THE SECOND THEORY OF THE ORIGIN
OF THE BOOK OF MORMON
To know men thoroughly, to judge events sanely is,
therefore, a great step towards happiness
The second theory of origin which was prevalent around the time of the Book of Mormon's publication was that it was solely the work of Joseph Smith. This view was to some extent encouraged by the description in the Palmyra edition of Joseph Smith as "Author and Proprietor." Smith's explanation was that the description of himself as 'Author' did not imply that he was the originator of the material in the Book of Mormon, but that this classification was necessary to secure copyright in the work, an explanation in accord with the requirements of copyright law. The origin of the book and the story of its translation is attested to in Joseph Smith's history which is published in the forepart of the Book of Mormon. Many anti-Mormon writers ignore the details contained in the history and point to Smith's description as 'Author' in the Palmyra edition as proof that he was the author.
The translation was published in 1830 under the title of The Book of Mormon; Joseph Smith describes himself as the AUTHOR & PROPRIETOR of the book. However, in later editions this was quickly changed to read Joseph Smith Jnr. TRANSLATOR.
What the tract does not inform its readers is that it took seven years to "quickly" make this change. The second edition of the Book of Mormon was not published until 1837. This example of a hostile report makes it appear that Joseph recognized his error in describing himself as "author" and hastened to correct it before anyone could notice it. This is an absurd claim and falls a victim to documented fact. Some writers have returned to the position that Joseph Smith was the sole uninspired originator of the Book of Mormon.
Fawn Brodie [No Man Knows My History] expressed the view that [Joseph Smith] was a talented but embryonic author whose gifts might have led him onto a career as a writer of romances. Instead the spirit of the American awakening encouraged him to interpret his 'inspiration' as a series of heavenly visitations, to objectify these, to clothe them first in the forms of heavenly personages, and then in the shape of an imaginary history.
Newspaper reports around the time of publication make no allusion to any person other than Joseph Smith being responsible for the Book of Mormon. The following contemporary accounts confirm that this was so. Six months before the book was published, the Palmyra Freeman said:
The greatest piece of superstition that has come within our knowledge now occupies the attention of a few individuals in this quarter. It is generally known and spoken of as the "Golden Bible." Its proselytes give the following account of it. In the fall of 1827, a person by the name of Joseph Smith, of Manchester, Ontario county, reported that he had been visited in a dream by the spirit of the Almighty and informed that in a certain hill in that town was deposited this golden Bible, containing an ancient record of divine nature and origin.
Shortly thereafter the Rochester Gem carried an account which demonstrated direct literary dependency on the Rochester Advertiser and Telegraph.
A GOLDEN BIBLE
A man by the name of Martin Harris was in this village a few days since endeavouring to make a contract for printing a large quantity of work called the Gold Bible. He gave something He gave something like the following account of it. In the autumn of 1827, a man named Joseph Smith of Manchester, in Ontario County, said that he had been visited by the spirit of the Almighty in a dream, and informed that in a certain hill in that town was deposited a Golden bible, containing an ancient record of divine origin.
Howe's book, 'Mormonism Unvailed,' [sic] carries the testimony of Willard Chase which fixes the year of Joseph Smith's receipt of the gold plates as 1827. If Smith was fabricating the gold plate story he would not require a chest to hold plates which existed only in his imagination. If however, Smith was setting up an elaborate fraud in which he wished to implicate Chase, why did he never call on him to testify on his behalf? Chase explained,
In the forepart of September (I believe) 1827, the Prophet requested me to make him a chest, informing that he designed to move back to Pennsylvania and expecting soon to get his gold book, he wanted a chest to lock it up, giving me to understand at the same time, that if I would make the chest he would give me a share in the book... A few weeks later after this conversation, he came to my house, and related the following story: That on the twenty-second of September, he arose early in the morning, and took a one-horse wagon of someone's that had stayed overnight at their house, without leave or license; and together with his wife, repaired to the hill which contained the book, etc.
The following examples offer no other explanation for the Book of Mormon except that Joseph alone was the originator, and also show that at the time of the book's appearance, and for some time thereafter, no other theory of origin was predicated.
Book of Mormon-Alias the "Golden Bible"
The Book of Mormon has been placed in our hands. A viler imposition was never practiced. It is an evidence of fraud, blasphemy, and credulity, shocking both to Christians and moralists. The author and proprietor is Joseph Smith Jr., a fellow who by some hocus pocus acquired such influence over a wealthy farmer of Wayne County that the latter mortgaged his farm for $3,000 which he paid for printing and binding five-thousand copies of the blasphemous work.
The Golden Bible. -Some two or three years since, an account was given in the papers, of a book purporting to give new revelations from Heaven, having been dug out of the ground, in Manchester, in Ontario Co. N. Y. The book, it seems, has made its appearance in this vicinity. -It contains about 500 octavo pages, which is said to be translated from Egyptian Hieroglyphics, on metal plates, by one Smith, who was enabled to read the characters by instructions from Angels.
IMPOSITION AND BLASPHEMY!!-MONEY DIGGERS, Etc.
Some months ago a noise was made among the credulous of the earth, respecting a wonderful production said to have been found as follows. An ignoramus near Palmyra, Wayne county, pretended he had found some "Gold Plates," as he is pleased to call them, upon which is said to be engraved characters of marvellous and misunderstandable import, which he, or no other mortal could divine. These characters he has translated into the English language, and lo! they appear to be no other than the mysticisms of an unrevealed Bible!
Mormonism. -Our readers will find in this paper several communications, touching a new sect which has recently sprung up in this vicinity. -In this, perhaps, we have departed from our general rule, relating to religious controversies. -But when any subject becomes a matter of general inquiry and conversation through the whole community, with but few exceptions, that community will call upon the Press to speak-and a free press will speak. We therefore declare our columns open, and free to the investigation of the divine pretensions of the "Book of Mormon," and its "Author and Proprietor," Joseph Smith, Junior, who has just planted himself in this community, as a Prophet of the Most High God, and one to whom, he says, the Lord reveals his will daily. The believers in his divine mission now number several hundred, and are still increasing.
Farmington, Ont. Co., Jan. 1, 1831
I observe by the public prints, that this most clumsy of all impositions, known among us as Jo Smith's "Gold Bible," is beginning to excite curiosity abroad, from the novelty of its appearance, and the assurance of its advocates, who in imitation of too many of our religious sects, who have gone before them, very charitably (at least in this region) threaten all who have the hardihood to refuse to subscribe to their rhapsodies with "dire damnation."
GOLDEN BIBLE, No. 3
Jo Smith Junior, according to the best information we can obtain on this subject, was born in the State of Vermont. His father emigrated to this country (Ontario county, N.Y.) about the year 1815, and located his family in the village of Palmyra. The age of this modern prophet is supposed to be about twenty-four years. In his person he is tall and slender-THIN FAVORED-having but little expression of countenance, other than that of dullness; his mental powers appear to be extremely limited, and from the small opportunity he had in school, he made little or no proficiency, and it is asserted by one of his principle followers (who also pretends to divine illuminations) that Jo, even at this day is profoundly ignorant of the meaning of many of the words contained in the Book of Mormon.
The notion that Joseph Smith had accomplices in producing the Book of Mormon was not suggested by early critics. Had that been suspected we can not doubt that the Palmyra Reflector would have drawn attention to it. These articles make it patently clear that contemporary opinion was that Mormonism would not last long. While this opinion prevailed there was no need to construct an explanation other than that which the facts warranted.
As ignorant as many people are, it is hardly possible that so clumsy an imposition can spread to any considerable extent.
Mormonism did not fail but went from strength to strength, confounding those who foretold its demise. When it became obvious that the Restored Gospel was destined to make a permanent impression in the religious life of America a more complex theory of origin was needed. The need for another theory was also necessary when the amazing complexity of the Book of Mormon was discovered. Descriptions of Joseph Smith were circulated describing him as ignorant, lazy and worthless and, therefore, lacking the talent to produce such a complicated and elaborate work. The following article has made a lasting contribution to hostile appraisals of Joseph Smith.
[Joseph Smith] had but little expression of countenance, other than that of dullness, and from the small opportunity he had in school, he made little or no proficiency, and it is asserted by one of his principal followers, (who also pretends to divine illuminations), that Jo, even at this day is profoundly ignorant of the meaning of many of the words in the Book of Mormon...We have never been able to learn that any of the family were ever noted for much else than ignorance and stupidity.
Not everyone subscribes to this summary of the young Prophet's character. In 1957 Fawn Brodie decided that he was "a myth-maker of prodigious talent," believing him capable of producing the Book of Mormon.
Recent critics who insist that Joseph Smith suffered from delusions have ignored in the Book of Mormon contrary evidence difficult to override. Its very coherence belies their claims. Bernard DeVoto called the book "a yeasty fermentation, formless, aimless, and inconceivably absurd-at once a parody of all American religious thought and something more than a parody, a disintegration. The oestrus of a paranoiac projected it into a new Bible."
Far from being the fruit of an obsession, the Book of Mormon is a useful key to Joseph's complex and frequently baffling character. for it clearly reveals in him what both orthodox Mormon histories and unfriendly testimonies deny him: a measure of learning and a fecund imagination.
The wheel had turned full circle, and confusion among critics still remains unresolved.