Martin Harris/Was he unstable, gullible and superstitious

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Was Martin Harris an unstable, gullible and superstitious man?

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Question: Was Martin Harris a gullible witness who would simply believe anything he was told?

Martin was clear that he required considerable proof to support Joseph

Martin recalled his first discussions with Joseph about the claims regarding plates:

I said, 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. He [Joseph] said that the angel told him, that the plates must be translated, printed and sent before the world. I said, Joseph, you know my doctrine, that cursed is every one that putteth his trust in man, and maketh flesh him [sic] arm; and we know that the devil is to have great power in the latter days to deceive if possible the very elect; and I don't know that you are one of the elect. 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.[1]

Even in religious matters then, Martin was keenly aware of the risk of mistake and deception.

Martin was actually quite skeptical in the beginning of Joseph's ability to translate

There are four specific things that Martin did in order to show (and obviously eventually allay) his own skepticism and the skepticism of his family.

  1. He took a copy of characters that Joseph copied from the plates to several professors in New York in order to try and verify them.
  2. He swapped the seer stone that Joseph was using during the Book of Mormon translation in order to test the prophet's ability.
  3. Martin reported that before translating the Book of Mormon, he interrogated Emma, the Smiths, and Joseph regarding details of the Book of Mormon's appearance. All were questioned separately. Emma and the Smiths first and then Joseph last. After questioning them, he compared the accounts of Emma and the Smiths to Joseph's.[2]
  4. He took the 116 pages of manuscript that he translated to show them to his family.

During the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith often used a small seer stone. On one occasion, Martin Harris switched the stone for another stone of the same appearance. Martin reports what happened:

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them. [3]

Here again, Martin conducted a clever "blinded test" of Joseph's ability, and Joseph passed--convincing Martin further.

The story of Martin Harris' desire to take the 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript to convince his family and friends that Joseph was a genuine prophet is also well known. Here again, Martin sought to use empirical proof (the manuscript itself) as evidence that Joseph could do what he claimed.


Whatever critics claim about Martin's supposed "superstitions" is significantly weakened in light of the fact that Martin had four naturalistic opportunities to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and its translator to himself.


Question: Is Wikipedia's portrayal of Martin Harris as a gullible, superstitious man accurate?

Martin Harris is portrayed by critics as unstable, gullible and superstitious

One critic of the Church states that Martin Harris "was known by many of his peers as an unstable, gullible, and superstitious man...."

The following quotes are taken from Wikipedia's article "Martin Harris (Latter Day Saints)" to support this assertion:

“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.” – BYU professor Ronald W. Walker, “Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert,” p.34-35

“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.”[4] – John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840 in Early Mormon Documents, 2: 271

“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.” – Early Mormon Documents 2: 271, note 32. [5]

The Wikipedia article emphasizes Harris's superstitious qualities and ignores his religious qualities

The Wikipedia article from which these quotes are taken deliberately emphasizes Harris's superstitious qualities while minimizing his work for the community and his religious qualities. We recommend that readers read the following article from Roger Nicholson for a summary of the charges of his "superstitions" and a response to them:

Upon reading the Wikipedia article about Martin Harris, we encounter quite a contrast from those things that we learn in church. The first thing that we learn about Martin is that he “was a prosperous farmer,” and that his neighbors “considered him both an honest and superstitious man.” The article then goes on in detail to note that Harris’s “imagination was excitable,” that he “once imagined that a sputtering candle was the work of the devil,” and that he was considered “a visionary fanatic.” The article continues by stating that “his belief in earthly visitations of angels and ghosts gave him the local reputation of being crazy,” and that “he was a great man for seeing spooks.” It is easy to see which aspects of Harris’s life the Wikipedia article attempts to emphasize. There are a few token mentions of honesty and prosperity, followed by extensive recitations of Harris’s superstitious qualities.[6]


Question: What did Martin Harris's non-Mormon associates say about his character?

Even early anti-Mormons who knew Harris believed that he was “honest,” and “industrious,” “benevolent,” and a “worthy citizen”

Even early anti-Mormons who knew Harris, or knew those acquainted with Harris, believed that he was “honest,” and “industrious,” “benevolent,” and a “worthy citizen.” [7] Wrote the local paper on Harris' departure with the Saints:

Several families, numbering about fifty souls, took up their line of march from this town last week for the “promised land,” among whom was Martin Harris, one of the original believers in the “Book of Mormon.” Mr. Harris was among the early settlers of this town, and has ever borne the character of an honorable and upright man, and an obliging and benevolent neighbor. He had secured to himself by honest industry a respectable fortune—and he has left a large circle of acquaintances and friends to pity his delusion.[8]

Pomeroy Tucker, who knew Harris but didn’t believe in the Book of Mormon, once noted:

How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement [his Book of Mormon testimony], in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never easily be explained. [9]

Martin Harris's association with a number of LDS "splinter groups"

Some have argued that Harris' tendency to associate with a number of LDS "splinter groups" indicates that he was "unstable and easily influenced by charismatic leaders." [10]

This claim fundamentally distorts Harris' activities during this period. [11] Wrote Matthew Roper:

Martin was excommunicated in December 1837 in Kirtland, Ohio, where he remained for the next thirty-two years. During this time, Harris associated himself with Warren Parrish and other Kirtland dissenters who organized a church. On March 30, 1839, George A. Smith wrote a letter from Kirtland describing some of the divisions in the Parrish party. "Last Sabbath a division arose among the Parrish party about the Book of Mormon; John F. Boynton, Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson and others said it was nonsense. Martin Harris then bore testimony of its truth and said all would be damned if they rejected it." Such actions suggest a significant degree of independence for which Harris is generally not given credit. [12]

Harris managed to frustrate many other religious groups by his continued insistence on preaching the Book of Mormon instead of their tenets. He eventually returned to the Church and died in full fellowship.

The witnesses were men considered honest, responsible, and intelligent. Their contemporaries did not know quite what to make of three such men who testified of angels and gold plates, but they did not impugn the character or reliability of the men who bore that testimony.


Question: Was Martin Harris a gullible witness who would simply believe anything he was told?

Martin was clear that he required considerable proof to support Joseph

Martin recalled his first discussions with Joseph about the claims regarding plates:

I said, 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. He [Joseph] said that the angel told him, that the plates must be translated, printed and sent before the world. I said, Joseph, you know my doctrine, that cursed is every one that putteth his trust in man, and maketh flesh him [sic] arm; and we know that the devil is to have great power in the latter days to deceive if possible the very elect; and I don't know that you are one of the elect. 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.[13]

Even in religious matters then, Martin was keenly aware of the risk of mistake and deception.

Martin was actually quite skeptical in the beginning of Joseph's ability to translate

There are four specific things that Martin did in order to show (and obviously eventually allay) his own skepticism and the skepticism of his family.

  1. He took a copy of characters that Joseph copied from the plates to several professors in New York in order to try and verify them.
  2. He swapped the seer stone that Joseph was using during the Book of Mormon translation in order to test the prophet's ability.
  3. Martin reported that before translating the Book of Mormon, he interrogated Emma, the Smiths, and Joseph regarding details of the Book of Mormon's appearance. All were questioned separately. Emma and the Smiths first and then Joseph last. After questioning them, he compared the accounts of Emma and the Smiths to Joseph's.[14]
  4. He took the 116 pages of manuscript that he translated to show them to his family.

During the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith often used a small seer stone. On one occasion, Martin Harris switched the stone for another stone of the same appearance. Martin reports what happened:

Once Martin found a rock closely resembling the seerstone Joseph sometimes used in place of the interpreters and substituted it without the Prophet’s knowledge. When the translation resumed, Joseph paused for a long time and then exclaimed, “Martin, what is the matter, all is as dark as Egypt.” Martin then confessed that he wished to “stop the mouths of fools” who told him that the Prophet memorized sentences and merely repeated them. [15]

Here again, Martin conducted a clever "blinded test" of Joseph's ability, and Joseph passed--convincing Martin further.

The story of Martin Harris' desire to take the 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript to convince his family and friends that Joseph was a genuine prophet is also well known. Here again, Martin sought to use empirical proof (the manuscript itself) as evidence that Joseph could do what he claimed.


Whatever critics claim about Martin's supposed "superstitions" is significantly weakened in light of the fact that Martin had four naturalistic opportunities to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and its translator to himself.


Notes

  1. Martin Harris, interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859, in "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffanys Monthly (August 1859): 163-70; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:309.
  2. For a full commentary on this see Bushman, Richard Lyman "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (Alfred A. Knopf: New York City, New York 2005) 62. See also BioS, 106, 108; Tiffany's Monthly, Aug. 1859, 167. Martin Harris said his wife and daughter returned from the visit to the Smiths with a report of having hefted the plates in their box. Tiffany's Monthly, Aug, 1859. 168.
  3. Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988), 6. off-site
  4. This source is from a second-hand, antagonistic, hearsay account. The source can hardly be determined as reliable for an accurate reconstruction of Martin's behavior
  5. Wikipedia article "Martin Harris (Latter Day Saints)," off-site, citations quoted in Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" (2014)
  6. Roger Nicholson, "Wikipedia’s Deconstruction of Martin Harris," FairMormon Blog (23 January 2013).
  7. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 96–98. ISBN 0877478465.
  8. “Several families . . .,” Wayne Sentinel (Palmyra, New York) (27 May 1831). off-site
  9. Pomeroy Tucker, Palmyra Courier (24 May 1872); cited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 104. ISBN 0877478465.
  10. Tanner and Tanner, "Roper Attacks Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?" 14.
  11. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 167–170. ISBN 0877478465.
  12. Matthew Roper, "Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193. wiki; citing Letter of George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming, 30 March 1838, Kirtland, Ohio.
  13. Martin Harris, interview with Joel Tiffany, 1859, in "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffanys Monthly (August 1859): 163-70; in Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:309.
  14. For a full commentary on this see Bushman, Richard Lyman "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (Alfred A. Knopf: New York City, New York 2005) 62. See also BioS, 106, 108; Tiffany's Monthly, Aug. 1859, 167. Martin Harris said his wife and daughter returned from the visit to the Smiths with a report of having hefted the plates in their box. Tiffany's Monthly, Aug, 1859. 168.
  15. Millennial Star 44:87; quotation from Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A New Prophet and a New Scripture: The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon," Ensign (January 1988), 6. off-site