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

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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.

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