By Dr. Gene Edward Veith
This book is an updated, expanded version of Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), with the authors adding more evidence and answering the counter-arguments of Mormon apologists [Editor’s note: Dr. Veith is referring, in particular, to the Expanded Scholars’ Edition of the book]. This new version actually consists of two books: a “Readers’ Edition,” which makes the case that Solomon Spalding’s novel about the ten lost tribes of Israel in the Americas was a major source of the Book of Mormon; and an “Expanded Scholars’ Edition,” which lays out the evidence in meticulous detail.
As such, The Spalding Enigma makes important contributions to the history of Mormonism, though it will prove disconcerting for Latter-day Saints who believe that their sacred text was inscribed on golden plates and translated from Reformed Egyptian by Joseph Smith using seer stones. But the research given here—the painstaking sifting of correspondence, newspaper accounts, city directories, and other primary records—makes important contributions to American history as a whole.
As the authors trace the comings and goings of Solomon Spalding, the pioneering Mormons Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery (a distant relative of one of the authors), as well as the witnesses who heard the novel being read, the printers who handled the manuscript, and other principals in the interwoven stories, the early days of the American republic come vividly to life.
America was a nation of entrepreneurs. Nearly everyone whose life is chronicled here was taking advantage of this land of opportunity, starting one venture after another, failing but starting over, moving from place to place to what they optimistically expected would be ever-greener pastures.
Solomon Spalding, for example, was born and educated in Connecticut, where he fought in the Revolutionary War. He then became a Congregational preacher, but after he got married he moved to Cherry Valley, New York, where he operated a general store, preached on the side, and served as a school principal. He then started a land speculation business, which led to a move to Conneaut, Ohio. That led to financial difficulties, so he started an iron foundry. That did not go so well either, so then followed a sojourn in Pittsburgh selling pictures and then a move to Amity, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife ran an inn.
Spalding’s big dream, though, was to be a novelist. He wrote several works, including the ambitious Manuscript Found depicting the adventures of ancient Hebrews in the New World, written in King James English. Once his books were published, Spalding thought, they would make enough money to solve the financial problems that dogged him throughout his life. He gave Manuscript Found to a Pittsburgh publisher, but he lacked the funds to subsidize the printing and then the publisher lost the manuscript for a while. Unfortunately, before his literary ambitions could come to fruition, Spalding got sick and died. But he had entertained his family, friends, and customers by reading his manuscript out loud. Years later, when Mormon missionaries came spreading the new religion, the stories from their new Bible—including characters with the names Nephi and Lehi—sounded familiar. Though the manuscript disappeared, a number of people told about hearing or reading Spalding’s novel, noting its similarity to the Book of Mormon.
The authors try to establish that the similarly ambitious and well-traveled intimate of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, knew Spalding, was in Pittsburgh when he was, frequented the publishing house where the manuscript was submitted and was a close friend with one of its employees. In doing so, they piece together indications that Rigdon copied the manuscript, added in his own religious convictions, and gave it to Smith, who turned it into a sacred text for a new religion.
Indeed, America was a land not only of business entrepreneurs but also religious entrepreneurs. A key to the spirit of innovation and invention was the way Americans looked at their country and the new culture they were founding. America was seen as the “New World,” in stark opposition to the “Old World,” with its tyrannies, corruption, and worn-out traditions. Freed from the stifling social, economic, and cultural order of the Old World, the New World was fertile ground for new ideas and new ways of life, including new religions.
Americans in the early 19th century were innovative, forward-looking, and freedom-loving; but this in no way conflicted with the fact that they were also highly religious. The First Great Awakening of the 18th century took place primarily in the context of traditional churches and traditional theologies. The Second Great Awakening in the first half of the 19th century was spread by revivals that took place throughout the nation and all the way to the frontier. Largely disconnected from traditional churches, these revivals gave rise to an intensely personal and distinctly American kind of piety, one that was highly individualistic and subjective, stressing a direct experience with the supernatural.
Many of the spiritually awakened believed that the “Old World” churches of Europe and their American counterparts, with their archaic rituals and dogmatic creeds, whether Catholic or Protestant, were spiritually dead, even apostate. But now God by His providence has raised up a novus ordo seclorum, in the words inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States of America, a new order of the ages. This climate was ripe for the formation of new churches, new theologies that stretched the definition of Christianity, and new religions.
Curiously, much of this religious innovation emerged out of a single, miniscule region out of all the vastness of America: the western arm of New York state, a mere 17 counties, located roughly between the Finger Lakes and Lake Erie, a span of 124 miles. This region was called the “Burned Over District” by evangelist Charles Finney, so scorched it was by the Holy Spirit.
This epicenter of the Second Great Awakening would gave us the Millerites, who were convinced of Christ’s imminent Second Coming, a movement that branched off into the Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This region also gave us the Shakers, who foreswore all sexual activity, and the Oneida Community, which practiced group marriage. The Burned Over District was also the birthplace of the Spiritualist movement, with its séances and mediums who professed to channel the dead. This was also the home of Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the Social Gospel, which sought to save not souls but society by building a politically-progressive Kingdom of God on earth. Also from this region was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the pioneering feminist. It was in this same district of western New York that Joseph Smith lived and is said to have received his revelations and discovered the golden plates on which were written the Book of Mormon.
I was surprised to see the ties between Mormonism and another movement: the “Restorationists,” also known as Campbellites, which would become a mainline Protestant tradition, including a conservative denomination (The Christian Church), a very conservative denomination (The Church of Christ), and a liberal denomination (The Disciples of Christ). The Restorationists—who began not in western New York but in Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania—sought to unite all Christian churches by applying the principle “no creed but the Bible.” (I myself grew up in the Disciples church, with its liberal theology, its social gospel, and its ecumenical priorities. Later, I would embrace the “Old World” theology of Lutheranism.)
Although the Restorationists would become part of the mainstream of American Christianity with particularly strong ecumenical interests, for the 19th century pioneers of this movement, a corollary of “no creed but the Bible” was that the historic creeds were symptomatic of the church having drifted away from the Bible and from the model of Apostolic Christianity. Christianity had become obscured in the Old World, but it would be restored in the New World with the creation of a new America-based church.
Sidney Rigdon had been a Restorationist preacher, working hard to create this new church, until he took all of this much, much further, becoming one of the original Mormons and perhaps its first theologian. Instead of restoring Christianity to a more primitive ideal, he would promote a new kind of Christianity altogether, one so different from that of all other churches that it would constitute a different religion altogether. This new faith would be distinctly “American,” not only in its allegiance but in its claim that Jesus Christ appeared to ancient Israelites on American soil. No longer would Rigdon preach the Restorationist goal of returning to the model of the apostles. His new faith would have new apostles. Going beyond “no creed but the Bible,” Rigdon would find—or, if this book is correct, would devise—a new Bible.
To read The Spalding Enigma is to join the researchers as they dig through dusty archives, peruse newspapers from two centuries ago, pore over yellowed letters written by people long dead, and, in so doing, reconstruct the past. Historical scholarship is like detective work. It has to do with assembling clues, sifting evidence, weighing competing explanations, and coming to conclusions. Each fact recovered is a piece of a larger puzzle. The historian or detective must assemble all of these pieces, all of these facts, so that they fit with each other and come together to form a larger picture.
To be sure, this processing of evidence requires interpretation and logical analysis, so different researchers might arrive at different inferences. But historical research operates in the realm of facts, not opinions; the goal is not formulating subjective positions but finding objective truth. The authors of The Spalding Enigma take the readers along with them in this search for truth. Laying out their evidence in such detail allows us readers to make our own inferences and draw our own conclusions.
At any rate, all agree that uncovering the Book of Mormon takes digging. Joseph Smith dug into a mound in Western New York and claimed to have unearthed a set of golden plates. The authors of The Spalding Enigma dig into the historical record and claim to have unearthed a very different kind of fabrication.