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Forgeries of Historical Documents

by Max J. Evans

The possibility of forgery must be considered by all historians as they ponder their evidence and by archivists as they build their collections. Forged Dutch colonial documents have been found in New York, and forgeries of Lone Star Republic documents have been identified in Texas.

One of the most famous forgeries in LDS history is the alleged "Joseph Smith Revelation" appointing James J. Strang his successor. It was created in the 1840s, probably by Strang, and is now located at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. The motives of Strang, who hoped to succeed Joseph Smith, were clear. Equally apparent were the reasons for the forgery of a pamphlet attributed to Joseph Smith's early associate, Oliver Cowdery. Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter Day Saints, supposedly written in Ohio in 1839, first appeared in an anti-Mormon publication in 1906 (Anderson, pp. 20-21). Others have attempted forgeries for money, ego, or the desire to influence or alter history.

The Hofmann forgeries of the 1980s have raised questions about some historical documents related to early Latter-day Saint history. In their search for new sources for information about the Church's formative period, historians were fascinated by the seemingly endless cache of historical documents supposedly located by Mark Hofmann. These documents purported to illuminate such topics as Joseph Smith's reception and translation of the records known as the Book of Mormon and the selection of his successor in Church leadership. Many, if not most, "Hofmann documents" turned out to be skillful forgeries. Hofmann had built a paper fortune from document dealing and duplicity, but when he was unable to produce additional promised documents for clients, he murdered a Salt Lake City businessman and the wife of an acquaintance in 1985. The subsequent investigation led to his arrest, confession of murder and forgery, and life sentence in the Utah State Prison.

The story of the Hofmann forgeries is the subject of several books and numerous articles. The case has deeply embarrassed both historians and the dealers and collectors who handled his documents. It has also prompted greater caution and healthy skepticism about the validity of purported historical documents of unknown background or provenance.

Documents that have been maintained in the official custody of a church or government agency throughout their life cycle should be considered more reliable than "newly found" documents. Scholars and archivists should be especially wary of those documents whose provenance is unclear. In all cases new and startling evidence must be critically evaluated against the standard of known and reliable documents.

(See Response to Criticism home page; Church History Criticism home page)

Bibliography

Anderson, Richard L. "The Second Witness of Priesthood." IE 71 [Sept. 1968]:15-16, 18, 20-22, 24.

Jessee, Dean C. "New Documents and Mormon Beginnings." BYU Studies 24 (Fall 1984):392-428.

Sillitoe, Linda, and Allen Roberts. Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders. Salt Lake City, 1988.

Whittaker, David J. "The Hofmann Maze: A Book Review Essay with a Chronology and Bibliography of the Hofmann Case." BYU Studies 29 (Winter 1989):67-124.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Forgeries of Historical Documents

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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