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.

Events used to impugn Martin Harris' character

"Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them."

Some critics have used a December 1838 quote from the Prophet Joseph Smith to impugn the character of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. The above is the standard representation of this quote. Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints on 16 December 1838 to provide comfort to the them and update them on his current condition in Liberty Jail:

To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Caldwell county, and all the Saints who are scattered abroad, who are persecuted, and made desolate, and who are afflicted in divers manners for Christ's sake and the Gospel's, by the hands of a cruel mob and the tyrannical disposition of the authorities of this state; and whose perils are greatly augmented by the wickedness and corruption of false brethren, greeting: May grace, mercy, and the peace of God be and abide with you; and notwithstanding all your sufferings, we assure you that you have our prayers and fervent desires for your welfare, day and night. We believe that that God who seeth us in this solitary place, will hear our prayers, and reward you openly.

Know assuredly, dear brethren, that it is for the testimony of Jesus that we are in bonds and in prison. But we say unto you, that we consider that our condition is better (notwithstanding our sufferings) than that of those who have persecuted us, and smitten us, and borne false witness against us; and we most assuredly believe that those who do bear false witness against us, do seem to have a great triumph over us for the present. [13]

By this time, all of the three witnesses had fallen away from the Church after severe disagreements with Joseph Smith. This is why Joseph Smith published the comment in the letter—Joseph was angry with them:

Was it for committing adultery that we were assailed? We are aware that that false slander has gone abroad, for it has been reiterated in our ears. These are falsehoods also. Renegade "Mormon" dissenters are running through the world and spreading various foul and libelous reports against us, thinking thereby to gain the friendship of the world, because they know that we are not of the world, and that the world hates us; therefore they [the world] make a tool of these fellows [the dissenters]; and by them try to do all the injury they can, and after that they hate them worse than they do us, because they find them to be base traitors and sycophants.

Such characters God hates; we cannot love them. The world hates them, and we sometimes think that the devil ought to be ashamed of them.

We have heard that it is reported by some, that some of us should have said, that we not only dedicated our property, but our families also to the Lord; and Satan, taking advantage of this, has perverted it into licentiousness, such as a community of wives, which is an abomination in the sight of God.

When we consecrate our property to the Lord it is to administer to the wants of the poor and needy, for this is the law of God; it is not for the benefit of the rich, those who have no need; and when a man consecrates or dedicates his wife and children, he does not give them to his brother, or to his neighbor, for there is no such law: for the law of God is, Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife. He that looketh upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery already in his heart. Now for a man to consecrate his property, wife and children, to the Lord, is nothing more nor less than to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the widow and fatherless, the sick and afflicted, and do all he can to administer to their relief in their afflictions, and for him and his house to serve the Lord. In order to do this, he and all his house must be virtuous, and must shun the very appearance of evil.

[Page 231]

Now if any person has represented anything otherwise than what we now write, he or she is a liar, and has represented us falsely—and this is another manner of evil which is spoken against us falsely.[14]

It is on this page that we get the quote from Joseph referencing the men specifically. Notice how he states only that they are "mean" and nothing more:

And now, brethren, we say unto you—what more can we enumerate? Is not all manner of evil of every description spoken of us falsely, yea, we say unto you falsely. We have been misrepresented and misunderstood, and belied, and the purity and integrity and uprightness of our hearts have not been known—and it is through ignorance—yea, the very depths of ignorance is the cause of it; and not only ignorance, but on the part of some, gross wickedness and hypocrisy also; for some, by a long face and sanctimonious prayers, and very pious sermons, had power to lead the minds of the ignorant and unwary, and thereby obtain such influence that when we approached their iniquities the devil gained great advantage—would bring great trouble and sorrow upon our heads; and, in fine, we have waded through an ocean of tribulation and mean abuse, practiced upon us by the ill bred and the ignorant, such as Hinkle, Corrill, Phelps, Avard, Reed Peck, Cleminson, and various others, who are so very ignorant that they cannot appear respectable in any decent and civilized society, and whose eyes are full of adultery, and cannot cease from sin. Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris, are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them. Marsh and "another," whose hearts are full of corruption, whose cloak of hypocrisy was not sufficient to shield them or to hold them up in the hour of trouble, who after having escaped the pollution of the world through the knowledge of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, became again entangled and overcome—their latter end is worse than the first. But it has happened unto them according to the word of the Scripture: "The dog has returned to his vomit, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire."[15]

Pledging Loyalty to a Seeress who used a Black Seer Stone?

One critic claims that "During the summer of 1837, while in Kirtland, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver pledged their new loyalty to a prophetess who used a black seer stone and danced herself into 'trances.'[16]"

The author's source is "Biographical Sketches, Lucy Mack Smith, p. 211-213". Following the source we read this:

At this time a certain young woman, who was living at David Whitmer’s, uttered a prophecy, which she said was given her, by looking through a black stone that she had found. This prophecy gave some altogether a new idea of things.
She said, the reason why one-third of the Church would turn away from Joseph, was because that he was in transgression himself; that he would fall from his office on account of the same; that David Whitmer, or Martin Harris would fill Joseph’s place; and that the one who did not succeed him, would be the Counsellor to the one that did.
This girl soon became an object of great attention among those who were disaffected. Dr. Williams, the ex-justice of the peace,became her scribe, and wrote her revelations for her.
Jared Carter, who lived in the same house with David Whitmer, soon imbibed the same spirit, and I was informed, that he said in one of their meetings, that he had power to raise “Joe Smith” to the highest heavens, or sink him down to the lowest hell.
Shortly after this, Jared came to our house, and I questioned him relative to what he had said concerning Joseph. Not having mentioned the matter to my husband, he did not understand what I meant at first; but after a little explanation, he warned Jared to repent of the injudicious course that he was taking, and speedily confess his sins to the Church, or the judgments of God would overtake him. Jared received this admonition, and acknowledging his fault, agreed to confess to the brethren, the first opportunity.
The next morning he was seized with a violent pain in his eyes, and continued in great distress for two days. On the evening of the second day, he arose from his bed, and, kneeling down, besought the Lord to heal him, covenanting to make a full confession to the Church at meeting the next Sunday.
Accordingly, the next Sabbath he arose and stated to the brethren that he had done wrong; and, asking their forgiveness, begged to be received again into their confidence. He did not, however, state what he had done that was wrong; nevertheless his confession was received, and he was forgiven.
But the rest of his party continued obstinate. They still held their secret meetings at David Whitmer’s, and when the young woman, who was their instructress, was through giving what revelations she intended for the evening, she would jump out of her chair and dance over the floor, boasting of her power, until she was perfectly exhausted. Her proselytes would also, in the most vehement manner, proclaim their purity and holiness, and the mighty power which they were going to have.
They made a standing appointment for meetings to be held every Thursday, by the pure Church in the house of the Lord.
They also circulated a paper, in order to ascertain how many would follow them, and it was found, that a great proportion of the Church were decidedly in favour of the new party.
In this spirit they went to Missouri, and contaminated the minds of many of the brethren against Joseph, in order to destroy his influence.
This made it more necessary than ever, to keep a strict guard at the houses of those who were the chief objects of their vengeance.

There is no mention of Martin Harris in this account. Thus we can only conclude that the author misinterpreted (whether deliberately or not we won't say) his sources.

"...became partially deranged or shattered, as many believed, flying from one thing to another, as if reason and common sense were thrown off their balance...

One critic wrote:

As mentioned previously, Martin had a reputation for extreme superstition and was generally known as an unstable, gullible, and inconsistent individual.

Mormon writers have conceded as much. In the Church’s Millennial Star it was noted that Martin “was filled with the rage and madness of a demon” and “one day he would be one thing, and another day another thing.” Martin “became partially deranged or shattered, as many believed, flying from one thing to another, as if reason and common sense were thrown off their balance.”

The article continues on with Martin’s dishonesty and immoral and inconsistent character.

The author's source is "Millenial Star, November 15, 1846, Sketches of Notorious Characters, p. 124-125."

The author seems to think that the Saints thought of him as deranged. The quote, in context is clearly referring to the Saints' perception that Martin was possessed by a very real Devil or false Spirit. They believed in him as an honest and upright man. Thus, this is not so much as an observation of his supposed "superstitious nature", but of the sadness and anger they expressed when they saw an honest, upright, respectable gentleman taken in by evil influences and left the Church they loved and which he helped found.

Hurlbut Affidavits

Conclusion

All of these incidences beg questions:

  1. Why would Joseph risk angering these men further if he knew that they could expose him?
  2. Why didn't they expose him and instead go to their deathbeds (and in the case of Harris and Whitmer never returning to the Church) testifying that the work was true?
  3. Why did they always hold firm to their testimony to the Book of Mormon even when harassed by members of the Church and Joseph Smith himself after leaving it?

These are all, in the end, testaments to the strength and integrity of the witnesses in general and their integrity as witnesses to truth. They held true to their testimony even in the face of great temptation. That—in and of itself—is testimony to their reliability.



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.[17]

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.[18]
  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. [19]

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. Joseph Smith "The Prophet's Letter to the Church" 16 December 1838 in History of the Church Vol 3: Ch 15: P 226 (ed.) Brigham H. Roberts off-site
  14. Ibid, 230-31
  15. Ibid, 231
  16. Jeremy Runnells, Debunking FairMormon under "Witnesses"
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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