Martin Harris (Latter Day Saints)

Martin Harris (Latter Day Saints)
Martin Harris
LDS Church Apostle
date unknown – incumbent
Called by Joseph Smith, Jr.
Personal details
Born Martin Harris
May 18, 1783(1783-05-18)
Eastown, New York
Died July 10, 1875(1875-07-10) (aged 92)
Clarkston, Utah Territory
Resting place Richmond Pioneer Cemetery, Missouri
39°17′6.76″N 93°58′34.93″W / 39.2852111°N 93.9763694°W / 39.2852111; -93.9763694 (Richmond Pioneer Cemetery, Missouri)

Martin Harris (May 18, 1783 – July 10, 1875) was an early convert to the Latter Day Saint movement who underwrote the first printing of the Book of Mormon and also served as one of Three Witnesses who testified that they had seen the golden plates from which Joseph Smith said the Book of Mormon had been translated.


Early life

Martin Harris was born in Eastown, New York, the second of the eight children. According to historian Ronald W. Walker, little is known of his youth, "but if his later personality and activity are guides, the boy partook of the sturdy values of his neighborhood which included work, honesty, rudimentary education, and godly fear."[1] In 1808, Harris married his cousin Lucy Harris.

Until 1831, Harris lived in Palmyra, New York, where he was a prosperous farmer. Harris's neighbors considered him both an honest and superstitious man.[2] A biographer wrote that Harris's "imagination was excitable and fecund." For example, Harris once imagined that a sputtering candle was the work of the devil.[3] An acquaintance said that Harris claimed to have seen Jesus in the shape of a deer and walked and talked with him for two or three miles.[4] The local Presbyterian minister called him "a visionary fanatic." [5] A friend, who praised Harris as being "universally esteemed as an honest man," also declared that Harris's mind "was overbalanced by 'marvellousness'" and that his belief in earthly visitations of angels and ghosts gave him the local reputation of being crazy.[6] Another friend said, "Martin was a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks."[7]

Book of Mormon witness

In 1828, Joseph Smith, Jr., another resident of Palmyra, said he had obtained a record of ancient inhabitants of the Americas engraved on golden plates and that he had been directed by the angel Moroni to translate this work. Harris assisted Smith both financially and by serving as his scribe. Mormon tradition holds that through the use of Urim and Thummim and/or a seer stone, Smith saw a translation of the writing on the plates and dictated the words to Harris.

Because Harris desired assurance of the work's authenticity, Smith transcribed characters from the plates to a piece of paper, perhaps the one now known as the Anthon transcript. Harris took this document to New York City, where he met with Charles Anthon, a professor of linguistics at Columbia College. Although Harris and Anthon later told conflicting versions about their encounter, the episode apparently satisfied Harris's doubts about the authenticity of the Golden Plates.[8] Nevertheless, Harris's wife continued to oppose his collaboration with Smith. After translating the first 116 pages of the manuscript, Harris asked Smith for permission to take the manuscript back to his wife in order to convince her of its authenticity. Smith reluctantly agreed. After Harris had shown the pages to Lucy and some others, the manuscript disappeared.[9] The loss temporarily halted the translation of the plates, and when Smith began again, he used other scribes, primarily Oliver Cowdery. Nevertheless, Harris continued to support Smith financially, and as the translation neared completion, Smith revealed that three men would be called as "special witnesses" to the existence of the Golden Plates. Harris, along with Cowdery and David Whitmer, was one of these Three Witnesses, although Joseph Smith clearly indicated that Harris's experience occurred separately from that of Whitmer and Cowdery.[10] Harris's attestation above what was implied to have been a joint testimony was printed with the book, and it has been included in nearly every subsequent edition.

In part due to their continued disagreement over the legitimacy of Joseph Smith and the golden plates, and because of the loss of his farm, which he had mortgaged to publish the Book of Mormon,[11] Harris and his wife separated. Lucy Harris was described by Lucy Mack Smith as a woman of "irascible temper," but Harris may also have abused her.[12] Lucy Harris also suggested that her husband may have committed adultery with a neighboring "Mrs. Haggart."[12]

LDS High Priest

Harris became an early member of the Church of Christ, which Joseph Smith organized on April 6, 1830. On June 3, 1831, at a conference at the headquarters of the church in Kirtland, Ohio, Harris was ordained to the office of High Priest and served as a missionary in the Midwest, Pennsylvania, and New York.

On February 17, 1834, Harris was ordained a member of Kirtland High Council, which was then the chief judicial and legislative council of the church. In response to the conflicts between Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri, Harris joined what is now known as Zion's Camp and marched fruitlessly from Kirtland to Clay County, Missouri. Afterwards, Harris — along with Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer — ordained a "traveling High Council" of twelve men that eventually became the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.[13] (Some early church leaders claimed that Harris, like Joseph Smith, Jr. and Oliver Cowdery, was ordained to the priesthood office of apostle;[14] however, there is no record of this ordination, and Harris—as with Cowdery—was never a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.)

Lucy Harris died in the summer of 1836, and on November 1, 1836, Harris married Caroline Young, the 22-year-old daughter of Brigham Young's brother, John. Although he was thirty-one years older than his new wife, Harris and Caroline had seven children together.

In 1837, dissension arose in Kirtland over the failure of the church's Kirtland Safety Society bank. Harris called it a "fraud" and was among the dissenters who broke with Smith and attempted to reorganize the church. Led by Warren Parrish, the reformers excommunicated Smith and Sidney Rigdon, who relocated to Far West, Missouri.[15] Parrish's church in Kirtland took control of the temple and became known as The Church of Christ. In its 1838 articles of incorporation, Harris was named one of the church's three trustees. By 1839, Parrish and other church leaders had rejected the Book of Mormon and consequently broke with Harris, who continued to testify to its truth. By 1840, Harris returned to communion with Smith's church, which had subsequently relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois.

Strangite, Whitmerite, Gladdenite, Williamite, Shaker

Even before he had become a Mormon, Harris had changed his religion at least five times.[16] After Smith's death, Harris continued this earlier pattern, remaining in Kirtland and accepting James J. Strang as Mormonism's new prophet, a prophet with his own set of supernatural plates and witnesses to authenticate them.[17] By 1847, Harris had broken with Strang and accepted the leadership claims of fellow Book of Mormon witness, David Whitmer. Mormon Apostle William E. M'Lellin organized a Whitmerite congregation in Kirtland, and Harris became a member. By 1851, Harris accepted another Latter Day Saint factional leader, Gladden Bishop, as prophet and joined Bishop's Kirtland-based organization.[18] In 1855, Harris joined with the last surviving brother of Joseph Smith, William Smith and declared that William was Joseph's true successor. Harris was also briefly intrigued by the "Roll and Book," a supernatural scripture delivered to the Shakers.[19] By the 1860s, all of these organizations had either dissolved or declined. In 1856, his wife Caroline left him to gather with the Mormons in Utah while he remained in Kirtland and gave tours of the temple to curious visitors.[20]

Rebaptism into the LDS faith

In 1870, at age 87, Harris moved to the Utah Territory and shortly thereafter was rebaptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Harris, who had been left destitute and without a congregation in Kirtland, accepted the assistance of members of the LDS Church, who raised $200 to help him move west to Utah. Harris lived the last four and a half years of his life with relatives in Cache Valley. He died on June 10, 1875 in Clarkston, Utah and was buried there. A pageant about Harris called "Martin Harris, The Man Who Knew", sponsored by LDS Church, is performed every other year in August in Clarkston.[21]

Testimony to the Book of Mormon

Although he was estranged from the LDS Church for most of his life, Harris continued to testify to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, at least during the early years, Harris "seems to have repeatedly admitted the internal, subjective nature of his visionary experience."[22] The foreman in the Palmyra printing office that produced the first Book of Mormon said that Harris "used to practice a good deal of his characteristic jargon and 'seeing with the spiritual eye,' and the like." [23] John H. Gilbert, the typesetter for most of the book, said that he had asked Harris, "Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?" According to Gilbert, Harris "looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, 'No, I saw them with a spiritual eye."[24] Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with "the eye of faith" or "spiritual eyes." [25] In 1838, Harris is said to have told an Ohio congregation that "he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision or imagination."[26] A neighbor of Harris in Kirtland, Ohio, said that Harris "never claimed to have seen [the plates] with his natural eyes, only spiritual vision." [27]

In March 1838, disillusioned church members said that Harris had publicly denied that any of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon had ever seen or handled the golden plates—although he had not been present when Whitmer and Cowdery first claimed to have viewed them—and they claimed that Harris's recantation, made during a period of crisis in early Mormonism, induced five influential members, including three Apostles, to leave the Church.[28] Even at the end of his long life, Harris said that he had seen the plates in "a state of entrancement."[29] Nevertheless, in 1853, Harris told one David Dille that he had held the forty- to sixty-pound plates on his knee for "an hour-and-a-half" and handled the plates with his hands, "plate after plate."[30] Even later, Harris affirmed that he had seen the plates and the angel with his natural eyes: "Gentlemen," holding out his hand, "do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Or are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the Angel and the plates." [31] The following year Harris affirmed that "No man heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon [or] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates."[32]


  1. ^ Walker 1986, p. 31
  2. ^ More "than a dozen of Harris's Palmyra contemporaries left descriptions of the man that describe his honor, honesty, industry, peacefulness, and respectability, his hard-headed Yankee shrewdness and his wealth." (Walker 1986, p. 35)
  3. ^ "Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle's sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop. 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. 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." (Walker 1986, pp. 34–35)
  4. ^ John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840 in EMD, 2: 271: "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." 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,EMD 2: 271, note 32.
  5. ^ Walker 1986, pp. 34–35
  6. ^ Pomroy Tucker Reminiscence, 1858 in Early Mormon Documents 3: 71.
  7. ^ Lorenzo Saunders Interview, November 12, 1884, Early Mormon Documents 2: 149.
  8. ^ See EMD 4: 377-86.
  9. ^ Doctrine and Covenants, 3)
  10. ^ Joseph Smith-History, 1839.
  11. ^ In March 2007, Russell Martin Harris, great-great-grandson of Martin Harris, gave a leather wallet, said to have been the one that carried Harris's money to the printer, to the LDS Church so that the wallet could be displayed at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City. AP story.
  12. ^ a b Lucy Mack Smith, 1853, in EMD 1: 367; "Lucy Harris statement," in EMD, 2: 34-36: "In one of his fits of rage he struck me with the butt end of a whip, which I think had been used for driving oxen, and was about the size of my thumb, and three or four feet long. He beat me on the head four or five times, and the next day turned me out of doors twice, and beat me in a shameful manner....Whether the Mormon religion be true or false, I leave the world to judge, for its effects upon Martin Harris have been to make hi more cross, turbulent and abusive to me." In March 1830, a revelation from Smith warned Harris not to "covet thy neighbor's wife." D&C 19: 25.
  13. ^ Joseph Smith, B.H. Roberts (ed.), (1902) History of the Church, 2:186-87.
  14. ^ See, e.g., Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses 6:29.
  15. ^ In 1838, Joseph Smith called the Three Witnesses Cowdery, Harris, and Whitmer "too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them." B.H. Roberts, ed. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1905), 3: 232.
  16. ^ Harris had been a Quaker, a Universalist, a Restorationist, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and perhaps a Methodist. (Walker 1986, pp. 30–33)
  17. ^ In August 1846, Harris traveled on a mission to England for the Strangite church.
  18. ^ Walker 1986, pp. 29–30
  19. ^ A pro-Mormon defense of Harris's behavior with regard to the Shakers. Harris never actually joined the Shakers; they advocated celibacy, and Harris was married. But Phineas H. Young told Brigham Young that Harris' testimony of Shakerism was "greater than it was of the Book of Mormon." Letter of Phineas H. Young to Brigham Young, Dec. 31, 1844.
  20. ^ EMD, 2: 258.
  21. ^ Martin Harris Pageant
  22. ^ Vogel, EMD, 2: 255.
  23. ^ Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 71 in EMD, 3: 122.
  24. ^ John H. Gilbert, "Memorandum," 8 September 1892, in EMD, 2: 548.
  25. ^ Martin Harris interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828 in EMD, 2: 270; Jesse Townsend to Phineas Stiles, 24 December 1833, in EMD, 3: 22.
  26. ^ Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, 15 April 1838 in EMD, 2: 291.
  27. ^ Reuben P. Harmon statement, c. 1885, in EMD, 2: 385.
  28. ^ Stephen Burnett to Luke S. Johnson, 15 April 1838, in Joseph Smith's Letterbook, Early Mormon Documents 2: 290-92.
  29. ^ Metcalf in EMD, 2: 347.
  30. ^ Martin Harris interview with David B. Dille, 15 September 1853 in EMD 2: 296-97.
  31. ^ Martin Harris interview with Robert Barter, c. 1870 in EMD, 2: 390.
  32. ^ Letter of Martin Harris, Sr., to Hanna B. Emerson, January 1871, Smithfield, Utah Territory, Saints' Herald 22 (15 October 1875):630, in EMD 2: 338. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 118.


Further reading

External links

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