Martin Harris was away from the church for many years before finally returning. Critics have tried to use the fact that he joined other denominations as something that invalidates his testimony of The Book of Mormon. What’s the real story here?
This is the twenty-third in a series compiled 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. This week we feature Daniel C. Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and Executive Producer of Witnesses. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 23: Why did Martin Harris Join So Many Churches?
Martin Harris: Hello, Joseph.
Joseph Smith: Martin, I need your help.
MH: You need my money, you mean. That’s all you’ve ever needed from me.
JS: For which the Lord has blessed you.
MH: Yes, He has blessed me.
JS: Martin, you’ve been a good and faithful brother, but yes, the Lord needs your help one more time. These are hard times in Kirtland.
MH: The bank.
JS: The bank.
MH: I warned you it was not wise. You cannot just print paper money that is not backed up by real assets, gold, silver.
JS: And had those with the ability to do so joined in, we would not be having this discussion.
MH: I was your first and faithful friend, Joseph. And Oliver, David, Sidney, have taken my place. They have been given high and holy callings. And I have been stuck with the church’s bills.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox and we are joined today by Daniel Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thank you for being here.
Daniel Peterson: Thank you.
CBF: So, historically, Martin Harris is known as being pretty gullible, right? Does that make him less reliable as one of the three witnesses?
DP: You know, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of him as gullible.
I think what people are often pointing to is that he’d gone through several religious organizations or affiliations before he became a Latter-day Saint. And after his departure from the Church, before he returns, ultimately at the end of his life, he goes through several more. You can view that as gullibility, I suppose, but you could also viewed it as his being simply unsatisfied by what he found, and he wanted something else.
There are stories that circulate about him, one about him seeing Jesus in the form of a deer, and he walked along with him, and he conversed with the deer, talking with Jesus. That story is so weak, it’s related on the authority of somebody who told somebody who then tells somebody about this, and I’m thinking, I bet stories like that circulated all the time.
But what we do know about Martin Harris is that he was a hardheaded respected farmer. He’d done quite well. He was appointed a judge of various things in local agricultural affairs, which was a really big deal in those days of that area. He’d been appointed to what we would call the road commission to inspect fences and roads. He was a person who was seen to have a good judgment, he wasn’t regarded as a loon. You know, up until he was involved with the Book of Mormon. It reminds me of something William Smith said. He said, ‘We were always thought of as a fairly respectable family until Joseph got the plates. And then suddenly, everybody looked down on us.’
It’s more of the religious element I think than any real factor in Martin’s own life. And he’d point to things even in his own interaction with Joseph and with the plates. He’s the one who keeps asking to see them; he wants to see them. This is shown in the film.
‘Can’t I see them? Won’t I see them? You ask me to support you but I can’t see the plates, why not?’ He’s the one who, before he really gets involved with Joseph, it’s alluded to in the Witnesses movie, goes and interviews, separately the members of Joseph’s family. He’s the one who switches out the rock down by the river and puts it and gives it to Joseph to substitute for the seer stone. People have asked me sometimes, ‘Did he really do that?’ The answer is yes, he DID really do that.
Does this sound like a gullible guy? He’s the guy who goes to Charles Anthon, and others, with the transcription from the plates trying to get them to confirm that this is ancient because he needs to know before he gives away, basically, his whole fortune to support the publication of this book.
He doesn’t deserve the reputation of gullible—quite the opposite. It’s really unfair because he does a lot in terms of investigating, asking searching questions, trying to figure out what’s going on. He’s the one that takes the manuscript pages to show to his wife because he wants her to believe, and he believes he can give her evidence so that she’ll believe. He’s not just kind of in a fantasy world, that’s not Martin Harris. That’s not the real one of history.
CBF: That’s very interesting because I think even having seen the Witnesses film, there’s still this, like, image in my mind that Martin Harris is a little bit gullible. But you’re right. When you look at the evidence, he’s the one saying, ‘I need some proof.’
CBF: If anything, he’s the exact opposite of what he’s been painted by history, where he’s searching for those hard facts, the hard evidence.
DP: Of all the charges made against the witnesses, that’s one of the most unfair, it seems to me.
CBF: So, Martin Harris joined a lot of other faiths. Does that affect the validity of his testimony?
DP: He is noted to have gone from group to group after he left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are very schismatic groups that claimed his loyalty here and there. I think there’s an important point to keep in mind. This doesn’t point to instability, in a way it points to his stability, precisely his stability, because with one exception, every one of those groups is committed to the Book of Mormon, or at least he thinks it’s going to be.
In one case he backs off because they begin to jettison the Book of Mormon, and he doesn’t want anything to do with that. That’s interesting to me because he’s had a falling out with the leadership of the Church, but he still wants to remain active in a community that values the Book of Mormon. So, he’s unhappy with the Church as it was currently led, won’t come back until late in his life in 1870, but he eventually does, by the way, which is also important. But he’s still hanging around groups that teach the Book of Mormon, that carry on the basic doctrines of the Restoration, and THAT’s what he was committed to. He’d been involved in those and he wants to stay true to that witness.
CBF: Did he ever join a church that was not involved with the Book of Mormon?
DP: He did in one case have some sort of loose affiliation, he wasn’t fully in, with the Shakers. Fully joining the Shakers was a real commitment, he never made that commitment, but he was interested in the Shakers. This was the group that was founded by Mother Ann Lee, and so on, they were really popular on the frontier at that time. There [are] not very many of them left today.
But even they are interesting- they’re not committed to the Book of Mormon. but they are committed to the idea of modern revelation, and there again I think this shows consistency in his approach.
He’s kind of run through the groups that he can find that are committed to the Book of Mormon and he hasn’t found one for himself, but the Shakers, they’re open to the idea of contemporary revelation, modern prophecy, prophets still on the earth, God still speaking. That interests him because he’s had that experience, he’s looking for the voice of God, which he has heard, literally, and he wants to be in a church that recognizes that it’s possible to hear the voice of God. So, the Shakers are one option. He doesn’t stay with them. And eventually he does come out even to Utah and re-join the Church, he’s rebaptized, which is very important to note.
CBF: So why did it take Martin Harris so long to finally re-join the Saints?
DP: I think Martin’s feelings were hurt. You see that a bit in the movie, that he’s afraid, he’s bothered by the fact that the Church has always had need of his money. But he does not seem to have been the kind who rose to the highest leadership positions, and he doesn’t in the Church, either.
David Whitmer is the president of the Church in Missouri, Oliver Cowdrey is effectively the assistant president of the Church. Martin Harris is never called to a position like that, he wasn’t given high and holy callings, which is, he laments in the film, and that’s accurate. That was a concern of his. He remains for a long time in Kirtland. He’s noticeably bitter.
But he always reiterates his testimony and he serves there as a kind of self-appointed guide to the Kirtland Temple, takes people around. And people would comment that he seemed old and weak and ill. But then if you got him going on his witness of the plates he would come to life, and he would tell that story with vigor.
But there was a lot of personal hurt there, I think. And it took a long time to get him to a frame of mind where he might consider re-joining the Saints. And it took a lot of people working with him, trying to get him to do that, until finally they offered to bring him out to Utah. Even then, he says, ‘Well, I’ll come and visit but I won’t stay.’ He’s got some family out there that he wants to see again. ‘I’ll come and do that if you pay my way. I don’t have the money to come.’ Well, the first person to put money in to bring him out to Utah is Brigham Young himself. He comes out to Utah and he is astonished, he is heard to remark, “The Book of Mormon did all this?”
DP: Now, you can only imagine what he would say about Utah today, but Utah territory in 1870, even that blows him away. His attitude toward the Church and its leaders softens, and he accepts re-baptism.
And he remains faithful in Utah for the next five years until he passes away, bearing his testimony constantly. So, you see the witness as a human being, you’re a very human being.
CBF: Right, you can’t help but feel for him a bit that he has been overlooked, in a way.
DP: Yeah, yeah.
CBF: When he put in a lot of his own monetary means, personal means and time, and hasn’t been rewarded.
DP: Yeah, you consider how much he sacrificed for the Church, as much as anybody did, short of dying for the Church. He gave up almost everything he owned, and never regains that position of stature in the community, and respected, well-to-do farmer — regarded as kind of an old crank by a lot of the people who lived around him, with this crazy notion of angels and the voice of God and the Mormon Bible and all that kind of stuff. So, he doesn’t get a whole lot out of being a witness, and so, it’s good to see him come back and he dies, as far as we can tell, a very happy man, testifying. And he would go out of his way—we have accounts of him saying, “Do you know who I am? Have you ever heard of the testimony of the three witnesses?” And then bears his testimony. He delights in doing that. He was always faithful to it.
CBF: That’s great. Thank you.