Forgeries of Church Documents

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Throughout time, art and documents have been the targets for those skilled in forgery. Some of the best forgers are famous because they were masters themselves and their fakes were not easily discerned by dealers, historians, scholars, and experts.

NOVA wrote, “The art of forging literary and historical documents is nearly as old as writing itself. Two thousand years ago, early practitioners put reed pens to papyrus to mimic the writing of Socrates and other ancient authors whose work was highly valued. Today, the motive of most forgers remains the same—create something "priceless," then find a sucker willing to pay an exorbitant price.” Sometimes, NOVA adds, “the forger’s aim is not profit but power.”[1]

One writer noted, “Paper documents have been used in nearly every aspect of society for millennia, from governing to communication to literature, to the point that a document can change the course of history. Or it can be worth a lot of money. Or, both. For as long as there have been documents, there have also been people willing to create duplicate versions of famous documents to reap the rewards—or sometimes invent a new document entirely.”[2]

One such person was Mark Hofmann, who is well known for his forgeries of documents of interest to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hofmann was a rare documents dealer who “exploited public interest in Latter-day Saint and American history by selling authentic, altered, and forged historical documents.”[3]

Many of Hofmann’s forgeries focused on Latter-day Saint history. Hofmann was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had privately stopped believing in God. By his mid-20s, he had become interested in historical works about the Church’s history and was familiar with documents that were mentioned in historical accounts but that had never been located. . . .[4]
A variety of techniques helped Hofmann convince scholars that his forgeries were genuine. He chose projects carefully to target documents that had likely once existed, and he studied their contexts extensively. He stole period paper and other materials from archives, made his own ink and artificially aged it, and carefully recreated postmarks to help his forgeries pass the scrutiny of document authenticators. He studied the idiosyncracies of the authors’ handwriting and could reproduce it with startling accuracy. His historical research and literary abilities allowed him to draft documents that reflected expected patterns of style, tone, and content. He created plausible stories about the origins and provenance of documents, sometimes planting a minor forgery in advance to lend credence to a subsequent higher-profile one. He obtained authentic rare documents by accepting them as payment in trade and then marketed both the authentic and forged materials. Sometimes he would make small changes to authentic documents or materials that would enhance their value. Numerous scholars from various fields unknowingly authenticated Hofmann forgeries.[5]

The Church documents that Hofmann forged include:

The Salamander Letter. This letter, supposedly written in 1830 by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps, describes a folk-magic version of Joseph’s finding the gold plates, which was later translated and published as the Book of Mormon.
Letters by Martin Harris and David Whitmer, each giving an account of their visions.
Letter by Lucy Mack Smith. In this forged letter, Lucy described to her sister the loss of the 116 pages of the manuscript of the Book of Mormon.[6]
A blessing Joseph Smith purportedly gave to his son Joseph Smith III designating him as his father’s successor.
Three letters purportedly written by Joseph Smith from an Illinois prison.
The Book of Lehi. Hofmann had publicly said he was searching for the lost 116 pages and confided in friends that he had located them. Police later searched his home and found Hofmann’s notes on the Book of Lehi. It is not known if he created the manuscript.
Two pages of the original Book of Mormon transcript dictated from Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery.
The Charles Anthon Transcript. This document contained the Egyptian characters from the gold plates that Joseph Smith had copied and sent with Martin Harris to be authenticated.
The E. B. Grandin contract between Joseph Smith and Grandin for the first printing of the Book of Mormon.
The William McLellin collection, supposedly a group of documents McLellin wrote. However, Hofmann did not have time to forge a large group of documents that he had promised to collectors.

It is unknown how many of his forgeries may still be in circulation or in collections.

Other Historical Document Forgeries

Encyclopedia of Mormonism lists two other known forgeries pertaining to the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ.

One of the most famous forgeries in LDS history is the alleged "Joseph Smith Revelation" appointing James J. Strang his successor. It was created in the 1840s, probably by Strang, and is now located at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. The motives of Strang, who hoped to succeed Joseph Smith, were clear. Equally apparent were the reasons for the forgery of a pamphlet attributed to Joseph Smith's early associate, Oliver Cowdery. Defense in a Rehearsal of My Grounds for Separating Myself from the Latter Day Saints, supposedly written in Ohio in 1839, first appeared in an anti-Mormon publication in 1906 (Anderson, pp. 20-21).[1] Others have attempted forgeries for money, ego, or the desire to influence or alter history.[7]

The author of the above article, Max J. Evans, provides a summary of caution gleaned from the expanse of Hofmann’s forgeries.

The story of the Hofmann forgeries is the subject of several books and numerous articles. The case has deeply embarrassed both historians and the dealers and collectors who handled his documents. It has also prompted greater caution and healthy skepticism about the validity of purported historical documents of unknown background or provenance.
Documents that have been maintained in the official custody of a church or government agency throughout their life cycle should be considered more reliable than "newly found" documents. Scholars and archivists should be especially wary of those documents whose provenance is unclear. In all cases new and startling evidence must be critically evaluated against the standard of known and reliable documents.[8]

External Links

  • Anderson, Richard L. "The Second Witness of Priesthood." Improvement Era 71 [Sept. 1968]:15-16, 18, 20-22, 24.