Steve Christensen since he, Dean, could do so without any problem. I told him I would think about it over night.

The next day I told him that I thought a copy of the letter should be sent to Richard Bushman so he could incorporate it in his forthcoming book. I also suggested that Richard be asked to write a brief article and submit it immediately for publication in some scholarly journal of his choosing which would assure immediate scholarly knowledge of the letter and an introduction and analysis of it which would appear in the best possible light for Mormon believers.

Dean telephoned me the next day to say that he had reported this recommendation to Steve Christensen and that Steve had said he would prefer to have him (Dean) publish the article. Knowing that Dean was not the sharpest of writers (Dean probably insisted on repeating that to him, Dean is so modest), Steve thought he ought to have a collaborator, and Steve thought the best person in the profession in “writing-up” things was Ron Walker. (Steve is right. Ron is the best stylist of us all, but be takes a good deal of time to do it up right.) Steve also said if Dean and Ron would work on it, he would offer them the services of Brent Metcalfe as a kind of graduate assistant to hunt things up for them, etc. Brent has been his employee for some time and is good at this sort of thing.

Dean and Ron Walker then came over and we had a long talk. Ron was shown the letter. Dilemma: Should we participate or not as a part of our BYU assignment. Why not pass it on to Richard Bushman? Because Steve would prefer to have someone he knew do it (Jesse and Walker). Why not cooperate with some news magazine-we were thinking of Sunstone? Because the document is sensitive enough that it ought to be presented in a fuller context, where the sensationalistic aspect will be minimized. How can we be protected from sanctions from above if we participate in publishing so explosive a document? We should at least inform Elder Hinckley as to what we are doing and give him a chance to tell us to lay off. If he doesn’t tell us so, then we can go ahead knowing we have informed him and he ought to protect us.

Ron Walker and Dean decided to have another conference with Steve. (Whether they told him about my knowledge I do not know.) Ron also wanted to study the matter for two or three days. They went back to Steve and then came to see me. With my approval they would spend one month writing an article to appear in BYU Studies. (Ron in assistant editor of BYU Studies and would contact them as soon as the article was finished.) They would seek to get it out as possible. They would work on it full-time. They told me that Steve wanted them to do a monograph of some 120 or 150 pages. He would print it. This would take an extra three or four months. I counseled them: (a) The more they delay the more “the enemy”–the Tanners, Wesley Walters, etc. are likely to learn of it and publish it in the worst kind of context. (b) The more they work on it the more our other projects will suffer-the Heber J. Grant biography, the Parley P. Pratt letters, etc. I counseled them to not commit on the monograph, to hurry up the article and get it out quickly.

That is essentially the last I have been involved. I know that Ron Walker has learned of the Time article fret someone, but as far as I know he is working hard on the article. The same with Dean. Presumably Brent Metcalfe has been helping them. I do not think any commitment has been made on the monograph, but I cannot be sure. I have not talked with any of them since you came, thinking it was not my business to do so. On the one hand, I think it would not be right for me to put pressure on them to talk with you. On the other hand, I think it would be wrong for me to tell them not to talk to you, or to tell them what to say.

Personal impressions and comments:

1. I have not discussed any of this with Harriet, nor with the rest of my staff.

2. I have not been contacted directly by Steve or by anyone else about it.

3. I believe that Steve Christensen’s main interest is in seeing the document introduced in a manner that will contribute the most to Mormon scholarship and understanding. Just how he is reacting-whether he is flexible enough to take advantage of the opportunity offered by you being here-I do not know. If I were to contact him and plead for him, for the good of the Church, to cooperate with you he would think I was doing it in order to help you, since you are my close friend and relative. (He has to know that; I would have no doubt that he does.)

4. I feel very confident in saying that Dean Jessee is the top authority on Joseph Smith period documents. He has been working in the Church Archives as a manuscript specialist since 1964. He is the only person I know who has seen and studied every document in the Joseph Smith Collection. He has been preparing, during the past few years, a long book, about 720 printed pages, due out any day, by Deseret Book, entitled The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Sells for $18.95. He is fully aware of the problems in the early Joseph Smith period. Steve Christensen could not have gotten a better team, in my judgment, than Dean and Ron W.

5. No Mormon Historian who has studied the Joseph Smith period, and nearly all have done so to some extent, will be thrown for a loop by the Harris letter. There were the affidavits in Howe, various other documents from the early period–Newel Knight, other Harris, Joseph Smith letter, etc. We have known for at least twenty years, and published, about these documents and episodes. We have done our level best to educate the Mormon people on these matters by articles in BYU Studies, Ensign, papers at MHA, Sunstone, Dialogue, etc. We know the average member does not read these, but we hope the Seminary teachers, Institute instructors, church writers, etc. will do so and fit their teachings and writings accordingly. We have introduced some of it in STORY OF THE LATTER-DAY SAINTS. We had planned the sesquicentennial series, with Richard Bushman doing the New York period. Unfortunately, the historians are not always the last word on what appears in church periodicals. And unfortunately we have had, since 1976, no pipeline to the First Presidency when we could talk about these things and the necessity of preparing the members for new findings.

6. Steve Christensen deserves a lot of credit. After all he is the one who put up the money to buy the letter precisely for the reason of making it available-of seeing that it was published.

[LJA to Chris, LJA’s Involvement with the Harris Document; LJA Diary, 26 Feb., 1984]

Mormons Ponder 1830 Letter Altering Idealized Image of Joseph Smith

Los Angeles Times; 25 August 1984

By John Dart, Times Religion Writer

SALT LAKE CITY-A letter purportedly written in 1830 by Mormonism’s first convert is now threatening to alter the idealized portrait of church founder Joseph Smith.

The 1 ½-page letter, which is kept in a bank somewhere in this capital city of Mormonism, is attributed to Martin Harris, Smith’s first follower outside his own family. It reportedly says that Smith found the golden plates, which later resulted in the Book of Mormon, with the help of a “seer stone,” a kind of magical looking glass. It also claims that Smith was prevented at first from gaining possession of the plates by an “old spirit” that had transfigured itself from a white salamander.

Spreading the Word

The standard story of Smith has him directed by an angel in 1823 to find golden plates that he “translates” with the use of certain seer stones.

Word of the so-called “white salamander letter” first spread last winter among Mormon historians, a growing group of scholars who have generated many articles and books “demythologizing” the early Mormon movement.

Church leaders have declined to comment on the letter or its contents until its authenticity has been determined. But some leading historians who study Mormon origins believe the letter would add to existing evidence that Smith was not only a dynamic religious leader, but also a treasure seeker who believed in magical spirits. And among conservative Protestant critics of the Mormon Church, the letter has been hailed as “one of the greatest evidences against the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.”

A Salt Lake businessman, Steven F. Christensen, who is also a bishop of the church, purchased the letter, dated Oct. 23, 1830, and announced in March that he would not release it until its historicity could be determined. “I think it’s authentic,” he said at the time.

Christensen said this week he probably will write a book on early Mormonism and that the Harris letter “is really just a catalyst” in the project. He did not say when the letter or results of the study he financed would be released.

The First Presidency’s Gordon Hinckley said the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had earlier indicated that no comment would be made until the letter’s analysis was completed.

But insiders here say there are indications that the letter may be valid. 

Even if it is not, a respected non-Mormon authority on Mormon origins said the white salamander letter is consistent with other evidence that Joseph Smith had his occult side.

Jan Shipps, a Methodist who once served as president of the Mormon History Assn., made what may have been the first public talk about the letter in Mormon circles Wednesday night and simultaneously offered the church hierarchy a way to deal with the explosive issue.

Is It an Evil Pursuit?

Shipps was one of three historians who addressed about 800 people attending the Sunstone Theological Symposium, an independent publishing group based here. Referring to existing evidence that Smith engaged in a popular activity of his time in New York State-hunting for treasure-Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman asked whether it was more “inherently evil” to pursue such a pastime than to play poker. Bushman, whose Joseph Smith and the Beginning of Mormonism will be published next month, urged Mormons to be tolerant “about this culture of magic invading the life of the prophet.”

But Shipps, an Indiana University professor affectionately called “the den mother of Mormon historians” by former Church Historian Leonard Arrington, suggested that the true picture of Smith lies between the standard church portrait and the anti-Mormon picture of an imaginative treasure hunter.

If the Harris letter is genuine, she said, it would confirm other evidence suggesting that some people understood that the plates were located by Smith with his seer stone.

“Since the Harris letter was addressed to W.W. Phelps, a newspaper editor and potential Mormon convert, it is a document that, if genuine, will also make clear that the presence of the occult in the Mormon story was not something that Smith’s early followers tried to hide,” Shipps said.

“Quite the reverse, the mixture of the religious and the occult appears to have been one of the appeals of early Mormonism-and not simply to the uneducated.”

“What to say about the salamander? After the initial shock…this was the key to my own changed understanding of Joseph Smith,” she said. “A salamander, according to myth, is the animal that can be placed in the fire and not be burned.”

Magic, Religion Related

Her studies led her to conclude that magic and religion are “really two ends of the spectrum.” Further, she said, her reading “makes it clear that Joseph Smith himself moved from hunting treasure to searching for a treasure of much higher magnitude and seems to me to provide a basis for a story of an honorable religious tradition.”

However, unusual caution about the letter’s genuineness has been expressed by Jerald and Sandra Tanner, longtime evangelical critics of the Mormon Church. The Tanners wrote in their Salt Lake City Messenger newsletter last March that the purported Harris letter contains too many similarities to statements published in an 1834 book by E.D. Howe.

In the Howe book, there were two accounts as to how Smith found the plates. One said he looked into the hole which contained the plates and saw a toad, which changed into a man. The other said the toad transformed itself into a spirit. 

The Tanners’ suggestion of forgery has surprised some Mormons, who note that the parallels in wording also could be taken as evidence for authenticity.

Shipps mentioned in her speech another letter, reportedly written by Smith in 1825, that advises one Josiah Stowel (also spelled Stoal) how to divine the location of a rich mine with a stick. “You know the treasure must be guarded by some clever spirit, and if such is discovered, so also is the treasure,” Smith wrote, according to a reportedly typed copy circulated to some historians and news reporters.

However, the letter has not been confirmed publicly to exist. At any rate, Shipps said, she was already convinced that Smith and Stowel had worked together attempting to find a mine that would yield treasure.

She said Smith’s early story contains alternate instances of religious visions, including the first in 1820, in which he was said to have seen “the Father and the Son” and told that the true church was not on Earth, and his fascination for buried treasure, including his discovery of a seer stone in 1822.

Despite the suggestions by Shipps, Bushman and other historians that there is too much evidence of the church founder’s less-than-ideal activity, there are few signs, if any, that the strongly conservative Mormon leadership is willing to alter its standard teachings.

Books Are Candid

John Carmack, a former Los Angeles church leader now appointed a General Authority, said Thursday that he sees a growing candor in Mormon biographies, but he added, “not every half-cocked theory that appears will be put into instructional materials.”

At the same time, Carmack said he has not seen any effort to restrain research work. Church leaders, he said, are aware of rather candid books recently published by Arrington and a Smith biographer, Donna Hill.

The tensions and pressures encountered by Mormon historians were cited by Valeen Tippetts Avery of Flagstaff, Ariz., co-author of a biography of Emma Hale Smith, the church founder’s wife, to be published next month.

“If a writer seeks to objectively describe the prophet, mentioning his character quirks as well as his character traits, the reaction is often anger directed not at Joseph, or at the church, but at the speaker,” Avery said in her talk Wednesday night to the theological symposium.

The problem, Avery said, is that “the human Joseph is not apparent in the mythical Joseph that we have created.” That idealized church founder grew out of a logic, she said, that ran like this: “It is unreasonable for God to choose a lesser man to be a prophet. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that Joseph was a greater man.”

Avery, who is now an assistant professor of history at Northeastern Arizona University, said she was until age 37-10 years ago-the ideal Mormon mother of four, known to most simply as “Sister Avery” and hostess of a television cooking show-“the answer to every bishop’s prayer.”

She said when people now approach her in painful disillusionment about details of Smith’s life, Avery said she asks in turn whether they also “lay awake at night and worry how (Hebrew prophet) Isaiah treated his wife?”

She said rejecting the biblical Book of Isaiah because of any personality traits is as logical as rejecting the biography she wrote with a woman collaborator “because we keep dirty houses.”

[Joseph Smith Letter, L.A. Times; LJA Diary, 25 Aug., 1984]

But few people seem certain of the letter’s authenticity. In fact, outspoken Mormon Church critics Jerald and Sandra Tanner suspect the document is a forgery, they told the Deseret News.

Jerald Tanner has not seen the actual letter but says similarities between it and other documents make its veracity doubtful.

Tanner said he studied a typescript of the document and wanted to believe it. But when he compared it to the 1834 book “Mormonism Unveiled” by E.D. Howe, he found highly similar stories about Smith viewing a toad that turned itself into a man or a spirit.

Another disturbing aspect, Tanner said, was the letter seemed out of character for Harris. “In the entire text of the letter, there is no mention of religion in the sense of religion as we know it,” Tanner said.

[‘Martin Harris letter,’ Deseret News; LJA Diary, 1 Sept., 1984]

Is Harris Letter Fake?

Logan Herald Journal

by Tim Gurrister

staff writer

A local Mormon historian disagrees with the authentication by Brigham Young University of the so-called “salamander letter” attributed to early LDS Church leader Martin Harris.

The letter was released over the weekend by the church after a year of study by BYU historians. The letter does not mention the angel Moroni giving church founder Joseph Smith the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was transcribed, as LDS beliefs dictate.

The purported Harris letter, dated Oct. 23, 1830, instead mentions a white salamander as something of a caretaker of the golden plates. 

Rhett James has conducted his own studies of the letter. James, Logan, an LDS bishop and instructor at Logan’s LDS Institute of Religion, says his syntax study of the letter leads him to believe it is premature to call it authentic.

Short of calling the letter a forgery, James said, “I can’t decide. We need more letters to study. There are only eight known Martin Harris letters.”

For BYU researchers to authenticate the letter without a syntax study is a “disservice” to the First Presidency of the LDS Church, he said.

“They jumped the gun,” James said of BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History. “This may be the result of some kind of bureaucratic bungling.”

James’ syntax study involved diagramming 327 sentences from known Martin Harris letters totaling 4,831 words. A comparison was then made of diagrammed sentences in the salamander letter.

Known Harris letters averaged 30 words a sentence as contrasted to 13 words a sentence in the 1830 letter, James said. Technical details aren’t consistent, he said – participles and noun clauses as direct objects were nine times more plentiful in the known Harris letters than in the salamander letter. Appositives, dependent clauses and infinitives appeared twice as often in established Harris correspondence than in the 1830 letter, he said.

“Based on style (alone) there is no way it could be the same author,” James said. “It would be impossible.”

James said he had a secondary school English teacher and a holder of a doctorate in English literature make their own syntax studies: “They were 95 to 97 percent in agreement” with his own findings.

One of the reviewers was emphatic in labeling the letter a fake, calling it a “comic” effort, he said. While the two did their studies, James said, no contact was made among the researchers to ensure the independence of the work.

“The BYU conclusions must be re-examined and reevaluated,” he said. “It is unfortunate that their research was not complete.”

James said he recommended months ago to one of the principals in the BYU study of the letter, Ron Walker, that their work include a syntax study, but the BYU research was completed without one.

At one point James, Walker and Dean C. Jessee, the other principal in the BYU work, came close to working together on the 1830 letter.

“That never gelled,” James said. “But it’s actually better that way (so the work remains independent). Sometimes researchers can develop a vested interest in their work.”

James said his textual analysis of the letter makes authentication even more questionable. “The 1830 letter uses words which Harris is never known to have used in describing his experience,” he said.

The letter “bears some signs of having been written by two people, or at least an educated person making an attempt at illiteracy,” James said.

James is writing a biography of Harris and is the author of the Martin Harris Pageant held annually in Clarkston, where Harris is buried. James said some of the phrasings in the 1830 letters resemble the writings of E.D. Howe, more than anything Harris ever wrote.

Howe was an 1830s author who collected anti-Mormon affidavits eventually published in a book, James said. Howe worked to discredit Joseph Smith and Harris when they were organizing the church in Palmyra, New York, he said.

In addition, fraudulent attempts at stealing documents from Harris had succeeded before 1830 and illegal copies and alterations of documents had taken place, James said.

Harris was a wealthy businessman, with the equivalent of a quarter-million fortune in today’s dollars, James said. He was not an ignorant man who would have produced some of the misspellings and illiterate passages in the salamander letter, he said.

Howe, as a writer, would have turned to the salamander idea easily, something of a sophisticated literary symbol common to the times and still in use somewhat today, he said.

The symbolism of the salamander is related to “one tried in the fire,” tested in the heat of battle, James said.

The angel Moroni, according to Mormon beliefs, was a warrior, the last survivor of a race-therefore tested in the heat of battle, he said. Some of the salamander symbolism stems in part from German folklore pointing to salamanders as spirits released to the world from flame, James said.

James said the premature authentication of the letter is provoking an “intellectual evangelism” bringing a loss of objectivity to Mormon historical research.

“It undermines the efforts of Mormon historiography over the last two decades,” he said.

[Is Harris Letter Fake? in Logan Herald Journal; LJA Diary, ca. 30 Apr., 1985]

Thursday, May 2, Harriet and I flew with many others to Independence, Mo., for the annual convention of the Mormon History Association. That evening we had dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was classy. Rattlesnake for an appetizer, pheasant and Red Snapper for main course. Very good food. We then attended the opening Thursday evening session on the Martin Harris 1830 so-called Salamander letter, with Dean Jessee, Ron Walker, Richard Howard, and George Smith. Enjoyed it very much.

[LJA to Children, 7 May, 1985]

Mormon Church Releases Letter Revealing Founder’s Belief in Cult

By John Dart

1985, Los Angeles Times

The Mormon Church Friday released photographic copies of an 1825 letter written by church founder Joseph Smith Jr. in which he suggests occult methods for finding treasure guarded by “some clever spirit.”

The letter, the oldest over found in his hand, thus adds new evidence that the origins of Mormonism were interwoven with magical lore.

Church leaders acknowledged only this week that they own the letter, whose contents were rumored as long as a year ago.

Its release comes on the heels of the announcement last week at the Mormon History Association meeting that an 1830 letter written by Martin Harris, Mormonism’s first follower, was authentic in spite of Harris’ seemingly bizarre report that Smith told him a “white salamander” guarding the golden plates (later the basis for the Book of Mormon) in 1823 turned into an old spirit who fended off Smith, striking him three times.

The official Mormon story mentions no salamander, a mythical figure long familiar to occultists, but instead says that Smith was denied immediate possession of the plates by an angel named Moroni, who is depicted widely in Mormon statuary and paintings.

Several prominent Mormon historians say that together the two letters establish Smith’s involvement in popular folk magic and “money digging” during the 1820’s when the young prophet later said he was receiving heavenly revelations.

But differences of opinion have emerged on whether the uncomfortable mixture of magic, money-digging fads and religion will disturb the nearly 6 million followers of Mormonism or hinder the church’s proselytizing efforts.

The majority of Mormons would tend to trust church officials who have downplayed the implications for faith, some Mormon historians said. “Many people would rely on present church prophets for interpretation,” said Milton Backman of Brigham Young University.

But others, including Canadian historian Klaus Hansen of Queen’s University, said the historical implications of the letters are “potentially devastating.”

Valeen Avery, co-author of a new biography of Smith’s first wife, Emma, said she thinks the letters will “cause a profound change (because) we can’t say our history proves we are right.”

In other words, Avery said, “A missionary now approaches someone and says, I know the Mormon Church is true because an angel directed by God showed Joseph Smith golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.” The book, which complements the Bible in Mormon churches, tells of earlier civilizations in the Western Hemisphere and an appearance of the resurrected Jesus to some of them.

Avery predicted that the church would increasingly de-emphasize the origins of the Book of Mormon and Smith’s personality and start emphasizing what the church has to say.

The Times obtained the first photocopy of the Smith letter earlier this week and learned that it was sold to the church about two years ago for a reported $25,000.

Dated June 18, 1825, fives years before the Book of Mormon was published and the church was organized, the letter to Josiah Stowell of Bainbridge, N.Y., advised him about locating buried riches.

”You know the treasure must be guarded by some clever spirit” Smith said, ”and if such (a spirit) is discovered, so also is the treasure.’

Smith then gave instructions about using a ”hasel stick” split down the middle to divine the presence of buried treasure. Smith said he was close to accepting an offer from Stowell and, indeed, Smith and his father signed a digging agreement on Nov. 1 that year with Stowell and three others. 

With Smith himself writing matter-of-factly in 1825 about a ”clever spirit” guarding buried treasure, the later Harris letter also gains credibility, said George D. Smith of San Francisco, an independent publisher of Mormon books. Some church members were starting to discount the Harris letter by speculating that Harris got the story wrong from young Smith, or had heard the salamander version from Smith’s father instead. 

The publisher, one of four speakers on the Harris letter at the Mormon historians’ meeting, asked, ”If we say that the white salamander letter emerged from the occult culture of Joseph Smith’s day, what about the origin of the church? Does the 1830 letter contain Joseph Smith’s original story of obtaining the gold plates?” 

The new findings and increasingly frank academic discussions of Smith’s attitudes and practices are important not only for the 5.5 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints based in Salt Lake City, but also the 200,000-member Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Mo., and scores of small Mormon sects in North America. All claim Smith as their prophet in ”restoring” the gospel in the ”latter days” before Christ’s return.

Charles Hamilton, a prominent New York City autograph collector, said Thursday by telephone that he was shown the Joseph Smith letter two years ago by manuscript collector Mark Hoffman of Salt Lake City, who bought it from a stamp collector.

”I’ve seen hundreds of letters signed by ‘Joseph Smith,’ a very common name, but the second I saw this one I recognized it as the Mormon prophet’s signature,” Hamilton said. ”I said it was probably of great historical interest and was worth about $15,000. Hoffman told me he sold it within three weeks to the church for $25,000.”

A typewritten copy of the Smith letter had been circulating anonymously among Mormon historians since last spring but its existence was unconfirmed and its owner apparently unknown. After a previous denial that the church owned it, Jerry Cahill, the church’s spokesman, said he was called into the office of Gordon Hinckley, second counselor to Mormon President Spencer Kimball, on May 3 and told that the First Presidency had the letter in its vault and that it might eventually be available for study.

As it became clear during this week that photocopies of the letter would soon be circulated by sources outside the official church, Cahill announced that the church would discuss the contents and release a photographic copy of the letter.

While Mormon Church leadership in one sense may have been prodded to acknowledge and talk about the new finds, it was aided in taking that course by scholars who have argued that the Smith and Harris letters will not inflict great harm to the church. Ronald W. Walker of BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute and Richard P. Howard, church historian for the Reorganized LDS Church based in Independence, Mo. both recently took that approach.

Walker said many Americans in the Northeast during the early 19th century believed that previous civilizations, pirates or Spaniards had left buried treasure that could be found by certain magical methods. Vermont, where Joseph Smith’s family first lived, had many digging sites, he said. Dreams and “peep stones” contributed to locating lost treasure, and it was widely understood that trickster spirits would be guarding those rich caches.

“We’re not talking about black magic or dark occult powers,” Walker said. “Angels were as real to Martin Harris as were conjured spirits.”

Howard claimed that prayer and magic were “consistent companions” throughout the world. Churchgoers should try to bridge the gap to Joseph Smith’s time and “walk with (the early Mormons) in empathy and imagination,” he said.

On the other hand, Peggy Fletcher, publisher-editor of the independent Mormon-oriented magazine Sunstone, questioned the approach by Walker and Howard: “Why does it not make me feel better to hear that everybody was into magic then? I think historians are naïve if they think members are going to buy this.”

[Mormon Church Releases Letter Revealing Founder’s Belief in Cult; LJA Diary, 10 May, 1985]

Challenging Mormonism’s Roots

Newly found letters raise questions about the church’s origins

By Richard N. Ostling 

Reported by Christine Arrington

“It’s an incredible crisis of faith for me,” says Mormon Klaus Hansen, who teaches at Queen’s University in Ontario. “It means our historical foundation becomes a nice story that has no connection to reality.” To Denise Olsen, a law student and mother of three in Bountiful, Utah, “it’s another evidence to me that things have gone awry in the church.” A devout Mormon couple in Whittier, Calif., in a letter to friends explaining why they have left the church, say new revelations about the Mormons’ founding prophet have destroyed their belief.

These reactions stem from the discovery and authentication of a puzzling 1830 letter that is a much discussed, contentious issue in Mormon circles. The 637-word document contains one of the earliest accounts of Joseph Smith’s finding of the Book of Mormon, the scripture that has equal authority with the Bible for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (world membership: 5.4 million).

The official Church News of Salt Lake City published the letter last month. It was written by Martin Harris, a farmer who lived near Palmyra, N.Y. Harris was Smith’s first convert outside the prophet’s family. Addressed to a Canadaigua, N.Y., newspaper editor who later joined the sect, the document describes a version of the foundations of Mormonism that differs markedly from the official account written by Smith in 1838. The letter, discovered in 1983 and donated to the church last month by a Utah businessman, depicts Smith as a man influenced by folk magic and occultism. This appears to contradict the official church position, which regards Mormonism as a uniquely pure restoration of Christianity. After the letter was described by Professors Dean Jessee and Ronald Walker of Brigham Young University at a historians’ convention this month, scholars discussed it heatedly for hours. It is “a potentially explosive document,” says Researcher Brent Metcalfe, who spent a year studying the letter.

The Mormons teach that God and Jesus Christ directly commissioned Smith to disseminate divine scriptures, inscribed on plates of gold that had been buried by ancient Israelites who had migrated to America. According to Smith’s 1838 account of the momentous event, the angel Moroni showed him the site outside Palmyra where the plates were hidden. Harris is one of the Mormon Church’s “Three Witnesses,” who attest that they too saw the plates, so his truthfulness is also a matter of faith.

The Harris letter, dated seven months after the publication of the Book of Mormon, recounts what he says are Smith’s words about the scriptural discovery: “I…only just got it because of the enchantment,” says Smith. “An old spirit,” declares Smith, told him to “dig up the gold,” but “when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole and struck me 3 times.” There is no reference to any angel from God. The Harris letter mentions Smith’s involvement in “money digging,” using his supposed special powers and a “seer stone” to find buried treasure. The letter also suggests that Smith used a magical stone to find the buried scriptures.

Coincidentally, money digging is the subject of a second controversial Mormon letter that surfaced last week. The missive, written by Smith in 1825, was released by Gordon Hinckley, acting president of the Latter-day Saints, who had previously denied church ownership of the document. This letter, addressed to a prospective treasure-seeking client, discusses the foiling of a “clever spirit” who guards the buried treasure. The church offered no explanation for withholding news of the earliest extant document written by Smith, and said its content “does not appear unusual in the context of the times.”

As for the Harris letter, Hinckley views it only as “an interesting document.” Even if it is genuine, he says, “the letter has nothing to do with the authenticity of the church.” Despite last week’s tremors of concern, Mormons are likely to accept this interpretation.

Nonetheless, Jan Shipps, the leading non-Mormon historian of the Latter-day Saints and author of Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, is convinced that the Harris letter will have considerable and continuing impact. “It forces the church hierarchy and the Mormon in the street to confront the fact that the Mormon story as they believe it is not the way it was,” says Shipps. “It proves that magic and occult practices were present at the outset of this important religious movement.”

[Challenging Mormonism’s Roots, Article in Time; LJA Diary, 20 May, 1985]

August 29, 1986

22 Coleman Place, #17

Menlo Park, CA 94025

Dear Leonard,

There is something that pops into my head from time to time that I keep meaning to write to you about. It’s old news, but I know how meticulous you are at writing everything down in your diary, and there’s one piece of information that I have been wanting you to record in your diary.

It is this. I just want to affirm that I did accurately report what Klaus Hansen said to me about the Martin Harris letter, and it was accurately quoted in TIME Magazine. I know he told you he didn’t say that or that at least it didn’t convey what he meant. I’m sure you can understand that often when people see their words in black and white in a national news magazine, they are troubled by what they said. But he did say that, and he continued to repeat it throughout the evening in the after-meeting discussions, so I think he meant it at that time. I would feel very bad if anyone thought I had been careless in reporting such a comment, because in fact I was very careful in reporting the whole story. I clearly told Klaus that I was reporting reactions for TIME magazine, and I had my notebook out and was taking notes all the while I was talking with him. So he knew he was talking on the record.

As I told you, I wouldn’t have put that quotation at the head of the story if I were writing it, but I can understand a news magazine’s need to establish that for at least a few people, the Martin Harris letter seemed to significantly disturb their understanding of the canonized story.

Did you hear Linda Sillitoe’s paper at the Sunstone Symposium? Kim McCall told me that she reported that a microscopic examination of 18 documents sold to the church by Mark Hofmann showed differences between those documents and another 400 or so that were used from the Church Archives as a comparison. Apparently, the molecules on the Hofmann documents all pointed uniformly in one direction–that is in the ink–which would be the result of spraying some kind of weak acid on a forged document to artificially age it and then hanging that document up to dry. Have you heard that info. and what do you make of it? Of course I’m anxious to find out whether all the reporting I did for TIME was on a forged document.

[Chris Arrington to LJA; LJA Diary, file 20 May, 1985]

1830 Letter Linked to Mormons Called Fake

Deseret News 25 May 1985


A professional genealogist and handwriting specialist says an 1830 letter linking Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith to magic and the occult is a forgery, probably written by at least two people.

Ronald Vern Jackson said the letter, purportedly written by Smith’s benefactor and early Mormon convert Martin Harris, has too many problems to be considered authentic.

Jackson is president of Accelerated Indexing Systems International, a genealogy firm, and specializes in analyzing handwriting in old documents.

Jackson said he has discussed his reservations about the document with Rhett James, author of a Martin Harris biography, who also considers the document a forgery.

The letter, released by the church in April, has been declared authentic by several scholars and historians employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the church-owned Brigham Young University.

It is one of two letters that seemingly link Smith to the practice of magic and the occult. Harris wrote that Smith received a set of gold plates-inscribed with an ancient record that was translated into the Book of Mormon, which faithful Mormons consider scripture-from a “white salamander” that transformed himself into a spirit.

According to traditional Mormon history, Smith was given the plates by an angel named Moroni.

In a telephone interview, Jackson said his own syntax study of the letter has caused him to conclude that at least two people wrote the document.

Jackson said his examination found the letters “J” and “S” to be written inconsistently throughout.

While other Martin Harris letters have reached 30 words per sentence, Jackson said, “This one is much more choppy, with only about 13 words per sentence. Participle and noun clauses as direct objects are nine times more plentiful than they are in other letters written by Martin Harris,” he said.

Jackson said he agrees with James that, “There were educated anti-Mormons out to discredit Joseph Smith at the time” who may have written the letter.

[1830 Letter Linked to Mormons Called Fake; LJA Diary, 25 May, 1985]

Readers and viewers need to be more sophisticated in evaluating what is communicated to them about Church history, according to Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder Oaks addressed a symposium sponsored by the Church Education System at Brigham Young University.

Cautioning that in the communication process, a situation or history often is not accurately portrayed, Elder Oaks said, “The media should make more complete disclosures, but readers should also be more sophisticated in their evaluation of what they read.”

Elder Oaks listed six general principles that “should cause readers and viewers to apply the discount of skepticism to media stories about developments in Church history.” Those principles concern scientific uncertainties, lack of context, truths and half-truths, bias, balance, and evaluation, said Elder Oaks.

He cautioned, “Whether experts or amateurs, most of us have a tendency to be quite dogmatic about so-called dogmatic facts. Since news writers are not immune from this tendency, news stories based on scientific assumptions should be read or viewed with some skepticism.” Elder Oaks then gave examples of recent news stories based on “scientific” assumptions that turned out to be untrue.

He cited a recent incident in West Valley City where a human skeleton was found on the banks of a canal. After a preliminary examination, police and press reported the bones were of an adult male, dead for up to 20 years, probably a shooting victim because a spent bullet was found in the grave.

Later, fuller examination concluded the bones were of a woman, hundreds of years old, who had been buried before the canal was dug. The spent bullet was in the grave by coincidence, from a 22 caliber weapon someone had been shooting in the area. High water levels had eroded the banks of the canal, uncovering the bones.

“News media–print and electronic–are not reliable sources for historical facts based on scientific uncertainties,” said Elder Oaks. “This is understandable. Most of the news media go to their readers or viewers on a daily or hourly basis, often under great pressure to scoop their competition. As a result, they frequently cannot obtain irrefutable scientific verification of the facts they will report.

“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,” said Elder Oaks.

“This susceptibility obviously applies to newly discovered documents whose authenticity turns on an evaluation of handwriting, paper, ink, etc. Readers should be skeptical about the authenticity of such documents, especially when we are unsure 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.”

Another reason news stories are not suited to conveying historical understanding is that they invariably report historical facts out of context, said Elder Oaks. An individual historical fact has meaning only in relation to other events, he said, and outside that context is almost certain to convey an erroneous impression.

“Even in matters where context is a prerequisite to understanding, the news media tend to compete in terms of immediacy rather than accuracy,” said Elder Oaks, who was Chairman of the Board of the Public Broadcasting Service. “As a result, when the media report historical facts, they may provide information but they rarely provide illumination.”

Of truths and half-truths, he said, the…”most effective lies are half-truths or lies accompanied by the truth. A lie is most effective when it can travel incognito in good company, or when it can be so intermarried with the truth that we cannot determine its lineage.”

“Youthful folly and the mistakes of inexperience can easily be used to discredit a person and detract from later accomplishments. In this manner, the deceiver can attempt to undercut the repentance and forgiveness made possible by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this manner, the adversary can attempt to discredit the principle of eternal progress that is central to the Gospel plan.

He cautioned that bias can be exercised by media in decision on what news stories to publish, and what to omit, and suggested that when supposedly objective news media or periodicals run a feature or an article on the Church or its doctrines, it ought to be balanced. “Readers should beware of writings that imply balance but do not deliver it,” said Elder Oaks.

Elder Oaks questioned why so many writers who wrote about the recent

“salamander” letter Martin Harris is supposed to have sent to W.W. Phelps did not point out that there is another meaning of the word “salamander,” other than in the modern sense of a “tailed amphibian.”

“That meaning is ‘a mythical being thought to be able to live in fire,’” said Elder Oaks. “A being that is able to live in fire is a good approximation of the description Joseph Smith gave of the Angel Moroni.”

Elder Oaks added that a spiritual dimension, a power of discernment, is available to spiritually sensitive readers through the Gift of the Holy Ghost as they attempt to understand the meaning of what they learn.

“Our individual, personal testimonies are based on the witness of the Spirit, not on any combination or accumulation of historical fact,” said Elder Oaks. “If we are so grounded, no alteration of historical facts can shake our testimonies.

“Our Heavenly Father gave us powers of reason, and we are expected to use them to the fullest. But he also gave us the Comforter which he said would lead us into truth, and by whose power we may know the truth of all things.” That is the ultimate guide for those who are worthy and willing to rely on it, he concluded. 

[Evaluate What You Read, Apostle {Elder Oaks} Cautions Students of Church History; LJA Diary, 16 Aug., 1985]

After the bombing of Steve Christensen, Kathy Sheets, and Mark Hofmann, Dean Jessee, Ron Walker, and I decided that so many crazy things were being said by television news teams, and by the newspaper reporters, that we would speak up. Dean Jessee appeared on Channels 2, 4, 5, and 11. I appeared on Channels 2 and 5. Ron Walter appeared on 2, 4, and 5. I “spoke up” for Rod Decker and Rod Arquette for Channel 2, Lynn Packer and Duane Cardall for Channel 5, Linda Sillitoe for the Deseret News, Iver Peterson for New York Times, Jim Gray for BBC Radio, and a Scotsman whose name I didn’t get clear for the Glasgow Gazette. Maureen Beecher appeared with Shelley Osterloh on Channel 5 “Friends.” 

[LJA Diary, 22 Oct., 1985]

On Tuesday, as you all know, Bishop Steve Christensen was killed by a bomb, along with Kathy Sheets, his partner’s wife. (I gave a brief eulogy in my brief talk in Cannon-Hinckley Tuesday night.) There was speculation that the killing was done by some investor in Commercial Finance Security, the business firm of Christensen and Sheets. But the media also introduced what I regarded as some rather silly speculation about Christensen’s role in the so-called Salamander letter of Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps. Not a single TV news broadcast that we heard was even mildly accurate about the latter and its significance in Mormon history.

Then Wednesday Mark Hofmann was bombed, but survived. Knowing exactly what the sensational media would do, I responded to the many phone calls and accepted invitations to be interviewed in order to try to calm everybody down a little. I have been involved in this every day since. I have been interviewed by the N. Y. Times, the BBC Radio, Channels 2 and 5 and 11, several radio stations, and the Deseret News reporters. (The Tribune has not contacted me.) I have also responded to many phone calls from LDS people who have wanted to know “what is really going on?” And I have taken advantage of invitations to talk to Sunday School classes, Priesthood and Relief Society classes, and study groups. The principal points I have tried to make, in addition to responding to a variety of questions, include:

1. So far as known, the bombing had nothing to do with the contents of the Salamander letter or other historical documents.

2. All of the important documents we have been aware of (the Anthon transcript, the Lucy Mack Smith 1829 letter, the Joseph Smith blessing on his son, the Joseph Smith 1825 letter, and the Martin Harris letter to W. W. Phelps) are, according to our opinion, enforced by scientific studies, authentic.

3. The motives for the bombings have to be financial, involving large sums of money, not religious.

4. No historian that we know of has ever seen the so-called McLellin papers; they may or may not exist; they may or may not have been in the possession of Mark Hofmann or any other collector.

5. Those of us who have known Mark Hofmann have had no reason to suspect his honesty and integrity until the events of the past week have cast an ugly and tragic shadow.

My observation of the media—television, radio, newspapers—has also led me to certain conclusions. I put them down for you, knowing that you may fault me for being unfair. Anyway, here they are:

1. When something as bizarre, as violent, and as suspenseful as this happens, the media, especially television, casts aside its normal balance and restraint. They are quick to ascribe guilt and innocence, they use inflammatory words and phrases, they pick up on irrelevant matters that are sensational and “newsworthy.”

2. They don’t hesitate to convict a prime suspect, even though the officers haven’t enough of a case to make a formal charge.

3. Although they will circulate what responsible officials have to say, they will also feed the hysteria by the way they write and speak their “stories.”

4. The national press continues to be fascinated with Mormonism—perhaps because it is different and “peculiar.” It’s as if Mormonism is being reinvestigated every time some Mormon does some unstereotypical thing—the Mormon FBI agent, the Lafferty brothers, the Bradshaw murder, and now this. “Are Mormon historical claims true” seems to be as much an aspect of the bombings as the bombings themselves.

Last night Rod Decker on Channel 2 introduced a needed editorial involving a little reflection and backtracking, so maybe the pendulum will shift in the other direction for a while. But I still have an interview at Channel 2 Sunday night, and I presume the same questions will be asked.

[LJA to Children, 23 Oct., 1985]

1. The sense of grief over the death of Bishop Steve Christensen.

2. The murder had nothing to do with the contents of the Historical documents they’ve been talking about, so the play the media have given the documents was irrelevant to the murder, which all the evidence suggests was motivated by fear of financial ruin or revenge or both.

3. The historians, who are always involved in uncovering new information have never found anything that would disturb or threaten their testimonies but, on the contrary, have continued to deepen and strengthen their testimonies and commitment to the Gospel. The church is true, nothing new could overturn that fact, and, in fact, every new discovery merely reinforces and strengthens it.

[Parleys Stake Priesthood Meeting; LJA Diary, 27 Oct., 1985]

Last Wednesday my student at BYU telephoned that on doctor’s orders he would not be able to attend class, so I didn’t go. And it turned out that I had many phone calls and visits. A reporter from the Glasgow Gazette in Scotland called and talked for a half hour or so about Mormon history. Ditto from the Christian Science Monitor. Rod Decker came out and did a half hour television interview for Channel 2. Basically, he asked questions like, “What is the present status of Mormon History studies?” “What has been the impact of the Salamander Letter on Mormon history?” “How free are historians in bringing in new documents and interpretations?” And so on. As far as I know he has not yet run it, but plans to do so, he says. There were other telephone calls from local reporters; Linda Sillitoe, Lynn Packer, Rod Arquette.

On Thursday morning two people from PBS came by and did a half-hour interview for Eastern television. They asked a lot of questions about the Book of Mormon and the coming forth of the same. More telephone calls.

[LJA to Children, 28 Oct., 1985]

As you all know, they have finally charged Hofmann with murder, making bombs, forging, deceptive selling, and other things. Here are thoughts of mine:

1. Unquestionably he sold some forged documents. The church bought several

dozen which none of us have seen; we assume some of those are forged. Of those I have personally seen, the Anthon transcript, Lucy Mack Smith letter, the Joseph Smith blessings letter, the Salamander letter, I do not believe any were forged. Why the church would buy documents without consulting any historian is beyond me. Apparently they did.

2. I believe Hofmann had co-conspirators; I cannot conceive that he did all of this himself. The county has gone to great lengths on the counterfeiting

and forging because that would provide a motive for the murders. Hofmann apparently worked himself up into a frenzy during the spring and summer of 1985, selling documents, most of which were apparently forged by him or someone. The county thinks that Christensen found out about the forgeries and was killed for that reason–and Sheets because he would have been told by Christensen. Hofmann then tried to blow up his car to be able to claim that he had the McLellin documents and they were now blown up and he wouldn’t have to deliver. Thru a mistake he blew up himself in the process of planting the bomb. Most people believe the McLellin documents never existed.

3. I do not believe it makes much difference to Church History whether the documents are real or forged. They do not add much, if anything, to what we know from other sources that are undeniably genuine. While the public were shocked by the Harris letter, Richard Bushman, Mike Quinn, Reed Durham, Dean Jessee, and others had already given papers on aspects of the local folklore that say much the same thing.

[LJA to Children, 9 Feb., 1986]

Dear Children:

The Mark Hofmann hearing has been going on for 8 days now, and I thought that you would want me to pass on some personal impressions. I am doing this for you and for you alone, so don’t pass on any of this by saying “My Dad believes this and so.” So, between us, here are some preliminary impressions.

First, it is obvious from all the testimony that Mark was engaged in some fraudulent activities. He sold the same thing twice and never delivered; he borrowed money and didn’t repay; he promised documents that he didn’t deliver; he ordered engraving plates that seem to have been used in making forged documents; and he told different stories to different people.

Second, there is considerable evidence that his questionable activities were about to be exposed, that he would lose his credibility as a documents dealer, and that his source of income was about to be destroyed. This at least provides motive for killing Steve Christensen, who was about to expose him.

Third, nothing has been brought out to explain killing Sheets’ wife or attempting to kill Sheets. We don’t know yet whether the third bomb was intended for someone else, or for whom, or for simply bombing his car. We also can’t be sure whether he was doing all these things alone or had one or more who were “in on” the forgeries and fraudulent dealings. There is also no explanation for the money. Where is it? Why should he have been in financial trouble when it appears he swindled $800,000 out of people?

Fourth, for his various fraudulent dealings he apparently used the name Mike Hansen (not very imaginative: M H for Mark Hofmann).

Fifth, we’ve heard that he and his lawyers are sufficiently shaken by the evidence of the prosecution that they are ready for plea bargaining. He will plead guilty to 2nd degree homicide or manslaughter, and to some fraudulent dealing, and will be given a prison term and fine. And there will then be no trial. This would save the county a 6 month trial. It would no doubt be preferred by the Church. But it would be horrible for the historians. How are we to find out if the documents are genuine? How can we know whether to use them?

Sixth, the whole business certainly casts a lot of doubt on the documents authenticators. Rendell, the famous Massachusetts authenticator who declared the Hitler diaries a forgery, was paid $6,000 by the church to determine the authenticity of the Martin Harris salamander letter. After keeping it for 8 months he declared there was absolutely no reason to doubt its authenticity. Now he is back to testify, as he did yesterday, that all the other documents are phony (anybody can tell that right off!) so it is probable that the salamander letter is also phony. Clearly he is a politician. He proves what people want him to prove. The RLDS Church spent some $4,000 getting another prominent authenticator to test the Joseph Smith blessing. Their man said it was unquestionably authentic (paper, ink, handwriting, etc.) Now Rendell and Throckmorton (the local documents tester) say it is a forgery. (One could tell that at first glance they say.) My personal feeling is that there are some authentic documents and some forged ones. And forget about the authentication. Let historians judge on the basis of provenance, handwriting, content, etc. whether it is likely they are authentic. Looks like that’s what we’ll have to do if there is no trial with a definite determination and if Mark Hofmann does not confess everything.

[LJA to Children, 23 Apr., 1986]

Sunday, April 26, I went to the First United Methodist Church where the acting pastor, Keith Thompson, invited me to the sermon (which had quotes from our book, The Mormon Experience) on Mormonism and Methodism and then conduct a two-hour “workshop” on Mormon history. Part of a three-part series he had planned on Mormonism and Methodism. Linda and Jack Newell the first Sunday; Truman Madsen and Bill Evans, the second; and mine the third. About 60 persons present for the workshop, which consisted of many questions and answers on Mormon history. First time I’d been in the Methodist church here. My mother was a Methodist before she was baptized about the time I was born. So was Brigham Young.

That evening we went to the Bennion Study Group, where Harriet gave the story of her life. I must do the next one later this month.

I’ll pass on some things I’ve heard about Hofmann. Most people believe that he killed Steve Christensen because Steve caught on to his fraud and deceptions. He killed or tried to kill Sheets to make it seem like a CFS vengeance. The third bomb was intended for the lawyer or for the car. Most believe the five basic documents are genuine. They are too good to be forgeries. The Betsy Ross letter is a clumsy forgery (she always signed her name Elizabeth), the Jack London inscription is a clumsy forgery, and the William Clayton Emigrants Guide was a clumsy forgery. They found plates in his home for all of these, so there is no question. But the basic documents we have always used and accepted, including the Martin Harris letter, are genuine.

We are all delighted with:

1. The new issue of BYU Studies which includes articles by Dean Jessee, Ron Walker, and Marvin Hill on the Harris letter. Honest, historical analysis, well-written, very meaningful. Great that BYU Studies went ahead with the publication even though it was delayed several months.

2. The Story of the Latter-day Saints by Allen and Leonard has been reprinted and is on the shelves. 10,000 printed. Just like the first printing, including my foreword as church historian.

[LJA to Children, 5 May, 1986]

Dear Leonard,

There is something that pops into my head from time to time that I keep meaning to write to you about. It’s old news, but I know how meticulous you are at writing everything down in your diary, and there’s one piece of information that I have been wanting you to record in your diary.

It is this. I just want to affirm that I did accurately report what Klaus Hansen said to me about the Martin Harris letter, and it was accurately quoted in TIME Magazine. I know he told you he didn’t say that or that at least it didn’t convey what he meant. I’m sure you can understand that often when people see their words in black and white in a national news magazine, they are troubled by what they said. But he did say that, and he continued to repeat it throughout the evening in the after-meeting discussions, so I think he meant it at that time. I would feel very bad if anyone thought I had been careless in reporting such a comment, because in fact I was very careful in reporting the whole story. I clearly told Klaus that I was reporting reactions for TIME magazine, and I had my notebook out and was taking notes all the while I was talking with him. So he knew he was talking on the record.

As I told you, I wouldn’t have put that quotation at the head of the story if I were writing it, but I can understand a news magazine’s need to establish that for at least a few people, the Martin Harris letter seemed to significantly disturb their understanding of the canonized story.

Did you hear Linda Sillitoe’s paper at the Sunstone Symposium? Kim McCall told me that she reported that a microscopic examination of 18 documents sold to the church by Mark Hofmann showed differences between those documents and another 400 or so that were used from the Church Archives as a comparison. Apparently, the molecules on the Hofmann documents all pointed uniformly in one direction–that is in the ink–which would be the result of spraying some kind of weak acid on a forged document to artificially age it and then hanging that document up to dry. Have you heard that info. and what do you make of it? Of course I’m anxious to find out whether all the reporting I did for TIME was on a forged document.

[Chris to LJA; LJA Diary, 29 Aug., 1986]

Today Marc Hofmann plea-bargained the charges against him, admitted guilt, and was sentenced. I was asked to comment on the importance of the admission that many of the documents were forgeries on Mormon history. I made the following statement, both for the Deseret News and for KSL-TV Channel 5:

The principal contribution of the Hofmann documents has been to stimulate historians to look for further evidence on certain aspects of our history. We have done this, often with happy results. I am sure that Mormon historians hope that the search for new documents will continue, and that we will continue to pick up new information that will be helpful in gaining a better understanding of our history. Basically, our historical endeavors have been fruitful and positive, and I am sure that will be true in the future. I hope also that those who have evidence on the authenticity of historical documents will make that evidence available to historians for further study. In particular, we await the promised full statement of Mr. Hofmann.

[LJA Diary, 23 Jan., 1987]

Given to JoAnn Wells for Des. News, 27 Jan 1987

Despite statements made in the press, the admissions of Marc Hofmann that some or all of the historic documents he “discovered” were in fact forgeries will not force the rewriting of LDS history. Historians are very careful researchers, and they do not jump to radical new interpretations on the basis of some new document. They must rely on the preponderance of evidence. If there are ten sources that point to a certain conclusion, and one that infers something different, the historian would go with the preponderance and simply footnote that a different possibility is suggested in such and such a document. On the other hand, if some new source indicates a different approach than any historian has thought of, he or she would dig deeply into the sources to see if there is any likelihood of its being true. If this search yields new insights, the historian will report them. The principal impact of the Hofmann documents was to force historians to look at the earlier evidence to see if there was any corroboration. If so, that would be reported.

Some historians, to be sure, believed that some of the new documents were accurate. This is because they seemed to fit so well with other evidence. They didn’t change our history; they simply seemed to provide substantiation for other testimony already considered in the writing of our history.

Some historians, as the result of some of these documents, thought it would be fruitful to look into the web of folklore and magic in early New York-New England in the 1820s and ’30s. Basically, that evidence simply corroborated statements by Joseph Smith, long ago written into our history, that he and other members of the Smith family had at one time engaged in a search for buried treasure. The best treatment of this aspect is found in Richard Bushman’s book, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, that was published in 1985 and continues to be on sale at local bookstores. It contains the best narrative of what historians have found about Joseph Smith’s early life, the family in which he grew up, the translation of the B of M, and the org. of Church.

In my judgment, whether the Hofmann documents were authentic or clever forgeries–and surely some that he sold or traded were authentic and others were forgeries–will have little influence on the writing of LDS history. But they have served to make us study more carefully our early history, and this is a plus. 

[Statement for Deseret News; LJA Diary, 27 Jan., 1987]

Wednesday evening we went to Wasatch Westerners. Linda Sillitoe and Allen

Roberts gave wonderfully interpretive talks on Mark Hofmann. They did not fully explain him, but they did offer insights, and showed the complexity of his personality. Despite his orthodox stance, they said he had basically lost his religion when he was thirteen. Even when he was a missionary, he was fussing with forged documents. He did his first forging in 1978, while he was at USU. Then the big one, the Anthon Transcript, in 1980. Then one per year or so until 1983, when he began doing them wholesale. They believe all the major documents were forgeries. I will still believe the Lucy Mack Smith 1829 letter to be authentic until I get a satisfactory explanation of how he forged it. There was none from Sillitoe and Roberts.

[LJA to Children, 14 Feb., 1987]

2. JFSI Press Release – statement on forgeries and their impact – (distributed to staff members prior to meeting) – I met briefly with President Ballif and Paul Richards. Richards doesn’t intend to use anything unless he is told to do so. If it doesn’t go anywhere else, it could at least go to members of the Board who have expressed concern.

a. It is longer than anticipated. 

b. No input was given other than Jim Allen’s. 

c. It was written with a tone that hopefully is constructive and enhances our credibility.

d. I need feedback; mark it up and give me your comments or we can discuss it now.


Alexander – A couple of the sentences come across as an apology for doing something we didn’t do.

Jessee – People need to understand that authentication is a process and we weren’t finished. My impression is that somebody said something and it’s been set in cement and now we’re trying to undo it. We were in the process when the bombs went off. It looks like by trying to focus on this particular issue we’re trying to be whipping boys. There are other aspects–interpretation, hiding documents, etc.

Esplin – But we’re not responsible for those other aspects. I think this represents our responsibility, at least the way it looks in the media, the public perception, arid I think there is a need for us to say something. I don’t think we’re being forced into anything. 

Jessee – The investigation process was still in the mill and the issues were still being discussed.

Jensen – I think this release does a fairly good job of presenting the fact that issues remain.

DISCUSSION on the actual role JFSI historians played in possibly contributing to misleading others and how that should/should not be conveyed in a press statement.

Jessee – Because the bombs went off in the middle of the investigation, we didn’t finish our procedure. But we were going in the same direction. We said what we thought based on the evidence at the time.

Esplin – We’ve asked Dean to prepare a detailed explanation for the symposium.

Walker – Dean should include in his statement the hundreds/thousands of dollars spent looking for Harris handwriting. I learned that you don’t place credence in so-called experts–Rendell, Hamilton. Now we know a clever forger can fool experts. This [release] is a political statement rather than a professional one, but a political statement is needed or Ron wouldn’t be asking, so maybe we should just do it.

Esplin – There’s no question that it has those elements.

Walker – If we try to defend ourselves, we’ll be seen as being out of step.

Esplin – I think it hurts us to say we were wrong.

Walker – I don’t want to be too close to the statement. 

[Joseph Fielding Smith Institute Staff Meeting; LJA Diary, 23 Jun., 1987]

Office of Salt Lake County Attorney, Mark Hofmann Interviews, 2 vols. (Salt lake City, 1987) 1:112-115.

Hofmann said he had lost faith in the LDS Church around age 14. He conceived the Anthon manuscript forgery, did forge it in 1980, and confidently presented it to Church scholars and experts. (p. 112) He forged documents that fit in pretty well with conventional Mormon history. (p. 113) He tells of meeting Don Schmidt and dealing with him on Mormon money. Then he met with Dean Jessee on the Anthon transcript. He was with Dan Bachman. (p. 114)

Backman informed me (end p. 114) that Dean Jessee’s boss, Leonard Erington was interested in examining the document. As I remember, it was that day, two days following its discovery that we, Backman and myself, went again to Salt Lake City, showed Dean Jesse the document again. He introduced us to Leonard Erington.

Q. First time you had met him?

A. I believe so

MR. BIGGS: I would be interested in your impressions of Mr. Erington?

A. He was interested in it. He thought it was an astounding find, I guess. After meeting with him he introduced us to G. Homer Durham, I believe. G. Homer Durham introduced us, this is all in the same day, he introduced us to Elders Gordon B. Hinckley and Boyd K. Packer.

Q. First time you met them?

A. Yes. And then introduced us to the first presidency, but this is the point where we don’t want to discuss the Church until Ron [Ron Yengitch] is here. (p. 115)

As far as I can see this is the only time my name is mentioned in the interviews. 

[Mark Hofmann Interview excerpts; LJA Diary, 1 Aug., 1987]

I appreciate your willingness to participate in our August 6 symposium on “Church History and Recent Forgeries.”

Let me add that I feel strongly that not only do important issues remain, but that we must deal with them. To paraphrase a colleague, to suggest that we can simply return somehow to traditional accounts without modification would leave the students of history knowing we fudged and, just as importantly, would do a disservice to the Saints by leaving them unprepared to deal with the issues. I think we have a responsibility to discuss these issues, but of course a parallel responsibility to do so carefully and in a way that will help. We are acquainted with the issues and do not see them as antithetical to faith in Joseph Smith and in the Book of Mormon. Let’s convey that possibility to others and try to provide perspectives from which they can understand the issues within a context of faith.

You need to know that a brief report on issues remaining “post-Hofmann” should make its way through the Religious Studies Center to Elder Maxwell. The perspective of the report is that important documents both close to and friendly to the Prophet include dimensions that “go beyond the traditional accounts” and that it is essential that our members have the background and understanding to deal constructively with those issues and those sources. It is my hope that we on this panel can advance that process.

To summarize, I hope that we will indicate reassessment is needed and is occurring. I would love to see some consideration of ways in which extracting forgeries from the evidence makes a difference. But of course issues remain, and we must help the Saints understand them. Since I expect much of our discussion will be on the issues, it goes without saying that it is important that we deal with the issues as sensitively and constructively as possible. Thoughtful reassessment and the consideration of ways in which removing the forgeries makes a difference will, however, make our job easier and perhaps eliminate for the Saints some of the challenge of understanding all this. 

Ronald K. Esplin

[Ron Esplin to group (including LJA) 27 June 1987; LJA Diary, 6 Aug., 1987]

To: Symposium Participants

From: Ron Esplin

RE: Charles Hamilton Comments on Mark Hofmann as a Forger

Charles Hamilton is the New York documents expert and dealer who helped expose the Hitler Diaries and who served Salt Lake County as an expert witness in the Hofmann case. He also wrote Great Forgers and Famous Fakes, a book that Hofmann apparently found helpful.

You may be aware that we contacted Mr. Hamilton to explore the possibility of his appearing at our August 6 symposium. That was not possible, but he did say that once we had the program together, if we thought he could offer comments on the case from a perspective somewhat different the other participants, he would be willing to. Consequently I wrote him a list of questions and asked him to respond in writing in a form we could use. The attached is the result.

I am sending this mainly for background information. If some snippet is especially relevant to your presentation and you chose to use it, that’s fine. David Whittaker will likely be using major portions as part of his panel. 

Compared to other “Great Forgers” you have studied and known, how good is Mark

Hofmann? Did he succeed for so long because he dealt mainly with those who knew nothing about detecting forgery or is he very good? Is he “world class” or just lucky?

Take his work as a whole and Mark is not a particularly good forger. There is a family resemblance in everything he wrote. One of the exhibits I prepared for use as an expert witness in his trial consisted of lines taken from a forgery of Joseph Smith (1825), the Salamander letter, one of the Jim Bridger documents, the Lucy Smith letter and several others. These lines, when pasted up close to one another, all appear to be in the same hand, as, in fact, they were. Mark never understood, further, how to fold the letters for mailing and where to address them, his postmarks were not always accurate, his seals were in the wrong place, he did not use a quill pen, etc. But like other inept forgers (Joseph Cosey, William Henry Ireland (who did Shakespeare very badly), Konrad Kujau, (who did the Hitler diaries so badly that a split-second glance reveals his fakery)), Mark is “world class” because he took us all in with his skills as a con man. He appeared to be the quintessential scholar, immersed in his love of the arcane when, in fact, he was the quintessential con man whom we all liked and completely trusted. It’s easy to swindle someone who likes and admires and trusts you. I never questioned anything he told me.

Nobody in the Mormon Church can fault himself for being taken in by Hofmann. He was, after all, a fellow Mormon scholar and, to all appearances, above suspicion. If anyone deserves censure, it is I for authenticating the 1825 Smith letter. My blunder helped launch his career as a forger. 

What was his greatest strength as a forger?

Aside from the fact that he invented a good story to accompany each of his fakes (none of the old “found this in an attic” stuff for Mark!), his strength lay in his ability to uncover “new facts” and “new documents” that gibed with known information and, in the case of his Mormon forgeries, amplified historic facts already familiar to experts. I am convinced that he intended to forge “the earliest known Mormon document” in hieroglyphics, a document that would prove that he, Mark, was the true prophet rather than Joseph Smith. Not only would this bring him great power in the church but great wealth as well, for I believe he told Brent Ashworth he intended to sell it for $10 million or thereabouts. He would then leave it to the Mormon historians to discover that he, Mark, was the prophet alluded to. I have no proof for this belief; it’s just a gut feeling. 

What was his greatest weakness? 

His greatest weakness was vanity. Or shall I say vanity and greed. Somewhere in midstream he grew suspicious of me and would not let me see the discoveries I begged for, such as the Jim Bridger receipts. I’d already condemned some other things he brought me which he said came from Schiller & Wapner. Another weakness of Mark that should be mentioned is that he was and is a paranoid liar. If he tells the truth, it is by accident, for he is such an unconscionable liar that he could not give you a report on what he ate for breakfast without lying about it. 

Someone made a tally of more than 100 known Hofmann forgeries, most of then in the LDS market. Is there a chance that that number represents most of what he fed into the market, or is it likely there are hundreds more? 

As Hofmann’s confessions are worthless and nothing more than traps for fools, we must all keep a sharp eye out for anything important or rare (Betsy Ross is a good example) that might have been created by Hofmann. I suspect the number of non-Mormon forgeries will run well over 100, maybe closer to 1000, by the time we get through tabulating his creations a century from now. 

[Memorandum-Ron Esplin to Symposium Participants, 4 Aug., 1987; LJA Diary, 6 Aug., 1987]


by Leonard J. Arrington

Prepared for a panel on “What Was the Impact of Fraudulent Documents? Where Do We Stand Today” at Brigham Young University, 6 August 1987. Moderated by Ronald K. Esplin. the panelists included Richard L. Anderson, Ronald W. Walker, Marvin S. Hill, and Leonard J. Arrington.

Fortunately, Latter-day Saint history is rich in source material. We have not had to depend upon one or two or even a dozen documents. A new one that comes to light is still just one of the many evidences, and its principal usefulness is that it causes us to look again at all the evidence and reconsider what we have previously concluded. The principal impact of the Hofmann forgeries, then, was to force us to examine more carefully the many historical sources we already had and to see if there were any that we have overlooked or misinterpreted. We set out to study more fully the newspapers, diaries, letters, and recollections generated in the period the alleged new document pertained to. 

Several months ago, well before the Hofmann plea bargain–indeed, before the murder of Steve Christensen and Kathy Sheets–some of us had concluded that at least some of the documents being sold by Hofmann were almost certainly fraudulent. These included the document containing the signatures of both Sidney Rigdon and Solomon Spaulding, the Cowdery history, some of the currency, the rumored confrontive Thomas Bullock letter to Brigham Young, which I had never believed existed or if it did, that it was not authentic, and so on. 

[Church History and Recent Forgeries: A Symposium; LJA Diary, 6 Aug., 1987]

Last Thursday we went to BYU for an all day Symposium on Mormon History and the Hofmann forgeries. What do we do now? About a dozen historians spoke, including LJA. A large crowd there, and the media in force. Elder Oaks spoke. The best talk, as we fully expected, was given by Richard Bushman. He is so articulate and so level-headed. This “cleared the air” for a lot of people, but for the rest of us, we’ll just keep writing what we’ve been writing all along. I don’t see that the Hofmann forgeries made that much difference, at least in what the most of us were writing.

[LJA to Children, 13 Aug., 1987]

P.S. I found Dallin Oak’s explanation interesting that the General Authorities were too trusting about the Hofmann forgeries. I always thought good scholarship demanded skepticism and demanding research in order to establish the truth. Did not the Church go through enough hardships and prejudice to make this so? He is a case for a group of psychiatrists and psychologists to study. HCB

[Harold C. & Charlotte J. Bateman to LJA; LJA Diary, 20 Aug., 1987]

My other main project at the moment is studying the I Ching and Taoist philosophy. I find it most enriching. I continue to feel that Mormonism has the potential to be a viable religion, but see no inclination by the leaders or most members to use the very tools that would revitalize it. To me its current state is aimless and moribund. I haven’t seen what I would call a “vibrant” ward for five years. Surely there must be some somewhere. I miss the fellowship and the music, but not the dogma. Or the catma, for that matter. While I’m on the subject, Dad, may I proffer a small piece of advice in regards to the firestorm that is likely to blaze anew as the various Hofmann bombings come off the press. Don’t do any interviews. Prepare an honest, forthright statement about the bombings and either read it or send it to anyone who calls. I’m afraid it is a no win situation. You should not become an apologist for the church because it behaved reprehensibly and those involved have shown themselves to be the enemies of honesty or integrity. And I know you hate to be critical of the brethren for your own reasons. To publicly defend the church damages your credibility. I know you don’t trust me any more than any other journalists, but I do have your best interests at heart.

[Carl to LJA, LJA Diary, 12 Jan., 1988]

I haven’t had the stomach to read the whole “Salamander” Book, but from the parts I have pored over what strikes me is how normal Mark Hofmann looks and acts. What one expects to find is some horrible monster who committed these horrible crimes and what you find is a young man not unlike those we see every day in Salt Lake City and sitting in the pews at sacrament meeting.

What I believe is that Mark was a rare person who was unable to integrate his doubts with his faith. He was unable to deal with the cognitive dissonance that Mormonism-like all religions-creates in the psyche. What happened with him is that his dark, shadowy, doubting, falsifying, force was separated off in the form of “Mike Hansen”-the person who could lie without wincing, kill without remorse and “use” his family for what he perceived to be a “greater” cause. This left “Mark” free to be a solid citizen, a caring father and attentive husband. I believe the Mormon culture-indeed each of us-have these same dark/light instincts. What we learn to do is integrate them. As Mark or “Mike” went about his business of document dealing and double-dealing, he got the chance to observe on a most intimate basis the same type of duplicitous behavior among the highest officials in the church.

He felt, I think, he was no more dishonest in bending the facts of history and veracity of documents than the Church P.R. department in disseminating knowingly false information for the sake of the “missionary effort.”

In reading through the synopsis of Mark/Mike’s “confession” it appears clear that he is not sure why he did what he did. I suspect, were he alive, Steve would not be able to pinpoint his behavior and its true motivation. Could Hinckley? Could Ashworth? Could Ron Walker? Can I? 

In truth I believe Mark was acting out some kind of “archetypal” situation or drama that one could find a direct parallel in Mormon history. On a subliminal level I think he took on the “archetype” of the money digger. If you examined the characters from the friends to the victims I suspect you would find some striking similarities that would help explain this odd dynamic. 

What continues to disturb me about this episode is that there has been no communal catharsis. I see this as a classic tragedy in the Shakespearean sense. Cast Mark as Iago and Hinckley as Othello. More accurately I believe the parallel runs closer to “Romeo & Juliet.” It is an unholy feud between the dark and the light, the Montegues & Capulets, the Saints and the “enemies of the church,” the Liahona Mormons and the Iron Rodders. What disturbs me is that we are only at the end of the 2nd act where we have seen only the death of two innocent victims-Juliet’s Brother & Marcusio, Steve Christiansen and Kathy Sheets. The real villains are still out there. Mark is no doubt a hero among his fellows at the Utah State Prison and Hinckley is the noble knight among the saints. Mark behind bars in Bluffdale, Hinckley behind a closed door on South Temple.

I sympathize with survivors of the victims, but they have been able to go on with their lives. The man I pity, however, is Hinckley who, at the time was shouldering the whole weight of the church without the spiritual bouyance of the Prophet’s mantle. For now he must calm the flock after this historical wolf scare knowing, all the while, that this dark creature behind high walls knows the truth about what went down in those many private meetings between them. Here, it is the Dark Prince who holds the advantage because he possesses the closeted skeletons that he will one day wave high like a black ensign. Clearly Mark Hofmann is a very bright man. He is also a man who chafes at confinement. His reaction to being a missionary showed this trait. One of these days, I suspect just about the time the Church officials believe they have safely deep-sixed the dark side of Mormon history under the shock and debris of the “bombing incident,” there will come the terrible quiet voice of an embittered enemy who has grown tired of imprisonment. And then, after years of careful planning, and with the advice of good lawyers, he will launch his attack and get his revenge on his real intended victim: The church that was not as true and perfect as it proclaimed itself to be. When he finally issues his own confession in a precise, calculated and “authentic” fashion, it will lift the lid on the Pandora’s Box that well-meaning brethren have stocked full of the shadows of Mormon history. And the sad part is that it will scald and scorch a hundred thousand untried, untested and “protected” testimonies of young saints. Then finally will Zion look out on its streets scattered with the corpses of its children’s faith. The same thing is happening today in Jerusalem as the protected grandchildren of the Holocaust see the guns of their parents open fire on the crowds of a forlorn, homeless people: The Palestinians. The only thing that can forestall all this, I think, is a ruthless and honest devotion to the truth from all quarters. Half truths and sanitized history are poison. I think the Modern Microfilm Company and Church P.R. are both plague houses. They deserve one another.

My continuing sense of disquiet about all of this is fueled, in part, by my recent visits to Utah and Church services. There is an odd quiet. A stasis, if you will. There is a retrenchment and the blinds have been drawn over the uncomfortable truths of the past and present. The sun doesn’t shine on a sealed box. Lazarus lay stinking in the crypt until he was called forth.

What there has not been is a tragedy so profound that all must bear witness of its sadness. It happened in early church history with Joseph’s assassination. Or the tragedy can be transformed into a divine comedy by a miracle. That happened with the Manifesto and Kimball’s revelation on the blacks. What there has not been is a resolution of the conflict similar to what takes place in “Romeo & Juliet” at the end where the prince gathers the elders of the feuding clans and makes them witness the victims of their own misbegotten deceits. As I see the centrifugal forces of Zion scatter its best and brightest (i.e. Mike Quinn), I see the storm clouds gather. I don’t know when, but I know it will rain.

Much love,


[Carl to LJA and Harriet; LJA Diary, 13 May, 1988]