George L. Mitton
"Anti-Mormon Writings... Mormon Origins"
FARMS Review XVI:1

Provo" FARMS, 2004

  Howe & Hurlbut
  doctored testimony?
  rejected theory?


Copyright © 2004 Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies
Because of copyright law restrictions, only limited "fair use" excerpts are presented here.

2002 Givens book   |   1977 Bush article   |   2005 Criddle article   |   2005 Enigma book

[ xi ]

Editor's Introduction


George L. Mitton, associate editor

He always conceived every subject on so comprehensive a scale,
    that he had not room in his head, to turn it over
        and examine both sides of it.

                        Washington Irving 1

Surely your turning of things upside down shall be
    esteemed as the potter's clay: for shall the work say
        of him that made it, He made me not?

                        (Isaiah 29:16)

Some have inquired as to why we devote so much space in response to anti-Mormon literature. Would that we could confine ourselves to discussions of positive things, but the negative ones are troublesome to some, and we think that they demand attention. It is our experience that a careful consideration of such writings is instructive and that the faith always comes out better understood and strengthened. Nevertheless, in this issue we offer essays on a remarkable range of subjects, including several of interest on some very positive works and developments. I will mention these briefly and then discuss some important general matters regarding anti-Mormon writings, helping to explain why we feel a need to study and respond to them.

1 Washington Irving, A History of New York... by Diedrich Knickerbocker (New York: Inskeep & Bradford, 1809), 1:120.


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Some Congenial Things

I first take note of the essay by Benjamin N. Judkins on the status and quality of Book of Mormon apologetics — those many and extensive writings that have been prepared in defense of the faith. He describes these achievements modestly, and doubtless more could be said, but he gives a useful overview of the remarkable work and findings of those who have sought to improve our knowledge of the Book of Mormon, while impressively defending its doctrines, background, and historicity in ways the anti-Mormon press has seldom attempted to refute....

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Introduction • xiii    

... Frequently, our [FARMS authors'] answers and responses are given the silent treatment. We then have reason to suspect that [critical] writers or publishers find it difficult to reply to our findings. Oftentimes an attempt is made to respond by complaining that our essays are ad hominem attacks on the writers and their reputations, rather than efforts to cope with their arguments. These claims are usually made on the Internet....

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The Anti-Mormon "Concatenation"

Since the earliest days of the church, Latter-day Saints have found it necessary to confront anti-Mormon writings... sectarian persecution... Extant early newspaper articles displayed a great spirit of ridicule and animosity... These early articles tended to be written from a secular point of view...


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... Many writers have slavishly followed the early lead in their assessment of Joseph [Smith]'s character and conduct, and arguments made then are repeated holus-bolus to this day. It first began with newspaper writers in Palmyra and western New York. Probably the most influential, writing from a secular viewpoint, was Abner Cole, editor of the Palmyra Reflector. In a series of articles, Cole lampooned Joseph and the Book of Mormon...


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... what shall we say of the anti-Mormon writers today, who should have the benefit of nearly two centuries of hindsight, yet still call in question Joseph's character and veracity by putting so much stock in the shabby collection of anti-Mormon comments and documents, often taken from the rumors, gossip, secondhand recollections, ill-informed opinions, and general hearsay of the time? ...

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Introduction • xvii    

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...This situation is still the same today—one need merely examine the nature of books written against us found in the "cults" section of many bookstores. There appears to be moderation in the tone of a few of these writings, which is appreciated. However, the sectarian attack remains undiminished, and professional anti-Mormons still press "their ardent need of funds for the 'Mormon Crusade'" as they did in 1904. 9 ...
9 Nels L. Nelson, Scientific Aspects of Mormonism; or Religion in Terms of Life (New York: Putnam's Sons, 1904), 3.


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On Taking Hurlbut and Howe Too Seriously

The first anti-Mormon book was published in 1834... by Eber D. Howe... Bearing the title Mormonism Unvailed, it was an attempt to discredit the reputation of Joseph Smith....

Mormonism Unvailed used two basic thrusts against Joseph. Howe felt the first was the more important and featured it in the subtitle of his book. This was the charge of plagiarism, in which he alleged that the historical parts of the Book of Mormon were derived from an old manuscript by Reverend Solomon Spalding. Supported by statements of persons who claimed to remember details of the manuscript, it was a difficult argument for the Saints to answer until the manuscript was discovered in 1884. 12 Aside from a very few diehards, nearly all scholars today have rejected the theory and do not see any meaningful connection between the manuscript and the Book of Mormon.

Howe's second thrust has proved more enduring but should still be viewed with great suspicion. This concerns the statements or "affidavits"13 collected by Doctor14 Philastus Hurlbut, a Mormon excommunicated for immorality,
12 For an overview, refer to Lester E. Bush Jr., "The Spalding Theory Then and Now," Dialogue 10/4 (1977): 40–69. See also Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 160–61.

13 The alleged affidavits are not known to be extant, except as printed in Mormonism Unvailed.

14 "Doctor" does not mean he was a medical doctor. It was part of the given name conferred on him by his parents


Introduction • xix    

who visited Palmyra and vicinity in 1833 to obtain information against Joseph Smith on behalf of an Ohio anti-Mormon committee. 15 The committee's charge to Hurlbut was to
obtain information that would show "the bad character of the Mormon Smith Family," divest Joseph of "all claims to the character of an honest man," and place him at an "immeasurable distance from the high station he pretends to occupy." To accomplish his task, Hurlbut traveled in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania collecting statements disparaging to the Smith name. 16

Recently, Dale W. Adams has summarized Hurlbut's Palmyra efforts as follows:
Hurlbut spent a month or more in Palmyra giving anti-Mormon lectures and securing anti-Smith statements. A reading of these statements suggests that most of them were collected at lectures given by Hurlbut, supplemented by talks given by local ministers who were critical of Joseph Smith, Jr....

In evaluating these statements it must be recognized they were not assembled from a random sample of people who knew the Smith family. It would not have been in Hurlbut's interests to seek statements that were neutral or complimentary to the Smiths. His rhetoric and the histrionics of the local ministers who helped him certainly fostered, or at least reinforced, negative testimonials by those who attended the anti-Smith meetings organized by Hurlbut in Palmyra. 17
From the beginning, Latter-day Saint writers have challenged the Hurlbut-Howe statements and affidavits on several grounds....
15 For an extensive review of Hurlbut's life and purposes, and a bibliography of the discussion of the affidavits, see Dale W. Adams, "Doctor Philastus Hurlbut: Originator of Derogatory Statements about Joseph Smith, Jr.," John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 20 (2000): 76–93.

16 Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989–), 1:12, editor's note.

17 Adams, "Doctor Philastus Hurlbut," 82.


xx • The FARMS Review 16/1 (2004)

often appear to be hearsay and gossip rather than a reflection of firsthand knowledge; they appear to be coached to conform to a pattern, often using similar language; and in the absence of original documents, they may have been edited or "doctored" by Hurlbut or Howe....

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Introduction • xxi    

So far as I can find, Rodger Anderson did not attempt to defend the statements Hurlbut obtained to bolster belief in the Spalding theory of the origin of the Book of Mormon — statements appearing in Mormonism Unvailed. 22 For obvious reasons he appears to maintain a prudent silence about them since supporting them would give credence to a theory now almost universally rejected by students of Mormon origins. Dan Vogel, who has done extensive work on compiling and publishing documents that he sees as bearing upon Latter-day Saint history, totally excludes the Spalding statements, holding that they "shed no light on Mormon origins." 23 Some may think that these statements are not comparable to the Palmyra documents, but they are surely comparable in many ways. Both sets of documents are found only in the same book. Both sets were gathered by Hurlbut and on their face raise the question of coaching or editing. They also would have required persons to perform herculean feats of memory, even recalling the twenty-year-old Spalding manuscript as having specific Book of Mormon names in it, among other details, which somehow had vanished when the manuscript was later discovered. Surely these considerations raise serious questions about Hurlbut's methodology and his procedure in promoting both sets of documents on behalf of an Ohio anti-Mormon committee....

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22 Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 278–90.

23 Dan Vogel, comp. and ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–), 1:xiv.


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Introduction • xxiii    

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Studying Joseph Smith's History "Right Side Up"

If we are to make progress in understanding the young Joseph Smith, it appears that we must give much closer attention to his own explanation and that of his close associates. After all, he knew more about it than anyone else....

In the church periodical the Messenger and Advocate, published at Kirtland, Ohio, Joseph Smith's close associate, Oliver Cowdery, undertook to prepare and publish "'a full history of the rise of the church' in an effort to counter the distorted reports that had circulated."... It appeared concurrently with Howe's book in 1834 and was specifically intended to be a response to it and like challenges....


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Transcriber's Comments

George L. Mitton: "Anti-Mormon Writings:
Encountering a Topsy-Turvy Approach to Mormon Origins"

George L. Mitton here advises his largely faithful LDS audience to study the history of Joseph Smith, Jr., "right side up;" -- that is, by consulting the writings of Smith and his early associates first of all. Having done so, it would seem that modern students of Mormon origins should then view the "topsy-turvy approach" of "anti-Mormon writings" within the context of an historical reconstruction derived primarily from LDS "faith-promoting" works and, perhaps, from sources such as the Smith history published as holy writ in the Pearl of Great Price.

Elder Mitton does not say whether he advises this "right side up" approach for all historical research -- or, even within the limited realms of reconstructing the religious past of humankind's various and sundry "peoples of faith." Might today's students of Islamic origins begin their search by reading the Koran and the faith-promoting literature of Mohammed's advocates? And, if they began by doing so, should they first of all pray for a testimony of that book of scripture and its prophet? Probably the good elder would not go so far as to make such a suggestion. Instead, he might advise his readers to begin by consulting general histories of the Middle East and objective commentaries on the rise and development of religion there.

Although contemporary LDS writers sometimes overlook the fact, there are some more or less objective studies of Mormonism and Mormon origins available in these "latter days," and modern students of these topics need not limit their investigations to purely partisan writings. That much being admitted, it is true that an up-to-date, detailed presentation of the Solomon Spalding claims for Book of Mormon authorship has long been absent from the library shelves. In years past (such as 2004, when Mitton's comments were published) LDS writers might easily excuse themselves from addressing this particular topic to any significent extent, based upon the notion that Lester Bush, Jr. and Terryl L. Givens have exhausted the subject in expressing their respective learned opinions and "armchair research." After all, if even a non-professor of Mormonism like Dan Vogel has determined the Spalding claims to "shed no light on Mormon origins," why should FARMS scholars attempt to contradict such a statement?

Why FARMS Scholars Should Study the Spalding Claims

Not all students of Mormon history are faithful, professing Mormons, of course. Even the readership of FARMS publications is not comprised exclusively of head-nodding fellow travelers who have no opinions to offer in opposition to all that is made available to them within the pages of those publications. Whether it be large or small, in any particular instance, there exists a diverse audience holding diverse viewpoints on Mormon origins; and, whether the FARMS authors realize it or not, they are writing for these auditors as well as to testimony-bearing Latter Day Saints. Thus, in order to inform and dialogue with this larger readership, the FARMS writers might be well advised to learn and consider any significant "alternative viewpoints." It has always been difficult for religionists to "think outside of the cloister," but they can find rewards in making the attempt -- not the least of which may be having their writings taken seriously by secular scholars.

There are some more immediate reasons, however, why FARMS scholars ought to take a second look at the Spalding authorship claims for the Book of Mormon. A great deal of primary and secondary source material has been assembled relative to this "theory" in recent years and word of that accomplishment probably has not yet seeped into "the cloister" of LDS historians and theologians. Many of the old, off-the-cuff statements that Mormon writers depended upon, in making their rebuttals to Spalding advocates, are no longer valid -- or, at least they probably will not be accepted as valid by many non-LDS readers, if those old statements are examined carefully in light of modern knowledge. One such claim is made rather offhandedly by Elder Mitton on page xviii: "the [Spalding] manuscript was discovered in 1884." In fact it was not, and modern LDS apologists and polemicists cannot rely upon that 1884 discovery as providing much support for their counter-claims. Neither can it be said that Sidney Rigdon positively knew nothing of Mormonism prior to his conversion near the end of 1830. This much, at least, is even admitted by Rigdon's latest biographer. Since Sidney Rigdon has generally been pointed to as the human link between Spalding's writings and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, his story ought to be studied "right-side-up" just as much as Smith's.

The problem that arises for the faithful LDS scholar, is that very little of Rigdon's story can be accepted as faith-promoting. Even his brethren in the Church at Kirtland, Far West and Nauvoo, accused him of religious fabrication, phoney visions and secret attempts to insert his warped theology into the fabric of mid-1840s Latter Day Saintism. So, if the modern student of Mormonism begins his or her study of Sidney Rigdon and associates (Parley P. Pratt, Orson Hyde, Eliza Snow, F. G. Willams N. K. Whitney, etc.) "right-side-up," the story has a bitter taste from the very beginning. It has been denied that Rigdon could have had any contact whatever with Solomon Spalding and his writings. That assertion is simply untrue -- the opposite is much more probable. When the student of Mormon origins learns that Rigdon lived within walking distance of Rigdon's Pennsylvania residence, had an aunt and cousins living in Spalding's hamlet of residence, and received his mail at the same post office as Spalding did, the value of Rigdon's seemingly pious denials in this matter may soon evaporate.

Elder Mitton appears to operate under the assumption that an anti-Mormon committee residing in the area of Kirtland Ohio supplied D. P. Hurlbut with the motive to assemble the Spalding claims out of nothing. This is another nook of Mormon history that the FARMS scholars would do well to look into carefully. If they do so, they will discover (as Dale W Adams discovered) that the origin of the Spalding authorship claims pre-dated Hurlbut's mid-1833 association with the Ohio committee -- and that the said committee published their hostile accusations against Joseph Smith, Jr. as a result of Hurlbut's research rather than as the genesis of that same research. Just because the committee hoped to prove evidence discrediting Smith true, it does not follow that all the evidence assembled by Hurlbut is totally unreliable. Much of the content of Howe's 1834 book comes from sources that pre-date D. P. Hurlbut's 1833 research work. If Howe's allegations are to be considered "right-side-up," they should be placed within the context of the body of similar testimony and recollections which arose over the years, quite apart from Howe and Hurlbut. This is not to say that each and every non-Mormon statement, news report and personal opinion is reliable in all of its particulars -- but such sources can be compared against other evidence in order to judge their content and reliability.

The Course of LDS Ignorance: One Eternal Round?

Finally, the FARMS authors may wish to study the Spalding claims to better understand what was being said about Mormon origins, outside of the Latter Day Saint community, from the late 1820s all the way down to the modern era. Although Parley P. Pratt admitted the fact, few Mormons today know that Sidney Rigdon was being accused of writing the Book of Mormon long before the emergence of the "Spalding theory," and long before Sidney was ever pointed out as the secret link between Spalding's writings and the LDS scriptures. Beginning at the date (1830) when Rigdon was thus first accused, and working forward through all the subsequent historical matter, the interested scholar might fairly easily compile a large and intricate picture of how the Latter Day Saints' scriptures were viewed and explained by outsiders (not all of whom were particularly hostile anti-Mormons) over many decades in succcession. If LDS historians cannot accept so much as one item from the Spalding-Rigdon "theory," as probable truth, they still owe it to themselves to understand well what the evidence supporting that non-Mormon explanation is comprised of and why it has survived into the 21st century. George L. Mitton's article exposes more LDS ignorance on this subject than it offers any evidence of careful scholarship on his part. Perhaps he has studied the entire thing "wrong-side-out" or along a circular path that must always return to a predetermined expression of faith.

A Joseph Smith who was wrong about Zelph the half-white Lamanite, or about the historical content of the Kinderhook plates, or Rev. Caswell's Greek psalm book, may have been wrong about many things he had to say -- truly a "rough stone" rolling to an uncertain end. But then again, perhaps the "right-side-up" approach to Mormon origins begins with the early biography of a different Mormon top level leader: LDS First Counsellor in the First Presidency, Elder Sidney Rigdon.

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