Authored by Ronald V. Huggins
Reviewed by Eric Johnson
Posted June 28, 2022
For anyone who has ever benefited from apologetics ministries like Mormonism Research Ministry that focus on the religion of Mormonism, there are two people to whom we all owe great gratitude: Jerald and Sandra Tanner.
The ministry they began in 1960—originally the Modern Microfilm Company and later the Utah Lighthouse Ministry (hereafter UTLM)—has had quite the negative impact on the religion of Mormonism. From the leaders of the church to Mormon scholars and apologists who have tried to thwart their work, the Tanners’ research over the past six decades has been opposed while, at the same time, benefited many who used their information as the main reason why they decided to abandon the LDS Church. And to think that the majority of the Tanners’ work was accomplished before there was even such a thing as the “Internet”! Amazing.
In fact, the Tanners’ original research was done using sleuth-like tactics leading them to the murky bottom of Mormonism’s history, poking holes in the faith’s man-made doctrinal teaching. This put them on the proverbial map and set the pace for all countercult ministries to follow.
Perhaps their most important work is their magnum opus, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality, a thick research tool comprised of 500+ pages that was first published almost six decades ago. It has served as the small-b bible for research on everything from Joseph Smith to the Book of Mormon and the First Vision, among many other topics. (Note: The May 2022 Hulu miniseries called Under the Banner of Heaven included a scene where one of the main characters secretly read the book; within a few days, the final copies of the book still in stock were sold by UTLM and, as I write, the ministry is fervently working to produce more copies to keep up with the demand!)
I often tell people who have never heard about Shadow or Reality that more people have left Mormonism from reading this one book than any other resource other than the capital-B Bible! More than 60,000 copies have been printed since it was first published in the 1960s. Its effect has been phenomenal in much the same way that many have become Christians over the years by reading C.S. Lewis’s classic apologetic Mere Christianity. This is because books like these cause a person to think about the most important issue of faith. It should not be a surprise that Shadow or Reality was listed in one poll as one of the 50 most important books on Mormonism in the first 150 years.
- Listen to a 5-part podcast with Sandra Tanner on the book Mormonism: Shadow or Reality that aired March 8-12, 2021 Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Now, a long-anticipated book written by Dr. Ronald V. Huggins comes out on July 25th titled Lighthouse: Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Despised and Beloved Critics of Mormonism (hereafter Lighthouse). This biography on the Tanners provides the background information that anyone who is interested in the topic of Mormonism must read. Even the detractors of the Tanners stand to be amazed at how an “uneducated” (college-wise, as least) couple created so many problems for the LDS Church’s leaders and their followers for more than six decades.
Background of Lighthouse
The book comes out at the end of Sandra’s ministry, as she is now 81 years old and is preparing for retirement in the spring 2023. (Listen to episode 7 of our Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast linked at the beginning of this article to hear Sandra make this announcement.) After a lengthy illness, Jerald passed away in 2006 yet she has continued her work like a trooper and is now wrapping up more than six decades of dedicated research.
The author of Lighthouse, Ronald V. Huggins, graduated from the University of Toronto, Toronto School of Theology in 1997 (Th.D.). He writes in the introduction that “when I was approached about writing a biography of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, my first response was a sinking feeling” (vii). Among other things, he knew “how daunting a task it would obviously be, from a number of angles.”
Indeed, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for him to get to the bottom of each chapter’s story. He had to play the role of a detective by utilizing the original records the Tanners kept, including letters, newspaper clippings and other artifacts that most would have tossed over the years. Fortunately for him, the Tanners kept everything in file boxes and took meticulous notes of meetings with general authorities, LDS scholars, and others.
In addition, Huggins was able to utilize the still-sharp memory of Sandra Tanner, although there were times that the documentation reminded her of things she had forgotten. Still, this is a woman who is a stickler for details—a vital characteristic for the type of work she and her husband did. As Huggins wrote on page x, “I am grateful to Sandra Tanner for the many times she reviewed things I had written and pointed out places where I hadn’t got the facts, the feel, the atmosphere, of particular incidents quite right, from her perspective.”
I’m not sure many other writers could have been as thorough as Huggins to detail events that made the Tanners the renowned historians/researchers they are/were. I have followed the Tanners’ work for more than four decades, religiously reading their bi-annual newsletters and getting to know Sandra over the past two decades while serving at my own Christian ministry to the Mormons. I already knew many of the stories described in the book because Sandra has told them to me personally over the years. Still, there were so many details that were new. Huggins did a fantastic job of laying out the story of these two fascinating people.
The scope is large, yet according to Huggins, only half the book is here; the rest of it was cut because the publisher felt it would be too long for the average reader. I have encouraged him to publish the other half in the future, even if it means it is published serially on the ministry’s website.
Among the chapters covered in the book include:
1: Marriage (between Jerald and Sandra)
5: Questioning the Book of Mormon
8: The First Vision
9: The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Alphabet
14: Race and Priesthood
15: Documents and Forgeries (the Mark Hofmann counterfeiting affair)
In essence, each chapter contained its own adventure. Finishing one chapter, I couldn’t wait to start reading the next. Of course, the story builds on itself, so this must be read from beginning to end to get full value.
One thing I will say is that it will be important for the reader to pay attention to the many dozens of names, as the author does not always reintroduce these same people in later chapters. The reader who skims over a section may need to thumb back to where that particular name was first given. This scenario happened to me several times.
Indeed, trying to sort out the details without understanding who each player is will be difficult. (There wasn’t room in the book, I know, but it would have been awesome to have an alphabetical appendix with the top 50 names with a short description of who they were.) Because there are so many names given throughout, I recommend reading slowly and with purpose.
Highlights form the book
If you know Sandra Tanner or are her Facebook friend, you certainly know that she has a dry sense of humor. Huggins is able to depict the sometimes-odd combination of the straight-laced (though a practical joker) Jerald and the unpredictable Sandra.
For example, I couldn’t stop laughing when Huggins described the marriage of Jerald and Sandra. Before their marriage, Jerald’s mother asked Sandra if she really wanted to marry her son, especially since he didn’t have a job! The honeymoon night came and they prepared to sleep in a skinny twin bed. Huggins writes:
After the wedding, Jerald and Sandra spent their first night in a twin bed in a house her mother was remodeling to sell. Sandra recalled, “I changed into my nightgown in the bathroom, came out and jumped in bed. Jerald finished in the bathroom and came out and knelt to pray. I felt like a heathen. It hasn’t occurred to me, and he hadn’t said anything about praying together . . . a failure to communicate” (7).
In chapter 2, Huggins spends extended time describing the genealogical backgrounds of the couple, as both come from Mormon royalty, so to speak. Jerald belonged to a well-known family in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, Sandra’s great great grandparents were Brigham Young and Mary Ann Angell; her great grandparents were Brigham Young Jr. and Abbie Stevens, the latter whom Sandra got to know when she was a young girl.
When the family tree gets shaken, Sandra’s family—the Youngs and the McGees—gets the nomination for the more interesting characters, including Sylvia Young Rogerson Philagios and Nicholas E. Philagois—a man who would “dramatically raise his right index finger and declare: “I, Nicholas Philagois,” using the expression regularly no matter the situation.
Perhaps the person who had more influence than anyone on the Tanners was a Salt Lake City barber named James D. Wardle. One day he handed Jerald a 1887 pamphlet written titled An Address to All Believers in Christ penned by David Whitmer, one of the three Book of Mormon “witnesses.” Jerald had never seen this document before, as any controversial information from the 1960s was difficult to come by unless a person knew where to look. Whitmer’s booklet disturbed Jerald, including the claim that the revelations written in the Doctrine and Covenants were changed and added to from the 1833 Book of Commandments.
Huggins writes on page 40,
As Jerald read Whitmer’s tract, he was infuriated with Whitmer for making such outrageous claims against Smith. “I could not believe such a serious charge against the Prophet, and I tossed the pamphlet down in disgust.’ But then ‘[a]fter throwing it down . . . I began to think that perhaps this was not the right way to face the problem. If David Whitmer was wrong in his criticism of Joseph Smith, surely I could prove him wrong. So, I picked up the pamphlet and read it through.
Ironically but unknown to Jerald at the time, this is certainly the way many Latter-day Saints over the yeas responded to the work of the Tanners’ by playing ostrich and putting their heads into the ground, only to later realize that what they revealed was the truth. Fortunately, Jerald was willing to take what he had discovered and disseminate it. This made him the type of researcher that caused the LDS Church leaders living in the latter half of the twentieth century great consternation.
Perhaps my favorite overall chapter (15) is titled “Documents and Forgeries” that describes the Mark Hofmann affair. Of course, Hofmann was the counterfeiter of many LDS historical documents; his forgeries regularly fooled the LDS leadership, including Gordon B. Hinckley—at the time a member of the First Presidency who later became the 15th president of the church. Hinckley seemed intent on buying up the unique documents that Hofmann continually dug up to bury the damning information in the church’s vaults.
However, the ingenious forger met his match with Jerald Tanner, who was like a fly on dog doo-doo once Hofmann made some critical errors that apparently didn’t faze the authorized leadership of the LDS Church. Jerald initially became suspicious when the information on the documents being “discovered” by Hofmann were what should have been expected based on the already-known evidence. Huggins wrote,
Hofmann, like any other truly accomplished forger, had been playing to the expectations of the experts, filling in gaps the experts knew were there, confirming pet theories, and providing smoking guns where the experts felt the need for smoking guns. In other words, paving the way for his forgeries to be welcomed with open arms (252).
Hofmann’s errors began to pile up. For instance, there was a letter supposedly written in 1828 by Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, that was actually authenticated by a church historian. “Lucy seemed to know the end of the Book of Mormon story well before her son had actually translated it,” Huggins writes on page 249. “While this could have represented an anachronism on the part of Hofmann, a tell-tale sign of forgery, the Tanners were still looking at things the wrong way round, taking it rather as an indication of Joseph’s knowing beforehand how he was going to end the Book of Mormon story.”
It was the so-called “Salamander Letter” that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Jerald, as he pieced together how “literary dependence might actually be moving in the opposite direction” as he suspected “someone copying lines out of both W.W. Phelps and E.D. Howe” (251).
Once Jerald became convinced that, despite its apparent age, the Salamander Letter had been forged after 1976, it also became clear to him that the rest of Hofmann’s remarkable discoveries might turn out to be recent forgeries as well. In August 1984 he went public with his doubts (253).
Huggins described what took place after Tanners distributed a tract explaining Jerald’s doubts at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium in late August 1984:
Perhaps that’s why Hofmann came in to the Tanners’ bookstore on August 23, 1984, the day after Sandra had distributed the tract to conference-goers, to express his dismay to Sandra that “of all people” the Tanners should be the ones to cast doubt on the authenticity of his documents. . . . Sandra felt he was on the verge of tears (254).
Sandra believed Hofmann’s story was compelling and wanted to think these documents were genuine. When Sandra told Jerald later about Hofmann’s assurance that the story was true, “Jerald looked at her pityingly and said, ‘Yeah, right. If you believe that story, I got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you”! (255) What a classic response! And yet, once again, Jerald was proven to be right.
In October 1985, Hofmann took his deception to the next level by killing two people with pipe bombs, then maiming himself with a third bomb. It was this desperation that revealed that there was no wizard behind the curtain. Hofmann’s gig had ended. The chapter ends this way on page 260:
Yes, Hofmann was smart. Smart enough to go down in history as one of the greatest forgers of the twentieth century, smart enough to fool the experts who persuaded the LDS Church leadership to affirm the Salamander Latter’s authenticity eight months after the publication of The Money-Digging Letters, but not smart enough to fool a poorly educated ex-machinist named Jerald Tanner.
If Jerald merely wanted to overthrow Mormonism, accepting the Hofmann forgeries would have benefited Christianity’s cause, damn the truth. But that’s not how he and Sandra worked over all these years. Thus, he publicly countered the work of a man whose biggest supporters were the general authorities, including a future president of the church. The Hofmann affair is just one of the many classic tales where the integrity of the Tanners shined while the LDS leaders appeared as dorkier than the Keystone Kops. It’s nice when the good guys come out smelling sweeter than a rose.
In chapter 17 (“I Just Need Some Rest”), Huggins details the health decline of Jerald, whose memory lapses became greater and Sandra ended up having to take a bigger role as both researcher and the face of the ministry. God is sovereign and in control, but reading the decline of Jerald’s health is perhaps the saddest part of the book. To understand how sharp this man once was before he rapidly lost his memory with the God-forsaken Alzheimer’s is nothing less than a tragedy.
For the first years of his illness, Jerald continued to walk daily to the Salt Lake Rescue Mission several miles away from his home in Salt Lake City, a routine each morning for many years. That is, until he got lost and Sandra had to call the police. In 2003, three years before he died, he officially retired from his volunteer duties at the mission. The effect of Jerald’s illness on Sandra was incredibly difficult and showed the strength she possesses as she undertook the burden of being Jerald’s caretaker while continuing to lead a ministry with three employees.
Although I did not know Jerald well because I had limited contact with him, I will never forget sitting with Sandra and Bill McKeever in the UTLM bookstore in 2005 as a confused Jerald wandered around the office and outside in the yard. When he came back inside, Sandra had to soothe him and promise that dinner would be soon. It was as if Sandra now had a fourth child. Alzheimer’s and other memory-lose illnesses are brutal, with no prisoners taken.
The Gospel Is Clearly Presented
The book is put out by Signature Books, a publisher that normally focuses on historical writings involving Mormonism; these are typically written by Mormons, liberal Mormons, and former Mormons. As far as I know, Lighthouse is the only book written by an Evangelical Christian (Huggins) and is Signature’s only biography of Evangelical Christians (the Tanners). On the surface, this surely is an unusual pairing.
If I have any criticism of Lighthouse, it is that I believe this publisher was the wrong choice to produce the book. I understand why the non-Christian publisher Signature was used, as many potential readers are not Christians but lovers of Mormon history and the groundbreaking work accomplished by the Tanners. Yet I believe that Lighthouse will have a much greater audience with Christians who have the greatest respect for the Tanners.
Honestly, I am not convinced the author had complete freedom to share the Christian side of the Tanners’ lives. Also, with no experience marketing to a mainly Christian audience, I just think a Christian publisher would have been a better choice. But, again, that’s my personal opinion. We’ll see if I am wrong in the end, but I just think any advantages of having Signature produce and then distribute the book pales in comparison to the disadvantages.
With that said, I was impressed at how the Christian Gospel still came through loud and clear, a testament to Huggins’ persistence that the Tanners’ faith should not be minimized at the cost of glorifying their research that exposed Mormonism’s underbelly. For example, in chapter 4 titled “Dear Friend,” a conflict between the Tanners and LDS leadership brings their testimony to the forefront. A tract titled “Dear Friend” written by Sandra in 1960 provided her testimony; copies were mimeographed and mailed to many Latter-day Saints, including the LDS general authorities.
A couple of leaders responded, including Apostle LeGrand Richards who called their assessment of the First Vision “absurd and untrue.” He claimed to have a reference from a journal that would support the official version of the First Vision. Incredibly, Sandra set up a meeting to meet with the apostle so he could produce the evidence. When Sandra entered Richards’s office in the church building in Salt Lake City, the apostle—impeccably dressed—seemed pleased, but he grimaced when Jerald followed her into the room. They sat down and then Richards began a diatribe:
“Just what is it that this Jesus of yours has that the LDS Church hasn’t got?” the apostle asked, addressed himself to Jerald.
“Well,” Jerald answered, “during my teenage years I began to fall into alcoholism and other sins, but thank God, Christ delivered me!” . . .
Richards was not impressed: “I never drank,” the apostle announced dismissively and asked: “What do you have to offer that this church doesn’t have?”
“The love of Christ,” Jerald said. “I want to show the Mormon people the love of Christ.”
“If you think you’ve got more love than us,” the apostle said, “you’re crazy” (65).
Then Richards came up with words that shall live in infamy:
“I am warning you,” he said, “don’t start anything against this church.”
The Tanners did not listen to this imperative. How glad we are that they didn’t!
Over the past decade I have volunteered on a number of Saturday afternoons at the Utah Lighthouse Bookstore, located across the street (first base side) of Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City where the AAA Angels affiliate plays its games. I have seen many dozens of people come through the bookstore’s front door in search of material shedding doubt on Mormonism. Some just want to see a friendly face to ask questions, even to have a civil conversation. Others come needy, wanting to know if they should leave the “one true church.” All of these needs have been met for decades at the UTLM bookstore.
So many times I have seen customers enter the store on a Saturday and, seeing me sit by myself behind the main desk, ask, “Is Sandra here today?” “No,” I reply, “we have decided to give her the full weekend off!” Sometimes people have come from 1,000 miles away to meet the infamous Sandra Tanner, so you can only imagine their frustration when it’s just me in the store. It hasn’t hurt my self-esteem one bit because I fully understand their frustration and would feel the same if I were in their shoes.
Recently, a man who appeared to be in his 50s came into the store and, like the others, expressed disappointment. “Oh, I just wanted to apologize to her,” he said. “You see, when I was a missionary three decades ago, my companion and I said terrible things about the Tanners. I called them liars and said if anyone deserved to go to hell, they did.”
Years later, he read the Gospel Topics Essays that were produced by the LDS Church from 2013-2015. He was aghast, he said, when he realized how the church admitted to things the Tanners had said were true fifty years ago, including how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a seer stone in a hat and how Joseph Smith took “30-40” women as wives.
“I realized how foolish I had been,” he said. “The Tanners were right and I was wrong. Would you tell her how sorry I am and let her know that her work is the reason I left Mormonism?”
If I had a nickel for every time I had to play the proverbial priest sitting in a confessional booth waiting to hear former Mormons repent of their previous blasphemies against a couple as kind as you ever would want to meet, I would be a very rich man.
You see, the Tanners were consumed with getting to the bottom of things of all things Mormonism. And this they did. It was difficult for them to finally discard the Book of Mormon as true scripture and reject their heritages, but their integrity meant that they were more intent on following the evidence and, ultimately, the truth. It’s called inference to the best explanation, choosing what is objectively true rather than what is subjectively desired.
I should point out that Huggins did not glorify the Tanners, as they were not perfect people. They had foibles just as all sinners do. But their faithfulness to the gifting given to them by God is what this story is all about. There is no doubt that there will be a day when they will be welcomed into heaven by Jesus who will say, “Well done, good and faithful servants.” What a glorious future to this story.
I love how Huggins concluded the book on page 331, describing how Sandra answered famous ex-Mormon-now-skeptic podcaster John Dehlin at the end of one of his interviews with Sandra.
“Have you seen people leave Mormonism and find joy?” he asked.
“Yes,” Sandra said, with a smile spreading across her face.
“Is it rare?” Dehlin asked.
“No,” she answered.
Lighthouse is available through UTLM as well as online booksellers, including Amazon, Christian Books, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart.