A catalyst for change in field of Mormon history

Salt Lake City Tribune/October 14, 2005
By Peggy Fletcher Stack

Mark Hofmann's document forgeries dramatically changed the writing of Mormon history, but not in the ways he planned.

Hofmann wanted to undermine the traditional view of Mormon origins, but it remains firmly in place among believing historians as well as most other researchers and scholars. Instead of generating new business, Hofmann's forgeries largely shut down the market for Mormon documents and caused widespread skepticism of any new finds.

Hofmann's treachery also contributed to the loss of an entire generation of Mormon historians.

"You go to a professional conference and there's a demographic gap," says Ronald W. Walker, professor of history at Brigham Young University. "There are veterans - I represent that generation - and then there are young people with talent and full of promise. The men and women who should be in midcareer aren't there because they don't exist."

Before Hofmann's documents were exposed, well-educated Mormon students were eager to explore their church's past. The 1970s and 1980s were halcyon days for Mormon researchers - Leonard Arrington was historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the doors of its archives were wide open. Given the Mormon penchant for journal-keeping and letter-writing, researchers seemed to discover new manuscripts almost daily in private hands as well as in the church's own collections.

These finds, especially Hofmann's, reinforced the idea coming out of Watergate that there are two stories: the public, official version, and a private version found in the manuscripts, says Jed Woodworth, a history graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. "The assumption is that the private version is the truer story in the same way that Nixon's White House tapes have the truer story of his character."

The Hofmann finds, he says, sent the message that "we can never be too sure of the stories we have been told; they may change tomorrow."

After Hofmann's forgeries were discovered, historians became skeptical new discoveries could change the core of the story. They gave more weight to printed sources and trusted established interpretations. Today, a manuscript is more likely to "rewrite the edges of the story than the center," says Woodworth.

After Hofmann, the LDS historical archives restricted access to many manuscripts deemed "private, sacred and confidential," which typically includes most papers of LDS general authorities.

Though there has been some loosening, it is not clear how open the LDS Church archives are today. Church officials don't want to talk about it.

Richard E. Turley Jr., now the managing director of the church's Family and Church History Department and author of Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case, declined to comment on anything related to Hofmann, the openness of the LDS archives or the importance of Mormon documents. Nor would any other LDS Church official, according to spokesman Dale Bills.

Woodworth, who has spent much of the past decade doing research in the LDS archives, says it's a myth that the church's holdings are off-limits to historians.

The restricted collections represent "but a small portion of all archives holdings," he says. "The minutes of the highest church councils are restricted, as are some of the papers of apostles, but the trove of local quorum minutes and countless diaries are all open."

Clearly, Hofmann's impact on the writing of Mormon history hasn't been all bad.

When historians believed the Hofmann documents were real, they were forced to consider different perspectives on the church's founding events - Joseph Smith's 1820 vision of God and Jesus, finding the gold plates, translating The Book of Mormon and establishing the church. Scholars had to deal with allegations that Smith dabbled in magic and treasure hunting, for example. Eventually, they found examples of other religious believers who could combine rationalism with folk beliefs, who could "dig for treasure and read almanacs," Woodworth says.

This placed Mormonism in a wider religious and cultural context.

And that has been a giant step forward for the field of Mormon history, says Walker, co-author of a forthcoming book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, when Mormons with the help of Indians killed more than 100 men, women and children in a wagon train coming through the state.

The expanding view of Mormon history has coincided with the digital revolution. The use of computers and the availability of documents online or electronically has transformed the profession. It once took months or years to search for people, themes and ideas in a collection of documents, such as the church's 26-volume Journal History. Now it can be done in a matter of hours.

"What we have is a profession that is less time intensive in terms of research," Walker says. "In the future, we will prize a historian's power of synthesis, interpretation and expression rather than research."

The so-called New Mormon History led by Arrington produced works that were "segmented and narrow, given to small stories," Walker says. "What we need now are major works of narrative scope to tell us what it means."

The new generation of LDS historians that has sprung up seems poised to take up this challenge, being capable of integrating new information without losing their faith.

And that is the opposite of what Hofmann wanted.

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