Book of Mormon/Authorship theories/Overview

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An overview of secular authorship theories for the Book of Mormon

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We have long been waiting, with considerable anxiety, to see some of our contemporaries attempt to explain the immediate causes, which produced that anomaly in religion and literature, which has most strikingly excited the curiosity of our friends at a distance, generally known under the cognomen of the Book of Mormon, or the Gold Bible.

— “Gold Bible, [No. 1],” The Reflector Palmyra, New York, (6 January 1831), 76. off-site
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Question: What authorship theories are proposed by non-believers to account for the authorship of the Book of Mormon?

There are a wide variety of theories proposed to account for the Book of Mormon, none of which provide any concrete proof

Non-believers produce a variety of theories to explain the existence of the Book of Mormon. A number of different authorship theories have been proposed since the book was first published in 1830. One critic of the Church even goes so far as to suggest that the Church encourages challenging the authorship of the Book of Mormon.

Ever since it was first published in 1830, numerous secular and non-secular theories have been proposed to account for the existence of the Book of Mormon. Initially, it was assumed that the book was the product of Joseph Smith’s own creative mind—a book not worthy of attention since it could not possibly contain anything of value. As critics began to actually read the book however, it became apparent that the depth and complexity of the writing did not fit well with the proposal that Joseph Smith, Jr. as the book’s sole author. This gave rise to the theory that Joseph Smith had an educated accomplice in his effort to create the book. The accomplices most often proposed are typically Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery.

Some secular authorship theories also postulate that Joseph Smith plagiarized sources that may have been available to him during the time that he was producing the Book of Mormon. The most commonly referenced potential sources include an unpublished manuscript by Solomon Spalding, a published work called View of the Hebrews, and the King James Bible.

Had anyone other than Joseph Smith "authored" the Book of Mormon, it surely would have come out by now: the person that is able to move millions can make millions. Breaking this story to the world would truly be the religious story of the century. The fact that no one has come forward is due simply to the fact that there is no one else: any other explanation, besides that given by Joseph Smith simply doesn't hold any water. Anyone who has read the Book of Mormon knows that if Joseph Smith or anyone else had written the Book of Mormon 'from whole cloth' would be infinitely more miraculous than the account given by Joseph Smith.

Authorship theory categories

Non-secular authorship theories (those involving some sort of “spiritual” element) usually fall into one of the following categories:

  • Joseph Smith’s own story that he received the plates from an angel and translated them by “the power of God,” but that the work thus produced is simply inspirational fiction.
  • Joseph Smith created the book through “non-divine” inspiration.
  • Joseph Smith wrote the book without any knowledge of what he was writing through a process called “automatic” or “spirit” writing. Closely related to this theory is that Joseph wrote the book during fits of Epilesy.

Book of Mormon secular authorship theories usually fall into one of the following categories:

  • Joseph Smith wrote the book on his own, without assistance and with full knowledge that he was writing a work of fiction. It is sometimes postulated that Joseph wrote the book by drawing upon his own life’s experiences.
  • Joseph Smith wrote the book on his own by plagiarizing works that were available to him. Examples of this are the Spalding manuscript theory, the View of the Hebrews theory, and The Golden Pot theory.
  • An associate of Joseph Smith (Sidney Rigdon or Oliver Cowdery) wrote the book, either alone or in a group, and then allowed Joseph to take the credit.
  • Some combination of theories involving associates and plagiarism together. An example of this is the Spalding-Rigdon theory.

Critics of the Book of Mormon do not agree on a prevailing theory

The critics themselves have never come to an agreement on which theory holds the most promise. For example, Fawn Brodie discounted the Spalding-Rigdon theory in favor of the View of the Hebrews theory. Various authorship theories have fallen into or out of favor as new evidence has come to light. The Spalding-Rigdon theory, first introduced by E. D. Howe in his anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed, was quite popular until the later discovery of a Spalding manuscript which bore little resemblance to the Book of Mormon narrative. The View of the Hebrews theory became popular with the publishing of B. H. Roberts’ critical examination of the Book of Mormon titled Studies of the Book of Mormon. The best argument against View of the Hebrews being the source for the Book of Mormon is the text of View of the Hebrews itself. Because the book was not widely available for many years, Brigham Young University re-published it in order to make it available to those who wished to make this comparison for themselves.

All new theories that are proposed tend to combine elements of various older theories in an ever evolving attempt to pin down, in secular terms, the precise origin of the Book of Mormon.

Specific theories of authorship

Spalding manuscript

Summary: Some claim that Joseph Smith either plagiarized or relied upon a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding to write the Book of Mormon. There is a small group of critics who hold to the theory that the production of the Book of Mormon was a conspiracy involving Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and others. These critics search for links between Spalding and Rigdon. Joseph Smith is assumed to have been Rigdon's pawn.

View of the Hebrews

Summary: Some claim that a 19th century work by Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews, provided source material for Joseph Smith's construction of the Book of Mormon. Critics also postulate a link between Ethan Smith and Oliver Cowdery, since both men lived in Poultney, Vermont while Smith served as the pastor of the church that Oliver Cowdery's family attended at the time that View of the Hebrews was being written.

Epilepsy

Summary: Some have claimed that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon while under the influence of an "epileptic fit," thus perpetuating a fraud without knowing it.

Automatic writing

Summary: Some attempt to explain the complexity of the Book of Mormon through appeals to "automatic writing" or "spirit writing."

The Golden Pot

Summary: Former LDS Church Education System (CES) teacher Grant Palmer argues that Joseph Smith developed his story of visits by Moroni and the translation of a sacred book from The Golden Pot, a book by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann.

An analysis of early critical reaction

Summary: Early critical reaction to the Book of Mormon is instructive, both because of what it did say (e.g., Joseph Smith could not have produced it unaided) and what it did not say.

Early claims about Joseph Smith as author

Summary: Some early claims assumed that Joseph was clearly the Book of Mormon's only author; others assumed that it was clear he could not have written it.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes