Fraudulent documents jumpstarted ‘revolution’ in LDS Church approach to history

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© 2015 Intellectual Reserve, Inc.
Photograph of “The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations” Volume 3

Mormon forger and murderer Mark Hofmann likely would have a tougher time selling his fake documents — and his seriously skewed view of the origins of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — today than he did 30 years ago.

Hofmann preyed on the urge to hide unwelcome information so he could pass off counterfeits as real. Mormon officials, among others, fell right into his trap.

Back in October 1985, the Utah-based church restricted access to its historic archives and promoted only a canonized — some would say narrow — view of the faith’s founding.

The church has since opened its archives, posted thousands of documents online, produced groundbreaking research on its past and published a dozen recent essays on controversial historical developments.

“It’s been a revolution,” said Ronald W. Walker, a retired Brigham Young University professor of history who has been involved in telling the Mormon story for more than four decades. “We now understand we can approach difficult questions and do it successfully.”

A star was falling

Hofmann, a returned Mormon missionary, Utah State University pre-med student and clean-cut, bespectacled husband, stepped into the spotlight in 1980, when he claimed to have found a piece of parchment stuck between the pages of a 17th-century Bible.

On one side of the page were hieroglyphic markings similar to the ones LDS Church founder Joseph Smith said he copied from gold plates in the 1820s. Smith had given a page with such markings to an early Mormon convert, Martin Harris, to show to Charles Anthon, a scholar of ancient languages. Hofmann donated the document, known as the “Anthon transcript,” to the church for $20,000 in trade.

Thus began the forger’s lively business in bogus historical documents — including letters purportedly written by Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone and Betsy Ross, and a piece of doggerel that fooled Emily Dickinson scholars for years. They commanded increasingly large sums.

In 1984, he claimed to find the so-called “Salamander letter,” a Harris letter that described Smith’s experience of finding the gold plates upon which the Book of Mormon was written. In the official version, Smith got the plates from an angel. In this letter, “the spirit transfigured himself into a white salamander in the bottom of the hole.”

LDS Church leaders declined to buy it, so businessman Steve Christensen purchased it for $40,000 and donated it to the church.

But then the forger got ambitious — even greedy — offering whole collections of papers, including lengthy journals and letters from an early Mormon apostate, William McLellin.

After Hofmann sold the same collection to several buyers and collected a huge sum of money for materials he couldn’t produce, he plotted a murderous diversion to buy himself time.

It all explodes

On the morning of Oct. 15, 1985, Hofmann placed a package wrapped in brown paper outside Christensen’s office in the Judge Building in downtown Salt Lake City. When the 31-year-old businessman picked it up, it detonated, shattering the quiet of the hallway. A secretary from across the hall rushed out to Christensen, sprawled on the floor and dying.

Shortly after that, a bomb went off in a tree-lined Salt Lake City suburb. Kathleen Webb Sheets, wife, mother, grandmother, had picked up a package addressed to her husband, Gary Sheets, Christensen’s former partner. She died instantly.

The next afternoon, a bomb went off inside Hofmann’s car, wounding him and destroying all the papers in the trunk, which he claimed were the promised documents.

National attention turned to Hofmann and his dealings, but no one suspected the extent of his deceit.

A year later he would plead guilty and be sentenced to life in prison.

That left Mormon historians to reassemble what they knew about their past, how they had been affected by Hofmann — and how to avoid ever being duped again.

A new approach 

Soon after the Hofmann episode, the church’s historical department hired Richard E. Turley Jr., a young Mormon lawyer with a love for the faith’s past, who began helping open the church’s collection to outside researchers, with approval from top church leaders.

Turley persuaded Mormon officials to let him and Walker have access to the church’s holdings on the Mountain Meadows Massacre — and to report the story of the Arkansas wagon train attacked in Utah, no matter where the documents took them.

Later the LDS Church launched the landmark Joseph Smith Papers Project, publishing everything related to the church’s founding events.

Turley, who is now assistant church historian, also implemented strict protocols for evaluating documents, including some scientific testing, but paying particular attention to an item’s provenance, where it came from and who had owned it.

“We have implemented greater security measures” regarding the use of the church’s own materials, he says now. “We also make greater use of digitizing so if documents are changed, we can compare them to older versions.”

Mormon historians also are more comfortable with the messiness of Mormon history, Turley said. “When you look at the totality of the evidence, the essentials of the faith remain.”

There’s a lot more confidence in history “and in the overall documentary record — regardless of what individual pieces would show than there was 30 years ago,” he said.

Walker praised the stance of openness that the church has taken.

“It’s a new Mormon world and a refreshing world, the right world,” he said. “We can honestly say truth is truth and we can confront it.”

 

 

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