The latest Mormon-related Netflix hit is live and trending. Murder among the Mormons discusses Mark Hofmann and his selling of forged historical documents. The documentary also covers Hofmann being guilty of making pipe bombs and using them to murder Steve Christensen and Kathy Sheets in 1985. Hofmann feels trapped by his own forgeries and is desperate for money and to keep a lid on his lies. The docuseries interviews the investigators and details how they discover his forgeries and his subsequent confessions. It is an intriguing story and fits comfortably within the true crime genre.
Hofmann makes deals with the top church leadership multiple times to sell his forged documents to the church. Many Mormons take issue seeing their beloved apostles being so deceived. The question must be asked, how were these men deceived to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on forgeries? Especially when they purport to have the spirit of discernment? When these same men claim to be (and are sustained by the membership of the church as) prophets, seers, and revelators?! We often hear that the Lord would not suffer his church to be led astray.
The kicker is that these documents were not even aligned with the church narrative of the day! Hoffman has a couple major forgeries that differed from the otherwise accepted church history. The Anthon Transcript, The Joseph Smith III’s Blessing and the Salamander Letter.
The Anthon Transcript claims to be the characters from the Gold Plates which Martin Harris copies to a paper and takes to Charles Anthon. There’s a whole faith promoting story around the occurrence, but we no longer have this paper which includes the copy of the Reformed Egyptian characters in the plates. The Joseph Smith III Blessing is a transcript of a blessing Joseph gave his son in which Joseph designates his son as his successor. That would have stirred a few things up for Brigham Young and the Brighamites!
The Salamander Letter was a document Hofmann claimed was written in 1830 by Martin Harris, the scribe of the founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith. It stated that Joseph Smith was led to the gold plates by a spirit who “transfigured himself from a white salamander” rather than an angel.
He assumed the church would want to purchase the document and bury it, but was able to leak it to the press so the church was forced to address it. Church leaders and apologists worked to defend this odd occurrence.
Dallin H Oaks (or as some call him, Dallin Hoax) presented some thoughts about this in a talk that is still referenced in the church website as the second resource for learning about church history! He claims that using our powers of discernment we will not be misled by lies meant to deceive and thwart the work of God.
As members of the Church, we have the gift of the Holy Ghost. If we will use our spiritual powers of discernment, we will not be misled by the lies and half-truths Satan will circulate in his attempts to deceive us and to thwart the work of God.Elder Dallin H. Oaks; Church Education System Symposium on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History – 16 August 1985 – Brigham Young University
This is directed at the normal members of the church, not even to the leadership, who you may think God would bless more directly with discernment. Also, this is just a couple months before the bombings when the church still thought the letter was genuine. Later in the same talk Oaks defends the Salamander Letter working some persuasive argument to explain why it’s understandable! That the witnesses use different meanings attached to certain words…
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 eighteen twenties. That meaning 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.
A spirit that is able to live in fire is a good approximation of the description Joseph Smith gave of the angel Moroni: a personage in the midst of a light, whose countenance was ‘truly like lightning” and whose overall appearance “was glorious beyond description” (Joseph Smith History 1:32). As Joseph Smith wrote later, “The first sight [of this personage] was as though the house was filled with consuming fire” (History of the Church – 4:536). Since the letter purports only to be Martin Harris’s interpretation of what he had heard about Joseph’s experience, the use of the words white salamander and old spirit seem understandable.Elder Dallin H. Oaks; Church Education System Symposium on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History – 16 August 1985 – Brigham Young University
Tragedy struck when Hofmann got nervous and killed so he wouldn’t be found out. His third bomb either never found its target and exploded in his car or he failed an attempted suicide, he is injured and also links him to the bombings. The investigation leads to the revelation of his fraudulent ways What would have happened if he hadn’t panicked? What would have happened had he worn a different jacket to deliver his first bomb, or if he’s not been short $2 cash for some forgery equipment? (spoiler alert: these are the ways investigators were able to nail him as the suspect) The church would have likely written numerous talks and essays explaining why the salamander makes sense. Hofmann purportedly had an even bigger agenda item of forging the lost 116 pages and selling it back to the church. That could have been very interesting!
After delivering his first two bombs, Hofmann actually visited with Dallin H Oaks. Later the same day when the first two bombs detonated Hoffman went to meet with church leaders about collection of documents (another forgery, that never came to be)! One would think that the spirit of discernment would have revealed something to the apostle. Perhaps that he was meeting with a fresh murderer?! Perhaps discernment only works with leaders when they already know what they claim to learn by discernment.
This whole story shows that something as crazy as the salamander letter was accepted into the church history because those stories are already that crazy. We’re talking peep stones and divining rods and treasure seeking and looking into hats, how is introducing a white salamander any less believable?
This whole story about the forgeries, the church bring fooled or victimized as Hinckley prefers to state it and then the church defending the documents and highlights Hofmann being exposed and tried for the bombings is incredible. Church leaders are only human after all and their claimed spirit of discernment and revelatory role isn’t as mighty as the want us all to believe. But also, we’re taught that the lord will never allow anyone to lead the church astray.
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.Official Declaration 1, “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto”
Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890
So do they have discernment? Did this not lead the church astray? Which is it? Perhaps god wanted them to be deceived in order to stir up interest in church history – then we can all do our own research. What were your thoughts on the documentary? Did the Salamander Letter have a place on your shelf? Does it still?
For the curious, the Salamander Letter reads as follows:
Palmyra October 23d 1830
Your letter of yesterday is received & I hasten to answer as fully as I can—Joseph Smith Jr first come to my notice in the year 1824 in the summer of that year I contracted with his father to build a fence on my property in the corse of that work I approach Joseph & ask how it is in a half day you put up what requires your father & 2 brothers a full day working together he says I have not been with out assistance but can not say more only you better find out the next day I take the older Smith by the arm & he says Joseph can see any thing he wishes by looking at a stone Joseph often sees Spirits here with great kettles of coin money it was Spirits who brought up rock because Joseph made no attempt on their money I latter dream I converse with spirits which let me count their money when I awake I have in my hand a dollar coin which I take for a sign Joseph describes what I seen in every particular says he the spirits are grieved so I through back the dollar in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it because I lay it down to cover over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down Joseph says when can I have it the spirit says one year from to day if you obay me look to the stone after a few days he looks the spirit says bring your brother Alvin Joseph says he is dead shall I bring what remains but the spirit is gone Joseph goes to get the gold bible but the spirit says you did not bring your brother you can not have it look to the stone Joseph looks but can not see who to bring the spirit says I tricked you again look to the stone Joseph looks & sees his wife on the 22d day of Sept 1827 they get the gold bible—I give Joseph $50 to move him down to Pa Joseph says when you visit me I will give you a sign he gives me some hieroglyphics I take then to Utica Albany & New York in the last place Dr Mitchel gives me an introduction to Professor Anthon says he they are short hand Egyption the same what was used in ancient times bring me the old book & I will translate says I it is made of precious gold & is sealed from view says he I can not read a sealed book—Joseph found some giant silver spectacles with the plates he puts them in an old hat & in the darkness reads the words & in this way it is all translated & written down—about the middle of June 1829 Joseph takes me together with Oliver Cowdery & David Whitmer to have a view of the plates our names are appended to the book of Mormon which I had printed with my own money—space and time both prevent me from writing more at present if there is any thing further you wish to inquire I shall attend to it
W W Phelps Esq
More resources on the Murder Among the Mormons and Mark Hofmann Forgeries:
- Canonized Lies About Charles Anthon
- Murder Among the Mormons on Netflix