Notes on Murder Among the Mormons

“But as you cannot always judge the righteous, or as you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous, therefore I say unto you, hold your peace until I shall see fit to make all things known unto the world concerning the matter.” (D&C 10:37).

For believing-and-sustaining Latter-Day Saints, the Netflix special Murder Among the Mormons is a lot to process.  I was already familiar with the story from hearing it in various venues over the years, but for church members who operate with culturally-formed assumptions of prophetic infallibility, this series is going to be a hard dose of reality.

Do the governing quorums and councils of the church receive revelation?  Absolutely.  What does that process look like?  Well, it depends.  We have numerous very specific descriptions of ways that the revelatory process works (see here, here, here, and here), but the process varies depending upon the situation.  And in cases where professional expertise is relevant, the Q15 and governing committees take time to consult with experts in their disciplines as they seek revelation.

As a personal example, my wedding and sealing were sent to the 1st Presidency for approval.  The reason for this was, my wife and I were not living together and we wanted to get married by double proxy, which was an unusual arrangement that church leadership had never seen.  I assumed that we would just send our request up the chain, the 1st presidency would approve it, and we would be all set.  But the process dragged on for weeks, and when we asked for a status update, we were told that the church was consulting with their legal team because they had never seen a request like ours.  I was deflated, because I thought a simple prayer-and-revelation should have sufficed.  But I’ve come to see that the church has learned from hard experience over the years that it is important to consult experts.  As President Nelson recently said, “good inspiration is based upon good information…”

What we see in the Hofmann case is the church being bombarded with information from multiple disciplines at once: Hofmann’s forgeries and the industry surrounding them involved disciplines of forensics, chemistry, historiography, law, business, and more.  And all of these questions and disciplines were converging rapidly in a short amount of time.  In that light, the church’s decisions (or plans) to acquire artifacts make sense.  Sure, it’s possible to ascribe sinister motives to church leaders, and many people do.  But as a practical matter, the church’s engagement with Hofmann through Steve Christensen brought the situation to a head and forced Hofmann’s hand.  The awful consequence of that, however, was the loss of innocent lives at the hands of a vicious atheist madman who was obsessed with tearing down the church.

Some thoughts:

  1. I loved the series.  I thought it was very well done.  In past presentations I’ve seen, I don’t think I ever really grasped the human dimensions of this story: the families affected, and the collateral damage done among people in Hofmann’s social circles who were totally oblivious to the kind of person they were dealing with.  This series was heart-rending to watch, as it should be.
  2. When I say that we should be much more discriminating about who we offer temple blessings to, Hofmann is a poster child of what I mean.  It used to be that missions were seen as a way to fix wayward or nonbelieving kids, and while some people have gone from zero to vibrant, authentic faith on their missions, we know from events in recent years that vast numbers of members of the church have been treating the temple and missionary service as cultural rites of passage.  If you are a believing-and-sustaining Latter-Day saint and you believe the temple is what we claim it to be, the fact that Hofmann was wearing garments while committing murder is appalling.  For nonbelieving Mormons who view the temple as nothing more than an overly expensive setting for acts of religious social cohesion, Hofmann’s wearing of the garment was probably not a big deal.  When I say that Satanists (and yes, murderers) can call themselves Mormons and be honest in that label, I mean it.  Our abandonment of the term Mormon is an important step in differentiating ourselves from nonbelieving/nonsustaining people, and stricter attention to authentic temple worthiness would be another good step in that direction.  Ideally it would have been very clear that Hofmann was not a member of our community, but a viewer of this series will not perceive that.  Sometimes in our desire to be an inclusive community, we include monsters.
  3. If we are sometimes frustrated with the lack of sensationalism in our church leadership, this series gives a good glimpse as to why, when it comes to spiritual leaders, steady and boring are good.  It’s good to have church leaders who are not constantly swept away in every accusation and every controversy.  We suppose that some of their resolve and poise comes from the spiritual endowments that accompany their callings, but some of it just comes from hard experience.  From the time of Kirtland, the church has repeatedly seemed to be on the verge of catastrophe, and yet we always end up stronger and more capable than before.  When you see enough of these situations and their resolutions over time, it’s hard to be rattled by pretty much anything.
  4. I think this series will cause heartburn among atheists, because Hofmann’s murderous behavior is shown to be explicitly rooted in and rationalized by his atheist worldview.  Atheists love to point to examples of how people of faith find in their belief systems the means to justify all kinds of horrible behavior.  Sadly, this has been true throughout history.  But it is also true that secularism has been responsible for much more suffering and death in its relatively short life, and Hofmann’s logic, on full display here, gives indications as to why that is.

Finally, returning to the #1 question among Latter-Day Saints: why wasn’t this situation completely revealed to the prophets in advance, with a tidy set of divinely-prescribed responses for church leaders?  Institutional revelation — what we are referring to when we say “follow the prophet” — sometimes does come as a clear divine communication to the president of the church.  But it also comes from many other directions, such as from the governing quorums and councils, and even from lay church members.  Revelation goes through a process of discussion and refinement by the men and women who lead the church, and this often slows down the pace of action.  There is purpose in this, as it helps church leadership to account for their biases and apply varied points of view to important questions.

Another sobering reality to consider is that sometimes the heavens are silent, even in situations of crisis.  In The Crucible of Doubt, Terryl and Fiona Givens offer an example of this from the life of Joseph Smith, as he wrote to church members suffering persecution in Missouri:

18 August

Dear Brotheren

in fellowship and love towards you and with a broken heart . . . I take the pen to address you but I know not what to say. . . . My heart feints within me and I feel to exclaim O Lord let the desire of my heart be felt and realized this moment. . . . I verily know that [Christ] will speedily deliver Zion for I have his immutable covenant that this shall be the case but god is pleased to keep it hid from mine eyes.

The authors note that

At this moment, Joseph was a thousand miles away in Kirtland, Ohio, beset by his own enemies and conspirators. The distance and impotence of his predicament were unbearable: “never at any time have I felt as I now feel that pure love for you my Brotheren the wormth and Zeal for your safety that we can scarcely hold our spirits but wisdom I trust will keep us from madness and desperation.” Three months later, Joseph had received no heavenly insight into the dilemma. “How far [the mobs] will be suffered to execute their threats we know not,” he wrote a convert.

As in the time of Joseph Smith, our current leadership sometimes have revelatory moments of bright, unmistakable clarity, but sometimes, as President Oaks once said, “…we are delayed in the receipt of revelation, and sometimes we are left to our own judgment. We cannot force spiritual things. It must be so. Our life’s purpose to obtain experience and to develop faith would be frustrated if our Heavenly Father directed us in every act, even in every important act.”

Faith is in large measure, a matter of trust.  The prophets have been abundantly clear and unflinching about the source of their authority; see, for example, President Nelson’s encouragement that people take this question of authority straight to God: “Ask your Heavenly Father if we truly are the Lord’s apostles and prophets. Ask if we have received revelation on this and other matters.” In receipt of this revelation, a life of discipleship then entails a relationship of informed covenantal trust between church members, our God, and His ordained church leaders.  This relationship is embodied in the word sustain.

Watching Murder Among the Mormons, many church members will wonder if church leadership responded in ideal ways to the actions of one of the greatest deceivers in history.  To analyze and even question the church’s decisions in that situation is a normal human response in our day, and was a normal human response in 1985.  Unfortunately, some will find their faith severely challenged by this story in our day, as they were in 1985.  Some will see in the church’s actions a group of inspired leaders doing their best to act with inspiration amidst a complex and rapidly-evolving set of circumstances. Others will see in the church’s actions a failure to adhere to specific mental models of how prophets should operate.  Of course, this latter response constitutes the only reason prophets have ever been rejected throughout history.

Doubtless among many commentators there will be much discussion of this new series, with unbridled casting of aspersions upon church members and leaders.  But for believing-and-sustaining members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the stakes are higher.

President Oaks once offered a frank acknowledgement that “the Church leaders I know are durable people. They made their way successfully in a world of unrestrained criticism before they received their current callings. They have no personal need for protection; they seek no personal immunities from criticism—constructive or destructive.” With that statement, however, comes a clear warning that “the counsel against speaking evil of Church leaders is not so much for the benefit of the leaders as it is for the spiritual well-being of members who are prone to murmur and find fault.” Elder Henry B. Eyring made this principle abundantly clear as he quoted Elder George Q. Cannon in a recent General Conference:

God has chosen His servants. He claims it as His prerogative to condemn them, if they need condemnation. He has not given it to us individually to censure and condemn them. No man, however strong he may be in the faith, however high in the Priesthood, can speak evil of the Lord’s anointed and find fault with God’s authority on the earth without incurring His displeasure. The Holy Spirit will withdraw himself from such a man, and he will go into darkness. This being the case, do you not see how important it is that we should be careful?

3 thoughts on “Notes on Murder Among the Mormons”

  1. I like to compare Mark Hoffman to Achan (Joshua 7). The Lord let Joshua unknowingly go into a losing battle without warning him about Achan’s sin. Similar to Hoffman, Achan broke his covenants, deceived people in order to gain money, and hid the whole thing from others as the net tightened around him. Also similar, his actions led to people dying. In all this, the Lord did not forewarn the prophet. He did give some divine aid in identifying Achan eventually, but he expected his people to initiate the regular investigation processes that were within their abilities. I think there are several principles there that apply to the Hoffman forgeries.

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  2. 1) One may note that the document examiners discovered the pattern of cracked ink on the forged documents provided by Hofman by comparing them with genuine documents already in (and from) the Church archives.

    2) Hofman was evidently a skilled and practiced liar from his youth. For years, he had few if any compunctions about pretending a belief he did not have to his parents, priesthood leaders, and even his own wife. I saw a con artist in action on my mission, and later went for years overlooking trouble signs from a person I had chosen to trust. It does not surprise me that Mark Hofman’s closest associates missed the signs and failed to see what he really was any earlier.

    3) Jesus taught in the parable of the wheat and the tares that there are reasons God doesn’t root out evil before it is fully ripe and reveals itself, so I can dismiss the suggestion that if the leaders of the Church had been really inspired, they would never have been deceived. From a global perspective, the truth came out soon enough and no great harm was done to the Church. It seems that it was primarily those who were already inclined to disbelieve for other reasons, or who never believed in the first place, who were most influenced by Hofman’s forgeries and lies.

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  3. Kindly, can I suggest that we don’t know what kinds of revelation may or may not have been received. We know that no one received a revelation they acted on that stopped Hofman or exposed him. But many revelations may have been received that guided the responses by the church, and others, but still left in tact Hofman’s agency to do evil. Those revelations may have kept the church from receiving some of the forged material, forestalling the purchase of the McLellin collection, etc. I also allow for some level of inspiration and revelation in Throckmorton’s work to expose the forgeries, where the FBI lab could not.

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