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The Spalding Theory of Book of Mormon authorship
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The Spalding Theory of Book of Mormon authorship
Since the Book of Mormon was first published, many have been unwilling to accept Joseph Smith's account of how it was produced. It's easy to dismiss Joseph's story of angels, gold plates, and a miraculous interpretation process; it's much harder to come up with an alternative explanation that accounts for the complexity and consistency of the Book of Mormon, as well as the historical details of its production.
Many critics, unwilling to credit the uneducated, backwater farm boy Joseph Smith as the Book of Mormon's author, have looked to possible sources from which he could have plagiarized. One of the earliest theories was that Joseph plagiarized the unpublished manuscript of a novel written by the Reverend Solomon Spalding (1761–1816).
Spalding was a lapsed Calvinist clergyman and author of an epic tale of the ancient Native American "Mound Builders." The theory postulates that Spalding wrote his manuscript in biblical phraseology and read it to many of his friends. He subsequently took the manuscript to Pittsburgh, where it fell into the hands of a Mr. Patterson, in whose office Sidney Rigdon worked, and that through Sidney Rigdon it came into the possession of Joseph Smith and was made the basis of the Book of Mormon.
The earliest uses of the Spaulding theory from the editor of The Wayne Sentinel in 1833 and by Eber D. Howe in his book Mormonism Unvailed [sic]. The vast majority of critics from the early 1830s to the early 1900s argued for this theory of Book of Mormon origins. This changed dramatically with the rediscovery of the actual Spaulding manuscript in 1885. Since the early 1900s, the most common explanation has been that Joseph plagiarized from Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews. Today there are few, if any, who adopt the Spaulding theory beyond a couple of writers. Spaulding theorists hold that the production of the Book of Mormon was a conspiracy involving Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and others. It is claimed by these theorists that Joseph Smith either plagiarized or relied upon a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding to write the Book of Mormon. These individuals search for links between Spalding and Rigdon in order to make the theory more plausible. Joseph Smith is assumed to have been Rigdon's pawn.
Initial critics of the Book of Mormon tended to take one of two stances—either:
- The Book of Mormon was a clumsy, obvious forgery upon which no intelligent person would waste time; and/or
- Joseph Smith was the Book of Mormon's obvious author.
Ironically, with the appearance of the Spalding theory, critics quickly began to claim that Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon, and attributed the Book of Mormon's writing to Spalding and (usually) Sidney Rigdon.
It is interesting to note the after-the-fact admission from critics that prior to the Spalding theory, the Book of Mormon was difficult to account for. Unfortunately for the modern critic, the collapse of the Spalding theory means that they are likewise ill-placed to attribute the Book of Mormon's text to Joseph Smith.
There are three major problems with this theory
- The historical record indicates that Sidney Rigdon first learned of the Book of Mormon from Parley P. Pratt and his missionary companions in November 1830, and that Rigdon did not meet Joseph Smith until December of that same year. All of this was long after the Book of Mormon was translated and published. Critics can only marshal circumstantial evidence of a conspiracy in which Rigdon met Joseph much earlier, then later pretended to be converted to Mormonism.
- The purported Spalding manuscript was not brought forward for analysis because no one knew where it was, or if it even existed. In 1884 an authentic Solomon Spalding manuscript titled "Manuscript Story—Conneaut Creek" was recovered by Lewis L. Rice in Honolulu, Hawaii and taken to the Oberlin College Library in Ohio. The unfinished story bore hardly any resemblance to the Book of Mormon.:10 The text was published by the RLDS Church in 1885 under the title "Manuscript Found." The LDS Church also published the text. (See "Further Reading," link, for links to online texts).
- Claims that Spalding wrote a second manuscript are easily discredited by the fact that the published Spalding manuscript clearly shows that it was not finished, even after Spalding moved away from many of the people who claimed to have heard him read from the later story.
The theory requires a second manuscript that doesn't exist, with invented contents, and the invention of a means of getting the alleged manuscript to Joseph Smith via Sidney Rigdon
Modern supporters of the Spalding authorship theory simply ignore the inconvenient fact that the extant Spalding manuscript recovered in the late 19th century bears no resemblance to the Book of Mormon, that it was an unfinished draft, and that no postulated second manuscript has been discovered.
They also ignore the complete lack of any persuasive evidence for contact between Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith prior to the Book of Mormon's publication.
Until the purported second manuscript appears, all these critics have is a nonexistent document which they can claim says anything they want. This is doubtlessly the attraction of the "theory" and shows the lengths to which critics will go to disprove the Book of Mormon.
It is interesting to consider that the best explanation such critics can propose requires that they invent a document, then invent its contents, and then invent a means of getting the document to Joseph via Rigdon.
An alleged missing, second Spalding manuscript
The existing Spalding manuscript is obviously unrelated to the Book of Mormon. It is therefore postulated by some that there must exist a second manuscript, despite the fact that the existing manuscript was never completed.
The discovery and publishing of the manuscript put to rest the Spaulding theory for several decades. But in the early 20th century the theory surfaced again, only this time its advocates claimed there was a second Spaulding manuscript that was the real source for the Book of Mormon. However, supporters of the revised Spaulding theory have not produced this second purported manuscript. They do, however, rely upon early works such as a 1908 book written by William Heth Whitsitt called Sidney Rigdon, The Real Founder of Mormonism. The entire book is based upon Whitsitt's initial assumption that Rigdon and Spalding wrote the Book of Mormon. Whitsitt then proceeds to fit the known facts to match that assumption. One of the most amusing parts of the book is the attempt to explain the experience of the Three Witnesses. In Whitsitt's book, Sidney plays the Angel Moroni and the Spalding manuscript itself (the second, undiscovered one) actually plays the part of the gold plates! According to Whitsitt:
It is suspected that Mr. Rigdon was somewhere present in the undergrowth of the forest where the little company were assembled, and being in plain hearing of their devotions he could easily step forward at a signal from Joseph, and exhibit several of the most faded leaves of the manuscript, which from having been kept a series of years since the death of Spaulding would assume the yellow appearance that is well known in such circumstances. At a distance from the station which they occupied the writing on these yellow sheets of paper would also appear to their excited imagination in the light of engravings; Sidney was likewise very well equal to the task of uttering the assurances which Smith affirms the angel was kind enough to supply concerning the genuineness of the "plates" and the correctness of the translation.
See: Solomon Spaulding, Manuscript Found: The Complete Original "Spaulding Manuscript", edited by Kent P. Jackson, (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1996). off-site
Question: What do most critics think of the Spalding theory of Book of Mormon origin?
Many critics of the Book of Mormon reject the Spalding theory as unworkable
- Davis H. Bays, The Doctrines and Dogmas of Mormonism Examined and Refuted, (St. Louis: Christian Publishing, 1897), 22, 25
- [This theory is] "erroneous, and it will lead to almost certain defeat.... The facts are all opposed to this view, and the defenders of the Mormon dogma have the facts well in hand.... The Spaulding story is a failure. Do not attempt to rely upon it — it will let you down."
- Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History (New York, A. A. Knopf, 1945), 453
- "The tenuous chain of evidence accumulated to support the Spaulding-Rigdon theory breaks altogether when it tries to prove that Rigdon met Joseph Smith before 1830."
- Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Did Spaulding Write the Book of Mormon? (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1977).
- "...Mormon archivists have assembled a large amount of evidence -- some of it impressive -- to rebut the Spalding theory. They scored a coup of sorts when they discovered that a manuscript page from another Mormon book, Doctrine and Covenants, is apparently in the same handwriting as that of the Unidentified Scribe in the Book of Mormon manuscript. It is dated June, 1831 -- fifteen years after Spalding's death.... The average layman can readily note the striking dissimilarities between Spalding's specimens and the others...." — Edward E. Plowman, Christianity Today (21 October 1977): 38-39.
One might ask the question: If Mormonism's most prominent critics find the Spalding theory unworkable, then what motivates those who tenuously hold to this theory and continue to pursue it? Those that continue to promote this theory have not effectively dealt with the major objections highlighted by other anti-Mormon critics. 
Edward E. Plowman, Christianity Today: "Mormon archivists have assembled a large amount of evidence -- some of it impressive -- to rebut the Spalding theory"
Edward E. Plowman:
...Mormon archivists have assembled a large amount of evidence -- some of it impressive -- to rebut the Spalding theory. They scored a coup of sorts when they discovered that a manuscript page from another Mormon book, Doctrine and Covenants, is apparently in the same handwriting as that of the Unidentified Scribe in the Book of Mormon manuscript. It is dated June, 1831 -- fifteen years after Spalding's death.... The average layman can readily note the striking dissimilarities between Spalding's specimens and the others....
Gospel Topics: "Similarities between his manuscript and the Book of Mormon are general and superficial"
Gospel Topics on LDS.org:
Spaulding was born in 1761. He studied at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and was ordained a minister. Later, he left the ministry and lived in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania until his death in 1816. In his later years, he wrote a novel, which he never published. Spaulding's manuscript is considerably shorter than the Book of Mormon.
Similarities between his manuscript and the Book of Mormon are general and superficial. Spaulding's fiction is about a group of Romans blown off course on a journey to Britain who arrive instead in America. One of the Romans narrates the adventures of the group and the history and culture of the people they find in America. A major portion of the manuscript describes two nations near the Ohio River. After a long era of peace between the two nations, a prince of one nation elopes with a princess of the other nation. Because of political intrigue, the elopement results in a great war between the two nations and the loss of much life but the ultimate vindication of the prince and his princess.
Sidney Rigdon: "in all of my intimacy with Joseph Smith he never told me but one story"
Sidney Rigdon to his son John, just prior to Sidney's death, asserted that the Book of Mormon was true:
My father, after I had finished saying what I have repeated above, looked at me a moment, raised his hand above his head and slowly said, with tears glistening in his eyes: "My son, I can swear before high heaven that what I have told you about the origin of [the Book of Mormon] is true. Your mother and sister, Mrs. Athalia Robinson, were present when that book was handed to me in Mentor, Ohio, and all I ever knew about the origin of [the Book of Mormon] was what Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith and the witnesses who claimed they saw the plates have told me, and in all of my intimacy with Joseph Smith he never told me but one story. 
Question: Did Solomon Spaulding's doctor state that Spaulding talked to him about the Nephites in his manuscript?
This claim is based upon a forgery
This claim comes from an affidavit allegedly inscribed in the flyleaf of a copy of the Book of Mormon:
This work, I am convinced by facts related to me by my deceased patient, Solomon Spaulding, has been made from writings of Spaulding, probably by Sidney Rigdon, who was suspicioned by Spaulding with purloining his manuscript from the publishing-house to which he had taken it; and I am prepared to testify that Spaulding told me that his work was entitled, "The Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon; or Unearthed Records of the Nephites." From his description of its contents, I fully believe that this Book of Mormon is mainly and wickedly copied from it. CEPHAS DODD.
It is considered a forgery (even by most Spalding theorists), and was given to C.E. Shook by R.B. Neal.
Shook published it in a book at the beginning of the 20th century. The original (if it ever existed) doesn't exist any more.
On the other hand, there is an authentic letter by Dodd in which he says that he knows almost nothing of the writings of Spalding. As one Spaulding theorist wrote:
Rev. Snowden reciting the "further testimony that Solomon Spaulding had written a manuscript entitled 'The Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon, or Unearthed Records of the Nephites,'" is problematic. This assertion was originally published in 1914 by Charles A. Shook -- who, in turn, evidently received the unsubstantiated claim from Rev. R. B. Neal. The original source -- a purported Cephas Dodd statement of June 5, 1831 -- has been documented as a forgery, and there is no reliable evidence for Solomon Spalding ever having made use of this strange title.
Eber D. Howe: "I could better believe that Spaulding wrote it than that Joe Smith saw an angel"
Eber D. Howe, publisher of the "Spalding theory" of Book of Mormon authorship in Mormonism Unvailed, during an interview in 1884.:
Because I could better believe that Spaulding wrote it than that Joe Smith saw an angel.
William Smith (1884): "It was not written from the Spaulding Romance. That story is false"
William dismissed the Spalding theory as absurd:
Where is the Spaulding Story? I am a little too old a man to be telling stories. There is no money in telling this story. I expect to stand before angels and archangels and be judged for how I have told it. When Joseph received the plates he a[l]so received the Urim and Thummim, which he would place in a hat to exclude all light, and with the plates by his side he translated the characters, which were cut into the plates with some sharp instrument, into English. And thus, letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence, the whole book was translated. It was not written from the Spaulding Romance. That story is false. Some say this romance was stolen by Sidney Rigdon while at Pittsburgh. This is false. Sidney Rigdon knew nothing about it. He never saw or heard tell of the Book of Mormon until it was presented to him by P. P. Pratt and others. He was never at my father's house to see my brother until after the book was published. If he had wanted to see Joseph at that time and remained very long, he would have had to be in the field rolling logs or carrying brush. 
Roper: "Subsequent variants of this hypothesis have been published from time to time"
In 1834, relying on testimony gathered by one Doctor Philastus Hurlbut (a former Mormon who had been excommunicated from the church for immoral behavior), E. D. Howe suggested that the Book of Mormon was based on an unpublished novel called "Manuscript Found," written by a former minister named Solomon Spalding. In statements collected by Hurlbut, eight former neighbors of Spalding said they remembered elements of his story that resembled the historical portions of the Book of Mormon. Some said they recalled names shared by Spalding's earlier tale and the Book of Mormon. Others claimed that the historical narrative of both stories was the same with the exception of the religious material in the Book of Mormon. Howe suggested that, by some means, Sidney Rigdon, a former Campbellite preacher in Ohio and Pennsylvania who had joined the church in November 1830, had obtained a copy of "Manuscript Found" years before and had used it as the basis for the Book of Mormon, to which he also added religious material. Rigdon, Howe argued, must have conspired with Joseph Smith to pass the Book of Mormon off as a divinely revealed book of ancient American scripture as part of a moneymaking scheme. Subsequent variants of this hypothesis have been published from time to time.
Question: Did Joseph Smith know Sidney Rigdon prior to 1830?
John Stafford: "Sidney Rigdon was never there, that Hurlbut, or Howe, or Tucker could find out"
- Q — If young Joseph — Smith , Jr. — was as illiterate as you say, Doctor, how do you account for the Book of Mormon?
- A — "Well, I can't; except that Sidney Rigdon was connected with them."
- Q — Was Rigdon ever around there before the Book of Mormon was published?
- A — "No; not as we could ever find out. Sidney Rigdon was never there, that Hurlbut, or Howe, or Tucker could find out."
- Q — Well; you have been looking out for the facts a long time, have you not, Doctor?
- A — "Yes; I have been thinking and hearing about it for the last fifty years, and lived right among all their old neighbors there more of the time."
- Q — And no one has ever been able to trace the acquaintance of Rigdon and Smith, until after the Book of Mormon was published, and Rigdon proselyted by Parley P. — Pratt, in Ohio?
- A — "Not that I know of.""
- — John Stafford, cited in William H. Kelly, "The Hill Cumorah, and the Book of Mormon," Saints' Herald 28 (1 June 1881): 167.
The Spalding Theory of Book of Mormon authorship
Many essays have discussed this theory and its weaknesses in depth. See:
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- For a helpful longitudinal history of naturalistic theories for Book of Mormon origins, see Brian C. Hales, "Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study," BYU Studies 58:3 (2019).
- Matthew Roper, "The Mythical "Manuscript Found" (Review of: Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 7–140. off-site,
- The Spalding Theory Debunked off-site
- Matthew Roper, "The Mythical "Manuscript Found" (Review of: Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 7–140. off-site, p. 21, note 62.
- Edward E. Plowman, Christianity Today (21 October 1977): 38-39).
- "Spaulding Manuscript," Gospel Topics on LDS.org.
- Rex C. Reeve, Jr. "What is 'Manuscript Found'?" in Manuscript Found: The Complete Original "Spaulding" Manuscript, edited by Kent B. Jackson, Vol. 11 in the Specialized Monographs Series (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1996), footnote 47.
- Cited in Appendix 5, "The Cephas Dodd Hoax and Other Fabrications," in Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A. Davis, and Arthur Vanick, Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma. (St. Louis: Concordia, 2005), 402. Analysis
- Charles A. Shook, The True Origin of Mormon Polygamy (Cincinnati: The Standard Publishing Company, 1910). It was also cited by Dr. W. L. Dodd, Early History of Amity, Pa. 1770-1870 (Private publication, 1940).
- Dale Broadhurst, "Wayne Cowdrey, et al. Who Really Wrote The Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma," Note 2, accessed 2 May 2015. http://www.sidneyrigdon.com/dbroadhu/PA/penn1900.htm
- Interview with E.D. Howe, in E.L. Kelley, Public Discussion of the Issues between the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Church of Christ (Disciples), Held in Kirtland, Ohio, Beginning February 12, and Closing March 8, 1884, between E. L. Kelley, of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Clark Braden, of the Church of Christ (St. Louis: Christian Publishing and Smart, 1884), 83.
- Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:505-506.
- Matthew Roper, "The Mythical "Manuscript Found" (Review of: Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 7–140. off-site
- Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:123–124.)