Martin Harris was one of the earliest supporters of Joseph Smith and the Church. And yet, even after becoming one of the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, he left the Church—though he returned many years later. Who was this wealthy farmer from upstate New York?
This is the second episode in a series providing insights from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Two short clips from this episode arealso available on TikTok at https://www.tiktok.com/@interpreterfoundation/video/7092565658222841130 and https://www.tiktok.com/@interpreterfoundation/video/7092566272667340078 and on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/p/Cc_w76rgwVg/ and https://www.instagram.com/p/Cc_xPioAt_a/.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 2: Martin Harris, Witness
Joseph: They haven’t gone anywhere, Martin.
Martin: You ask for my help, but you can’t show them to me?
Joseph: As I said, I’ve been commanded not to.
Martin: Well, they’re either gold or lead, and you don’t have enough credit to purchase lead.
Joseph: Martin, the story’s true. All of it.
Martin: You must not blame me for not taking your word.
Joseph: If it hadn’t happened to me, I don’t think I could believe it myself.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And we are joined again by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat, associate professor of Church history and Doctrine at Brigham Young University.
I recently played Emma Smith in the film Witnesses, and that experience was both fascinating and informative, but it also brought up a lot of questions that I have. And that is why I have invited Dr. Dirkmaat to join me. Thank you for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thank you for having me.
CBF: I want to talk about Martin Harris. What was his relationship with Joseph, how did he come into the early Church? Tell us what you know about him.
GD: Frankly, Martin Harris is the first person that we KNOW of that believes Joseph’s story, outside of Joseph’s family. I mean, obviously Joseph’s family believes him, you know. But he’s told the story to a lot of people, there’s not anyone who really listens to him, and yet, Martin Harris is this prosperous guy in Palmyra. He’s well-thought of. I mean, Martin Harris is so well-thought of in Palmyra that even after people start trying to attack him for believing this Mormon stuff, they still have to say, ‘Well, he was an honest and an industrious farmer in this town. BUT he was obviously fooled.’
And he embraces Joseph Smith’s telling him that an angel’s told him where plates are long before he’s ever seen that there’s plates. And from the beginning says, ‘I will pay for that book to be produced.’
Harris desperately wants to convince other people that this, what he’s doing, really is true. And so he thinks, ‘If I show them characters from the Book of Mormon, THEN they’ll believe.’ ‘Well, where would these characters come from?’ And they don’t believe.
‘Well, how about if I show them the pages from the Book of Mormon?’
GD: And they still don’t believe. And I think that that is this constant tension for him, that he believes, and he desperately wants other people to, and he can’t seem to find the way to prove to them that it’s true.
CBF: What was his religious background before meeting Joseph?
GD: He actually bounces around from various different religions. He FEELS kind of pulled to try to find truth in different ways.
Now we have some people who will say that he had actually become a Universalist. It’s hard to sort out, historically speaking. Not every church has exactly the perfect records from the time period, but certainly he is drawn to various religious movements
CBF: So he bounced around from religion to religion before meeting Joseph, and we know that after he left the Church he also bounced around to various religions—
CBF: Does that discredit him as a witness?
GD: I don’t think so, especially in the aftermath of him leaving the Church. I mean, he’s going to bounce around to a lot of different religions, but he’s bouncing around to religions that are maintaining that the Book of Mormon is the word of God.
GD: I mean obviously the easiest thing to do is to just simply leave that testimony. ‘Cause if you want to win the argument against Joseph Smith, there’s a way to destroy Joseph Smith, and the way to do it is to simply say, "Yeah, we never saw the plates."
GD: ‘Joseph Smith just, he TOLD us to say this and we went along with it, but we didn’t know it’d get this far out of hand.’. I don’t know that it would have destroyed the Church, but it would have been a significant stumbling block if all three of these men were to say, ‘You know what? We never saw anything. This was just a — Joseph wrote that and then SIGNED our names to the bottom! We don’t even know about a gold –‘ But they DON’T do that.
In fact, they fiercely defend that the gold plates existed, that they saw an angel, and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God. And so I think that demonstrates how deeply they believe it.
Whatever their conflict with the Church is, that experience really seems to be the focal point of the remainder of their lives, that THAT happened.
CBF: So what was he excommunicated for? What caused that?
GD: Clearly one of the things that exacerbates his tensions is the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society.
Actor: What’s going on? What happened?
Actor: The bank’s gone bust. There’s no money.
GD: The bank fails at the same time. Hundreds of banks in the United States fail. It is a catastrophic economic time in the United States. That combined with this continual demand from the church that people donate their money to the Church, to pay for purchasing more lands, to help bail out the Kirtland Safety Society. The reality was for Martin Harris, who had already given up ALL of his money to pay for the printing of the Book of Mormon, it certainly is a continual theme of, ‘The Church needs more from you, the Church needs more.’
As the Safety Society begins to fail, Harris is going to kind of fall in with some of the dissenters in Kirtland who say, ‘You know what? Joseph was a prophet, but I think he’s a fallen prophet now.
CBF: So after he’s excommunicated, we know that he bounced around to various religions.
GD: Yes, everywhere.
CBF: What brought him back?
GD: You can see Martin Harris’s desperate commitment to the Book of Mormon. He’s going to join up with Warren Parrish’s church, but shortly after Warren Parrish decides, ‘You know, one of the problems with winning converts to this church is that all the Christians around here see the Book of Mormon as a blasphemous heresy, so why don’t we just drop the Book of Mormon part, and do just your average Protestant Church.’ Well, Martin Harris doesn’t go along with that; he abandons Parrish’s church if they are not going to teach the Book of Mormon. He’ll later join the Strangite church after Joseph Smith’s murder. And Martin Harris will not only join that church, he will serve a mission to England for that church, and preaching the Book of Mormon the whole time. Again, for him, the Book of Mormon is the CENTRAL aspect of his faith.
CBF: What brought him back?
GD: The Church will raise funds to bring him.
CBF: He’s like, ‘It’s about time the Church gives ME some money!’
GD: Now we’re raising funds the other way, yep. So the Church will actually, and Brigham Young give the first $25 to go get him. They move him to Utah, and he’s re-baptized. And then his son lives up in Cache Valley, and he goes to live with him.
GD: He’ll actually make a tour of various churches in Utah bearing his testimony of the Book of Mormon, so after he comes back, he’s all in. You know, but it’s not till the very end of his life.
CBF: Great. Thank you.