in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it because I lay it down to cover over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down
(Extract from the so-called Salamander Letter)
Those of you who know me personally know that I have a very laid back personality. I don’t let much bother me, and that includes claims made against the Church. Things roll off my back pretty easily. That may be because I never had to drink from a fire hose; I learned the adult version of Church history, scripture, doctrine and practice slowly, incrementally, over time, and I just don’t remember being particularly bothered by any of those things I learned along the way, with one conspicuous exception: the Salamander Letter.
The Church, to its credit, published the text of the letter (which purported to be a letter written by Martin Harris from Palmyra on October 23, 1830) in the pages of the Church News on August 28, 1985. And for the first and only time that I can recall in my life, I was thrown for a real loop. It was so very weird! It was like looking at Church history through a bizarre fun house mirror. What could this possibly be? I frankly had no idea what to make of it. And it really bothered me.
Well, although I’m not an academic, I’m a frustrated one, and I do have scholarly interests. And so I followed my initial instinct, which was to roll up my sleeves and go to the library. And I began to do some reading on the subject of folk magic, a topic that was completely new to me at the time. At this late date I don’t recall what all I read, except for one article that was the most helpful to me at the time: Jon Butler, “Magic, Astrology, and the Early American Religious Heritage, 1600-1760,” American Historical Review 84 (April 1979): 317-46. That article was tremendously helpful to me, because it gave me a context for early American religious folk magic, and due to its parameters the article had nothing to do with Mormonism, which for me laid a useful foundation for then looking at the Mormon side of things.
I followed that up by finding and reading a lot of Mormon historical writing on the subject. Again, at this late date I simply don’t recall everything I read, but I do remember some of the pieces that I found the most useful to me personally. One example was Richard Van Wagoner and Steve Walker, “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing‘,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15/2 (Summer 1982).
Another example was BYU Studies 24/4 (Fall 1984), the entire issue of which was devoted to this topic. (This journal came out just shortly before it was learned that the letter was actually a Mark Hofmann forgery.) Here is the Table of Contents of that issue:
The last example I’ll mention here was D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).
In 1985, when the Salamander Letter was at its height and still widely believed to be authentic, I was a new Gospel Doctrine teacher in my ward northwest of the City of Chicago. I figured if I had had to struggle with this, there were probably others in the class who were similarly bothered by it, so I decided on my own motion to devote a class entirely to the Salamander Letter. (By happenstance both the bishop and stake president were in attendance the day I did that class, so the pressure was on!) I passed out copies of the Church News with copies of the letter, and then went through a high level version of what I had learned. Towards the end one brother asked about authenticity, and I recall saying that was the $64,000 question. At that time most Mormon historians believed it was authentic; I believed it was authentic. Ironically, by that time Jerald Tanner, the famed anti-Mormon, had come out with the view that it was not authentic, and I reported that to the class.
That class was possibly one of the finest Gospel Doctrine classes I have ever taught (and I’ve taught a lot of them over the years!) The class was very much needed, and in that time and place no one else was in a position to survey the material responsibly. People were deeply interested and engaged, and they walked out of that class being more intrigued than bothered, which was my hope and goal in teaching the class in the first place.
I don’t think it was very long after that that we learned in fact the letter had been a forgery. But I’m glad that I had to wrestle with it under the assumption that is was authentic. Once it was deemed a forgery, it was all too easy for people to ignore the folk magic context of the Restoration, but for me with the assumption the letter was authentic, ignoring it simply wasn’t an option. I learned far more about folk magic at the time than I ever would have if I had known from the beginning it was a forgery.
So when people are troubled by a picture of a seerstone, my initial reaction is to wonder what all the fuss is about; doesn’t everyone know about that? But then I have to think back about my own very scandalized reaction to reading the Salamander Letter, and that helps to resurrect my sense of empathy for anyone who feels blindsided by this disclosure. Which to me simply suggests that the Church’s current project of pursuing transparency in its history is absolutely the way to go.
 This is one reason why I’m flummoxed at the semi-official disapproval of Dialogue. That article is simply outstanding, and anyone who had read only that one piece would not have been surprised in the least by the recent photographs of the seerstone.
 He subsequently published a second edition, which I have never read and do not own, as it takes a lot to get me to invest in a second edition when I already have the first in my library. I didn’t agree with everything Quinn said in the book (I particularly remember thinking the Astrology chapter seemed like a stretch to me), but I enjoyed the book and learned from it.