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Question: What is 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 One of the earliest theories was that Joseph plagiarized the unpublished manuscript of a novel written by the Reverend Solomon Spalding (1761–1816).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.
- 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