For years now I’ve heard people offhandedly dismiss the Book of Mormon as a known plagiarism of “the Solomon Spaulding manuscript.” I’ve finally gotten around to researching this oft-cited alternative theory about the true origins of the Book of Mormon, and I was both perplexed and amused by what I found. For rarely does one find an alternative theory advanced to expose the true origins of a controversial work when that alternative theory is almost as fanciful and far-fetched as the “official story” it is meant to debunk.
Although there are sure to be many readers who are already familiar with the Spaulding manuscript theory, I thought there might be a lot of folks out there who, like me until somewhat recently, still haven’t heard one of the most entertaining stories in Mormon (and anti-Mormon) history.
How and when did the Spaulding manuscript theory originate, and what is it meant to explain?
The Spaulding manuscript theory was first advanced in 1833 by Dr. Philastus Hurlbut, an excommunicated Mormon and known opponent of the Church. Hurlbut’s theory was disseminated more widely in 1834 when it was published in the “anti-Mormon” book Mormonism Unvailed by E.D. Howe. For more than a century afterwards, numerous authors of exposés on Mormonism embraced the Spaulding manuscript theory to explain the “true origins” of significant portions of the Book of Mormon.
In short, the Spaulding manuscript theory attempts to explain where the “real” authors of the Book of Mormon (presumably Joseph Smith and/or Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdrey) got the elaborate historical narrative found in the Book of Mormon (e.g., the central characters like Lehi, Nephi, and Moroni, and the alleged “historic accounts” of centuries of wars and bloodshed). To be clear, the Spaulding manuscript theory is not offered to explain the true origin of the religious aspects of the Book of Mormon. Rather, it is suggested that the “real” authors of the Book of Mormon used the Spaulding manuscript’s main plot, central characters, and setting, and then mixed in religious sermons and doctrines from other sources.
Who was Solomon Spaulding?
Solomon Spaulding was born in Connecticut in 1761, graduated from Dartmouth in 1785, and spent three or four years as a Congregationalist minister before leaving the ministry and embarking on a series of unsuccessful business ventures in New York and Ohio. He lived in Conneaut, OH during the time when he is alleged to have written his manuscript. He left Ohio and relocated to Amity, PA in 1812 , where he died in 1816.
What are the main assertions of the Spaulding manuscript theory?
Proponents of the Spaulding manuscript theory allege that Spaulding became fascinated with the numerous Indian burial mounds he had encountered in the Ohio area, and that he wrote a historical romance to explain the existence of the mound builders on the American continent, which he allegedly entitled “Manuscript Found”. Spaulding supposedly read lengthy portions of his manuscript to his family and neighbors on a frequent basis such that they became quite familiar with his story and could recall its details even decades later.
Spaulding allegedly took his “Manuscript Found” to the printing office of a Mr. Patterson in Pittsburgh, PA some time around 1812 with hopes of profiting from his historical romance. But, as the theory goes, the alleged manuscript was never published for unknown reasons. The theory further alleges that Sidney Rigdon somehow acquired the Spaulding manuscript from Patterson’s printing office in Pittsburgh sometime thereafter. Spaulding died in 1816, four years after he allegedly deposited the manuscript with Patterson.
What is the principal “evidence” for and against the proposition that Solomon Spaulding authored a manuscript similar to the Book of Mormon?
To be clear, Solomon Spaulding is not the source of the “Solomon manuscript theory.” Spaudling never claimed that the Book of Mormon was a plagiarism of something he’d previously written. Of course, he could never have made such a claim because he died in 1816, fourteen years before the Book of Mormon was published. By the time the Solomon Spaulding theory was advanced in Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed in 1834, Spaulding had been dead for 18 years. Thus, in pointing to Solomon Spaulding as the “real” source of the Book of Mormon’s historical narrative, Dr. Hurlbut and Mr. Howe point us to a dead man who can neither confirm nor deny their claims.
Of course, there are other ways of confirming whether Spaulding did, in fact, write a manuscript similar to the Book of Mormon. If Spaulding was as fond of reading his manuscript to his neighbors as Howe claims, one would expect to find at least just one item of correspondence or document created during Spaulding’s lifetime in which either Spaulding, a family member, or a friend, neighbor or business associate referred to his manuscript or recited at least a few of its details. But no such luck. The proponents of the Solomon Spaulding theory do not provide a single scrap of paper pre-dating the Book of Mormon to support the notion that Spaulding ever wrote a manuscript similar to the Book of Mormon.
Additionally, if Spaulding had in fact deposited his manuscript with Mr. Patterson at his printing office, one would expect Patterson to confirm that fact. But he didn’t. To the contrary, when asked, Patterson reported he could not recall any such manuscript being brought to his printing office for publication. Proponents of the Spaulding manuscript theory counter that Patterson indicated his printing business was managed by a Mr. Harrison Lambdin at the time in question, and that it is therefore not surprising that Patterson would not recall the manuscript. However, this retort has two problems: first, that the Patterson-Lambdin partnership was not formed until 1818, two years after Spaulding’s death; and second, that Lambdin could not confirm that Spaulding ever brought a manuscript to Patterson’s printing office because Lambdin died in 1825, almost a decade before Mormonism Unvailed advanced the Spaulding manuscript theory. Thus, in pointing to Lambdin as the printer who received Spaulding’s manuscript at Patterson’s office, proponents of the theory again point us to a dead man who can neither confirm nor deny their allegations. Furthermore, when Lambdin’s widow was asked about the matter years later, she reported never having heard of any such manuscript being deposited with her husband, and refuted the suggestion that Lambdin ever knew or associated with a Sidney Rigdon.
So if there is no first-hand testimony from Spaulding himself, no testimony from the printers Patterson or Lambdin about any Spaulding manuscript being deposited with them, and no documentary evidence pre-dating the Book of Mormon indicating that Spaulding ever wrote such a manuscript, what “evidence” do the proponents of the Spaulding manuscript theory rely upon?
The primary “evidentiary basis” for the Spaulding manuscript theory is a collection of statements given by eight persons who claimed to be Spaulding’s neighbors in Conneaut, OH. These eight statements were collected by the excommunicated-Mormon Dr. Hurlbut in 1833, who later sold them for $500 to E.D. Howe, who then cited them in his Mormonism Unvailed the following year. Thus, it should be noted the primary “evidence” upon which the Solomon Spaulding theory relies, i.e., these eight statements by Ohio residents, was collected twenty-one years after Spaulding left Ohio (where he allegedly wrote his manuscript and read it to friends and family), seventeen years after Spaulding’s death, and three years after the Book of Mormon was published.
The eight statements gathered by Dr. Hurlbut in 1833 were obtained from Spaulding’s brother John, Spaulding’s sister-in-law, Spaulding’s business partner in Ohio, an alleged employee of Spaulding, and four of Spaulding’s neighbors in Conneaut, OH. Taken together, the statements make the following main claims: (1) that Spaulding had read them portions of a manuscript he authored prior to his death (and therefore prior to the Book of Mormon’s publication); (2) that the manuscript was about a group of people who left Israel and came to the Americas, and who were purportedly the ancestors of the American Indians; (3) that these immigrants to the New World split into two main groups and engaged in centuries of warfare, resulting in large heaps of bodies that account for the Indian burial mounds and fortifications found throughout the country; (4) that the main characters in the manuscript were named Lehi, Nephi, Laban, Mormon, Moroni, etc.; (5) that the manuscript was written in an old Bible-like style with frequent usage of the phrase “And it came to pass”; and (6) that Spaulding wrote the manuscript such that it could pass as a believable, genuine history, and that he hoped to profit from it someday.
It should be noted that the three “witnesses” to the Spaulding manuscript who were closest to Spaulding, (i.e., Spaulding’s brother, sister-in-law, and business partner), were probably in their 70’s when Howe obtained their statements. (One would presume that Spaulding’s brother, sister-in-law, and business partner were all of roughly the same age has he, and Spaulding would have been 72 when Dr. Hurlbut collected their statements.) Thus, although it is certainly possible that Spaulding’s brother, sister-in-law, and business partner were intentionally lying about the existence of a manuscript authored by Spaulding, it is also possible that Hurlbut, who was a known opponent of Mormonism, suggested certain “recollections” to these elderly individuals when obtaining their statements. Moreover, the statement obtained from Spaulding’s sister-in-law begins with a disclaimer about her memory, stating: “The lapse of time which has intervened prevents my recollecting but few of the leading incidents of his [Spaulding’s] writings.”
The greatest strength of the Spaulding theory is the argument that eight persons would not intentionally lie about Spaulding reading them stories similar to those found in the Book of Mormon. But interestingly, the statements obtained from Spaulding’s brother, sister-in-law, and business partner raise as many questions as they purport to answer. For example: If Spaulding had pinned his hopes of financial recovery on the manuscript, why did Spaulding’s family not attempt to follow up with the printer Patterson about the status of the proposed publication of Spaulding’s manuscript after his death? And if they were so convinced and outraged by the Book of Mormon’s plagiarism of Spaulding’s manuscript, why did Spaulding’s family members never pursue any legal remedies against Smith, et al.?
In the next several decades following the publication of Mormonism Unvailed, additional “witnesses” to the Spaulding manuscript surfaced here and there, each making claims similar to those found in the eight original statements obtained by Dr. Hurlbut. Presumably, the most credible of these were the alleged statements of Spaulding’s widow and only child. In 1839, a Reverend in Massachusetts claimed to have obtained a statement from Spaulding’s widow in which she affirmed the general claims made by the other eight persons, and related a story where her neighbors and brother-in-law in Ohio had become outraged when Mormon missionaries read them portions of the Book of Mormon, which they all immediately recognized as being taken from Spaulding’s “Manuscript Found.” Mormons researching the story report that Spaulding’s widow denied making several of the statements that the Massachusetts Reverend had attributed to her.
Then in 1880, a newspaper reporter published what was claimed to be a statement from Spaulding’s only child, in which she claimed to remember her father reading his manuscript to her when she was six years of age, and claimed to remember it containing names like Mormon, Moroni, Lamanite, and Nephi. Of course, the reliability of this statement is in doubt because it comes from someone in her 70’s reciting events that occurred when she was six years old.
The other additional statements that surfaced from persons purporting to have heard Spaulding’s stories suffer from the same reliability problem because those statements were given by elderly persons in the 1870’s-1880’s, some sixty and seventy years after Spaulding allegedly deposited his manuscript with Patterson’s office.
Even more curious are the theories about how Joseph Smith, Sidney Ridgon, or Oliver Cowdery might have obtained Spaulding’s manuscript from Patterson’s printing office. For it is not enough to allege Spaulding wrote a manuscript; one must also account for how the alleged “real” authors of the Book of Mormon got their hands on that manuscript. But the “evidence” supporting the theories about how Smith, Rigdon, or Cowdery would have gained access to the Spalding manuscript is even more tenuous than the evidence that Spaulding ever wrote a manuscript similar to the Book of Mormon.
What if the Solomon Spaulding theory were advanced in a court of law today?
As someone who has done a fair share of copyright infringement litigation, I can tell you that if someone filed a lawsuit alleging that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from the Spaulding manuscript, that person would at a minimum be required to prove: (1) the existence of a manuscript authored by Spaulding before the Book of Mormon was published; (2) that the publisher(s) of the Book of Mormon had access that Spaulding manuscript; and (3) that the Book of Mormon and the Spaulding manuscript share more than just generic similarities (e.g., a group of people migrating from the Old World to the New World). Of course, proponents of the Spaulding theory would fail in their claim because they have never been able to produce the manuscript bearing more than generic similarities to the Book of Mormon, nor have they been able to conclusively demonstrate that the publishers of the Book of Mormon had access to such a manuscript. (For example, although they claim it was Rigdon who obtained the Spaulding manuscript from Patterson’s printing office, there is no evidence that Rigdon and Joseph Smith met each other before the Book of Mormon’s publication.)
In the end, the Spaulding manuscript theory amounts to a tale about significant portions of the Book of Mormon being stolen from a manuscript that is nowhere to be found, purportedly authored by a man who died 17 years before the theory was ever concocted, and supposedly left in the hands of a printer who disclaims having ever seen it. And that’s the story that’s supposed to be far more convincing than the idea of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon from a golden book that was received from, and returned to, an angel?
Post Script: The Curious Case of Solomon Spaulding Gets Curiouser — Spaulding’s “Manuscript Found” is Found!
As it turns out, Solomon Spaulding did write a manuscript after all. In 1884, a Mr. L.L. Rice found a manuscript authored by Spaulding amongst the many files he’d inherited when he purchased the Painesville Telegraph from E.D. Howe, author of Mormonism Unvailed. Howe had reportedly obtained the manuscript from Dr. Hurlbut while doing research for his exposé on Mormonism; it is known that Howe paid Hurlbut $500 for the eight affidavits he had collected. Spaulding’s widow reported that Hurlbut had asked permission to search Spauldings papers for the long lost manuscript, offering her half the publication proceeds if he could locate it. She agreed and Hurlbut actually found amongst Spaulding’s papers a manuscript of about 45,000 words, about one-sixth the length of the Book of Mormon. But there was just one major problem for Hurlbut: the manuscript was obviously not the original source material for the Book of Mormon. Instead of containing a story about a group of Israelites coming to the Americas with names like Lehi, Nephi, etc., the manuscript contained a story about a group of Romans who were blown off course while sailing to Great Britain and landed in the Americas, and consisted mainly of lengthy descriptions about the customs of the various Indian tribes the Roman party encountered.
When Hurlbut located the Spaulding manuscript, he reportedly showed it to the persons who had previously sworn affidavits about the similarities between Spaulding’s work and the Book of Mormon. But when confronted with the Spaulding manuscript’s obvious lack of similarity to the Book of Mormon, rather than recognizing and admitting the obvious possibility that they had “misrecollected” the true nature of Spaulding’s manuscript, they suggested Spaulding must have also authored a “second manuscript” similar to the Book of Mormon. Of course, the “second manuscript” was nowhere to be found, and over a century later, no “second manuscript” has ever been located.
Incredibly, the theory about a long-lost “second manuscript” kept the Spaulding manuscript theory alive and well amongst opponents of Mormonism for several decades to come. Eventually, though, even authors of critical histories of Mormonism recognized that the Spaulding manuscript theory lacked any credible basis, such as Fawn Brodie who thoroughly dismantled and dismissed the theory in her 1945 book No Man Knows My History. But you can decide for yourself, because thanks to the wonders of the Internet and the RLDS church (which subsequently published Spaulding’s manuscript to refute the Spaulding manuscript theory), you can read Spaulding’s controversial manuscript here.
Poor Solomon Spaulding. One wonders how he’d feel knowing his name is still remembered 195 years after his death simply because someone used it to advance one of the most preposterous theories to date about the supposed true origins of the Book of Mormon.
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Howe, E.D., (1834) Mormonism Unvailed Painesville, Telegraph Press.
Kidder, D.P. (1842) Mormonism and the Mormons New York, Carlton & Lanham, pub.
Patterson, Jr., Robert (1882) Who Wrote the Book of Mormon? Philadelphia, L.H. Everts & Co.
Brodie, Fawn M. (1963) No Man Knows my History New York: Alfred A. Knoft