Hey guys! So, one of the latest tactics of critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to expose members to controversial topics in unexpected ways. For example, recently I inherited a dollar bill with the words “white salamander letter” written on it, which is a reference to a forged letter written by a man named Mark Hofmann. So I figured that’d be a fun topic to talk about today. Queue the music.
Mark Hoffman was born in 1954 in Salt Lake City to a stalwart Latter-day Saint family. He served a mission and even got married in the temple, though he’d later say he really lost his faith in the gospel by the time he was about 14. By his early 30s, as New York document dealer Charles Hamilton said, Hofmann became “unquestionably the most skilled forger this country has ever seen.”
He forged all sorts of stuff. He sold documents bearing the names of George Washington, John Adams, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, John Hancock, and many others.
Hofmann also forged many documents relevant to Latter-day Saint Church history. Many were trivial, but some were created to embarrass the Church or cast doubt on aspects of our history. His forgeries included a blessing in which Joseph Smith names his son as his successor, the Anthon Transcript, and pages from the original Book of Mormon manuscript.
His most notorious Latter-day Saint forgery is the Salamander Letter. So, a little background: Joseph Smith claimed the angel Moroni appeared to him and told him about the buried ancient record that would later become The Book of Mormon. The Salamander letter is a letter from Martin Harris to William W. Phelps which claimed that Joseph actually learned of the ancient record from a white salamander who transformed into a spirit.
The intent of the letter was to cast doubt on Joseph’s spiritual experience by associating it with traditional folk magic practices. And some people did indeed leave the Church because of it. In 1987 the Church said they’d “acquired forty-eight documents directly from Mark W. Hofmann—seven documents for a total cash purchase price of $57,100, and forty-one others, less valuable, by donation or trade.”
The Salamander Letter was initially purchased from Hofmann for $40,000 by a Latter-day Saint collector, Steve Christiansen, who also worked as a financial consultant. He then donated the Letter to the Church.
But despite Hofmann’s success in the forgery business, by 1985 he’d racked up over a million dollars in debt. To help pay his creditors he planned to sell the Church a collection of papers purportedly written by William McLellin, including a land deed that connected Joseph Smith with Solomon Spaulding. The Church wanted Steve Christiansen to authenticate the collection. But Hofmann needed to buy himself some more time to create the collection.
So, he made a few bombs. On October 15, 1985, one of those bombs killed Steve Christiansen. To throw investigators off Hofmann’s scent, another bomb was meant for Steve’s boss, Gary Sheets. Instead, it killed Gary’s wife, Katherine. The next day, as Hofmann prepped a third bomb while in his car near Temple Square and the Church Office Building, it exploded. Hofmann survived, but the jig was up. Authorities found ample evidence of forgery in his basement and Hofmann has been in prison now for over 30 years.
Now, some people are upset with the Church for supposedly “suppressing” some of these documents before they knew they were forgeries because they supposedly kept them in the First Presidency’s vault. On that subject, John Tvedtnes said, “…placing a historical document in a safe place hardly implies suppression. Burning the document would be a safer way of getting rid of negative evidence.”
Back in ’87, Dallin H. Oaks said, “Are documents ever acquired by the Church and then closed to the public? Of course. This is true of most large archives, as any well-informed person should be aware.”
It’s pretty normal for an organization to not immediately publish every newly-acquired document. Just look at the Joseph Smith Papers project. Surely the Church has owned these documents for decades, and it’s not until now that they’re making them totally available to the public, and that’s a long, laborious project. Hofmann duped the country’s best experts with his forgeries. He also duped Church leaders. Some people are confused by why our church leaders were not able to discern Hofmann’s forgeries. And the simple answer is… because they’re normal people who can’t read minds.
Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I frankly admit that Hofmann tricked us. He also tricked experts from New York to Utah, however. We bought those documents only after the assurance that they were genuine. And when we released documents to the press, we stated that we had no way of knowing for sure if they were authentic. I am not ashamed to admit that we were victimized … I am sorry to say that sometimes it happens.”
In Doctrine and Covenants 10 the Lord even says, “But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.” And certainly, Hofmann’s exploits have been made known unto the world.
So if you ever come across a dollar bill that says ‘white salamander letter’ on it, now you know what that means. Check out the links in the description, and have a great day!
- Text of the Salamander Letter: https://lat.ms/2Nl5l4S
- From the Church after Hofmann confession: https://bit.ly/2Nj4RMt
- The extent of Hofmann’s interactions with the Church and its leaders: https://bit.ly/32lXNmy
- 1987 New York Times article on Mark Hofmann: https://nyti.ms/2CgRbLR
- A chronology of events surrounding Mark Hofmann: https://bit.ly/2pBhwlc
- President Dallin H. Oaks responds to Hofmann forgery criticisms: https://bit.ly/36BCcdo
- An extensive bibliography of sources for anyone wanting to dive deep: https://bit.ly/34CWT70