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The underreported church response to the deceptions recounted in ‘Murder Among the Mormons’

SHARE The underreported church response to the deceptions recounted in ‘Murder Among the Mormons’
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Mark Hofmann, right, conferring with attorney Ron Yengich in this December 1987 file photo. 

Tom Smart, Deseret News

This article was first published in the ChurchBeat newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox weekly.

Unlike most talks given at BYU by church leaders, the landmark response of a Latter-day Saint apostle to the murderous spree of forgings and bombings by Mark Hofmann recently featured in “Murder Among the Mormons” can’t be found on speeches.byu.edu.

There’s a simple reason for that, and it has nothing to do covering up church history. In fact in his talk at BYU, then-Elder Dallin H. Oaks issued a scathing reprimand to a major news organization that spent a year insisting the church was covering up a document — until it was proved that the document never existed. In fact, and this is mind-boggling, it was Hofmann himself that had deceived the newspaper into believing the document was real and in possession of the church.

So, if you haven’t delved into the Hofmann hubbub spurred by the new Netflix docuseries, or you have questions about the church’s role, a great place to start is President Oaks’ talk at a BYU Symposium in 1987 titled “Church History and Recent Forgeries.”

It’s worth reading just for the story about how Hofmann duped the Los Angeles Times without even creating a forgery.

The talk is available on the internet on the church’s official website, because it was reprinted in part in the Ensign. (Most talks republished on the BYU Speeches website were delivered as campus devotionals or firesides.) 

President Oaks called Hofmann a master deceiver. Hofmann often forged documents to validate other documents he had forged, and Episode 3 of “Murder Among the Mormons” shows how he began to prepare, as a teenager, to outwit polygraph machines, which he did successfully after the bombings.

President Oaks said public interest in Hofmann’s forgeries and bombings reached “epic proportions” and led to “some of the most sustained and intense … church-bashing” of the 20th century and a media “feeding frenzy” marked by religious prejudice and character assassination of the church and its leaders by news reporters.

You can read President Oaks’ devastating accounting of how the Los Angeles Times was “seriously misled,” in the newspaper’s own words, by its anonymous source (Hofmann) to believe the church was withholding a nonexistent “Oliver Cowdery History.”

What I will reprint here is what President Oaks said about the following question, which he posed: “Some have asked, how was Mark Hofmann able to deceive church leaders?”

It’s a question that was asked in 1985 when investigators finally proved that Hofmann was a forger by unraveling the mystery of how he had deceived document experts. Church leaders had purchased some of the forgeries, though more than one, including President Oaks, questioned whether they were in fact authentic.

Still, the question answered by President Oaks in his talk at BYU is one some still raise today, without referencing the defense he made in his talk or the fact that Latter-day Saints do not believe their prophets are infallible, as former Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Richard E. Turley Jr. said in “Murder Among the Mormons.”

In fact, in Latter-day Saint scripture received by Joseph Smith a year before the church was organized, the Lord declares a prophet will not always be allowed to discern who is being deceitful:

“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.” (Doctrine & Covenants 10:37)

Here is what President Oaks said in 1987:

“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.”

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