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Thursday, February 25, 2021

When the Brethren’s Lack of Discernment Cost Lives, the Church's Reputation and Funds

As members, we are told that when it comes to the Church's leaders,

“Their voices can be trusted. Their voices are: clear, unpolluted, unbiased. You can always count on them. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord.” [1]

“In today’s world, where 24 hours a day television and radio commentators spew forth conflicting opinions, where marketers compete for everything from your money to your vote, there is one clear, unpolluted, unbiased voice that you can always count on. And that is the voice of the living prophet and the apostles. Their only motive is ‘the everlasting welfare of your souls’ (2 Ne. 2:30).” [2]

“There is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord.” [3]

“…We will not and … cannot lead you astray.” [4]

“Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. … We will not and … cannot lead [you] astray.” [4]

“Always keep your eye on the President of the church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, even if it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it but you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” [5]

“You keep your eyes riveted on the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. We will not lead you astray. We cannot. Let me tell you why. Every week that I am in town, I attend a meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake Temple. If you could see the process by which decision and direction comes from that meeting, you would have a deep sense of confidence and comfort that the will of the Lord is being taught by the leaders of the Church. So keep your eyes riveted on the leadership of the Church. While individuals may falter, the body of general Church leadership will remain steadfast and true. If someone tells you that they have received revelation that the First Presidency and the Twelve have not received, run away from them.” [6]

Yet all these quotes (spoken by church apostles/prophets about church apostles/prophets) do not apply to circumstances in which they are regularly and personally meeting with a man who is consistently deceiving the church of untold thousands of dollars, about to ruin the church's reputation and will murder two individuals mere minutes before meeting with an apostle (who is now next in line for the church's presidency).

"Murder Among the Mormons"

On the morning of Oct. 15, 1985, a homemade bomb exploded in downtown Salt Lake City, killing financial consultant Steve Christensen, who collected historical documents. Shortly afterwards, a second bomb went off in Holladay, UT, killing Kathy Sheets, the wife of Christensen’s former boss.

The next day, a third bomb went off in a car parked in downtown Salt Lake City. It seriously injured document dealer Mark Hofmann and set off an investigation that lasted more than a year, resulting in Hofmann’s lifetime imprisonment.

35 years later, most members have only a vague recollection at best regarding Mark Hofmann and his murders.  [7]

What most don't remember is another victim of Hofmann's maniacal mayhem: the church's reputation.

The Church Deceived in 1980 

 In 1980, Hofmann claimed that he had found a 17th-century King James Bible with a folded paper gummed inside. [8]  The document seemed to be the transcript that Joseph Smith's scribe Martin Harris had presented to Charles Anthon, a Columbia classics professor, in 1828. According to Joseph Smith–History, the transcript and its unusual reformed Egyptian characters were copied by Smith from the golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon. 

Hofmann actually constructed his version to fit Anthon's description of the document, and its discovery made Hofmann's reputation. Dean Jessee, an editor of Joseph Smith's papers and the best-known expert on handwriting and old documents in the Church’s Historical Department, concluded that the document was authentic. The Church announced the discovery of the Anthon Transcript in April and purchased it from Hofmann for more than $20,000. [9]

Why can't discernment no longer help true prophets and apostles detect when a forger and soon-to-be murderer is standing right next to them selling a bogus document?

The Church Deceived in 1981 

Hofmann arrived at Church Headquarters with a document which supposedly provided evidence that Joseph Smith had designated his son, Joseph Smith III (rather than Brigham Young) as his successor. In a forged cover letter, purportedly written by Thomas Bullock and dated January 27, 1865, Bullock chastises Young for having all copies of the blessing destroyed. Bullock writes that although he believes Young to be the legitimate leader of the LDS Church, he would keep his copy of the blessing. Such a letter, if true, would portray Young and, by extension, the LDS Church, in an unfavorable light. 

Hofmann tried to sell the letter to the Church’s chief archivist. Hofmann expected the church to "buy the blessing on the spot and bury it." When the archivist balked at the price, Hofmann offered it to the RLDS Church (now known as the Community of Christ), which had always claimed that the line of succession had been bestowed on Smith's descendants but had never had written proof. A scramble to acquire the document occurred, and Hofmann, posing as a faithful member, presented it to the LDS Church in exchange for items worth more than $20,000. [10]

Gordon B. Hinckley Deceived in 1983 

Hofmann bypassed the LDS Church's historical department and sold, for $15,000 to Gordon B. Hinckley (then second counselor in First Presidency), an 1825 Joseph Smith holograph purporting to confirm that Smith had been treasure hunting and practicing black magic five years after his First Vision. Then Hofmann leaked its existence to the press, after which the church was virtually forced to release the letter to scholars for study, despite previously denying it had it in its possession. [11]

The Church Deceived in 1984 

This is where we discuss the famous "Salamander Letter" -- a (forged) letter purported to reveal that a magical salamander guided Joseph Smith to the gold plates. It’s a shocking contrast to the Church’s orthodox account, which says the Angel Moroni appeared to Smith and led him to the plates. Hence the belief that the church bought controversial documents to hide them from the general public. 

Hoffman sold the forged “Salamander letter” to Steven F. Christensen on January 6, 1984, who then donated the letter to the church on April 12, 1985. Hinckley accepted the donation. [12]

1985: Hofmann Kills, then meets Dallin H Oaks 

On October 15, 1985, Hofmann killed document collector Steven Christensen (as well as injuring a secretary in the leg with shrapnel). Later the same day, a second bomb killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of Christensen's former employer. 

On the afternoon following the bombings, Hofmann met with LDS Church apostle Dallin H. Oaks about the McLellin collection, a meeting which fellow document collector Brent Metcalfe believed had religious significance to Hofmann. "He's just killed two people. And what does he do? He goes down to the church office building and meets with Dallin Oaks. I can't even imagine the rush, given Hofmann's frame of reference, that this would have given him. To be standing there in front of one of God's appointed apostles, after murdering two people, and this person doesn't hear any words from God, doesn't intuit a thing. For Hofmann that must have been an absolute rush. He had pulled off the ultimate spoof against God." [13]

Regarding that meeting, Oaks said Hofmann expected to be questioned by the police regarding the murders. ''He said he was worried about what he should say to them,'' said Oaks. ''I told him he should just answer their questions and tell them the truth.'' After about 10 minutes, Oaks said, Hofmann left.” [14]

The following day, Hofmann himself was severely injured when a bomb exploded in his car. Although police quickly focused on Hofmann as the suspect in the bombings. 

The Church Publicizes its Purchased Forgeries 

On April 28, 1985, the Church News published the full text of the Salamander Letter. This solidified the fact that the church had been unknowingly purchasing forged historical documents, with church funds, from Hofmann before the bombings. 

“But during the investigation, it has become evident that high officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were doing a brisk business with Hofmann. Hinckley said at a press conference that, starting in 1980, he had purchased about 40 documents from Hofmann. Only a few of them have been made public; others are in a church vault. Whether they cast any new light on the church's past is not known.” 

Hinckley himself fielded criticism for some time for "being duped" and being "unable to discern the evil intentions of a man like Hofmann". Hinckley later noted: 

“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. It is not the first time the Church has found itself in such a position. Joseph Smith was victimized again and again. The Savior was victimized. I am sorry to say that sometimes it happens.” [15]

1987: The Church’s Official Admission of Being Duped 

In the October 1987 Ensign Magazine, the Church published a list of forged documents that had been referenced in the Ensign so that readers would not refer to them in error. [10]

In the same magazine, Dallin H. Oaks explained the extent of the church’s dealings with Hofmann: 

“What President Hinckley said was that he had purchased two documents, and Church History Department personnel had acquired the rest.” [16] 

Oaks then defined what made up the totality of the documents acquired… 

“On 11 April 1986, after months of searching through its records and collections, the Church published a complete list of the forty-eight documents and groups of court records then known to have been acquired from Mark Hofmann. That list spoke for itself: It was a mixture of the already-published, the intriguing, the routine, and the trivial. Now, over a year later, we know that some of the forty-eight are forgeries, because they were named in the criminal charges and confessed by Hofmann during his questioning by prosecutors.” 

…and the associated costs: 

“all of these documents were listed publicly over a year ago, together with their total cash purchase price of $57,100, plus traded documents of undetermined value.” [16] 

But why were Hofmann's deceits not detected by the several Church leaders with whom he met? Here's Dallin H Oaks again...

“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." [16]


Based on the aforementioned facts, I have the following questions:

  • So, "you can always count on" the Brethren. Would you agree if you were a close friend or relative of Mark Hofmann, Steven Christensen or Kathy Sheets?
  • “Church leaders cannot be suspicious and questioning of each of the hundreds of people they meet each year.” While this is true, I would think that sitting (in their own Church Headquarters office) across from a man who is about to commit multiple murders, while already deceiving church leaders and publicly robbing them of their credibility, would kind of rise above the rest.
  • So two dead people and the church's discernment powers in shambles is the price leaders "pay to increase their effectiveness in counseling, comforting, and blessing the hundreds of honest and sincere people"? Please explain. 
  • So, people getting blown up are "occasional disappointments"?
  • Although President Kimball was supposed to be a "seer" and have the power to "translate all records that are of ancient date" (Mosiah 8:13), he was unable to translate the characters which appear on the (fake) Anthon transcript. Was he a seer or not?
  • The Apostle Peter caught Ananias and Sapphira red-handed in their attempt to deceive the church with regard to a financial transaction: "But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?" (Acts 5:3). This was not an atmosphere of trust and love. But now we are told that “Ministers of the gospel function best in an atmosphere of trust and love.” 
    • Why couldn’t a modern-day apostle do the same as Peter? 
    • Or have discernment dynamics among apostles changed so that they can only discern “in an atmosphere of trust and love”?
    • Does the “atmosphere” need to be one of “trust and love” in order for discernment to kick in?
    • If leadership can only discern “in an atmosphere of trust and love”, and aren’t expected to be suspicious and questioning around bad people, then how are the bad people ever to be detected and approached?
  • If church leaders had the discernment of Peter, could they have conceivably detected Hofmann's bombing plans? Could that discernment have saved lives and church funds? 


1.  Dallin H Oaks, “The Lord Leads His Church through Prophets and Apostles”, Ensign, March, 2020)
2.  M. Russell Ballard in “Sustaining Our Prophets and Apostles,”; see also “Here Am I, Send Me” (Brigham Young University devotional, Mar. 13, 2001), 5,
3.  Joseph Fielding Smith, “Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,” Ensign, July 1972, p. 88)
4.  M. Russell Ballard, October 2014 General Conference)
5.  Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78)
6.  Russell M Ballard, “When Shall These Things Be?” BYU Devotional, March 12, 1996)
8.  Robert Lindsey, A Gathering of Saints: A True Story of Money Murder and Deceit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), p. 65-66.
9.  Ibid, p. 66-69
10.  Ibid, p. 80-81
11.  Allan D. Roberts, "The Truth is the Most Important Thing: A Look at Mark W. Hofmann, the Mormon Salamander Man" Archived 2008-02-05 at the Wayback Machine
13.  Simon Worrall, "The Poet and the Murderer: A true story of literary crime and the art of forgery," 2002, p. 232, Also see Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 24, 1985
14.  Robert Lindsey, "The Mormons; Growth, Prosperity And Controversy", Time, Jan. 12, 1986
15.  Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley, page 432; FAIR sets the date of Mr. Hinckley's statement as October 18, 1995