Evidence #27 | September 19, 2020

Martin Harris

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Throughout his life, Martin Harris consistently testified that an angel presented the golden plates of the Book of Mormon to his view and that a voice from heaven declared the truthfulness of its translation.

Martin Harris was the first person besides Joseph Smith to be promised a view of the plates which contained the Book of Mormon, on the condition that he “humble himself in mighty prayer and faith” (D&C 5:24).1 When the day came for the Three Witnesses to see the plates, Martin was again warned that he needed to humble himself before God if he wanted to “look upon the plates.”2

The Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon Compilation, retouching and colorization by Bryce M Haymond.

Martin struggled to exercise the requisite faith and humility, even as he went into the woods to seek for the promised vision with Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer. Martin withdrew from the group, and Joseph, Oliver, and David received the vision without him. Then Joseph sought out Martin, whom he found praying in the woods. The vision was then revealed to Joseph and Martin. Ecstatic at finally being granted a view of the plates, Martin cried out, “’tis enough, ’tis enough, mine eyes have beheld, mine eyes have beheld.”3

Throughout his life, Martin continued to bear testimony that he saw an angel and the golden plates, and that he heard a voice from heaven testify that the plates had been translated “by the gift and power of God.”4 His consistent testimony is documented by more than 100 sources.5 Most of these are the recollections of others about what Martin said, but a few are first-hand.

In an interview with Joel Tiffany, Martin affirmed that “by the power of God I have seen [the plates].”6 When Martin finally came west to join the Saints in Utah, he spoke at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, declaring, “Previous to my being baptised I became a Witness of the Plates of the Book of Mormon.”7 In a letter to Hanna Emerson, Martin wrote, “concerning the plates, I do say that the angel did show to me the plates containing the Book of Mormon.”8 Martin emphatically reaffirmed this in a second letter to Emerson a few months later.9

Beyond these brief first-hand statements, many who heard Martin testify left behind their recollections of his testimony. As second-hand documents, singular accounts should be treated with some caution,10 but collectively they testify to Martin’s lifetime commitment to bear witness of the Book of Mormon.

Not only did Martin Harris see the plates, but he witnessed and participated in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Translating with Martin, by Anthony Sweat.

Skeptics and dissidents who heard Martin testify remembered him talking about seeing the plates with “spiritual eyes,” or the “eye of faith,” which they interpreted as meaning he did not really see the plates at all, only in “vision” or “imagination.”11 Martin, however, was only striving to fulfill his commission to testify that the plates were shown to him “by the power of God and not of man” (D&C 5:25). Thus, for Martin, seeing with “spiritual eyes” was more—not less—than seeing with the “natural eye.”12

Martin also had undeniably physical encounters with the plates,13 and many remembered him testifying that he experienced his vision of the angel and the plates with his natural senses. Martin would sometimes physically gesture toward his eyes, ears, and hands, to stress that he had actually seen the angel and the plates, heard the voice from heaven, and handled the plates.14

Witnesses remember hearing Martin stress that his vision of the angel and the plates was as real and sure as the shining sun.15 On other occasions, Martin would point to an object within sight of his hearers—an apple tree, a chopping block, axe-head, or even his own hand—and insist that as sure as they saw that object, he saw the angel with the plates.16 Martin often stressed that based on his experience with the angel and the plates, he did not believe the Book of Mormon was true, but rather he knew it was true.17 

Martin Harris and Joseph Smith behold the Angel Moroni, from the film "A Day for the Eternities."

Martin’s vision of the angel and plates turned him from a cautious and skeptical follower of Joseph Smith, to a man who knew the Book of Mormon was true, even as he faltered in his faith in some of Joseph’s later prophetic pronouncements.18 Martin’s enduring witness was borne not only in his words, but in a lifetime of faithful testimony, which came at high financial and social costs.19 He even traveled to England with supporters of James Strang, making him the only one of the three witnesses to bear testimony outside of North America.20

Toward the end of his life, Martin could honestly say “no man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, [and] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates.”21 On his deathbed, several witnesses said that he bore his final testimony of the Book of Mormon, the angel, and the plates with his last audible words.22 

Book of Mormon Central, “How Did Martin Harris Help Bring Forth the Book of Mormon? (2 Nephi 27:15)” KnoWhy 291 (March 24, 2017).

Rhett Stephens James, “Harris, Martin,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1993), 2:574–576.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 95–120.

Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2018).

Testimony of the Three Witnesses 2 Nephi 27:12 Ether 5:2–4

Testimony of the Three Witnesses

 2 Nephi 27:12

 Ether 5:2–4

  • 1 For the earliest extant copy of this revelation, see Revelation, March 1829, in Michael Hubbard MacKay, et al., eds., Joseph Smith Papers—Documents, vol. 1: July 1828–June 1831 (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2013), 16–19.
  • 2 Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, 1844–1845 draft, in Lavina Fielding Anderson, ed., Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2001), 452; also in Larry E. Morris, ed., A Documentary History of the Book of Mormon (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 392.
  • 3 Joseph Smith, History Drafts, 1838–ca. 1841, draft 1, in Karen Lynn Davidson, et al., Joseph Smith Papers—Histories, vol. 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832–1844 (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 320.
  • 4 Quotation from The Testimony of the Three Witnesses, ca. June 1829, printed in the Book of Mormon. For assessment of Martin’s lifetime of testimony, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981), 107–118. See also Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2018).
  • 5 The most complete collection of these documents is Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 2:260–393 (cited as EMD from his point on). See also Morris, Documentary History, 380, 397–402; Preston Nibley, ed., Witnesses of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1968), 112–142.
  • 6 Joel Tiffany, “Mormonism—No. 2,” Tiffany Monthly 5, no. 4, August 1859, in Morris, Documentary History, 194. Martin’s claim in this interview that Joseph Smith and the three witnesses are the only ones to ever see the plates may be alluding to the three witnesses’ unique status as the only ones besides Joseph Smith to be shown the plates by an angelic messenger. In any case, Martin’s testimony of his own experience as one of the three witnesses, and his affirmation here that they saw the plates, is authoritative as a first-hand statement, but he cannot negate the experiences and testimonies of others, such as the eight witnesses, who testified to seeing the plates. See Larry E. Morris, “Empirical Witnesses of the Gold Plates,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 52, no. 2 (2019): 75–76.
  • 7 Martin Harris’s Testimony, September 4, 1870, in Morris, Documentary History, 297. Morris identifies this as a transcript of Martin’s speech at the Tabernacle, but Vogel (EMD 2:331) considers it a document dictated directly to Edward Stevenson that morning, separate from the speech he gave. See also Black and Porter, Martin Harris, 431–434. Charlette Adams, who was in attendance at the Tabernacle on this occasion, remembered Martin holding out his arm and saying “I would rather have my right arm cut off than deny the knowledge of seeing and handling the plates” (EMD 2:389, spelling silently corrected). Wilford Woodruff was also in attendance, and recorded in his journal, “Martin Harris arose & bore testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon.” Wilford Woodruff Journals, 1865 October–1872 December, September 4, 1870, LDS Church Archives.
  • 8 Martin Harris to H. B. Emerson, November 23, 1870, in Morris, Documentary History, 237. For some background on this letter, see Richard L. Anderson, “Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 45–46.
  • 9 Martin Harris to H. B. Emerson, January 1871, in EMD 2:338–339.
  • 10 Steven C. Harper, “The Eleven Witnesses,” in The Coming forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, ed. Dennis L. Largey, et al. (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2015), 120, 123 discusses the pitfalls of relying on second-hand accounts about the witnesses.
  • 11 See, for example, Jesse Townsend to Phineas Stiles, December 24, 1833, in EMD 3:20; Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, April 15, 1838, in EMD 2:291–293; John A. Clark to Dear Brethren, August 31, 1840, in EMD 2:270; Pomeroy Tucker, Origins, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, in EMD 3:122; John H. Gilbert to James T. Cobb, March 16, 1879, in EMD 2:526; A. Metcalf, How I Became a Mormon and Why I Became an Infidel! (1888), in EMD 2:346; Reuben P. Harmon Statement, ca. 1885, in EMD 2:385. Note that at least half of these (Townsend, Clark, Tucker) do not claim to have spoken directly to Martin about his vision, and are instead reporting rumor.
  • 12 For discussion and critical evaluation of the sources mentioning “spiritual eyes,” see Anderson, Investigating, 155–158; Morris, Documentary History, 370–372; Harper, “The Eleven Witnesses,” 119, 124–127. Even Dan Vogel, who strongly favors these accounts emphasizing the “spiritual” or “visionary” nature of the experience (which Vogel interprets as meaning “subjective”) notes that Martin himself understood this language to be in accordance with D&C 5:25 and 17:2–3 (see EMD 2:254–258). Vogel ultimately concludes, “Regardless of the nature of Harris’s visionary experience with the plates, Harris believed in the book’s verity. His experience apparently gave him the necessary proof he sought” (EMD 2:258).
  • 13 Before becoming an official Book of Mormon witness, Martin hefted the box with the plates, and also felt and handled the plates while they were covered by a cloth. See Tiffany, “Mormonism—No. 2,” in Morris, Documentary History, 194, 197; David B. Dille, “Additional Testimony of Martin Harris (One of the Three Witnesses),” September 15, 1853, in Millennial Star 21, no. 34 (August 20, 1859), 545.
  • 14 William Waddoups, “Martin Harris and the Book of Mormon,” statement made in April 20, 1918, in Improvement Era 26, no. 11 (September 1923): 980; Alma L. Jensen, Statement, June 1, 1936, in EMD 2:378.
  • 15 George Mantle to Marietta Walker, December 26, 1888, in EMD 2:387; William Harrison Homer, testimony given January 3, 1922, in EMD 2:314; William Pilkington, affidavit, April 3, 1934, in EMD 2:355. See also Anderson, Investigating, 116–117. Mantle to Walker is recounting what Mantle heard Martin say in Birmingham, England, in 1846. This comparison may have been inspired by his Patriarchal blessing, where he was promised that his testimony would “shine like the sun.” See Black and Porter, Martin Harris, 263.
  • 16 See Comfort E. Godfrey Flinders, dictated to N. B. Lundwall, September 2, 1943, in EMD 2:292; Edward Moroni Thurman, as cited in Anderson, Investigating, 116; Black and Porter, Martin Harris, 465–466; William Glenn to O. E. Ficshbacher, in Black and Porter, Martin Harris, 469–470; George Godfrey, as cited in Black and Porter, Martin Harris, 500.
  • 17 “Martin Harris.—One of the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon,” Deseret News, September 7, 1870, 866; John Thompson, Autobiography, in EMD 2:390; Robert Aveson, “The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon,” Deseret News, April 16, 1927, in Black and Porter, Martin Harris, 467; Thomas Godfrey, affidavit, July 2, 1933, in EMD 2:369; John E. Godfrey, affidavit, July 2, 1933, in EMD 2:372; John Buttars, affidavit, July 2, 1933, in EMD 2:368; Alma L. Jensen, affidavit, June 1, 1936, in EMD 2:378. See also the collective statement of Thomas Godfrey, John Buttars, Alma Jensen, John E. Godfrey, and Charley Shumway, in EMD 2:390; Edward Stevenson, “The Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. No. II,” Millennial Star 48, no. 23, June 7, 1886, 367; Edward Stevenson, Reminiscences of Joseph, the Prophet, and the Coming forth of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT, 1893), 29–30; Edward Stevenson to Deseret News Editor, November 20, 1881, in Deseret Evening News, December 13, 1881.
  • 18 On the ways Martin exercised caution and skepticism about Joseph’s claims before seeing the angel and plates, see Anderson, Investigating, 107–109.
  • 19 During the final years of his time in Kirtland, Martin was financially destitute and a social pariah. See H. Michael Marquardt, “Martin Harris: The Kirtland Years, 1831–1870,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35, no. 3 (2002): 38–39. Samuel F. Whitney remembered of Martin, “The last years of his stay in Kirtland he suffered extreme poverty” and had “spent his estate in promulgating Mormonism.” Rev. S. F. Whitney, signed statement to Arthur B. Deming, March 6, 1885, in Naked Truths about Mormonism 1, no. 1, January 1888, 3 col. 6. Even back in Utah, Martin was stigmatized for being unfaithful for so many years. See Martin Harris Jr. to George A. Smith, July 13, 1875, in Black and Porter, Martin Harris, 516–518.
  • 20 On Martin’s trip to England, see Robin Scott Jensen, “A Witness in England: Martin Harris and the Strangite Mission,” BYU Studies 44, no. 3 (2005): 79–98. Since Martin arrived as a Strangite missionary, heated polemics were directed at him and the other Stangite missionaries by the leaders of the Church in England, who supported the Twelve. Martin personally felt the sting of the harsh rebukes, but still testified faithfully of the Book of Mormon. See “Religious Imposters,” Millennial Star 9, no. 6, March 15, 1847, 85–89; Mantle to Walker, in EMD 2:387; Harris to Emerson, January 1871, in EMD 2:338; Charles Derry, in the True Latter Day Saints’ Herald 23, no. 7, April 1, 1876, 198.
  • 21 Harris to Emerson, January 1871, in EMD 2:338.
  • 22 Martin Harris Jr. to George A. Smith, July 9, 1875, in EMD 2:392; “Martin Harris,” Deseret Evening News, July 17, 1875, 3; George Godfrey, affidavit, October 29, 1921; William Harrison Homer, “The Passing of Martin Harris,” Improvement Era 26, no. 5 (March 1926): 472 (statement written and signed July 10, 1925); William Pilkington to Vern C. Poulter, February 28, 1930, in EMD 2:351–352.
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