INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) _ A letter written in 1830 about the fundamental revelations of the Mormon Church does nothing to undermine the traditional image of the church’s heavenly origins or its founder, say two Brigham Young University scholars.
Ronald Walker and Dean C. Jessee, both associate professors at BYU and widely published specialists on Mormon history, defended the so-called ″white salamander″ letter Thursday at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association.
The letter was written by Martin Harris on Oct. 23, 1830, and sent to W.W. Phelps, a Rochester, N.Y., newspaper publisher who later converted to Mormonism.
Critics say the letter tarnishes the character of Mormonism’s first prophet and presents him as a treasurer-seeker and a practitioner of the occult.
Church members believe the letter is significant because it connects Smith and the origins of Mormonism with folk magic.
Harris, who financed the printing of the Book of Mormon, is revered by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a ″special witness″ to the divine instruction an angel passed on to Joseph Smith, the church’s founder.
The 11/2 -page correspondence describes how Smith found golden plates, which later resulted in the Book of Mormon, with the help of what the letter described as ″a seer stone, a kind of magical looking-glass.″
The letter also said Smith was prevented at first from gaining possession of the plates by an ″old spirit″ that ″transfigured himself from a white salamander.″
Jessee defended the authenticity of the letter, which a Mormon bishop bought last year from a collector in New England and donated to the church in April. The missive appeared in a church publication last week.
″There is no reason to suspect the authenticity of the Harris letter, based on the physical properties and handwriting,″ said Jessee.
Jessee admitted finding stylistic differences when comparing the letter with other documents written by Harris, but dismissed the discrepancies.
″While a person’s fingerprints don’t change,″ he said, ″his writing style often does.″
Walker discussed the imagery of the Harris letter, which church antagonists say are at slight odds with traditional accounts of its founding.
The standard account of Smith has him directed by an angel in 1823 to find the golden plates, which he translated with the help of a seer stone. Later an angel allowed Harris and two others to see and handle the plates before taking them to heaven.
Walker traced the history of treasure-seeking and the popular belief in magical spirits and argued that they were part of the social milieu of the period.
″It is a 20th century mindset that doesn’t understand the foundations of folklore,″ said Walker. ″It is clear that diggers were many kinds of people and came from many different social groups.″
Walker cited references to divining rods, seer stones and other seemingly magical occurrences that have appeared in religous works throughout history. He said such references are now held sacrosanct and not questioned.
″Today we trivialize the old culture and refuse to pay it respect,″ he said.
Walker said traditional accounts have acknowledged that Smith was involved in treasure-digging activities, although not as actively as suggested in the Harris letter, and that the correspondence reinforces the beginnings of Mormonism.