If prophets are led by God and will never lead his people astray why did Gordon B. Hinckley buy the phony Hoffman letters that led to murder?
For those unfamiliar with the decades-old news, back in the 80s a collector by the name of Mark Hoffman came across a number of historic documents of interest to American historians and some of special interest to historians of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church documents told stories from the earliest period and revolved around the obtaining, translating, and printing of The Book of Mormon. They included a second-hand account of what was in the lost 116 pages, a copy of the lost Anthon transcript, and an early account tying Joseph tightly with so-called “folk magic”.
President Gordon B. Hinckley acquired a number of these controversial documents (I should note only some were controversial, but all were certainly exciting). Given the stir these finds were creating, President HInckley spoke on the matter, and his address was included as September 1985’s First Presidency message (meaning it was presented and taught in Latter-day Saint homes). Note: 1) the openness of the First Presidency in sharing even the controversial letters; 2) the cautious language around the trustworthiness of the documents; and 3) the core of the matter.
“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. It concerns the employment of Joseph by Mr. Stowell, who was engaged in a mining operation looking for old coins and precious metals. 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.
Much has been said about the Martin Harris/ W. W. Phelps letter. I ask: 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?” (Keep the Faith, Ensign, Sept. 1985).
1) The Church has been accused in the past of whitewashing its history. Yet three decades ago it printed and contextualized seemingly difficult documents in its own periodicals and issued copies to the public. 2) The “prophet, seer, and revelator” who acquired these for the Church uses such phrases as “if it is genuine” and “assuming they are authentic” when discussing them. 3) The core of the matter is really whether or not God spoke to Joseph; whether or not this is Christ’s church. Answer those questions, and the rest melt away.
Then our story gets downright tragic. A number of people involved with these documents are getting bombs delivered to their doorsteps. After two murders, Mark Hoffman himself is blown up (but not fatally). Well, it comes out that (despite passing a lie-detector test), Hoffman himself is the murderer. As part of his guilty plea, he agreed to make a list of his forgeries (see Fraudulent Documents from Forger Mark Hoffman Noted, News of the Church – note also that you can use this list to read some of the contextualizing the Church did when publicly releasing these documents).
So now we return to your question. First off, the two murders rest solely on the head of Mark Hoffman and him alone. They happened because of his desperation to keep running a pyramid scheme that was unsustainable. With that out of the way, how could President Hinckley (and presumably other Church leaders) be taken in by this fraud?
“Some have asked, how was Mark Hofmann able to deceive Church leaders?
As everyone now knows, Hofmann succeeded in deceiving many: experienced Church historians, sophisticated collectors, businessmen-investors, national experts who administered a lie detector test to Hofmann, and professional document examiners, including the expert credited with breaking the Hitler diary forgery. But why, some still ask, were his deceits not detected by the several Church leaders with whom he met?
In order to perform their personal ministries, Church leaders cannot be suspicious and questioning of each of the hundreds of people they meet each year. Ministers of the gospel function best in an atmosphere of trust and love. In that kind of atmosphere, they fail to detect a few deceivers, but that is the price they pay to increase their effectiveness in counseling, comforting, and blessing the hundreds of honest and sincere people they see. It is better for a Church leader to be occasionally disappointed than to be constantly suspicious” (Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents, Ensign, October, 1987).