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Through the years, much has been made of the argument that a man by the name of Solomon Spaulding wrote a manuscript which was used by Joseph Smith as his source for the Book of Mormon. Is there any validity to these claims?
This is the ninth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Short clips from this episode are also available on TikTok and Instagram.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 9: Is the Spaulding Argument Valid?
Joseph Smith: Are you ready?
Oliver Cowdery: Of course.
Joseph: And now, if God who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives, and for all that ye have and are… Are you getting this?
Oliver: Hm? Oh. Yes.
Joseph: You need to write this exactly as I dictate.
Oliver reads back: ‘And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives, and for all that ye have and are—’
Joseph: —Doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith believing, ye shall receive.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox and we are joined today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat. Thanks for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Glad to be here.
CBF: So, people have a lot of different ideas about where The Book of Mormon could have come from. One of the popular ones seems to be Solomon Spaulding and his manuscript. Can you tell us about that?
GD: One thing that becomes pretty apparent, studying Joseph Smith’s documents, and studying Joseph Smith’s writing, especially from this early time period, from 1828-1829, is that The Book of Mormon is so far beyond his capabilities, that if you’re someone looking for a way to describe where the text came from, it causes a problem, because, ‘Oh yeah, Joseph Smith just wrote it.’ Well, have you read, literally ANYTHING else he wrote?’ Because he clearly didn’t.
GD: And it’s actually funny because critics of the Book of Mormon, and Latter-day Saints, actually kind of agree on this point, in the sense that this text is coming from somewhere else. Joseph is saying, ‘Yeah, the text came from God, as a miraculous translation.’
So it wasn’t Joseph writing it. But of course, critics of the Church then and now, they don’t want to take that explanation of the origin of the text. And so they’ve tried various attempts to try to say, ‘This is where it’s really coming from.’ And this story has its origin with a man by the name of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut.
GD: Which is probably like the greatest name of all time. But, before you ask me which university he got his PhD at, or if he’s a medical doctor, actually his parents just NAMED him Doctor.
CBF: Really? What?!
GD: So his first name’s Doctor. Yeah. So his first name’s Doctor. In fact, his friends said that he was full of gab and quite illiterate.
GD: So, Doctor Hurlbut was an early elder in the Church from Ohio, and he gets sent on a mission to Western Pennsylvania. And he commits adultery, apparently several times while he’s there. And then, as now, when you commit adultery, on your mission, it’s not a good way to stay on a mission, or in The Church.
And Hurlbut is cut off from The Church for this adultery, but BEGS to be let back in. He appeals his case. And the judgement that Joseph renders is that, ‘You needed to be cut off for what you did.’ But, kind of showing the merciful side of Joseph, he so desperately wants to be back in, and so they allow him back in. Well, almost immediately thereafter, he begins bragging to people, ‘Well, I tricked Joseph, I wasn’t really repentant.’ And then apparently, again, according to one source, attempts to commit yet another adultery. So he’s cut off again from the Church.
Well, this time, Hurlbut does not go quietly into the night. He’s going to tell people the REAL truth of Mormonism, right? ‘Oh, I KNOW Joseph. I was an ELDER in the Church!’ And one of the arguments that Hurlbut is going to make, is that while he was on his mission in Western Pennsylvania, he came across the ACTUAL origin of The Book of Mormon, and that there was a former preacher living in Western Pennsylvania by the name of Solomon Spaulding. Now Solomon Spaulding had died in 1816, so whenever you’re trying to come up with ‘Who did it,’ it’s always best to blame it on someone who’s dead.
GD: You can’t interview them at all. And Hurlbut’s going to claim that Spaulding wrote this novel, deliberately, with The King James Biblical style of English, right? That that’s how he styled it. And it was all about, you know, people populating the Americas. He’s going to claim that that’s the actual source of the Book of Mormon text.
Well, for the group in Kirtland, who are opposed to the Church, calling themselves the Anti-Mormon Committee, this is a Godsend to them. Here’s someone who used to be a member of the Church, who knows all their ins and outs, who actually saw where this book came from! And it actually becomes one of the featured arguments in the first Anti-Mormon book that’s published, in 1834 by Eber Howe, it’s called, “Mormonism Unvailed.” (sic)
From 1833 and really from ’34 when that book is published, antagonists to the Church think that they have the answer to the problem. There’s two problems with the Book of Mormon:
One, that it exists at all. Because again, we have Joseph Smiths’ writings, and this is far more expansive.
But there’s also a second problem: That it’s convincing people that it’s a record of Jesus. Anyone can write a book. But we have not just your average, ordinary, butcher, baker and the candlestick-maker that are believing this, you have LEARNED preachers who LOVE the Bible who are reading it and saying, ‘This is the word of God.’ So how do you get, not just a book that’s written, but a book that apparently incorporates religious aspects to the point that people who “SHOULD know better,” you know, in quotes, right, are believing this is the word of God? Solomon Spaulding, that theory helps fill both of those needs.
Well obviously he’s intelligent, he’s this pastor, he’s a writer, and because he’s a pastor, he’s able to weave these Biblical, religious elements into the text in a way that he never intended to have people think was really from God. But that, these Mormons are now able to use to convince people it’s the real truth.
This is the primary dismissal of The Book of Mormon from antagonists of the Church, for essentially, for half a century. Later, antagonists would interview people, Solomon Spaulding’s family, ‘Oh, yes, I remember my dad was talking about Lehi and Nephi all the time from when he was writing his book.’ And so it seemed to give credence to it.
CBF: So, the theory that this manuscript was used to be The Book of Mormon, is that valid? What sources do we have on that?
GD: It’s certainly not considered valid by academics looking at the text, because we now have Spaulding’s manuscript, and it’s nothing similar to The Book of Mormon. So in the mid-1880’s, the president of Oberlin college, his name is James Fairchild, he acquires and is able to look at some early documents from this Ohio period that were in the possession of the newspaper editors there. And what they find is this long-lost manuscript from Solomon Spaulding, which people had for half a century said, ‘This is the origin of The Book of Mormon.’
They compare it, and what do they find? Not only is it not word-for-word The Book of Mormon, James Fairchild even says there doesn’t even seem to be a character or incident common between the two books. And even though all the detractors had said, ‘Oh yes, he wrote it, he wrote it LIKE the Bible, that’s why it kind of sounds like the Bible,’ James Fairchild says, ‘The solemn style and imitation of the King James Bible doesn’t appear in this book. And then concludes the only rational conclusion that the president of a university has to come to, and that is some other explanation of the Book of Mormon must be had, if one’s needed at all.
The reality is, most historians don’t look to this Solomon Spaulding manuscript explanation of the text of The Book of Mormon anymore.
And so, it’s interesting because that mid-19th Century period for the Latter-day Saints is REALLY when Latter-day Saints are the most hated. Between 1840 and 1890, that 50-year period is when Mormonism is a hiss and a byword to the United States. During that entire period when Mormons are being discussed in the halls of Congress, they are dismissed constantly as, ‘Well, it’s all just coming from that Solomon Spaulding manuscript.’ And they’re all wrong. In fact, they, the claims that were made over and over again, by people like Philastus Hurlbut, and Eber Howe and these other people, they’re proven to be false, even though lots of people believe them.
CBF: That’s very interesting. I did not know all of that. Thank you.
GD: It was probably not as, maybe a little more detailed than you wanted, but, haha.
CBF: No, that’s great. It’s great, thank you.
Having studied the life of Joseph Smith for more than 50 years.. I think we all have to agree as I would say he was a genius.
I think the argument that Joseph was uneducated and could not have written a novel such as Pilgrim’s Progress has some validity. But to say that he could not have written the Book of Mormon I think is false. Joseph’s mother I understand was a teacher and he was very well homeschooled. He came from a family that was educated. He is actually a wonderful writer when you read his church history and other documents. The writer and revolutionary Eldridge Cleaver who I knew was very impressed by the writing of Joseph Smith.
I have read the Spaulding manuscript. It’s quite a good story as far as it goes but to compare it with the Book of Mormon simply won’t work. There isn’t anything any it at any level which has even the slightest resemblance to the Book of Mormon. I never doubted for a second that would be the case.