History is never certain. However, some things are far more certain than others. We have a pretty good idea, for example, as to the nature of most of the important facts related to the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, and much less reliable information about Jesus Christ.
There is some evidence connecting Rigdon to the Smith family prior to 1830. Much of this relates to the treasure seeking community in which Smith (Jr. and Sr.) had some prominence. Ridgon appears to have moved in similar circles. This connection, however, is far from proven, and the origins of the BofM are likewise far from proven. However, there is a lot of data that has not been given much attention to date that in my view is helpful in forming opinions as to what appears most likely to have happened based on the evidence we have to work with. This is the usual case, by the way. We make most of our decisions based on incomplete evidence and the probabilities we (usually unconsciously) infer from it. You find people insisting on certainty when they (usually unconsciously) wish to resist the probabilities inferred by the evidence in front of them. They simply raise the bar high enough to ignore what disturbs them.
So, here is a synopsis of some of the data I am now reviewing.
There is a lot of evidence connecting Ridgon to Spaulding and his various manuscripts. The Spaulding story is usually panned by Mormon apologists because the only Spaulding manuscripts that survived bear little resemblance to the BofM. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Spaulding has at least one other manuscript that did not survive, that this manuscript bore a striking resemblance to the Book of Mormon, and that it ended up in Ridgon’s possession.
Ridgon was a Campbellite minister. Cambellite theology has a few unusual twists, and Ridgon had more of his own. Somehow, a lot of these ended up in the Book of Mormon.
It was commonly believed in Ridgon and Smith’s time that the Native Americans were descendants of Israel. Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” clearly indicates this. This view went back to shortly after the Americas were discovered. I read just the other day something from one of the early Spanish explorers of South America in which he expressed this view regarding the natives of Brazil. Hence, it would have been plausible to the common people of JS and Ridgonâ€™s time that ancient Native Americans may have been sufficiently connected to the Israelite tradition to have kept sacred records similar to the Bible.
Rigdon was trying to reform the Campbellite movement. If an ancient record (like the Book of Mormon) could be found that supported his version of Christianity, this would aid his cause and “bring people to Christ”. Since this was undeniably good, any ends leading to it must also be good.
This form of exerting influence over belief has a lengthy history. It is believed that significant parts of the Old and New Testament (and in particular, one of the major reforms to the Jewish people documented in the OT) was the result of just this type of “invention” of ancient documents or â€œpsuedepigraphaâ€. This is also part of the even older “noble lie” tradition. That is, if a falsehood serves a sufficiently noble purpose, it is justified. This is a particularly common approach for certain types of leaders and is at the core of Mormonismâ€™s odious â€œfaithful historyâ€ and â€œlying for the Lordâ€ traditions.
So, the idea is that Ridgon, with the best of intentions, cobbled together the Book of Mormon using primarily Spauldingâ€™s lost manuscript, and adding ideas from Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, perhaps “The Golden Pot”, and a few Smith family stories (such as the iron rod – tree of life – great and spacious building narrative, which JS’s mother tells us is a vision received by Smith Sr.)
The theory suggests that Ridgon then fed the manuscript to JS after recruiting him to help him bring the book to life. JS was necessary since it would be too convenient if Ridgon himself found an ancient book that verified his views. If a known mystic like JS did it, however, Ridgon could simply point to the book and then use his influence to promote its views. He would support it, and it would support him. To make this work, while the book was coming into being and for a while thereafter, Ridgon had to remain in the shadows as far as JS and the BofM was concerned.
If this happened, it would make sense that JS and Rigdon would not take anyone else into their confidence. In fact, it would be essential to the well-intended con that those closest to Smith were utterly convinced of the reality of his story. Their innocent, utterly convinced, testimony would be critical to the success of the venture. Mormon missionary work to this day operates on the same principle. Convince the innocents and send them out to convince the rest. Many financial cons I have seen as a result of my legal practise operate on the same principle. I am short on time today and so wonâ€™t go into that.
Smith would have been selected by Rigdon because of Smithâ€™s visionary history and his connection to find hidden, precious things. So, when Smith purported to find golden plates and produce a religious record, many people around him would be prepared to believe at least that he was sincere. Then, when Smith began to produce (for him) a remarkable stream of literature, it would attract attention and appear miraculous. And the record answered so many of the religious and social controversies of the day (always in favour of the Ridgon-Cambellite approach). And, JS had proven himself adept at putting on a great show. That is what the treasure seeking, glass looking scam required. And he was good at it. At noted above, it likely that this is how JS came to Ridgonâ€™s attention and is what recommended him for this critical role in Ridgonâ€™s plan.
This theory does not suggest that Ridgon and JS conspired to create a new religion and defraud the people. Rather, it suggests that Ridgon was trying to do what he felt was right in terms of promoting his version of the Christian faith, and JS (who was chronically short of money and opportunity at this point in his) was easily recruited to help Ridgon.
Then, things did not work out as Ridgon had hoped. His Campbellite ministry did not go well. And JS attracted a much larger crowd of his own than expected. Soon Ridgon was JS’s right hand man, and really ran the show for a long time. And then (to Rigdon’s surprise and chagrin, if the theory is correct) the bumpkin Smith developed a life of his own. He jumped the fence Ridgon had put around him (JS’s role, received by “revelation” was initially limited to translating the BofM) and took control. He tried to punt Ridgon (this was approved in secret shortly before JSâ€™s death by one of the clandestine quorums Smith ran in parallel to the apparently democratic public structure of the Mormon Church in those days, and a replacement counsellor for Smith was set apart in secret) but the cognoscenti could not push Ridgonâ€™s dismissal through in the public church meeting, so he remained on board.
Then Smith died and Ridgon lost the well-publicized power struggle to BY.
This is what a scientist (and my friend who is doing this work is an excellent scientist) would call a â€œjust soâ€ story. That is, it plausibly explains the extant data, but stops far short of providing â€œproofâ€ that the facts required to support the theory occurred.
Many scientific theories that are now accepted started as â€œjust soâ€ stories. The theory of evolution is one of them. A just so story can graduate to an accepted view of reality by being tested in various ways over a long period of time (as has evolutionary theory) and passing all tests. Time will tell with regard to the Ridgon theory.
Another important scientific principle is that when confronted with several â€œjust soâ€ stories to explain a given phenomenon, we should accept the one that provides the simplest, most probable explanation for the events in question based on the available evidence. When making decisions, this is what we instinctively do. In fact, a lot of excellent research has been done in the last several years (google â€œgerd gigerenzerâ€ for example) as to how well humans function from a decision making point of view on the basis of amazingly little data.
I still have a ways to go in my review of the fascinating material summarized above. But at the moment, I do not hesitate to say that this is the most probable theory of those I have reviewed as to how the BofM came into existence.