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A Tribute to Jerald Tanner

Bill McKeever – October 7, 2006

Archibald Alexander (A. A.) Hodge (1823-1886), the renowned Christian theologian and principal of Princeton, once remarked that “it is easier to find a score of men wise enough to discover the truth than to find one intrepid enough, in the face of opposition, to stand up for it.”

Today we gather to honor one of those few to whom Dr. Hodge makes reference in that sentence. Intrepid is a synonym for words like fearless, brave, courageous, bold, heroic, and valiant. And while I personally think these words aptly describe Jerald’s behavior during particular times of his life, I am sure he would shrink with humble embarrassment if he knew I was applying them to him in such a public forum. Such was his personality.

In 1987 Jerald began his personal testimony by writing:

“In the fifth chapter of Mark we find the story of a man possessed with unclean spirits. This man was wild and lived among the tombs. Verse five says that he was ‘always night and day among the tombs and in the mountains crying out and cutting himself with stones.’ Fortunately, Jesus had compassion on him and cast out the evil spirits. The people later found the man ‘sitting clothed and in his right mind.’ When Jesus was about to leave the area the man wanted to go with him. The 19th verse, however, tells us that Jesus would not allow this. He said to him, ‘go to your home, to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and had mercy on you.'”

Jerald Tanner was born to a family with a strong Mormon heritage. His great-grand father, Myron Tanner was in the Mormon Battalion and entered the Salt Lake valley right behind Brigham Young’s company in 1847. Though his parents were not “active Mormons” his mother encouraged him to participate in church functions and hoped that one day he would “go on a mission.” Jerald was to go on a lifelong mission though I don’t think it was quite what his mother had in mind.

Like many faithful young LDS boys, Jerald was convinced that the Mormon Church was the “only true church on the face of the earth.” He described himself as “rather religious” until he was twelve or thirteen years of age but noted that “religion without salvation is a very cold thing.” He “soon began to lose interest and to search elsewhere for happiness.” “My life was centered around my own selfish desires,” he wrote. “What I thought would make me happy just tended to make me feel worse.”

When he was 18, he again turned his interest toward the family religion. In this pursuit he came into contact with a member of The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ). James Wardle had a huge library of early LDS books and invited Jerald to “look over his collection.” It was Mr. Wardle who gave Jerald a copy of An Address to All Believers in Christ, a book written by Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer. This small book had a profound effect on Jerald. In it “David Whitmer charged that Joseph Smith made serious changes in his revelations in between the time they were first published in the Book of Commandments in 1833 and when they were reprinted in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. I could not believe such a serious charge against the Prophet and I tossed the pamphlet down in disgust.”

A comment needs to be made at this point. It is often charged that the main reason people leave the LDS Church is due to some moral failure or secret sin on the part of the disaffected. Though Jerald would have been the first to admit he had moral failings, this was not at all what led to his decision to leave the Mormon faith. He wanted it to be true. However, his crisis of conscious, coupled with an honest desire to do what is right, led him in an opposite direction.

Confused by the historical facts that questioned the claims of his faith, Jerald, at the age of 19, drove to Missouri “believing that God would lead him to the true church.” He spoke to several people from many of the splinter groups of Latter-day Saints during his time in Missouri. What he learned in Missouri completely changed his way of thinking. However, instead of “searching for the ‘true church,'” he began to take a “hard look” at his own life. In doing so, he realized how “completely undone” he was before God. He returned to Salt Lake City with a heavy heart and continued to live under the burden of sin. Several months later he returned to Missouri and gave his heart to the Lord. He noted, “As long as I lived unto myself, I was miserable, but when I turned to Jesus I found joy unspeakable…I had been very fearful of surrendering myself to the Lord. I felt that it was a frightening step into the dark. Even though I could see the joy in faces of the Christians I had come to know. I still felt that I would be giving up so much that it would be difficult. I later found out that many of the things I felt were giving me satisfaction were the very things that were keeping me from the wonderful joy that God alone can give.”

He began holding a series of meetings in the basement of his Utah home, conceding that even though he had placed his trust in Christ, he still believed in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon until 1962. One of those who happened to show interest in these meetings was a woman who was married to the grandson of Brigham Young. Her granddaughter, Sandra McGee, happened to be visiting from California and attended one of Jerald’s small gatherings. “Although I thought that she was a beautiful young woman, I felt that she was probably too rich and sophisticated to have any interest in me. Later I was to learn that she had a wonderful personality, was very down to earth, and anything but rich.”

Jerald and Sandra began studying together, and soon she became convinced that her faith was not based in fact. They later became engaged, and in June of 1959 Sandra McGee became Sandra Tanner. On October 24th of that same year, while listening to a sermon on Christian radio, Sandra “accepted Christ as her personal Savior.”

Not long after they were married, a concerned member of Sandra’s family suggested that she and Jerald speak with Mormon Apostle LeGrand Richards. What was originally intended to be a means to revive their faith actually had the opposite effect. Jerald came to the meeting with documents and questions, but it was readily apparent that Mr. Richards was not interested. Rather than patiently address their concerns, Richards threatened Jerald. “I’m warning you,” he said, “don’t start anything against this church!” When you consider that Jerald was only 22 at the time while Sandra was 19, this was quite intimidating. “While this meeting with Apostle Richards did cause me to grow weak in the knees,” Jerald admitted, “it made me realize more than ever that the Mormon leaders had something to hide from their people and that I should become actively involved in bringing the truth to light. Since I am basically a cowardly sort of person, I entered into the work with fear and trembling.”

Call to Ministry

Jerald and Sandra began their work by mimeographing material and distributing it freely to “anyone who was interested.” For those of you too young to be familiar with the term mimeograph machine, let me briefly say that this was a device that could print copies by using a special stencil. Cheaper models had to be cranked by hand. In 1963 they self published their first book, Mormonism – A Study of Mormon History and Doctrine. This was later revised, enlarged, and re-titled Mormonism – Shadow or Reality? In 1980 Shadow or Reality was condensed and published by Moody Press under the title The Changing World of Mormonism.

Jerald and Sandra quickly learned that the most devastating evidence against Mormonism “were the early writings of Mormons themselves.” However, much of this material was difficult to obtain. Jerald reasoned that if he offered to microfilm a person’s rare documents, they would allow Jerald a copy in exchange for a discount on the work. This led Jerald to invest in a microfilm camera. In 1963, the same year they released Mormonism – Shadow or Reality?, they started the Modern Microfilm Company. Over the next several years, Jerald and Sandra reproduced many of the “rarest LDS manuscripts, diaries, and books, as well as many works critical of Mormonism.” Making these publications available gave the general public a whole new perspective on the history and teachings of early Mormonism. Their personal home became their bookstore. In 1983 they founded Utah Lighthouse Ministry.

I have no doubt that just about anyone who has devoted themselves to reaching the LDS people has, in some way, been affected by Jerald’s research. To be on the cutting edge is synonymous with being at the forefront, and I think this aptly describes his work. His research has led the way for many of us who consider ourselves missionaries to the Mormon people. All of us to a certain degree have followed in his footsteps. There are few quotations that we can cite that Jerald and Sandra have not already commented on.

One of the remarkable traits that I often admired about Jerald was his caution. It is very tempting for a researcher, a journalist, or a politician to run with information that will further his or her cause despite the fact that the information could be less than reputable. Jerald’s in-depth knowledge of Mormonism, coupled with his keen sense of discernment, often spared him from potential embarrassment. In my opinion this was most clearly illustrated in the mid-1980s.

When Mark Hofmann came on the scene, Jerald was one of the very few who viewed him with skepticism. Hofmann had this amazing ability to come up with rare Mormon documents, some of which were not very flattering to the LDS Church. The LDS Church trusted Hofmann and gave him thousands of dollars worth of documents in trade for his discoveries. In November of 1983, Jerald heard that one of those documents was a letter written in 1830 by Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris. The letter said that Joseph Smith received a visitation from a spirit that “transfigured himself from a white salamander.” Hence it came to be known as the White Salamander letter.

Earlier in 1983 the Tanner’s published Mormonism, Magic and Masonry. The information in the letter lent an incredible amount of support to their premise that Joseph Smith was very involved in money-digging and folk magic. Jerald had received some extracts from the Harris letter and was “preparing to print them in the March 1984 issue” of their newsletter the Salt Lake City Messenger. However, prior to going to press, Jerald came across evidence that caused him to conclude that the letter could be a forgery. The original story was scrapped. Instead the March 1984 issue ran an article titled “Is it Authentic?”

By August of that same year Jerald was convinced “that the evidence against the Salamander letter cast a real shadow of doubt on all the important discoveries Mark Hofmann had made since 1980.” In August of 1984, Jerald published The Money-Digging Letters, and the findings were picked up by the Los Angeles Times a couple of days later. The Deseret News also reported that the Tanners were suspicious of the letter. However, in April 1985, the Deseret News published an article that claimed that the 1830 Harris letter had been authenticated by a document examiner. Two Mormon scholars also confirmed the document’s authenticity.

You have to appreciate the irony. On one hand, there are the document experts, Mormon Church historians, and even the LDS Church itself, supporting the authenticity of a document that portrays the founder of Mormonism as a believer in folk magic. On the other hand, here is Jerald Tanner insisting that something is wrong with their conclusion.

On October 15, 1985, two bombs went off in Salt Lake City, killing two people. Mark Hofmann was injured when a third bomb in his car went off. Since the people who were killed had some connection, either directly or indirectly, with the Salamander letter, Jerald justifiably had safety concerns. Hofmann later confessed to the killings. Jerald notes, “The thing that probably saved us from his wrath was that hardly anyone believed what we published.” On January 23, 1987, Hofmann admitted to setting the bombs and forging the Harris letter. He was given a life sentence and Jerald’s suspicions were vindicated.

While Jerald will be mostly remembered for his research regarding Mormonism, few realize that since the late 1970s, he spent numerous hours volunteering at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake. His love for the work and the men he worked with led him to accept a position on the rescue mission’s Board of Directors. He recalled that in the early years of his relationship with the mission that it faced numerous struggles. Homeless shelters normally do not attract the upper crust of society. Looking back, he felt that dealing with contrary people and con-men actually prepared him for the Salamander chapter; a period he called “one of the most puzzling episodes” of his life.


In my office I have a framed picture of a man on a thin, roped bridge crossing a broad chasm in a snowstorm. Underneath the photograph it reads: “The Courage of Integrity. The highest courage is to dare to be yourself in the face of adversity. Choosing right over wrong, ethics over convenience, and truth over popularity…These are the choices that measure your life. Travel the path of integrity without looking back, for there is never a wrong time to do the right thing.”

Recent comments from well-wishers often make references to Jerald’s integrity and courage:

“We have known, loved and respected Jerald and Sandra since the first time we met them in 1982. Their high integrity and uncompromising dedication for the cause of truth has been our example ever since.”

“I left Mormonism in 1974, in very large part due to Mormonism: Shadow or Reality. The presentation was humble, but the logic and facts were powerful and undeniable… His integrity in dealing with Mormon issues and evidences has set the standard for everyone else in this field.”

“His rigorous scholarship in dealing with the history of the LDS church has been absolutely vital in my search for the truth, and his testimony of Jesus has helped me to find Him, too.”

“Your courage and dedication to truth has guided my family to freedom, hope and life. It is beyond my ability to express to you what this means to us.”

“When I think of courage in the face of great obstacles and unrelenting hostility, I will think of Jerald Tanner. When I think of living a principled life in the midst of hypocrisy and mendacity, I will think of Jerald Tanner. Whenever I celebrate my release from the trap that was Mormonism, I will think of Jerald Tanner.”

“Jerald was a courageous man and committed to the Truth. He is now receiving his reward for his service to the Lord.”

“Jerald Tanner was a man of integrity and courage who was not afraid to speak his own personal truth- no matter the cost. The effects of his work (and that of his wife) are far reaching and will not be soon forgotten.”

Faithful Servant

Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “…the nearer men come to heaven, and the more prepared they are for it, the more simply is their trust in the merit of the Lord Jesus, and the more intensely do they abhor all trust in themselves.”

Earlier I quoted how Jerald came to a point in his life when he, like the prophet Isaiah, saw himself as ruined or “undone” in the eyes of God. Jerry Bridges, in his book The Persuit of Holiness, makes this obervation:

“Whenever we seriously contemplate the holiness of God, our natural reaction is to say with Isaiah, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord God Almighty.” A serious view of the holiness of God – His own moral perfection and infinite hatred of sin – will leave us, as it did Isaiah, seeing with utter dismay our own lack of holiness. His purity serves to magnify our impurity. Therefore, it is important that we receive the same assurance that Isaiah received: ‘See…your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Jerald’s trust to receive the best God had for him did not rest in his ability to “sin less,” but rather in the One who was sinless. Jerald knew that he was completely forgiven because of the complete payment made by Christ on the cross of Calvary. His forgiveness was not something that hung on a wishful hope that he had “done enough” to make it a potential reality. Jerald saw the forgiveness of his sins as something to be described in the past tense. He knew there was nothing more he could add. Jesus had paid it all.

One of the common threads that binds all of us in Christian ministry is how we are grieved when we speak with people who are unsure as to where they would go after this mortality passed. Like many of us here, Jerald’s desire was merely to offer information that would hopefully be used by the Holy Spirit to give biblical hope to those who did not possess the “peace that passes all understanding.” If the comments and condolences received by the Utah Lighthouse Ministry over the past week are any indication, I think it can be said with surety that Jerald’s desire was certainly fulfilled.

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