The Mormon church yesterday released copies of an 1825 letter by church founder Joseph Smith that portrays him as a practitioner of magic who used the occult to seek buried treasure.
Historians and leaders of the Mormon church, known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, disagree on whether official authentication of the letter will threaten some members' faith in their church's divine origins. The letter has been the object of speculation for months in scholarly and anti-Mormon circles.
Peggy Fletcher, editor of Sunstone, a monthly journal edited for Mormons but independent of the official church, said she doubts that the letter will precipitate any crises of faith because most Mormons "are pretty adept at adapting to new information." But Mormon intellectuals "will have to revise their traditional understanding" of the origins of their church, she said, and the letter will raise questions "in some minds" about the divine inspiration of their faith.
The discovery "will not bother the Mormon-in-the-pew that much," said Jan Shipps, professor of history and director of American Studies at the University of Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis.
"But the educated Mormons who have managed to hold off their questions of the truth of their church's origins will have to face the fact that Joseph Smith didn't tell the whole story" in the accepted church documents, said Shipps, who is not a Mormon.
The Smith letter, the oldest ever found in his handwriting, contains instructions to Josiah Stowell of Harmony, Pa., on how to ascertain "if any valluables remain" in what Stowell believed to be a treasure site.
" . . . You know the treasure must be guarded by some clever spirit and if such is discovered so also is the treasure," Smith wrote in the letter, which contains little punctuation. "So do this take a hasel stick one yard long being new cut and cleave it just in the middle and lay it asunder on the mine so that both inner parts of the stick may look one right against the other . . ."
If the treasure is there, Smith continued, the separated sticks will "draw and join together again of themselves."
Interest in the Smith letter has been heightened by the disclosure last week of an 1830 letter written by Martin Harris, Smith's first follower, which gives additional insight into Smith's interest in the occult.
The Harris letter, which was authenticated at the Mormon History Association meeting, recounts Smith's report of a "white salamander" guarding the golden tablets that provided the basis for the Book of Mormon, the church's second Bible.
According to this account, the salamander turned into an old spirit who struck Smith three times before permitting him access to the golden plates.
There is no mention of salamanders in Mormon tradition, which teaches that an angel named Moroni -- frequently portrayed today on Mormon temples -- told Smith where to find the golden tablets in upper New York State.
A statement from the church's First Presidency in Salt Lake City appeared to play down the significance of the Smith letter -- for which church officials reportedly paid $25,000 -- by characterizing it as an interesting historical document reflecting common practices of the times.
"The letter speaks of a procedure that we in our time would refer to as similar to the use of a dowsing rod," said the statement. "This does not appear unusual in the context of the times."
But a historian at the church's Brigham Young University called the letter significant.
"It shows that Joseph was deeply into some of the money-digging techniques," said Marvin S. Hill, "and it forces a lot of historians to re-evaluate the many accounts of Joseph's money-digging activities prior to getting the Book of Mormon plates."