Spaulding Again?


Every few years the opponents of the Church dust off one of the timeworn theories about how the Book of Mormon “really” was written. One of the dustiest is the theory that the Book of Mormon is based on a stolen manuscript written by Solomon Spaulding, a would-be novelist who died in 1816.

Recently U.S. news media have given some attention to an attempt by several California anti-Mormon researchers to link the handwriting in a supposed Spaulding manuscript to the handwriting on twelve pages of the original Book of Mormon manuscript.

What probably attracted their attention to the Book of Mormon manuscript is the well-known fact that twelve pages are in a handwriting that Church historians have been unable to identify positively. Identification is possible on any document when handwriting experts can find a significant number of indisputable similarities—and no significant differences at all!—between the handwriting in question and a sample of handwriting already known to be that of a certain person.

But in the case of the Spaulding manuscript and the twelve pages in the Book of Mormon manuscript, conclusive proof exists that Spaulding could not possibly have been the writer.

First, the handwriting found in the twelve pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript is also found on another document, a revelation given to Joseph Smith at Kirtland, Ohio, in June 1831—now Section 56 of the Doctrine and Covenants. [D&C 56] In this revelation, recorded in the same handwriting as the twelve pages, the Lord referred to Thomas B. Marsh, Ezra Thayre, Selah J. Griffin, and Newel Knight, and spoke of going to Missouri, a movement that was just then beginning in the Church.

Spaulding, who died in 1816, could not have anticipated such details fifteen years in the future. Whoever the scribe for the twelve pages and section 56 may have been, we know that he must have been in Fayette, New York, in 1829, and in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831.

Second, the twelve pages by the unknown scribe are part of a continuous narrative, preceded and followed by the handwriting of known scribes. The handwriting on the three pages immediately before the writing of the unknown scribe is that of John Whitmer (probably) and Oliver Cowdery (definitely); the pages immediately following those written by the unknown scribe are in John Whitmer’s hand. The paper stock before and after is identical to that of the twelve pages. The ink, which was watered down, shows the identical pattern of darkness immediately after the pen was dipped, gradually growing fainter until the pen was dipped again, with no difference between the twelve pages and surrounding material—thus indicating that the twelve pages and those immediately surrounding it were all written with the same pen and at about the same time.

A third supporting point is that the handwriting from the twelve pages also occurs at the top of two prior pages, as headings. The practice of the scribes throughout the manuscript was to write the heading after the page was complete, perhaps in order to keep the pages from getting out of order. (See “A Most Sacred Possession,” p. 86.) Apparently John Whitmer forgot to put headings on two pages, and the unknown scribe added them later, since the page that Oliver Cowdery completed immediately before the twelve pages has a heading in Cowdery’s handwriting, and the two headings before that were written by the unknown scribe.

These responses to the Spaulding theory are buttressed by the findings of handwriting analysis, too. Though there are handwriting similarities between the Spaulding manuscript and the twelve pages, these are no more significant than the normal similarities one can find between random samples of handwriting taken from the same general period and the same general area.

However, there are more than a dozen significant differences between the two samples. Dean Jessee, who has worked with handwriting analysis for the Church Historical Department for thirteen years, discovering and verifying the authorship and penmanship of dozens of manuscript samples, has found “at least fifteen significant differences” between the Spaulding manuscript and the twelve pages. Some of these are obvious in the accompanying photographs: the Spaulding manuscript invariably uses a capital letter for the personal pronoun I, while the scribe for the twelve pages invariably used a lower-case letter; there are clear differences in the way the ampersand (&) is made; capital letters are formed differently in the two samples; and even the misspellings follow different patterns. For instance, the Spaulding manuscript always spells the word shall correctly; the unknown scribe of the twelve pages invariably spells it with only one l.

“Four or five significant differences are usually enough to determine that two samples cannot be by the same writer; in this case we have three times that.” Handwriting analysis is complicated to say the least, but “by any reasonable standard one can safely say that the Spaulding manuscript and the twelve pages could not be by the same writer,” says Dean Jessee.

In short, there is no evidence that Spaulding wrote any part of the Book of Mormon and plenty of evidence that he did not and could not have. The “impartial researchers” also ignored stylistic analysis, which compares syntax and word choice patterns, and which clearly shows Spaulding did not author any part of the Book of Mormon.

Latter-day Saints should not be disturbed by reports of “new discoveries” that cast doubt on the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. “Anyone who wants to can attack the Church in print,” says Wendell Ashton, head of Church Public Communications. “That’s part of freedom of speech and of the press. But we’re just as free to print the truth.”

In fact, says Dean Jessee, “Every time the Book of Mormon comes under attack, it calls to our attention even more proof that Joseph Smith told the truth.”

Spaulding manuscript

Page 20 of the assumed Solomon Spaulding manuscript, presumed to be in his own hand, now in the Oberlin College library. Photographic copy in the Church Historical Department.

Book of Mormon manuscript(click to view larger)

The Book of Mormon manuscript, covering 1 Ne. 7:17–8:11. The scribe, though not identified, is believed to be Emma Smith’s brother.