Exhumator Esoterics

Encyclopedia of Spiritual — Contemporary Mormonism : Latter-day Saints in modern America

The Intellectual Activities Of Recent Years
Exhumator Esoterics
Exhumator Esoterics

One of the recurring issues is the definition of orthodoxy. What is normative Mormonism? In an effort to set up a hierarchy of basic Mormon beliefs, LDS sociologist Armand Mauss proposed a "scale of authenticity," an operational construct to give weight to potentially conflicting and changing LDS teachings. That such a scale would be useful suggests the complexity of potential beliefs. His first category, "Canon Doctrine," includes doctrines and texts that the prophets have presented to the Church as received by direct revelation and that have been accepted by the sustaining vote of the membership. Canon Doctrine consists of the standard works of the Church, and material added to them: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. Mauss's second category, "Official Doctrine," includes statements from the First Presidency, Church lesson manuals, and magazines and other publications. Their content is official doctrine when presented but may change over time. The third category, "Authoritative Doctrine," includes all other talks, teachings, and publications of other authorities on doctrines and scriptures. "Popular Doctrine," the lowest or least authentic category, includes folklore, common beliefs, and unofficially circulating prophecies. Mauss warns against canonizing doctrines not explicitly included in the standard works and advocates patience and care in passing judgment on doctrine. "It is not blind faith that is required of us but only that we seek our own spiritual confirmation before questioning official instruction."

The avalanche of opinion, much of it speculative, rushing from the many Mormon-related publication outlets, has made the Mormon image impossible to control. An attempt to manage the evidence and alter the past led to the most dramatic incident in recent years. In 1980, Mark Hofmann, a young premed student and LDS documents dealer, announced that he had found the [Joseph] Smith family Bible. This 1668 Cambridge edition of the King James Bible, purportedly belonging to Joseph Smith's sister Katharine Smith Salisbury, turned out to contain a treasure. Two of the Bible's pages, partly stuck together with glue, held a folded sheet of paper appearing to be a famous lost Church document, the Anthon transcript. In 1828, Joseph Smith had copied some hieroglyphs from the Book of Mormon gold plates for Martin Harris to take to Professor Charles Anthon at Columbia University in New York City to be verified as authentic ancient writing. Hofmann showed the document to various people who thought it was genuine, and then to Church officials who hailed the miraculous find.

Hofmann was incredibly deft at finding Church-related documents. In 1981, he sold to the Church a copy of a blessing purportedly given by Joseph Smith to his son Joseph Smith III, conveying the right of succession as president and prophet. The lack of any contemporaneous succession statement had led to uncertainty after Smith's death, and this blessing filled the void. Hofmann also found a letter claiming to be from Thomas Bullock to Brigham Young, dated 1865, accusing Young of destroying the Joseph Smith III blessing. Church leaders publicized some purchases; others were quietly locked away.

Hofmann successfully sold many important items in and beyond the Mormon market. But he turned out to be very different from the mild collector he seemed to be. He was in fact an expert forger. Well versed in early Church history and Joseph Smith lore, he constructed false documents, ingeniously meeting standards of historical authenticity. The Joseph Smith III blessing and Thomas Bullock letter were both forgeries. So was a letter collector Steven F. Christensen bought from Hofmann in 1984 and donated to the Church, the so-called "Salamander Letter," supposedly from Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps, dated 1830, outlining an alternate, magic-filled account of the origin of the Book of Mormon. According to the document, a white salamander rather than the Angel Moroni delivered the golden plates, contorting the Church's founding story. The Deseret News published the text after Hofmann leaked the contents. Hofmann's run lasted for four lively years. His documents had been rigorously authenticated, but suspicions eventually arose, and by 1983, a few experts were sure that some were fraudulent. Hofmann then exercised another remarkable skill. To prevent the discovery of his schemes, he made bombs that killed two people, including Christensen, and with another bomb, intended for a third victim, he accidentally injured himself. In 1987, after a trial and plea bargain, he admitted responsibility for the two deaths and his many forgeries and was imprisoned for life.

Although Hofmann's activities left a cloud over Mormon studies for years, the forgeries generated intense scholarship about Mormon origins. Ironically, the Church, in having to deal with so many damaging disclosures became more open. Press conferences were held and new finds published.

To make available historical documents, a publishing alliance was eventually struck between the Church Archives and BYU Studies. By 1992, Deseret Book published a second edition of Story of the Latter-day Saints, the book that had once caused a firestorm. Church leaders appeared to have relaxed their strict control of the past.

Still, Church authorities were guarded about scholarly Mormon inquiry. In 1989, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks urged that people without authority be disregarded when speaking on religious doctrines, commandments, ordinances, and practices. These "alternate voices," he warned, could be found in magazines and journals and heard at lectures, symposia, and conferences. He warned members against them and against engaging in disputation. The world needed "not more scholarship and technology but more righteousness and revelation."

Most hearers interpreted Oaks's "alternate voices" to mean the unofficial LDS journals and presses. In 1991, two weeks after the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City where there were talks concerning the temple and problems of missionary work in South America, the Church issued a statement, signed by the First Presidency and the Twelve, deploring the "bad taste and insensitivity of these public discussions of things we hold sacred." Some topics had been discussed in the press "in such a way as to injure the Church or its members or to jeopardize the effectiveness or safety of our missionaries." The statement called this discussion "inappropriate."