When people stop believing in Joseph Smith as a prophet, they suddenly face the prospect of reconstructing a historical narrative they’ve believed their whole life. Joseph Smith the Prophet becomes Joseph Smith the fraud. The Book of Mormon -once holy scripture – is now just fiction being peddled as authentic history. Under this new paradigm, the actions of early church figures must be newly scrutinized. To this day, among disillusioned former believers, a lively debate persists over Joseph Smith’s motives – was he a con-man, or was he actually sincere? At what point in time did he start believing in himself, if ever? Was it just a ruse all along?
It’s difficult to get inside Joseph’s head, and I won’t attempt to do that too much here, except to state what I believe is obvious from the historical record: Joseph engaged in various forms of deceit. But after considering Joseph’s motivations, a question that usually follows is: who else might have been in on it? Did Joseph act alone, or did he have co-conspirators?
Asking this question in an ex-Mormon forum is a great way to start an argument. For example, one niche theory is that Joseph Smith had help in writing the Book of Mormon from Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery. I won’t get into that theory too much here (to do so would require a separate blog post), but I will say I don’t find the evidence for that especially compelling.
Instead, I’m going to focus on three people that might top the list of possible co-conspirators: the Three Witnesses. Did they conspire with Joseph to produce false testimony? Or were they duped?
The relationship between Joseph Smith and Martin Harris extends much further back in time than their collaboration on the Book of Mormon. The Smith family and the Harris family were already well-acquainted. Joseph and his brothers often worked as farm laborers for the well-off Harris family. Additionally, Martin Harris had been impressed with Joseph’s gifts as a scryer; he allegedly witnessed Joseph locate hidden objects with his seer stone. But then again, Harris was easily impressed; his neighbors described him as basically a good person, but overly superstitious. “He was given to a belief in dreams, ghosts, hobgoblins, ‘special providences,’ terrestrial visits of angels, [and ] the interposition of ‘devils’ to afflict sinful men,” according to one. “He was a great man for seeing spooks,” said another. In a statement signed by 51 Palmyra citizens, they described him as “a man who had acquired a handsome property, and in matters of business his word was considered good; but on moral and religious subjects, he was perfectly visionary—sometimes advocating one sentiment, and sometimes another.” It’s clear from these and other descriptions that Harris was known to be a credulous person.1
Reportedly, it was Joseph’s mother, Lucy Maack Smith, that was first sent to the Harris family to request financial help in the translation and publication of the Golden Plates. The plan, as presented to Harris, was to take a copy of some of the facsimiles to New York and find someone qualified to translate them. Lucy Smith was the chosen ambassador to the Harris family because she had the best relationship with Lucy Harris, from whom they expected some resistance. Surprisingly, Lucy Harris was very accommodating at first, giving them $200 to aid in the translation.
When Martin met with Joseph, Joseph related a story of how he came upon the plates – either through a dream, or an angelic visitation, depending on which version of Harris’ account you read. Joseph also told Harris that he had seen his name in his seer stone as the person who was supposed to help him with the translation and publication of the plates. Martin was flattered, but also wanted some assurance that Joseph was telling the truth. After Harris pressed him about seeing the plates, Joseph produced a revelation that said, “Behold if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that he could show them all things.” This revelation stalled Martin for a while. Eventually, Joseph allowed him to heave a wooden box that he claimed contained the plates, and Martin was convinced, demonstrating once again his remarkable credulity.2
Some time later, Joseph arranged for Martin Harris to take a copy of some characters from the plates to New York City. Accounts from both Joseph Knight Sr and Lucy Smith corroborate the claim that the motivation was to find someone who could translate the characters. Even Joseph’s first account, written in 1832, suggests that this was the original purpose of the visit: 3
[Martin Harris] took his Journy to the Eastern Cittys and to the Learned saying read this I pray thee and the learned said I cannot but if he would bring the plates they would read it but the Lord had forbid it and he returned to me and gave them to me to translate and I said cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters and thus the Prophicy of Isaiaah was fulfilled which is written in the 29 chapter concerning the book.
-Joseph Smith, 1832
The much more familiar version Joseph wrote much later, which is now included in the Pearl of Great Price, takes a different approach, claiming that Martin also left with Joseph’s translation in hand to confirm the veracity of Joseph’s translation and thereby appease any of his doubts. However, this version seems less congruous with the other accounts, including Joseph’s own original statement. The earlier versions also fit the Isaiah prophecy a bit better; the later PoGP version still tries to jam the prophecy in there, but it doesn’t work very well anymore, since Anthon is no longer being asked to “read” the document for them. The purpose of Joseph’s later retelling of the story seems to be to add credibility to his translation, whereas the original version merely aims to convince that Joseph has a genuine artifact, and perhaps fulfilled some scripture in the process. In his later retelling, Joseph tries to have it both ways, and the result is a little awkward. One might also reasonably ask how Charles Anthon could possibly have validated such a translation anyway – he could not possibly read Egyptian hieroglyphs (the Rosetta stone was still being deciphered), much less reformed Egyptian.
The later account (the one known by all Mormons) claims that Anthon declared Joseph’s translation correct, “more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian.” He writes Martin Harris a certificate, but upon hearing about the angelic dispensation of the source material, promptly tears it up.
In Joseph Smith’s own 1832 version though, Anthon simply says he cannot read it (Joseph carefully words it to sound like the Isaiah verse). Joseph Knight’s account agrees, saying “there were some Caricters they could not well understand. Therefore Anthony told him that he thot if he had the original he culd translate it. And he rote a very good piece to Joseph and said if he would send the original he would translate it.”4
Many believers are unaware that Anthon wrote about this visit as well. His version lines up better with the early accounts:
The whole story about my having pronouncd the Mormonite inscription to be “reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics” is perfectly false. Some years ago, a plain, and apparently simple-hearted farmer, called upon me with a note from Dr. Mitchell of our city, now deceased, requesting me to decypher, if possible, a paper, which the farmer would hand me, and which Dr. M. confessed he had been unable to understand. Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax…he [Martin Harris] intended selling his farm and handing over the amount received to those who wished to publish the plates. As a last precautionary step, however, he had resolved to come to New York, and obtain the opinion of the learned about the meaning of the paper which he brought with him, and which had been given him as a part of the contents of the book, although no translation had been furnished at the time by the young man with the spectacles. On hearing this odd story, I changed my opinion about the paper, and, instead of viewing it any longer as a hoax upon the learned, I began to regard it as part of a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money…This paper was in fact a singular scrawl. It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calendar given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived…the paper contained any thing else but “Egyptian Hieroglyphics.”
Anthon agrees with the other early accounts that Harris did not bring a completed translation with him, but rather was seeking a translator, although here Harris seems more interested in having the characters declared genuine than in actually procuring a translation. Anthon wrote about this encounter again in 1841 in a letter that generally agrees with the first one, although contradicting his earlier claim that he didn’t give Harris anything in writing.6
You don’t have to squint too hard to see Joseph’s hand in deceiving Harris in these accounts. Anthon’s description of the characters suggests that Joseph had tried to create a convincing artifact, evidently by copying random glyphs from ancient languages and altering them slightly. Perhaps Joseph, needing Harris to mortgage his farm for the publication of the Book of Mormon, thought that an academic endorsement that the characters were genuine would be just the push Harris needed. Joseph was likely too naive to understand that a classical linguist would recognize the lack of syntax, structure and context in the characters, not to mention the incongruity of several ancient alphabets being jumbled together. He probably thought just copying and slightly altering some of the characters would be enough. Anthon’s letter also recalls that Harris described Joseph dispensing the paper from behind a curtain, suggesting more deceit.
Nevertheless, Harris either misunderstood or refused Anthon’s warning. Believers point to this as evidence that Anthon must be lying about what he said to Martin, but their version of events is hard to justify. It requires the later, contradictory PoGP account to be the most correct one, and it implies that Anthon was somehow capable of authenticating a “Reformed Egyptian” translation in the first place. You might argue that Anthon saw the Latin or Greek characters, which he would have understood (it’s only in the later descriptions that it’s described as Reformed Egyptian) and asked to see the source document so he could translate it. It’s a more plausible explanation, but it directly contradicts the claim made by the Book of Mormon itself that it was written in Reformed Egyptian.
So why did Harris not heed Anthon’s warnings? We can only speculate. Believers often assert that Harris went home from this encounter and immediately mortgaged his farm. However, this is not quite the case, since there was nothing to even publish yet. He did go home and commence transcribing for Joseph, but Joseph still had some time to impress Harris before he had to commit to the mortgage. It’s also possible that Harris misunderstood Professor Anthon. You can imagine Anthon trying to describe to Harris that these characters were meaningless Latin, Hebrew and Greek letters, while Harris, missing the subtext, just hears that the characters themselves are authentic. In this scenario, Harris may have walked away thinking that Anthon confirmed the authenticity of the letters and only balked at Joseph’s fantastic story. It’s also possible (and this is my personal suspicion) that Harris wasn’t really so incredulous as the story asserts, and that he was mostly determined to get a written opinion from Professor Anthon in order to assuage his wife, Lucy, who was growing increasingly suspicious that Joseph was trying to defraud them. She had been desperately pleading with Martin to cease his business with Joseph Smith and to not jeopardize their farm.
Marin Harris later tried to placate his wife with further “proof,” the famous 116 page manuscript of translated material that was subsequently lost. According to one neighbor, Lucy hid the manuscript in an attempt to discredit Joseph Smith. When pressed to reveal its location, she wryly suggested “Joe Smith may peek for it,” a reference to his supposed gift of finding lost objects with his seer stone. According to this account, when Joseph was unable to locate the manuscript with his stone, he accused Lucy Harris of cheating and moving it at the last second. According to this neighbor, Lucy proclaimed Joseph a fraud and later destroyed the manuscript.7
Although this is just one person’s account and can’t be corroborated, the idea that Lucy Harris stole the manuscript was the predominant rumor at the time. Lucy Maack Smith accused her of as much.8 Whether or not Joseph really failed Lucy’s seer stone challenge, what’s interesting is how Joseph dealt with the loss. What comes next is the revelation found in D&C 10, in which God mildly censures Joseph for losing the pages, but comes down much harder on Martin. The revelation also demonstrates that Joseph had thought through the ramifications of trying to reproduce the manuscript, especially if Lucy Harris or someone else still had it hidden somewhere:
And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands. And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written… For behold, he has put it into their hearts to get thee to tempt the Lord thy God, in asking to translate it over again. And then, behold, they say and think in their hearts—We will see if God has given him power to translate; if so, he will also give him power again; And if God giveth him power again, or if he translates again, or, in other words, if he bringeth forth the same words, behold, we have the same with us, and we have altered them; Therefore they will not agree, and we will say that he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift, and that he has no power.
Looking at it from a non-believing perspective, it’s obvious that Joseph is covering his tracks. If he produces anything less than a word-for-word translation, he’d be exposed. He could totally do it, of course – except those evil men who have the manuscript are altering the manuscript to sabotage him (as a side-note, this revelation strongly suggests a “tight translation” of the Book of Mormon, if you’re acquainted with the loose vs. tight translation debate). Of course, this plan doesn’t make much sense – the manuscript was written in ink on foolscap paper, so any tampering would be pretty obvious. The traces of deceit are apparent in Joseph’s revelation. In his explanation, God was prescient enough to foresee this road-bump, and he prepared a second account of the same events on the small plates of Nephi (“in different words,” as the South Park episode quipped). A 2,000 year old contingency plan!
I discuss why this story is an issue for Mormon apologia in my debut blog post. For the purposes of this discussion though, it’s interesting in that it tells us a little about the attitudes of the people involved. If Martin Harris and others are part of a conspiracy, who is this revelation written for? It would be a mistake to think Joseph is writing this for posterity; at this point, there is no Doctrine and Covenants, there isn’t even a church yet. All there is at this point is a plan to publish the Book of Mormon, and a handful of people who believe him and are helping him. So who is the audience of this revelation? Who is Joseph trying to convince? Martin Harris is the obvious answer. In fact, just a few months after that revelation is recorded, Joseph writes the revelation now ensconced in D&C 19, this one directed specifically towards Martin Harris. It contains instructions for Martin:
And again, I command thee that thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon, which contains the truth and the word of God… Impart a portion of thy property, yea, even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family. Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage.
Not long after restoring Martin Harris’s trust, Joseph is hitting him up for more money. Harris, credulous as always, obliges.
The evidence, to me, points to Harris being a believer and a victim at this point in time. Joseph used multiple revelations and other forms of deceit to string him along. Were Harris a cynical co-conspirator, producing these revelations would have been completely unnecessary. We already know that Harris was both wealthy and credulous of mystical claims. Joseph had worked with him before, had impressed him with his seer stone, and knew that Harris would be a valuable asset.
This is not to say that Harris was never accused of dishonesty in the production of the Book of Mormon. Both Lucy and Abigail Harris claimed that Martin had ulterior financial motivations. When Lucy pressed Martin to leave the company of Joseph Smith, insisting it was all a lie, according to Abigail’s account, Martin replied: “What if it is a lie; if you will let me alone I will make money out of it!” Lucy’s recollection is similar: “if you would let me alone, I could make money by it.” (ref 3) This suggests a certain worldliness and cynicism to Harris’ motivations. Indeed it seems likely that Harris invested in the Book of Mormon expecting to make a profit. In fact, much of the early recollections of the publication of the Book of Mormon focus on the financial upside. Abigail Harris remembers Lucy Maack Smith promising a “four-fold” return if she invested.9 Henry Harris remembers Joseph and Martin meeting with a few other people regularly in what was termed the “Gold Bible Company.”10 Joseph even tried to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon, and produced a revelation to convince his early followers they’d be successful in selling it.11 Ultimately, the Book of Mormon failed to produce the anticipated returns, and Martin had to sell 151 acres of his farm to pay his debt to the printer. In the wake of these events, a frustrated Lucy Harris left Martin, as she could no longer stand idly by and watch her husband throw their life savings at Joseph’s enterprise. I think it’s fair to consider the financial motivations Martin would have had as the principle investor in the Book of Mormon, but it also seems apparent that his trust in Joseph rested on Joseph’s supernatural gifts.
Witness to the Golden Plates
As we’re all aware, Harris was also one of the three men whose names appear below the Testimony of the Three Witnesses in the introduction of the Book of Mormon. Believers are quick to point out that Harris never rescinded his testimony. Critics are quick to point out that the experience he described was less tangible than the introduction in the Book of Mormon would lead us to believe.
The question for this blog post, though, is what did Harris believe? Did he aim to mislead?
The famous event, codified in the Book of Mormon as the “Testimony of the Three Witnesses,” allegedly occurred on Sunday, June 28, 1829 near the Whitmer farm. You’ve probably read it before. An angel appears, he shows them the plates, etc. Martin revealed that he actually had his experience separately from the others though:
The Prophet Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and myself went into a small grove to pray to obtain a promise that we should behold with our own eyes that we could testify to the whole world. At length the angel stood before Oliver and David with the plates in his hand. I had gone a little apart to pray, and in my desperation I asked the prophet to kneel and pray with me. He did so and immediately the angel stood before me and said, “LOOK.” When I glanced at him I fell to the ground but immediately got up and saw the angel turn the leaves of the golden plates over and I said, “IT IS ENOUGH MY LORD AND MY GOD.” I then heard the voice of God say, “THE BOOK OF MORMON IS TRUE AND TRANSLATED CORRECTLY.”12
When Joseph moved the church to Kirtland, Ohio, Martin Harris followed. He was also a member of the famous Zion’s Camp expedition, and he, along with the other two witnesses, were tasked with selecting the members of the “traveling High Council,” which we know now as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Harris was never a member of this body, although at the time, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was just one of many governing bodies of the church, rather than the co-governing body the way we see it now in the mainstream LDS Church. He was also a member of the Kirtland High Council, but he didn’t play nearly as large a role in Mormonism as he did in the early days. His value to the church was largely symbolic, and he reveled in his status as an original witness.
Of course, Martin’s various descriptions of seeing the plates have not satisfied everyone. Sometimes his descriptions sound very literal:
[D]id I not at one time hold the plates on my knee an hour-and-a-half, whilst in conversation with Joseph, when we went to bury them in the woods, that the enemy might not obtain them? Yes, I did. And as many of the plates as Joseph Smith translated I handled with my hands, plate after plate.13
But other times, his description seemed a little more metaphysical. The typesetter for the Book of Mormon pressed Martin Harris about his experience with the plates, asking, “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, “No, I saw them with a spir[i]tual eye.”14 This isn’t one isolated incident, either; there are several other contemporaries of Martin Harris who commented that he described the encounter in very spiritual, non-literal terms, using language such as seeing with “an eye of faith.”
A Spiritual Gypsy
This sort of vacillation didn’t go unnoticed. The Kirtland experiment largely ended for Joseph Smith in 1837 with the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society. Joseph had reached a little too far with his grand prophecies and promises of future prosperity for the “bank.” Many Mormons lost their life savings in the venture, and apostasy was rampant.
You can count Martin Harris among those who became disillusioned with Smith at this time. Martin and the others believed Joseph was a fallen prophet. With the dissenters growing in numbers, Joseph lost control of Kirtland and the temple and fled to Far West, Misouri. The dissenters attempted to reconstruct the church without Joseph; however, after interrogating Martin Harris about the plates, they lost all confidence in the Book of Mormon and the Golden Plates. In a private correspondence, one of the dissenters wrote:
[W]hen I came to hear Martin Harris state in a public congregation 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…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 had 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.
Although Martin denied denying the plates, the evocation of “natural eyes” in this letter sounds familiar and suggests a genuine incident. In fact, what Stephen Burnett describes doesn’t sound so much like Martin Harris denying his testimony, but rather insisting on a metaphysical experience, which is consistent with what we hear from Harris elsewhere. The part about the 8 witnesses is also interesting, and may shed light on why Martin Harris once told a reporter: “the plates were kept from the sight of the world, and no one, save Oliver Cowdery, myself, Joseph Smith, Jr., and David Whitmer, ever saw them.”16
Dissatisfied with their rejection of the plates, Martin Harris left the dissenter’s church. He found his way back to Joseph’s church in Nauvoo, but also found himself swayed by some foreign claims to spiritual manifestations. In the early 1840’s he attached himself to the Shakers, and other Mormons noted his enthusiasm for and testimony of the holy book they produced, A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, from the Lord God of Heaven to the Inhabitants of Earth. This book, like the Book of Mormon, purported to be the result of angelic visitations. One early church member, Clark Braden, noted that “Harris declared repeatedly that he had as much evidence for a Shaker book he had as for the Book of Mormon.” Phineas Young wrote to Brigham Young about the condition of those still loyal to Joseph in Kirtland, mentioning Harris: “Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon.”17
it’s not that Harris left Mormonism for Shakerism. He seems to have seen the two as mutually true, and he remained in Nauvoo. When Joseph Smith died in 1844, it set off a succession crisis that divided the Mormon community. Although modern LDS members often think of the crisis as a minor bump in the road to Brigham Young’s clear and unimpeachable claim to authority, nothing was so clear at the time. The First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, the High Council and the Council of the Fifty all had legitimate claims to authority. Sidney Rigdon, representing the First Presidency, and Brigham Young, representing the Twelve, ended up as two of the most prominent claimants.
But there were many more claims to authority, and one very popular claimant was a man named James Strang. Unlike Rigdon and Young, Strang didn’t rely on previous ecclesiastical authority for his claim; he claimed direct, divinely mandated authority. He claimed that Joseph Smith had written him a letter of appointment, designating him his successor (that letter still exists). He also claimed angelic ordination and produced a new set of ancient plates, the Voree Plates, from which he produced an inspired translation, similarly to Joseph. His claims impressed many people, including David Whitmer, Hiram Page, three Apostles and much of Joseph’s immediate family. Martin Harris supported him as well, and he sustained Strang as church president, prophet, seer, revelator, and translator.
In fact, Martin remained with Strang for some time, even embarking on a mission to England for his cause. Unfortunately for Harris, bBy the time he arrived, word had already made it to the England church that he was an apostate. He attempted to speak in a conference meeting, but was summarily kicked out, after which he went outside and ranted about the corruption of the Twelve. As stated in one person’s recollection:
When we came out of the meeting Martin Harris was beset with a crowd in the street, expecting that he would furnish them with material to war against Mormonism: but when he was asked if Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, he answered yes: and when asked if the Book of Mormon was true, this was his answer: ‘Do you know that is the sun shining on us? Because as sure as you know that, I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that he translated that book by the power of God.’
Although Martin Harris intended to be in England for an entire year, he returned after only 6 weeks. By the time he made it back to Kirtland, the Kirtland church had already rejected Strang. The Kirtland church was now led by William McLellin, who proposed that David Whitmer was the rightful heir to Joseph Smith. Harris agreed and signed the “Testimony of Three Witnesses,” which affirmed an 1834 ordination that Joseph Smith had given to Whitmer to be his successor. McLellin urged Whitmer to join them and take up the mantle given him in the 1834 ordination, but Whitmer, while supportive, never joined them in Kirtland, and the movement dissipated.18
Afterwards, Martin Harris eventually found himself back in New York, wandering around aimlessly, preaching about the Book of Mormon to anyone who would listen. A local newspaper reported on his activities:
He [Martin Harris] wrote the Book of Mormon from Joe Smith’s dictation, the latter reading the text from the Golden Plates by putting his face in a hat. . . .But he no longer goes with the Mormons, saying that they ‘have gone to the devil just like other people.’ He abandoned them fifteen years ago, when they assumed the appellation of ‘Latter Day Saints,’ and bore his testimony against them by declaring that ‘Latter Day Devils’ would be a more appropriate designation. Mr. Harris visited England some three years ago. At present he professes to have a mission from God, in fulfi[ll]ment of which he wanders about preaching to ‘all who will feed him.’ When this essential condition is not performed by his hearers, he shakes o[f]f the dust from his feet and leaves for more hospitable quarters. Mr. H. is exceedingly familiar with the Scripture[s], and discourses theology in his peculiar way.
-Rochester (New York) Daily American, 16 Nov. 1849
Eventually, Martin Harris found his way back to Kirtland for the next step in his spiritual journey: Gladden Bishop. Gladden Bishop was a new claimant for the title of Joseph’s successor, and like James Strang, claimed a divine mandate. Gladden Bishop claimed to have had several Mormon relics delivered to him, including the Golden Plates, the Sword of Laban and the Urim and Thummim. But Harris soon found himself dissatisfied with Gladden Bishop as well.19
In May 1855, Martin Harris, along with William Smith, visited a spirit medium in Cleveland. Through her, Martin received a new revelation, which he published as an eight-page pamphlet with the unwieldy name A Proclamation And a warning voice unto all people, first to all Kings, Governors and Rulers in Authority, and unto every kindred tongue and people under the whole heavens, to whom this word shall come. He claimed the revelation came through Moses, Elias, Elijah, and John and it basically says, through language that would be right at home in Doctrine and Covenants, that Harris had a role to do the “work of Elijah.” He sent a copy to Brigham Young and commanded him in the “name of God” to publish it (Brigham didn’t comply). Harris was known to distribute it freely. One reverend recalled meting Harris around this time: “All the time Martin was in Kirtland boys eight years and older would gather about him and dispute with, and annoy him in various ways. Martin claimed to be Elijah and when annoyed would curse them.” Another local remembered a conversation about the pamphlet:
One day, when working for me, he handed me a leaflet that he had got printed, taken from some of the prophets, telling of a wonderful person that should appear and draw all men after him. I looked it over and returned it to him. He [Martin] said, ‘Who do you think it refers to?’ I said, “Why, of course, it refers to you.’ He looked very much pleased, and said, ‘I see you understand the scriptures.’
-Christopher G. Crary, 1893
Martin Harris and William Smith (younger brother to Joseph) attempted to resurrect the Church of Christ in Kirtland. William had been an original member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but he also had a rocky relationship with his brother that sometimes devolved into fist fights. William allowed Harris to publish his proclamation, and Harris tarried in Kirtland, giving tours of the Kirtland temple and reiterating his testimony of the Golden Plates and condemning Brigham Young’s church. William Smith’s church didn’t last long, but Harris nevertheless remained in Kirtland well into old age.20
Harris was 88 and destitute when a missionary from the Salt Lake City church met him in Kirtland and persuaded him to move west. At this point, Harris largely depended on the kindness of his community to support him, and was facing the prospect of being committed to a poor house. At the request of the missionary, Brigham Young agreed to finance the emigration, and Harris lived out his last few years in Utah.
H. Michael Marquardt aptly described Martin Harris as a “spiritual gypsy.” When reading about Martin’s tendency to migrate from one movement to another, one can sense that his status as a witness of the Book of Mormon was always important to him, and you cannot separate that sense of self-importance from the decisions he made. He was always looking for a denomination where he would be properly recognized. However, it’s not so simple to conclude from these tendencies that he was a knowing fraud looking to leverage what value he had left – his dalliances with spiritualism and with non-Mormon groups like the Shakers betrays a tendency towards credulousness and a genuine interest in divine communication. His testimony does seem to get increasingly emphatic as he gets older, but in my opinion the minor embellishments fall within expectations of a personal anecdote.
The descriptions by various contemporaries of Martin Harris paint a familiar picture to me; he reminds me of that one guy from your ward growing up that knew the scriptures almost too well and that had a native speaker’s grasp of the Mormon vocabulary, which he employed to ramble endlessly about his personal gospel theories and insights. He’s that guy who always seemed a little peculiar, whose stories you always took with several grains of salt. But he was a guy that you always supposed was harmless, that mostly just wanted to be heard. I see in the historical narrative a man who’s easily persuaded by spiritual claims and who seeks any audience that would validate his claim as a witness to the Golden Plates. Whatever happened between Martin Harris and Joseph Smith in the woods that day – even if it was nothing more than the power of suggestion, magnified through a lifetime of retelling the story – made enough of an imprint on Harris’ mind that he remained a believer to the end.
Coming next – part 2 of 3: David Whitmer.
2. Bushman, Richard. Rough Stone Rolling pg. 77↩
3. Bushman pp 65-66↩
6. Charles Anthon to Thomas Coit. April 3, 1841↩
8. Bushman, pg 67↩