The Notorious Tanners 

Longtime Mormon critics look back as they contemplate retirement.

There are times when one plots out a course in life, and, with calculated steps, eventually reaches the sought-after goal. Other times, events occur and a person is carried along to a place in life that was never charted, but, once there, they are no less grateful for having arrived.


Sandra and Jerald Tanner fit the latter. Almost as though there had been a void seeking them out to fill it, the couple unexpectedly found themselves in the position of infamous icons. For many all over the world, either curious about, or serious students of Mormon studies, the Tanner name and their Utah Lighthouse Ministry is a known entity.


Now, after more than 30 years, the Tanners are preparing to pass the baton and retire from their life’s work of exposing historical Mormon documents for the purpose of proving Mormonism, for what they see, as a fraud.


The ever-shy Jerald has always maintained a behind the scenes position and now refrains from even doing interviews due to his failing health. Through their deep devotion to one another, Sandra’s desire is to dedicate her time attending to him. But for now, the date of their retirement is still an unknown and until such time, the individual who is in the process of stepping into their shoes remains anonymous. And they are very large shoes to fill.


The prolific amount of work which the Tanners have contributed to the Mormon studies landscape over the past three decades have earned them praise from many and derision from others. However, none would dispute that they have left an indelible mark.


While the dialogue surrounding the Tanners has continually centered on their work, which is essential in understanding who they are and why they do what they do, at the same time, the high visibility of that facet alone has generally obscured much of the personal side of Sandra and Jerald.


Born in Salt Lake City in 1941, Sandra was the great-great-granddaughter of Brigham Young. Jerald was born in Provo in 1938, the great-great grandson of a wealthy financier of Joseph Smith and the early LDS Church. He is also a relative of deceased Utah notables, O.C. Tanner and LDS Church Apostle, N. Eldon Tanner.


As generational Mormons from staunchly believing families, both of their lives revolved around the church of their inheritance. “I was ‘gung ho.’ If they opened the church doors, I was there,” says Sandra. “Jerald started questioning what he believed when the bishop approached him to get ready for his mission.”


Sandra was living in Southern California and Jerald was living in Salt Lake City and though their paths hadn’t crossed yet, each took up the personal challenge to examine the origins of Mormonism.


While studying church history, Jerald read a copy of David Whitmer’s (one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon) booklet, An Address to All Believers in Christ, in which Whitmer accused Mormon founder Joseph Smith of altering many of his earlier revelations contained in the Doctrine and Covenants (a book of scripture which Mormon’s believe was revealed to Smith by God.) Shaken, Jerald made a pilgrimage to the places where the LDS Church had first been established. In Independence, Mo. he examined a copy of the original, then named Book of Commandments, and saw for himself what Whitmer had charged.


Jerald’s journey led him next to Nauvoo, Ill., where he met with the Reorganized LDS Church leaders, some of their members and later with a group of Christians by whom he felt inspired and moved. With the new insights, historical perspectives and challenging experiences of his trip, Jerald felt compelled to view Christianity, as it is accepted outside of Mormonism, as his true path to God. He still the believed the Book of Mormon to be true, but he felt that Joseph Smith had gone amok with the church.


Meanwhile, from her home in California’s San Fernando Valley, Sandra was struggling with theological questions for which she could find no answers. In an attempt at resolution, she enrolled in a Mormon Institute of Religion Class (LDS Institute buildings on numerous college and university campuses for Mormon students) where she desperately sought answers to questions concerning polygamy, the denial of priesthood to African-Americans and the LDS claim to being the “only true church.” She was soon taken aside and told by the instructor to stop asking “disturbing” questions.


Taking a break, Sandra came to visit her grandmother in Salt Lake City, where she met Jerald. They instantly connected in their common search for answers and together, studied the Book of Mormon, the Bible, read sermons from early LDS Church leaders in the Journal of Discourses (a 26 volume set of books which include sermons of the early LDS Church leaders). They made their way to documents in LDS Church archives.


Sandra says the answers she found shocked her as she learned that, among other things, numerous church leaders often reiterated the claim that polygamy would never be taken from the church or else the church would fall into apostasy. She was particularly horrified to read Brigham Young condoning blood atonement, using the example that if a man finds his wife involved in adultery, he would be justified in putting a javelin through her.


The young couple married in 1959, just two and a half months after meeting. By now, Jerald no longer felt the Book of Mormon had any validity and the young couple dedicated themselves wholeheartedly to Christianity as recognized by other Christians. “We felt that the Book of Mormon didn’t meet the standards of historical authenticity. Our continued research pointed its story to a novel from the 1820s,” says Sandra. For the Tanners, the Bible has authenticity because there are landmarks spoken of in the Bible which stand today as a living testament.


They asked LDS Church leaders to remove their names from membership rolls but were officially excommunicated by church authorities two years later.


Predictably, their family members and LDS friends were having difficulty understanding and accepting the couple’s religious defection. “They would ask me, ‘Sandra, we just want to know who it was that hurt your feelings,’” she recalls. “It had to be some kind of failing. They couldn’t get it that it was the church’s own documents that convinced us to leave.”


To fully explain themselves to their loved ones, they embarked on a project which they believed would help. “We thought if we could just reprint documents along with information for them to see, people would understand,” says Sandra. “So we began sending everyone mimeographed copies of research we had gathered.” Members of their respective wards began receiving copies in their mailboxes as well. To Sandra and Jerald, the information needed to be shared; it was empirical evidence and, logically, it would be understood.


Sandra laughs in retrospect. “The reaction surprised us. People were angry. Oh, some of them figured things out and left the church but most just outright rejected the documentation. How well they read or considered the information is anyone’s guess.”


In spite of the majority of disappointing responses, they continued writing about their research and mimeographing documents until Jerald gave up his job as a machinist and went full time into researching and duplicating his findings. To do this, the two, who had started their married life in California, decided to move back to Utah to be closer to LDS historical archives.


In 1964, they founded Modern Microfilm and a makeshift bookstore was set up in the front room of their newly purchased, modest family home in Salt Lake. In 1983, they became a non-profit organization.


Besides their newsletters and their own publications, the bookstore sold numerous copies of out-of-print historical books and documents and manuscripts from LDS historical archives and universities. Information that had been inaccessible to all but a few privileged academics was suddenly available to anyone who was interested.


With the non-profit organization as their only means of support, the early years were a constant financial struggle with house payments and three children to raise. But thanks to like-minded Christians outside of Utah, support for the family and the work they were doing was supplemented by donations.


The little one-room bookstore became a popular gathering place for people to visit from across the country to discuss Mormon doctrine and related issues. “Our kids knew that when they came home from school they might see anyone from Mormon fundamentalist polygamists to Madalyn Murray O’Hair [the well-known atheist] sitting in our home engaged in discussion,” says Sandra. “Sometimes they came home to a film crew.”


Seven years ago, with Modern Microfilm officially transformed into the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Sandra and Jerald bought the house next door, turning the entire building over to the work of their ministry.


One never enters without finding other individuals who are there simply for discussion while others pour over the publications for sale. Most faithful Mormons shun them, but now and then individuals, including missionaries, will drop by to bare testimonies that Mormonism is the one and only true faith. They often receive vitriol in the form of e-mails and letters.


Through those doors is also a place for Mormons in the throes of a crisis of faith, as well as for those who have already left the LDS Church. “I deal with the heartache everyday of people who left the church and have lost not only friends, but their family,” says Sandra. “Now with our website I get e-mails from a lot of Mormon kids with questions. Somehow they find us.”


Daniel Peterson, chairman of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at BYU says, “Opposition can cause some people to leave but resistance strengthens the muscles. They’ve been effective in reaching people in leaving the church but not as effective as they’d like to have been.”


However many the Tanners have led out of the LDS Church, those they have reached have great love and gratitude for Sandra and Jerald. Many others have gone to them for support after already having left the LDS religion.


“If it weren’t for the Tanners, my husband and I would be divorced. We came so close,” says Rauni Higley. She went on an LDS mission and then worked as a Finnish translator for the LDS Church for 14 years. “To translate correctly I had to read the entire context of the historical document for whatever quote they needed translated,” she says. “I learned what the church was really about and was convinced I had to leave.” Feeling completely alone with a decision that upset everyone around her, Higley went to the Tanners for personal support. “The Tanners helped me realize I wasn’t the only one that knew the whole story. That was such a relief.” But Higley’s husband, Dennis, was bewildered. He had never even dated a non-Mormon girl, and now his wife was rejecting Mormonism. His world was falling apart and Higley didn’t know how to help him understand. “The Tanners helped me know how to talk to my husband so he would be willing to find out what I knew,” says Rauni. “I will be forever grateful to them.”


Besides the well-stocked bookstore at the ministry, Sandra has her personal office where many of their enormous personal collection of books line the shelves. Rooms at the rear are for production purposes with a printing press, computers and a gigantic collating machine. A skeleton crew of employees stay focused on keeping operations running. Upstairs, a meeting room used for occasional speakers occupies the entire second floor.


Through the years, Sandra and Jerald have been the brunt of ridicule for what they represented to many defenders of the Mormon faith. “We have always been called ‘anti-Mormons.’ We make people uncomfortable and so if they can call you ‘anti’ they can dismiss our work as a lie, “ she says. “They go by the concept that truth makes you happy and if you feel uncomfortable, then it can’t be true. In reality, we all know that there are many truths in life that don’t make us happy, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are true.”


Peterson admits that the Tanners have brought a lot of previously unknown documents to light. “In an odd sort of way, I’m grateful for them,” he says. “They’ve been industrious, but how they interpret that material, that’s where we go in two different directions.”


For example, both would agree that historical documents show that Joseph Smith married women as plural wives in 1842, before the 1843 revelation in which God was supposed to have instructed Mormons to begin living polygamously. All parties concede that these marriages were done without the knowledge of Smith’s first wife or of the church members. The Tanners argue that Smith was deliberately deceptive and lied to his wife when she confronted him with rumors of his polygamist wives. FARMS maintains that polygamy was strictly a private teaching to Smith prior to its being given to the general membership.


Another example of diverging opinion over documented material is that of the “First Vision,” where Smith is believed to have conversed face to face with God for the first time. Within the 13 documented versions, each contain vast discrepancies which include ever-changing personages who appeared with God. Some versions speak of Jesus appearing without God, some have God and no Jesus and others have angels involved while others do not. Some versions say Smith was 14 at the time of the vision, others say he was 15, while still others say he was 16. The Tanners believe that Smith invented details as he went, forgetting and making up versions with the church finally adopting a particular one. FARMS believes that the reason for different versions is simply due to Smith speaking to different audiences.


An often-heard criticism of the Tanners has been the accusation that they have made their life’s work one of negativity by working against something, specifically the LDS Church, instead of for something, such as clean air. It’s an accusation for which Sandra has learned to take with a smile. “We are for Christianity, and like consumer watchdogs, we put out the alert against an aberrant group that claims to be Christian,” she says.


As a self-proclaimed “Ralph Nader” of Mormonism, Sandra recently spoke at the International Evangelical Conference at Biola University in La Mirada, California. The focus of this year’s conference was the LDS Church and an overriding concern that Mormonism is encroaching into mainstream Christianity. The topics of other speakers, prayers given and literature sold, clearly articulated that the alert on Mormonism is being taken seriously in the Christian community. And Sandra, with Jerald sitting nearby, were definitive authorities for those who had gathered.


Mormon historian Michael H. Marquardt considers the Tanners’ work impeccable as well as significant. “The Tanners don’t make anything up. It’s authentic, and they get their material in legitimate ways,” he says. “They’ve done this by themselves and a sad thing is, there are other historians who will use their work and not admit it or give them credit.”


While many were taken by the notorious document forger and bomber Mark Hofmann, Jerald, with typical uncompromising accuracy, was not bamboozled.


Collectors of historical documents from the LDS Church to the Library of Congress and Sothebys were buying Hofmann’s documents as fast as he could manufacture them. Hofmann sold forged letters supposedly written by Betsy Ross, Daniel Boone and other American icons, but his major focus was forging early Mormon historical documents that were extremely damaging to LDS doctrine and early church leaders.


All the while, only Jerald Tanner remained unimpressed and unconvinced of their authenticity, and in 1984 publicly announced his misgivings, calling Hofmann a forger.


Marquardt says that Jerald has a photographic memory and Sandra concurs. “Jerald read Hofmann’s documents and from his knowledge of other documents, he realized the wording was too close. Hofmann was relying too much on other documents for them to be original,” she says. “Jerald said Hofmann’s documents would never stand up in court and he’d say, ‘Can I sell you a brick?’”


Marquardt remembers the reaction from the historical community. “We all thought those documents were authentic so everyone ignored Jerald. We wondered why Jerald would even question their authenticity,” he says. “Hofmann was upset about it because he thought of all people, the Tanners would support him.”


Mormon leaders continued to purchase Hofmann’s documents at an ever-rapid pace through Steve Christensen, a Centerville Mormon bishop who acted as their broker. Once in their possession, the church leaders would then quietly store the potentially embarrassing or damaging documents in their vaults as Hofmann promised more would follow, including the notorious McLellin collection. William E. McLellin was one of the original members of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, and after defecting from the church, wrote detailed, explosive accounts concerning Joseph Smith and other leaders.


While LDS leaders arranged to secure transportation of the McLellin collection by armored car, Hofmann became desperate to hold them off long enough for him to actually forge them. Christensen was anxiously prodding Hofmann to expedite the transaction and as a result, became Hofmann’s first victim in October 1985.


It was the first of three pipe bombs that exploded within days, killing Kathy Sheets, wife of Christensen’s partner, and injuring Hofmann with a bomb intended for another victim. His accidental self-inflicted bombing subsequently led investigators to his home where evidence of his incendiary activities and tools of the forgery trade were hidden in the basement.


In 1986, Hofmann pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence in the Utah State Prison. Sandra says Mormon prisoners routinely contact them after being referred by Hofmann.


Most recently, the Tanners unwittingly came close to setting legal precedent regarding the Web and Internet links.


After receiving an anonymously sent computer disk in the mail in October of 1999, the Tanners discovered it contained the 1998 LDS Church Handbook of Instructions. The Handbook is restricted only to church leaders and is not made available to the church’s members.


Due to numerous requests from individuals confused about how to go about quitting the LDS Church, the Tanners felt it necessary to provide accurate information for those who they felt had the legal right to leave. Out of the 160-page handbook, the Tanners posted 17 pages on their website giving instructions as to how one has their church membership terminated.


Within three months, representatives from the LDS Church’s law firm served legal papers threatening them that if they didn’t remove the material by 2 p.m. that day, they would be sued for copyright infringement. It was the first time the LDS Church had acknowledged the Tanners’ existence. Though Sandra and Jerald didn’t feel they had violated any copyright laws, they nevertheless removed the material by 1 p.m. and posted the church’s letter to them in its place.


Regardless of their compliance, the LDS Church filed a copyright lawsuit against the Utah Lighthouse Ministry in the U.S. District Court.


In reporting the story, the Salt Lake Tribune listed Internet addresses that contained the entire handbook, causing a rush of individuals to connect to the sites. As e-mails poured onto the Tanner’s public web pages, several messages listed the same Internet addresses resulting in a complaint by LDS attorneys to the judge. In response, the judge included a restriction against posting web addresses containing material from the handbook.


News affiliates from around the country, including The New York Times and numerous computer magazines, picked up the story warning of a “chilling effect” and a “blow to a key feature of the Web.” The case was watched closely to settle the question of whether or not providing Internet links to copyrighted material amounts to contributory copyright infringement.


Forever on a shoestring budget, the Tanners were up against a Goliath and opted to settle with the LDS Church rather than spend money they didn’t have and use precious time they needed to serve the ministry.


Finally, in November 2002, the LDS Church dropped the suit on the condition that the Tanners agree to destroy all copies and not print more than 50 words at a time from the handbook in any future articles. “It’s ridiculous. We could eventually print the entire handbook, 50 words at a time,” laughs Sandra. “The suit was just an obvious attempt to try to shut us down. To this day, other sites still post the entire handbook, and anyone can find them with just a simple search.”


With notorious battles and headline-making controversy behind them, the Tanners prepare for retirement. Seeing their lives in retrospect, there is a sense of accomplishment. Sandra shakes her head. “We were so young when this started. We had no idea what it would become,” she says. “It essentially boils down to truth and if there is a real truth, it makes a difference what you follow.”

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