The Joseph Smith Papers and Questions of Authentic Documents

By Robin Scott Jensen

As staff members of the Joseph Smith Papers, we are sometimes asked how we know that the documents we publish are authentic. It is an important question and one that is key to preserving the confidence of our audiences. To authenticate a document, we take numerous steps, as is highlighted by our examination of a document we considered including in the recently published Documents, Volume 6.

In the Church History Library resides a letter from David R. Atchison to Joseph Smith dated 1 September 1838. This document is a photocopy, which is not unusual; editors of the Joseph Smith Papers occasionally have to work with photocopies, digital images, microfilm copies, or reprints of documents because the originals are either not extant or not available. However, a few red flags prompted an investigation of this Atchison letter.

First, our historians were aware of an article published in 1986 by historian Richard L. Anderson. In this article, Anderson expressed concerns about the historical context of this “odd letter.”[1] Known dates of history did not correlate with the dates mentioned in the letter itself, Anderson explained. But authentic historical documents have sometimes contradicted each other, so we had to look deeper. Joseph Smith Papers employees Charlotte Hansen Terry and Jeffrey D. Mahas then compared known Atchison handwriting from several original letters held in various repositories with the handwriting found on the photocopy of the 1838 letter. The handwriting on the 1838 letter was not a match.

We then examined the provenance of the document. Provenance refers to who previously owned a document and how the document fits in with other documents created or stored by the previous owner or owners. If a document has a solid provenance, historians and archivists can generally trace ownership back to the original owner. In the case of the Atchison letter, we discovered its provenance was almost nonexistent. A photocopy of the document was donated to the LDS Church Historical Department in 1981 by a Mormon document collector, but there was no other information about ownership prior to that time. The existing docketing (or identifying notations written after the document was created) on the letter—which helps clarify when a document was in Joseph Smith’s possession or the possession of the owner—did not align with docketing on similar types of letters of the same time and place, and no knowledge about the document had been passed down from previous generations.

The fact that the document had no known provenance prior to 1981 led us to believe that the letter might be a Mark Hofmann forgery. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Hofmann was a prominent dealer in Mormon and other historical documents. After he murdered two individuals with homemade explosives, it was unveiled that Hofmann had forged hundreds of documents relating to LDS history and sold them to unsuspecting individuals. The Atchison letter, we feared, might be one of those forgeries.

That suspicion deepened when our researchers discovered another photocopy of the same document in the papers of an LDS history scholar held in the special collections library at the University of Utah. That scholar noted that the photocopy was given to him by Hofmann. This information, combined with the contradictory material in the letter itself, its unclear provenance, and the lack of a handwriting match, led our historians to conclude that the letter was likely a forgery. It was not published in Documents, Volume 6.

Although the vast majority of the documents we work with are clearly authentic, some, like the Atchison letter, have warning signs that warrant further investigation. Examining provenance, handwriting, and other features of a document helps us in the authentication process. When we present the documents of Joseph Smith, we not only present the transcripts and historical introductions but also show how and why we believe the documents are what they purport to be, ensuring that researchers and scholars can use the documents we publish with confidence.

[1] Richard L. Anderson, “Atchison’s Letters and the Causes of Mormon Expulsion from Missouri,” BYU Studies 26, no. 3 (Summer 1986), 17.