So, what is this scary Salamander Letter that the church is hiding from everybody?
Start with some background. In the 1970s, church historian Leonard Arrington took over and began a policy of strong support for academic writing about LDS history, especially using archive documents. A number of important books came out of this “Camelot” time period. Also, the increased buzz about LDS history led to an expanded and very lively market for early LDS documents.
One more piece of academic background: In the early 80s, various writers were discussing Joseph Smith’s use of folk magic. The most detailed descriptions and far-reaching conclusions came from D. Micheal Quinn, and they were extremely controversial at the time. (They still are, to some extent). Quinn’s name has become synonymous with folk magic, but the fact is that other people discussed folk magic at the time (e.g., Bushman’s _Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism_), though not everyone accepted all of Quinn’s conclusions.
This set the stage for a novel and ultimately deadly instance of document fraud.
Document dealer Mark Hofmann was one of the players in the rare Mormon documents scene. He launched his careeer by “finding” the original transcript from Martin Harris to Charles Anthon, which no one had seen before. He subsequently “found” several other important, original documents. He was able to sell some of these to the church and to private collectors, for moderately large amounts of money. Hofmann owned some genuine documents at some points in time; however, the documents which he “found” tended to be forgeries. Hofmann was a talented forger who generally used authentic era paper, and who developed complicated techniques for making documents appear old. Notably, all of Hofmann’s new discoveries had major provenance problems — no one had seen these documents until they suddenly appeared in Hofmann’s possession.
Hofmann fooled many of the leading scholars of the time. He fooled Dean Jessee, who accepted Hofmann’s forgeries as real. He also fooled a number of experts in antique documents. And he fooled church leaders. Hofmann sold forged documents to the church, under the direction of then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley.
In 1984, Hofmann produced his Salamander Letter. It purported to be a letter from Martin Harris about Joseph Smith’s magical practices. It talked about a magical salamander spirit guarding the golden plates who demanded that Joseph bring his dead brother Alvin to get the plates. The letter was designed to highlight the sensational and then-controversial ideas about folk magic. It suggested that folk magic was not an early stage that Joseph Smith abandoned, but was crucial in the Book of Mormon translation process. Because of its controversial content, Hofmann hoped the church would buy the letter in order to hide it.
The church was not willing to buy the letter for Hofmann’s asking price, but Hofmann was able to sell the letter to a private collector who wanted to donate it to the church. The letter was mentioned a few times in church contexts, and appeared in books like Dean Jessee’s _Personal Letters of Joseph Smith_. [Update: Actually, I don't believe it was the Salamander letter in Jessee' volume, I think it was another Hofmann forgery] Meanwhile Hofmann continued to produce fake documents, and was able to borrow a lot of money, in part through his business contacts with church leaders. Hofmann’s scheme fell apart when he was unable to produce a set of forged documents against which he had borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars. He sent pipe bombs that killed two people — a document collector and the wife of the collector’s business partner. Hofmann was seriously injured in a premature explosion of one of his own bombs. He was charged with murder, took a plea, and is currently serving a life sentence.
What does it mean?
Church critics suggest that the Hofmann forgeries show that the church is too secretive about its history; that church leaders want to suppress or whitewash negative aspects of church history; that church members do not know about controversial parts of history. Critics also suggest that the incident shows lack of inspiration in church leadership — if they are prophets, why didn’t they realize Hofmann was a forger?
On the question of document suppression, I’m not sure that the incident is particularly damning. The church bought documents of questionable provenance, and generally made them available, even before the forgery was known. The church could have been more forthright about them — I’m a fan of Arrington’s approach myself — but I can understand the desire not to emphasize controversial documents. Elder Oaks wrote a lengthy discussion of the Hofmann incident, including a defense of the church’s policies, in the Ensign in 1987.
Are there more hidden documents, smoking guns about early church history? Let’s see — the church is currently engaged in a publishing 30-odd volumes of original documents on Joseph Smith. Yes, there are some items that may not be published (C50 minutes, BLL, KEP: Go here for detail). Yes, there have been some serious past problems, and periods of very bad historical practices. Right now, I don’t worry much. I don’t have time to read all of the new primary documents that come out anymore. Take a look at Signature, Illinois, Arthur H Clark lately.
On the question of duped church leaders — well, yes. Church leaders were duped. That’s embarrassing. Is it anything more? It does mean that if you think that Thomas S. Monson has a bat-phone directly to God, then you probably need to rethink your testimony. (And I’ll grant that quite a few CTR-8s probably have that understanding. And probably some adult members, too, which is unfortunate.) For those of us who don’t subscribe to the bat-phone model of prophetic guidance, well, the incident doesn’t mean a whole lot.
Come on, people, ask us something harder. The Kinderhook Plates, for instance. :)