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.