"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light..."

Salamander Letter and Mark Hoffman

by Jeff Lindsay

If Gordon B. Hinckley is a true prophet, why was he fooled by the fraudulent Salamander Letter and other fake documents from Mark Hofmann? Let's first look at the general issue of fallible prophets and then discuss the Salamander Letter and Mark Hofmann.

Are Prophets Infallible?

The premise of the question about Gordon B. Hinckley, and many related questions about other prophets, is that a prophet should continually act under direct guidance from God so that nobody could ever deceive him and that no mistakes could ever be made. However, there is no Biblical basis for such a belief (See Are Prophets Infallible?). Prophets are mortal men who have been ordained and chosen by God to be a mouthpiece for revelation and guidance, but that revelation only comes when God wills it, making it somewhat sporadic in both ancient and modern times. There is no expectation that every act, every decision, and every purchase by a prophet will be divinely and infallibly guided. As Joseph Smith said, "a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such." Critics of the Church say this is a cop out, but it is true and Biblical.

The Bible gives examples of prophets and apostles who were mortal and fallible, with obvious mistakes having been made by Jonah (shirking his duty), Moses (not circumcising his son), and Peter (denying Christ three times). But can real prophets be fooled by deceivers? Certainly. Joshua was fooled by the men of Gibeon, who came in disguise as if from a distant country when they were locals who normally would have been treated as enemies. In that story, given in Joshua 9:3-27, Joshua was deceived. He was a prophet, but he fell for the trick of the Gibeonites.

An even more dramatic example of a prophet being deceived, and of the mistakes that prophets can make, is given in 1 Kings 13. In that chapter, we read of a man of God with prophetic power and the gift of healing who was given an assignment by God and who was told by God not to eat or drink in that place. After having performed a great miracle, another "old prophet" wanted to meet the man of God and have the man of God eat and drink at his house. To achieve his vain desire, the old prophet told a lie, saying that an angel of God had told the old prophet that the man of God was indeed to come eat and drink after all. Sadly, the man of God - a powerful prophet - believed the lie. He was deceived (1 Kings 13:18). He joined the old prophet at his home where he ate and drank, disobeying the instructions he had received from God. God then gave a revelation to the old prophet - the one who had lied! - saying that the man of God would be punished for his disobedience, that "thy carcase shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers" (1 Kings 13:21,22). That prophecy was fulfilled as the man of God was killed by a lion on the way home. It seems pretty harsh to me, and anti-LDS critics would delight in attacking this story if it were in the Book of Mormon, but the story does illustrate that prophets can be deceived (and that they can sin - though I hope the old prophet repented in great sorrow). We do not believe that prophets are infallible - and neither do they. But we trust the Lord's promise that He will not let His properly chosen and anointed Prophet to lead the Church astray.

As a final example of prophets not receiving direct revelation for everything they do and say, in one of Paul's discussions of marriage in the New Testament, he speaks of an issue for which he had received "no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment" (1 Cor. 7:25-28). This seems to indicate that Paul was just giving his best judgment but did not feel that he had direct revelation from God on the topic. This passage made it into sacred scripture. Surely there were many other things Paul did, said, and even purchased that were not guided by infallible, direct revelation from God. But when God chose to give revelation to Paul, then he was acting as a true prophet and those revelations can be trusted (to the extent that they have been properly preserved and translated in our modern Bibles).

Gordon B. Hinckley and the Salamander Letter

Gordon B. Hinckley, before being made Prophet of the Church, was in fact deceived by Mark Hofmann, a documents dealer who sold the Church several counterfeit historical documents. Gordon B. Hinckley at that time was an Apostle serving in the First Presidency while the Prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, was ill. Elder Hinckley was one of many, including FBI documents experts and historians, who were fooled by Hofmann. Some of those documents challenged some LDS views about Joseph Smith and played into the hands of critics.

In 1980, President Hinckley met Mark Hofmann, then a university student who claimed to have found an old Bible with a paper that appeared to be the original paper with characters copied by Joseph Smith from the gold plates and given to Martin Harris for examination by Charles Anthon. Though now known to be fraudulent, like many other documents from Hofmann, it was a convincing forgery. Shortly thereafter, Hofmann claimed to have found a record of Joseph Smith's blessing to his son, Joseph Smith III, in which he blessed the eleven-year-old boy to be the "successor to the Presidency of the High Priesthood," which some interpreted to mean that the son would be the next prophet. This letter appeared to strengthen the claims of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a small church which claims that descendants of Joseph Smith should be rightful heirs to the office of President and which rejects Temple work and much of what makes Latter-day Saints different from Protestants). The Joseph Smith III blessing seemed to challenge established LDS doctrines of succession of the Presidency, but President Hinckley (then Elder Hinckley) firmly maintained those principles as being revealed and correct. As a gesture of goodwill, that troublesome document, rather than being suppressed or destroyed, was publicly given to the Reorganized Church.

Other Hofmann documents proved troublesome or unflattering to the Church, but none more so than the famous Salamander Letter. Elder Hinckley saw this on Jan. 3, 1984. It appeared to be a letter from Martin Harris to W.W. Phelps which described how Joseph received the gold plates. Apparently contradicting the official LDS account about the appearance of the Angel Moroni, the letter from Harris claimed that a spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander, and suggested that folk magic and treasure hunting was involved in Joseph's acquisition of the golden plates, resonating strongly with popular anti-LDS allegations about Joseph Smith. Interestingly, the letter could be interpreted in terms of American frontier culture and figurative ways of expression to still accord with the LDS view, but it was also fodder for the enemies of the Church who claimed that it disproved the whole Book of Mormon. This and most of the other troubling documents from Hofmann were made public, though not necessarily with great eagerness! President Hinckley affirmed that "We have nothing to hide" (Sheri L. Dew, The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1996, p. 427). The document was a forgery, but appeared to be authentic. President Hinckley's explanation that accompanied the printing of the full letter in the Church News (April 1985, the same month that the Church officially acquired the letter) said, "No one, of course, can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document. 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. It is, however, an interesting document of the times" (S.L. Dew, The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, p. 428). President Hinckley affirmed that the letter did not undermine the Church or Church history. He remained confident and firm in his stance, in spite of the heavy assault of the media and critics of the Church. He said the Church "will weather every storm that beats against it. It will outlast every critic who rises to mock it. It carries the name of Him whose it is, even the Lord Jesus Christ" (Church News, June 30, 1985, as cited by Dew, p. 428). Those were prophetic words.

On October 15, 1985, two LDS people in Salt Lake were killed by separate bombs. The next day, a bomb exploded in Mark Hofmann's car near Church headquarters as he was getting in the vehicle. Hofmann was not killed. Hofmann had been injured by one of his own bombs, a bomb meant for someone else as part of Hofmann's desperate plan to save his neck, to cover his tracks, and to continue perpetrating fraud. The accidental and non-fatal explosion of Hofmann's bomb in his car proved to be key to revealing the truth behind the Hofmann fraud. In February of 1986 he was charged with 28 criminal charges, including two counts of murder. Extensive and even brilliant investigative work was needed to establish the case against Hofmann and to prove that he had forged documents. One key was a forensic scientist discovering an ultraviolet visualization technique that helped detect evidence of forgery in Hofmann's work, which was generally too sophisticated for previously known methods to crack. Eleven months after being charged, the case against Hofmann was very strong and Hofmann pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He also boasted of fooling Church leaders with his forged documents, including the Salamander Letter, the Joseph Smith III blessing, and the Anthon transcript (Dew, p. 431). Hofmann would have liked to bring down the Church (while making a lot of money), but his plans came to nothing.

What does all this say about modern prophets? The business decision to buy the controversial documents - one of the hundreds of business decisions made each month by Church administrators during that time - perhaps did not receive direct guidance from the Lord. Certainly the Lord did not reveal to Elder Hinckley that the documents were fraudulent. But I think the Lord did see, in His own dramatic way, that those damaging documents were revealed as frauds, though the faith of many was tried in the process. The way the truth was revealed was much more convincing and effective than if a Church leader had declared that the damaging and "authenticated" documents were fraudulent. Such claims would have been ridiculed and may have even hindered the objective investigation into the possibility of forgery by Hofmann. It was a great relief, certainly, to learn that the troubling documents were brilliantly executed frauds and that Hofmann and others had been trying (and still try) to use those fraudulent documents to harm the Church.

Critics still charge that the Church was guilty of suppression of documents. In fact, the Church showed remarkable openness in allowing the documents to be published and even in giving one important document to a competing organization. John Tvedtnes commented on the alleged coverup in an article in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1994, pp. 204 ff, which is a review of Jerald and Sandra Tanner's work, Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism of the Book "Covering Up the Black Hole in the Book of Mormon". I quote from page 211:

In their discussion of the Hofmann affair, the Tanners repeat what they have long asserted - that the LDS Church is "suppressing" documents it does not want made public by placing them in the First Presidency's vault (p. 24). But placing an historical document in a safe place hardly implies suppression. Burning the document would be a safer way of getting rid of negative evidence. Placing it in a vault only preserves it for future use. We have the example of the Joseph Smith papyri, which lay for decades in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, only to be brought to the Church's attention by a professor doing research there. Yet no one has accused the Metropolitan of "suppressing" these documents! They were their guardian, just as the Church is the guardian of many documents. Recent history has shown us how people like the Tanners misuse such documents -- sometimes literally publishing what does not belong to them -- to promote their own ends. Consequently, one is not surprised when the Tanners, unable to obtain documents they want, accuse the Church of suppression. . . .

Strangely, the minutes the Tanners quote from a meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (p. 31), rather than suggesting a cover-up, indicate that the Church was going to publicly announce the acquisition; clearly, this does not support Hofmann's story [of a Church cover up].

The Salamander Letter incident was a difficult and tragic episode in Church history, one that warns us of the lengths that enemies of Christ and of His Church will go to in their desire to destroy. Let us be careful about imposing non-Biblical standards for prophets. The truth about the Hofmann documents was revealed, but not in the way critics demand. There is no reason to reject Gordon B. Hinckley as the Lord's prophet because he allowed the Church to buy documents that were forged. Joshua and other prophets have been fooled by less sophisticated frauds. If you reject him by that standard, prophets of the Bible also must be rejected.

Copyright by Jeff Lindsay




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