That New Book of Mormon Wordprint Study: The Criddle Riddle – or Rigged for Rigdon?

A new wordprint study on the Book of Mormon breathes new life to a long-challenged theory for Book of Mormon authorship, the theory that its real author was Solomon Spalding secretly assisted by Sidney Rigdon. The just-published peer-reviewed study is “Reassessing Authorship of the Book of Mormon Using Delta and Nearest Shrunken Centroid Classification” by Matthew L. Jockers, Daniela M. Witten, and Craig S. Criddle. It’s certainly an interesting read, though be warned that accessing the article costs $28. It’s worth the price (if you’re intrigued by wordprint studies), and purchasing access also allows you to download the large data matrix used by the authors and some supporting information.

This is a study that demands some attention, in my opinion. Dr. Jockers, a Consulting Assistant Professor in the English Dept. at Stanford, has excellent experience in applying digital tools to the humanities. Daniela M. Witten is a Ph.D. student in statistics at Standford. Craig S. Criddle, the primary inspiration for the study, is a former Mormon who has long advocated the theory that Sidney Rigdon and Solomon Spalding were the real authors of the Book of Mormon. He maintained this in spite of extensive problems with the theory that has led some critics of the Book of Mormon to abandon this theory as hopeless. However, he is openly aware of his bias and I believe has sincerely tried to ensure that the number crunching and analysis was done fairly by others. That’s healthy.

Mr. Criddle has put the Rigdon/Spalding theory to the test — at least in his view — by comparing word usage in Book of Mormon chapters to a handful of modern authors to see which modern author’s style is closest to those in the Book of Mormon. This is the critical gap that seems to have confused a few people about this study. It is not a statistically valid test measuring the probability that either Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon is the author of a particular chapter, but a test that simply determines which of a tiny handful of authors (Joseph Smith excluded!) comes closest in style to each chapter of the Book of Mormon.

Two somewhat related techniques are used to compare word frequency characteristics: the “delta” method and the “nearest shrunken centroids” method (sometimes affectionately abbreviated as the “shrunken ‘roids” model). These methods look at the frequency of simple non-contextual words (words like “of”, “the”, and “and” whose usage typically doesn’t vary strongly as a function of the topic or context of writing) and compare stats from chapters in the Book of Mormon to characteristics obtained for text from each of the candidate authors. At first glance, I was astonished to see individual chapters of the Book of Mormon being assigned authorship with high probabilities. You can’t do that with such a small sample – but it was my mistake, for again, they are simply ranking each of the 7 candidates relative to that passage and seeing who comes closest. You can do that for a single verse or sentence, if you wanted, and always have a winner — but not necessarily a meaningful result.

The candidates in question DO NOT include Joseph Smith. The authors argue that he relied too much on scribes and that we don’t have a large amount of text that we know came from him. In my opinion, it seems that they aren’t even trying. Why not at least use some of his handwritten letters, and some of the early versions of his revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants? Why not try? I have to wonder if it is because they have already ruled out Joseph based on their preconceived notions, which are key to the Spalding theory.

While wordprint studies have sometimes been likened to fingerprints, with the ability to detect unique aspects of a writer’s style, the reality of statistical analysis of human text makes it difficult to have sufficient power to uniquely identify authorship, especially for small chunks of text like an individual chapter in the Book of Mormon. Larger blocks are typically required, and great care must be taken to account for complicating factors and the high variability that occurs in writing. For her master’s degree thesis in statistics, my wife, Kendra Lindsay, used computational wordprint tools to assess authorship of several Pauline epistles using Greek texts. It was difficult work leaving several areas unresolved, but raised the issue that large differences in style among the Pauline works might be due to multiple authorship in some cases or other influences.

She has not yet had time to review the new Book of Mormon study, and I’m not sure she is all that interested (she’d want to redo analyses, etc.), so for now you’re just getting my superficial non-expert views.

Being the “winner” among a pool of seven is a far cry from being proven to be the actual culprit. In the case at hand, the authors have a pool of 7 where victory can be proclaimed if the results point to either of two authors (well, four if we include Oliver Cowdery and Isaiah/Malachi) gaining the first or second place slot. For the 239 chapters of the Book of Mormon, the NSC (“shrunken ‘roids”) method assigns 1st place Cowdery 20 times, Pratt 9 times, Rigdon 93 times, Spalding 52 times, Isaiah/Malachi 63 times, Barlow 0 times, and Longfellow 2 times. The delta method gives Cowdery 5 chapters, Pratt 7, Ridgon 63, Spalding 47, Isaiah/Malachi 112, Barlow 0, and Longfellow 5. In fact, Isaiah and Malachi are assigned to far more chapters than I would expect, but this is downplayed. 21 of 22 chapters taken from Isaiah or Malachi are properly assigned to Isaiah and Malachi, which is nice (Isaiah 53, quoted by Abinadi, was assigned to Longfellow). But I believe the Isaiah/Malachi control text included the chapters that were being compared to it; if so, it’s not terribly impressive.

What would happen if we applied a similar approach to solving a crime? Someone has been shot. Evidence from witnesses and crime scene data suggests that the killer may have been male, with dark hair, over 5 feet tall, had a scar on his cheek, and drove a red Honda. The police round up 7 people from the area who could be suspects, including two suspects they don’t like and think could have done it. The two suspects are males with dark hair who were in the vicinity of the crime. The prosecuting attorney brings in a college professor who did a study comparing the evidence to the seven people, a pool that includes the two suspects plus three short female blondes, one short male blonde, and a short female redhead. None drive a Honda; none have scars on their cheek. The professor explains that careful testing and analysis has confirmed that the two suspects match the evidence far better than any of the other suspects. He goes through the Digital Hair Color Test, complete with detailed image analysis and computation color assessment. The two suspects are pegged with 99% probability. Then there is the Laser Height Test. A laser altimeter is user to determine that the two suspects have been selected as the best fits in terms of height with 99% probability. Then we have the Biomolecular Gender Test. Advanced DNA testing is used, and three of the candidates are selected with over 85% probability (some uncertainty arises from an extra chromosome), and sure enough, both of the main suspects are in this group of three males. Putting everything together, there is an overwhelming probability that the two suspects are the murderers, the jury is told. Should they convict?

In the Criddle study (and it deserves to be called the Criddle study, for he is the driving force for this work, for its assumptions, and for the hypothesis being tested), every chapter is going to have a winner, using this technique. Any randomly selected group of candidates can result in claims that at least one of them is the “guilty party” with this methodology. No matter how dissimilar the styles, how far apart the two texts may be, the method forces each chapter to be assigned to one of the 7 candidates as the best fit. It is entirely possible that Jeff Lindsay could be assigned as the author of numerous chapters of the Book of Mormon if my works were thrown into the mix, using the approach in the Criddle study. My own works could be assigned to Sidney Rigdon as well if there were compared to him and several other more dissimilar authors, with me being left out of the mix. What would that prove?

Surely Mr. Criddle and his friends must understand that this work is guaranteed to pick a winner every time from one of the seven candidates, regardless of how close their style actually is to the Book of Mormon, and that great caution must thus be exercised in drawing conclusions about actual authorship just because a dominant winner is found. Rigdon, Spalding, and Cowdery have styles that are closer to the Book of Mormon than, say, the poetry of Joel Barlow or Longfellow — but this says little about the true authorship of the Book of Mormon (though perhaps it helps us rule out Barlow and Longfellow).

Unfortunately, awareness of the limitations of this study is not keenly evident in the confident conclusions found in the article. Consider the abstract:


Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (1805–44) claimed that more than two-dozen ancient individuals (Nephi, Mormon, Alma, etc.) living from around 2200 BC to 421 AD authored the Book of Mormon (1830), and that he translated their inscriptions into English. Later researchers who analyzed selections from the Book of Mormon concluded that differences between selections supported Smith’s claim of multiple authorship and ancient origins.

We offer a new approach that employs two classification techniques: ‘delta’ commonly used to determine probable authorship and ‘nearest shrunken centroid’ (NSC), a more generally applicable classifier. We use both methods to determine, on a chapter-by-chapter basis, the probability that each of seven potential authors wrote or contributed to the Book of Mormon. Five of the seven have known or alleged connections to the Book of Mormon, two do not, and were added as controls based on their thematic, linguistic, and historical similarity to the Book of Mormon.

Our results indicate that likely nineteenth century contributors were Solomon Spalding, a writer of historical fantasies; Sidney Rigdon, an eloquent but perhaps unstable preacher; and Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher with editing experience. Our findings support the hypothesis that Rigdon was the main architect of the Book of Mormon and are consistent with historical evidence suggesting that he fabricated the book by adding theology to the unpublished writings of Spalding (then deceased).

Wow. I want to be tactful here, for I appreciate the efforts put forth to understand the Book of Mormon in this study. But if I understand what has been done, this study does not determine the probability that any of the potential candidates had anything to do with the Book of Mormon. It determines the probability that one candidate is closer to some metrics of Book of Mormon style than another candidate from an extremely limited pool that excludes the most likely modern candidate, Joseph Smith (though adding him might not have made any difference). But saying that Sidney Rigdon is closer to the style of, say, 2 Nephi 10, than Orson Pratt or Henry Longfellow tells us nothing about who wrote 2 Nephi 10. Unwittingly, the nature of this study may make it, in retrospect, inherently rigged for Rigdon/Spaulding/Cowdery. Maybe Ridgon + Spalding would have been the best fit even if hundreds of other possibilities had been tested, but that remains to be seen (actually, the wordprint work of Hilton et al. has already raised serious and highly credible questions challenging Spalding as a potential author of the Book of Mormon).

One positive aspect of this study: the results are consistent with the concept of multiple authorship. Some chapters are assigned to Spalding, some to Ridgon, and some to Cowdery, though it’s possible that none of these authors have styles close enough to the Book of Mormon to be a genuine candidate for authorship with more confidence than the hypothesis of multiple ancient authors with different styles translated by a single modern author in a way that allowed some subtle non-contextual stylistic differences to persist. If we can learn anything from the work, it may be that one source or one author alone may not reasonably account for the differences in style. Of course, that’s something some Mormons – including authors of previous wordprint studies – have been saying for quite a while.

A couple minor nitpicks. I opened up the 40+MB text file with data from all the authors and Book of Mormon. Did a couple of quick checks to see if there were any major problems – didn’t see any. I picked a few chapters of the Book of Mormon and looked to make sure some unique words were represented. Out of about 15 tries, I found only 1 problem. The word “rehearsed” in 2 Nephi 1:1 has been missed. The column for “rehearsed” (and for all related forms of the word) show 0 counts in 2 Nephi 1. I think it’s worthwhile to do some further checking of data integrity.

I would also suggest that the computerized text needs to be cleaned up. Some of the words have been “fouled” by punctuation. For example, “–wherefore” shows up as a distinct word, in addition to “wherefore”. Only a couple hundred words in the entries for the Book of Mormon fall into these “fouled” categories in the initial columns of the spreadsheet, but it suggests that the computerized data perhaps weren’t scrutinized and corrected. It’s possible that they might make a difference somewhere, but I would expect it to be minor.

This is my first response to this work and will require updating as I get more time. I may be wrong on several counts and will strive to correct any mistakes as I learn more. As always, do your own homework and don’t rely on error-prone amateurs like me. Fortunately, errors in these matters aren’t unique to Mormon apologists, and sometimes creep into the works of our critics, no matter how sincere and careful they have tried to be in advancing alternate theories for Book of Mormon authorship.

Update: Blair Dee Hodges provides an excellent discussion of the wordprint study on his blog, Life on Gold Plates. I’ve just added this blog to my blogroll to the right. Blair offers detailed, well researched and carefully written posts on meaningful topics. He has done a tremendous service with his notes from the 2008 FAIR Conference, for example. I was also pleased and enlightened with his treatment of the rumor about Joseph Smith allegedly saying the telestial kingdom was so wonderful that people would be tempted to commit suicide to get there if they saw it. Thanks, Blair!

Author: Jeff Lindsay

30 thoughts on “That New Book of Mormon Wordprint Study: The Criddle Riddle – or Rigged for Rigdon?

  1. I hear people say all that time that the biggest problem with statistical evidence is that, ultimately, they can be skewed to say whatever someone wants. The wordprint study seems to indicate this bias.

    On an unrelated note, the nit-picky grammar nazi in me feels that I should point out this sentence, so that you can fix it:

    ” The prosecuting attorney brings in a college professor who did a study comparing the evidence to the seven people, a pool that includes the two suspects plus three short female blondes, one short mail blonde, and a short female redhead.”

  2. Eh. Whoever wrote it, I know it to be the word of God, which leads me to believe that those in the Book of Mormon were the original authors. And thus it stops there for me. Of course, the study does seem very interesting.

  3. This line drives me crazy:

    “Our results indicate that likely nineteenth century contributors were Solomon Spalding, a writer of historical fantasies; Sidney Rigdon, an eloquent but perhaps unstable preacher; and Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher with editing experience. Our findings support the hypothesis that Rigdon was the main architect of the……”

    What a ridiculous statement to make. Our results indicate….hogwash is what they indicate, absolutely nothing is what they indicate. Trying to sound like this is proof is what they are doing and it is a bit unscientific.

  4. I wonder why they would leave Joseph Smith out of the comparative analysis? It seems that if the results were to ‘indicate’ that Joseph was the author, he was lying in claiming the ancient provenance of the book, but they are wrong about the Spalding theory. If they prove it wasn’t Joseph, they have to admit the possibility that he might have been telling the truth. Either way, their desired results are no longer viable. Leaving Joesph out seems to be entirely self-serving, right?

  5. The Spalding/Rigdon theory is based on the increasingly obvious fact that the Book of Mormon is a sophisticated, complex text – one that strains credulity to pin on Joseph Smith as his fabrication. Come on – he lacked the education and resources to pull off such a work. So then the critics, recognizing the preposterous nature of Joseph Smith as sole forger, conclude that someone more educated must have done it. Who could that be? Sidney Rigdon could fit the bill – but he was converted after he read the already published Book of Mormon. Ah, but it’s part of a plot. He pretended to be converted – by the book he secretly wrote with Solomon Spalding. It has some merits, if you insist that it’s a purely modern creation, and plenty of mystique.

  6. for some odd reason it says at the bottom of this post that there is a link to the most recent post on my family blog, which has nothing to do with this post. Kinda weird, and I can’t figure out how to delete it with all my (barely existent) computer knowledge. You can totally delete this comment, by the way.

  7. When people hang their reputation and intelligence on a theory, it is hard to back down and admit being wrong. That is core human nature, so it is no surprise to me that this analysis was structured in such a way to create the conclusion they desired.

    I have created research studies, and this one is amateurish – at best. The complexity of analysis doesn’t matter when the flaws are SO pronounced and central – and these simply are glaring in their bias.

  8. After having read Spalding’s Manuscript story, it strains my credulity to imagine that anyone at all could have rewritten it (or any other work by the same author) so drastically as to produce the Book of Mormon.
    One might as well imagine converting a half-baked sugar cookie to a peanut butter cookie by adding peanut buttter.

  9. This reminds me of the New Scientist article I read a while back where some researchers “proved” religion is merely a natural product of evolution.

    Here’s an excerpt:

    The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

    The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people – those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

    Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

    In other words, they created a model that gave adherents to religion a selective advantage and let it run for a bunch of generations. Sure enough, religion thrived.


  10. This is just another attack on mormons. I think what most people don't ask is why do mormons get attacked more than other denominations in christianity? After some considerable thought I think the reason boils down to Mormons offer new text (BOM, D&C) that other denominations don't have and this causes other denominations to attempt to tear it down.

    Is the BOM really a devine work or fabrication? This will be argued long after we are all gone. But I think most of us can agree that its yet to be proven totally false and for JS with limited knowledge that's saying something.

    My issue I've found has less to do with the BOM and more to do with other teachings that are 'new' (meaning other denominations don't teach them) but are not in the BOM. Its hard to decide if these are 'man made up' or devine relevations.

    Let everyone believe what they want and in the end God will decide who is right. I look forward to the day that I find out if BOM is 100% accurate and if the teachings that the church has on BOA, Temple Garments, and Celestial Marriage are 100% accurate.

  11. I’m the anon from the previous post and it’s early so forgive the spelling issues.

    I wanted to add one more comment and then I’m off to work on Christmas Eve.

    BTW… Merry Christmas to everyone.

    My comment comes down to how I think people would reply to knowing if BOM, BOA, Temple Garments are true or ‘man made up.’

    The usual answer I hear and what my Elders President says is ‘I was told it was true by God through Prayer’ and my response is always… Good for you but just because you know it’s true doesn’t mean that I know it’s true.

    Unfortunately I find myself as the doubting Thomas. When the Lord decides to tell me that BOM, BOA, Celestial Marriage etc is true then I will stop questioning it. Until that time (and yes that question is included in my prayers) I will continue to be skeptical on certain aspects of Mormonism.

  12. If the wordprint study had included Jeff, it would have found that he had written the parts of the Book of Ether that pre-teen boys find the neatest; e.g., civil war leading to mass annihilation and decapitated men gasping for air.

    Jeff- Alex has a good point. You meant to write “a short mail-order blonde”. Problably from a Russian mail-order wife service.

  13. 1. BOA = Book of Abraham.

    2. Let’s not forget the accusations that E.T.A. Hoffman‘s “The Golden Pot” story was Joseph Smith’s source of ideas for his encounter with Moroni and translation.

    Since Oliver Cowdery was the scribe for most of the Book of Mormon, he would have had to have been in on the scam. So for the Spaulding accusation to be true, both Rigdon and Cowdery would have had to have been in cahoots, and used both the Spaulding manuscript and “The Golden Pot”.

    Another point, is that Joseph Smith started telling his family and others about Moroni and the Nephites in 1823, when he was only 17, six years before the bulk of the translation/writing was done in 1929. Therefore, his exposure to both the Spaulding manuscript and The Golden Pot story would have had to have started then.

    Therefore, if the accusers are correct, that Rigdon brought the ideas of the Spaulding manuscript to Joseph, then Rigdon’s collusion with Joseph would have had to have started in 1823.

  14. Lies, damned lies, and statistics, aye? 😉

    Anyway, a fair and easy-to-read analysis, Jeff. Thanks for your work, as usual.

  15. 3. Jeff Lindsay (on his web site, also pointed out that there are more similarities between Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and the Book of Mormon, than there are between the Book of Mormon and Spaulding’s manuscript or “The Golden Pot.”

    Yet, “Leaves of Grass” was published in 1855, and Walt Whitman, the author, was only 11 years old when the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

    So in essence, Jeff used “word analysis” to show there’s a good probability that Walt Whitman stole parts of “Leaves of Grass” from the Book of Mormon!

  16. Here’s a question for somebody with access to the study – were the sample texts from Sidney Rigdon written before or after the Book of Mormon? If after, is it safe to discount the possibility of the book rubbing off on him? I’m sure he was far more familiar with it than me, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing “Book of Mormon style” more than once. Kind of fun, actually.


  17. My thought is that you are actually bringing up a very valid criticism on the study as what we read does affect the style in which we right.

    That is why people who heavily read certain authors find themselves beginning to write in that style. And while they eventually develop their own style the influence of those that they have admired and read heavily will still be there.

    It would be very interesting indeed if the majority of Rigdon and Cowdery’s samples were taken after they had definitely read the book rather then before. Somehow like you i think that this is probably the case which would subtract even more credibility from their already lacking analysis.

    Good job for bringing it to our attention.

  18. First, congratulations to our lead bloggernaut, Jeff. Do I detect in you entry a desire to be fair, forgiving and tolerant, rather than returning “railing for railing”?
    Now, let’s hope I don’t break such rules with my comment. My initial reaction is, why would someone do such a wordprint study unless they believed Spaudling actually sat down at a desk and penned the Book of Mormon? I thought the issue was whether Joseph borrowed ideas and descriptions from Spaulding, not that he used the very words Spaulding did?
    I gather, though, that the idea is Joseph was so influenced by Spaulding that he used the same writing style, to the point of even using “and” and “the” and “that” and placing those words the same as Spaulding did. I suppose if Joseph had the Spaulding document right in hand, as he wrote, and was taking verbage right out of it and putting it into the Book of Mormon, then you could have the same word usage. It would be interesting to know if this new study compared just those portions of the Book of Mormon where the description of events might be associated with those in Spaulding’s book.

  19. Solid analysis, and, from what I can tell, right on target.

    I have to admit that my eyes pretty much glaze over when I encounter the rare Spalding/Rigdon hobbyist. The theory has never had much to recommend it, in my opinion.

  20. Below are the sources used for Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery, all of which were written well after publication of the Book of Mormon.

    From Appendix A, Source Materials:

    Sidney Rigdon: an electronic copy of the Book of the Revelations of Jesus Christ to the Children of Zion (written in 1864) was provided by Mr David Marshall who transcribed the hand-written document, which is available in Copying Books A & B of the Stephen Post Collection at the University
    of Utah. We removed from this document specific citations of Old and New Testament scripture
    and the revelations to Phebe Rigdon (Sidney Rigdon’s wife). We also utilized Millenium (published
    December 1833 to May 1835), a collection of 14 articles published in the newspapers of
    the Latter Day Saints. This collection is available
    online at Passages from the Old and New Testament were removed.

    Oliver Cowdery: a series of writings from the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, were obtained from
    Saints/Cowdery-hist.html. Passages from the Old and New Testament were removed, as were other passages not attributable to Cowdery.

  21. I don’t buy the theory that Sidney’s writings are similar to the Book of Mormon because he absorbed so much of it after it was published. I say that because his writings don’t seem like the Book of Mormon at all. The use of language seems quite unrelated and uninfluenced. In fact, if it was really his book, I’d expect him to quote from it a bit more. He seems to rely very heavily on the Bible, and doesn’t seem terribly taken up by the Nephite record.

    Remember, nothing in this wordprint study suggests that anything about Signey’s writings is statistically close enough to the Book of Mormon to suggest common authorship. It’s just that for the particular metrics they chose, he was sometimes ranked closer than a couple of poets or Parley P. Pratt when forcing a “winner” to be selected for chapters of the Book of Mormon. Meaningless, I’m afraid.

    Is there anything in his writings that really smack of the Book of Mormon?

  22. But I haven’t see “Copying Book A” from Rigdon, written in 1864. Not available online. Anyone have a copy?

  23. I have several favourite authors – Sidney Rigdon just jumped to the top of the list! I love The Book of Mormon. The beautiful theology taught and the richness of the philosophy examined in it reveal the giftedness of the author. Surely, Sidney has been greatly underappreciated for his contribution to American literature. Maybe the authors of the study will consider submitting Sidney Rigdon’s name for consideration for book reviews. He surely deserves recognition for his masterpiece!

  24. As you know, sir, the 'Moormon' religion was founded only yesterday. What gives? cries beefy, Chet Hooper (-Hardy Boys). Alas! Do you even believe in Jesus, the Only God who hast cometh to save U.S. ??? Or not?

    Nevertheless, I wouldn't be too overly proud and self-righteous to lookit our blogs; wanna wiseabove after death? God bless you

  25. As you know, sir, the 'Moormon' religion was founded only yesterday. What gives? cries beefy, Chet Hooper (-Hardy Boys). Alas! Do you even believe in Jesus, the Only God who hast cometh to save U.S. ??? Or not?

    Nevertheless, I wouldn't be too overly proud and self-righteous to lookit our blogs; wanna wiseabove after death? God bless you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.