The Historical Case against Sidney Rigdon's Authorship of the Book of Mormon

Review of Matthew L. Jockers, Daniela M. Witten, and Craig S. Criddle. “Reassessing authorship of the Book of Mormon
using delta and nearest shrunken centroid classification.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23/4 (2008): 465–91.

The Historical Case against Sidney Rigdon’s Authorship of the Book of Mormon

Reviewed by Matthew Roper and Paul J. Fields

The effort by Jockers, Witten, and Criddle 1 to support the Spalding-Rigdon hypothesis of Book of Mormon authorship using
stylometric analysis collapses under numerous methodological flaws, as demonstrated
in the immediately preceding essay.2 The aim of this review is to evaluate Criddle and associates’ study from a
historical perspective since much of their approach depends on assumptions and
interpretations of relevant historical data.

In a separate review of
Jockers’s unpublished effort to justify some of his methodological lapses,3 it was shown that even a statistical analysis can
be thrown off course by wishful thinking, special pleading, and the
investigator’s refusal to set aside his or her biases, beliefs, and
preferences. With researchers like Criddle and associates so committed to
achieving their desired outcome, the more malleable materials of historiography
provide a welcome respite from the rigors of mathematics. Here one’s desires,
biases, and preconceptions can be given full rein.

It is telling and troubling that Criddle and associates appeal to
“historical scholarship” that supports “a central role for
Rigdon . . . [and] a now-missing Spalding manuscript” (p.
482). Few historians—whether friendly or hostile to the truth claims of
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—believe that the
historical data support the Spalding manuscript hypothesis. This is a crucial
point since a stylometric analysis has no meaning unless there is a priori
justification for considering a proposed author as a viable candidate. Without
supporting historical and biographical evidence, the results of the analysis are
nothing more than a mathematical exercise and cannot constitute a persuasive
argument for authorship attribution.

We will first review several historical claims relating to the
Spalding-Rigdon theory, including the historically problematic claims that Rigdon
had a knowledge of the Book of Mormon and of Spalding’s writings previous to
his conversion to Mormonism in late 1830. We will also explore some of the implications
of Rigdon’s beliefs, practices, and known writings in connection with the Book
of Mormon, as well as the claim that Rigdon met Joseph Smith before December
1830. We will next discuss Criddle and associates’ use of problematic
historical sources and evidence relating to the dictation of the original
manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the implications it raises for the
Spalding-Rigdon theory. We will show that this evidence is inconsistent with
the theory that Rigdon wrote the Book of Mormon or that he could have been
responsible for its production.

Sidney Rigdon and the Book of Mormon

Sidney Rigdon’s introduction to the Book of Mormon and his public
conversion to Mormonism long after the book’s publication pose obvious
challenges for proponents of the Spalding-Rigdon theory. In October 1830,
Oliver Cowdery accompanied Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, and Peter Whitmer on
a mission to Missouri, intending to preach to the Lamanites (Doctrine and
Covenants 28:14; 32). While passing through northern Ohio, these missionaries
stopped in Mentor, where they introduced Sidney Rigdon to the Book of Mormon.
Rigdon, although initially resistant, eventually accepted the Book of Mormon
and was baptized. Those who witnessed the reformist preacher’s first encounter
with early missionaries indicate that Rigdon at first had some difficulty
accepting the book. In his own recollection of these events, Rigdon himself
said he initially “felt very much prejudiced at the assertion” that
the Book of Mormon was a revelation from God.4 Pratt said that Rigdon “was much surprised, and it was with much
persuasion and argument, that he was prevailed on to read it, and after he had
read it, he had a great struggle of mind, before he fully believed and embraced
it.” 5 Rigdon’s daughter Nancy Rigdon Ellis was eight years old at the time of these
events. In an interview with E. L. and W. H. Kelley in 1884, she said she
remembered the event “because of the contest which soon arose between her
father and Pratt and Cowdery, over the Book of Mormon.” She stated: “I
saw them hand him the book, and I am as positive as can be that he never saw it
before. He read it and examined it for about an hour and then threw it down, and
said he did not believe a word in it.” 6 Rigdon must have known that acceptance of the Book of Mormon would mean losing
both the home recently built by his Mentor congregation and the support of many
who had been his followers, friends, and religious associates for years. The
life adjustment necessitated by his conversion seems to have been a difficult
trial for the proud man.

initial response to the book as remembered by friends and family is consistent
with his claim that he was not responsible for its origin or involved in its coming
forth. That conclusion is further strengthened by evidence that some of Rigdon’s
previous practices and beliefs as a reformist preacher conflicted with those he
encountered in the Book of Mormon. Reuben Harmon, a resident of Kirtland at
this time, recalled hearing Rigdon preach a sermon following his acceptance of
the Book of Mormon. “He said he had been preaching wrong doctrine, and
asked their forgiveness. He said he should address them no more in public. He
wept freely through his sermon.” 7 Harmon also stated: “I heard Sidney Rigdon [give] the last speech that he
made while he officiated as a Disciple preacher. He said he had been mistaken
all his life-time, and he quit preaching and went into Mr. Morley’s field and
went to plowing. . . . He did not go to preaching right away
after he left the Disciple church. I heard him make the remark that he never
expected to speak in public again.” 8 Following his own baptism and ordination, he would in fact preach again, but
Harmon’s recollection suggests that the transition from Disciple to Latter-day
Saint was not an easy one and that there were significant elements of the Book
of Mormon that conflicted with Rigdon’s previous religious practices and
beliefs. One significant area likely had to do with the issue of divine

Sidney Rigdon,
like Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott, had baptized followers but did not
claim divine authority for this practice beyond biblical precedent. This
apparent rejection of the need for a divine restoration of authority to perform
ordinances such as baptism was troubling to those who were initially
sympathetic to Campbellite teachings but who later believed the Book of Mormon
and joined the Saints. Eliza R. Snow described her earlier associations with
the Campbellites: “During my brief attachment to that church I was deeply
interested in the study of the ancient Prophets, in which I was assisted by the
erudite A. Campbell, Walter Scott whose acquaintance I made, but more
particularly (by) Sidney Rigdon who was a frequent visitor at my father’s
house.” Like many other Christians who were seeking a restoration, Snow
had sought to understand the biblical prophecies concerning the latter days and
the millennium and looked for a return to original Christian teachings among
these Campbellite teachers, but she found that something was still lacking: “Some
told me one thing and some another; but there was no Peter, ‘endowed from on
high.’ I heard Alexander Campbell advocate the literal meaning of the
Scriptures—listened to him with deep interest—hoped his new life
led to a fulness—was baptized, and soon learned that, as well they might,
he and his followers disclaimed all authority, and my baptism was of no
consequence.” 9 This absence of divine authority was apparent to others as well. John Murdock
had been attracted to the teachings of Campbell and Rigdon, but he said that he
eventually became disillusioned by Campbell’s rejection of modern spiritual
gifts. Murdock asked, “Where is the man to commence the work of baptizing?
or where shall he get his authority? Can he go to those who are out of the way
and obtain authority? . . . The only way the authority can be obtained is, the
Lord must either send an angel to baptize the first man, or he must give a
special command to someone to baptize another.” 10 Parley P. Pratt wrote of his religious searching prior to encountering Joseph
Smith and the Book of Mormon:

About this time one Mr. Sidney Rigdon came into the
neighborhood as a preacher, and it was rumored that he was a kind of Reformed
Baptist, who, with Mr. Alexander Campbell, of Virginia, a Mr. Scott, and some
other gifted men, had dissented from the regular Baptists, from whom they
differed much in doctrine. At length I went to hear him, and what was my astonishment
when I found he preached faith in Jesus Christ, repentance towards God, and
baptism for remission of sins, with the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost
to all who would come forward, with all their hearts, and obey this doctrine!
Here was the ancient
in due form. Here were the very principles which I had
discovered years before; but could find no one to minister in. But still one great
link was wanting
to complete the chain of the ancient order of
things; and that was, the authority to minister
in holy things—the apostleship, the power which should accompany the form
This thought occurred to me as soon as I heard Mr. Rigdon make proclamation of
the gospel.

Peter proclaimed this gospel, and baptized for remission of
sins, and promised the gift of the Holy Ghost, because he was commissioned so
to do by a crucified and risen Saviour. But who is Mr. Rigdon? Who is Mr.
Campbell? Who commissioned them? Who baptized them for remission of sins? Who
ordained them to stand up as Peter? Of course they were baptized by the Baptists,
and ordained by them, and yet they had now left them because they did not
administer the true gospel. And it was plain that the Baptists could not claim
the apostolic office by succession, in a regular, unbroken chain from the
Apostles of old, preserving the gospel in its purity, and the ordinances
unchanged, from the very fact that they were now living in the perversion of
some, and the entire neglect of others of these ordinances; this being the very
ground of difference between the old Baptists and these Reformers. Again, these
Reformers claimed no new commission by revelation, or vision from the Lord,
while they had not the least shadow of claim by succession. It might be said,
then, with propriety: “Peter I know, and Paul I know, but who are ye?”
However, we were thankful for even the forms of truth, as none could claim the
power, and authority, and gifts of the Holy Ghost—at least so far as we

These comments highlight an
important distinction between the pre-Mormon beliefs of Sidney Rigdon and those
found in the Book of Mormon. Rigdon and other Reformers believed that the Bible
provided sufficient warrant to baptize, while the Book of Mormon teaches that
baptism and other sacred ordinances in the church can only be done by divine
authority bestowed by God or his duly authorized representatives. This is
illustrated by the account of King Limhi’s people, who believed in the words of
Alma but lacked an authorized representative who could baptize them: “And
it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized;
but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined
from doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant” (Mosiah
21:33). Limhi’s people could not be baptized without authority from God, yet
such a lack of divine authority would not have stopped Reformers like Campbell,
Scott, or Rigdon from administering baptism. The twelve Nephite disciples
received authority to baptize directly from the resurrected Jesus and not from
earlier scripture or the community of believers (3 Nephi 11:21–26; 12:1).
The specific granting of divine authority to mortals is a recurrent element in
the resurrected Lord’s ministry at the Book of Mormon’s climax (3 Nephi 18:5,
36–37; 20:4; 4 Nephi 1:5). If Rigdon were the author of the Book of
Mormon and he hoped to form a new church, why would he contradict what the Book
of Mormon teaches about baptizing without divine authority?

Rigdon denied any connection with the origin of the Book of
Mormon. Several residents near New Portage, Medina County, Ohio, remembered a
discourse by Rigdon that appears to have been given at the high point of the
anti-Mormon excitement associated with Philastus Hurlbut’s 1834 activities.
Phineas, Hiel, and Mary D. Bronson recalled:

In the spring of 1833 or
1834, at the house of Samuel Baker, near New Portage, Medina county, Ohio, we,
whose signatures are affixed, did hear Elder Sidney Rigdon, in the presence of
a large congregation, say he had been informed that some in the neighborhood
had accused him of being the instigator of the Book of Mormon. Standing in the
there being many standing in the door‑yard, he, holding up the Book of Mormon, said, “I
testify in the presence of this congregation, and before God and all the Holy
Angels up yonder, (pointing towards heaven), before whom I expect to give
account at the judgment day, that I never saw a sentence of the Book of Mormon,
I never penned a sentence of the Book of Mormon, I never knew that there was
such a book in existence as the Book of Mormon, until it was presented to me by
Parley P. Pratt, in the form that it now is.” 12

Rigdon condemned E. D. Howe’s book, the first to propose the
Spalding theory, as a “book of falsehoods.” 13 Just before leaving Kirtland for Missouri, Rigdon testified that he had nothing
to do with the origin of the Book of Mormon. Reuben Harmon recalled that “Sidney
Rigdon at the time he made his last speech here, said that he knew nothing
about the Book of Mormon until it was presented to him by Oliver Cowdery and
Parley Pratt. I never heard of the Spaulding story until it was sprung on me.” 14 In 1839 Rigdon stated that he had never heard of Spalding or his manuscript
until the theory had been advanced by Philastus Hurlbut some five years earlier.
In a letter to the Quincy Whig in response to a recent article asserting
his connection with Spalding, Rigdon dismissed the claim as a “moonshine
story” and said that he was “entirely indebted to this production”
for the “knowledge of [Spalding’s] earthly existence, . . . for surely
until Doctor Philastus Hulburt [sic] informed me that such a being
lived, at some former period, I had not the most distant knowledge of his
existence.” 15 Between 1831 and 1844, Rigdon was a prominent leader in the church, but he
became alienated from Joseph Smith after the troubles in Missouri. Following
Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Rigdon unsuccessfully sought appointment as the
Prophet’s successor, refused to follow the apostolic leadership, and for a time
led a small group of dissenters. After his excommunication, Rigdon expressed bitterness
toward Joseph Smith, claiming he was a fallen prophet and denouncing the
practice of plural marriage and the leadership of the Twelve. He continued
until his death in 1876, however, to maintain that he had nothing to do with
the origin of the Book of Mormon.

According to the Spalding-Rigdon theory, Sidney Rigdon spent
years of time, deception, and effort forging a lengthy work of fiction in the
hopes of using that book as a tool to found a religious scheme. If so, then it
is strange that he rarely used it. Rigdon’s published writings between 1830 and
1846 reveal a writer preoccupied with the need for continuing revelation,
miracles, gifts, and prophecies of the latter days, the restoration, and the
millennium, but not, interestingly enough, with the Book of Mormon. Rigdon
traveled with Joseph Smith in late December 1831 and January 1832 on a brief
mission in which he publicly spoke on the subject of the Book of Mormon and
defended it.16 He clearly believed the book to be true and was willing to defend it, but he
rarely if ever quoted from it or used the text to defend and support his
arguments. When he mentioned the Book of Mormon at all, it was in a general
context of decrying critics or denying having had anything to do with its
origin. This is particularly noteworthy in contrast to the writings of W. W.
Phelps, for example, who seems to have been infatuated with the Book of Mormon,
speaking of it and citing it frequently. Rigdon’s relative neglect of the Book
of Mormon would be surprising had he been responsible for its production.

Following the death of his daughter Eliza in 1846, Rigdon seems
to have become increasingly unstable and erratic in his behavior, leading to
increased alienation from former friends and supporters. His interest in
religious things, however, appears not to have been dampened. A collection of
purported revelations written between 1863 and 1876 provides a window into some
of Rigdon’s beliefs and teachings during the last thirteen years of his life.
These writings show a man who still believed in the Book of Mormon and had an
affinity for certain restorationist and millennialist ideas, yet they also
reveal a man who, sadly, had an inflated view of his own importance and who
believed that nearly everyone else but him had gone astray. Sometimes the Book
of Mormon is mentioned or alluded to, but it is rarely quoted or used to defend
Rigdon’s teachings. These writings seem strangely disconnected from the content
and style of the Book of Mormon. Instead, they contain material that is
extraneous to the Book of Mormon story. One purported revelation, for example,
claims that the Esquimauxs (Eskimos) are descendants of Joseph the son of Lehi,
something about which the Book of Mormon is silent.17 Also, instead of quoting Book of Mormon prophecies, other Rigdon revelations
turn them on their head. The Book of Mormon contains prophecies of the biblical
Joseph and, like the Bible, speaks highly of the patriarch; but according to
another purported Rigdon revelation, the biblical Joseph  was in reality a wicked man who sought
power and worldly fame and became lifted up in pride because of the prophecies
about his latter-day namesake.18 The biblical Joseph’s prophecy in the Book of Mormon concerning the “spokesman”
for the seer is anachronistically applied to Rigdon rather than to Oliver
Cowdery.19 Rigdon’s descriptions of the sealed portion of the plates likewise contradict
the scriptural text.20 Rigdon’s later religious writings reflect teachings that require contradictory
changes, additions, or revisions to the Book of Mormon to make it fit his later
self-serving, iconoclastic, and confused ideology. This dynamic seems
inconsistent with the claim that Rigdon was the author of the Book of Mormon.

Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith

The Spalding-Rigdon theory posits an early connection not only
between Rigdon and the writings of Solomon Spalding but also between Rigdon and
Joseph Smith before the Book of Mormon was published. Such a claim is
inconsistent with solid historical evidence that Rigdon did not meet Joseph
Smith until he traveled from Kirtland, Ohio, to Fayette, New York, in December
1830. Sometime before his return to Ohio, Rigdon also met W. W. Phelps, a
newspaper editor who would later join the church. In a letter to E. D. Howe on
15 January 1831, Phelps wrote, “I had ten hours discourse with a man from
your state, named Sidney Rigdon, a convert to its doctrines, and he declared it
was true, and he knew it by the power of the Holy Ghost, which was again given
to man in preparation for the millennium.” 21 “Early in 1831,” wrote Parley P. Pratt, who had first introduced the
Book of Mormon to Rigdon several months before, “Mr. Rigdon having been
ordained, under our hands, visited elder J. Smith, Jr., in the state of
New-York, for the first time; and from that time forth, rumor began to circulate,
that he (Rigdon) was the author of the Book of Mormon. The Spaulding story
never was dreamed of until several years afterwards.” 22 The theory that Rigdon was responsible for the origin of the Book of Mormon did
not arise until early 1831, several months after Rigdon had joined the church
and only after he had traveled to New York and met Joseph Smith for the first
time. The dearth of primary evidence to the contrary has always been a major
weakness in the Spalding-Rigdon theory.

Some Spalding advocates argue, however, that Sidney Rigdon may
have secretly visited Joseph Smith in New York previous to 1830, but this
conflicts with the testimony of friends and family of Joseph Smith, who stated
that they did not become acquainted with Rigdon until he visited them at
Fayette in December 1830.

After living in
Harmony, Pennsylvania, Joseph and Emma Smith and Oliver Cowdery moved to
Fayette, New York, where they lived with the Whitmer family. It was there that
much of the Book of Mormon translation took place, and the Prophet and his
family remained there until their move to Ohio in early 1831. As described
above, following his 1830 baptism in Ohio, Rigdon visited New York in December
1830, where he was the subject of the revelation now known as Doctrine and
Covenants 35. In 1879 Emma Smith was asked when she first met Sidney Rigdon.
She responded: “I was residing at father Whitmer’s, when I first saw
Sidney Rigdon. . . . The Book of Mormon had been translated and published some
time before. Parley P. Pratt had united with the Church before I knew Sidney
Rigdon, or heard of him. At the time the Book of Mormon was translated there
was no church organized, and Rigdon did not become acquainted with Joseph and
me till after the Church was established in 1830. How long after that I do not
know but it was some time.” 23 According to Joseph’s brother William Smith, Rigdon “was never at my
father’s house to see my brother until after the book was published. If he had
wanted to see Joseph at that time and remained very long, he would have had to
be in the field rolling logs or carrying brush.” 24 Joseph’s younger sister Katherine likewise affirmed:

Prior to the latter part of the year A.D. 1830, there was no
person who visited with or was an acquaintance of brother Joseph said family or any member thereof, to my knowledge, by the
name of Sidney Rigdon; nor was such person known to the family or any member
thereof to my knowledge, until the last part of the year AD. 1830, or the first
part of the year, 1831, and Sometime after the organization of the Church of
Jesus Christ by Joseph Smith jr. and Several months after the publication of
the Book of Mormon. That I remember the time when Sidney Rigdon came to my
father’s place and it was after the removal of my father from Waterloo, N.Y. to
Kirtland, Ohio.25

David Whitmer’s testimony is also consistent with that of the
Smiths. Whitmer testified that he did not meet Rigdon until after Rigdon joined
the church: “Neither Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris or myself
ever met Sydney Rigdon until after the Book of Mormon was in print. I know this
of my own personal knowledge, being with Joseph Smith, in Seneca County, N[ew]
Y[ork], in the winter of 1830, when Sydney Rigdon and Edward Partridge came
from Kirtland, Ohio, to see Joseph Smith, and where Rigdon and Partridge saw
Joseph Smith for the first time in their lives.” 26

Supposition to Bolster the Theory

Criddle and associates suggest that Oliver Cowdery may have been
the intermediary between the hypothetical conspirators. Previous to his
association with Joseph Smith in 1829, they claim, “Oliver Cowdery worked
as a traveling salesman, selling books and pamphlets.” They even suggest
that the chiasm in Alma 36 might be explained through the influence of Oliver
Cowdery (p. 489).27 The claim that Oliver was a book and pamphlet peddler in the mid-1820s is not
supported by documents from the 1820s but is based on later recollections from
two newspaper editors—recollections that, upon examination, seem to
confuse a newspaperman named Benjamin Franklin Cowdery with Oliver.28 Criddle and associates also speculate that Parley P. Pratt may have been a
go-between as well (p. 480), but there is no historical evidence that Pratt
knew Rigdon before 1829 or that Pratt knew Joseph Smith before his conversion
in late 1830.29

Questionable Sources

Criddle and associates give little attention to primary
historical sources that contradict their theory and instead lend undeserved
credence to historical sources of questionable reliability. For example, they
write that, around 1826 or 1827, “Rigdon is reported to have collaborated
with ‘two or three different persons’ in adjacent places to create the Book of
Mormon” (p. 480). In a footnote on page 489, they state, “In
Bainbridge [Ohio], Rigdon reportedly became involved in what appears to be ‘automatic
writing': using a séance-like process to create the Book of Mormon.” The
authors’ description seems to suggest that this report is historically
credible. In fact, the source is an obscure article published in 1880 in The New
, an Oregon paper, and they insist that the article
provides “evidence pointing to Bainbridge as the likely location for
production of the [hypothetical] 1827 version of the Book of Mormon” (p.
489). The article reported the claims of O. P. Henry, who said that his mother “lived
in the family of Sidney Rigdon prior to her marriage in 1827,” more than
fifty-three years earlier.

There was in the family what is now called a “writing
medium,” also several others in adjacent places, and the Mormon Bible was
written by two or three different persons by an automatic power which they
believed was inspiration direct from God, the same as produced the original
Jewish Bible and Christian New Testament. Mr. H. believes that Sidney Rigdon
furnished Joseph Smith with these manuscripts, and that the story of the “hieroglyphics”
was a fabrication to make the credulous take hold of the mystery; that Rigdon,
having learned, beyond a doubt, that the so-called dead could communicate to
the living, considered himself duly authorized by Jehovah to found a new
church, under divine guidance similar to that of Confucius, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed,
Swedenborg, Calvin, Luther or Wesley, all of whom believed in and taught the
ministration of spirits.30

The text of the Book of Mormon, according to this report, was not
to be attributed to Solomon Spalding, or even to Sidney Rigdon, but was
purportedly dictated by several unnamed individuals: one in the Rigdon family
and several others at undisclosed locations. This cohort of multiple unnamed
writers in Bainbridge and elsewhere dictated the text through a process that
Mr. Henry informs us his mother considered “automatic”
writing—the same process, we are helpfully informed, by which the “Jewish
Bible and Christian New Testament” were given. Oddly, neither Mr. Henry
nor his venerable mother (the former associate of unnamed spirit mediums for
whom he speaks) has any knowledge of Rigdon’s authorship of the text, but Mr. Henry
tells us what he certainly “believes” to be true, and no doubt would
like to prove—that Rigdon, wanting to form a new religion, by some means
gathered up the now-missing written fruit of these varied and scattered
dictations (which were “automatically” produced by unnamed
individuals) and somehow conveyed them to Joseph Smith Jr., who eventually published
them as the Book of Mormon. For lack of a better term, we may as well call this
variant of the automatic writing explanation the multi-medium theory of Book of
Mormon origins.

The writer of this 1880 article, interestingly enough, did not
claim that Rigdon himself engaged in automatic writing to produce the Book of
Mormon, but that others did so. The writer went on to speculate that
Rigdon thereafter made such writings available to Joseph Smith. This would make
Rigdon a go-between rather than an author himself. Despite its late date,
complete lack of any contemporary or confirmatory evidence, its second- or
thirdhand nature, and its invocation of unnamed actors, this theory
nevertheless seems to undermine rather than support Criddle and associates’
case for Rigdon as a Book of Mormon author. Shortly after the appearance of the
above article, an editorialist for the Deseret News found the attempt to
explain away the Book of Mormon as a product of spiritualism a little amusing. “If
this new theory,” he observed, “should be caught up by preachers and
editors, desperate for some plausible pretense to account for the Book of
Mormon, they will have to drop forever the hackneyed and thoroughly riddled old
fable called the Spalding theory.” 31 Dale Broadhurst, a recent enthusiast of the Spalding-Rigdon theory, does not
share that point of view. “Evidently it did not occur to the LDS critics,
that Sidney Rigdon’s ‘automatic writing’ might be accounted for by mental
illness, more readily than by recourse to the spiritualist ‘medium business.’ ” 32 However, it is not clear that the claim of “mental illness,” whatever
one means by that term, does any more to explain the Book of Mormon than does
automatic writing.33 And, whatever Rigdon’s mental problems, the 1880 account nowhere describes him
as an author at all, but merely as a conduit of others‘ work to Joseph
Smith. Broadhurst and Criddle’s team will have to seek elsewhere for
historically credible evidence making Rigdon a Book of Mormon author. And
without a historically plausible reason to posit Rigdon as author, a stylistic
analysis of his known works with the Book of Mormon is pointless. Stylometry cannot
hope to detect Rigdon’s role as a courier for anonymous automatic writers.

The Book of Mormon: A Dictated Text

Criddle and associates view Joseph
Smith’s use of a seer stone with a skeptical eye (p. 487),34 but they do not confront the difficulties that historical evidence for a
dictated Book of Mormon manuscript poses to the Spalding-Rigdon theory. The
Spalding-Rigdon theory suggests that Rigdon stole and then plagiarized a
Spalding manuscript—not the known and clearly unrelated “Manuscript
Story,” but a second, hypothetical manuscript that supplied the historical
content of the Book of Mormon. This theory further suggests that Rigdon
combined Spalding’s second manuscript of historical material with additional “religious”
or theological content to create a third, more lengthy manuscript that
constituted the text of the Book of Mormon. Under this theory, Rigdon went to a
lot of trouble and effort to fabricate a lengthy document that he was then
somehow able to convey to Joseph Smith from Ohio to New York. The original text
of the Book of Mormon, however, was not written in the hand of Sidney Rigdon.
It was, according to the testimony of those who observed the process, dictated
by Joseph Smith to several scribes. Those who observed Joseph Smith during
these activities reported that

•  when dictating the text of
the Book of Mormon, he would place the seer stone or Nephite interpreters in a

•  he would look into the
hat, covering his face to obscure the surrounding light of the room;

•  he would dictate for hours
at a time within plain sight of others in the house;

•  when dictating the text
while looking in the hat, he did not use books, manuscripts, or notes of any

•  he would often spell out
difficult names that the scribe could not spell; and

•  when he began a new session of dictation, he would begin where he had
previously stopped without a prompting or reminder.35

we are to argue, as Criddle and associates do, that Joseph Smith had somehow
obtained a copy of Rigdon’s manuscript, we must also acknowledge that he did
not, according to firsthand historical testimony, make use of it during the
dictation. This is a matter that is difficult to reconcile with the
Spalding-Rigdon theory. If a hypothetical Spalding-Rigdon manuscript were the
source of the Book of Mormon, Joseph would have been required to memorize that
lengthy and complex document before dictating the text to his scribes. So the
problem is not simply one of getting Rigdon’s (hypothetical) manuscript to
Joseph Smith (with or without the hypothetical automatic writers), even if he
could have done so. Instead, this theory requires the relatively uneducated
Joseph Smith to become familiar enough with Rigdon’s manuscript that he could
dictate for hours on end without notes or prompting of any kind, with
sufficient command of its details that he could dictate the spelling of
unfamiliar names.

This fatal difficulty has led some critics to dismiss the primary
historical testimony regarding the dictation altogether rather than abandon
their theory. Textual evidence from the original manuscript of the Book of
Mormon is consistent, however, with the witness testimony concerning the
dictation. “By any measure,” writes historian Richard Bushman, “transcription
was a miraculous process, calling for a huge leap of faith to believe, yet,
paradoxically, it is more in harmony with the young Joseph of the historical
record” than are other explanations.36


In sum, an authorship attribution study requires the consistent,
coherent, and congruent conjunction of historical, biographical, and
stylometric evidence to support the conjecture of a writer as the author of a
text with disputed authorship. Such a combination of mutually supporting
evidence has not been set forth by Criddle and associates. Even before
statistical evidence can be considered, the historical context must make
plausible the claim to be tested.

The stylometric analysis by Jockers, Witten, and Criddle is not
the “knockout punch” that some Spalding-Rigdon theorists thought it
might be. Its incomplete treatment of the historical material, which plays a
big role in how they later justified their mistaken use of a closed-set method,
ignores a plethora of evidence that disagrees with the Spalding-Rigdon theory.
Its literature review was so overtly dismissive of work associated with Mormon
researchers that the authors missed the chance to benefit from previous
findings, both when designing their study and interpreting their results. From
a historical perspective, the Spalding-Rigdon theory is nothing but conjecture
supported by imagination and special pleading since it requires the invocation
of hypothetical manuscripts for which there is no evidence and events that are
not only unattested in the historical record but also contradicted by it.
Sidney Rigdon did not write the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith’s description of
the book’s origin remains the only explanation not contradicted by valid,
reliable evidence, both historical and stylometric.

Matthew Roper
(MA, Brigham Young University) is a research scholar for the Neal A. Maxwell
Institute for Religious Scholarship, Brigham Young University.

Paul J. Fields
(PhD, Pennsylvania State University) is a consultant specializing in research
methods and statistical analysis.


1.   Hereafter
referred to as Criddle and associates.

2.   See,
in this issue of the Review, Paul J. Fields, G. Bruce Schaalje, and Matthew
Roper, “Examining a Misapplication of Nearest Shrunken Centroid
Classification to Investigate Book of Mormon Authorship.” Also, for an
overview of the Spalding theory, see Matthew Roper, “The Mythical ‘Manuscript
Found,’ ” FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 7–140; and Roper, “Myth,
Memory, and ‘Manuscript Found,’ ” FARMS Review 21/2 (2009):

3.   See
“Appendix: Exposing a Methodological Lapse,” herein at the end of
Fields, Schaalje, and Roper, “Examining a Misapplication of Nearest
Shrunken Centroid Classification.”

4.   “History
of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, 15 August 1843, 289–90.

5.   Parley
P. Pratt, Mormonism
Unveiled . . .
(New York: O. Pratt and E. Fordham, 1838), 41.

6.   Nancy
Rigdon Ellis, interview with E. L. Kelley and W. H. Kelley, 14 May 1884, in The History of
the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
(Independence, MO: Herald House, 1967), 4:451–52.

7.   Reuben
P. Harmon statement, quoted in Naked Truths about Mormonism 1/2
(April 1888): 1.

8.   Reuben
P. Harmon interview, 8 March 1884, in Public Discussion of the Issues Between the
Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the Church of
Christ [Disciples], Held in Kirtland, Ohio, Beginning February 12, and Closing
March 8, 1884 . . .
(Lamoni, IA: Herald Publishing House, 1913),

9.   Eliza
R. Snow, “Sketch of My Life,” in Eliza R. Snow, an Immortal: Selected Writings
of Eliza R. Snow
(Salt Lake City: Nicolas G. Morgan Sr. Foundation,
1957), 5.

10.   John
Murdock, “An Abridged Record of the Life of John Murdock, taken from his
journal by himself,” John Murdock Journal, typescript, BYU Archives,

11.   Parley
P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book,
1985), 13–14.

12.   Statement
by Phineas Bronson, Hiel Bronson, and Mary D. Bronson, quoted in Rudolph
Etzenhouser, From
Palmyra, New York, 1830, to Independence, Missouri, 1894
(Independence, MO: Ensign Publishing House, 1894), 388. An 1834 date would make
sense in the context of the Hurlbut anti-Mormon excitement leading up to the
apostate’s trial in April of that year. If this were the spring of 1833, Rigdon
would not have been responding to Hurlbut, who was still a member of the church
until June of that year, but may have been responding to earlier claims
circulating since early 1831 that he was responsible for the Book of Mormon.

13.   Sidney
Rigdon to Oliver Cowdery, April 1836, Latter-day Saint Messenger and Advocate,
April 1836, 299.

14.   Reuben P.
Harmon statement, 10 June 1884, in Public Discussion of the Issues . . . ,

15.   Sidney
Rigdon to the editors of the Quincy Whig, 27 May 1839, Quincy Whig,
8 June 1839. “Doctor” was Hurlbut’s given name.

16.   Sidney
Rigdon, “To the Public,” Ohio Star, 15 December 1831 and 12
January 1832.

17.   Revelation
to Sidney Rigdon, February 1870 (section 58), in Book of the Revelations of Jesus
Christ to the Children of Zion . . .
, Stephen Post Collection,
Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, MS 1418 Book A, 92–94.

18.   Revelation
to Sidney Rigdon, October 1868 (section 42), in Book of the Revelations of Jesus
Christ to the Children of Zion . . .
, Book A, 68–70.

19.   Revelation
to Sidney Rigdon, October 1872 (section 70), in Book of the Revelations of Jesus
Christ to the Children of Zion . . .
, Book A, 110–18. The
prophecy in 2 Nephi speaks of a spokesman who was to “write the writing of
the fruit of thy loins, unto the fruit of thy loins; and the spokesman of thy
loins shall declare it” (2 Nephi 3:18). After the Book of Mormon was
published and the church was restored, Rigdon was called to be a spokesman to
Joseph Smith in expounding scriptures (D&C 100:9–11; 124:104), but
this was a separate calling in connection with receiving Joseph Smith as a
revelator that had nothing to do with the prophecy in 2 Nephi 3 concerning the
coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Rigdon’s writing, as noted above, suggests
that he seldom wrote about or quoted from the Book of Mormon.

20.   Revelation to
Sidney Rigdon, October 1868 (section 42), in Book of the Revelations of Jesus Christ to
the Children of Zion . . .
, Book A, 68–70. Rigdon claimed to
know the contents of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon, but Moroni said
that these things were not to be revealed: “The things which are sealed
shall not be delivered in the day of the wickedness and abominations of the
people” (2 Nephi 27:8; see Ether 4:6). This was a condition that in Rigdon’s
view still clearly prevailed. Rigdon also claimed that the sealed portion was
the history of Zion from the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to the end and
recounts the apostasy and corruption of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus
Christ. According to Nephi, “The book shall be sealed; and in the book
shall be a revelation from God, from the beginning of the world to the ending
thereof” (2 Nephi 27:7), and the words that are sealed “reveal all
things from the foundation of the world unto the end thereof” (v. 10).
Rigdon claimed that the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon contained
prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and other prophets, but Moroni
indicates that what was sealed was a revelation to the brother of Jared, who
lived long before these other prophets (Ether 3:22–28; 4:4–7).

21.   W. W.
Phelps to E. D. Howe, 15 January 1831, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed . . . (Painesville,
OH, 1834), 274.

22.   Pratt, Mormonism
, 42.

23.   Dan Vogel, Early Mormon
(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996), 1:541.

24.   Vogel, Early Mormon
, 1:506.

25.   Vogel, Early Mormon
, 1:520.

26.   David Whitmer, An Address to
All Believers in Christ
(Richmond, MO: David Whitmer, 1887), 11. See
David Whitmer, interview with Joseph Smith III, 4 April 1882, in Lyndon W.
Cook, David
Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness
(Orem, UT: Grandin Book
Company, 1991), 89.

27.   Criddle and
associates reference a 2004 study that found a high statistical probability
that the chiasm in Alma 36 was a deliberate one (Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell
Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” BYU Studies 43/2 [2004]: 103–30). Attributing a knowledge of chiasmus to Oliver
Cowdery, they cite the work of John W. Welch (“How Much Was Known about
Chiasmus in 1829 When the Book of Mormon Was Translated?” FARMS Review 15/1 [2003]: 47–80). While chiasmus was not entirely unknown in
nineteenth-century literature before 1830 (when the Book of Mormon was
published), Welch’s research suggested that it is extremely unlikely that
Joseph Smith or his close associates knew about chiasmus before 1830. Some
critics have claimed that examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon are
unintentional. Others, persuaded by evidence of intentionality, have argued
that chiasms are also found in Joseph Smith’s personal writings and in the writings
of some of his contemporaries. In a more recent study, Edwards and Edwards
applied further statistical analysis to the question in an effort to measure
the likelihood of such claims. They found strong evidence that the chiasms in
Leviticus 24 in the Bible and Alma 36 in the Book of Mormon were intentional
and that their respective authors must have had a knowledge of this literary
form. Their analysis also indicates that purported examples from the Doctrine
and Covenants, the Book of Abraham, and Joseph Smith’s personal correspondence,
which have previously been suggested by some as evidence for Joseph Smith’s
knowledge of the form, “supply no statistical evidence either that Joseph
knew about chiasmus or that God revealed chiasmus to Joseph without his
knowledge.” Other proposed examples failing the test of intentionality
include passages from Green Eggs and Ham, “Hickory Dickory Dock,” INFORMIX Guide,
John Taylor’s Mediation and Atonement, the Popul Vuh, and
Strangite texts. Based on their analysis, Edwards and Edwards conclude, “Our
admissibility tests establish the intentionality of chiasmus in the Book of
Mormon and refute the claim that Joseph’s modern writings demonstrate his
awareness of chiasmus. If Joseph Smith was indeed unaware of chiasmus, then its
presence in the Book of Mormon stands as evidence of its authenticity”
(Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “When Are Chiasms Admissible as
Evidence?” BYU Studies 49/4 [2010]: 153).

28.   Larry E. Morris, “Oliver
Cowdery’s Vermont Years and the Origins of Mormonism,” BYU Studies 39/1 (2000): 120–21.

29.   Autobiography
of Parley P. Pratt
, 12–23. Pratt recounted the events
surrounding his conversion in his autobiography. In October 1827 a newly
married Parley P. Pratt moved from his home in Canaan, New York, to settle on a
farm in northern Ohio, where his wife sometimes taught school. In 1829 Sidney
Rigdon began to preach in their neighborhood, and Pratt was impressed with
Rigdon’s restorationist ideas. In August 1830, seeking to follow the Savior’s
admonition to forsake all to follow Christ, Pratt decided to sell his Ohio farm
and return to his former home in New York, where he intended to preach
full-time. At Buffalo, New York, Pratt purchased passage to Albany along the Erie
Canal with the intention of returning to Canaan. When the boat passed through
Rochester, however, he felt impressed to stop there and preach for a while,
sending his wife on ahead to their intended home. In a small town near
Rochester, while preparing to preach, he heard reports about the Book of Mormon
that caught his interest. He obtained a copy of the book. “As I read, the
spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was
true” (p. 20). Hoping to learn more about Joseph Smith, he walked to
Manchester, where he met Hyrum Smith, who accompanied Pratt to Fayette so he
could meet Joseph Smith and join the church.

30.   “The Mormon
Bible,” The
New Northwest
(Portland, OR), 9 September 1880.

31.   “A New
Theory,” Deseret News, 22 September 1880.

32. (accessed 1 August 2011). Sociologist Rodney Stark, well known for his research
on Mormonism and other new religious movements, observes, “There have been
precious few examples for which there is any persuasive evidence that the
founder of a new religious movement had any symptoms of mental problems,”
and “few of the apparently sane recipients of revelations were frauds. Too
many made personal sacrifices utterly incompatible with such an assessment.”
Rodney Stark, “A Theory of Revelations,” Journal for the Scientific Study
of Religion
38/2 (1999): 288.

33.   See Scott C.
Dunn, “Spirit Writing: Another Look at the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone,
June 1985, 17–26; reprinted as “Automaticity and the Dictation of
the Book of Mormon,” in Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, eds., American
Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon
(Salt Lake City: Signature
Books, 2002), 17–46; Robert A. Rees, “The Book of Mormon and
Automatic Writing,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/1 (2006):
4–17, 68–70; and Richard N. Williams, “The Book of Mormon as
Automatic Writing: Beware the Virtus Dormitiva,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 23–29. “Traditional skeptics,” notes Richard
Williams, “often ask believers to give up a belief in a miracle in the
face of a simpler and more reliable explanation.” But the automatic
writing theory is an explanation that explains nothing. It essentially asks
that one reject Joseph Smith’s story “in favor of an explanation that is
less empirical, more occult, and more arcane than the belief itself.”
Williams, “Book of Mormon as Automatic Writing,” 29.

34.   Their claim that
Joseph Smith “was prosecuted successfully in a court of law” for the
practice of using a seer stone in searching for buried treasure is inaccurate.
The actual charge appears to have been for being a “disorderly person,”
a misdemeanor of which Joseph Smith was acquitted (Gordon A. Madsen, “Joseph
Smith’s 1826 Trial: The Legal Setting,” BYU Studies 30/2 [Spring 1990]:
91–108). The central issue is not whether or not Joseph Smith used seer
stones, but whether he admitted to deliberate deception. The best historical
evidence does not support that view, and many of Joseph Smith’s closest
associates were convinced that he had the gift of seership.

35.   Royal Skousen, “Translating
the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon
Authorship Revisited
, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997),
61–93; and Royal Skousen, ed., The Original Manuscript of the Book of
Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text
(Provo, UT:
FARMS, 2001).

36.   Richard Lyman
Bushman, Joseph
Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 72.
For a discussion and useful collection of relevant documents relating to the
translation of the Book of Mormon, see John W. Welch, “The Miraculous
Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine
Manifestations, 1820–1844
, ed. John W. Welch and Erick B.
Carlson (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2005), 77–213.