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A Brief History of Opposition to the Book of Mormon

Opposition to the Book of Mormon did not begin with its publication. Elsewhere we have mentioned the efforts to wrest the gold plates from the Prophet Joseph; the theft of the 116 pages of manuscript; and the hesitancy of the Palmyra publisher, Egbert B. Grandin to publish the book, a hesitancy that recurred during the printing.

The publication of the Book of Mormon did not stop continued opposition to the book. Just prior to its publication a large group of Palmyra citizens had met together and resolved not to purchase the book once it was published. This boycott delayed efforts to place the book in the hands of potential converts and greatly curtailed efforts to recover the cost of printing. Martin Harris was forced to sell 151 acres on April 7, 1831 to satisfy the debt for the book's publication.

Almost immediately following its publication, arguments were advanced to counter Joseph Smith's explanation of its origin. Abner Cole, the editor of the Palmyra Reflector, provided one of the earliest alternative explanations. He asserted that the Book of Mormon was simply of human origin-that is, Joseph Smith wrote the book himself. Alexander Campbell, an important Protestant clergyman, arrived at the same conclusion in February 1831.

Most early opponents thought, as did Cole and Campbell, that Joseph wrote the book, but they underestimated the book's religious power and narrative complexity. By 1834, after a more careful analysis of the book and an increasing number of converts, opponents to the Book of Mormon proposed another explanation for its existence. These detractors, including Philastus Hurlbut (also Hurlburt) and Eber D. Howe, insisted that Joseph Smith had help in writing the book. They argued that he very likely was assisted by someone else, probably Sidney Rigdon. Alexander Campbell eventually repudiated his original assessment of authorship, acknowledging that Joseph Smith could not have written the book himself, as Joseph was uneducated.

Most of those espousing this argument, especially Hurlbut and later Campbell, believed that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon produced the book together as a conscious fraud and also argued that they used additional sources, including the work of Solomon Spaulding (a theory now generally rejected) or Ethan Smith, author of View of the Hebrews.

Most nineteenth-century arguments against the book's ancient origin generally implied fraudulent motives by the supposed authors. In 1920 Isaac Woodbridge Riley proposed a psychological explanation (The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr. New York: Dodd, Mead). Others argued that they believed the Prophet was subject to epileptic fits during his youth and to other pathological mental conditions later in life, and that he was not a fraud per se. Some even argued that Satanic power best explained the existence of the Book of Mormon.

During the last decade of the twentieth century, a new explanation has been offered by some who believe the book to be a product of the nineteenth century. These critics detach the book from its ancient origin but nevertheless claim that the book may have some religious value as a kind of religious fiction or parable (Metcalfe, Brent Lee, ed. New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993. 1-20, 53-80, 165-230).

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