Question: Did Martin Harris claim that he only saw the gold plates as they were covered "as a city through a mountain"?

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Question: Did Martin Harris claim that he only saw the gold plates as they were covered "as a city through a mountain"?

A letter from Stephen Burnett claims that Harris never saw the plates at all, and that he only saw them when they were covered with a cloth

The quote in question is from a letter from Stephen Burnett to "Br. Johnson" on 15 April 1838:

when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public 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 foundation was sapped & the entire superstructure fell in heap of ruins, I therefore three week since in the Stone Chapel...renounced the Book of Mormon...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 throught [sic] 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—–—[him/me?] but should have let it passed as it was...[1]

When Harris said that "he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them," he was not referring to his experience as one of the Three Witnesses

The comment about hefting the plates repeatedly while they were covered by a cloth refers to the period of time when he was assisting Joseph Smith in the translation - a time during which Harris was not allowed to view the plates. What is missing from Burnett's account is any mention of Harris stating that he saw the plates as one of the Three Witnesses. For years after Harris is said to have made the comment related by Burnett, he used clear language to assert that he had actually seen the plates. For example, Martin Harris said in the presence of 12-year-old William Glenn:

Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates.[2]

Harris told Robert Aveson,

It is not a mere belief, but is a matter of knowledge. I saw the plates and the inscriptions thereon. I saw the angel, and he showed them unto me.[3]

George Mantle recalls what Martin Harris said while he was in Birmingham on a mission for the Strangites. This was well after Martin had left the Church:

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.'[4]

These statements are much clearer regarding Martin's experience with the place than Burnett's account of him claiming to have seen the plates while they were covered as a "city through a mountain".

Notes

  1. Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2
  2. Statement of William M. Glenn to O. E. Fischbacher, May 30, 1943, Cardston, Alberta, Canada, cited in Deseret News, Oct. 2, 1943. Cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 116. ISBN 0877478465.
  3. Robert Aveson, "Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon," Deseret News, Apr. 2, 1927. Cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 116. ISBN 0877478465.
  4. Letter of George Mantle to Marietta Walker, Dec. 26, 1888, Saint Catherine, Mo., cited in Autumn Leaves 2 (1889):141. Cited in Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 112-113. ISBN 0877478465.