Church releases contents of controversial letter

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Mormon Church has released the contents of a 155-year-old letter some historians say could cast doubt on the official version of the way the church was founded, it was reported Sunday.

The letter, purportedly written by early church member Martin Harris to newspaper editor W.W. Phelps, mentioned certain magical events and told of how a spirit turned into a white salamander to temporarily prevent church founder Joseph Smith from obtaining golden plates that told of a new Biblical World on the American continent, which is the foundation of the church.


The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the official church version says Smith was told by God in 1823 he had been chosen to restore the church and was told by an angel where the plates were hidden.

Harris, who church hi3tory describes as one of three witnesses who saw the angel and the sacred plates, also said in the letter that Smith translated the plates into what is now known as the Book of Mormon by putting a strange set of spectacles in an old hat and in the darkness translated the old Hebrew language into English.


The official church version holds that Smith used special 'seer stones' to translate the plates, but says nothing about an old hat.

Gordon Hinckley, second counselor to church President Spencer W. Kimball, said while there is no evidence the letter was forged, there is no certainty that Harris wrote the document.

'This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged at a time when the church had many enemies,' said Hinckley in a statement. 'It is, however, an interesting document of the times (in which the practice of magic was common).'

Hinckley said the document does not affect the church's claim it is the only true Church of God on Earth and its leader is a living prophet.

'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 membership in the church and in the testimonies they bore to the end of their lives.'

The letter was given to the church by Steve Christensen, a Mormon bishop who purchased the letter last year from LDS document collectors Mark Hoffman and Lyn Jacobs. The document had been part of a stamp collection in New England.


Sandra Tanner, a longtime evangelical critic of the church, said if the letter is authentic, it reinforces other documents that show Joseph Smith and early Mormons were involved in magic practices.

George Smith, president of Signature Books, said, 'The letter demonstrates tht the history of the church as officially portrayed does not hold water. We may need to consider a revision to include dimensions of folk magic of the times.'

The letter is expected to be discussed at a Mormon History Association meeting in Kansas City, Mo., May 2.

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