What happens when you mix an established global celebrity, a growing worldwide religion, and a mischievous local trickster? This is the tale of Elvis Presley, the Book of Mormon, and a story that wasn’t.
Keith Erekson is an award-winning author, teacher and public historian who serves as director of the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. He recently published a 9,000-word article in BYU Studies in which he disputes a popular theory that Elvis Presley read and personally notated a Book of Mormon shortly before his death.
The article is summarized (read the full article here) as follows:
In 1989, a copy of the Book of Mormon was donated to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints containing, purportedly, marginal annotations made by Elvis Presley. Over the next several years, various speakers, newspaper columnists, and even a documentary film producer made claims that Elvis really had made these markings.
The author of this article, who is director of the Church History Library, conducted an in-depth analysis of the book and its markings. He worked with Elvis Presley handwriting authenticators and studied the final weeks of Elvis’s life.
His analysis concluded that none of the annotations in the book came from Elvis, nor did he likely have time to read the book between the time it was given to him and his death.
The evidence presented in this article shows that this story deserves to be discarded.
In a guest post celebrating the anniversary of Elvis’s death, Erekson answers the 10 most common questions he is asked about Elvis and the Book of Mormon.
Did Elvis Presley write in this copy of the Book of Mormon?
No. The handwriting is clearly forged and the provenance is highly improbable.
Elvis Presley did not write in the Book of Mormon held by the Church History Library. The story of the book’s provenance—its being given to Elvis fourteen days before his death and being read and digested from first page to last—does not fit within the constraints of a period in which he hosted his daughter, prepared for a tour, and responded to an exposé about his prescription drug abuse and erratic behavior.
Further, analysis of the handwriting in the Book of Mormon volume—a signature and three dozen smoothly written annotations—reveals dramatic departures from Presley’s authentic handwriting as well as differences in the style of his marginal annotation.
After nearly three decades of uncertainty, this investigation can turn on the popular culture public announcement system to declare without hesitation: “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the library.”
Didn’t the Osmonds say that Elvis wrote in this book?
Yes. Multiple times. They are one of the many victims of this forgery. I personally shared the findings with Alan Osmond.
When I shared the findings of forgery with Alan Osmond, he was both surprised and saddened . . . . Though clearly a victim of the forger, Alan quickly recognized the strength of the evidence and said, “The Church is true, and it doesn’t need Elvis’s name. I am thankful that you have checked this out. We want to put closure on this.” To me, Alan provides an inspiring example that it is okay to change one’s view when new evidence is uncovered.
Did Elvis ever read from the Book of Mormon?
Probably. He was an avid reader, he was interested in religions and philosophies, and he discussed Latter-day Saint beliefs with professional acquaintances.
Both Ed Parker and the Osmonds gave copies of the Book of Mormon to Elvis and reported discussing the text with him. To date, every claim of an active full-time missionary teaching Elvis has turned out to be false—the missionary did not serve in the right mission, or served in the right mission at the wrong time, or the missionary name did not even exist . . . . Parker provides an important check against overspeculation: Elvis “often told people what he thought they wanted to hear; not in attempt to be dishonest, but simply in an attempt to be accommodating.”
Are there other copies of the Book of Mormon connected to Elvis?
Yes. A couple of missionaries gave him copies in Hawaii, and many fans sent him printed materials.
One of Presley’s secretaries reported that “Mormons sent literature and books to Elvis, Jehovah’s Witnesses mailed issues of the Watchtower to him, and he received copies of the Living Bible and dozens of other Bibles in the mail from people who asked that he read them. (When stories circulated that he was losing his eyesight, someone sent him a Bible in braille.)”
Do we know what Elvis thought about the Book of Mormon?
No. There are no surviving records that indicate his thoughts. And one should not leap to inferences.
One lesson to learn from this forgery is not to draw conclusions that reach beyond the evidence. For example, just because someone gave Elvis a Book of Mormon does not mean that he read it; and just because he read a copy (or marked it) does not mean that he believed it and desired baptism . . . . Thus, when a video published by the Graceland Archives reveals a paperback copy of the Book of Mormon among Elvis’s books, what does it mean? It means simply that a copy made it into his collection. Are there annotations? Yes, but not in Elvis’s handwriting (most likely by a missionary). Did Elvis read it? We can’t be sure. Did he believe it? The book won’t reveal that.
So why does this finding matter?
This is the only copy that claimed to report what Elvis thought about the book. This hoax gave celebrity-seeking Saints just what they hoped.
Forgeries are often accepted because they provide something that people already want; in this case, the story of a changed heart, the conversion of a celebrity, and a testimony of the Church.
Is it really a hoax?
Yes. The handwriting was very poorly imitated, and the messages in the margins are laughable. Someone was clearly messing with us.
For example, the forger underlined passages about excessive drunkenness (2 Ne. 15:11) and King Noah’s whoredoms (Mosiah 11:2). Beneath a photograph of an ancient gold tablet, the smooth-handed forger wrote, “gold records—real ones.” Underlining “Thou shalt have no other God before me” (Mosiah 12:35), the forger wrote, “Fans = Not me either.”
But the forger also wanted readers to see a change in Elvis’s heart. Underlining Alma’s warning to his sexually promiscuous son Corianton about unpardonable sins (Alma 39:6), the forger dialed up two ampersand I’s to write the book’s longest annotation: “I could never deny that which I know in my heart to be true.” Yes, there was still hope for Elvis. Next to the underlined words “They were desirous to be baptized” (Mosiah 21:35), the forger wrote “me too.”
But these forged desires would not come to pass, as the forger suggested that Elvis seemed to know all too well. Next to the underlined words “And now I go unto the father” (3 Ne. 18:35), the forger wrote “me too.” If this imagined Elvis had a premonition of his own imminent death, he also found hope for the future in the most widely quoted forged annotation—beneath an underlined warning from Mormon that “awful is the wickedness to suppose that God saveth one child because of baptism” (Moro. 8:16), the forger wrote, “My Lisa needs this church. She’s only 9. Help her for me.”
The annotations in this volume are fabrications manufactured to deceive.
Who did it?
I don’t know.
Unfortunately, it is easier to disprove the writing of a single individual than it is to identify the writing of one of potentially millions of living persons. One might look to the handwriting of the obsessive superfan who followed Elvis across the country and back, but . . . the evidence in the book does not suggest that the “quiet fan” became an open forger.
Why didn’t anyone report this earlier?
Today there are better histories of Elvis available, and more samples of his authentic handwriting.
As I examined the volume, the annotations on its pages immediately raised more questions than answers.
Internal records revealed that others had likewise questioned the book’s authenticity, as early as 1991 and as recently as 2008. My research accelerated, drawing on a host of recently published works that document Elvis’s life and activities more clearly than ever before.
The passage of time has introduced more authentic samples of Presley’s handwriting into the market, as well as more forgeries to be identified by collectors, dealers, and auction houses.
How can I learn more?
Anything else to share from your research?
My favorite real connection between Elvis and the Church is that he spent a week at the newly opened Polynesian Cultural Center filming Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966).
The center had opened in 1963 and is featured twice on screen—first as the main character (Elvis) flies his helicopter over the PCC, lands in the Tongan village, and rides a canoe through all of the villages while singing; later, as the film ends with Elvis singing a reprise of two songs from the film on the stage of what is now part of the Hale Aloha theater.