Looking through my files pertaining to “This Day in Mormon History” I came across this for January 14th.:
1983 – Mark Hofmann sold the [LDS] Church, through the agency of Gordon B. Hinckley, a forged letter from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell for the sum of $15,000.00. This letter, allegedly written in 1825, indicated that Smith believed in magical sticks, money digging, and buried treasure guarded by a “clever spirit”–at the same time as he was meeting with the angel Moroni. Believing that the document was authentic, Hinckley purchased it and placed it immediately in the First Presidency’s Vault, securing from Hofmann the assurance that no one else had a copy of the letter. (information from Robert Lindsey, A Gathering of Saints – A True Story of Money, Murder and Deceit, pages 103, 106)
In his book, A Gathering of Saints, author Robert Lindsey wrote that it is unclear “precisely when Mark Hofmann decided to blackmail his church.” Yet this is what Hofmann had in mind when he approached then-second-counselor-but-de facto-church-president Gordon Hinckley with the forged document. Lindsey wrote,
“To someone unversed in the controversies surrounding the church’s origins, the letter might have seemed a historical curiosity, but one not capable of threatening harm to a large and wealthy institution with millions of faithful members around the world. Nor did it seem on the face of it threatening enough to compel the leaders of the church, as they would do, to exact a pledge of secrecy from Hofmann regarding its existence. But as innocuous as it might seem, the letter raised an old and tender issue for the Mormon church: the possibility that Joseph Smith, the founder of the church, dabbled in black magic.” (page 101)
When Gordon Hinckley saw the document he agreed to purchase it if it could be authenticated. However, Church leaders did not want any of the Church’s document examiners or historians to see the letter. Only the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and two other Church officials were to know that it existed.
Mark Hofmann took his forged document to a respected documents dealer in New York, quickly thereafter returning to Salt Lake City with a note identifying the Stowell letter as genuine. With Gordon B. Hinckley acting as agent, the document was purchased for $15,000 and then “locked in the First Presidency’s Vault.”
It wasn’t until nearly three years later, after Mark Hofmann had sold additional forged documents to the Church and murdered two people, that Gordon B. Hinckley was informed by Salt Lake City prosecutor David Biggs that some of the documents he purchased from Mark Hofmann might be forgeries. Robert Lindsey described Mr. Hinckley’s reaction:
“The president of his church smiled paternally at Biggs and said he believed that Hofmann, as slightly as he knew him, was not a murderer or a forger. Then, in what appeared to be an afterthought, he said, ‘We relied on the integrity of Mr. Hofmann, and if we relied on his integrity wrongly, it’s to his eternal detriment.'” (page 266. Note that Mr. Hinckley was not “the president” of the LDS Church at this time, but was a member of the First Presidency)
In a biography written about Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996, Mr. Hinckley is quoted as having stated,
“I frankly admit that Hofmann tricked us. He also tricked experts from New York to Utah, however. We bought those documents only after the assurance that they were genuine. And when we released documents to the press, we stated that we had no way of knowing for sure if they were authentic. I am not ashamed to admit that we were victimized. It is not the first time the Church has found itself in such a position. Joseph Smith was victimized again and again. The Savior was victimized. I am sorry to say that sometimes it happens.” (Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, page 432; FAIR sets the date of Mr. Hinckley’s statement as October 18, 1995)
Mark Hofmann was able to deceive LDS leaders for many years, producing fraudulent historical documents and convincing Church leaders they were genuine. Some suggest this casts a shadow on the religious testimonies of these men. If these “prophets, seers and revelators” lacked the discernment (or direct revelation from God) that would enable them to recognize Hofmann’s deception, can their testimonies on other things, such as the Book of Mormon, be trusted?
Others suggest that, Gordon Hinckley’s statement notwithstanding, he may have known (by revelation) that the documents were forged, but bought them anyway to keep them out of the hands of enemies of the Church until such a time as they could be exposed as fakes.
What do you think?
For more information on the Mark Hofmann forgeries see Tracking the White Salamander by Jerald Tanner.