October 16, 2009

Ripples from a Salamander: 24 Years Later

The “salamander letter” was said to have been written by Martin Harris in 1830. It gave a radically different description of Joseph’s Smith’s retrieval of the golden plates. Rather than the Angel Moroni, an “old spirit” directed Joseph to the “treasure” and then “transfigured himself from a white salamander.” As I mentioned yesterday, it has been 24 years since two bombs rocked Salt Lake City, killing two Mormons and injuring historical document dealer Mark Hofmann. Ripples of fear moved through the Mormon history community as investigators soon uncovered a twisted scheme of lies, forgery, and murder plotted by Hofmann himself.1

Mourning for the loss of bomb victims Kathy Sheets and Steve Christensen (along with the aforementioned reverberations of fear) weren’t the only aftershocks from Hofmann’s strange attempt to make a fortune by casting doubt on the religion he no longer believed in. I was only three years old when the forgeries were exposed and Hofmann’s efforts went up in smoke. Once in a while I catch a slight whiff of burning amphibian while reading or researching Mormon history. Hearing about the experience of those who dealt with the letter in real time has helped me better understand how the letter still reverberates today.

First, the Salamander letter was another catalyst for Mormon historians to better evaluate the environment and culture of early Mormonism and the restoration of the gospel. Richard Bushman, Ronald Walker, Dean C. Jessee and other historians began plumbing the environmental influences with research questions that have spurred even richer historical treatments with more to come.2 Other researchers began (or continued) fashioning more naturalistic explanations for Joseph Smith’s claims. Marvin Hill, John Brooke, D. Michael Quinn and others have produced scholarship that carries hints of the salamander (and in some ways, the salamander originally carried a hint of what was already being discussed by certain scholars).3

Second, the Salamander letter is a reminder that prophets and leaders of the Church are not infallible and all-knowing. President Hinckley’s public statements when the letter was made known to the public make it clear he was not entirely convinced of the document’s authenticity, but for the time being accepted the judgment of certain document and history experts. Joseph Smith received a revelation reminding him that a prophet is not granted to know all the designs of people who seek to destroy the Church:
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 (D&C 10:37).4
Third, the Salamander letter reminds current historians to take care in the use of historical sources. In some instances, this is more hindrance than help. Researcher Ardis Parshall noted that she has to be wary of using any document that passed through Hofmann’s hands. For instance, while researching information on the Utah War she located the diary of one observer containing many interesting details that will have to be substantiated elsewhere because Hofmann possessed it at one point. She notes that the Church archive catalog is very good about noting the Hofmann connection on every record involved.5

Finally, the Salamander letter provides examples of how faithful members of the Church confronted difficult information. Consider Kevin Barney’s reaction:
The salamander letter is the only thing I ever recall encountering that gave my testimony a pretty good shake. Lots of people today say they thought it was a forgery even then, but at the time mainstream historians pretty much all thought it was authentic. I thought it was authentic.

But here’s a good lesson in what to do when you get rattled by something. Instead of rolling over and playing dead and giving up, I rolled up my sleeves and went to the library. I studied non-LDS historical articles on folk magic, having nothing to do with Mormonism. These articles were focused on an earlier period–17th century, as I recall–but there was a clear continuity with what was going on in backwoods upstate New York in the early 19th century. Once I had an historical context in which to understand these events, my concerns quickly melted away. I would have been fine even if the letter proved to be genuine. I haven’t been bothered by folk magic stuff since. So for me this exposure was actually a good thing in the long run.

I was Gospel Doctrine teacher in my Ward at the time and I devoted an entire lesson to the letter. It was an awesome lesson, and that experience is a large part of the reason I’m an advocate of inoculation. Because I knew how dangerous that material was, since it had even rattled me, yet at the end of that lesson I also knew that no one who sat in that room was going to lose faith over it. That realization made a powerful impression on me.6
FAIR volunteer McKay V. Jones explained how Kevin’s experience reminder her of her “fly ball” analogy:
When I was young, I had a problem mis-judging fly balls. I would instinctively run in on them, and when they were over my head, I would have to back-pedal or run back on them. It is much harder to catch a fly ball running back on it than running in on it. I learned to have my first step be *back*, even when it looked like it would be short. You can always run in on it if you misjudged it, but if you run in on it and have to go back on it, it’s a much more difficult catch.
With difficulties that throw us for a loop, we need to “step back” and study the issue in a way similar to what Kevin described. As Davis Bitton said in his “I don’t have a testimony of the history of the Church” talk, when one assesses in advance what the “worst case scenario” and “best case scenario” would be, the “worst case” is never remotely approached, and usually the “truth” is found to be somewhere between the two extremes. Managing expectations and “best & worst case” findings works wonders towards preventing shipwreck.7
These are just a few ripples in the water extending from the original explosion of document and gunpowder. In the face of future explosions it is wise to remember the patience exhibited by researchers whose efforts were borne out when the forgeries were exposed. Instead of rolling over and playing dead and giving up, we can roll up our sleeves and go to the library.


For a full transcript, images of the letter, and other links see BHodges, “Mark Hofmann and the Salamander Letter,” LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 15 October 2009. Photograph by Alex Monro, from "3 New Salamanders Are 'Ballistic,' Bright, Tiny," NationalGeographic.com, 4 January 2008. This post is cross-posted from fairblog.org.

BYU Studies Volume 24:4 (Fall 1984) contains interesting contemporaneous responses to the Salamander letter. See especially Ronald W. Walker, “Joseph Smith The Palmyra Seer.” Small elements of influence can be seen from Mark Ashurst-McGee’s work on seer stones and treasure guardians to Richard Bushman’s Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling and many works in-between.

Perhaps two of the more obvious examples of works with “salamander-shaped holes” (to borrow a phrase from Stephen E. Robinson) are D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (revised and enlarged edition, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), and Grant Palmer’s Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002).

See the FAIRwiki article, “Church reaction to forgeries.”

Ardis Parshall (of the “Keep-a-Pitchin’-In” blog), personal e-mail, 16 October 2009. First edition copies of Dean C. Jessee’s Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Shadow Mountain, 1984) included several not-then-debunked Hofmann forgeries. The younger, better looking edition (2002) omits them. D. Michael Quinn’s first edition of The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994) erroneously references a Hofmann forgery though they had been debunked for several years. The mistake was corrected for the 1997 printed edition. See the FAIRwiki article “Nauvoo Legion to rescue Joseph.”

Kevin Barney, personal e-mail, 16 October 2009.

Suzie McKay, personal e-mail, 16 October 2009. See Davis Bitton, “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church,” 2004 FAIR Conference presentation.

October 15, 2009

Mark Hofmann and the Salamander Letter

It's been 24 years today since Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets were slain by bombs set by document forger/murderer Mark Hofmann. A while ago I was asked to sum up the "Salamander Letter" episode in 250 words or less. My results substantiate the claim that brevity is often more difficult than lengthiness ("lengthiness" seems like such a weak antonym for "brevity"). Here is my sub-250-word attempt. Beneath it I included a transcript and images of the actual Salamander letter. Any comments on what I could have done better are welcome:

On October 15, 1985 several bombs rocked Salt Lake City, Utah, killing two Mormons and injuring a third—historical document dealer Mark Hofmann. Investigators soon uncovered a twisted scheme of lies, forgery, and murder plotted by Hofmann himself.

Hofmann had “discovered” a stream of documents shedding negative light on LDS Church origins. He quickly began selling them to the Church and other collectors. The most famous of these documents, the “Salamander Letter,” sharply contradicted foundational LDS history. The letter, signed “Martin Harris,” recounted Smith’s discovery of golden plates. Rather than being led by a heavenly angel, however, a “white salamander” helped Smith discover the plates via magical money-digging.

Hofmann negotiated a complex deal with a General Authority and others to sell the document to a private individual who would donate the letter to the Church, but became desperate as the scheme began unraveling. To deflect attention away from himself, Hofmann planted three bombs—one inadvertently exploding in his own car, nearly killing him.

Hofmann’s sophisticated forgeries fooled many document specialists but innovative detectives discovered their fraudulence before Hoffman’s criminal trial began. In order to avoid the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and theft-by-deception in 1987 and received a life sentence. Hofmann’s forging hand was later destroyed during an attempted suicide and in 1988 a parole board ruled that Hofmann would spend his natural life in prison.

Transcript of the "Salamander Letter"


                                             Palmyra October 23d 1830
Dear Sir
       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 hiroglyphics 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 trans[-]
late says I it is made of precious gold & is sealed from
from [sic] view says he I can not read a sealed book—
Joseph found some giant silver specticles 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 Cowderey & 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 & time both
prevent me from writing more at present if there is any
thing further you wish to inquire I shall attend to it
Yours Respectfully
Martin Harris

W W Phelps Esq

                                             W W Phelps Esq
                                             Canandaigua N Y

For more on Mark Hofmann, see the FAIR wiki article "Mark Hofmann/Church reaction to forgeries."

Steve Mayfield and George Throckmorton, key players in Hofmann's prosecution, discussed the Hoffman case at the 2006 FAIR Conference. Videos of their presentation are available on YouTube.

The two best full works on the case are Richard E. Turley, Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, University of Illinois Press (1992) and Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts, Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, Signature Books (1990).

October 13, 2009

Islam's Hijab and Mormon Garments: On Clothing as Broadcasting

Hijab typically refers to the Muslim practice of "veiling" for women (in Arabic the word means "curtain" or "covering"). Muslims differ in their application of hijab—ranging from full body coverage to a scarf covering the hair—but the general outlook is that hijab is a form of modesty and religious identification. According to John Esposito, the custom was "assimilated from the conquered Persian and Byzantine societies...The Quran does not stipulate veiling,"1 though it does emphasize the need for women to be modest in dress:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty;...that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and display their beauty only to their husbands, their fathers (Quran 24:31).2 
Aside from practical matters, the initial intent of veiling included "the protection, honor, and distinction of women" and hijab was first adopted by "upper-class urban women who lived in great palaces and courts and enjoyed considerable mobility and opportunity."3 It spread more slowly to village and rural women.

In the West, the dominant view of the practice is that it is oppressive to women. Many Muslim women would disagree, but nevertheless the practice is contested even amongst Muslim-majority nations. In a recent Politics and Islam classroom discussion we focused on hijab and watched a film featuring interviews of Muslim women from three different countries. Though it was far from a comprehensive survey, the reactions from the women differed depending on the location. In Iran, women are forced to veil by law; all women in public must be veiled or they are punished. The common reaction of Iranian women when asked what hijab meant to them was that they had simply become used to it, not that it actually meant something to them religiously. When everyone is forced to veil is the religious meaning diminished for the individual? By contrast, women who work in government positions in secular Turkey are forced to un-veil. When Merve Kavakçı (pictured above) was elected to Parliament in 1999 she was shouted down and prevented from taking the oath of office because she wore hijab. It became a symbol of religious and political freedom for Kavakçı, in sharp contrast to Iranian women who are forced to veil. The film also featured women in the United States who explained their decision to wear hijab in terms of religious representation, being set apart from degrading immodesty, and the benefit of not being judged by their looks.4 I sensed a strong pride as well as a hint of separatism.

Strikingly, amidst the comments about politics, culture, and religion, none of the women in the video mentioned wearing hijab because of a command from Allah, or out of a desire to create or participate in a closer relationship to Allah, or those sorts of things. When I raised this point (which is admittedly just as likely to be the result of the editing and direction of the film) a young woman in my class who wears hijab pointed out that she chose to wear hijab for those very reasons, in addition to some of the other reasons mentioned by Muslim Americans in the film. She talked about being a representative of her religion wherever she goes because she wears hijab.

Such talk of religious clothing reminded me of the garment worn by endowed members of the LDS Church.5 Similar to hijab, the garment has been connected to the concept of modesty, but in contrast to hijab, it is worn under the clothing, much less conspicuously. President Boyd K. Packer made the connection:
The garment represents sacred covenants. It fosters modesty and becomes a shield and protection to the wearer. The wearing of such a garment does not prevent members from dressing in the fashionable clothing generally worn in the nations of the world. Only clothing that is immodest or extreme in style would be incompatible with wearing the garment.6
In addition to similar concepts of modesty and religious devotion, thinking of the garment compared to hijab brought up two other points: The idea that clothing is a broadcast and the responsibility that comes along with such broadcasting.

By calling clothing a "broadcast" I mean to say it can be used to send messages to others either deliberately or inadvertently. The injunction against judging a book by its cover is nice advice, but more often than not it is ignored on an interpersonal basis. What we wear and look like sends messages about the type of person we are, whether we would find such messages accurate or not. The young woman who was proud of her ability to broadcast her religion by use of hijab made me think of the heavy responsibility that could entail. For example, I thought of the bumper sticker on my car, the one with a particular political candidate. Every so often—when I make a bad turn, or forget to signal, or fail to let someone merge—I think of that bumper sticker and the message it sends. Will my poor behavior be combined with the bumper sticker in the mind of the driver I just accidentally cut off? Such broadcasting requires much confidence and perhaps more self-conscious hope for forgiveness. But for the most part I turn off that broadcast signal when I leave my car in the parking lot. This doesn't happen for the women in hijab. Still, the garment provides a personal reminder to Latter-day Saints regarding their relationship to God and the promises they've made as part of that relationship. Elder Carlos E. Asay's 1997 Ensign article on the garment puts it this way:
I like to think of the garment as the Lord’s way of letting us take part of the temple with us when we leave. It is true that we carry from the Lord’s house inspired teachings and sacred covenants written in our minds and hearts. However, the one tangible remembrance we carry with us back into the world is the garment. And though we cannot always be in the temple, a part of it can always be with us to bless our lives.7
It's interesting to think that my broadcast-by-clothing isn't as loud and it isn't as obviously received by others as is hijab. It gives me more to think about.

John L. Esposito, Islam: the Straight Path, Oxford University Press (2005, revised third edition), pp. 98-99. This is an admittedly over-simplified blog post to spur reflection rather than to provide anything close to a comprehensive analysis.

Men are also enjoined to "lower their gaze and be modest" as well, though there is no clothing stipulation (Quran 24:30).

Esposito, Ibid., p. 99.

I believe such individuals are likely still judged by their looks quite often, only for different reasons. The implication is that women can use their beauty to advance or be honored while other qualities of intelligence and so forth are overlooked, whereas hijab makes women more equal, and men more likely to respect their abilities.

For those unfamiliar with the LDS lingo regarding Temples and endowments, see Boyd K. Packer's introductory pamphlet "The Holy Temple" at LDS.org.

Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple, Deseret Book (1980), p. 75.

Carlos E. Asay, “The Temple Garment: ‘An Outward Expression of an Inward Commitment’,” Ensign, Aug. 1997, pp. 19-23.