Was it the Angel Moroni?

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the day Joseph Smith said that he saw the golden plates, with last night being the anniversary of the evening that he recalled the Angel Moroni appearing to him. Yet, from time to time, there have been questions raised about whether Joseph Smith consistently said that it was Moroni who appeared to him. A couple of those questions have been addressed in posts from the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk about the Angel Moroni and the Salamander Letter. What follows here is a co-post, focusing on the question of who Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by.

First off, there have been some statements that one of the histories of the Church referenced the angel non-specifically or referred to him as Nephi instead of Moroni. Kurt Manwaring shared the following in the post about the Angel Moroni:

Early drafts of Joseph Smith’s history identify the angel who delivered the gold plates as “Nephi.” However, all known accounts appear to stem from a record written by James Mulholland. As one of Joseph Smith’s clerks, he tried to combine several of the prophet’s manuscripts into a single history.

Brigham Young would later identify the misnomer as a clerical error, and a Church History Topics essay states that “no evidence indicates Joseph Smith ever called the angel ‘Nephi.’”

The Church History Topics essay that was referenced had the following to say:

These accounts left no ambiguity as to the identity of the angel, but one key document complicated the picture. The earliest manuscript of the canonized account of Moroni’s visits (Joseph Smith—History 1:30–53) refers to the angel as “Nephi.” This reference likely originated with Joseph Smith’s clerk James Mulholland, who began in 1839 to combine various manuscripts of Joseph Smith’s history into a single narrative. Evidence suggests Mulholland did not take dictation from Joseph Smith but rather worked from sources available to him that have not survived. Mulholland could easily have been confused about the identity of the angel since many of Joseph’s earlier accounts before Mulholland’s draft did not mention the angel’s name.

So, yes, there is a document where Nephi’s name can be seen instead of Moroni as the angel that visited Joseph Smith. It seems most likely, however, that Joseph Smith wasn’t the person who put pen to ink on that occasion and the person who did was mistaken.

Claims have also surfaced that Joseph Smith talked about an amphibious animal familiar of some sort rather than an anthropomorphic angel when describing how he got the golden plates. The best known account is the document that Mark Hofmann fabricated, known as the Salamander Letter. As Kurt explained:

Mark Hofmann wrote the Salamander Letter. However, his forgery attributed authorship of the letter to Martin Harris, who was purportedly writing to W. W. Phelps. …

The Salamander Letter strongly tied Joseph Smith to a culture of magic—something hotly debated in the 1980s. Additionally, it attributed the discovery of the gold plates to a white salamander rather than the Angel Moroni, and included instructions for Joseph to bring his deceased brother Alvin to the Hill Cumorah in New York. It also indicated that the white salamander transfigured into a spirit and assaulted the Prophet multiple times.

The relevant section of the document states:

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

The forgery fooled many experts and Church leaders, but the Church did not purchase the document when initially offered:

The Church appears not to have purchased the letter for two reasons. First, the asking price was too high. In particular, Lyn Jacobs was reported to have asked for two items in trade that were appraised at $100,000 or more.

For example, Richard Turley records that the minutes of a meeting between the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve included a discussion of the topic, and that “Hinckley felt ‘the Church would not be justified in paying such an amount for this letter.”

Second, several stakeholders thought the White Salamander Letter was suspiciously similar to Mormonism Unveiled, and passed the information up to President Hinckley who declined to purchase it.

The document is currently owned by the Church, but the purchase came through someone else:

Steven F. Christensen purchased the Salamander Letter from Mark Hofmann, who had purchased it from Lyn Jacobs. Christensen paid $40,000 for the document and later donated it to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The story of what happened next, though, is tragic. Hofmann attempted to cover his tracks by killing two people with bombs – Steven Christensen and Kathy Sheets. A third bomb when off in Hofmann’s truck, injuring him. Subsequent legal investigations revealed that Mark Hofmann had been creating forged documents, which he would later confess to be true, including the Salamander Letter.

Part of the link to Mormonism Unveiled is that an affidavit by Willard Chase claims that Joseph Smith, Sr. told him that Joseph Smith, Jr. “saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head.” The book was originally published in 1834 by Eber D. Howe, in connection with Latter Day Saint dissenter Doctor Philastus Hurlbut. Both Hurlbut and Howe had grievances against the Church, so the book was deeply antagonistic to the Latter Day Saints in its biases. Mark Ashurst-McGee explained what Chase was doing by telling the story the way he did:

As D. Michael Quinn explains, in the early American folk tradition, “the toad has always been associated with Satanism, black magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. . . . If anything changed from the appearance of a toad to the appearance of a person, that thing was an evil spirit, or a witch, or a bewitched person.” Chase, like others, intentionally portrayed Moroni as a particular type of treasure guardian incompatible with an angel (Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A One-sided View of Mormon Origins”, FARMS Review, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 15 (2): 309–64).

Thus, given the nature of the account, it’s unlikely to be the case that Joseph Smith (Jr. or Sr.) told a story about being visited by a toad instead of an angel when retrieving the golden plates, but was a modification to the story by a hostile author seeking to discredit the story.

In any case, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk to learn more about the Angel Moroni and the Salamander Letter.

3 comments for “Was it the Angel Moroni?

  1. With all we know about Mark Hoffman and the Salamander Letter, I’m surprised it even gets mentioned in passing unless you are writing an essay for a criminal justice publication.

  2. As an interesting example of how these clerical errors are common, In the cebuano translation of the illustrated childrens’ book of mormon (the one the church produced around 2000), Moroni is identified as Mormon throughout.

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