“If [its] pronounced genuine, then it is genuine by definition. It’s not so much what is genuine and what isn’t, as what people believe is genuine.” – Mark Hoffman, 1986
Watching Murder Among the Mormons was like a crazy crash course in how easily the truth can be constructed and manipulated. The three-part mini-series blew me out of the water and left me reconsidering a lot of what I believe to be true.
A big part of learning about any topic with conflicting sources is asking “How do we know what we know?” Usually this can be easily resolved by using the scientific method: Primary sources and compiling studies that all point towards one sound conclusion. But this method isn’t infallible, so what happens when we get this wrong? What happens when we not only accept falsehood as truth but we give that falsehood the power to shape our entire relationship with the world?
Murder Among the Mormons demonstrates how a false truth can affect thousands of people. When authentic-looking documents emerged in the early 1980s that called into question some of the core beliefs of the Mormon church, the leadership of the religion spent a lot of time and money trying to suppress these facts from becoming public. In all of this chaos, however, everyone neglected to notice that the “truths” they were suppressing were not true at all.
By taking advantage of the Church of Latter-Day Saint’s reliance on historical documents to prove the origin of Mormonism, Mark Hoffman, an ordinary man with a deep fascination with forgery, was able to successfully create fake church documents and briefly alter Mormon history. While he was stopped before the LDS Church purchased documents that would have completely changed the origin story of Mormonism, he had successfully caused an uproar over the Salamander Letter, which showed that Joseph Smith was not shown the original Mormon texts by an angel, but rather by a white salamander.
After his success with the Salamander Letter, Hoffman shot bigger and wanted to forge the McLellin Collection that would have shown that the real founder of Mormonism was not Joseph Smith, as is believed, but his older brother. Continuing this scam, Hoffman’s magnum opus was to forge the missing 116 pages from the Book of Mormon, hoping that the forged Salamander Letter in “Joseph Smith’s” handwriting from before would authenticate his creation.
The idea that the Mormon church almost accepted papers that would have completely debunked the whole origin of Mormonism is insane, but while his focus was on the Mormon Church, his documents reached far and wide. He tried to forge the Oath of a Freeman, supposedly the first document printed in colonial America and it was accepted as true and nearly sold to the Library of Congress before the whole scandal fell apart. Hoffman copied signatures and made forged documents from many historical figures, ranging from George Washington to an “unfound” poem of Emily Dickinson. He forged so many documents that there is an unknown amount of Hoffman documents swirling around the American historical record that could be inauthentic.
Anyone who has grown up in a religious household knows that if you question the teachings of the church too much, you will be directed to the Bible for the final answer. I always wondered, if the Bible was written by man, and translated into English by man, couldn’t there be mistakes or errors? Ultimately, it wouldn’t matter, because so many people accept the Bible as infallible.
Religion is based on faith, but there is a certain level of discomfort invoked when you consider that history itself may also be based on a certain level of faith. We have methods of authentication and validating historical documents, but how do we know that they are accurate? What do we do when the next Mark Hoffman comes around, with some genius technique to forge documents, and tells us that it wasn’t Washington who crossed the Delaware? When do we sacrifice truth for our preconceived notions and ideologies?
We have been confronted with this dilemma a lot recently: the Michael Jackson pedophilia allegations forced a lot of people to reframe the way they perceived their favorite pop star. Almost expectedly, many people refused to believe the allegations as true, and nothing but clear, smoking-gun evidence could convince them that Michael Jackson abused children.
With Donald Trump, we saw the same pattern. We argued and argued over whether he incited an insurrection at The Capitol when it was obvious that he did. His claims of election forgery were so genuinely believed by some that they think there is still a chance that Donald Trump will suddenly be president again.
So, is Mark Hoffman right? Are we all, to some extent, constructing truth by selectively applying narratives and facts to how we see the world? While we like to hope this isn’t the case, Murder Among the Mormons drives home that there is a blurred line between fact and faith.
Christina Ochoa is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].