“Would you respond to the theories that the Book of Mormon is based on the Spaulding manuscript or on Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews?” Ensign, Sept. 1976, 84–87
Bruce D. Blumell, senior historical associate, Church Historical Department Historically, the most popular anti-Mormon or non-Mormon explanation of the origin of the Book of Mormon has been that it was based on a manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding. In spite of its weaknesses, this theory continues to surface from time to time even in our day. Another more recent theory, also open to criticism, suggests that Joseph Smith used Ethan Smith’s (no relation) View of the Hebrews, which was published during the 1820s, to help him write the Book of Mormon.
Solomon Spaulding was born in 1761 in Connecticut, and lived in New England and New York until he moved to Conneaut, Ohio, in 1809. Because his business there was unsuccessful, he decided to write a story about some of the original inhabitants of America which he hoped he might be able to publish and sell. While working on the story he read extracts of it to several of his neighbors from time to time. In 1812 he moved to the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, area where he died in 1816, never having found a publisher for his manuscript.
In 1833, Philastus Hurlbut, a former member of the Church who had been excommunicated for immorality, was employed by an anti-Mormon committee in Ohio to collect derogatory evidence against Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. In the process of attempting to secure such information, Hurlbut interviewed a number of people who claimed to have known Joseph or known of him. Among those Hurlbut said he talked to were eight people from the Conneaut, Ohio, area who signed affidavits claiming that the Book of Mormon was based on Solomon Spaulding’s unpublished manuscript written more than twenty years previously. Hurlbut sold these affidavits to Eber D. Howe, who published them the next year in his vitriolic exposé entitled Mormonism Unvailed [sic]. Howe argued that Sidney Rigdon, while still a Reformed Baptist preacher, had come across the manuscript and had used it to help him write the Book of Mormon, which he then secretly conveyed to Joseph Smith, who published the book as his own production.
After Philastus Hurlbut gathered his affidavits, he found one manuscript among Solomon Spaulding’s papers; but neither he nor Howe published it. About fifty years later, in 1884, L. L. Rice found this manuscript among papers he had inherited from Howe. He turned the manuscript over to Oberlin College in Ohio, and it was published the next year.
The manuscript, entitled “Manuscript Story—Conneaut Creek,” bears no relationship to the Book of Mormon in either style or content. It is written in modern English and is only about one-sixth the length of the Book of Mormon. The story commences with a group of Romans during the reign of Constantine who were blown off course on their way to Britain and landed in America. In this novel one of the Romans served as the narrator of what the group observed. The major part of the chronicle is the description of two Indian nations who have the Ohio River as a common border. A romance between a prince of one nation and a princess of the other leads to a great war between the two groups which is described in some detail.
Most writers who mention this subject, both nonmembers of the Church and members, either directly indicate or appear to assume that the Spaulding manuscript claimed the American Indians were the lost ten tribes of Israel, or remnants of these tribes. This it does not do. In fact, the manuscript makes no attempt to explain the origins of the Indians.
The similarities between this manuscript and the Book of Mormon are general and superficial at best. In the introduction to his novel, Spaulding described finding the manuscript buried in the earth, but it was a parchment written in Latin, not metal plates with a Middle Eastern language. Spaulding developed his own unique nomenclature for his story, but none of these names bear any resemblance to Book of Mormon names. The story has in it a transatlantic migration, although the group came from Rome, not Jerusalem. And there is a great war between two civilizations, both Indian, although neither succeeds in completely annihilating the other. Yet these vague similarities could have led Spaulding’s neighbors, especially with prompting from Hurlbut, to believe the Book of Mormon was lifted from Spaulding’s manuscript.
The affidavits that Hurlbut gathered are very similar in style and content, which suggests that if Hurlbut did not write them himself, he strongly influenced their composition. There is a similarity of syntax and phrasing and an amazing uniformity of details in the various statements. These eight witnesses had just read or were recently familiar with the Book of Mormon, while it had been twenty-plus years since they had heard excerpts from the Spaulding manuscript. With this time differential, these witnesses unconsciously could easily have transposed some details of the Book of Mormon, which was fresh in their minds, to the broad general story Spaulding wrote, which was distant and dim to them.
In his Mormonism Unvailed, Howe argued that Joseph Smith did not possess enough education or understanding of theology to have written the more religious parts of the Book of Mormon. He decided it must have been done by Sidney Rigdon, who had been a skilled and influential Reformed Baptist or Campbellite preacher in northeastern Ohio before joining with the Latter-day Saints. Howe claimed that Sidney Rigdon had come upon the Spaulding manuscript and had copied or stolen it and subsequently added the theology to it to produce the Book of Mormon. During all of this, Howe argued, Rigdon secretly communicated with Joseph Smith to palm the book off as Joseph’s creation.
This part of the theory breaks down for several reasons. First of all, the style of the Book of Mormon is very different from the embellished rhetoric Sidney Rigdon exhibited in his sermons. Second, there is no proof to show that Sidney Rigdon ever came in contact with the Spaulding manuscript. And third, the attempts to show him secretly communicating with Joseph Smith are simply unfounded. During the writing and printing of the Book of Mormon, from 1827 to 1830, Sidney Rigdon was a popular preacher in northeastern Ohio, and his whereabouts were known to a number of people. Yet none ever indicated that he was involved in such a conspiracy, and neither did any of Joseph’s associates. Such a complicity would have been virtually impossible to carry out, especially since it would have involved either Joseph Smith or Sidney Rigdon periodically traveling about 300 miles to see the other, and consequently being gone from their areas of residence for long periods of time, taking into account the primitive modes of travel in those days.
Sidney Rigdon continued avidly to teach his Reformed Baptist faith until he heard the message of the Restoration from the first Latter-day Saint missionaries in his area, almost eight months after the publication of the Book of Mormon and the organization of the Church. This, of course, would have been extremely unlikely if he had really been the author of the book and thus the originator of much early Latter-day Saint theology. In fact, if Sidney Rigdon had written the Book of Mormon, it is improbable that a man of his prominence would have let Joseph Smith found the Church and be the leader, and then later let Joseph publicly censure him several times when he opposed the Prophet’s policies. Even when Rigdon was excommunicated in August 1844 because of his opposition to Brigham Young’s leadership of the Church, he made no intimation that he was the author of the Book of Mormon. Late in his life, long after parting with Brigham Young and the body of the Latter-day Saints, Sidney Rigdon forcefully reiterated to his questioning son that he had nothing to do with writing the Book of Mormon. He added that he knew Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon was true.
At the end of his book Mormonism Unvailed, Howe reported briefly that a Spaulding manuscript had been found; but since it was so different in language, style, and detail from the Book of Mormon, he conjectured that Spaulding had produced a revised version that was similar to the Book of Mormon before his death in 1816. Howe felt it must have been this purported revised manuscript from which Spaulding read extracts to some of his neighbors.
Those anti-Mormon writers who have bothered to read Mormonism Unvailed and the Spaulding manuscript found in 1884 have usually accepted Howe’s belief in a still lost revised Spaulding manuscript. Solomon Spaulding wrote other stories, according to several acquaintances including his widow and daughter, but they never claimed there was a second version of the manuscript. Hurlbut himself believed there was only one manuscript, the one he obtained from Mrs. Spaulding, which was the one later published in 1885. He also believed it had served as the basis of the Book of Mormon, although, after examining it, Howe realized it had not, as noted above.
If there had been a revised second version of the manuscript, one would logically expect some of the facts, details, and incidents in it to be similar to the original version. Yet none of the affidavit witnesses recalled details from the extant Spaulding manuscript, only from the Book of Mormon. For example, the names they remember are Book of Mormon names; yet Spaulding had created a lexicon of his own names in his manuscript. If he had revised the story, certainly he would have kept some of the original names in the second edition, and surely several of the witnesses would have remembered at least one or two if their memories (of events over twenty years previously) really served them as well as they claimed.
Furthermore, since no writer can easily change his style, one could assume that the revised version of Spaulding’s story, had there been a revised version, would be at least somewhat comparable in style to the first. And if the Book of Mormon had really been plagiarized, as claimed, from Spaulding’s supposed second edition, then one might logically expect similarities in style between the extant manuscript and the Book of Mormon. But the Book of Mormon is much different in style from the flowery figures of speech and romantic rhetoric which Spaulding employed.
If there were a second version of the manuscript there would still be the problem of getting it to Sidney Rigdon and finally to Joseph Smith. As noted earlier, this is the weakest link in the conspiratorial chain of improbabilities and unlikely events that attempt to show the Spaulding manuscript as the basis for the Book of Mormon.
While Spaulding’s manuscript said nothing about the origin of the American Indians, there were many people during Joseph Smith’s lifetime and earlier in American history who believed that the Indians were the descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. A number of books had been written on the subject. As settlers from Europe came in contact with the Indians of North America, they were naturally curious about the origins of these people. Theologians especially looked to the Bible for answers, and some speculated that the lost tribes were the ancestors of the Indians. Joseph Smith might easily have been familiar with this theme.
Therefore, during the past thirty years some non-Mormon scholars, realizing the weakness of the Spaulding manuscript theory, have postulated that Joseph Smith might have gained some of the ideas for the Book of Mormon from a book by Ethan Smith entitled View of the Hebrews, first published in Vermont in 1823, with a revised, enlarged edition published in 1835. In this book Ethan Smith endeavored to show, on the basis of scientific research of the time, that the American Indians were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.
But although the Book of Mormon does report several migrations of small groups of Israelites to the western hemisphere, it does not say that the native peoples of America were of the lost ten tribes. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Joseph Smith was familiar with the View of the Hebrews before 1842, when he quoted from an 1833 book which quoted from the View of the Hebrews. He published the passage in the Times and Seasons, apparently to show that there were at least some authorities who believed ancient Hebrews had come to America. (Times and Seasons, June 1842, 3:813–14.) If the Prophet had originally used Ethan Smith’s book to help him write the Book of Mormon, almost certainly he would not have later published a quote from it to illustrate a point, since plagiarists normally keep their sources a secret.
Out of the multitude of ideas and events in the Book of Mormon and in the View of the Hebrews there are several broad similarities, but many more significant differences; and a correlation at some point between two things does not prove one caused the other; it may mean, for example, that both things were the result of an independent third factor. If Joseph Smith were going to borrow material to help him write the Book of Mormon, there were certainly sources other than Ethan Smith’s book to which he could have gone. Everything that is common or even vaguely similar between the Book of Mormon and the View of the Hebrews could have been borrowed more easily from the Bible or from prevailing beliefs at that time. In fact, this would have been much more likely, since Joseph Smith and his family were avid readers of the Bible.
Critics who have recognized that the Book of Mormon could not have been plagiarized from any single source claim that Joseph Smith was a skilled eclectic who borrowed ideas from all over his social and intellectual environment and thereby was able to create the potpourri called the Book of Mormon. This “environmentalist” approach is usually the most satisfying for scholars who in some measure conscientiously examine the question of the book’s origins but cannot admit the possibility of divine intervention. However, Dr. Hugh Nibley of Brigham Young University has most successfully argued that there are ideas and material in the book different from the prevailing beliefs of Joseph Smith’s era, and different from any other source extant in the 1820s, including the Bible. It is, he adds, significant that since the publication of the Book of Mormon there have been such things uncovered as ancient Middle Eastern sources which in no case contradict, but rather parallel, many Book of Mormon ideas and word usages. He concludes that guesswork on the part of the Prophet Joseph could not possibly account for all these parallels, which were unknown at the time of the Book of Mormon translation. For able presentation of these points of view one may examine such books as Lehi in the Desert, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, and Since Cumorah by Brother Nibley.
In short, the simplest and most accurate assumption about the origin of the Book of Mormon is that it is exactly what Joseph Smith said it was—an ancient work translated “by the gift and power of God.” (See Testimony of the Three Witnesses.)