Ever since the Book of Mormon was first published in 1830, its origins have been disputed. As Joseph Smith, the founder of the rapidly growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), tells it in official church writings, the book is a miraculous translation of “reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics” on golden plates he dug out of a hillside in 1827 near Palmyra, New York, a village between Rochester and Syracuse. But as some of his contemporaries and a number of modern critics allege, the book is at least partly the pirated work of Solomon Spaulding (or Spalding), a retired Congregationalist minister and novelist who died near Pittsburgh in 1816.

The issue is a critical one for the Latter-day Saints: they believe that the 522-page Book of Mormon is the divinely inspired, correctly translated Word of God. As such, it has been called the “keystone” of the 3.8-million-member Mormon church by LDS leaders. If the book is ever proved to be something other than what Joseph Smith claimed, the church’s foundation itself will be in question. At stake also will be Smith’s credibility in other basic documents of the church (Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price).

Until now, the critics’ case has rested on circumstantial evidence (similarities of style and subject matter, and testimonies of perhaps biased persons claiming to know of a relationship between Smith and another man who may have had access to a Spaulding manuscript).

Now, however, three young researchers in southern California claim they have a firm case. They obtained enlarged photocopies of several of the original manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon that are in archives in Salt Lake City. These reproductions and known specimens of Spaulding’s handwriting ...

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