This is essentially the same challenge made in the Doctrine and Covenants to "prove" the divinity of the revelations in its predecessor, the Book of Commandments, at D&C 67:6-8:"Joseph Smith was an uneducated boy, and yet he produced the Book of Mormon in a few short months. It is a complex portrayal of a thousand-year history of an ancient people. He cannot possibly have made it up. Therefore, he must have had divine aid, as he claims."
"The missionaries gave me a copy of a pamphlet 'The Challenge,' which challenges anyone to produce such a book under the same conditions: you must be 23 years old, uneducated, your book must be detailed and contain historically and theologically accurate information, etc."
"I know that the Book of Mormon is full of anachronisms and is unsupported by archaeological evidence from pre-Columbian America, but I still can't explain how Joseph Smith could have written it."
"Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the book that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you; (7) Or, if there be any among you that shall make one like unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true. (8) But if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true."Strangely enough, the very same challenge is made in the Koran, as "proof" that the Koran is inspired, Sura 10:38-39:
"This Koran could not have been forged apart from God; but it is a confirmation of what is before it, and a distinguishing of the Book, wherein is no doubt, from the Lord of all Being. Or do they say, 'Why, he has forged it'? Say: 'Then produce a sura [scripture] like it, and call on whom you can, apart from God, if you speak truly.'"One problem with the criteria as set up in The Challenge is that they are carefully designed to allow the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith to fulfill them, but no other book or writer. One could just as easily set up other equally outrageous criteria which would prove that the origin of some other book is inexplicable except by divine aid.
It's probably quite true that Joseph Smith had no real formal education. However, he was very well-read in the Bible, and there was a public library in Palmyra. His mother also tells, in her biography of her son, how he had a wonderful imagination, and he used to entertain the Smith family in the evenings by telling tales about the Indians, their customs, their great battles, etc. She says, on page 85 of the 1853 edition of Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith The Prophet...":
"During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them."This comment appears in the narrative just after Smith told his family that he had been visited by the angel and that he was going to receive the history of the ancestors of the Indians. However, he had not yet been able to read that history. Therefore, this comment shows that he was perfectly capable of inventing such things.
That a person without formal education can produce a complex work of fiction or theology is no great miracle. Mohammed, for example, was also a completely uneducated young man, and yet he produced the Koran, which a billion Muslims (a thousand million - a hundred times as many as there are Mormons!) revere as the revelation of God. Shakespeare was also relatively uneducated, and his minimal formal education is one of the principal grounds for the claims that he could not possibly have written the works attributed to him. Just as uneducated was Ellen G. White, the prophetess revered by the Seventh Day Adventists. She wrote many, many volumes of "inspired" history, most of which are fairly accurate when compared with what historians have to say.
The Mormon line of reasoning goes like this: Joseph Smith, an uneducated farm boy, produced the Book of Mormon, a very complex and detailed portrayal of ancient America. He could not possibly have done it by himself. He said he did it by the power of God. Since he could not possibly have done it by himself, therefore it must have been by the power of God. But would Mormons grant the same to the Koran, or to Ellen G. White's writings?
For a more detailed analysis of the well-known tract "The Challenge", go to http://www.2think.org/hundredsheep/bom/challenge.shtml and http://www.lds-mormon.com/chal.shtml .
A clever parody of the challenge is at http://rfmorg.wordpress.com/2008/08/07/book-of-mormon-challenge.
The fallacy in that reasoning should be obvious. Even if it seems surprising that a man like Smith could have produced the book, that does not have to mean that we must accept his explanation of how he produced it. The rules of evidence and the scientific method (the "Law of Parsimony" or "Occam's Razor") require us to prefer any possible natural explanation of an event over a miraculous or divine one. And any number of other (and more reasonable) explanations are possible: he had help (the Spaulding manuscript theory); he based it on other reading (the View of the Hebrews theory); he "channeled" it; he just made it up out of his vivid imagination, etc. In view of the great number of anachronisms in the book, its dependence on the King James Version of the Bible (including its incorrect translations), its complete lack of confirmation by archaeology, and other problems with its claims, one should have no problem in recognizing it as not what it claims to be.
Remember, also, that it is not necessary that critics of the Book of Mormon actually prove conclusively that Joseph Smith did use these sources; by simply providing one or more possible explanations alternative to the claim of divine aid, that claim is refuted.
For more on these alternate theories, see the book Studies of the Book of Mormon, written in the 1930s by B. H. Roberts, the assistant church historian and a member of the First Quorum of Seventies, in which he concludes that Joseph Smith very likely used Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews. Vernal Holley, in his book Book of Mormon Authorship: A Closer Look presents evidence that the Spaulding manuscript provided much of the material in the Book of Mormon. Another advocate of Spaulding as a source is Ted Chandler.
I have also been allowed to read a manuscript showing that Bernal Diaz' account of the conquest of Mexico (which was available to Smith) also appears to have been a possible source. Thomas Donofrio has written "Early American Influences on the Book of Mormon" and "Book of Mormon Tories", showing how American patriotic literature is reflected in Book of Mormon.
An excellent and thorough discussion of these theories is David Persuitte's book Joseph Smith And The Origins Of The Book Of Mormon (second edition, McFarland & Co., 2000, ISBN 0-7864-0826-X, $29.95 + $4.00 S&H, tel. 1-800-253-2187).
Persuitte shows how Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon without divine guidance or without translating anything, simply by using literature available at the time. He has compared the Book of Mormon and those source books in great detail, listing hundreds of very close parallels, in wording, in order of presentation, in basic ideas. This book will make it very difficult for anyone to argue that Joseph Smith "could not have written the Book of Mormon." Persuitte's book goes far beyond B. H. Roberts' posthumously published "Studies of the Book of Mormon," but is in that same vein.
In the essay collection American Apocrypha edited by Brent Metcalfe and Dan Vogel there is a must-read article by Scott C. Dunn (pp 17-46) called "Automaticity and the Dictation of the Book of Mormon." Dunn thoroughly demolishes this line of argument (that an uneducated Joseph Smith could not have written it without divine guidance) by giving detailed examples of other books, as long, as detailed, as complex as the Book of Mormon, which were produced by authors equally as unskilled and unlearned in the subject matter as Joseph Smith was. It is a phenomenon called by various terms such as channeling or automatic writing.
One of the examples he gives is a book I came across when I first began really to explore Mormon history: Oahspe, which is a scripture-like book published in 1882 by John Newbrough. Newbrough had been visited by an angel and told to prepare himself for an important divine task by living a righteous life for a probationary period. He did so, and then was commanded by the angel to buy a typewriter and paper and to sit down at the typewriter and place his hands on the keys. When he objected that he did not know how to type, the angel said that he did not need to know how to type. The angel then proceeded to type rapidly the text of the book, using Newbrough's fingers. When I examined the book in the university library, I immediately thought, "This is just like the Book of Mormon!" (The Oahspe book is on-line here.)
Other examples Dunn discusses are Schucman's Course in Miracles, Edgar Cayce's books, Jane Roberts' "Seth" books, the Urantia books, Levi H. Dowling's writings, and - perhaps the most amazing example - the Patience Worth books, channeled through an uneducated woman named Pearl Curran.
Remember that it is not up to the critics of the Book of Mormon to "explain" it. I think of it like the magic tricks that the stage magician performs. I can't explain how the magician appears to saw the lady in half. But I don't have to explain how he manages the illusion in order for me to know that it's not what it appears to be. I still know that it's a trick. It's the same with the Book of Mormon. I don't have to explain how he produced it. However he managed to produce it, there is a mountain of evidence which says that it's not authentic.
I have just recently finished reading the book by Wayne L. Cowdrey, Howard A. Davis and Arthur Vanick, Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon?: The Spalding Enigma, Concordia, St. Louis, 2005, 558 pages, ISBN 0-7586-0527-7. This book is the product of over thirty years' research (the authors published a first version in 1977).
The book gathers together all the evidence to refute claims by Mormon apologists (and even many critics of Mormonism such as Fawn Brodie) who claim that there is no evidence to link Sidney Rigdon or Solomon Spalding's writings with the Book of Mormon. Rather, there is abundant and detailed evidence, presented here, that Spalding had written a now missing novel (NOT the one in the Oberlin College library) which had similarities in names and language style with the BoM; that the manuscript disappeared from the Patterson printing shop in Pittsburgh; that Sidney Rigdon was a regular hanger-on at the Patterson shop during the time Spalding's manuscript was there; that Spalding knew Rigdon and expressed suspicion that Rigdon had taken the manuscript; that Rigdon knew Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith by 1827; that Rigdon made several trips to the Palmyra area between 1827 and 1830 and even preached near there; that Cowdery had close family ties to the Smiths; that Rigdon was really the guiding light behind Mormonism; and - basically - Mormonism was based on a theft, a plagiarism and a religious hoax. No longer will apologists be able blithely to dismiss the suggestion that the BoM had its source in Rigdon's ideas and Spalding's novel.
The authors have done a meticulous job of examining old diaries, court records, genealogies, stagecoach schedules, local histories, contemporary newspaper articles and other contemporary sources to document their theories. Of course, in reconstructing events that have been the object of concerted efforts to cover them up, they have had to resort to some conjecture, but if one must choose between the authors' suggestions of a natural, human explanation for the origin of the Book of Mormon and a supernatural explanation, the principle of parsimony ("Ockham's Razor") must favor the natural explanation, however conjectural.
I recommend the book highly, with only a couple of criticisms. There is no index. The foreward, by Rev. George Mather of St. George, Utah, is a sermon on faith, having nothing to do with the content of the book. It would have been much more useful if the authors had given us a little background about themselves and how they came to write the book. The authors frequently insert comments into direct quotations, indicating that the comments are by "the Editors" - one assumes that the comments are rather by the authors, but then why not say so? But those are just quibbles and do not detract from the mass of evidence collected here.
Update (2/1/09) The authors of Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon now have a website devoted to their book, with supplemental materials, reviews, rebuttals, and interviews. And an index to the book is included, in .PDF format, downloadable. The website: http://www.solomonspalding.info.