I know of three theories on how the Book of Mormon was written:
Theory 1: The LDS View
Ancient prophets on the American continent kept records over many centuries, and then the prophet-historian Mormon compiled the records onto gold plates. His son Moroni then added a little more to the record and then buried the plates in 421 AD in a hill in what is now New York state. Then Joseph Smith translated the gold plates into English by the power of God starting in 1827, and finishing in 1829. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I don’t believe this theory. There are too many anachronisms and other proof of the Book of Mormon’s lack of historicity for this theory to be accurate.
Theory 2: The Spalding-Rigdon Theory
This theory says much of the story of the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from an unpublished manuscript written by Solomon Spalding. The idea is that Sidney Rigdon got a hold of the manuscript and used it to author the Book of Mormon. Additionally Rigdon, who was a preacher, weaved his own religious views into the story. Others like Oliver Cowdery might have contributed to the work as well. This means Rigdon was the mastermind behind the Book of Mormon and then gave the manuscript to Joseph Smith to use when dictating. The best case I’ve seen made for this theory is by a researcher named Craig Criddle. His work on the topic can be found here. When I first started investigating how the Book of Mormon was written, I thought this theory was compelling. Part of the research includes a word-print study that attempts to show which chapters in the Book of Mormon were likely written by Rigdon, Cowdery, Spalding, or Parley P. Pratt. The research is interesting, but it looks like there’s a lot of debate on how well this kind of word-print study can correctly detect potential authors. Also, I find the evidence to be spotty of any interaction between Joseph Smith and Rigdon before the Book of Mormon was published. This theory is a possibility, but for now I’m not convinced.
Theory 3: Joseph Smith Wrote It
This theory says Joseph Smith used contemporary sources (e.g. View of the Hebrews, The Late War), the Bible, personal experiences and his own imagination to come up with the Book of Mormon.
Was Joseph Smith Smart Enough To Write It?
All my life I heard how there’s no way Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon because he was too uneducated. Two separate researchers of early LDS church history, B. H. Roberts and Fawn Brodie, thought he was creative enough to have authored the Book of Mormon. In Studies of the Book of Mormon Roberts says (pg. 250):
“In light of this evidence, there can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith, the Prophet, an imagination, it could with reason be urged, which, given the suggestions that are to be found in the “common knowledge” of accepted American antiquities of the times, supplemented by such a work as Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon is.”
Fawn Brodie, in No Man Knows My History (originally written in 1945, quoted from the 1995 First Vintage Books Edition, pg. 62):
“There is no doubt, however, that Joseph had developed a remarkable facility for dictation. The speed was not “far beyond his natural ability”; it was evidence of his ability. To belittle his creative talent is to do him as great injustice as to say he had no learning–a favorite Mormon thesis designed to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
Even if we consider Joseph Smith to have been relatively uneducated, wouldn’t we consider him to be a lot more educated than the Nephites who allegedly kept the records in the first place?
How Did He Dictate It in 90 Days?
I’ve heard LDS apologists say after the first 116 pages of the manuscript were lost, Joseph Smith had only 90 working days to dictate the 250,000 words of the Book of Mormon. At first blush that sounds impressive, but consider:
- Joseph Smith had five years from when he first introduced the idea of the gold plates until the printer’s manuscript had been produced. He could have been honing the story of the Book of Mormon over many years.
- Much of the content of the Book of Mormon was plagiarized from the Bible and Joseph Smith’s own life experiences (e.g. Lehi’s dream was very similar to a dream Joseph Smith’s father had before the Book of Mormon was published).
- After the 116 pages were lost, Joseph Smith had almost a year before beginning transcription again. He could have spent this year planning the rest of the Book of Mormon.
- A good part of the Book of Mormon was the same story that replaced the lost 116 pages. Joseph Smith would have already been very familiar with this part of the story as he had told it before.
- Being able to tell stories orally is a different skill than being able to write. Joseph Smith always used a scribe so he never had to write the text himself.
What Are Possible Sources for the Book of Mormon?
- B. H. Roberts found that a very good case can be made for The View of the Hebrews acting as the “ground plan” for the Book of Mormon. Many parallels exist between the two books.
- Many chapters of Isaiah and the New Testament were copied from the Bible into the Book of Mormon. Some of the verses include translation errors that existed in the English text of the Bible, showing that Joseph Smith copied the verses from the King James Version directly, instead of getting a corrected translation from God.
- In 2014, a computer analysis compared the Book of Mormon to over 100,000 books from the pre-1830’s era. This analysis discovered a book named The Late War Between the United States and Britain contains many phrases and ideas that are also found in the Book of Mormon. The authors contend Joseph Smith didn’t directly plagiarize from The Late War, but that he must have read it and had some of the ideas and phrases in his head when he wrote the Book of Mormon.
- Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life is essentially the same dream Joseph Smith’s father had when Joseph Smith was five years old.
- Other details in the Book of Mormon seem to be autobiographical to some degree. Lehi was a visionary man (like Joseph Smith Sr. with his Tree of Life dream), and Nephi (like Joseph Smith Jr.) had greater visions than his father. Lehi and Joseph Smith Sr. had the same number of sons (not counting an unnamed Smith son who died at birth). Both families had a Joseph and a Sam among the boys. Nephi had to retrieve the bronze plates that contained scripture, just like Joseph Smith had to retrieve the gold plates.
- From An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer (Kindle version, location 909): “Alexander Campbell, founder of the Disciples of Christ, thought he detected contemporary influences in the Book of Mormon when he wrote in February 1831 that the book answered almost every issue that had been “discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies—infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of freemasonry, republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to.””
Additional Proof of Single Authorship: The Mosian Priority
A paper entitled “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis” by Brent Lee Metcalfe shows how the words chosen for the text of the Book of Mormon drift consistently over time. For example, an author at one time might favor “whosoever” over “whoso”, but as time goes on, the style might drift to eventually favor “whoso” instead of “whosoever.” Using historical evidence, Metcalfe demonstrates how after the 116 pages were lost, the most likely order of transcription continued with Mosiah through Moroni, and then picked up again with 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon. He calls this the “Priority of Mosiah” or the “Mosian Priority.” When using the Mosian Priority to analyze the Book of Mormon, words drift consistently from Mosiah to Moroni, and then back to 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon as would be expected if a single author had written the Book of Mormon.
In my opinion, the evidence points to Joseph Smith being the sole author of the Book of Mormon. In reality, it doesn’t really matter once you realize the Book of Mormon isn’t historically accurate, but I find it a very interesting topic to consider.