CES Reply: Mark Hofmann… and More!

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Mark Hofmann:


Cool! Dig the groovy haircut on the murderer guy!

In the early to mid-1980s, the Church shelled out close to $900,000 in antiquities and cash to Mark Hofmann – a conman and soon-to-be serial killer – to purchase and suppress bizarre and embarrassing documents into the Church vaults that undermined and threatened the Church’s story of its origins. The documents were later proven to be forgeries.

That’s a wildly warped version of what really happened.

Not sure where you get the $900,000 figure, as most of the documents were donated to the Church by members, and others were traded for other rarities like a copy of the Book of Commandments. Most of Hofmann’s forgeries were actually supportive of the Church’s story of its origins – most notably the fake Charles Anthon letter, which is the item that President Kimball is looking at in the picture you provide. The Church lists ten documents at the LDS.org website that were referenced in official Church materials, seven of which are highly supportive of the Church’s story.  Hofmann was essentially “building the brand” by creating documents that would establish his credibility as a dealer.

The idea that the church was trying to “purchase and suppress” documents that were “bizarre and embarrassing” is belied by a number of facts. The forgery that could be termed “bizarre” would be the Salamander Letter, which claimed that Moroni was a lizard. But the Church didn’t purchase the Salamander Letter. There were negotiations with Hofmann to buy it, but they fell through. It was later donated to the Church, which “suppressed” the document by publishing the full text of it in the Church News not long after they secured it.

The other two documents that were embarrassing were the Joseph Smith III blessing, where Joseph Smith, Jr. supposedly selected his son as his successor, and the Josiah Stowell note, which confirmed that Joseph was a treasure seeker. Hofmann said in an interview that he was confident the Church would be eager to “buy the blessing on the spot and bury it,” i.e. purchase and suppress. The Church did nothing of the kind and initially turned Hofmann away. Later, after negotiations with the RLDS to buy the JS III blessing fell through, the Church entered into a new round of discussions with Hofmann and agreed to a non-cash trade to secure the fake blessing, which they then offered at no cost to the Reorganized Church. The Church immediately made the content of the letter public.

That’s a pretty lousy job of purchasing and suppressing.

Lack of discernment by the Brethren on such a grave threat to the Church.

Another assumption of prophetic infallibility. I’m convinced that over 90% of all the objections you raise in the CES Letter would vanish on the wind if you recognized how wrong it is to assume that prophets that aren’t perfect can’t really be prophets.

But all right, let’s pretend things had gone the way you assume they ought to have gone. Imagine the apostles meeting in the upper rooms of the Salt Lake Temple the day after Hofmann approached them with his first forgery. Suddenly, the room is filled with light. Moroni appears to warn them of the fraud, maybe even quoting a scripture or two from the 1769 version of the KJV. Consequently, the Brethren cut off all negotiations with Hofmann along and deliver a mighty rebuking to him for his evil ways. Perhaps they also excommunicate him to boot.

What happens then?

Well, if I’m Hofmann, I go to the press. Hofmann appeared to be a meek, unassuming kind of guy, and he would have been able to generate tremendous media sympathy if the big, bad Brethren had been so mean to him. The same historical experts who validated the documents in the real turn of events would no doubt validate them in this fantasy world we’re imagining, so suddenly the media narrative is that the Church is burying its head in the sand about its own history.

Soon, the Salt Lake Tribune is on the front door of the Church Office Building, demanding to know why they refuse to accept reality. Out comes Dallin Oaks or Gordon Hinckley to say – what? That Moroni told them it was a fraud? Suddenly the Church comes across as an ignorant bully, and Hofmann looks like the guileless innocent speaking truth to power.

This would have been a far graver threat to the integrity of the Church than the way it really happened.

Speeches by Dallin H. Oaks and Gordon B. Hinckley offering apologetic explanations for troubling documents (Salamander Letter and Joseph Smith III Blessing) that later ended up, unbeknownst to Oaks and Hinckley at the time of their apologetic talks, being proven complete fakes and forgeries.

They were far more beknownst than you imply. Elder Oaks’s talk to which you link is entirely focused on treating such documents with considerable skepticism. President Hinckley’s talk is a recounting of the line of authority from Joseph Smith to Spencer Kimball, with the document serving as a catalyst for the discussion rather than as the object of it. It is only directly referenced at the beginning and end of the talk.

The following is Oaks’ 1985 defense of the fake Salamander letter (which Oaks evidently thought was real and legitimate at the time):

“Another source of differences in the accounts of different witnesses is the different meanings that different persons attach to words. We have a vivid illustration of this in the recent media excitement about the word salamander in a letter Martin Harris is supposed to have sent to W. W. Phelps over 150 years ago. All of the scores of media stories on that subject apparently assume that the author of that letter used the word salamander in the modern sense of a ‘tailed amphibian.’

One wonders why so many writers neglected to reveal to their readers that there is another meaning of salamander, which may even have been the primary meaning in this context in the 1820s. That meaning, which is listed second in a current edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, is ‘a spirit supposed to live in fire’ (2d College ed. 1982, s.v. ‘salamander’). Modern and ancient literature contain many examples of this usage.

Look at the language he uses here. He cites an accurate and indisputable fact – an alternative definition of salamander as a spirit living in fire – and then posits that this “may even have been” what Martin Harris meant. (Yes, I know Martin Harris didn’t mean this because he didn’t say this; the letter is a fraud.) “May even have been” leaves open the possibility that it “may even not have been.” This is no ringing declaration from heaven. Reading the whole talk, it’s very clear that Elder Oaks remains deeply skeptical of the letter, even though he doesn’t denounce it outright.

All these examples you provide are simply reiterations of your initial charge – you believe a real prophet would not be able to be deceived because prophets ought to be perfect.

Joseph Fielding McConkie, my second mission president and Bruce R.’s son, wrote a book called Answers: Straightforward Answers to Tough Gospel Questions. One of the questions was “How can prophets be deceived, as in the case of Mark Hoffman?”

His answer is really good. I recount it here:

This question is simply another way of asking why prophets aren’t infallible. It is doubtful that those asking the question suppose themselves obligated to be faultless. Why, the, do they suppose other must be? We do not believe in the infallibility of missionaries, or Sunday School teachers, or even bishops or stake presidents. At what point do we suppose infallibility must begin?

In a revelation dealing with the lost one hundred and sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon the Lord told Joseph Smith: “But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter” (D&C 10:37) [from Answers, p. 179]

If the Lord told Joseph that he couldn’t always tell the righteous from the wicked, why should we assume that his successors could?

So, what just happened?   Oaks defended and rationalized a completely fake and made up document that Mark Hofmann created while telling “Latter-day Saint readers” to be “more sophisticated in their evaluation of what they read.” 

Honestly, you couldn’t have put a more negative spin in this if you tried. The talk does nothing to “defend” the Salamander Letter, and it encourages skepticism. Again, you’ve found one more piece of evidence that the Brethren are fallible, which is a fact that is not in dispute. You’re beating a dead horse.

Dishonesty by Hinckley on his relationship with Hofmann, his meetings, and which documents that the Church had and didn’t have.

This is a baseless charge for which you have no evidence.

The Church was forced to produce, albeit reluctantly, documents that it had previously denied existed after Hofmann leaked to the media that he sold the documents to the Church.

Another baseless charge. How do you know they released these “reluctantly?” Was that word in the press release? The Church made no attempt to hide any of these documents.

While these “prophets, seers, and revelators” were being duped and conned by Mark Hofmann’s forgeries, the Tanners – considered some of the biggest enemies of the Church – actually came out and said that the Salamander Letter was a fake. Even when the Salamander Letter proved very useful to discrediting the Church, the Tanners had better discernment than the Brethren did. While the Tanners publicly rejected the Salamander Letter, the Church continued buying fakes from Hofmann and Elder Oaks continued telling Latter-day Saints to be more sophisticated.

Elder Oaks made that statement precisely once, and it proved to be wise counsel. Not sure why it sticks in your craw. It was accompanied by these others statements, too: “As readers we 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.” [Emphasis added]

This was not the full-on embrace that you’re implying it is.

You remind me of my conversation with Mike Norton, the guy who sneaks into temples to shoot videos for YouTube. He brags about the fact that none of the temple workers have the discernment to recognize his intentions. From my perspective, I think it speaks well for the Brethren and the temple workers that they accept people at face value. Cynical and suspicious people are harder to con, surely, but the fact that apostles and prophets are perhaps too trusting and guileless is not the worst fault you could have.

As for the Tanners, good for them.

It should be noted that the Church never dropped their skepticism about the Hofmann documents or verified their authenticity. “No one, of course, can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document,” the First Presidency said about the Salamander Letter. “However, at this point we accept the judgment of the examiner that there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the Church had many enemies.”

I’m told that prophets are just men who are only prophets when acting as such (whatever that means).

I’m not sure what it means, either, at least in the way you describe it. Are you suggesting that when they are acting as prophets, they cease to be men? Are they possessed a la Linda Blair and have their bodies taken over by the Spirit so they can no longer act on their own volition? The assumption of infallibility is so problematic that I don’t understand how anyone could possibly think it compatible with the Restored Gospel.

I’m told that like all prophets, Brigham Young was a man of his time. 

How could he be anything else?

For example, I was told that Brigham Young was acting as a man when he taught that Adam is our God and the only God with whom we have to deal with.  Never mind that he taught it over the pulpit in not one but two General Conferences and never mind that he introduced this theology into the endowment ceremony in the Temples.

No, not never mind. Mind. Be mindful that a prophet’s agency doesn’t dissipate when he stands at a certain pulpit or walks into a temple and mindful that agency is antithetical to infallibility. Also be mindful that there is likely some component of Adam-God that modern audiences don’t understand, as even these prophetic announcements apparently had no impact whatsoever on Mormon theology in theory or in practice as we would expect them to have.

Never mind that Brigham Young made it clear that he was speaking as a prophet :

“I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture.” – Journal of Discourses 13:95

The very next line of that sermon is “Let me have the privilege of correcting a sermon.” If he’s infallible, why would he have to correct his sermons? That’s an admission that someone feigning infallibility would never make. In addition, since when do we believe in infallible scriptures? “If there be errors, they are the mistakes of men” applies to both the written and spoken word.

Also, why are you quoting this in the context of Adam-God? The sermon you’re quoting here says absolutely nothing about that subject.

Why would I want my kids singing “Follow the Prophet” with such a ridiculous 183-year track record?  

“Ridiculous 183-year track record?” You think Adam-God, Mark Hofmann, and other anomalous quirks constitute the entirety of the legacy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? The track record of the Church is one of lives blessed by service freely given to members and non-members alike. The amount of good that prophets have done vastly outweighs the human errors they have made.

What credibility do the Brethren have?

Quite a lot, actually. They’ve been wrong on occasion, but they’ve also been very, very right the vast majority of the time.

I turn again to J.F. McConkie. The question he’s addressing is, “If we can’t trust the judgment of the prophet in everything, how can we trust it in anything?” From pages 180 and 181 of “Answers:

This chain of thought is used by fundamentalists who claim the Bible to be inherent and infallible. Their argument is that if the Bible is an error on the smallest thing, be it a matter of science, history, geography, or whatever, we cannot possibly trust it when it speaks of Christ or gospel principles. All manner of contortions are necessary to maintain this position. It makes of their theology a pious fraud and constantly requires its adherents to lie, as it were, for God.

What if we assume that a person who made a mistake on one matter could never be trusted on another matter? Because we have all made mistakes, there would not be a soul left upon the face of the earth we could trust. The irony of the argument of infallibility as it applies to the Bible is that those who make it cannot agree among themselves about what its various passages mean. Of what value is an infallible book among people whose interpretations of it are so terribly flawed?

The idea of infallibility simply doesn’t work. Are children justified in rejecting the inspired counsel of their parents if they can show them some other things their parents erred? Can we set aside the counsel of the bishop if we know something of his own shortcomings? Can we disregard the instruction of the family physician if we discover he misdiagnosed an illness on some past occasion? Perfection is not requisite for trust, nor need we be perfect to enjoy the prompting of the Spirit or to share in the wisdom of heaven. Gratefully, that is the case, for were it not, none of us would be suitable for the Lord’s service.

Why would I want them following the prophet when a prophet is just a man of his time teaching his “theories” that will likely be disavowed by future Prophets, Seers, and Revelators?

You’re looking at the teachings of the prophets through a fun-house mirror. It’s a gross distortion to say that prophets primarily teach “theories” that are later disavowed. What percentage of Brigham Young’s entirety of teachings is no longer consistent with what the church currently teaches? There’s no way to definitively quantify it, but objectively speaking, it’s a pretty small percentage. What’s the likelihood that, say, baptism by immersion will become passé under the next church president? Are we going to abandon the Book of Mormon? Ditch the Sabbath Day? When should we expect a repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount?

By fixating on anomalous episodes in history that are inconsistent with how the church currently operates, you’re overlooking the fact that, on the whole, the Church has been remarkably consistent in its doctrines and practices for nearly two centuries.

If his moral blueprint is not much better than their Sunday School teachers?

Sure! Why should his moral blueprint be any better than those of Sunday School teachers? Shouldn’t Sunday School teachers be teaching good doctrine, too? Your false assumption here is that we should expect fallible Sunday School teachers, but not fallible prophets.

If, historically speaking, the doctrine he teaches today will likely be tomorrow’s false doctrine?

Not likely at all, but certainly possible when new light and knowledge is revealed, as we have been promised it will be.

Tomorrow: More from Brother Brigham


CES Reply: The Priesthood Ban
CES Reply: More from Brother Brigham

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *