As regards the Salamander Letter, on January 3, 1984, an acquaintance of Hofmann's, Lyn Jacobs, showed President Hinckley a letter allegedly from Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps in which an account of Joseph Smith's discovery of the gold plates contained noticeable differences from the official version.
Reference in the alleged to a spirit that "transfigured" himself from a "white salamander" ignited a fury of controversy among critics, scholars, and lay members of the Church.
Describing as it did the early origins of the Church in spiritualistic terms, the "Salamander Letter" appeared to confirm other documents regarding the purported treasure-hunting activities of Joseph Smith.
Jacobs said he had obtained the letter from an eastern collector whose name he had received from Hofmann.
The Twelve subsequently asked that research be conducted to place the document in historical context and to verify its authenticity.
In the meantime, other memorabilia surfaced that questioned the veracity of the Church's beginnings.
The majority of these documents were brought to President Hinckley's attention, and he took them to the Twelve for discussion and ultimately made most of them a matter of public record.
Of the Salamander Letter he noted: "We have nothing to hide. Our enemies will try to make much of this letter, but any fair-minded individual who will read it in terms of the time it was written and the language of the day will not see it as detrimental to the history of those events connected with the restoration of the gospel."
Controversy over the Salamander Letter reached a zenith on Saturday, August 25, 1984, when Los Angeles Times religion writer John Dart published a lengthy article in which he asserted that the letter threatened to "alter the idealized portrait of church founder Joseph Smith."
Among conservative Protestant critics of the LDS church, Dart maintained, the Salamander Letter was now regarded as "one of the greatest evidences against the divine origin of the Book of Mormon."
Elder Thomas S. Monson, on assignment in Frankfurt, was surprised to see the International Herald Tribune's headline, "The Mormons and the White Salamander: 1830 Letter, If Authenticated, Would Prove Founder's Interest in the Occult."
Though the unfolding controversy weighed on him, President Hinckley was coolheaded in both his reactions and his response.
These events weighed on his mind, however. At the October 1984 general conference, he spoke of the Church's four cornerstones, among them the First Vision and the Book of Mormon: "For more than a century and a half, enemies, critics, and some would-be scholars have worn out their lives trying to disprove the validity of the First Vision].
Of course they cannot understand it. The things of God are understood by the Spirit of God."
In April 1985, Salt Lake area businessman Steven F. Christensen, who as a collector of historical memorabilia had purchased the Salamander Letter from Hofmann, presented the document to President Hinckley, who accepted it on behalf of the Church.
Later that month the Church News carried the complete text of the letter.
The First Presidency statement accompanying the article quoted President Hinckley:
"No one, of course, can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document. However, at this point we accept the judgment of the examiner that there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the Church had many enemies. It is, however, an interesting document of the times."
He concluded with the assurance that the letter had nothing to do with the divine underpinnings of the Restoration.
"The real test of the faith which both Martin Harris and W. W. Phelps had in Joseph Smith and his work is found in their lives, in the sacrifices they made for their membership in the Church, and in the testimonies they bore to the end of their lives."
President Hinckley carried the burden of responding to the questions, attacks, and insults that followed.
Not long thereafter, he noted in his journal:
"The media, feasting on anything they can dig up that might prove embarrassing to the Church, are having a field day. It will not adversely hurt the work in the long term, but it does produce some wounds among the weak and those of little faith."
He felt confident, however, that the Church would emerge from the controversy unscathed.
"I do not fear truth. I welcome it!" he said many times. "But I wish all of my facts in their proper context, with emphasis on those elements which explain the great growth and power of this organization."
Over the years he frequently encouraged the Saints to see critics for who they were. To a Churchwide young adult audience, for example, he referred to the controversial letters and then prophesied: "[The Church] will weather every storm that beats against it. It will outlast every critic who rises to mock it. It carries the name of Him whose it is, even the Lord Jesus Christ."
It was hard for him to understand the critics' point of view, for after years of his own ongoing study of Church history, he not only had a personal witness of Joseph Smith's divine calling but found in him an exquisite model of optimism and faith.
It was as though he couldn't study, teach, or testify enough about this prophet of God. On one occasion a few priesthood leaders in Salt Lake City and their families were invited to attend a family home evening with President Hinckley.
During his informal remarks, he asked all the children age eighteen and under to stand. "I love the Prophet Joseph Smith," he said with feeling, asking them to repeat the phrase with him.
After they had done so, President Hinckley concluded: "Please write in your journal that I stood and bore my testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and that I love him."
It was almost impossible for President Hinckley to understand or have much patience with those who tried repeatedly to undermine the Prophet during the various phases of the document scandal.
Unfortunately, the Hofmann-promoted memorabilia proved to be not only spiritually but physically lethal.
On the morning of October 15, 1985, tragic news riveted the residents of Salt Lake City and the Intermountain West: Two members of the Church, Steven F. Christensen and Kathy Sheets, had been killed within ninety minutes of each other by bombs concealed in packages. The community was shocked and bewildered.
Initially, some believed the murders to be connected to a troubled business venture spearheaded by Christensen and Gary Sheets, the other victim's husband.
Others speculated that the tragedies were linked to the Salamander Letter.
Church Security immediately increased its protection of President Hinckley, who couldn't imagine that the horrifying events held any relationship to him.
The next day a third explosion ripped through a car parked just a block north of Church headquarters.
Within minutes two Church Security officers arrived breathless at President Hinckley's office; the remainder of the afternoon they shuttled in and out with updates.
Mark Hofmann had been seriously injured in the blast. With Hofmann's involvement, the documents connection seemed more likely.
President Hinckley conferred much of the afternoon with Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Hugh W. Pinnock, who had met with Hofmann regarding what the documents dealer referred to as the McLellin Collection, papers from William E. McLellin, a former member of the Twelve who had wavered between devotion and dissidence throughout his life.
They agreed that Elder Oaks should immediately tell the police what he knew about Christensen and Hofmann's connection with the McLellin transaction.
Over the next few days the Church in general and President Hinckley in particular took a beating in the press.
Some reporters accused him of acting unilaterally in obtaining documents and speculated about how a Church leader could have become involved in what was beginning to look like documents fraud. Some even implied a sinister element in his association with Hofmann.
After reading one such article President Hinckley noted:
"I was disgusted. They are not interested in finding a solution to the murders. They are interested only in trying to make the Church look suspect."
The following day he added:
"I have never seen such a barrage of press innuendo, much of it downright false. The Church, as might be expected, is the target, and my name is used prominently . . . because Mark Hofmann met with me on several occasions concerning the Church acquiring various historical documents."
The morning of October 23, the Church held a press conference to clarify its relationship with Hofmann, Christensen, and others involved in what was now a murder investigation.
Representatives of CBS, the BBC, the major wire services, and other international and national news agencies were among the large contingent of reporters who filed into the auditorium of the Church Office Building.
Flanked by Elders Oaks and Pinnock, President Hinckley expressed sympathy to the families of the bombing victims, explained that the Church had cooperated fully with law-enforcement officials, reviewed his and the Church's association with Mark Hofmann, elaborated on his personal interest in Church history, and explained what little he knew about the McLellin Collection.
In response to a question about the Church's proclivity for collecting historical materials, he stated that from the beginning leaders had been admonished to keep records.
"If this goes on," he quipped, "we will have to find a lot more room to house all the newspaper clippings." Returning to a serious tone, he added: "But we have a mandate. We would suppose the institution for which you work keeps a history, a corporate history. We have an obligation to keep a history of the Church and we regard that very seriously. We are going over to dedicate the new genealogical building . . . [which is] essentially a historical library. It has cost a very handsome sum and it's a beautiful archive. The finest in the world and the purpose of it is historical—historical research."
The news conference quelled some of the rumours that had flown about Salt Lake City, and, as promised, later that morning President Hinckley dedicated the Church Genealogical Library, calling it the jewel in the genealogical research crown and adding that this was a "day of rejoicing beyond the veil."
It was ironic that with his lifelong interest in Church history and temple work, which relied so heavily on family history research, President Hinckley found himself in the middle of an ugly ordeal involving controversial historical documents.
Before going to the auditorium for the press conference, he had reread section 10 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which dealt with the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript.
In this revelation, given through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord declared,
"I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will show unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the devil" (D&C 10:43).
Feeling that he and the other Brethren had been blessed in their statements, he reflected that night:
"We are witnessing that. The Church will triumph. We have done nothing wrong."
His impression proved prophetic. In February 1986 the documents dealer was charged with twenty-eight criminal charges, among them two capital counts of murder and thirteen counts of theft by deception.
Eleven months later, on January 23, 1987, Mark Hofmann pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the deaths of Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets.
Later, during interviews with prosecuting attorneys, he boasted about fooling the Church's highest leaders and confessed to having forged, among other documents, the Salamander Letter, the Joseph Smith III blessing, and the Anthon transcript.
Although Hofmann's admission of guilt removed any lingering questions the documents had raised about the veracity of Joseph Smith's account of the Restoration, President Hinckley continued to field criticism over his perceived connection to Hofmann.
One question recurred in numerous letters and phone calls to the office of the First Presidency:
"How could a member of the First Presidency be duped and unable to discern the evil intentions of a man like Mark Hofmann?"
The criticism hurt President Hinckley, whose few meetings with Hofmann had been prompted by what he thought were legitimate reasons to pursue historical materials.
The evening before the transcript of Hofmann's confession was made public, President Hinckley noted:
"I was advised that Hofmann mentions my name a number of times in these confessions. I suppose that is to be expected. I accepted him to come into my office on a basis of trust. . . . During years I was . . . heavily burdened with Church administration and met hundreds of people in my office to discuss scores of matters. The visits of Hofmann were of minor importance to me in terms of the many other larger matters with which I had to deal. They came of my desire to conduct an open door policy while serving as the functioning member of the First Presidency."
President Hinckley later summarized the Hofmann affair:
"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."