Hey guys, so at the beginning of every Book of Mormon is the testimony of the 3 Witnesses who claimed that “an angel came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon.”
This is a big deal. Previously Joseph had been commanded not to show the ancient Book of Mormon record to anyone. But suddenly, all these people are saying “Yeah, they’re real. We’ve seen them.” What do we do with that? Were they crazy? Lying? Tricked? Or just telling the truth? In this episode, we’re going to take a closer look at the witness of a man named Martin Harris.
Martin Harris was born in 1783. When the Smith family moved to Palmyra, New York, in 1816, Martin and his family were living on their farm about three and a half miles away. He was initially skeptical of Joseph’s story of having discovered the Book of Mormon plates. For example, he separately interviewed Joseph’s wife and siblings about the plates, comparing details from their stories.
When it came down to funding the project, he told Joseph, “…if it is the devil’s work I will have nothing to do with it, but if it is the Lord’s, you can have all the money necessary to bring it before the world … Now you must not blame me for not taking your word. If the Lord will show me that it is his work, you can have all the money you want.” He was soon convinced of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and donated what today would be between 70 and 80 thousand dollars for the publication.
On another occasion, he swapped out the seer stone Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon with a similar-looking rock. When Joseph tried to use it, he said, “Martin! What is the matter? All is as dark as Egypt.” Martin came clean and said he’s swapped the stone to “stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them.”
Martin was sometimes described as superstitious, but he was also described as “Shrewd in his business calculations” and “frugal in his habits.” Very wary of the lingering possibility of being conned, you can sense the relief he felt after he saw the plates as he cried out, “‘Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld!” Lucy Smith remembered Martin “seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard.”
And Martin gave that same bold testimony throughout the rest of his life, even after being separated from the Church for many decades. Before returning to the Church in 1870, Martin affiliated himself with a few different Latter-day Saint splinter groups, the common factor in them all clearly being the Book of Mormon. Even through a quasi-committed stint with the Shakers, he stuck to his testimony.
Out of all of the witnesses, Martin Harris clearly gets the most flack from critics. Oliver Cowdery became a well-respected lawyer. David Whitmer was a mayor for a time. But Martin was just a farmer. A very successful farmer, but a farmer. He wasn’t exceptionally educated and he didn’t leave behind much first-hand information for anyone.
But people both inside and outside the Church considered Martin to be honest and upright. So instead of contesting his honesty, most skeptics today contest his sanity or his grip on reality in order to cast doubt on his credibility.
For example, you might come across vaguely-sourced quotes about Martin supposedly talking with Christ who was in the form of a deer, or him seeing Christ on a roof beam. What critics probably won’t highlight is that both those claims (at least) come from late third-hand hostile sources, which means we have to approach them with extreme caution. Historians don’t exactly consider late third-hand hostile sources to be the pinnacle of reliability.
A couple of sources (second and third-hand sources) suggest Martin only saw the plates with “a spir[i]tual eye,” suggesting he really only imagined seeing the plates. I’ll let David Whitmer answer that claim. He said,
“Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything around was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Martin Harris, you say, called it ‘being in vision.’ We read in the scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God, Daniel saw an angel in a vision, also in other places it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled [the woods as] at noonday, and there in a vision or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon.”
And we’d also be remiss to ignore the countless other sources that make it very clear that Martin saw the plates and the angel with his real physical eyes.
So, did Martin actually see the plates, or was he crazy? Were all of the other corroborating witnesses crazy too? Or were they lying? Or can we shrug it all off as the product of mass hallucination or hypnosis as some renowned critics believe? Or, could it be possible that Martin was just telling the truth?
If you’ve heard something about Martin that I haven’t addressed here, please check out the article on our website where I more specifically address several other interesting quotes. Also, check out our episodes on the other two of the three witnesses, and enjoy this little montage of statements about Martin’s witness—feel free to pause and read as many as you’d like.
- Attempting to Impeach Martin Harris, by LDS Truth Claims: http://bit.ly/39uSxlH
- Latter-day Saint Q & A video on the witnesses: http://bit.ly/39uSGWh
- Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses: http://bit.ly/39xQ49P
- Comment on the Book of Mormon Witnesses, by Matt Roper: http://bit.ly/37uxmOD
- What Ohio State has to say about third-hand (tertiary) sources: http://bit.ly/35eT87H
- I highly recommend the book, “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” by Richard L. Anderson.
Notes for Learning Even More:
Many critics cite Martin as having said to have viewed the plates with a “spiritual eye” or “the eye of faith” in an attempt to portray his experience as simply imaginary, and not literal. This may be a false dichotomy, for viewing something with a “spiritual eye” does not necessarily mean it was not a literal experience. Martin may have simply been employing scriptural language we find in Moses 1 and elsewhere:
Moses 1:11, “But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face.”
This matches up well with a description of the witness experience attributed to David Whitmer: “…he saw the plates, and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it—that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God” (Journal of Nathan Tanner Jr., 13 April 1886). More here: http://bit.ly/2SRXw9Y
Some notes on quotes often used against Martin Harris (emphasis added to help you find whatever you’re looking for):
According to former pastor John A. Clark: “To know how much this testimony [of three witnesses] is worth I will state one fact. A gentleman in Palmyra, bred to the law, a professor of religion, and of undoubted veracity told me that on one occasion, he appealed to Harris and asked him directly,-’Did you see those plates?’ Harris replied, he did. ‘Did you see the plates, and the engraving on them with your bodily eyes?’ Harris replied, ‘Yes, I saw them with my eyes,-they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.’ ‘But did you see them with your natural,-your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.’ Harris replied,-’Why I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me,-though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.’
|Dan Vogel’s volumes of Early Mormon Documents are a common source for these quotes. In Vogel’s book, he attributes this quote to an interview between John A. Clark and Martin Harris in 1827 or 1828. But the quote itself was written in a letter from Clark written on August 31, 1840. It seems that Clark is mixing and matching experiences from both before and after Martin’s official witness experience. For example, it’s true that Martin’s experiences with the plates before 1829 were limited to them being “covered over with a cloth” or within a wooden chest. Before 1829 he did not see them with his physical eyes. After 1829, Martin had seen the plates with his own eyes. The phrase “they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man” is coincidentally recorded almost verbatim in the official testimony of the three witnesses: “…they have been shown unto us by the power of God and not of man.” It appears Clark has taken two different but true experiences with the plates (one pre-witness and one post-witness) out of their proper timeline in order to portray them as contradictory. Not to mention that fact that this “interview with John A. Clark” is actually not an interview at all, for it’s something that Clark heard about from an anonymous “gentleman in Palmyra,” which makes this quote a third-hand hostile, anonymous quote. More here: http://bit.ly/2sx9ewb
“No matter where he went, he saw visions and supernatural appearances all around him. He told a gentleman in Palmyra, after one of his excursions to Pennsylvania, while the translation of the Book of Mormon was going on, that on the way he met the Lord Jesus Christ, who walked along by the side of him in the shape of a deer for two or three miles, talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another.”
|This quote comes from the same letter by Reverend John A. Clark as the last quote explored. The entire purpose of the letter is to attempt to discredit the Book of Mormon. It’s a third-hand, hostile source. It doesn’t get much worse than that. Who knows how reliable this rumor is. In reference to this and the “poised on a roof beam” thing, Ronald Walker says, “Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ…”
John A. Clark source: https://bit.ly/2sFPF4H
Ronald Walker source: https://bit.ly/2ZIlZ2S
In a letter from Stephen Burnett to Lyman Johnson, 15 April 1838: “…when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations was sapped & the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins, I therefore three weeks since in the Stone Chapel gave a full history of the Church since I became acquainted with it, the false preaching & prophecying etc of Joseph together with the reasons why I took the course which I was resolved to do, and renounced the Book of Mormon with the whole scene of lying and deception practiced by J. S & S. R in this church, believing as I verily do, that it is all a wicked deception palmed upon us unawares[.] I was followed by W. Parish Luke Johnson & John Boynton all of who concurred with me, after we were done speaking M Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of air but should have let it passed as it was…” Letter: http://bit.ly/36liOAC
|This is a second-hand, hostile report. So much of this quote is included because it seems to partially resolve itself. When Stephen expressed his concerns publicly, Harris himself stood up, apparently having felt misrepresented, and attempted to set the record straight. His description of having hefted the plates is probably a description of his pre-witness experience with the plates, when he handled them but did not physically see them. Then again, we do not have first-hand knowledge about what Martin actually said, but if we measure the amount of quotes alleging that Martin only imagined the plates with the amount of quotes very clearly alleging he saw them with his own eyes (especially in conjunction with the statements of the other witnesses), it becomes pretty obvious which story Martin himself actually adhered to.
“Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop” (Walker 1986, pp. 34-35).
|The actual quote from the original source: “The reading had proceeded for some time, when the candle began to spit and splutter, sometimes almost going out, and flashing up with a red-blue blaze. Here was a phenomenon that could not be mistaken. To say that the blaze had been interrupted by the flax shives that remained in the tow wicking, would not do; but Martin Harris arrived at a conclusion ‘across lots:’ ‘Do you see that,’ said he, directing his remark to me and the old lady, who sat beside him. ‘I know what that means; it is the Devil trying to put out the light, so that we can’t read anymore.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the old lady; ‘I seed ‘im! I seed ‘im! As he tried to put out the burnin’ wick, when the blaze turned blue.’ The tallow dip shortened at such a fearful rate that the further reading had to be abandoned.” -From a book by Thomas Gregg, quoting Stephen Harding. Both are hostile. Quote source: https://bit.ly/2MP2QY6
|The agenda of Gregg’s book is evident in the following snippet from the book itself: “…to aid in exposing a most silly and dangerous delusion….” For all we know, Martin could have been joking, or the expression was a cultural non sequitur, idiom, or bit of rhetoric Martin had picked up. Or it could just be a sincere expression of superstition. Surely every Christian believes in Satan and believes Satan tries to influence us negatively. Surely interpreting different events as supernatural signs was far from unique to Martin Harris. Comparing this singular event to Martin’s lifelong testimony of the absolute reality of the Book of Mormon record and angelic visitation is far from an apples-to-apples comparison, especially when the many other witnesses are taken into account that corroborate Martin’s story.
“Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears.”
|From the original source: “Martin stayed at his Fathers and slept in a Bed on the floor with me. Martin awoke me in the nite and asked me if I felt anything on the Bed. I told him no. Says I, ‘Did you?’ ‘Yes, I felt something as Big as a grat Dog Sprang upon my Brest.’ Says I, ‘Was you not mistekened.’ ‘No,’ says he. ‘It was so.’ I Sprang up and felt, But I Could see nor feal nothing.”
|Maybe something did jump on his chest and ran off. Or maybe it was a case of sleep paralysis or just a bad dream. It sort of reminds me of the 1781 painting by Henry Fuseli titled, The Nightmare. You’re probably familiar with it, too: http://bit.ly/35oPbx8
Original source for this story: https://bit.ly/2sIuW01
Critics often cite the following to cast doubt on Martin’s experience: “Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam.”
|The full quote is actually an analysis of rumors about Martin in an article by Ronald Walker: “Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam.”
Full quote: https://bit.ly/2ZIlZ2S
|But the original story traces back to an 1880 edition of Lippincott’s Magazine, written by Frederic G. Mather. He wrote: “After living in Palmyra for about ten years, the Smith family moved southward a few miles and settled in Manchester, the northern town of Ontario county. Their residence was a primitive one, even for those days. William Van Camp, the aged editor of the Democratic Press at Lyons, recalls the fact that it was a log house from the following circumstance. Martin Harris, a farmer near Palmyra, visited the Smiths while he was yet in doubt concerning the doctrines of Mormonism. One night, while he was in his room, curtained off from the single large room of the interior, there appeared to him no less a personage than Jesus Christ. Harris was informed that Mormonism was the true faith, and Van Camp knows that it was a log house, although no vestige now remains, because Harris told him that his celestial visitor was lying on the beam overhead!” Source: https://bit.ly/36inw2l
|The Smiths arrived in Palmyra is about 1816, which places this alleged story somewhere around the year 1826. The quote in question comes from an 1880 magazine—meaning that this story was written some 50+ years after-the-fact, and the source is “the aged editor of the Democratic Press at Lyons.” This is a third-hand hostile account recorded decades after-the-fact. To not take this story with a huge grain of salt, in my opinion, would be intellectually dishonest.
From the CES Letter: “In addition to his devotion to self-proclaimed prophet James Strang, Martin Harris was a follower to another self-proclaimed Mormon prophet by the name of Gladden Bishop. Like Strang, Bishop claimed to have plates, a Urim and Thummim, and that he was receiving revelation from the Lord. Martin was one of Gladden Bishop’s witnesses to his claims.” Source from CES Letter attributed to Wikipedia: https://bit.ly/2QIhpNU
|The plates and other main artifacts supposedly obtained by Bishop were said to be the very same artifacts once given to Joseph Smith. The revelation to Bishop reads (emphasis added), “…I again sent mine Holy Angels even as to Joseph [Smith] at the first and put into the hands of my servant Gladden [Bishop] the same sacred things which I put into the hands of my servant Joseph.” The revelation to Bishop called Martin to be a witness of the same plates he’d already been a witness of. On top of that, the revelation only states that Gladden “should call” Martin as a witness. There seems to be no evidence that Martin claimed to have seen the plates in Bishop’s possession. Martin may have simply seen the calling as redundant. I have seen zero signed (or unsigned) witness statements from Martin, nor have I read anything from him even referencing the plates in connection with Gladden Bishop at all. Certainly a strange thing to do for someone given a divine charge to witness to the world on the matter. The most concrete source I can find comes from a letter written by James W. Bay to Brigham Young in 1851, which mentions:
|“I saw Martin Harris and his wife[;] she wants to come West and Martin thinks he will go[,] for him and gladden bishop has been getting up the flying roll and a discription of the sacred things so called by gladden[,] and he has got Martin to believe in him and aid or give his name as a witness[,] and gladdens wife is a witness…” Source: http://bit.ly/2ZMsMsk
|As far as I’ve been able to discover, the “Flying Roll” was simply a description of the Book of Mormon plates. It would seem that Martin’s support of various Latter-day Saint splinter leaders revolved around the Book of Mormon, consistent with his life-long testimony.
More info here (you can read the “Flying Roll” here): http://bit.ly/2FjI26M
Gladden revelation: https://bit.ly/2MQKTIm (if anyone can find an original source on this, let me know)
From CES Letter, quoting Vogel: “According to two Ohio newspapers, shortly after Harris arrived in Kirtland he began claiming to have ‘seen Jesus Christ and that he is the handsomest man he ever did see. He has also seen the Devil, whom he described as a very sleek haired fellow with four feet, and a head like that of a Jack-ass.’” Vogel source: http://bit.ly/39Bpqgj
|Traced back to Guernsey Times, 16 April 1831, and American Friend and Marietta Gazette 30 April 1831. Unable to view/verify those references. Source: http://bit.ly/2FcUyF3
December 31, 1844 letter to Brigham Young from Phineas Young, J. Knight, Hiram Winters, and Ira Tufts: “…Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon…”
|This obviously is not a denial of his testimony, but it is certainly a curious statement, seeing as how it contradicts many, many other statements attributed to Martin in which he reiterates his testimony of the Book of Mormon. As far as I am aware, this is the only statement attributed to Martin in which his testimony of Shakerism is mentioned. A curious thing, if Martin’s testimony of Shakerism really did exceed that of the Book of Mormon. Additionally, Martin clearly never fully adhered to Shaker beliefs. Shakers renounced marriage. Martin was married during his time as a Shaker. Shakers also congregated in communities (similar to how early Latter-day Saints did), but Martin remained in Kirtland (not a Shaker community). We also do not know where the quoted information comes from. Did the letter’s author hear it first-hand from Martin himself? Under what circumstances? Why is his testimony of Shakerism (which is apparently stronger than that of the Book of Mormon) not recorded anywhere else? This quote is a bit of an anomaly.