Origin of the Book of Mormon

Artist's impression of Joseph Smith 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 belief of adherents is that promoted by Joseph Smith, who said he translated ancient golden plates inscribed by prophets. Smith claimed the angel Moroni, a prophet in the Book of Mormon narrative, directed him in the 1820s to a hill near his home in Palmyra, New York where the plates were buried. Besides Smith himself, there were at least 11 witnesses who said they saw the plates in 1829, and three also claiming to have been visited by an angel. Several other witnesses observed Smith dictating the text that eventually became the Book of Mormon.

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 an associate of Smith's, such as Oliver Cowdery or Sidney Rigdon; and (3) whether the book was based on prior works, such as the View of the Hebrews, the Spalding Manuscript, or the King James Version of the Bible.

Theories of authorship

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

  1. Miraculous origins theories generally accept Joseph Smith's own account, that he translated an ancient record[1] compiled and abridged by Mormon, a pre-Columbian resident of the Western Hemisphere.
    Variations of this theory only include that the text is a divinely inspired narrative, regardless of its historicity (i.e., "Inspired Fiction"),[2] or an example of "automatic writing".[3]
  2. Joseph Smith as the sole author, without intentional assistance, possibly reflecting Smith's own life events.[4]
  3. Theories of multiple authors posit collaboration with others to produce the Book of Mormon, generally citing Book of Mormon scribe Oliver Cowdrey or Sidney Rigdon as potential co-authors.

Miraculous origin theory

Smith sitting on a wooden chair with his face in a hat
A depiction of Joseph Smith dictating the Book of Mormon by peering into a hat.

According to the accounts of Joseph Smith and his associates, the original record was engraved on thin, malleable sheets of metal ("leaves") with the appearance of gold, and bound with three rings at one edge. The engraving was reportedly of considerable skill. According to the narrative of the book, the prophet-historian Mormon abridged other records of the local civilizations from the preceding millennia.[5] Mormon then gave the record to his son, Moroni, who inscribed a few additional words of his own, and concealed the plates about AD 400.[6] Near the end of Moroni's life (approximately AD 421), he placed these plates along with several other items in a stone box in a hillside (now named Cumorah) near present-day Palmyra, New York.

By Smith's account, on September 21, 1823, this same Moroni, now an angel, appeared to Smith to instruct him about this ancient record and its destined translation into English.[6] Smith was shown the location of the plates (and the other items in the box), but was not immediately allowed to take them. After four years of annually meeting with the angel, Smith was finally entrusted with the plates. Through the power of God and the Urim and Thummim (ancient seeing stones buried with the plates), he was able to translate the Reformed Egyptian inscriptions.[7][8] Smith was commanded to show the plates to only certain people. Accounts by these individuals are recorded in the introduction of the Book of Mormon as "The Testimony of the Three Witnesses" and "The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses."

Smith taught—and most Mormons believe—that the existence of the Book of Mormon was prophesied by Biblical scripture.[9]

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."[10]

Apologists of the Book of Mormon do not find the instances of purported plagiarism troubling, and they may feel the repetition further proves the authenticity of the Book of Mormon[11]—that God reveals similar, if not the identical teachings, to all people due to God's immutability.[12] Further, this repetition fulfills prophecy that "in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established".[13] LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball stated, "Prophets say the same things because we face basically the same problems"[14] and that "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."[15]

Smith as sole author

Assuming Smith was the sole author, the Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith without the intentional complicity of anyone else. These theories argue that the simplest explanation is that Smith authored the Book of Mormon himself. [16] Chief arguments include the Book of Mormon reflects Smith's life experiences, such as the tree of life vision in the Book of Mormon has parallels with a dream of Joseph Smith, Sr.[17][18]

The golden plates were sometimes called the "Golden Bible," in early descriptions. The label "Golden Bible" predates the Book of Mormon, as legends of such an artifact circulated in Canada and upstate New York while Smith was growing up in Vermont.[19] Smith's companion Peter Ingersoll later claimed that Smith had told him of the legend of the Canadian Golden Bible.[20][21]

Theories of multiple authors

The claim that Smith was aided in the creation of the Book of Mormon by one or more co-authors, such as Sidney Rigdon or Oliver Cowdery. Both Rigdon and Cowdery had more formal education than Smith.

David Persuitte highlights a revelation of Smith's from March 1829, that apparently limited Smith's power to translation. Persuitte argues the wording of the revelations indicates at least one other secret collaborator, that "if he had some partners who had imposed it upon him in order to prevent him from gathering too much power to himself."[22] In contrast, co-authors Jerald and Sandra Tanner argue the early text of the revelation merely demonstrates that "Joseph Smith was not planning on doing any other work besides the Book of Mormon".[23]

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery

Oliver Cowdery was a third-cousin of Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith's mother. A pastor who lived near Cowdery, Ethan Smith, had written View of the Hebrews, another work that has been argued to be a source for the Book of Mormon. Cowdery served as scribe during the transcription of the Book of Mormon, and one of the Three Witnesses to the golden plates. Cowdery later resigned and was excommunicated in 1838, then re-joined the LDS Church in 1848.

Sidney Rigdon

Sidney Rigdon

Sidney Rigdon was a Baptist preacher, and one the most prominent of Smith's earliest followers. Rigdon served as a scribe for the Book of Moses,[24] received revelations jointly with Smith, served as Smith's spokesperson, and with Smith carried the title "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator". After Smith's death, Rigdon led his own faction of Latter Day Saints and continued to announce revelations.

However, there is little or no extant evidence that Smith knew of or was in contact with Rigdon until after the Book of Mormon was published, although some witness accounts place Rigdon in upstate New York in 1825 and 1826. Most histories state that Rigdon learned of the Book of Mormon from Parley P. Pratt, a member of Rigdon's Kirtland congregation, who had joined the Church of Christ in Palmyra in September 1830. Upon Pratt's return to Ohio, Rigdon reportedly learned of Smith and the Book of Mormon and was baptized by Pratt. According to these histories, only after his own baptism did Rigdon travel to New York, first meeting Smith in December 1830, nine months after the Book of Mormon's publication.

Purported sources

Critics of the Book of Mormon cite a number of works that could have served as sources for the Book of Mormon.[25][26][27]

King James Version of the Bible

The King James Bible (1611) may have been a source for the Book of Mormon.[28][29] In total, some 478 verses in the Book of Mormon are quoted in some form from the KJV Book of Isaiah.[30] Segments of the Book of Mormon—1 Nephi chapters 20–21 and 2 Nephi chapters 7–8 and 12–24—match nearly word-for-word Isaiah 48:1–52:2 and 2–14 (respectively). Other parallels include Mosiah 14 with KJV Isaiah 53, 3 Nephi 22 with KJV Isaiah 54,[30] 3 Nephi 24–25 with KJV Malachi 3–4, and 3 Nephi 12–14 with KJV Matthew 5–7.[29][31]

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)

The majority of modern scholars have accepted that the sources used for the King James Version of the Bible were not the earliest or most reliable sources (see Alexandrian text-type and Dead Sea scrolls). The Book of Mormon claims to have been written at least 1100 years prior to the King James Version, but it contains many of the same errors, such as Mark 16:15-18, which is quoted nearly word-for-word in Mormon 9:22-24. This passage addresses believers holding snakes and drinking poison; however, it does not appear in many early biblical manuscripts and is widely believed to have been composed in the 2nd century.[32] Additionally, the Book of Mormon reflects KJV literary and linguistic style. The KJV was the most commonly used translation of the Bible when the Book of Mormon was produced.


It has been claimed that the books of the Apocrypha were a source for the Book of Mormon. In particular, 2 Maccabees includes the name "Nephi".[31][33][34]

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 13:1) "And it came to pass ... Behold, I have dreamed a dream" (1 Nephi 8:2)

Spalding's "Manuscript Found"

In 1834, E. D. Howe in his book Mormonism Unvailed introduced a theory that Smith plagiarized from the manuscript for an unpublished novel by Solomon Spalding. Howe possessed the manuscript at the time of the Book of Mormon publication. Spaulding's story, called "Manuscript Story", revolves around a group of seafaring Romans who sail to the New World some two millennia ago.[10] Critics long speculated that Smith had access to the original script and that Smith heavily plagiarized it for the Book of Mormon. The only known manuscript was discovered in 1884 and now resides at Oberlin College in Ohio.[10] Once the manuscript was available for study, most critics discarded this theory because the "extensive parallels" were only of a few minor details: intercontinental seafaring, the existence (and use) of a seer stone, and the discovery of records under a stone (Latin parchments vs. golden plates with "reformed Egyptian" inscriptions). Most other purported similarities, attested by various witness affidavits gathered by Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, were nonexistent. Historian Fawn Brodie expressed suspicion regarding these affidavits, claiming that the style of the statements was too similar and displayed too much uniformity.[35]

Some have suggested the discrepancies can be explained as the "Manuscript Story" was a different document than "Manuscript Found", which ironically remains undiscovered.

View of the Hebrews

Main article: View of the Hebrews

Another purported source of the Book of Mormon is View of the Hebrews, first published in 1823 by Ethan Smith (no relation), a pastor in Poultney, Vermont.[36] Critics argue that the works share several passages and many thematic elements.[27][31][37] Book of Mormon witness and scribe Oliver Cowdery, and his family, had attended Ethan Smith's church since November 1821. 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 an expanded second edition of View of the Hebrews, the same year that Cowdery left Poultney for New York state.

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)

Mormon apologist B. H. Roberts authored a manuscript titled Studies of the Book of Mormon,[38] comparing the content of the Book of Mormon with View of the Hebrews. Roberts's concluded, 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.[39] Roberts's manuscript was private and shared only with LDS Church leadership. Publicly, Roberts continued to support the miraculous origin theory of the Book of Mormon.[40]

Roberts's list of parallels included:[41]

David Persuitte has presented a large number of parallels between the View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon, but notes there are no instances of direct copying. The parallels 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. Persuitte quotes from View of the Hebrews Ethan Smith's theory about what happened to the ancient Israelites after they arrived in America, essentially a summary of the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon, including the split into two factions (civilized and savage). Persuitte also quotes several similar descriptions of structures built by the civilized faction and the wars between the two factions, and other similarities. According to Persuitte, theseare sufficient to have "inspired" Joseph Smith to have written the Book of Mormon.[42] Joseph Smith himself mentioned Ethan Smith and cited passages from View of the Hebrews in an article from the June 1842 publication of Times and Seasons.[43]

The Wonders of Nature

Critics have claimed several passages and thematic material in the Book of Mormon are found in Josiah Priest's The Wonders of Nature, published in 1825.[26][31]

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)

The Golden Pot

A possible inspiration for the story of the golden plates may be The Golden Pot: A Modern Fairytale, a novella by German author E. T. A. Hoffmann, first published in 1814.[44] Much of the narrative occurs in the imagination of the protagonist Anselmus. Alleged similarities include:

The Late War

The Late War is an account of the War of 1812 which is written in the style of the King James Bible. The 2008 work Mormon Parallels and a 2010 work[45] have discussed possible similarities. In 2013, The Late War was the subject of discussion among both ex-Mormons and Mormon apologists.[46][47]

See also


  1. "Gospel Topics – Book of Mormon Translation", lds.org, LDS Church
  2. Price 2002, p. 68
  3. 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."
  4. Vogel 2004
  5. Words of Mormon 1:3–6.
  6. 1 2 Book of Mormon Introduction.
  7. According to Mormon 9:32-34
  8. See Joseph Smith–History 1 for a complete record of Smith's account.
  9. Mormons believe that the following biblical passages prophesy or otherwise support the existence of the Book of Mormon: Psalm 85:11; Ezekiel 37:15–20; John 10: 15–16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; Revelation 14:6–7.
  10. 1 2 3 Spaulding 1996
  11. McConkie, B.R. (1966). Mormon Doctrine. Deseret Book: Salt Lake City.
  12. Hebrews 13:8, KJV
  13. 2 Corinthians 13:1, KJV
  14. Spencer W. Kimball, "The Stone Cut without Hands", Ensign, p. 6.
  15. Spencer W. Kimball, "President Kimball Speaks Out on Planning Your Life", Tambuli, June 1982.
  16. For argument regarding Joseph's authorship, see Robert A. Rees,"The Book of Mormon and Automatic Writing", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 15/1 (2006)
  17. http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Plagiarism_accusations/Joseph_Smith,_Sr.%27s_dream_and_Lehi%27s_vision
  18. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945) p. 58; Hal Hougey, The Truth About the "Lehi Tree-of-Life" Stone (Concord: Pacific Publishing Co., 1963); Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2002) pp. 70–71; Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City, utah: Signature Books, 2004).
  19. Bushman 2005.
  20. Harrod, Allen F (2011-11-08). Deception by Design. ISBN 9781449727970.
  21. http://www.solomonspalding.com/docs/1834howf.htm
  22. David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon, 2d ed., p. 18.
  23. http://www.utlm.org/onlinebooks/changingtherevelations.htm
  24. http://emp.byui.edu/OpenshawR/Pearl%20of%20Great%20Price/Development%20The%20Book%20of%20%20Moses%20%20Matthews.htm
  25. Abanes, Richard (2003), One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, Thunder's Mouth Press, pp. 67–75, ISBN 1-56858-283-8
  26. 1 2 Tanner, Jerald and Sandra (1987), Mormonism - Shadow or Reality?, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, pp. 84–85, ISBN 99930-74-43-8
  27. 1 2 Persuitte, David (2000), Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (2nd Edition), McFarland & Company, pp. 155–172, ISBN 0-7864-0826-X
  28. Abanes, Richard (2003), One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, Thunder's Mouth Press, p. 72, ISBN 1-56858-283-8
  29. 1 2 Tanner, Jerald and Sandra (1987), Mormonism - Shadow or Reality?, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, pp. 73–80, ISBN 99930-74-43-8
  30. 1 2 Tvedtnes 1984
  31. 1 2 3 4 Abanes, Richard (2003), One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, Thunder's Mouth Press, p. 68, ISBN 1-56858-283-8
  32. 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."
  33. Abanes, Richard (2003), One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, Thunder's Mouth Press, p. 71, ISBN 1-56858-283-8
  34. Tanner, Jerald and Sandra (1987), Mormonism - Shadow or Reality?, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, pp. 72–73, ISBN 99930-74-43-8
  35. For arguments regarding Manuscript Story, see Brown, Matthew, "Solomon Spaulding and the Book of Mormon"
  36. Brodie 1971, pp. 46–49
  37. Abanes, Richard (2003), One Nation Under Gods: A History of the Mormon Church, Thunder's Mouth Press, p. 69, ISBN 1-56858-283-8
  38. Roberts 1985
  39. Roberts 1985, p. 326
  40. B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909], 3:89-90.
  41. Grant H. Palmer, An Insider's View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2002), 60–64.
  42. Persuitte 2000
  43. Joseph Smith, Times and Seasons 3:15 (1 June 1842): 813–15.
  44. For argument regarding "The Golden Pot: A Modern Fairy Tale, see "Book of Mormon/Authorship theories/Golden Pot"
  45. Tanner, Jerald and Sandra (2010). Joseph Smith's Plagiarism of the Bible in the Book of Mormon. UTLM.
  46. McGuire, Benjamin L. (2013). "The Late War Against the Book of Mormon". Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture (7): 323–355.
  47. Schaalje, G. Bruce (November 2013). "A Bayesian Cease-Fire in the Late War on the Book of Mormon". Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture.


Further reading

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