In one sense or another, everyone has faith. Faith that someone in your family will keep a promise. Faith that your next paycheck will clear the bank. Faith that there’s life after death, because thinking otherwise is too much to bear. Faith that, tomorrow, the sun will rise in the east, because it always has in the past. Christine Marie had, and still has, her Mormon faith. “The substance of things hoped for, evidence of things unseen,” as the book of Hebrews states. Those words still stand as the classic definition of a psychological mindset that lets religion, organized or not, exist.
Today, after her experience with Christopher M. Nemelka, Marie now knows that she took that faith a little too far. She’s embarrassed, but strong enough to learn from her mistakes.
Marie remembers vividly the first time she met Nemelka in the fall of 2000. It was at an LDS dance. She sat down next to him, on a bench. They talked. “He looked like someone I had seen in a profound dream, and I told him so,” she remembers.
A convert to the LDS church at 18, her faith in God, Jesus, and the truth of the church was unshakable. She had had miracles in her life, she said, in response to fasting and prayer. Nemelka told her at the outset that he was an atheist, that if a man of God was what she wanted, she should look elsewhere.
Marie remembers him telling her he was an atheist. He even tried to get her to leave the church. She also remembers him recanting his atheism later in their relationship, after a few dates. “He said he only told me he was an atheist to see if I could be easily misled. The truth was, he told me he had been called to translate the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. He almost failed the first time because of his pride, so God took his calling away for a while,” Marie said.
Quiet, soft-spoken Marie, once crowned Mrs. Michigan in her home state, and now a single mother of four, had converted to the church despite a lot of heat from her family. To believe that Joseph Smith received gold plates from the angel Moroni and translated them into the Book of Mormon was the ultimate leap of faith. But she took it, and felt rewarded ever since. How far-fetched was it, then, to believe that someone else had received God’s calling to bring the sealed portion of the lost pages of the Book of Mormon into the world?
“God sent me that dream about him because I had been called to help him. He knew I was one of the elect the minute he looked into my eyes,” Marie remembers.
She was excited. Giddy, even. She was the one worthy enough to help him, as she put it, to “bring forth the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon and aid in the gathering of the elect in these last days.”
She asked him to e-mail her some of the portion he’d already translated. “Since I had experienced true miracles, I had every reason to believe he could be telling me the truth,” she remembers.
In March 2001, Nemelka was ordered to serve one year in the Salt Lake County Jail for violation of a restrictive order after visiting the house of an ex-wife. Marie stood by Nemelka. She received his revelations from jail.
“On the 20th day of April, 2001, I, being incarcerated in the Salt Lake County Jail, was feeling somewhat depressed in spirit, and selfishly thought of myself and the miserable state in which—as I perceived it—I was presently in due to my circumstances,” one revelation read. “In this self-preoccupation, I thought on all the wonderful sisters that the Lord had prepared to help me in the work that he had commanded me to do.
“And I thought on the sisters who I knew were chosen vessels, and who had sacrificed, even their whole lives, for the work and the will of the Lord. And I thought much about Selah who was struggling within herself because of the sacrifice she had made of her dear children for the Lord. And she was greatly desired by many of the men with whom it was necessary for her to associate with in her present calling to obtain financing for the translation, and also for my personal debts.”
“Selah” was the pseudonym Nemelka had assigned to Marie. The revelation went on to describe how the Lord had commanded Nemelka to take another woman, “Mariahla,” as his wife.
Marie remembers these revelations, and other letters from Nemelka, as instructions from God to help Nemelka in his religious endeavors after he’d persuaded her of his status as a prophet and translator of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. “He told me he owned nothing except his carpenter’s tools. He talked constantly about the Savior, about the prophets of old, about helping the poor and needy. He compared me often to Esther and acted as if he was amazed by my pure heart,” Marie said. No one knew the scriptures like he did. I felt the spirit when he talked. I could see nothing malevolent about him. I saw a man with extraordinary character, a man of God. Indeed, the man of my dreams.”
Speaking by phone from the Salt Lake County Metropolitan Jail, Nemelka comes across as a friendly, amiable man, but he also sounds frustrated. Never did he try to persuade Marie that he was a prophet of God, translating the sealed portion, he said. Never did he once ask or press Marie for money. It was Marie who projected a divine image onto him, convincing herself of his status as a prophet and man of God, he said. He ran with it and played on it, he admits. For that, he is sorry. And any money she gave him was money she volunteered, almost forced on him. He accepted it only after she told him her business was thriving and her children were being provided for.
“What I did do was I deceived her religiously. I played with her religious beliefs and mind, which I do not think a person should do,” Nemelka said.
The nature of faith, the bonds of trust, and the requirements of religious belief are but three questions surrounding this tale. Marie’s story of how she came to believe Nemelka may seem more like the stuff of a television mini-series, or a sketch from Ripley’s “Believe it or Not.” What’s all the more remarkable is that the story of Marie and Nemalka revolves around one of the most fabled, mythic strands of the LDS church: the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.
Marie describes her experience with Nemelka in almost harrowing terms. She even visited a friend in Albany, New York, in attempts to sort it all out.
Keith Raniere, an Albany educator, acknowledges he never met or dealt with Nemelka firsthand. But he can vouch for the fact that the man had a deep grip on Marie. Her conversations about Nemelka consistently revolved around his demands on her, Raniere said. “It was like peeling back the layers of an onion in order to get to the core of rationality. There was no rationality to be had,” Raniere said.
Two of Nemelka’s family members speak in his favor. One is his brother, local attorney Joseph Lee Nemelka: “I can say that the majority of what has been said about him is misconstrued, blatantly false at the outset, or exaggerated,” he said. “That’s as much as I want to say.”
The other is Nemelka’s sister, Alesa Forrest, who believes that Marie might have fallen under her brother’s spell, but stops short of believing all of Marie’s account. “He’s a dynamic person. Many women who’ve come in contact with him, a lot of them fall in love with him,” Forrest said. “Even if my own husband came to me and said, ‘I’ve had a vision that God’s made me a prophet,’ I would question everything about it. That’s why I have such a hard time believing any woman would fall for that, especially a Mormon.”
Richard Dewey, a local book publisher and one of the few people who knew both Marie and Nemelka, has a hard time believing that Marie is acting out of scorn. On the other hand, he admires Nemalka, with whom he’s had business dealings. “I can’t conceive of her wanting to hurt him. She’s not a vengeful person at all,” Dewey said. “All I can chalk it up to is a big misunderstanding.”
One thing is certain: The sealed portion as written by Nemelka exists. Nemelka admitted he wrote it, not translated it. People besides Marie have read its pages. Dewey recalls Marie talking about it. “I thought it was kind of an elaborate joke—I don’t know what. She said it was very realistic-sounding, despite the strange premise. I told her there was no way it could be authentic.”
Dewey said he witnessed her sacrifices firsthand. Marie sold all her furniture and goods to move into a dumpy hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, where she lived almost like a homeless person, among near-homeless people. “Some of us tried to talk her into moving out of that hotel, but she wanted to live as meagerly as possible to give her money to Chris,” Dewey said.
Nemelka remains steadfast in his position that Marie volunteered the money. “She set this up,” he said. “She’s the one who recommended her financing the sealed portion, my life and everything else. She did it. I never asked her for anything—never.
“My whole purpose, though, was to write the sealed portion. Get the sealed portion done. Sell it to the church. My whole idea was to sell it to the LDS church. I was going to sell it to them, because all the Mormons are looking for the sealed portion to come back. I thought I had a good talent for writing. I was going to write it up and sell it to them. They could do with it what they wanted. They probably would have kept it off the market.”
In the realm of Mormon folklore, few things rank as highly suspect as the Three Nephites or the sealed portion. The Three Nephites, according to lore, live immortally as the last of a righteous tribe that once existed on the American continent. As such, they have roamed the world through the centuries, turning good deeds wherever they went. Like the Jewish lore of Elijah at the Passover table, they could exist literally, or figuratively.
The sealed portion is another matter. It’s reputedly a blocked-off section of the original gold plates from which Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon. Mormons teach that he could not access it and he was not authorized to translate it. In the Book of Jared in the Book of Mormon, the sealed portion is briefly cited as containing the entire history of the world, from Adam until Christ’s Second Coming. The sealed portion is different from the historical 116 pages given to Martin Harris by Joseph Smith and subsequently lost. The rest remains a mystery, one that infamous Mormon document forger Mark Hofmann even tried to deal in at one time.
“It’s a historical footnote. We know that a portion of the plates Joseph Smith had was sealed. We don’t know anything about what was in them, and they play no role in our theology,” said Daniel Peterson, associate executive director of the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, a parent organization of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University.
Peterson found Nemelka’s sealed portion mildly impressive, but far short of any potential to spark a following. Since the sealed portion exists as a sort of blank spot on Mormon theology, it’s fertile ground for anyone who wants to invent something, much like Jesus’ childhood, on which the Bible never took pains to elaborate.
“I don’t think I’m going to convert anytime soon,” Peterson said. “He writes reasonably well. I’m tipping my hat, I suppose, but it’s a good imitation of scriptural style.”
Nemelka may not be the first, and certainly not the only person, to dip his pen in this wide-open well. The Internet is full of people staking claim to the sealed portion. The Council of Patriarchs Sons Amman Israel, based in Arizona, has abridged and published a text called The Oracles of Mohonri: An account written by the hand of Mohonri Moriancumer upon the gold plates taken from the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. California’s Brotherhood of Christ Church published what it calls The Sealed Portion of the Brother of Jared. “This amazing book has been anticipated for more than 170 years,” the jacket boasts. “The information contained here came from a man from the immediate post-flood period who was taught in the ancient religion of Enoch who lived in the seventh generation from Adam.”
Nemelka’s version finds its context in a preamble he penned before embarking on his sealed portion. It begins in the summer of 1984, when he worked as a security officer for the LDS church. Already disillusioned with the church, he ventured into the Temple’s upper room where the Twelve Apostles meet. Confronted with its opulence, he “wept bitterly.” Shortly afterward, a “tremendously bright light began to fill the room.” Not only did Nemelka see the personage of his late grandfather, but Joseph Smith and the gold plates to boot. His mission, he learned, was to “commence” the translation of the sealed portion, but only under the position and authority of Smith. The preamble ends with a rumble of stalwart righteousness: “Though I will endure many persecutions and trials, I will never deny that I have experienced that which I have described above, and if any man mock me or that to which I have testified, I will witness against him at the judgement bar of God … I solemnly testify.”
It’s signed Christopher M. Nemelka, Adam Ben Eli. The alias, Nemelka explained, kept matters in the original Mormon spirit of authenticity. If Joseph Smith used pseudonums, so would he.
“I set about in my own mischievous and arrogant way, of which I’m not proud of now, to prove that a person could actually write scripture and present it to people who were looking for certain scripture,” Nemelka said. “I was playing on the belief that LDS people have that one day the gold plates would be returned and the sealed portion would be translated. Basically, I set about to write a fictitious version of the sealed portion as I thought Joseph Smith would have written it had he continued to perpetuate his translation of the gold plates. Much to the chagrin of the LDS church and others, what I wrote was indeed well versed and quite appropriate for the scripture I was trying to portray. Anybody who reads it would just be totally amazed.”
Indeed, Nemelka’s version, titled “The Vision and Words of the Brother of Jared Written and Sealed up by Moroni, the Son of Mormon,” comes off as a fairly solid piece of Mormon rhetoric. Chapter One gets all the testifying out of the way to make way for Brother of Jared’s journey to the mount of “Shamir,” where he witnesses the “spirit body” of Jesus, then is whisked away to meet the Father and marvel at his spirit, followed by a meeting with his heavenly Mother. Chapter Four outlines the Brother of Jared’s further travels through the many worlds and kingdoms of the Father, where he “receives many mysteries and knowledge because of his faithfulness.”
It’s a stately, but leaden piece of writing designed to hit all the right notes with Mormon faithful, right down to its repeated use of “And it came to pass … ” and the liberal use of words like “behold,” “eternal” and “exceedingly.” It’s also a deft mix of Old Testament wrath (“you shall weep and wail and gnash”) matched with New Testament promise and redemption. It’s loaded with admonitions to obey God’s commandments—or else.
“My true intent was to somehow perpetuate a religion that would be based on true Christian principals of Christ-like love,” Nemelka explained in a phone interview from jail. “Where I made my greatest mistake, for which I’m now extremely sorry for, is that I used deception to perpetuate what I proposed as the truth, assuming at the time that Joseph Smith had done the same thing.”
Some might say it was a long, winding road to that realization. This isn’t the first time Nemelka’s name has ended up in a newspaper.
West High School’s 1980 senior-class president, Nemelka served an LDS mission in Argentina. He found his first wife in Paula Blades Nemelka. After two children, the couple divorced over religious differences in 1986. With his ex-wife remarried in Montana, and with Nemelka in custody of his children, he moved to Victor, Mont. After his ex-wife’s family secured a court order placing his children in the care of Montana’s Division of Family Services, in June 1991 Nemelka went through the doors of the state office and took his son, Josh. Then with Josh, his wife at the time, Jackie, and their two children, they all went to Oregon and Idaho. In Salt Lake City, Nemelka took his fatherly plight to the media and turned himself in to police. A daily newspaper splashed his story on the front page.
Charged with kidnapping of his son, Nemelka threatened a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the state of Montana for taking his children, then went on a hunger strike in jail after turning himself over to Montana’s Ravalli County law enforcement. Eventually, Nemelka’s son was returned to his mother in Montana. Nemelka was released from jail later that fall, and all charges against him and his wife were eventually dropped. Near the end of that ordeal, Nemelka admitted that he’d taken the law into his own hands, but for all the right reasons, just like the American patriots of the Boston Tea Party.
During 1991, Nemelka crossed paths with Kyle Williams, who also served an LDS mission in Argentina. Williams, who now works as a real estate title searcher in Tennessee while attending law school, remembers Nemelka as a happy-go-lucky person, very charismatic, somewhat mischievous, but with strong beliefs he was willing to stand up for. Nemelka and his family stayed at Williams’ house in Ammon, Idaho during their run from the law, Williams said, but left when the police showed up to ask questions.
“He [Nemelka] has real good stories. He makes it sound as if he did nothing wrong. He’s always right. I was caught in the middle of his friendship,” he said.
Nemelka sent him a copy of his sealed portion, but Williams never bothered to read it. “He told me he was doing it as a way of mocking the Mormons. He was a real interesting character,” Williams said. “I had hoped he would come to his senses and live a normal life, but he’s gone the other way. He’s continued with his religious nonsense.”
Jackie and Chris Nemelka divorced in 1993. During their marriage, Jackie remembers a man who always had to have something eccentric to work on. For several years their family lived in travel trailers, pulling up to move someplace new whenever Nemelka got bored with the situation. She remembers him sitting by the computer, or with note-pad in hand, writing his sealed portion.
“He was very impressed that he could write like that and have it sound so real,” she remembers. “He thought he was a lot like Joseph Smith. People would say he was like Joseph Smith—charismatic and outgoing—and I was like Emma, reserved and quiet.”
After finishing his version of the sealed portion, Nemelka floated it around certain circles in the Mormon fundamentalist community. It was a big hit, winning him the admiration of many. Along the way, two women offered to live with him and Jackie under a polygamous relationship. One of them was Vicky Prunty, current director of Tapestry Against Polygamy.
Prunty, who married Nemelka in a private ceremony, broke ties with him in 1996. “A lot of fundamentalists believed him. They were extremely angry with him when he leveled with them. I thought he was through with that sealed portion game. It’s really hard to put a finger on him. A lot of people would have to come together to put the pieces of his own personal puzzle together. He’s a very charismatic man. I know of some Mormon fundamentalists who actually called him ‘Charisma Nemelka.’”
How angry were some in the fundamentalist community? Angry enough to kill him, Nemelka remembers. For his own safety, he changed his last name to Stohl. Jackie Nemelka said he arrived at this name through a slight variation on her maiden name, Stoll.
“Yes, Christopher Stohl was an alias that I used after I ran away from religious persecution. I didn’t want anybody to know Chris Nemelka,” Nemelka said. “See, when I did that thing with the fundamentalist group, there were people who wanted to kill me. They were so mad. When I came out and told these other polygamists, fundamentalist guys, that I had really written the sealed portion, that I had done it just to show people that it could be done—they were very upset.”
The year 1993 marked not only the end of his marriage with Jackie, but Nemelka’s entire polygamy set up-with Prunty and another woman. Nemelka said it was his uncle, the late Joe Nephi Nemelka, who encouraged him to give up the practice. “I knew it was not right. It was wrong,” Nemelka said. “I could have perpetuated it as long as Joseph Smith did, but I knew it was wrong.”
Eager to burst Prunty’s image as an anti-polygamy crusader, Nemelka said it was she, along with the second wife, who most wanted to continue living with him in polygamy.
Prunty has her own version of events. At times she speaks fondly of him. She remembers the times she, Nemelka and her sister wives drove to Shriner’s Hospital to sing for sick children. As a family they did stuff like that. Preserving their polygamist set-up once Nemelka called it quits, however, was not her calling. She firmly believed he’d arranged it all under the sanctity of a religious calling.
“He sat us all down and said he didn’t believe in polygamy, but [said], ‘What man wouldn’t want to have sex with more than one wife?’” Prunty said.
Putting her life back together, Marie will not brook the argument that she’s simply a woman scorned. Certainly she was enamored of the man. But she’s been enamored of many men, and never thought of them as being called by God to translate the sealed portion.
“The fact is, he very strategically convinced me over a period of two months that he was receiving revelations and he was a prophet of God. When I believed he was translating the sealed portion, I gave willingly.”
Nemelka described his sealed portion dealings with Marie as a business transaction. Once he’d sold it to the church or some other interested party, she would collect the royalties. Nemelka said Marie planned to fund his organization, Widow’s Mite, as well.
“She was going to be financially independent and able to, you know, support the publication of the sealed portion; the Widow’s Mite Foundation. The Widow’s Mite Foundation was an incredible institution we were going to set up. But Christine wanted me. When she didn’t get me … she turned against me,” Nemelka said.
There seems to be ample evidence that Nemelka is a good salesman. In an April 2, 1993 letter to one of his wives, which Nemelka admitted to having penned, he wrote: “When I deal with people, I am amazed at the ignorance and stupidity of most. People are so easily manipulated and deceived. Knowing this has made me a near master of manipulation. I try only to use this art, however, to help people. Sometimes the things I do seem terrible at the time, but usually the manipulation works to accomplish that which I intended.”
Nemelka’s revelations from jail, styled after Joseph Smith’s revelations from his own jail time, seem to work in similar territory. In a March 16, 2001 revelation to Marie, Nemelka spoke of overhearing one of the Three Nephites, describes his judge as someone who “was wrought upon by forces that her spirit was too weak to control” and described Marie as a mysterious nameless “sister.”
“Yeah that’s, that’s all bullshit,” Nemelka said from jail. “All the revelations are bullshit, of course. I made ‘em up.”
But he did it all for Marie, and Marie alone, to comfort her. Marie needed the comfort of her religious convictions, and he could provide it with his writings. “My whole purpose was for good. Christine knew that—knew that with all her heart. That’s why she said, ‘I’m going to finance you.’ She’s the one who brought it up. She’s the one who said I don’t want you to work,” Nemelka said. “I wrote it under the inspiration and guise of being a prophet of God. That’s what she wanted me to be.”
The financial costs of the relationship is not clear. Marie believes she gave Nemelka in the neighborhood of $5,000. But Nemelka said Marie may have given him a few hundred dollars, “here and there,” while he was writing the sealed portion. For him, that’s inconsequential. Nemelka said he paid odd bills here and there for Marie, as well. And, he said, his current wife gave Marie $1,800 to pay back any amount he owed.
Marie produced a handwritten letter she said was written by Nemelka, and which Nemelka admitted to writing. “You have been quite spectacular and trustworthy in your timely payments to my Visa, which covers my child support,” the letter reads. “By using the Visa method, all transactions will be kept virtually out of my hands and name,” it continues. “So the world will have no cause against me if something happens to you, or if the media, which I am sure will one day be investigating, takes it upon itself to accuse me, as they did Joseph [Smith], of taking advantage of religious contributions for my own gain.”
Nemelka described the six-page letter as the outline of a “business arrangement” between him and Marie to make her co-proprieter of his sealed portion once it came out in book form.
Nemelka admitted to going back and forth from atheism to certain levels of belief regarding the LDS church. He was excommunicated for writing an unpublished paper on LDS temple ceremonies. Now that he’s in jail, he hopes to join the church once again as a believing member. Upon his scheduled March 2002 release, he plans to attend law school and help as many indigent people as he can with his legal work.
Williams, his old friend, thinks of Nemelka this way: “What he believed, really, was that Joseph Smith was doing the same thing that he’s doing. That Joseph Smith had a vision of improving people, of helping people, and that he used falsehood to further that purpose. He thought Joseph Smith invented the golden plates story and all that to further the ethics of Mormonism. Chris set out to do the same thing with his sealed portion.”
Jackie Nemelka, an ex-wife, has another view: “There are so many angles that he takes. One minute he claims he’s an atheist, the next he’s a prophet of God.”
Marie’s upstate New York friend, Raniere, sees her experience as very on point given a world where someone purporting a religious doctrine can actually convince people to fly passenger jets into the World Trade Center. “The ‘scorned woman’ explanation is convenient, at best,” Raniere said. “My opinion of Christine is that she’s a very remarkable person, but not practical in this world. She’s very idealistic. The one upshot for her is that she’s come to a recognition of this and changed the impractical nature of her ideals. She assumes everyone’s honest because she’s so honest.”
And Nemelka steadfastly holds to the position that he “went on her dream that I was a prophet.”
“I’m even glad you’re doing the article, in a way,” he said. “I am, so that the sealed portion will never go anywhere. There’s a lot to it, a lot more than what you’ve got. In the wrong hands it could really wreak havoc on a Mormon church, which I don’t want to do.”