Have you heard of the Spaulding Theory? Historian Richard Bushman summarizes its life as follows:
The problem [with the Book of Mormon], one newspaper editor wrote in 1839, was to account for a work ‘being evidently the production of a cultivated mind, yet found in the hands of an exceedingly ignorant illiterate person.’ Two years after [Alexander] Campbell’s pamphlet [criticizing the Book of Mormon], an explanation was forthcoming from Ebner D. Howe, the editor of the Painsville Telegraph, a few miles from Mormon headquarters in Kirtland. In 1834, Howe published the findings of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, an excommunicated Mormon and a violent enemy of Joseph Smith who had been employed by followers of Campbell to collect derogatory reports on Smith. Hurlbut found a half dozen old-timers in Conneaut, Ohio, who thought the Book of Mormon resembled a novel written twenty years earlier by Solomon Spaulding, a Dartmouth graduate and former town resident. The Conneaut people swore that the Spaulding story described lost tribes of Israel moving from Jerusalem to America led by characters named Nephi and Lehi. One deponent remembered the names Moroni and Zarahemla.
Hurlbut tracked down Spaulding’s widow, who was living in Massachusetts, and eventually located a manuscript called ‘Manuscript Found.’ Spaulding’s story told of a party of Romans blown off course en route to Britain during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Landing in America, the Romans lived among the Indian tribes and wrote an account of their experiences addressed to future generations. Spaulding purportedly discovered the parchments and translated them from the Latin. To Hurlbut’s disappointment, none of the telltale names cited by his informants appeared in the novel, and the story bore little resemblance to the Book of Mormon apart from the migration to the New World. Hurlbut concluded his deponents must have had another manuscript in mind and laid the ‘Manuscript Found’ aside. Piecing together one surmise after another, he and Howe decided that Sidney Ridgon, the only Mormon with the wit to write the Book of Mormon, had obtained Spaulding’s non-extant manuscript in Pittsburgh, where Spaulding had submitted his work for publication and where Rigdon had lived for a time. According to the theory, Rigdon transformed the novel into the Book of Mormon by adding the religious parts. He conveyed the manuscript to Smith without being detected, and then pretended to be converted when the missionaries brought the Book of Mormon to Kirtland in 1830. Given the complexity of the book, there had to have been ‘from the beginning of the imposture, a more talented knave behind the curtain.’
The Spaulding theory remained the standard explanation of the Book of Mormon for more than a century. As long as thirty and forty years after the book’s publication, new witnesses were discovered, linking Rigdon to the manuscript and verifying resemblances between the two works. In the 1860s, accounts of Joseph Smith’s early life began to make references to shadowy strangers in the neighborhood, presumably Rigdon smuggling in the manuscript, even though Rigdon, still alive at the time, vigorously denied it. The theory was elaborated year after year as witnesses remembered incriminating facts they had forgotten earlier.
The downfall of the Spaulding theory began in 1884 when ‘Manuscript Found’ — still never published and subsequently lost — turned up in Hawaii and came into the hands of James Fairchild, president of Oberlin College. In an article on the Spaulding theory, Fairchild concluded that the manuscript Hurlbut found was the novel that the witnesses remembered and that the alleged second manuscript never existed. He said evidence for any Spaulding manuscript coming into the hands of Rigdon and thence to Smith was tenuous. Although conservative in his judgment, Fairchild concluded that the theory did not hold water.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, a few students of Mormonism — I. Woodbridge Riley, Theodore Schroeder, and Walter Prince — offered a new explanation of the Book of Mormon‘s composition. They did not so much refute Spaulding as supply an alternative theory in the spirit of Alexander Campbell. The book, these authors hypothesized, showed signs of Joseph Smith’s psychology and culture, and so must be his work. In 1945, Fawn Brodie, whose biography was acknowledged by non-Mormon scholars as the premiere study of Joseph Smith, explicitly rebutted the Spaulding theory, noting chronological inconsistencies, dubious testimonies, and the absence of evidence for a link to Rigdon. Brodie turned instead to the analysis of Riley and, before him, Campbell. The Book of Mormon was best explained, Brodie argued, by Joseph Smith’s ‘responsiveness to the provincial opinions of his time.’ Interest in the Spaulding theory revived in 1977 when handwriting experts speculated that Spaulding’s writing appeared in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, but on further consideration the experts backed off, and the theory assumed the status of an historiographical artifact without credibility among serious scholars. (Rough Stone Rolling, 90-91.)
Even though Bushman notes the downfall of this theory and its lack of “credibility among serious scholars”, many Mormons (including Bushman) are probably aware that the Spaulding theory, even if discredited among serious scholars, is very much alive and well and is used as evidence or explanation for the Book of Mormon as fraud by a great number of people in 2008 — perhaps by more people in 2008 than at any time before. This raises the interesting question of why such a theory continues to hold on despite dismissal by Fawn Brodie and others, including Bushman, as historically implausible and even unlikely. There are many other theories that those who do not share Mormons’ faith can advance to explain the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, the Spaulding theory lives on and will perhaps never be discarded by critics of the Church’s truth claims. In this sense, Hurlbut and Howe were far more successful than they probably imagined at the time in creating the Spaulding theory to criticize the Book of Mormon.