Gordon Hinckley

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Gordon B. Hinckley

Gordon Bitner Hinckley (June 23, 1910 - January 27, 2008) was the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hinckley served for over 12 years as President of the church, 14 years as counselor in the First Presidency, and 20 years as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

On June 23, 2004, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in the White House. The medal is the highest honor awarded to civilians.

  • "Millions of Americans reserve a special respect for Gordon B. Hinckley, who still works every day as President of the Mormon Church, and who, on this very day, turns 94 years old. Mr. Hinckley is the grandson of Mormon pioneers and has given devoted service to his church since 1935. He's always shown the heart of a servant, and the gifts of a leader. Through his discipline and faithfulness, he has proven a worthy successor to the many fine leaders before him. His church has given him its highest position of trust, and today this wise and patriotic man receives his country's highest civil honor." [1]

Gordon Hinckley’s Part in Events Related to the Mark Hofmann Murder Case

In the period from January of 1984 until the resolution of the case in January of 1987, Gordon Hinckley, as a member of the Quorum of 12 Apostles, was a key person in events related to the murder of two LDS church members: LDS Bishop Steven Christensen and Kathleen Sheets, the wife of Christensen’s former employer, both of whom were killed by package bombs on October 15, 1985. Motive for the murders was to remove Christensen as a witness against forgeries perpetrated by Mark Hofmann, who eventually pleaded guilty in a plea bargain in order to avoid the death penalty. Besides being a member of the Quorum of 12 Apostles, Hinckley was in effect the leading officer of the church at this time because of the age of Ezra Taft Benson, nominally the First President.

Bishop Christensen knew Hofmann well, and trusted him as an honest dealer in documents related to the founding years of the LDS movement. In January of 1984, Christensen had paid Hofmann $45,000 (some accounts say $40,000) for a document called the “Salamander Letter” that described the involvement of the founder of the LDS movement, Joseph Smith, with occult practices. The document, which later proved to be a forgery, had Smith dealing with a “magic salamander” that appeared to him when he was trying to dig up the golden plates that were the source of the Book of Mormon. The purported author of the letter was Martin Harris, one of the three witnesses whose names and testimonies appear as a frontispiece in every Book of Mormon.[1] Christensen had also purchased another letter that was presented as from the pen of Harris, although both it and the Salamander Letter were forgeries perpetrated by Hofmann.

Hofmann had spent two years as an LDS missionary, but in later life he began to doubt the doctrines of the church, thinking they were based on deception from the very start of the career of Joseph Smith. In his disillusionment with the doctrines he had been taught from his youth, Hofmann recognized an opportunity to use his knowledge of early church history to extort money from the church leadership. He became an expert forger. Gordon Hinckley was one who was deceived by his expertise, paying $15,000 for a document that pretended to be from Joseph Smith.[2] Having successfully sold these two, plus other forgeries, to the church,[3] which had an interest in buying them so that embarrassing facts about the origins of the movement would not be known, Hofmann set his sights on a more lucrative project: claiming that he had found the lost “McLellin Collection.” This was a series of documents from William McLellin, one of the members of the very first “Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” whose faith in the church was shaken because of changes that were being made in doctrines that were supposedly revelations of God. It was also known among Mormon historians that McLellin claimed to have information on Joseph Smith’s adulterous relationship with young Fannie Alger, information that was given to McLellin by Smith’s wife Emma. For these reasons, the church leadership was anxious to make sure that Hofmann would not sell any such documents to anyone else but to the LDS church, so that the church could make sure they would never be exposed to public view. To accomplish this, the $185,000 was allocated to a faithful member who would handle the transaction without it appearing that the church was involved, after which the McLellin documents would safely disappear.

Before the $185,000 would be handed over to Hofmann, it was deemed necessary to appoint someone to verify that the documents were authentic. The church leadership assigned that task to Steven Christensen. But then things began to get uncomfortable for Hofmann, who had not had time to produce the forged collection before the designated day to meet with Christensen. Further, Hofmann was concerned because Gerald Tanner, an ex-Mormon who had become a Christian, had somehow obtained a copy of the Salamander Letter that the church was trying to hide from public view. Tanner, after careful analysis, expressed the opinion that the Salamander Letter was a forgery, despite LDS church experts declaring it authentic. Hofmann’s solution to his dilemma was to murder Christensen on the day that Christensen was intending to get his first view of the Collection, and then to murder Christensen’s former business partner on the same day so that it would look like the murderer was somehow associated with the business dealings of these two men. The second bomb, however, killed the partner’s wife instead. The day after these murders, a third bomb went off, by accident, in Hofmann’s car so that, contrary to his plans, he became a suspect in the previous day’s murders. Gerald Tanner thought that this bomb was intended for him.

Gordon Hinckley, as acting President, along with other top leadership of the LDS church, was directly involved in dealing with the FBI in their investigation of the murders. Although Hofmann was an early suspect because of the bomb that went off in his car, the investigators could not determine a motive that would be needed in order to make a good case against him. Despite the insights of Gerald Tanner, Hofmann’s expertise as a forger was not yet known. In the attempts to determine a motive, and to find more facts about the case, detective Jim Baker, a chief investigator of the murders, said of the “cooperation” he got from Hinckley and others in the LDS leadership: “They're hiding something; the church is doing everything it can to make this as difficult as possible. I've never seen anything like this in a homicide investigation.”[4]

After Mark Hofmann confessed, there was considerable criticism of the church’s role in the events related to the murders and the apparent cover-ups by the church regarding its suppression of documents. In an attempt to counter this criticism, church leaders commissioned Richard E. Turley Jr., Managing Director of the LDS Church Historical Department, to write a book presenting the church’s side of the issue. When the book appeared in 1992,[5] it revealed a hitherto hidden fact that has been characterized as “one of the most embarrassing secrets that a Mormon historian has ever revealed.”[6] During the long course of the criminal investigations, someone discovered that an important part of the McLellin Collection was in the First Presidency’s vault, where it had been since 1908. This fact was not made public until Turley’s book was published six years after Hofmann confessed. If it had been made known earlier, before Hofmann was arrested, his arrest would have taken place immediately, since the presence of the Collection in the First Presidency’s vault would have shown that Hofmann did not have the collection, and hence was a forgerer and a liar. The motive for the murders would then have been established, namely to remove the pressure on Hofmann to produce the documents. As it was, when this piece of information was kept from the investigators and the public, it allowed a murderer, Mark Hofmann, free to roam the streets of Salt Lake City.

Despite protestations by the church leadership of not being afraid of honest inquiry into the start of their religion, the McLellan Collection—information from an individual who was intimate with the earliest personalities and events of the church—is just as locked up today as it has been for over 100 years.

In these many dealings associated with the Mark Hofmann affair, Gordon Hinckley displayed his adroitness in dealing with the FBI investigators and in obscuring facts in presentations to the public while guiding the church through very troubled waters.

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  1. Smith later denounced Harris, along with fellow witnesses Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, as characters “too mean to mention” (Joseph Smith in the official LDS publication History of the Church, Vol. 3, p. 228). On the same page, Smith characterizes Whitmer as belonging to a gang of “counterfeiters, thieves, liars, and blacklegs.”
  2. [http://www.utlm.org/newsletters/no83.htm “Salt Lake City Messenger,” no. 83 (Nov. 1992), p. 3.
  3. "Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie proclaimed that church leaders did have the gift of discernment: "...the gift of the discerning of spirits is poured out upon presiding officials in God's kingdom; they have it given to them to discern all gifts and all spirits, lest any come among the saints and practice deception..."" (Ibid., p. 12). Hinckley, in these matters that were of great importance to questions of the validity of the church’s claims about its origin, was deceived.
  4. Salt Lake City Messenger 70 (January 1989), p. 12.
  5. Richard E. Turley, Jr., Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992).
  6. Salt Lake City Messenger 83, p. 2.