Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Gordon B. Hinckley on the Hofmann Forgeries

For many years whenever the Mark Hofmann's story comes up, there is talk about how leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were duped. 

Two decades ago, I put together a manuscript examining the use of Hofmann forgeries in writing about Latter-day Saint history. I looked at what historians, Church leaders, and critics of the Church said about the forgeries and how they used them. I probably did not get everything, but I got a broad enough look at the subject that I had a feel for the lay of the land and how the various groups interacted and how they used the material.

In the Hofmann case, pretty much only Geroge Throckmorton comes out looking good. Mormon historians (which is what they called themselves then) looked really bad. But Church leaders actually do not look bad if one takes the time to actually read what they said. To illustrate this, I will list the public statements of Gordon B. Hinckley, originally a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, then a member of the First Presidency, and much later, President of the Church.

In the April 1981 conference, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Quroum of the Twelve, decided “to say a few word this afternoon about the recently discovered transcript of a blessing, reported to have been given January 17, 1844, to Joseph Smith to his eleven-year-old son.” Elder Hinckley was cautious about the authenticity of the document making statements like: “The document is evidently in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock.” “Take for instance this man, Thomas Bullock, whose hand evidently recorded the document we are discussing. If he wrote that blessing, he knew about it. . . . Would he have been willing to pay so heavy a price for his membership in the Church and to have suffered so much to advance its cause as a missionary at the call of Brigham Young if he had any doubt that President Young was the proper leader of the Church and that this right belonged to another according to a blessing which he had in his possession and which he had written with his own pen?” Elder Hinckley reasonably concluded that the Hofmann forgery “is not a record of ordination to an office,” and “it does not seriously raise any question concerning the succession in the presidency through the Council of the Twelve Apostles.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Joseph Smith III Document and the Keys of the Kingdom,” Ensign 11/5 (May 1981): 20-22, emphasis added.)

In a news release announcing the so-called Salamander Letter on 28 April 1985, President Hinckley said that even though “there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged” because “no one, of course can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document.” (Gordon B. Hinckely, News Release, 28 April 1985, cited in Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” Ensign 17/10 (October 1987): 64.)

On 23 June 1985, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a fireside to the young adults of the Church where he addressed the issue of the Hofmann documents. Even “assuming that [the letters] are authentic,” President Hickley noted, “they have no real relevancy to the question of the authenticity of the Church or of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.” (“Fireside Counsel: Be Faithful, Clean, Strong in Prayer,” Ensign 15/9 (September 1985): 72.)

In September 1985, a month before the Hofmann forgeries literally blew up, Gordon B. Hinckley, then Second Councilor in the First Presidency, addressed the issue of the Salamander letter in his First Presidency Message (Gordon B. Hinckely, “Keep the Faith,” Ensign 15/9 (September 1985): 4-5, emphasis added.). The caution he used is noteworthy:

As most of you know, recently there have been great stirrings over two old letters. One was purportedly written in 1825 by Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell. If it is genuine, it is the oldest known product of Joseph Smith’s handwriting. . . . The other carries the date of October 23, 1830, and was purportedly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps.
I acquired for the Church both of these letters, the first by purchase. The second was given to the Church by its generous owner. I am, of course, familiar with both letters, having held them in my hands and having read them in their original form. It was I, also, who made the decision to make them public. Copies were issued to the media, and both have received wide publicity.

I knew there would be a great fuss. Scholars have pored over them, discussed them, written about them, differed in their opinions, and even argued about them.
I am glad we have them. They are interesting documents of whose authenticity we are not certain and may never be. However, assuming that they are authentic, they are valuable writings of the period out of which they have come. But they have no real relevancy to the question of the authenticity of the Church or of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.

President Hinckley, in his last statement was very much prophetic. He also asked:

Shall two men, their character, their faith, their lives, the testimonies to which they gave voice to the end of their days, be judged by a few words on a sheet of paper that may or may not have been written by the one and received by the other?

Besides noting that the documents might not be authentic, President Hinckley also noted the use to which these documents had been put:

A few dissidents, apostates, and excommunicants have marshaled their resources in an effort to belittle and demean this work—its history, its doctrine, its practices. Some have stooped to falsehood, misrepresentation, and mockery. A few weak ones have been taken in by their sophistry. . . . They are poking into all the crevices of our history, ferreting out little things of small import and magnifying them into great issues of public discussion, working the media in an effort to give credibility to their efforts.

None of this is new, of course. From the day that Joseph Smith walked out of the grove in the year 1820, critics and enemies—generation after generation of them—have worked and reworked the same old materials. They have minutely explored the environment in which Joseph Smith lived in an effort to rationalize—some on the basis of folk magic and the occult—the remarkable things which he did. Early in this fishing expedition, one of them gathered affidavits from neighbors and associates in an effort to undermine the character of Joseph Smith. This old bale of straw has been dished up again and again as if it were something new. They have raked over every available word that he spoke or wrote, and they then in turn have written long tomes and delivered long lectures trying to explain the mystery of this character and his work.

There have been cycles of this during the past 165 years. They have ebbed and flowed. Now were are in another peak era, which also will pass. . . .

As I have mentioned, from the beginning of this work there has been opposition. There have been apostates. There have been scholars, some with balance and others with an axe to grind, who have raked over every bit of evidence available concerning Joseph Smith, the prophet of this dispensation. I plead with you, do not let yourselves be numbered among the critics, among the dissidents, among the apostates.

President Hinckley correctly noted that the effort to recycle the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits, or to connect Joseph Smith with “folk magic and the occult” was “an effort to rationalize,” and that some who claim to be scholars have “an axe to grind.”

After the forgeries came out, Elder Dallin H. Oaks wrote:

I hope some lessons will have been learned by the members of the Church and by historians, archivists, investors, and media personnel. I hope that we will all be less inclined to act and speak precipitously and more inclined to reserve judgment about the significance of so-called new historical discoveries.

I have appreciated the caution expressed by Church leaders during the succession of document discoveries, a caution not always followed by historians, investors, magazines, newspapers, and television reporters. President Gordon B. Hinckley repeatedly cautioned that the Church did not know these documents were authentic. (Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” Ensign 17/10 (October 1987): 69.)

That same month, in the Sunday Morning Session of General Conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley, then First Councilor in the First Presidency, summarized the Hofmann forgeries (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Lord, Increase Our Faith,” Ensign 17/11 (November 1987): 52-53):

As most of you know, in the last four of five years we have passed through an interesting episode in the history of the Church. There came into our hands two letters that were seized upon by the media when we announced them. They were trumpeted across much of the world as documents that would challenge the authenticity of the Church. In announcing them we stated that they really had nothing to do with the essentials of our history. . . . Now, as you know, these letters, together with other documents, have been acknowledged by their forger to be total frauds and part of an evil and devious design which culminated in the murder of two individuals.

He also wondered “what those whose faith was shaken have thought since the forger confessed to his evil work.”

President Hinckley then turned his attention to the historians:

Out of this earlier episode has now arisen another phenomenon. It is described as the writing of a “new history” of the Church as distinguished from the “old history.” It represents, among other things, an effort to ferret out every element of folk magic and the occult in the environment in which Joseph Smith lived to explain what he did and why.
I have no doubt there was folk magic practiced in those days. Without question there were superstitions and the superstitious. . . . There is even some in this age of so-called enlightenment. . . . The fact that there were superstitions among the people in the days of Joseph Smith is not evidence whatever that the Church came of such superstition.
Joseph Smith himself wrote or dictated his history. It is his testimony of what occurred, and he sealed that testimony with his life. It is written in language clear and unmistakable. . . . The present effort of trying to find some other explanation for the organization of the Church, for the origin of the Book of Mormon, and for the priesthood with its keys and powers will be similar to other anti-Mormon fads which have come and blossomed and faded.

For President Hinckley—who has been working with Latter-day Saint history for decades at that point—to include the work of Mormon historians with “other anti-Mormon fads” sends a particularly strong signal. Hinckley also recognized that the idea of connecting Joseph Smith with ‘magic’ came “out of” the Hofmann forgeries. 

Those who want to make accusations about Church leaders in the Hofmann case should at least read what they have written rather than baseless accusations by individuals who are either promoting an agenda, or trying to cover up their own mistakes.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Generous Man

Recently a friend reported to me the story of someone who claims to be a full-tithe payer without actually paying any tithing. It reminded me of a story told about seventy years ago by George Albert Smith in the July 1947 Improvement Era (p. 357). This story has also been quoted in the Ensign in 1982, General Conference in 1986, and again in 2002.

One day on the street I met a friend whom I had known since boyhood. I had not visited with him for some time, and I was interested in being brought up to date concerning his life, his problems, and his faith, therefore I invited him to go to a conference in Utah County with me. He drove his fine car (the make of car I was driving had not been received into society at that time). He took his wife, and I took mine. . . .

As we drove home, he turned to me and said: . . . "You know I have heard many things in this conference, but there is only one thing that I do not understand the way you do."

I said: "What is it?"

"Well," he said, "it is about paying tithing."

He thought I would ask him how he paid his tithing, but I did not. I thought if he wanted to tell me, he would. He said: "Would you like me to tell you how I pay my tithing?"

I said, "If you want to, you may."

"Well," he said, "if I make ten thousand dollars in a year, I put a thousand dollars in the bank for tithing. I know why it's there. Then when the bishop comes and wants me to make a contribution for the chapel or give him a check for a missionary who is going away, if I think he needs the money, I give him a check. If a family in the ward is in distress and needs coal or food or clothing or anything else, I write out a check. If I find a boy or girl who is having difficulty getting through school in the East, I send a check. Little by little I exhaust the thousand dollars, and every dollar of it has gone where I know it has done good. Now what do you think of that?"

"Well," I said, "do you want me to tell you what I think of it?"

He said, "Yes."

I said: "I think you are a very generous man with someone else's property." And he nearly tipped the car over.

He said, "What do you mean?"

I said, "You have an idea that you have paid your tithing?"

"Yes." he said.

I said: "You have not paid any tithing. You have told me what you have done with the Lord's money, but you have not told me that you have given anyone a penny of your own. He is the best partner you have in the world. He gives you everything you have, even the air you breathe. He has said you should take one-tenth of what comes to you and give it to the Church as directed by the Lord. You haven't done that; you have taken your best partner's money, and have given it away."

Well, I will tell you there was quiet in the car for some time. . . .

About a month after that I met him on the street. He came up, put his arm in mine, and said: "Brother Smith, I am paying my tithing the same way you do." I was very happy to hear that.


Wednesday, January 27, 2021

In Memoriam: Rufino Rodriguez

I was saddened to read an obituary of Rufino Rodriguez, who died on 23 January 2021 of the coronavirus just a few months short of retirement. Rufino was a respiratory therapist at Utah Valley Hospital. I only knew him by his first name. He saved my daughter's life more times than I can count. The same is true for my son as well. When one of my younger sons was not breathing when he was born, I knew that he would be fine, because Rufino was there.

I do not know for certain, but I strongly suspect that Rufino caught the disease that took his life from someone that he was trying to save from it. He was certainly a blessing in our lives and I suspect has been a blessing in the lives of many others. We need more heroes like Rufino.

Each life that touches ours for good / Reflects thine own great mercy Lord . . .


Monday, January 11, 2021

When Protests Backfire

Two related points came to my attention over the past week. 

The first was from a summary of the year 2020 published by the Barna group. The Barna group found that as the result of "the surge of racial justice protests and activism" in the summer of 2020 is that the number of people "not at all motivated" to address racial justice almost doubled from the previous year, with a corresponding shrinkage in the "somewhat motivated" category. The other categories stayed about the same. This means that the protests, rather than motivating people to change, completely alienated some of those who had been somewhat favorably inclined.

The Barna study also found that the number of people who say that race is not a problem almost doubled over the same period (from 11% to 19%). Obviously the majority of Americans think that race is still a problem in the United States, but almost one in ten who had thought it was a problem decided, on second thought, that it wasn't.

The second was that about a dozen years ago, two scholars surveyed the success rate of protests and published their findings in the journal International Security. They found that non-violent protest movements achieved their goals 53% of the time (slightly over half the time), but violent protests achieved their results only 26% of the time (only about a quarter of the time).

Thus, if you launch a non-violent protest movement, your success is likely to be a flip of the coin. Is it worth it? It depends on whether you are a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full kind of person. If the protest turns violent, however, your odds of success will half. Resorting to violence alienates people who would be inclined to support you.

A couple of decades ago, I did my own informal survey about whether academic protests were actually effective. These were the sort of letter-writing campaigns that happen when a university decides to shutter an ancient studies program. Again, success has been something of a coin-toss. Indeed, the enthusiasm for this course of action seems utterly unconnected from its efficacy. You can see the latest variation on this theme here.

What does this have to do with the ancient world? Two things: First, protests have a very long history, and anciently were a risky proposition. Jeroboam's protest against Rehoboam turned violent and did prove successful (1 Kings 12:1-20), but that seems to have been more of the exception. Psammetichus I successfully threw off the yoke of the Assyrian empire, but most of those who protested against the Assyrians paid dearly for it in the long run, just ask Sidqa, king of Ashkelon.

The second, is an event that happened in a class on ancient languages: Years ago, when I was a graduate student at U. C. Berkeley, I remember looking with my professor out the window of his office in Evans Hall at a protest being staged for a cause that my professor had worked long and hard for. He shook his head and said to me: "They give the movement a bad name."

Sunday, November 29, 2020

More Thoughts on Gratitude and Entitlement

Further elaboration of the thought I shared by Wilford Andersen was provided by Elder Dale Renlund:

The concept—“the greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement”—also has profound spiritual applications. Our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are the ultimate Givers. The more we distance ourselves from Them, the more entitled we feel. We begin to think that we deserve grace and are owed blessings. We are more prone to look around, identify inequities, and feel aggrieved—even offended—by the unfairness we perceive. While the unfairness can range from trivial to gut-wrenching, when we are distant from God, even small inequities loom large. We feel that God has an obligation to fix things—and fix them right now!

This would indicate that those who characterize themselves as "woke" are actually better described as entitled. One might think that gratitude might encourage individuals to have the blessings that one enjoys shared more widely with others. In my experience, gratitude is more gracious than grating.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Gratitude vs. Entitlement

Wilford W. Anderson has been credited with the following observation: “The greater the distance between the giver and the receiver, the more the receiver develops a sense of entitlement.”

I have been able to witness this principle in action many times. I have seen colleagues who openly mock the individuals who so graciously and generously donated the funds that allow them have employment. On the other hand, I have been impressed by one colleague who deliberately buys the products of a company that funds part of his research.

In the Old Kingdom, a number of wealthy individuals set up a series of endowments. The purpose of these endowments was to provide offerings for the deceased in perpetuity after they were gone. The endowments do not seem to have been used for the intended purpose more than one generation after the death of the donor. This may provide some historical evidence for Anderson's observation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Gratitude in Mesopotamia

In his Assyrian dictionary, Simo Parpola lists the term karabu as meaning "to thank." One of the definitions that the Chicago Assyrian dictionary lists for karabu is:

to invoke blessings upon other persons (for a specific purpose) before the images of the gods, to pray to the gods.

Parpola also list karibu as meaning "thankful."

So in ancient Mesopotamia, like ancient Egypt, to thank someone was to pray to the gods on their behalf. As in Egypt, gratitude involved god.

This seems a long way from the modern world, and would be were it not for the fact that a relative of this Mesopotamian term has survived into English in two different forms. One of the Hebrew words related to karabu is kerub or cherub. The actual Akkadian cognate is thought to be karibu "thankful." The cherubim (the plural form of cherub) were woven into the curtains surrounding the tabernacle of Moses. In the temple of Solomon they were erected in three dimensions and larger than life surrounding the throne of God. 

The general depiction of the cherubs throughout the West Semitic world shares similarities, even though Phoenician and Israelite cherubs were not identical in form. The Phoenician word and the general form was borrowed into Greek as the gryps, which is the origin of English gryphon or griffin.

In a way, gratitude allows the cherubim to be in the presence of God and behold his face.