After the Newsweek article ran, Quinn got a phone call from Marion D. Hanks. Hanks—whose nephew Paul would show up on Quinn’s doorstep in 1993—was himself a general authority, and he had overseen the two-year Mormon mission Quinn served in England after his freshman year at BYU. He had become a father figure of sorts, even officiating at Quinn’s marriage ceremony. (He also, as it happens, officiated at the wedding of my parents.) He asked Quinn to come see him in his office after work one day, Quinn says. There he told a story about the time Packer embarrassed him in front of fellow church leaders as apparent payback for a slight from six years before. “Elder Packer,” he told Quinn, “will never get over this.”
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On Oct. 16, 1985, Quinn was having a late lunch at a BYU food court when he heard a news report that Mark Hofmann had been blown up by a pipe bomb in Salt Lake City. He froze. The day before, a similar bomb had killed Steve Christensen, a friend and Mormon history enthusiast who had arranged for Quinn to speak at lunch and dinner engagements, paying him with generous gift cards to his father’s clothing store. A second bomb that first day killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of one of Christensen’s former business partners. One theory on that first day of panic was that the bombings were connected with the business, an investment company called CFS. But the third bomb, which badly injured but did not kill Hofmann, hinted at a tie to the “salamander letter,” a disputed historical document that Christensen had purchased from Hofmann a year before and which had inspired Quinn’s latest research project, a book eventually titled Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview.
Dated Oct. 23, 1830, the letter was addressed to an early Mormon convert named W.W. Phelps and signed Martin Harris. In it, Harris, who paid for the first printing of the Book of Mormon, tells a story of that book’s origins strikingly different from Smith’s later, official account. Most memorably, Harris says that the spirit who appeared to Smith and directed him to the golden plates—from which Smith claimed to have translated Mormonism’s founding scripture—appeared as a white salamander and struck Smith three times. Experts authenticated the letter, and Christensen, a devout Mormon, bought it from Hofmann, with plans to donate it to the church.
But it was a forgery. That was established definitively in 1986 after Hofmann confessed to the murders of Christensen and Sheets as part of a plea to avoid the death penalty. (He was delivering the third bomb—to whom it is not entirely clear—when it blew up accidentally.) In a detailed confession, Hofmann said that he had secretly stopped believing in Mormonism as a teenager and had hatched a plan to embarrass the church by creating fake documents that exposed uncomfortable facts about early Mormon history. Like Quinn, he’d first become interested in Mormon history when he learned that polygamy had gone on for years after its public abandonment—he knew about this because his mother’s parents were among the secret polygamists. Hofmann eventually became, in the words of one expert, “the most skilled forger this country has ever seen.” For LDS leaders nervous about church history, he was a nightmare personified: a lying, murderous man hell-bent on embarrassing the religion while glorifying and enriching himself.
And he based at least one of his forgeries on the work of Michael Quinn. In 1981, he produced a blessing allegedly given by Joseph Smith to his son Joseph Smith III, declaring him “my successor in the Presidency of the High Priesthood.” The document was partly inspired, it appears, by “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” which refers to such a blessing. (There is “no conclusive evidence” it took place, Quinn writes, but he does not dismiss the idea of one outright.) If the blessing really happened, then Brigham Young, who led the early Mormons to Utah, might have been wrong to seize control of the church after Smith’s murder. Not long before Hofmann sold that forged document, he approached Quinn in the church archives, and asked about the succession crisis and the article.
The bombings and subsequent murder trial cast a pall over the practice of Mormon history. It was already, in the minds of some, a dangerous pursuit, and it had now become a deadly one, marred by fraud and riddled with errors. In the first few days after the bombings, several people who had come into contact with Hofmann feared for their lives. After Quinn finished his lunch at BYU, he decided not to go home. He went to stay instead with an old college friend, Richard Lambert. By then an assistant district attorney, Lambert later helped prosecute the case against Hofmann. Quinn, who later assisted the police in their investigation, did not go home for several days.
It had been a difficult year. In the spring, he had published “LDS Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,” the culmination of his interest in post-1890 polygamy, first prompted a quarter-century before by Family Kingdom. Running almost 100 pages and including nearly 400 footnotes, the essay was the fruit of decades of thought and research. And it was not popular with those of the brethren that Quinn had already angered with his talk on Mormon history four years before. For the faithful, the simplest narrative regarding LDS polygamy is that God wanted Mormons to practice it between 1843—when He revealed the doctrine of “plural marriage” to Joseph Smith—and 1890, when He informed one of Smith’s successors, Wilford Woodruff, of a change in course. The church’s critics find the timing convenient: By 1890, the U.S. government had threatened to seize LDS property if polygamy wasn’t renounced. Where a skeptic sees convenience, a believer may see God’s hand. A diligent historian, meanwhile, will come to see that the truth of the matter is complicated. Woodruff himself said in his journal that he was “acting for the temporal salvation of the church,” and the 1890 Manifesto—as his official statement is known—was not immediately taken to be a divine revelation. Nor does it read like one. “I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land,” it says. Some church leaders continued to marry multiple wives, which is why there was a Second Manifesto in 1904, during the Reed Smoot congressional hearings. Even after that, a few high-ranking Mormons continued to authorize such marriages. As Quinn writes, “the Manifesto inherited ambiguity, was created in ambiguity, and produced ambiguity.”
Quinn’s polygamy essay, meanwhile, produced more trouble for him with LDS leaders. After it was published, Hugh West, the president of his stake in Salt Lake City—Quinn never moved to Provo, finding the hourlong commute worth it to live in Utah’s one metropolis—asked to see him. West said he’d been told by a higher authority to “take further action” to “remedy the situation,” Quinn says. That higher-ranking leader, James Paramore, had further instructed West to say that the decision was West’s own, and had not come from above. West refused to do this, according to Quinn. Instead, he simply took away Quinn’s “temple recommend.” Temples, distinct from regular meetinghouses, are reserved for sacred rituals, and require a recommend, a small card indicating one’s worthiness, to enter. Quinn was an “ordinance worker,” meaning he went to the temple regularly and helped others perform those rites. West did not formally revoke the recommend, he just put it in his drawer. Quinn’s status in the church remained unchanged. But he could no longer go to the temple. He has not been since.
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