Hey guys! So the Latter-day Saint prophet, Joseph Smith, claimed that the Book of Mormon was translated through the gift and power of God. Not everyone believed him (shocking, I know), and for almost 200 years now people have been trying to figure out, if not from God, where this pesky book came from. In this episode, we’re going to look at some of those popular theories and how they’ve changed with the passage of time.
Alright, so for the first few years after the Book of Mormon was published, the prevailing naturalistic theory was that the Book was obviously a product of Joseph’s own intellect, but not in a flattering way. Even in Joseph’s tiny hometown, people thought the book was crap, and Joseph was a “spindle shanked ignoramus,” so it made sense that one came from the other.
Just weeks after the Book was published in 1830, the local newspaper satirized it in a series of articles called “The Book of Pukei.” In 1831, the same paper published a “letter to the editor,” which called the Book the “most clumsy of all impositions.” In response to the letter, the paper published that “[Joseph’s] mental powers appear to be extremely limited, and from the small opportunity he has had at school, he made little or no proficiency … We have never been able to learn that any of the family were ever noted for much else than ignorance and stupidity.”
In another 1831 publication, the famous minister Alexander Campbell said that “there never was a book more evidently written by one set of fingers, nor more certainly conceived in one cranium since the first book appeared in human language, than this same book. … And as Joseph Smith is a very ignorant man and is called the author on the title page, I cannot doubt for a single moment that he is the sole author and proprietor of it.” …[It] is without exaggeration, the meanest book in the English language. … It has not one good sentence in it. … It is as certainly Smith’s fabrication as Satan is the father of lies. …”
Even as far as 1841 one source claims that Joseph Smith “bore the reputation of a lazy and ignorant young man … [The Book of Mormon] is perhaps one of the weakest productions ever attempted to be palmed off as a divine revelation. It is mostly a blind mass of words, interwoven with scriptural language and quotations, without much of a leading plan or design. It is in fact such a production as might be expected from a person of Smith’s abilities and turn of mind.”
But despite the fact that Joseph wasn’t perceived as the brightest bulb in the box, as people took a closer look at the Book of Mormon, they started to realize that it wasn’t as simplistic as they thought. Thus, since Joseph clearly didn’t have the brains for the job, a new theory was popularized by the 1834 expose, “Mormonism Unveiled.” The book asserted that the religious stuff in the Book was actually written by Sidney Rigdon, and the historical stuff came from a lost, unpublished story by Soloman Spaulding.
Ironically, Alexander Campbell, the guy who was so sure Joseph was the sole author of the Book of Mormon, later changed his tune, conforming to the Spaulding-Rigdon theory.
The only problem was that Joseph and Sidney had never met before the publication of the Book of Mormon, and Soloman Spaulding’s unpublished manuscript was discovered in 1884, and it didn’t look anything like the Book of Mormon. So this theory eventually loses popularity while a smattering of others emerges. Some of the more fascinating ones have to do with mental illness.
In 1902 Isaac Riley asserted that Joseph had epilepsy which gave him “visionary seizures”. In 1930 Bernard DeVoto claimed Joseph suffered from paranoia-induced hallucinations. In 1931 Harry Beardsley said the Book of Mormon was the product of “dementia praecox.”
People have also proposed automatic writing—even supernatural “channeling” as the answer. But the prevailing theory today really brings us full circle. As in Joseph’s day, the popular theory once again is that the Book of Mormon is the product of Joseph’s intellect. Except this time, instead of asserting that both Joseph and the Book are stupid—now the Book of Mormon is recognized as complex and intricate. So now, skeptics claim that Joseph must have actually been a lot smarter and well-read than what the people who actually knew him said, whether friend, foe, or family.
He must have secretly pieced together the Book of Mormon using any number of dense source texts, or perhaps he was simply a literary genius, a prodigy, and made things up as he went. Fawn Brodie wrote, “Never having written a line of fiction, he laid out for himself a task that would have given the most experienced novelist pause.” Dan Vogel wrote that the Book was “more-or-less [a] stream of consciousness composition,” recited “mostly impromptu and without the aid of notes.”
Critics seem to struggle to agree on how exactly Joseph did it, because there doesn’t seem to be adequate evidence to support any one theory. And that’s certainly the challenge today. Does history show that Joseph had the skills one would have to have in order to produce something like the Book of Mormon under the given circumstances?
In the next episode, we’re going to look at what documented history has to tell us about Joseph’s education. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that both sides of the aisle are running on faith. Latter-day Saints have faith that Joseph was telling the truth and that the Book was translated by the gift and power of God. Others have faith that, despite a lack of evidence, Joseph had the compositional skills, or accomplices, or mental illness, or sleight of hand, or access to demons, or whatever—to produce the Book of Mormon.
So feel free to study it out on your own, pray about it, and go with whatever makes the most sense to you. Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this, especially Brian Hales’ work which was extremely helpful for this episode. He’s even mapped these theories out, showing when different ideas were popular—it’s really cool. So check that out, and have a great day.
- “Naturalistic Explanations of the Origin of the Book of Mormon: A Longitudinal Study,” by Brian Hales (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3cxusP0 / https://bit.ly/3u2FJwa
- “Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon?: The Critics and Their Theories,” by Louis C. Midgley: https://bit.ly/3rBAEJw
- “A New Witness For Christ,” by Francis Kirkham (both Vol. 1 & 2). Great sources in these books.
- “Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon,” by Brian Hales (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/3fsP10m
- “‘Proving to the World’: The Unique Declaration in Doctrine and Covenants Section 20,” by Brian Hales: https://bit.ly/3lZg8l2
- “Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s ‘Visions in a Seer Stone,’” by Brian Hales (Interpreter Journal): https://bit.ly/2PzxkkV
- “Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins,” Noel B. Reynolds (editor).