For some critics, the story of the lost 116 pages in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is utterly ridiculous. Some say it shows Joseph was just making things up on the fly and would have all sorts of accidental changes as he went through the fabrication process a second time, so for safety, he just punted with the first part of the record and concocted the story of the small plates. This is the “Joseph was an idiot with bad memory” theory. The story of the 116 pages from that perspective directly challenges the popular theory of “Joseph got help from Sidney Rigdon or some other very smart person” to create the impressive and remarkably self-consistent text of the Book of Mormon. These theories based on plagiarism and texts from the likes of Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon or both assume that there was some text that had been prepared and carefully edited over many months or even years in preparation for the grand Book of Mormon scheme. When Joseph was dictating the Book of Mormon to his scribes, he must have been reading from the pre-written manuscript. If such a manuscript existed, then it would have been no trouble reading it again exactly as read before.
A more imaginative anti-Mormon “solution” to the origins of the Book of Mormon has been proposed. Robert W. Thurston’s Unlocking the Great Mormon Mystery: A Radically New Approach to Deciphering Mormon Origins (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2008) is actually one of the “best” and most responsible anti-Mormon books that I have read–“responsible” in the sense that it actually acknowledges the existence of pro-Book of Mormon scholarship from people such as Stephen Ricks and Daniel Peterson of BYU rather than just alleging that there is no serious evidence of any kind for ancient origins. Thurston has seen the evidence, recognizes that some of it can be quite impressive, and has to conclude that the Book of Mormon could not have been authored by the likes of Joseph Smith. In that sense, he’s actually ahead of many Latter-day Saints in appreciating the richness of the Book of Mormon text. And I’ll also credit him for a generally enjoyable and readable style in his writing.
His imaginative solution takes an old, tired theory and gives it an interesting new twist. Thurston argues, as a number of others have, that the Book of Mormon is far too sophisticated to have been written by Joseph, so it must have come from–you guessed it–Sidney Rigdon with the aid of Solomon Spalding, well educated men with access to scholarly resources, men who were able to put years into their masterpiece of deceit (Hebraisms! Arabian Peninsula details! even the Narrative of Zosimus!). Their carefully drafted manuscript only had to be dictated by an alleged prophet who would claim to be “translating” a text from gold plates. This man would be their partner in crime, Joseph Smith, Jr. The scheme was designed to bring Sidney access to religious power and fame, and would give Joseph a chance to introduce polygamy so he could party with lots of wild Mormon women (when he wasn’t being jailed or tarred and feathered, that is).
The basic framework of Thurston’s solution, the Spalding theory via Sidney Rigdon, is easily refuted and has been rather dead for years (more on that later), but there is a cute twist: the doomed manuscript that Joseph gave to Martin Harris was actually not the 116 pages of partially completed dictation to a scribe, but, through a horrific and remarkably stupid blunder, the full, big, original manuscript, the much lengthier Spalding manuscript itself that was the basis for the whole fraud that Sidney and Joseph were developing. This hypothesis supposedly solves several problems.
Thurston, who has genuine professional experience in problem solving, feels that perplexing little details in the story may be the key to finding the surprising truth. One of the little details that others allegedly ignore and he uses as a key to discovery is the reaction of Joseph Smith to the loss of the manuscript he gave to Martin Harris. Thurston says Joseph’s gloom-and-doom reaction is completely illogical if he were a prophet of God. If a prophet, Joseph would have just shrugged off the loss and said, “OK, let’s retranslate.” Or he could have relied on the powerful Angel Moroni to simply transport the manuscript back into his hands. No trouble! But the depression and anxiety shows something else was going on, according to Thurston.
Here I begin to have trouble with Thurston’s analysis–or perhaps it’s just a personality thing. He must be a very easy-going fellow who doesn’t understand what it feels like for some people (“spiritual Type A” perhaps?) to take on a huge responsibility, to feel the full weight of an important project or duty affecting other lives, and then to make mistakes that lead to failure. For some of us, failure, especially when it is clearly our fault, is a terribly painful ordeal. I have felt similar pain for much smaller and less serious blunders. Maybe Joseph, like me, was more prone to guilt trips than the general population, but to dismiss his reaction as absurd is sloppy. Joseph’s reaction makes sense to me and I can accept it at face value. Maybe Thurston would have been comfortable telling the Almighty that he had just lost the sacred manuscript he was supposed to publish and “let’s just start again–no problem, right?” But it was a much bigger failure for Joseph.
If Joseph were a fraud, argues Thurston, his reaction still poses difficulties. Losing the dictated text, the 116 pages, is an inconvenience that simply requires starting over to dictate the “translation” exactly as before. Just a few days of copying would be lost. But if Joseph had an original manuscript with a carefully written text upon which all depended, and then, through amazing stupidity, handed that to Martin Harris instead of the smaller 116 pages, it truly would have been a disaster. That’s the interesting twist proposed by Thurston, and I have to credit him for creative thinking here and for significantly advancing the cause of the Spalding Theory. The Spalding Manuscript itself is what Joseph foolishly handed to Martin Harris, according to Thurston. Wow!
Such a mistake by Joseph would be a double disaster, actually, because the manuscript was lost and their main source of funds for the scheme, Martin Harris, might be lost as well. Instead of strengthening his faith in the work to lead him to give financial support, he would be puzzled about receiving the full manuscript when it was supposed to be only partially translated, only 116 pages so far. He might notice that the text was already complete and in someone else’s handwriting, or perhaps, I would suggest, he might see that it looked like a carefully written and edited manuscript that had been around for years, not a fresh dictation to a scribe. Gratefully, Thurston acknowledges that Martin Harris can’t just be dismissed as a con-man accomplice knowingly supporting a crooked scheme (the same actually applies to the other witnesses such as Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, but this is conveniently overlooked and they remain knowing accomplices of Joseph’s outrageous fraud in Thurston’s model). So the concern was that Martin, the one they needed to dupe to gain access to his funds to publish their book, might, uh, begin to have misgivings. He would need to be given revived confidence in Joseph the “prophet” and the divinity of the Book of Mormon. How to rescue the scheme? Here comes another creative twist with a kicker that I just love.
With Sidney’s brilliant help, a backup plan was quickly concocted in short order. The “small plates” story was contrived and a new Book of Mormon text was crafted on the fly (hey, how then do we fit in all the intricate details that had been crafted in the lost original manuscript?). Further, to regain Martin Harris’s trust, Joseph and Sidney concocted the “three witnesses scheme” in which those in one the con job (Joseph, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon) would use peer pressure and trickery to make Martin Harris think he saw an angel and the plates. As for the Angel Moroni that Martin would see, it was actually just the voice of Sidney Rigdon–um, hiding behind a tree. That’s the best part. I love it!
This may be the most enjoyable anti-Mormon book of the decade, and one of the few with the courage to admit that there is any kind of scholarship on the pro-Book of Mormon side. Many bonus points for that. He discusses chiasmus, Hebraisms, confirmations from Arabian geography, cool parallels to the Narrative of Zosiumus, word print studies and even the Mesoamerican limited geography theory as a plausible location for Book of Mormon events, and attempts to explain it all as good scholarship (good? maybe “genius,” “visionary,” or even “prophetic” would be better) by Sidney in collaboration with Spalding, drawing upon the scholarship of Alexander Campbell and others.
His fresh take on the old Spalding theory is interesting, but when it comes to confronting the reality of numerous witnesses with track records, reputations, and lifelong commitment to the divine origins of the Book of Mormon, well, Thurston’s theory simply falls flat. It doesn’t come close to matching the details of the lives and testimonies of the Three Witnesses and the many other facts associated with the witnesses to the plates, the witnesses to the translation processes, and the other details of the Book of Mormon story. And seriously, Sidney behind a tree as the Angel Moroni–an event that would change Martin’s life, motivate him to sacrifice all for the cause of the Book of Mormon, and be part of his vibrant testimony to the day he died? Well, Sidney did have a great voice, I guess.
- The Historical Case against Sidney Rigdon’s Authorship of the Book of Mormon by Matthew Roper, and Paul Fields
- FAIR Mormon’s Discussion of Arguments Based on the 116 Pages
- Martin Harris: Book of Mormon Witness (PDF from FAIRLDS.com). Try explaining his story using Thurston’s spin on the Book of Mormon. Mind boggling.
Update, Sept. 18.: Sigh. How disappointed I am to learn that Thurston’s imaginative reworking of the Three Witnesses story, with Sidney Rigdon starring as the voice of the Angel Moroni, is not quite his original contribution after all. In fact, the core of this scenario is over a century old and comes from a 1908 book by William Heth Whitsitt–an author not mentioned by Thurston. It would be unjust to accuse Thurston of plagiarism–he probably picked up the idea from some other anti-Mormon source that borrowed from Whitsitt without credit, and then applied it in this work, dressing it up a bit, and not feeling a need to give credit. That’s OK, I guess, but it would have been helpful to know where such an amusing solution came from so we can all give proper credit. The information that unlocks the mystery of the origins of Thurston’s Three Witnesses scenario comes from FAIRLDS, in a short page on the alleged missing, second Spalding manuscript. Here is the relevant text (note that Solomon Spalding’s name can be been spelled both “Spalding” and “Spaulding”):
The discovery and publishing of the [Spaulding] 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.
OK, Thurston’s scenario “improves” upon Whitsitt by keeping Rigdon behind the tree and relying more fully on imagination to fill in the appearance of the angel and the plates, but it’s still rather similar. One must remember that anti-Mormon writings sometimes are not quite as original as they seem. There is a great deal of unacknowledged borrowing going on, especially in the works accusing Joseph Smith of plagiarism. Understanding that principle can help us in unlocking the many mysteries of anti-Mormonism.
This entry is cross-posted from Mormanity.