The Fall of a Mormon Forger...

<i> Johnston, a Times staff writer from 1976-88, now covers Atlantic City for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was once a Mormon Elders Quorum president. </i>

The Book of Mormon begins with a story of murder sanctioned by God. It is a story critical to understanding how in Mormon theology holy ends can justify what to non-believers would appear to be evil means.

And the concept of holy justification for otherwise abominable conduct is at the core of these two superb books about a skilled forger and how the very top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints became entangled with him and then tried to mislead law enforcement, the faithful and the public about their conduct.

The tale of Mark Hoffman, a returned Mormon missionary who was a closet heretic, makes for a superb crime book. There is intrigue, a terrific detective story and politics aplenty.


But both of these books on Hoffman also offer much more; they offer a journey into the unknown, taking readers through the labyrinth of Mormon theological culture not as the church’s well-oiled publicity machine portrays it, but as it is. In all the many books written about the Mormons, even landmark works like Wallace Turner’s “The Mormon Establishment,” none until now have mixed a powerful narrative with equally powerful insights into Mormon beliefs that can engage otherwise uninterested readers.

These books should be especially interesting reading for Californians since Mormonism is now the second most popular denomination in California, exceeded only by Roman Catholicism in number of adherents.

The hit that Mormons believe God ordered came about 2,500 years ago when the prophet Lehi and his family were ordered to take their genealogy and flee the wickedness of the chosen people for the New World. When the keeper of the begats would not relinquish them, Mormons believe that a spirit told Lehi’s son Nehpi:

“Slay him for the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands. Behold the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.”

The Book of Mormon is the cornerstone of the LDS Church, which proclaims itself to be God’s one and only church, the true Christian religion headed by a prophet today as in times of old; a church with both the Bible and modern scriptures. It is from modern revelation that Mormons arrive at their view that the truly unquestioning faithful will progress to become gods ruling their own planets.

According to the church, an angel named Moroni led Joseph Smith, a poor boy who grew up amid the revivalist fervor of the early 19th Century to a hillside where Moroni had buried a book written on leaves of gold.

Mormonism is unlike Judaism, the rest of Christianity and Islam in that it was founded after the invention of the printing press. Journals, records, books and other documents from its early days abound.

Documents, to Mormon leaders, fall into two categories: faith-promoting and faith-destroying. Genealogical records promote faith. So do testimonies. These and similar documents are exalted by the church hierarchy. But diaries kept by married women whom Joseph Smith bedded, supposedly on orders from God, are seen as faith-destroying. So are other records that might cast doubt on the church’s special claims.

The top echelon of the church has ways of dealing with the problems faith-destroying documents pose: It focuses teachings on the right documents, instructs those seeking to become gods in the next life that injudicious inquiry can cause them to live together without family, and, finally, acquires dangerous documents and locks them in the First Presidency’s vault.

Hoffman, a returned missionary who secretly hated the church of his forefathers, figured he could get rich by exploiting his limited access to the First Presidency’s vault. Perhaps, he figured, he might even embarrass the church.

Hoffman decided to forge documents. And not just any documents, either. He decided to forge writings that would shake the very foundations of the church, writings that would suggest that rather than being a man of God, Joseph Smith was a man of black magic who believed in spirits appearing in the form of salamanders. He persuaded Charles Hamilton, the celebrated Manhattan documents dealers, that he was legit.

Soon Hoffman was meeting repeatedly with Gordon Hinckley, the de facto head of a church led by an ailing prophet. And Hinckley soon wanted to make sure the papers Hoffman claimed he had uncovered as an industrious documents dealer stayed out of sight.

But Hoffman was both a lousy businessman and remarkably greedy. Soon he found himself short of cash with obligations aplenty to faithful Mormon investors who expected to get rich quick. And having promised to deliver a set of faith-destroying documents so powerful that he knew the church would arrange to have them bought up and then locked up, he wasn’t finished forging when his big bills came due.

That’s when the bombings began, followed within minutes by the cover-up at church headquarters. At the time many Mormons believed the Mafia was behind it all. Even now, both books show, many Mormons cannot countenance the truth, a truth that the church helped make sure did not get dragged fully into the public record created by a trial.

Robert Lindsey, former chief West Coast correspondent for the New York Times and author of “The Falcon and the Snowman,” is by far a more gifted storyteller than Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. His graceful book, written with thoughtful sympathy for Mormons and his subjects and rigorously reported, is easily the best single volume ever written to explain the church to outsiders as it is, not as it wants to be seen.

Naifeh and Smith, lawyers who have produced 10 books including “The Best Lawyers in America,” have written a very different book; longer, filled with far more details and at times openly hostile to Mormon beliefs. But their book also provides a rich trove of details about the deceit, lying and covering up by top church leaders. Had Naifeh and Smith understood Mormon theology more deeply, they might have produced the better book by applying the church’s teachings about justification in a focused indictment.

Read together, the two books tell much the same story, give much the same indictment of the duplicity of church leaders. But then both are drawn from many of the same court papers, diaries and other records that their opponents doubtless would dismiss as faith-destroying documents better left unexamined.