Origin of the Book of Mormon

Origin of the Book of Mormon
Artist's impression of Joseph Smith Jr. receiving the Golden Plates from the angel Moroni.

There are several theories as to the actual origin of the Book of Mormon. Most adherents to the Latter Day Saint movement view the book as a work of inspired scripture. The most common theory accepted by adherents is that promoted by Joseph Smith, Jr., who said he translated the work from an ancient set of golden plates inscribed by prophets, which Smith discovered near his home in Palmyra, New York in the 1820s after being told to go there by the angel Moroni, a character from the Book of Mormon. Besides Smith himself, there are more than 11 witnesses who said they saw the plates physically (three claiming to have been visited by an angel as well) in 1829. There are also many other witnesses, some of them friendly to Smith and some hostile, who observed him dictating the text that eventually became the Book of Mormon.

Nevertheless, critics have explored a number of issues, including (1) whether Joseph Smith actually had golden plates, or whether the text of the Book of Mormon originated in his mind or through inspiration; (2) whether it was Smith himself who composed the book's text, or whether an associate of Smith's such as Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon could have composed the text; and (3) whether the book was based on a prior work such as the View of the Hebrews, the Spalding Manuscript, or the Bible.


Summary of theories

There are differing views on the origin of the Book of Mormon.

  1. Joseph Smith's own account that he translated an ancient record compiled and abridged by Mormon, a pre-Columbian resident of the Western Hemisphere who recorded the spiritual history of generations of his people, and the teachings of their ancestors, the Hebrews.
  2. Joseph Smith as the sole author, without external assistance. These theories assume that Smith was educated and intelligent enough to have produced the work on his own, although, at the time, his education barely reached above the third-grade level. One line of thinking proposed by several authors is that the Book of Mormon is a "primary source" reflecting events in Smith's own life.[1]
  3. Joseph Smith as a plagiarist of contemporaries. There are two main theories representing this point-of-view: the View of the Hebrews theory,[2] and the Spalding-Rigdon theory.[3]
  4. One of Smith's associates as the author, who then allowed Smith to take the credit.
  5. The work is a divinely inspired narrative regardless of its historicity (i.e. "inspired fiction").[4]
  6. The work is not a divinely inspired narrative. This view has been held by all non-Mormon Christian churches since the appearance of the Book of Mormon.
  7. The book was written by Joseph Smith through a process known as "automatic writing."[5]

Joseph Smith's own account of the authorship of the Book of Mormon

According to the accounts of Joseph Smith and his associates, the original record was engraved on thin, malleable sheets of metal with the appearance of gold and bound with three rings at one edge. The leaves were engraved on both sides with considerable skill. According to the account presented in the book, the prophet-historian named "Mormon" abridged the [mostly religious and non-secular] records of the local civilizations from the preceding thousand years.[6] Mormon then delivered the account to his son, Moroni, who added a few words of his own and concealed the plates about AD 400.[7] At the end of Moroni's ministry (approximately AD 421), he placed these plates along with several other items in a stone box in a hillside (now named the Hill Cumorah) near Palmyra, New York.

On September 21, 1823, this same Moroni, then a resurrected being, appeared to Joseph Smith Jr. to instruct him about this ancient record and its destined translation into the English language.[7] Smith was shown the location of the plates (including the other items in the box), but was not immediately allowed to take them. This is possibly because he may have had thoughts of using them to get gain for his financially struggling family. After four years of meeting with the angel and being instructed, he was finally entrusted with the plates. Through the power of God and the Urim and Thummim, which were ancient seeing stones hidden along with the plates, he was able to translate the characters (which, according to the Book of Mormon, were related to 600 BC Egyptian with Hebrew influence)[8] into English.[9]

Joseph Smith was commanded to show the plates to several people and no one else. Accounts by these individuals are recorded in the front of the Book of Mormon as "The Testimony of the Three Witnesses" and "The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses."

Additionally, Joseph Smith taught, and most Mormons believe, that the provenance of the Book of Mormon was prophesied by Biblical scripture.[10] These interpretations are largely disputed by adherents of other faiths.

The golden plates were commonly referred to as a "Golden Bible," particularly by non-Mormons, though a few church members also used the term in early descriptions. The label "Golden Bible" actually predates the Book of Mormon, as legends of such an artifact existed in Canada and upstate New York while Joseph Smith was growing up in Vermont.[11]

Purported plagiarism

Critics claim that Joseph Smith fabricated the Book of Mormon, and that it was not divinely inspired.[12][13][14] Critics specifically cite four books that Joseph Smith could have used to obtain verses for the Book of Mormon:

Plagiarism from View of the Hebrews

Critics claim that Smith based several passages and many thematic elements in The Book of Mormon on material he found in View of the Hebrews, published in 1823, with an expanded edition in 1825, by Ethan Smith.[14][15] Examples of verses that critics claim are plagiarized include:[14][16]

View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith (1825 edition) Book of Mormon (1830)
"[T]hose far distant savages have (as have all other tribes) their Great Spirit, who made everything" (p. 103) "Believest thou that this Great Spirit which is God, created all things ... And he saith, Yea, I believe that he created all things" (Alma 18:28-29)
"[T]he places ... are noted; among which are 'the isles of the sea'". (p. 232-233) "[W]e have been led to a better land, ... [W]e are upon an isle of the sea" (2 Nephi 10:20)
" 'I will hiss for them' God is represented as hissing for a people. ... [To] behold the banner of salvation now erected for his ancient people.... This standard of salvation." (p. 235,241-242) "[M]y words shall hiss forth unto the ends of the earth, for a standard unto my people, which are of the House of Israel." (2 Nephi 29:2)

Plagiarism from The Wonders of Nature

Critics claim that Smith based several passages and thematic material in The Book of Mormon on material he found in The Wonders of Nature, published in 1825 by Josiah Priest.[13][16] Examples of verses that critics claim are plagiarized include:[13][16]

The Wonders of Nature by Josiah Priest (1825) Book of Mormon (1830)
"a narrow neck of land is interposed betwixt two vast oceans" (p. 598) "the narrow neck of land, by the place where the sea divides the land" (Ether 10:20)
"From whence no traveller returns" (p. 469) "from whence no traveller can return" (2 Nephi 1:14)
"Darkness which may be felt.... vapours ... so thick as to prevent the rays of the sun from penetrating an extraordinary thick mist. ... no artificial light could be procured ... vapours would prevent lamps, etc. from burning. ... [T]he darkness lasted for three days." (p. 524) "[They] could feel the vapour of darkness, and there could be no light ... neither candles, neither torches, ... neither the sun ... for so great were the mists of darkness ... [I]t did last for the space of three days." (3 Nephi 8:20-23)

Plagiarism from the Apocrypha

Critics claim that Smith based several passages in The Book of Mormon on material he found in the books of the Apocrypha, including the important name "Nephi".[17][18] Examples of verses that critics claim are plagiarized include:[16][18]

Apocrypha Book of Mormon (1830)
"We will assay to abridge in one volume.... labouring to follow the rules of an abridgment.... But to use brevity ... is to be granted to him that will make an abridgement." (2 Maccabees 2:25-31) "I make an abridgement of the record ... after I have abridged the record.... I had made an abridgement from the plates of Nephi.... I write a small abridgement." (1 Nephi 1:17, Words of Mormon 3, 5:9)
"They commanded that this writing should be put in tables of brass, and that they should be set ... in a conspicuous place; Also that the copies thereof should be laid up in the treasury" (1 Maccabees 14:48-49) "And I commanded him ... that he should go with me into the treasury ... I also spake unto him that I should carry the engravings, which were upon the plates of brass" (1 Nephi 4:20,24)
"Then the king, in closing the place, made it holy ... many men call it Nephi". (2 Maccabees 1:34,36) "And my people would that we should call the name of the place Nephi; wherefore we did call it Nephi". (2 Nephi 5:8)
"And it came to pass ... I dreamed a dream by night" (2 Esdras 15:1) "And it came to pass ... Behold, I have dreamed a dream" (1 Nephi 8:2)

Plagiarism from the King James Bible

Critics claim that Smith copied several verses in The Book of Mormon from the King James Bible.[19][20] Examples of verses that critics claim are plagiarized include:[16][20]

King James Bible Book of Mormon (1830)
"For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up" (Malachi 4:1) "For behold, saith the prophet, ... the day soon cometh that all the proud and they who do wickedly shall be as stubble; and the day cometh that they must be burned" (1 Nephi 22:15)
"[T]he axe is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matthew 3:10) "[T]he ax is laid at the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire" (Alma 5:52)
"[B]e steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works" (1 Corinthians 15:58) "[B]e ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord" (Mosiah 5:15)

Smith as a plagiarist of contemporaries: the View of the Hebrews theory

Some have speculated that Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, but plagiarized heavily from any of a number of sources. One such claim revolves around a book written by Ethan Smith (pastor of a church in Poultney, Vermont, no relation to Joseph Smith) called View of the Hebrews published in 1825, five years before the publication of the Book of Mormon.[2]

In the early 20th century LDS general authority B.H. Roberts authored a manuscript titled Studies of the Book of Mormon,[21] in which he critically examined the claims and origins of the Book of Mormon. In his manuscript, Roberts compared the content of the Book of Mormon with View of the Hebrews. Roberts' conclusion was that, assuming a hemispheric geography theory for the Book of Mormon, sufficient parallels existed that future critics could claim that View of the Hebrews could have provided a structural foundation for the Book of Mormon story.[22] The manuscript was private and shared only with church leadership at the time he did the analysis. Publicly, Roberts continued to support the Book of Mormon.[23]

David Persuitte, in his book, Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon, presents a large number of parallels between passages in View of the Hebrews and in the Book of Mormon, but notes no instances of direct copying. However, the parallels between the two books that Persuitte presents cover a broad range of topics, including religious ideas about the responsibility of the American people in convincing the Indians of their "Israelite" origins and converting them to Christianity. Moreover, Persuitte quotes from View of the Hebrews Ethan Smith's theory about what happened to the ancient Israelites after they arrived in America. That theory is also essentially a summary of the basic story line of the Book of Mormon, including the idea that the ancient Israelite immigrants to America split into two factions: a civilized group and a savage group that subsequently exterminated the civilized group. Persuitte also quotes from the two books several similar descriptions of structures built by the civilized faction and wars that were fought between the two factions, as well as numerous other similarities. According to Persuitte, the ideas that can be found in View of the Hebrews are sufficient to have "inspired" Joseph Smith to have written the Book of Mormon had he read it.[24] Joseph Smith himself mentioned Ethan Smith and cited passages from View of the Hebrews in an article published in the Times and Seasons in June 1842.[25]

Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith were distantly related through their mothers (3rd cousins, 1 time removed).[26] Cowdery was educated and trained as a typesetter/printers assistant in the 1800s and worked at the Poultney Gazette in the summer of 1823 (the paper became known as the Northern Spectator in December 1823), the year that Ethan Smith published the first edition of View of the Hebrews. Cowdery's family, including father William and stepmother Keziah, were noted as being longstanding members of Ethan Smith's congregation in Poultney when he arrived and assumed leadership in November 1821. Even prior to his book's publication, Ethan Smith advocated his views regarding the origins of Native Americans in sermons to his congregations. In 1825, Ethan Smith published the much-enlarged second edition of View of the Hebrews, the same year that Cowdery left Poultney for New York State.

Smith as a plagiarist of contemporaries: the Spaulding-Rigdon theory

In 1834, E.D. Howe in his book Mormonism Unvailed (sic) introduced a theory which claimed Smith plagiarized material from the manuscript for an unpublished novel by Solomon Spaulding. Howe had the manuscript in his possession at the time of publication. Spaulding's story, called Manuscript Found, revolves around a group of seafaring Romans who sail to the New World around two millennia ago.[27] Critics long speculated that Joseph Smith had access to the original script, which was lost soon after the Mormonism Unvailed was published, and that he plagiarized heavily from it in writing the Book of Mormon. The only known manuscript was discovered in 1884 and now resides at Oberlin College in Ohio.[27] Once the manuscript was available for study, most critics discarded this theory because the "extensive parallels" previously thought to exist consisted only of a few details: intercontinental seafaring, the existence (and use) of a seer stone, and the discovery of records under a stone (Latin parchments in the Spaulding manuscript, golden plates with "reformed Egyptian" writing according to Smith).[28] Most of the other purported similarities, attested to by various witnesses in affidavits gathered by Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, were demonstrated to be false. Author Fawn Brodie expressed suspicion regarding these statements, claiming that the style of the statements was too similar and displayed too much uniformity. Brodie suggests that Hurlbut did a "little judicious prompting."[29]

Much confusion and premature dismissal of the theory has resulted from the 1884 manuscript, entitled "Manuscript Story." The original, entitled "Manuscript Found", which was presumably a prior draft of "Manuscript Story", has ironically still not been found.

Similarities of some segments to the King James Version

The book claims that Nephi quoted the prophet Isaiah from the "Brass Plates" which were brought with them out of Jerusalem. Additionally, the footnotes and chapter headings of modern editions of the book acknowledge this and encourage readers to compare Isaiah and 2 Nephi. Segments of the Book of Mormon, for example 1 Nephi chapters 20-21 and 2 Nephi chapters 7, 8, and 12-24, match nearly word-for-word the chapters 48-49, 50, 51-52:1-2, and 2-14 (respectively) of the King James Translation (1611) of the Book of Isaiah. In addition, 58 quotes from Isaiah found in the Book of Mormon are paraphrased versions of those found in the King James Bible.[30] Also, Mosiah chapter 14 matches KJV Isaiah 53, 3 Nephi chapter 22 matches KJV Isaiah 54, 3 Nephi chapters 24-25 match KJV Malachi 3-4, and 3 Nephi chapters 12-14 match KJV Matthew 5-7. In total, there exist 478 verses in the Book of Mormon which are quoted in some form or other from the book of Isaiah.[30] Of these verses, one Mormon scholar notes that 201 of them match the King James version of the quote and another 207 show variations.

The majority of modern scholars have accepted that the sources used for the King James translation are no longer the earliest or most reliable sources (e.g. see Alexandrian text-type and Dead Sea scrolls). The Book of Mormon claims to have been written over 1100 years prior to the King James version of the Bible, but it contains some of the same errors. One example is Mark 16:15-18 which is quoted nearly word-for-word in Mormon 9:22-24. The passage concerns believers holding snakes and drinking poison; however it does not appear in many early manuscripts and is widely believed to be composed in the 2nd century.[31] Additionally, the book reflects KJV literary and linguistic style. The KJV was the most commonly used translation of the Bible when the Book of Mormon was produced.

Church views of purported plagiarism

Apologists of the Book of Mormon do not find the instances of purported plagiarism troubling; to the contrary, they feel that the repetition further proves the authenticity of the Book of Mormon[32]—that God reveals similar, if not the same teachings, to all people since, as the Bible states, He is “the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever”[33] and that the repetition fulfills prophecy that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established”.[34]

LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball further stated, "Prophets say the same things because we face basically the same problems."[35]"[For example,]...warnings must be repeated. Just because a truth is repeated does not make that truth any less important or true. Indeed, the opposite is true."[36]

One of Smith's colleagues as author

According to this family of theories, someone else wrote the book and allowed Smith to take credit for it. Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery have been posited as possible authors or co-authors. Both Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery had more formal education and either could have helped Smith author the book. In this case, the Book of Mormon would be considered a collaboration between Smith and his scribes, primarily Oliver Cowdery.

Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery both denied having written the book, and in fact Cowdery was one of the Three Witnesses to the Golden Plates. He became disaffected with Joseph Smith's leadership and with the church and was excommunicated in 1838 on a variety of charges but even so, stayed true to his original claim to have seen the Golden Plates.

There is little extant evidence that Joseph Smith knew of or was in contact with Sidney Rigdon until after the Book of Mormon was published, although many witness accounts place Rigdon in upstate New York in 1825 and 1826; roughly the time that Cowdery became close friends with Smith. Most histories state that Parley P. Pratt, a member of Rigdon's congregation near Kirtland, Ohio, was baptized around September 1830 in Palmyra. Soon after, Pratt returned to Ohio, which is when Rigdon reportedly learned of Smith and the Book of Mormon and was baptized. According to these accounts, Rigdon first met Smith in December 1830, nine months after the Book of Mormon's publication. Rigdon's son John, discussing an interview with his father in 1865, states:

My father, after I had finished saying what I have repeated above, looked at me a moment, raised his hand above his head and slowly said, with tears glistening in his eyes: "My son, I can swear before high heaven that what I have told you about the origin of [the Book of Mormon] is true. Your mother and sister, Mrs. Athalia Robinson, were present when that book was handed to me in Mentor, Ohio, and all I ever knew about the origin of [the Book of Mormon] was what Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith and the witnesses who claimed they saw the plates have told me, and in all of my intimacy with Joseph Smith he never told me but one story."[27]

This account, however, sharply contrasts Rigdon's later claim that he knew the contents of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, which he only could have accessed during the years leading up to the Book of Mormon publishing.[citation needed] Mormons would respond by saying that he could easily have ascertained the contents of the sealed portion through a description by Joseph Smith or a divine experience.


  1. ^ Vogel 2004
  2. ^ a b Brodie 1971, pp. 46–49
  3. ^ Howe 1834, pp. 278–290
  4. ^ Price 2002, p. 68
  5. ^ Dunn 2002, pp. 29, 33 Dunn concludes, “It is clear that Smith's translation experience fits comfortably within the larger world of scrying, channeling, and automatic writing.”
  6. ^ Words of Mormon 1:3-6 http://scriptures.lds.org/en/w_of_m/1
  7. ^ a b Book of Mormon Introduction: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/bm/introduction
  8. ^ According to Mormon 9:32-34
  9. ^ See Joseph Smith—History 1 for a complete record of Joseph Smith's account.
  10. ^ Mormons believe that the following biblical passages prophesy or otherwise support the provenance of the Book of Mormon:
    • (Gold plates to come out of the earth) - Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven. (Psalm 85:11)
    • (Book of Mormon = Stick of Joseph, the Bible = Stick of Judah) - The word of the LORD came again unto me, saying, Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions: And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand. And when the children of thy people shall speak unto thee, saying, Wilt thou not shew us what thou meanest by these? Say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel his fellows, and will put them with him, even with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand. And the sticks whereon thou writest shall be in thine hand before their eyes.(Ezekiel 37: 15-20)
    • (Book of Mormon people are the "other sheep" referred to by Jesus) - "As the Father knoweth Me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd." (John 10: 15-16)
    • (Book of Mormon is a second witness of the truth) - "THIS is the third time I am coming to you. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established." (2 Corinthians 13:1)
    • (Moroni thought to be the angel bringing the gospel in the form of the Book of Mormon) - "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters." (Revelations 14:6-7)
  11. ^ Bushman 2005
  12. ^ Abanes, Richard (2003). One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 67–75. ISBN 1568582838. 
  13. ^ a b c Tanner, Jerald and Sandra (1987). Mormonism - Shadow or Reality?. Utah Lighthouse Ministry. pp. 84–85. ISBN 9993074438. 
  14. ^ a b c Persuitte, David (2000). Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (2nd Edition). McFarland & Company. pp. 155–172. ISBN 078640826X. 
  15. ^ Abanes, Richard (2003). One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 69. ISBN 1568582838. 
  16. ^ a b c d e Abanes, Richard (2003). One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 68. ISBN 1568582838. 
  17. ^ Abanes, Richard (2003). One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 71. ISBN 1568582838. 
  18. ^ a b Tanner, Jerald and Sandra (1987). Mormonism - Shadow or Reality?. Utah Lighthouse Ministry. pp. 72–73. ISBN 9993074438. 
  19. ^ Abanes, Richard (2003). One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 72. ISBN 1568582838. 
  20. ^ a b Tanner, Jerald and Sandra (1987). Mormonism - Shadow or Reality?. Utah Lighthouse Ministry. pp. 73–80. ISBN 9993074438. 
  21. ^ Roberts 1985
  22. ^ Roberts 1985, p. 326
  23. ^ B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909], 3:89-90.
  24. ^ Persuitte 2000
  25. ^ Joseph Smith, ‘’Times and Seasons’’ 3:15 (1 June 1842): 813–815.
  26. ^ LDS Ancestral File Database. [1] Cowdery ancestry, [2] Smith ancestry. Smith's great-great-great grandfather and Cowdery's great-great grandfather was John Fullmer, born January 11, 1656
  27. ^ a b c Spaulding 1996
  28. ^ See Jeff Lindsay's article for a summary of these similarities and other details
  29. ^ Brodie 1971, pp. 446–47
  30. ^ a b Tvedtnes 1984
  31. ^ see the New International Version Bible, 1984, Mark 16: "[The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.]"
  32. ^ McConkie, B.R. (1966). Mormon Doctrine. Deseret Book: Salt Lake City.
  33. ^ Hebrews 13:8, KJV
  34. ^ 2 Corinthians 13:1, KJV
  35. ^ Kimball, S.W. (Apr., 1976). Ensign, p. 6
  36. ^ Kimball, S.W. (1981). President Kimball Speaks Out, p. 89.


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