For about 50 years in the 19th century the Spaulding manuscript was the most popular naturalistic explanation for the origin of The Book of Mormon; it has now been widely discredited by both friends and foes of The Book of Mormon.
Background on the manuscript
(summarized from Rex C. Reeve Jr.’s What is “Manuscript Found”? as published in Manuscript Found: The Complete Original “Spaulding Manuscript” available online here)
Solomon Spaulding wrote a document entitled “Manuscript Found”, which has some loose similarities with the Book of Mormon (e.g. a group of people crossed the ocean and settled the Americas, they became divided, they fought wars, their record was discovered many years later); from his own correspondence we know he was working on the manuscript in 1812.
Spaulding died in 1816 without having ever completed or published the manuscript. The manuscript remained in the possession of his family until the 1830s.
In 1833 Philastus Hurlbut was excommunicated from The Church of Christ (now known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) for sexual immorality. He had previously served as a missionary for the church but, in his anger, turned hard against the church and sought to tear it down. His efforts included:
- Collecting defamatory statements from people who did not like Joseph
- Publicly threatening to kill Joseph Smith
- A conspiracy theory to impugn the credibility of the Book of Mormon
(Hurlbut’s later criminal actions and flight from the US to escape justice only further assassinated his character).
Hurlbut heard of Spaulding’s work from people who had known him, and saw an opportunity to discredit The Book of Mormon by claiming it was stolen from Spaulding’s work. Hurlbut acquired the Spaulding manuscript from Spaulding’s family in 1833 or 1834.
Because Hurlbut was not a publicly credible source (see above), he couldn’t publish his theory in his own name–he sold the documents to E.D. Howe and Howe used them to publish his hit-piece Mormonism Unvailed [sic], released in 1834.
Neither Hurlbut nor Howe released the Spaulding manuscript publicly–and for good reason–it would allow readers to check the story for themselves. Howe sold the papers to L.L. Rice circa 1839 and the Spaulding manuscript disappeared for several decades. This was convenient for conspiracy theorists, who could imagine the text to have said anything they wanted. Affidavits were secured (by Hurlbut) from enemies of Joseph Smith stating that The Book of Mormon borrowed numerous features from the Spaulding manuscript.
Research published by George Reynolds in 1883 indicated that Hurlbut knew full well the Spaulding manuscript was unrelated to The Book of Mormon. Hurlbut (the mastermind of the plan) had stated:
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 Myth of the "Manuscript Found," or the Absurdities of
the “Spaulding Story" p. 17)
However, the manuscript was rediscovered among Rice’s papers in 1884, and has been thoroughly studied in the years since. With the rediscovery of the manuscript it became abundantly obvious that there was no literary relationship between the Spaulding text & The Book of Mormon, and Hurlbut had vastly overstated their similarities–the affidavits were thereby demonstrated to be fraudulent.
The texts can readily be compared
Although some continue to claim a literary relationship between the Spaulding manuscript & The Book of Mormon, there's one thing virtually all these claimants have in common: they haven't read both documents.
There is no need to take someone else’s word for it–those who are curious can readily compare them–both are available for free online:
Spaulding manuscript & The Book of Mormon
The Value of Hostile Testimony
Even professional critics of The Book of Mormon acknowledge that the Spaulding theory is bankrupt. The following quotations (and others) were assembled by Reeves (see link above pp. xx-xxiii) from anti-Mormon sources--here is a brief survey covering more than a century of scholarship in which testimony hostile to The Book of Mormon rejects the Spaulding theory:
From Davis H. Bays in 1897:
The usual debater undertakes to trace the Book of Mormon to the
Spaulding romance through Sidney Rigdon.
Nothing can be more erroneous, and it will lead to almost certain
defeat. . .. In order “for” the successful refutation of the Mormon
dogma it is not at all necessary to connect Sidney Rigdon with Joseph
Smith in its inception. In fact, such a course will almost certainly
result in failure; and the principal reason why it will fail is
because it is not true. ...
The long-lost Spaulding story has at last been unearthed, and is now
on deposit in the library of Oberlin College at Oberlin, Ohio, and may
be examined by anyone who may take the pains to call on President
Fairchild, of that institution.
... The writer has examined a certified copy of this remarkable
document, and to say he was surprised is to express it moderately.
Instead of exhibiting the qualities of a scholarly mind, as we had
been lead to believe it would do, quite to the contrary, it bears
every mark of ignorance and illiteracy, and is evidently the product
of a mind far below the average, even in the ordinary affairs of life.
A twelve-year-old boy in any of our common schools can tell a better
story and couch it in far better English. The Spaulding story is a
failure. Do not attempt to rely upon it—it will let you down.
From Ernest H. Taves in 1984:
The evidence, then, indicates that this Spaulding manuscript had
nothing to do with the Book of Mormon. In that case, how are we to
account for the Hurlbut affidavits?
It has been suggested that there was another Spaulding work, that the
manuscript Hurlbut unearthed was not what everyone was referring to as
Manuscript Found. This is, of course, a possibility, but the question
might seem, at first glance, irrelevant. If there was another
Spaulding manuscript would it not be stylistically similar to the one
Hurlbut found, and thus have little in common with the Book of Mormon?
Only a skillful writer indeed—a gifted parodist, for example—can
significantly alter his way of writing. The signature is there, as
with a thumbprint. Whatever else can be said of Joseph Smith and
Solomon Spaulding, neither was a skillful writer. It suffices to read
a page or two of Joseph Smith and of Spaulding to understand that
those pages were written by different writers. The same would probably
apply to any other manuscript written by Spaulding. ...
This still leaves us with questions about the affidavits. How could
they be so far off the mark? First, we must agree with Brodie that
they were written by Hurlbut—and here we again invoke stylistic
considerations. The affidavits have the tone of common authorship.
Further, there is the almost universal insistence upon the “and it
came to pass” phraseology, and upon the proper names of Nephi and
Laman. Hurlbut put thoughts into the minds of his respondents, and
words into their mouths.... One would like to know more of Hurlbut
here. We must suspect that he was not without his own manipulative
abilities as he pursued what he was after. He was grinding an
important ax, and his respondents were certainly also motivated: The
manuscript of their brother, relative, and friend had been
plagiarized—in what they considered to be a blasphemous cause—and they
would have vengeance. So they remembered what Hurlbut suggested, thus
giving birth to the Spaulding-Rigdon theory four years after Joseph
had completed his manuscript.
Additional anti-Mormon quotes rejecting the Spaulding theory can be found here, including Fawn Brodie’s classic statement in 1945:
The tenuous chain of evidence accumulated to support the
Spaulding-Rigdon theory breaks altogether when it tries to prove that
Rigdon met Joseph Smith before 1830.
Second manuscript theories
(see also Reeves link above)
After the Spaulding manuscript was rediscovered and the theory collapsed, some sought to revive the theory by claiming that there was a second manuscript (maybe a revised version of the original, a sequel, etc.) and that it was this second edition that was referred to in the Hurlbut affidavits and used by Joseph Smith. Second manuscript theories are entirely unsubstantiated by the evidence:
- They contradict the Hurlbut Affidavits: we know from Spaulding’s own correspondence that he was still working on the manuscript (the one that was found by Rice in the 1880s) in 1812. Multiple testimonies in the Hurlbut affidavits come from people who said they read (or had read to them) portions of Spaulding’s work prior to that time. Anything Spaulding may or may not have written after that time is irrelevant, it isn’t what was referred to by these Hurlbut witnesses. Since the Hurlbut affidavits are the basis of the Spaulding theory in the first place, modifying the theory such that it contradicts the affidavits is self-defeating.
- Hurlbut & Howe had the manuscript in their possession when they were working on the theory–all they had to do was release copies of the manuscript publicly to prove their case…but they never did (their failure to do so is quite suspicious on its own). If they’d had multiple manuscripts that allowed them to make a cumulative case for a stolen story that had been through revisions…i.e. If they’d had better evidence…they would have used it. Ergo, they did not have better evidence and used the one manuscript. They never refer to any other related manuscript.
- The probability of a sequel or second edition is further weakened by the fact that Spaulding never finished the first one. The story remained incomplete at the time of Spaulding’s death, and the manuscript has a known provenance from the time of Spaulding's death until several years after The Book of Mormon was published.
- No such manuscript has ever been found–the argument is 100% ad-hoc.
- The fact that Spaulding wrote other documents in his lifetime is not relevant. He was a minister, he wrote a lot of things. The Hurlbut affidavits only refer to one specific document which was allegedly used by Joseph Smith.
- The coup de grace is this: 2nd manuscript theories only became popular after everybody who knew Spaulding–and could refute the theory–was dead. During the lifetime of the eyewitnesses one story was told. After they died another version of the story–for which there is no manuscript, no affidavit, no written evidence–was suggested in its place.
Other problems with the Spaulding theory
Even the most ardent 19th century proponents of the Spaulding theory acknowledged that the Book of Mormon could not be an exact copy of Spaulding’s work, but must have been through a major revision. The relatively uneducated Joseph Smith was not seen as a promising candidate for having revised Spaulding’s work, and theorists (generally) concluded that Sidney Rigdon was the most likely individual to have conspired with Joseph Smith to revise & publish the manuscript.
This view collapses quickly under scrutiny:
- There is no evidence that Sidney Rigdon & Solomon Spaulding ever met
- Though both spent time in Pittsburgh, Sidney Rigdon did not live there until years after Spaulding’s death.
- Some allege that Spaulding left a copy of the manuscript with a printer in Pittsburgh, and it was from this printer Rigdon obtained the manuscript years later. Spaulding never did have his manuscript published–he never finished it. Spaulding’s wife acknowledged that they took the manuscript with them when they left Pittsburgh in 1814. His family retained the incomplete manuscript until well after the publication of The Book of Mormon (see Benjamin Winchester The Origin of the Spaulding Story, Concerning the Manuscript Found pp. 14-15).
- Sidney Rigdon & Joseph Smith did not meet until after The Book of Mormon was published.
- Sidney Rigdon had never heard of The Book of Mormon until it was presented to him by Parley P. Pratt in the Fall of 1830, several months after the book was published. This is attested by multiple eyewitnesses, people who were there, a student of Rigdon, people who were friendly to the Latter-day Saints, people who were hostile to them, etc. This data point is very solidly attested (see Reeves link above pp. xxvi-xxvii)
Even if Sidney Rigdon had managed to acquire the Spaulding manuscript (an argument that is entirely ad-hoc), there was no way for him to get it to Joseph Smith. He had no interaction with The Book of Mormon until after it was published.
(Drawn from Book of Mormon Authorship – New Light on Ancient Origins)
Stylometry studies word-prints and offers a means of determining who wrote an anonymous text. Like a fingerprint, people leave traceable patterns in their writing. Very small samples (e.g. a few verses) are insufficient for statistically-significant stylometric analysis, but longer passages are quite relevant and the scientific apparatus is well-studied. Stylometry has been used to determine authorship of a variety of documents, including some of the Federalist Papers.
An author’s word-print has been shown to survive translation, and authors who try to game the system and mimic another author’s style have been betrayed by their own unconscious writing habits—stylometry can catch the ruse. Even when an author has multiple characters who speak and behave differently, the author’s word-print can be discerned.
The Book of Mormon has been subjected to stylometric analysis which has demonstrated, among other things:
- Neither Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, nor Solomon
Spaulding wrote the Book of Mormon
- The Book of Mormon was written by multiple people. I.e. Nephi, Alma,
Mormon, Moroni etc. are not just different characters—their words
were written by different people
Regardless of how many manuscripts we hypothesize that Spaulding wrote, his literary fingerprint can be discerned from his known writings, and it does not match that of the Book of Mormon text.
There will always be someone willing to write a sensational story, but in the academic literature–on both sides of the aisle–the Spaulding conspiracy has long-since been recognized as fiction.