“Critics of the Book of Mormon,” Church History Topics
“Critics of the Book of Mormon”
Even before the Book of Mormon came off the press in 1830, newspaper articles criticized the book and its translator, Joseph Smith. Joseph responded to such criticism by affirming an angel had guided him to an ancient record, which he translated by the gift and power of God. Many Americans at the time believed the Bible represented the sole word of God, and the appearance of new scripture sparked intense debate. Unconvinced of Joseph’s account of the book’s divine origins, some writers fought openly against the Book of Mormon.
Three early critics set the agenda for the first sustained criticisms of the book. Abner Cole, Alexander Campbell, and Eber D. Howe each alleged Joseph Smith used the Book of Mormon as part of an elaborate scheme to defraud the public. Cole (writing under the pseudonym Obadiah Dogberry) published excerpts of the Book of Mormon in his newspaper before the press had finished printing the book. Although Cole complied with Joseph’s demands to cease reproducing excerpts, he continued to write articles ridiculing the Book of Mormon and denouncing what he felt was religious fanaticism. Two years later, restorationist minister Alexander Campbell went further, publishing “an analysis of the Book of Mormon,” which examined the book for inconsistencies with the Bible. Campbell argued Joseph lifted the Book of Mormon’s unique elements from his culture, simply echoing religious ideas from his own time.1 Ohio journalist Eber Howe thought the book was beyond Joseph’s genius and contended Joseph had plagiarized stories from an unpublished manuscript written by a man named Solomon Spaulding.2 In support of this theory, he published stories from disaffected Latter-day Saints and testimonies from Palmyra residents willing to swear statements against Joseph Smith.3
The Spaulding plagiarism theory gained so much visibility that missionaries such as Parley P. Pratt worked tirelessly to preach and publish rebuttals. When the actual Spaulding manuscript was discovered in the 1880s, readers saw little resemblance to the Book of Mormon.4 Still, critics insisted that Joseph Smith must have plagiarized the major ideas of the book. In 1902, I. Woodbridge Riley argued Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery worked from Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, a book tracing American Indian descent to the lost tribes of Israel.5 Still, after decades of debate, critics have failed to demonstrate a substantial correlation between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Though Cowdery lived for a time near Ethan Smith and the book preceded the Book of Mormon by seven years, no evidence confirms that Cowdery or Joseph Smith had any knowledge of the work.6
In the 1920s, Latter-day Saint General Authority and author B. H. Roberts, spurred by Riley’s theory, began a concerted study of Book of Mormon criticisms. Roberts encouraged Latter-day Saints to answer the questions of critics carefully and seriously.7 His work heralded a more intensive effort by believers to defend the book and find substantive responses to criticism. This led to new research on the ancient American setting and complex literary structure of the Book of Mormon. The debate between critics and defenders of the Book of Mormon continues today.8
By the late 20th century, academic scholarship began to take seriously the literary quality and religious influence of the Book of Mormon. Starting in 2003, university presses and trade publishers issued their own editions of the Book of Mormon.9 Some literary critics, setting aside the subject of religious belief, acknowledge the complex narrative and noteworthy rhetorical style of the book. These studies may signal a less antagonistic future for scholarly analysis of the Book of Mormon.10