Occam’s Razor And The Joseph Smith Story

There’s an interesting story in the Deseret News entitled A simple explanation works best for the Restoration. I’ve included the first bit here, but read it in its entirety and let me know what you think.

We left off last week with the notion that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from a manuscript written by Solomon Spalding, who had died in 1816. Sidney Rigdon, so the story goes, stole the work from Spalding’s family and, for whatever reason, used it to set the young farmer Joseph Smith up as a prophet.

Though lacking any real historical support, this was the dominant non-Mormon theory of the origin of the Book of Mormon for more than a century. In recent decades, though, it’s fallen on hard times.

It didn’t help, probably, that, when Spalding’s lost manuscript was found, it was also found to bear no significant resemblance to the Book of Mormon.

Still, much like doomsday cultists when the date of their predicted apocalypse passes uneventfully, the Spalding faithful soon regained their balance: There was, they declared, a previously unknown and still unseen second manuscript that would, no doubt, prove to be the source of the Book of Mormon when and if it were ever actually discovered.

Few dispassionate observers doubt that, if such a second manuscript ever actually turned up and failed to fit their requirements, they would shortly be proclaiming the existence of a third hypothetical manuscript.

For this and many other reasons, few serious scholars, if any—whether believing Latter-day Saints or not—pay the Spalding theory much attention any more. Even the late Fawn Brodie, no friend of Joseph Smith or Mormonism, denied Solomon Spalding any role in the production of the Mormon “keystone” scripture.

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  1. THEORIES OF ORIGINS OF THE BOOK OF MORMON

    Hear the other side.

    Augustine

    The Latter-day Saints' view of the Book of Mormon is that it is the word of God brought to the world by the hand of God. Other theories have been proposed and although each of these has been discredited they are still tendered as the origin of the Book of Mormon. These theories have been constructed so well that, with a single exception, they have survived. Mormons accept the Book of Mormon as the Word of God and of equal authority with the Bible: anti-Mormons have to decide which of the conflicting theories of origin is supported by the evidence. The theories are:

    • It is the Word of God. (Divine) theory 1.

    • Joseph Smith Is the sole author. (Fraud) theory 2.

    • Sidney Rigdon conspired with Smith to produce it. (Conspiracy &fraud) theory 3.

    • It derived from Spaulding's "Manuscript Found". (Plagiarism & fraud) theory 4.

    • Smith conspired with others, notably Oliver Cowdery and Parley P. Pratt theory 5.

    • to produce the book. (Conspiracy and fraud) theory 6

     It was the fraudulent production of a man named Walters. (Fraud) theory 7.

    THE FOURTH THEORY OF ORIGIN

    It seemed that the next minute they would discover a solution.

    Yet it was clear that the end was still far, far off,

    …and that the hardest and most complicated part

    was just beginning.

    Anton Chekhov

    The collapse of the third theory made the fourth theory necessary. At the same time it added an unforeseen complication. The third theory has Rigdon as author and co-conspirator of a fraudulent literary work, whereas the fourth theory claims that Rigdon stole Spaulding's work and then conspired with Smith to present it as the Book of Mormon and rests on the view that Rigdon stole the manuscript of a novel written by one Solomon Spaulding, which tells of a party of travellers from ancient Rome. The party, led by a man called Fabius, was sailing from Rome to Britain when they were caught up in a severe storm. As a consequence of which they arrived not at Britain, but at the American continent which they found inhabited by two warring tribes. Melvin R Brooks writes:

    The manuscript contains about one-tenth the reading matter of the Book of Mormon, and is anything but religious throughout. In many places the reader of the Spaulding Manuscript may find obscenity. The main theme revolves about a romance between Elseon and Lamesa.

    The Spaulding Theory is the brain-child of former Mormon Philastus Hurlburt, for inclusion in Eber D. Howe's Mormonism Unvailed. He alleged that Spaulding left his Manuscript Found in Lambdin and Patterson's print shop in Pittsburgh from where Rigdon stole it. Some accounts have Rigdon "regularly frequenting" the printers; others have him working there as a compositor. After the alleged theft he is said to have added some religious language to the text and then have Smith "discover" it with the aid of an "imaginary angel."

    Mormonism Unvailed published in 1834, was not Howe's first attack on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. He was the publisher of the Painesville Telegraph, of Painesville, Ohio, and had published many articles hostile to the church. Although the book was published naming Howe as the author, there are good reasons for believing that it was the work of Hurlburt, written in a spirit of revenge after Hurlburt's lewd character had been exposed in a church court for which he was excommunicated. He was later bound over by a court for the attempted murder of Joseph Smith.

    Hurlburt Manuscript Found from his Hurlburt's remarried widow, Mrs Davidson. He claimed that it proved beyond doubt that it was the origin of the Book of Mormon, yet in spite of this assertion he did not publish it. If it was the primary source of the Book of Mormon why did he fail to publish it? His failure to publish Manuscript Found was not the only strange thing in the case of Hurlburt and the manuscript. He borrowed it from Spaulding's widow promising to return it to her. It was a promise he did not keep. Had he published The Manuscript Story and proved that the Book of Mormon's dependence on it it could have been the end of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and his thriving community. Yet it was not published but merely referred to in the following terms:

    We have shown that the Book of Mormon is the Joint production of Solomon Spaulding and some other designing knave [they have shown nothing of the kind]…nor will anyone disagree with us [plenty of Non-LDS Scholars have disagreed with them, and volubly!], when we shall have proven [It never happened!] that the Book of Mormon was a joint speculation between the "author and proprietor" and the witnesses.

    At one point it is admitted by Howe that as far as the conspiracy theory is concerned,

    …we have no positive proof; but many circumstances have carried a suspicious appearance; and further developments may establish the fact.

    In spite of the assurances given throughout the book that the Spaulding manuscript was plagiarised in the production of the Book of Mormon, the final passage of Howe's book sounds the death knell for the Spaulding theory, especially in light of the manuscript's discovery in 1885.

    We, therefore, must [must they?] hold out Sidney Rigdon to the world as being the original "Author and Proprietor" of the whole Mormon conspiracy, until further light is elicited upon the lost writings of Solomon Spaulding.

    This statement is not that of one who has incontrovertible proof, rather it points to absence of proof, Howe is content to impute not only the authorship of the Book of Mormon to Rigdon but "the whole Mormon conspiracy." Generations of authors have been content to let their opinions rest upon this ricketty foundation and to present those opinions in the guise of "scholarly research."

    It is undisputed that Hurlburt obtained Manuscript Found and that he never dared publish it. What is less certain is how writers hostile to the Book of Mormon take any comfort from Hurlburt's failure to produce his evidence but continue to spread the story in desperate attempts to prolong the falsehood that Hurlburt began. They fail to convince because the evidence for the theory is non-existent.

    Hurlburt did not shrink from dishonesty in seeking to injure his former friends and elevate his own reputation. When it became evident that the manuscript had disappeared rumours were circulated that the Mormons had either bought or stolen the manuscript, and burned it to destroy evidence of their fraud. It would have made sense for the Mormons to hide the manuscript if it proved them party to a fraud, but why did Hurlburt and Howe hide it if it proved their proposition?

    For fifty years the Spaulding Theory reigned unchallenged, and was an embarrassment to Latter Day Saints – nothing more. For fifty years Manuscript Found was held to be the source of the Book of Mormon and its non-appearance prevented comparison. During this time no other theory of origin was produced because none was necessary. The Spaulding theory was finally collapsed in 1883 when Manuscript Found was discovered in Honolulu and placed in the library of Oberlin College, Columbus, Ohio, where it remains. Had it not been discovered it is certain that enemies of the Church would have not have had to invent other explanations for the Book of Mormon.

    With the manuscript available for comparison it was plainly evident that the Book of Mormon was not derived from Spaulding's work. When this was recognized another theory was hurriedly invented claiming that the Book of Mormon was based not on Spaulding's Manuscript Found, but on another of his works, Manuscript Lost, a work not mentioned prior to the collapse of the Spaulding theory. In spite of the evidence of Manuscript Found and the non-appearance of Manuscript Lost, the theory of a Spaulding origin remains current amongst of anti-Mormon writers lacking objectivity and honesty. For the sake of their own prejudices and presuppositions they discount the crushing weight of evidence against a Spaulding contribution to the Book of Mormon.

    a novel was left by Solomon Spaulding in Patterson's Printing Office at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Sidney Regdon [sic] found it and with Joseph's help, he invented a story about gold plates and spectacles. Smith professed to translate it and thus we have the Mormon Bible.

    Baird claims an unreferenced source for an interesting piece of information, not discoverable elsewhere. It concerns a note allegedly written by Spaulding's physician on 5th June 1831 on the flyleaf of a Book of Mormon.

    This work, I am convinced by facts related to me by deceased patient, Solomon Spaulding, has been made from the writings of Spaulding, probably by Sidney Rigdon, who was suspicioned by Spaulding with purloining his manuscript from the publishing-house to which he had taken it; and I am prepared to testify that Spaulding told me that his work was entitled, "The Manuscript Found in the Wilds of Mormon; or Unearthed Records of the Nephites". From his description of its contents, I fully believe that this Book of Mormon is mainly and wickedly copied from it. June, 5, 1831 Cephas Dodd.

    It is noteworthy that Dodd's testimony, which is probably spurious since it contains too many essential elements of the Spaulding Theory at too early a date, referred to the Manuscript Found. No other Spaulding work had entered the picture, because until the discovery of the manuscript, which immediately disqualified it, none other was necessary. Baird cites another unique source, similarly unreferenced.

    Rigdon told his friends of what he had done [stolen the Spaulding manuscript and colluded with Smith to manufacture the Book of Mormon from it] but did not declare it publicly for fear of Mormon reprisal.

    He refers to Cowdery, Davis and Scales' book, Who Really Wrote the Book Of Mormon? and to their claim that they have

    [Resurfaced] part of Spaulding's original manuscript of his second novel. Twelve pages, word for word the "Book of Mormon", have been examined by handwriting-analysis experts who identified the handwriting as Solomon's [sic] Spaulding's. These pages have been preserved for years by the "Mormon" Church. They are known by the Church as the "unidentified scribe" section of the original, handwritten Book of Mormon. The Church denies the Spaulding identification but, disappointingly, prohibits further examination of the documents in question.

    Another writer who will not relinquish the Spaulding Theory in spite of the overwhelming evidence against it, is Linnegan who writes:

    "[Smith] was joined by one Samuel [sic] Rigdon with whose assistance it seems likely that Smith added further chapters [to the Book of Mormon]".

    Brinkerhoff, in his disappointing and mean-spirited little book Mormonism – An Historical And Scriptural Analysis, is also convinced of a Spaulding origin.

    Solomon Spaulding, wrote a fictional historical novel called "MANUSCRIPT LOST" [sic] about the inhabitants the [sic] Americas…it was evidently stolen by one Sidney Rigdon, a fellow who used to loiter around the shop. It surfaced later, in a modified form under the title THE BOOK OF MORMON…it appears that Smith and Rigdon spent considerable time together two years before Rigdon supposedly came into contact with Smith and Mormonism and was converted to it. The evidence is circumstantial, but it is so conclusive as to be irrefutable.

    No evidence, irrefutable or otherwise, is produced by Brinkerhoff. Neither does he offer his evidence for changing the name of the manuscript. In Some Modern Faiths it is claimed, without supporting evidence, that

    Solomon Spaulding [deposited his] imaginary history…with a printer [and] died, and the manuscript was left in the printer's office. The printer himself died in 1826. There was a compositor at the office, named Sidney Rigdon.

    It is also stated that

    These allegations were abusively denied by Rigdon.

    Sanders in Cults And Isms claims that the Spaulding theory is correct adding the information that Spaulding died two days after leaving the manuscript at Patterson's. He also claims that,

    Rigdon…frequented Patterson's shop.

    If Sanders' information is accurate, it leaves little time for Baird's claim that Spaulding "suspicioned" that Rigdon had stolen it. It is fortunate for Rigdon's reputation that his history proves that he was neither thief, plagiarist or conspirator as regards either the Spaulding Manuscript, or the Book of Mormon. Spaulding wrote Manuscript Found about 1812. It has been said that he would amuse his neighbours by reading portions of it to them. Possibly their amusement provided him with the idea that it might be of interest to a wider public who would pay for the privilege of reading it. Consequently he sought to have it published. From New Salem, Ohio, where he wrote the work, he moved to Pittsburgh. Whilst in Pittsburgh he showed it to a printer called Patterson. Patterson retained the manuscript in order to read it and provide his opinion. Eventually he offered to print the book if Spaulding would agree to certain conditions and alterations. Spaulding would not agree to the conditions and took the manuscript back. Spaulding's widow confirms this to be so:

    At length the manuscript was returned to its author, and soon after we removed to Amity, Washington County, Pennsylvania, etc., where Mr Spaulding deceased in 1816. The manuscript then fell into my hands and was carefully preserved.

    Evidence from Spaulding's widow establishes that she maintained possession of the manuscript from prior to 1814 until she permitted Philastus Hurlburt to borrow it in 1834 (long after the Book of Mormon had been published). If Rigdon ever saw the Spaulding document it must have been prior to 1816. This date can be pushed back two more years. A contemporary of Spaulding's made the statement that

    Spaulding left here [Conneaut, Ohio] in 1812, and I furnished him the means to carry him to Pittsburgh, where he said he would get the book printed and pay me.

    Another interesting and significant statement by Lake reads:

    A messenger was despatched to look up the widow of Spaulding, who was found residing in Massachusetts. From her we learned that Spaulding resided in Pittsburgh, about two years," etc.

    This places Spaulding in Pittsburgh from 1812 to 1814. Therefore, if Rigdon had opportunity to read or steal the manuscript it must have been before 1814. But there are cogent rebutting reasons against this solution. In the first place Rigdon, who was 21 in 1814, was to be found at home on his father's farm and did not arrive in Pittsburgh until 1822 when the manuscript had been gone for 8 years. Add to this the fact that no one has come up with a single piece of evidence linking Rigdon with Joseph Smith until December of 1830, or with the production of the Book of Mormon which was undergoing printing from August 1829 until March 1830. Historical evidence for complicity in a plagiarised or counterfeit production of a book by Smith and Rigdon does not exist.

    Enemies of Mormonism have besmirched the names of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and Parley P Pratt in this matter. Their inability to furnish substantiation must persuade honest not to heed their slanders. It was in response to such a slander that Sidney Rigdon wrote:

    In your paper of the 18th instant, I see a letter signed by somebody calling herself Matilda Davison, pretending to give the origin of Mormonism, as she is pleased to call it, by relating moonshine story about a certain Solomon Spaulding, a creature with the knowledge of whose earthly existence I am entirely indebted to this production; for surely, until Philastus Hurlburt informed me that such a being lived, at some former period, I had not the most distant knowledge of his existence…it is only necessary to say, in relation to the whole story about Spaulding's writings being in the hands of Mr. Patterson, who was in Pittsburgh, and who is said to have kept a printing office, and my saying that I was concerned in the said office, etc., etc., is the most base of lies without even the shadow of truth.

    That was Rigdon's measured response to the calumny which Matilda Davison's letter aimed at his character. There is a suspicion that Mrs Davison did not write the letter, and comparisons of its syntax suggest that this may be the case. It has been suggested that a Reverend Storrs forged it over her name, although he denied it. In his response Rigdon denies any knowledge of Solomon Spaulding and his literary creations, and any connection with the Patterson printing establishment in Pittsburgh. Oliver Cowdery had a word to say to those who claiming that he was dishonestly involved in any way.

    I wrote with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages), as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by the book, Holy Interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the Holy Interpreters. That book is true. Sidney Rigdon did not write it. Mr. Spaulding did not write it. I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet. It contains the everlasting gospel, and came forth to the children of men in fulfilment of the revelations of John, where he says he saw an angel come with the everlasting gospel to preach to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. It contains the principles of salvation; and if you, my hearers, will walk by its light and obey its precepts, you will be saved with an everlasting salvation in the kingdom of God on high.

    Parley P. Pratt is another often cited as a conspirator with Smith in producing the Book of Mormon. His response to those who insist that Rigdon wrote the Book of Mormon was spirited:

    Mr. Rigdon embraced the doctrine [Mormonism] through my instrumentality. I first presented the Book of Mormon to him. I stood upon the bank of the stream while he was baptized, and assisted to officiate in his ordination, and I myself was unacquainted with the system until some months after its organization, which was on the 6th of April 1830.

    In the following chapters we take a closer look at conspiracy theories and principal actors, particularly at the prime suspect – Sidney Rigdon. Familiarity with this man's history removes any lingering doubts about his innocence.

    ~~

    FOOTNOTES:

    Melvin R Brooks, LDS Reference Encyclopedia (Salt lake City: Bookcraft Inc., 1960) pp. 474-475.

    Eber D Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: ED Howe, 1834) p. 96.

    Ibidem p. 100.

    Ibidem p. 100.

    David Baird, Mormonism – Of God Or Men? (Birmingham: Logos Publications, 1981) p. 14.

    Ibidem p. 14.

    Ibidem pp. 14-15.

    John McCaughan Linnegan, Your Church And Mormonism (Omagh, Northern Ireland: no details, 1964) p. 9.

    Forrest A Brinkerhoff, Mormonism – A Scriptural And Historical Analysis (Torrens Park, South Australia: Stallard and Potter, 1988) p. 29.

    Maurice C Burrell and J Stafford Wright, Some Modern Faiths (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983) p. 53.

    Ibidem p. 53.

    Ibidem p. 99.

    Ibidem p. 20.

    Eber D Howe, A History Of Mormonism (Painesville, Ohio: ED Howe, 1840) statement by Henry Lake.

    Sidney Rigdon, "Letter written from Commerce, Illinois," The Boston Journal May 27, 1837: Pages.

    Oliver Cowdery, "Address," Special Conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kanesville [Council Bluffs] Ohio, October 21, 1848.

    Parley Parker Pratt, "Letter," New Era November 1839, New York ed.: Pages.

    © 1992-2012 Ronnie BRAY

  2. How has fraud been dismissed?

    I find the evidence that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Abraham compelling, and it’s clear from what survives of the papyrus that his translation has no relation to the text he claimed to have translated. Smith even copied the drawings from the Egyptian papyrus. If Smith didn’t write the Book of Mormon, why would he resort to fraud for later works?

    If he could fraudulently create that book, it’s not very difficult to assume that he made up the Book of Mormon, perhaps drawing on other sources and drafting it beforehand. He could’ve started when he first told people of his golden plates, at least a year before he started translating. In addition, Smith also had the opportunity to write a first draft (116 pages) and then restart on his second which provides a decent opportunity to rewrite/revise his final draft.

    Here’s the Book of Abraham wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Abraham
    I have followed the citations, with the numerous expert translations of the papyrus, held in part by the Chicago Museum of Art and also by the LDS Church, being extremely consistent. The side-by-side comparison of the hieroglyphs make it difficult to argue that these aren’t the same papyrus.

    Here’s an interesting take on Mormon Archaeology, not written by someone with a vested interest in proving the Book of Mormon right or wrong.
    http://mormonstories.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/

    • Thought it wolnud’t to give it a shot. I was right.

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