March 31, 2010

Spaulding Manuscript and the Book of Mormon: A New Parallel

Last year a new study purported to reveal the real author(s) of the Book of Mormon. The study seeks to use some impressive statistics to resurrect an old theory that has been put to rest many times before. For several decades in the late 19th century the chief suspect was Solomon Spaulding, whose manuscript was said to be pilfered by Sidney Rigdon and used to help create the Book of Mormon.

The theory was pretty much definitively put to rest when Spaulding's manuscript was discovered and bore practically no resemblance to the Book of Mormon.1 A full response to the recent wordprint study is forthcoming.2 In the meantime, I wanted to post a fascinating parallel between the Book of Mormon and the Spaulding manuscript that (to my knowledge) has been overlooked by critics and apologists alike. This should come in handy for people uninterested in plowing through all of the old research on the Spaulding story.

The striking parallel is found during the mud sliding race in Spaulding's manuscript:

In making this decent, six young women & five young men by a surprizing dexterity in whirling their bodies as they dcended cleared themselvs from the quagmire—The rest as their turns came plunged in & came out most wofully muded to the great diversion of the Spectators. The incident which excited the most meriment hapned when the last pa[ir] decended. by an unlucky spring to clear himself from the quagmire he brot his body along side of the declevity & roled his whole length into the midst of the quagmire where he lay his whole length in an horizontal position on his back neither heels up or head up, but horizontally—soft & easy—but alas when one unlucky event happens another follows close on the heal.—the fair, plump corpulant Damsel, his affectionate sweetheart came instantly, sliding with great velocity—she saw the woful position of her beloved—she wished him no harm—she raised her feet this bro't the center of gravity directly over the center of his head—here she rested a moment—his head sunk—she sunk after him his heels kicked against the wind like Jeshuran waked fat—but not a word from his lips—but his ideas came in quick succession—tho't he, what a disgrace to die here in the mud under the pressure of my sweet heart—however his time for such reflections were short—the tender hearted maid collecting all her agility in one effort dismounted & found herself on dry land i[n—] instant—not a moment to be lost; she seized her lover by one leg & draged him from the mud—a curious figure, extending about six feet six inches on the ground,—all bismeared from head to foot, spiting—puffing, panting & strugling for breath.—Poor man, the whole multitude laughing at thy calamity, shouting, rediculing—none to give thee consolation but thy loving & simpithetic partner in misfortune—
    Upon my soul, exclaims droll Tom—Stern formost—that bouncing Lass ought to have the highest prize for draging her ship from the mud—She was cleaning the filth from his face.3
My friend tried to determine which part of the Book of Mormon this race influenced, but couldn't find the words "mud," "merriment," "bouncing," "lass," "quagmire," "gravity," "woefully," "velocity," "corpulent," or "damsel" in the Book of Mormon. He did, however, find the word "sunk," so he determined that this portion of the Spalding manuscript was most likely rewritten as Alma 19:13-14!

For a more detailed look at the Spaulding theory see the FAIR wiki, including the useful and comprehensive footnotes with plenty of other sources.

I wrote a brief blog post when that study came out. See "A New Book of Mormon Wordprint Analysis," 8 December 2008. I'm no expert in math and statistical analysis, so I await more rigorous responses.

This selection is from the GospeLink version of Manuscript Found here, subscription required. It can also be found in the RLDS edition of "Manuscript Found" published in 1885 found here, from where I borrowed the image seen above. Like most books of that era it has a ridiculously long title: The "Manuscript Found" or "Manuscript Story" of the Late Solomon Spaulding; From a Verbatim Copy of the Original Now in the Care of Pres. James H. Fairchild of Oberlin College, Ohio Including Correspondence Touching the Manuscript, Its Preservation and Transmission Until it Came Into the Hands of the Publishers, The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lamoni, Iowa (1885), pp. 26-27.

March 29, 2010

Review: John Sanders, "No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized"

TitleNo Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized
Author: John Sanders
Publisher: Wipf and Stock Publishers
Genre: Theology
Year: 2001 (reprint)
Pages: 334
ISBN10: 1579108342
ISBN13: 9781579108342
Binding: Paperback
Price: 34.00

A new book is stirring up controversy among Evangelicals, though it isn't the book I'm currently reviewing. Brian D. McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That are Transforming the Faith is something of a universalist approach to salvation. According to NPR: "surveys show that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under age 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, but only 39 percent of those over age 65 believe that. That's because young evangelicals have grown up in a religiously plural society."1 I was on my mission when the issue really hit home: there were, believe it or not, great people who loved God (and some who didn't even believe) who weren't Mormon. Certainly I had been raised to believe that there were good people all over the world, great people of other faiths, but I had also learned that the fulness of the gospel was found in my own religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That teaching becomes more acute while facing honest, God-loving, God-fearing people outside my Church. What about those C.S. Lewis called "virtuous unbelievers"?2

The more I studied the issue the more comfortable I became with Mormon views of the afterlife and the assurance that none will be left without the opportunity to honestly evaluate Christ's invitation to come unto Him and make a decision. I believe the solutions revealed to Joseph Smith (including post-mortal missionary work and proxy ordinances for the dead) are consistent, fair, even graceful. They are also surprisingly unique, considering the history of Christian thought on the subject—a subject I didn't know had occupied other Christians for centuries going back as far as the written record shows. LDS views are unique in important respects, but they grow out of concerns common to many other Christians, as the book mentioned above demonstrates. That author's approach isn't new. Twenty years ago John Sanders explored the history of Christian perspectives on this subject in No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. Obviously the topic is just as relevant to Christians today, if not more-so. Sanders reaches far back into the history of Christianity and his book has held up well.3

Sanders's book is a systematic overview of how different Christian thinkers have handled the problem of salvation only through Christ. Jesus Christ said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6, NAS). How can the billions of people who have never heard of Christ, before and after his mortal life, come to the Father? This appears to call into question the justice and mercy of God. Considering the billions of people who have not learned about Jesus Christ through no real fault of their own, in addition to the countless persons who lived on the earth before Jesus Christ was born, it seems not many people will receive salvation. Sanders says Christians today face "plural shock" when they encounter other religions, leading some to abandon completely the "finality and particularity" of salvation through Christ, much like I encountered on my mission (3).

Sanders is something of a non-traditional Evangelical Christian, an "Open Theist."3 His book is grounded in assuming the ultimate authority of the Bible, using subsequent Christian tradition as a guide (3). On page 25 Sanders describes "two essential truths" which cause the tension for Bible-believers. First: God has a "universal salvific will." ("God...desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," 1 Timothy 4:12.) Second: "the particularity and finality of salvation only in Jesus" ("And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under which we must be saved," Acts 4:12). Each position has support in other verses throughout the New Testament. Sanders notes that "Holding both sets of texts together without neglecting either set requires a careful theological balance...We must hold to both sets of texts and seek to arrive at a theological formulation that does justice to both" (28-29).

Sanders is a systematic thinker with the ability to express complex topics accessibly and fairly. He clarifies the main point over which Christians disagree by "distinguishing between the ontological and epistemological necessity of Jesus Christ for the salvation of individuals" (30). His book takes for granted the ontological necessity—that is, that Christ had to, and in fact did, atone for the sins of the world. Those who do not believe this point are not addressed in this study (nor are Calvinists who believe in the "limited atonement" of Christ; that Christ only died for an elect group rather than for all humankind, 30, 50). The question of epistemological necessity is where the positions in the book differ; "the question of whether [and when] a person must know about Jesus in order to benefit from the salvation he provided" (30).  

The book is divided into three parts. In part one Sanders formulates the issue and situates it in the history of Christian thought. In part two he describes "the two extremes," Restrictivism (all unevangelized are damned) and Universalism (all unevangelized are ultimately saved). In part three Sanders offers a third view he calls "Wider Hope," which is where the Latter-day Saint position would fit in. Surprisingly, give the depth of research in the book and its attempt at being comprehensive, Latter-day Saints are not mentioned at all.4 

Each chapter is well organized. Sanders begins with the key biblical texts while taking care not to simply proof-text. Next he covers "theological considerations," the assumptions made by those holding that position. Then he gives an overview of leading defenders of the position. Finally, he evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the position. A bibliography of important texts concludes each chapter. The book concludes with an Appendix on "Infant Salvation and Damnation."

The salvation of the unevangelized weaves in and out of a striking number of theological considerations; christology, the nature of faith, justice, grace, the problem of evil, revelation, hell, judgment, and the love of God. Sanders is a model for inter-faith discussion, he treats differing perspectives with deference, trying to outline them in a way acceptable to those who hold them. He believes that the debate boils down to differing "control beliefs," which "guide and control the way we investigate and interpret evidence...Control beliefs can be extremely powerful in influencing what we 'see' in a text or the way we interpret our experiences" (31). Sanders knows that everyone has control beliefs, "it would be impossible to live meaningfully without them. They give us stability as we encounter new ideas and experiences. But sometimes we need to examine and modify—even reject—certain of our control beliefs" (32). He outlines his own control beliefs and calls for readers to be self-aware of their own. Only then can they reasonably analyze the different positions and hope to find the best answer to the problem of the unevangelized.

Despite overlooking the LDS position, Sanders has put together a noteworthy book. Philosophy, theology, and history interweave to examine a question at the heart of the mission of Jesus Christ:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3: 16-17).

See Barbara Bradley Hagerty, "Jesus, Reconsidered. Book Sparks Evangelical Debate," NPR Morning Edition, 26 March 2010. Take such polls for what they're worth. This one seems to signal a continuing shift in evangelical circles toward soteriological inclusivism.

I investigate C.S. Lewis, his concept of the "virtuous unbeliever," and LDS thought in a forthcoming issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 

Sanders is currently professor of religion at Hendrix College. See his wiki for more info.

A more in-depth analysis of the positions Sanders outlines is Brent Alvord and David L. Paulsen, "Joseph Smith and the Problem of the Unevangelized," FARMS Review 17:1 (2005), 171-204. I made use of Sanders's book in a recent blog post, "Kristen's Dilemma: Eternity or Annihilation." I hope to do more posts in the future on the topic.