In my previous post about Unconventional Book of Mormon Geography Theories, Doug G made a comment claiming that the Book of Mormon is related to the Solomon Spaulding Manuscript, so I want to address this theory. Andrew Ainsworth did a post in February on the Curious Case of Solomon Spaulding, which talks more about the legal aspects of proving plagiarism. Andrew is a lawyer, and I found his perspective interesting.
Lest anyone think my quotes are from apologetic sources, let me discuss them. My quotes are going to come from two books. (1) Sidney Rigdon: Portrait of Religious Excess, by Richard Van Wagoner (which I’ll abbreviate SR). Chapter 11 is called Book of Mormon Authorship, and deals directly with the issue of whether Sidney Rigdon is the true author of the Book of Mormon, rather than Joseph Smith. (2) No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brodie (which I’ll abbreviate NM). While Fawn Brodie was excommunicated for her book (thus increasing her stature in the eyes of skeptics), few people know much about Van Wagoner. Van Wagoner’s book has received many awards, but has been criticized by FARMS for being “fundamentally, not simply tangentially, defective.” Any book criticized by FARMS often gives skeptics (like Doug G) reason to like the book. Neither book is apologetic in nature. Both books greatly discount the Spalding Manuscript theory.
What is the Spaulding Manuscript?
Solomon Spaulding was born in 1761 in Connecticut, and graduated from Dartmouth College (NH) in 1785. He was a minister for the Congregational Church in New York, and later became a Presbyterian. In 1809, he moved to Ohio and wrote a historical novel, narrated by a Roman sailor named Fabius who was shipwrecked in ancient America. The book was never published, and he died in 1816. After several changes of ownership (including the RLDS church), the manuscript has been donated to Oberlin College in Ohio, where it currently resides. You may view the manuscript here.
What is the theory?
What is quite interesting to me is that this theory dates back to literally 1831, and Rigdon has always denied the theory. According to NM page 68,
The theory ran as follows: The Book of Mormon was a plagiarism of an old manuscript by one Solomon Spaulding, which Sidney Rigdon somehow secured from a printing house in Pittsburgh. After adding much religious matter to the story, Rigdon determined to publish it as a newly discovered history of the American Indian. Hearing of a young necromancer Joseph smith, three hundred miles away in New York State, he visited him secretly and persuaded him to enact a fraudulent representation of its discovery. Then nine months after the book’s publication Smith’s missionaries went to Ohio and the pastor pretended to be converted to the new church.
Through the years the “Spaulding theory” collected supporting affidavits as a ship does barnacles, until it became so laden with evidence that the casual reader was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the accumulation. The theory requires a careful analysis because it has been so widely accepted. The documentary evidence on both sides is so burdensome, however, that I have relegated it to an appendix.
There are some interesting similarities between the two books, which I will highlight below. NM page 449 addresses the obvious similarities. (I have changed the formatting to highlight the similarities, but the following is an exact quote from the NM book.)
There were certain similarities between the book of Mormon which, though not sufficient to justify the thesis of common authorship, might have given rise to the conviction of Spaulding’s neighbors that one was a plagiarism of the other.
- Both were said to come out of the earth;
- Both were stories of colonists sailing from the Old World to the New;
- Both explained the earthworks and mounds common to western New York and Ohio as a result of savage wars.
- John Miller had spoken of the “humorous passages” in Spaulding’s work, which would certainly apply to the “Manuscript Story,” but not the utterly humorless Book of Mormon.
- Other features, like the scriptural style,
- the expression “it came to pass,”
- and the proper names, seem too definite to be questioned.
How did the theory come about?
During 1830 and 1831, Mormon missionary work in Ohio flourished, including converts Sidney Rigdon, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, and Parley P Pratt (who were members of Rigdon’s Baptist congregation.) When Sidney announced his conversion during his Baptist services and some 100 members of his congregation soon joined, there was much consternation among the members of his congregation who felt Sidney was badly deceived. According to SR page 132,
Mormonism’s success in Ohio, particularly among Sidney’s Reformed Baptists, spelled conspiracy in some people’s eyes. While eleven of Smith’s friends and relatives signed affidavits that they had examined the gold plates and seen the angel who delivered them to the prophet, many did not accept this supernatural explanation. To cynics it seemed improbable that a semi-literate farm boy could author a literary work so intricate in plot and steeped in biblical lore as the Book of Mormon.
The logical explanation for the holy book was that Smith must have collaborated behind the scenes with someone better educated and more sophisticated. A former school teacher, Oliver Cowdery, Smith’s major copyist during the project, was considerably better schooled than his prophet-cousin. Cowdery was touted in the press as co-author of the Book of Mormon in the 25 November 1830 Cleveland Herald. But as soon as Sidney made his late 1830 trip to New York to meet Smith, rumors surfaced that he, not Cowdery, was the mastermind behind the new scripture.
Evidence that the Spaulding Manuscript is not the Source of the Book of Mormon
Besides the fact that the Spaulding manuscript is just one-sixth the size of the Book of Mormon (meaning Joseph and Sidney needed to come up with much new material), Spaulding’s widow, Matilda Davison, gave the manuscript to Hurlburt. NM page 144,
Now to his bitter chagrin he found that the long chase had been vain; for while the romance did concern the ancestors of the Indians, its resemblance to the Book of Mormon ended there. None of the names found in one could be identified in the other; the many battles which each described showed not the slightest similarity with those of the other, and Spaulding’s prose style, which aped the eighteenth-century British sentimental novelists, differed from the style of the Mormon Bible as much as Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded different from the New Testament.
(The manuscript Hurlburt found was published by the Reorganized Church in Lamoni, Iowa in 1885 under the title The Manuscript Found). Continuing on,
Hurlburt knew, however, that he had a keg of powder even without the manuscript. He boldly exhibited his affidavits in Kirtland, lectured in the surrounding towns, and arranged to publish the documents in book form with the assistance of Eber D. Howe. The lectures caused a furor.
The appendix in NM page 447 gives additional insight into the manuscript.
She [Spaulding’s widow] gave permission to examine the Spaulding’s papers in the attic of a farmhouse in Otsego County, New York; but he found there only one manuscript, which was clearly not the source for the Book of Mormon. This was a romance supposedly translated from twenty-one rolls of parchment covered with Latin, found in a cave on the banks of the Conneaut Creek. It was written in modern English and was about 45,000 words long, one sixth the length of the Book of Mormon. It was an adventure story of some Romans sailing to Britain long before the Christian era, who had been blown to America during a violent storm.
Hurlburt’s Downfall/ED Howe takes over Issue
Hurlburt at some point confronted Smith. SR Page 136,
Smith and Rigdon were quick to defend the Mormon cause. And at some point in the passion of a heated exchange, Hurlburt publicly threatened that he would “wash his hands” in the prophet’s blood. In January 1834, Smith filed a legal complaint bringing Hurlburt to trial on 1 April. The court found him guilty, fined him $200, and ordered him to keep the peace for 6 months.
The notoriety surrounding Hurlbut, compounded by an embarrassing incident when his wife was discovered in bed with Judge Orris Clapp, tarnished his image. He sold his research to Eber D. Howe, editor of the Painesville Telegraph, who held a long-term grudge against Mormonism for converting his wife and daughter.
On Nov 28, 1834, The Painesville Telegraph contained the first advertisement of Howe’s book Mormonism Unvailed. It was one of the first published books attributing Rigdon as the real author of the Book of Mormon. SR page 136,
While Howe admitted he had Spalding’s manuscript, it was obvious that the former minister’s work, a secular text, was not the source for the Book of Mormon, a lofty religious tome, although the introduction, ethnological assumptions, and mystical lore were undeniably similar. To explain the enigmatic gaps in genre and plot, Howe wrote that his witnesses claimed Spalding had “altered his first plan of writing, by going farther back with dates, and writing in the old scripture style, in order that it might appear more ancient.”
Howe further purported that through some unspecified means, Rigdon must have secured this hypothetical second, revised manuscript while he was living in Pittsburgh. He concluded: “We, therefore, must hold out Sidney Rigdon to the world as being the original ‘author and proprietor’ of the whole Mormon conspiracy, until further light is elicited upon the lost writings of Solomon Spaulding.”
NM page 447-8 discusses the possibility of other manuscripts, and discounts them.
She [Spaulding’s widow] told him that “Spaulding had a great variety of manuscripts” and recollected that one was entitled the “Manuscript Found,” but its contents she “had no distinct knowledge.” During the two years she had lived in Pittsburgh, Spaulding had taken the manuscript to the office of Patterson and Lambdin, she said, but whether or not it had been returned was uncertain.
She gave Hurlbut permission to examine Spaulding’s papers in the attic of a farmhouse in Otswego, New York; but he found there only one manuscript, which was clearly not the source of the Book of Mormon.
Hurlbut showed this manuscript to Spaulding’s neighbors, who, he said, recognized it as Spaulding’s, but stated that it was not the “Manuscript Found.” Spaulding “had altered his first plan of writing, but going farther back with dates and writing in the Old Scripture style, in order that it might appear more ancient.” This surmise may have been true, though there was no signed statement swearing to it. But it seems more likely that these witnesses had so come to identify the Book of Mormon with the Spaulding manuscript that they could not concede having made an error without admitting to a case of memory substitution which they did not themselves recognize.
Hurlbut, at least, was certain that Spaulding had written a second manuscript. Eber D. Howe, Hurlbut’s collaborator, now wrote to Robert Patterson, the Pittsburgh printer mentioned by Spaulding’s widow. He replied “that he had no recollection of any manuscript being brought there for publication, neither would he have been likely to have seen it, as the business of printing was conducted wholly by Lambdin at that time.”
Disappointed in this source, and unable to get any confirming evidence from Joseph’s neighbors in western New York, Hurlbut had to be content with insinuating that Sidney Rigdon, who had once lived in Pittsburgh, was somehow responsible for getting the Spaulding manuscript into Joseph Smith’s hands.
Where was Rigdon between 1809 and 1830?
Rigdon never met Spaulding (who died in 1816.) NM Page 449-51
If the evidence pointing to the existence of a second Spaulding manuscript is dubious, the affidavits trying to prove that Rigdon stole it, or copied it, are all unconvincing and frequently preposterous.
First there is no evidence that Rigdon ever lived in Pittsburgh until 1822, when he became pastor of the First Baptist Church. Robert Patterson, Jr., son of the Pittsburgh printer, conducted an exhaustive research among the old settlers of the vicinity to try to establish the truth of the Spaulding theory. This was in 1882, sixty-six years after Spaulding’s death. Many were familiar with the theory and believed it, he said, but few could give first-hand information. Rigdon’s brother-in-law, not a Mormon, and Isaac King, and old neighbor, swore to him that Rigdon did not go to Pittsburgh before 1822. Mrs. Lambdin, widow of Patterson’s partner, denied any knowledge of Rigdon, as did Robert P. DuBois, who had worked in the printing shop between 1818 and 1820.
One woman, who had worked as a mail clerk in Patterson’s office between 1811 and 1816, stated that she knew Rigdon and that he was an intimate friend of Lambdin’s but this was clearly untrue as evidenced by the statement of Lambdin’s widow that she had never heard of Rigdon….
Brodie rejects other affidavits from this point on. NM Page 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.
Rigdon’s life between 1826 and 1829 has been carefully documented from non-Mormon sources. It is clear from the following chronology that he was a busy and successful preacher and one of the leading figures of the Campbellite movement in Ohio. Until August 1830, when he broke with Alexander Campbell over the question of introducing communism into the Campbellite Church, he was one of the four key men of that church. It cannot be held that Rigdon rewrote the Spaulding manuscript before 1827, since the anti-Masonry permeating the book clearly stemmed from the Morgan excitement beginning late in 1826.
Brodie then lists all the known funerals, marriages, and other meetings of Rigdon between 1826 and 1830, along with gaps of information where his whereabouts are unknown. It fails to show a link between Smith and Rigdon prior to Dec 1830. By this time, the Book of Mormon had already been published.
Rigdon and others’ denials
SR Page 133-4,
(1) During the spring of 1833 or 1834, while visiting the home of Samuel Baker near New Portage, Ohio, Rigdon stated in the presence of a large gathering that he was aware some in the neighborhood had accused him of being the instigator of the Book of Mormon. Standing in the doorway to address the audience in the yard, he held up a Book of Mormon and said:
‘I testify in the presence of this congregation, and before God and all the Holy Angels up yonder, (pointing toward heaven), before whom I expect to give account at the judgement day, that I never saw a sentence of the Book of Mormon. I never penned a sentence in the Book of Mormon. I never knew that there was such a book in existence as the Book of Mormon, until it was presented to me by Parley P. Pratt, in the form that it now is.’
(2) On his deathbed with an interview to his son Wickliffe, “I found him as ever in declaring that he himself had nothing whatever to do in writing the book, and that Joseph Smith received it from an angel. On his dying bed he made the same declaration to a Methodist minister…. My mother has also told me that Father had nothing to do with the writing of the book, and that she positively knew that he had never seen it until Parley P. Pratt came to our home with it.
(3) Nancy R. Ellis, Rigdon’s most anti-Mormon offspring, recalled in an 1884 interview the arrival of the missionaries to her Mentor, Ohio home when she was eight years old: “I saw them hand him the book, and I am positive as can be that he never saw it before…. She further stated that her father in the last years of his life called his family together and told them, as sure as there was a God in heaven, he never had anything to do in getting up the book of Mormon, and never saw any such thing as a manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding.”
(4) Former apostle William McClellin (who was excommunicated in 1838) said regarding Rigdon on page 137, “He never heard of the work of Smith & Cowdery, until C[owdery] and P[arley] P Pratt brought the book to him in Mentor, O[hio]. True enough, I have but little confidence in S. Rigdon, but I know he was more the tool of J. Smith than his teacher and director. He was docile in J.S. hands to my knowledge.
SR page 137.
The weight of scholarly studies since Fawn Brodie’s seminal 1945 No Man Knows My History biography of Joseph Smith has all but eliminated the Spalding theory and Rigdon’s complicity. The earliest Book of Mormon critic, Rigdon’s former mentor Alexander Campbell, opined in 1831 that Joseph Smith profoundly affected by the Salvationist Christianity of nineteenth-century Protestant America, was, in fact, the author of the work.
NM page 455-6
Alexander Campbell, who knew Rigdon intimately, described his conversion to Mormonism with great regret in the Millennial Harbinger, attributing it to his nervous spasms and swooning and to his passionate belief in the imminent gathering of Israel. But of the authorship of the Book of Mormon he wrote bluntly: “It is as certainly Smith’s fabrication as Satan is the father of lies or darkness is the offspring of night.”
So, I’m sure there are people out there who believe the Book of Mormon is fiction. However, I believe the Spaulding Theory has been thoroughly discredited by these two authors. (I know this is a long post, but a longer version is found here.) Comments?