Who Wrote the Book of Mormon?


The bottom line is that no one really knows who wrote the Book of Mormon.  That fact works in favor and against both sides.  Two possibilities exist.  Either the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be, or it is a clever fraud.  I am going to assume for the sake of argument that the supernatural divine origin is not possible.  See my section on “The Supernatural”

Of interest is that A 2008 computer text analysis by Jockers et al of Stanford University of the text of the Book of Mormon compared to writings of possible authors of the text shows a high probability that the authors of the book were Spalding, Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery; concluding that "our analysis supports the theory that the Book of Mormon was written by multiple, nineteenth-century authors, and more specifically, we find strong support for the Spalding-Rigdon theory of authorship. In all the data, we find Rigdon as a unifying force. His signal dominates the book, and where other candidates are more probable, Rigdon is often hiding in the shadows.” This study did not include Jospeh Smith as one of the possible authors, arguing that because of Smith's use of scribes and co-authors, no texts can be presently identified with a surety as having been written by Smith.

The prevailing theory about the origin of the Book of Mormon suggests that Joseph Smith conspired with Oliver Cowdery and Sydney Rigdon to plagiarize a novel written by an unwitting (because he has already passed away) accomplice by the name of Solomon Spalding.  According to this theory, Solomon Spalding had written a novel called A Manuscript Found, which he had intended to publish.  As such he had sent the manuscript to a print shop in Pittsburgh, Pensylvania where it remained awaiting minor revisions at the time of Mr. Spalding’s death.  The print shop was a few blocks from the residence of Sydney Rigdon who frequented the shop to visit with a friend of his who worked there.  Rigdon was well known to enjoy reading and was a very well educated man.  The theory suggests that Rigdon obtained the manuscript, copied or stole it outright, and used it as the basis for the Book of Mormon.  This manuscript has never been found.  In fact, it’s very existence is only a rumor (although a well documented rumor).  An exhaustively documented historical discussion of this theory is set forth by Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A Davis, and Arthur Vanick in their book entitled Who Really Wrote The Book of Mormon?  The Spalding Enigma.

In order to sort out the possibilities, we must understand the personalities and motivations of the major players to understand how and why they may have perpetrated such a fraud.

Sidney Rigdon was and eccentric character who was raised in and around Pittsburgh, PA.  He became a Baptist minister in 1819 and was later forced to resign from the Baptist ministry in 1823 over doctrinal differences. He then became a Campbellite preacher until he "converted" to Mormonism in 1830. In 1822 or 1823, while living near a printing shop in Pittsburgh, it is theorized that Rigdon obtained a copy of a “romance” novel written by a down and out author Solomon Spalding called “Manuscript Found”.  According to witness affidavits collected by an enemy of Joseph Smith by the name of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, this manuscript was written in an “ancient style” and bore considerable resemblance to the Book of Mormon.  The original manuscript, however, could not be found to refute the claims of these witnesses.  As pressure against the early LDS church mounted, a manuscript called “Manuscript Story” was discovered in 1884.  This document is on reserve at Oberlin College in Ohio.  This document demonstrates some resemblance in thematic elements to the Book of Mormon, but not so much that one could consider the Book of Mormon a direct plagiarism.  Some theorists suggest that this later document was in actuality an early rough draft written by Spalding for his own purposes and that the actual plagiarized document was lost, hidden or destroyed.  At any rate, when Hurlbut read this Spaulding manuscript, he said, “I obtained a manuscript … which was reported to be the foundation of the Book of Mormon… when upon examination I found it to contain nothing of the kind, but being a manuscript upon an entirely different subject.”

The official party line is that Joseph Smith did not meet Sydney Rigdon until 1829 although there are also witnesses who claimed that Rigdon was an acquaintance of the young Joseph Smith, and had been seen in his company in Palmyra before the BOM was "translated".  One theory states that Rigdon provided Joseph Smith with material from Spalding and others from which the Book of Mormon could be adapted.  Why would Rigdon do this?  Immdediately following the formation of the church and the publication of the Book of Mormon, Smith moved the headquarters of the Church to Kirtland, Ohio, where Rigdon had his Campbellite congregation.   Rigdon then became second in command over this combined congregation.  Together they established the United Order (a version of communism) and the Kirtland Bank (the failure of which got them run out of town).  It seems possible that their motivation was to build a financial empire over which they could preside. 

Joseph Smith was very charismatic leader.  He was a natural salesman.  In the early 1820’s he was introduced to a traveling conjurer known as "Walters, the magician".  It is thought that the “divining” techniques used by Walters influenced the young Joseph Smith to the point that on March 20, 1826, Joseph Smith was arrested and tried for using a diving rod and “peep stone” to look for buried items and charging local farmers for his “divining” services.  Some witnesses claimed that the Smiths had been "money-digging" since at least 1820, and JS found and began using his "seer stone" in 1822.  As a family, the Smiths had other financial problems that were well documented and eventually lost their home after a failed business venture involving the sale of ginseng root to China.  Throughout the 1820’s Joseph Smith was highly motivated to make large amounts of money often by dubious means.  This raises the question as to whether the Book of Mormon was part of a larger scheme to get rich quick.

Oliver Cowdery was Joseph Smith's distant cousin from Poultney, Vermont, and an itinerant teacher who boarded with the Smith family while teaching in Palmyra.  Cowdery’s minister in Vermont was Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph) and the author of a book called “View of the Hebrews” published in 1823.  This book presents the theory that American native Indians were descended from the Hebrews.  Cowdery would have had this book in his possession when boarding with the Smiths.  It is possible that Joseph Smith conspired with Cowdery and Rigdon to prepare a document using elements from Spaulding’s and Ethan Smith’s writings and inserting Rigdon’s Cambellite restorationist theology.  This new amalgamation would be the Book of Mormon.  Cowdery’s motivation was money and power.  Cowdery served as Joseph Smith’s scribe during the “translation” process and then took the manuscript to the printer.  Later, Cowdery went to Toronto to try to sell the copyright for $5,000.  Upon the founding of the church in 1830, Cowdery was made “second elder” perhaps as repayment for his loyalty and service.

There are several lines of evidence to suggest that the Book of Mormon had its origin in 19th century northeastern America.  Of interest is the fact that events, names, and locations found in the Book of Mormon have origins in New York of the period.  For example, the story of the first vision was likely an adaptation of and experience recorded from the Smith family lore.  Lehi’s dream is an adaptation of an experience recorded by Joseph Smith, Sr., King Benjamin’s famous speech is likely an adaptation of a “camp revival meeting” held in the Palmyra area with a reverend also named Benjamin.  Names of cities and characters were also borrowed from the environs around upstate New York.  Furthermore, the theology of the Book of Mormon is a close reflection of the restorationist Campbelite theology popular with Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon.

Conspiracy theories aside, our goal is to establish the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon based on fact, not conjecture.  The history that Joseph Smith relates as to the origin of the Book of Mormon is, frankly, unbelievable.  I will allow that Joseph Smith may have been telling the truth, but I have a hard time believing in angels, golden plates, and the fact that none of the artifacts supposedly used by Joseph Smith are still available for study.  The Golden Plates, the Urim and Thummim, the Sword of Laban, the stone box in the Hill Cummorah, and the Liahonah have never been found or studied.

In fairness, however, no other documented explanations for its origin have been presented by anyone else.  Even so, I reject the argument that Joseph wrote the book himself.  Despite it’s imperfections, it is too complex and too doctrinally mature to be his own work.  Especially given the crude nature of his own journal entries from the period.  (See the section on the First Vision above).  Nevertheless, there is some data to look to.  I have separated each of the areas of interest into separate sections starting with “BOM...”

Readers are referred to a very compelling work published in 2005 by Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A Davis, and Arthur Vanick called Who Really Wrote The Book of Mormon?  The Spalding Enigma.  This book is very well researched and creates a compelling argument for the idea that Sydney Rigdon adapted an unfinished Spalding manuscript called A Manuscript Found to write The Book of Mormon.

Also see the following interesting video series from:

Craig Criddle

Constructing an Evidence-based

Narrative for the Book of Mormon

(YouTube.com video clips)

Exmormon Conference, Salt Lake City,

Presentation given Oct. 10, 2009

(Posted on-line, October 19, 2009)

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Part 4   Part 5   Part 6

Part 7   Part 8   Part 9

Transcribed Excerpts and Comments

Conclusion:  I have listened to the comments of Elder Holland in the October 2009 General Conference of the Church and am impressed with the power of his delivery.  The only problem is that there are several points in that talk that are just incorrect.  Click here for a review of these points.  As for myself, I tend to lean toward the Spalding theory.  There are numerous reasons to believe that the Book of Mormon is not true based just on the text alone (see the other BOM sections).  Then taking the supernatural and inconsistent stories about its “translation”, it becomes nearly impossible to believe.  I will say, however, there is some good in the Book of Mormon.  The message can be inspiring.  Inspiration, however, is not proof of truth.  I do not believe that the Book of Mormon is an inspired work.

Email comments to seekerot@yahoo.com