Bombings focus attention on issues in Mormon faith

There's a double drama developing in the area of the American West that has come to be known as Mormon country. One scenario involves murder, violence, and possible extortion. The other focuses on the inner workings and theological underpinnings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons. The twin sagas seem to be interrelated. But there are serious doubts whether there is a single plot.

Church leaders do not believe there is any connection between the bombing deaths of two Mormons last week and the trafficking in highly valued and controversial historical documents by a suspect, Mark Hofmann. There is, however, much speculation that the bombs were planted to prevent the surfacing of evidence of extortion and forgery.

A criminal investigation of the felonies is underway. Mr. Hofmann is considered by many to be a prime suspect. But he has not as yet been charged with any crime. The youthful documents dealer is presently recovering from injuries suffered when a bomb exploded in his car.

Mormon leaders are reluctant to talk about the matter. Don LeFevre, church communications spokesman, denies the church had any prior knowledge of impending violence.

Contrary to rumors that the church had been negotiating to buy these documents, ``church leaders are not in the business of buying historical documents. If somebody wants to give them to us, that is another matter,'' Mr. LeFevre says.

However, there is no question regarding a prior, and continuing, relationship between Mormon church leaders and Hofmann.

Gordon Hinckley, a counselor for the church's governing First Presidency, reported last week that the church has purchased other documents from Hofmann in the past.

A key part of the controversy revolves around a collection of letters, diaries, and other rare historical documents that the dealer purportedly was trying to sell to church officials.

Foremost among these papers was a 1830 letter known as the ``white salamander letter.'' The document is an epistle written about church founder Joseph Smith, that offers new and contradictory information regarding the beginnings of the Mormon church.

The authenticity of the letter is in question. But some Mormon historians suggest that if it is not a forgery it could establish an atmosphere of necromancy and magic surrounding the faith's origins -- one that would seem to challenge the traditional Mormon philosophy that their religion has a firm historical basis.

This would be important to Mormons and to how others view their church. Historians explain that Mormons value their image as hard-working, upstanding citizens who are devoted to their families and their faith.

``Most Americans know us as clean-cut, conservative, healthy people with big families'' says Peggy Fletcher, editor-publisher of ``SunStone,'' a liberal Mormon journal that frankly discusses many of the controversies within the church.

Miss Fletcher admits that if there is ultimately some hard evidence of church officials' involvement in the violence or an attempted cover-up regarding the documents, public opinion could turn against Mormons. But she strongly doubts either possibility. She says that church leaders have already carefully scrutinized the salamander letter.

``There is no pressure [on the Mormon hierarchy] to either prove or disprove its authenticity,'' she insists. But Miss Fletcher allows that ``church leaders will likely be a lot more careful in the future about how they acquire documents.''

Fletcher says she believes the Hofmann documents, including the salamander letter, are authentic. Former church historian Leonard Arrington, agrees with her.

Mr. Arrington, who continues to study church history as a professor at Brigham Young University, downplays the implications of the mystical origins of the church that some have attributed to the letter. He says the term ``salamander'' was perhaps used symbolically and may refer to a ``supernatural being which could withstand fire.''

``It has nothing to do with black magic,'' the historian insists.

The letter in question, allegedly written by an early convert to the Mormon faith, relates how an ``old spirit'' in the form of a white salamander had guarded the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon, which were revealed to Joseph Smith. The church maintains that an angel revealed the plates to Smith.

Jan Shipps, a scholar of Mormon history, says these explanations are crucial to the church's followers. She points out that ``They [Mormons] have a particular relationship to their own history. It's crucial to their faith''

Ms. Shipps, a professor of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, is not a Mormon but is the author of a new book: ``Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition,'' which is widely used both inside and outside the church. She, too, says she believes the salamander letter is authentic. ``It solves some historical problems for those of us who have studied Mormon history . . . and the letter proves that Joseph Smith was involved in some of this fol k magic.''

Most students of Morman history believe the church will survive the present controversies surrounding it. However, one of the nation's leading Protestant theologians, Martin Marty, stresses that on the scholarly level, ``shock waves will be felt for a long time to come.''

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