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JOHN A. CLARK'S INTERVIEWS WITH MARTIN HARRIS, 1827- 1828 AN EARLY ACCOUNT OF THE RISE OF MORMONISM

“It was early in the autumn of 1827 that Martin Harris called at my house in Palmyra, one morning about sunrise. His whole appearance indicted more than usual excitement, and he had scarcely passed the threshold of my dwelling, before he inquired whether he could see me alone, remarking that he had a matter to communicate that he wished to be strictly confidential. Previous to this, I had but very slight acquaintance with Mr. Harris. He had occasionally attended divine service in our church. I had heard him spoken of as a farmer in comfortable circumstances, residing in the country a short distance from the village, and distinguished by certain peculiarities of character. He had been, if I mistake not, at one period, a member of the Methodist Church, and subsequently had identified himself with the Universalists. At this time, however, in his religious views he seemed to be floating upon the sea of uncertainty. He had evidently quite an extensive knowledge of the scriptures, and possessed a manifest disputatious turn of mind. As I subsequently learned, Mr. Harris had always been a firm believer in dreams, and visions, and supernatural appearances, such as apparitions and ghosts, and therefore was a fit subject for such men as Smith and his colleagues to operate upon.

On the occasion just referred to, I invited him to accompany me to my study, where, after having closed the door, he began to draw a package out of his pocket with great and manifest caution. Suddenly, however, he stopped, and wished to know if there was any possibility of our being interrupted or overheard? When answered in the negative, he proceeded to remark, that he reposed great confidence in me as a minister of Jesus Christ, and that what he had now to communicate he wished me to regard as strictly confidential. He said he verily believed that an important epoch had arrived - that a great flood of light was about to burst upon the world, and that the scene of divine manifestation was to be immediately around us.

In explanation of what he meant, he then proceeded to remark that a Golden Bible had recently been dug from the earth, where it had been deposited for thousands of years, and that this would be found to contain such disclosures as would settle all religious controversies and speedily bring on the glorious millennium. That this mysterious book, which no human eye of the present generation has yet seen, was in the possession of Joseph Smith, Jr., ordinarily known in the neighborhood under the more familiar designation of Jo Smith; that there had been a revelation made to him by which he had discovered this sacred deposit, and two transparent stones, through which, as a sort of spectacles, he could read the Bible, although the box or ark that contained it, had not yet book [been?] opened; and that by looking through those mysterious stones he had transcribed from one of the leaves of this book, the characters which Harris had so carefully wrapped in the package which he was drawing from his pocket.

The whole thing appeared to me so ludicrous and puerile, that I could not refrain from telling Mr. Harris, that I believed it a mere hoax got up to practice upon his credulity, or an artifice to extort from him money; for I had already, in the course of the conversation, learned that he had advanced some twenty-five dollars to Jo Smith as a sort of premium for sharing with him in the glories and profits of this new revelation. For at this time, his mind seemed to be quite as intent upon the pecuniary advantage that would arise from the possession of the plates of solid gold of which this book was composed, as upon the spiritual light it would diffuse over the world. My intimations to him, in reference to the possible imposition that was being practiced upon him, however, were indignantly repelled. He then went on to relate the particulars in regard to the discovery and possession of this marvelous book. As far as I can now recollect, the following was an outline of the narrative which he then communicated to me, and subsequently to scores of people in the village, from some of whom in my late visit to Palmyra, I have been able to recall several particulars that had quite glided from my memory.

Before I proceed to Martin's narrative, however, I would remark in passing, that Jo Smith, who has since been the chief prophet of the Mormons, and was one of the most prominent ostensible actors in the first scenes of this drama, belonged to a very shiftless family near Palmyra. They lived a sort of vagrant life, and were principally known as money-diggers. Jo from a boy appeared dull and utterly destitute of genius; but his father claimed for him a sort of second sight, a power to look into the depths of the earth, and discover where its precious treasures were hid. Consequently long before the idea of a Golden Bible entered their minds, in their excursions for money-digging, which I believe usually occurred in the night, that they might conceal from others the knowledge of the place, where they struck their treasures, Jo used to be usually their guide, putting into a hat a peculiar stone he had through which he looked to decide where they should begin to dig.

According to Martin Harris, it was after one of these night excursions, that Jo, while he lay upon his bed, had a remarkable dream. An angel of God seemed to approach him, clad in celestial splendor. This divine messenger assured him that he, Joseph Smith, was chosen of the Lord to be a prophet of the Most High God, and to bring to light hidden things, that would prove of unspeakable benefit to the world. He then disclosed to him the existence of this Golden Bible, and the place where it was deposited - but at the same time told him that he must follow implicitly the divine direction, or he would draw down upon him the wrath of heaven. This book, which was contained in a chest, or ark, and which consisted of metallic plates covered with characters embossed in gold, he must not presume to look into, under three years . . .

After his marriage and return from Pennsylvania, he became so awfully impressed with the high destiny that awaited him, that he communicated the secret to his father and family. The money-digging propensity of the old man operated so powerfully, that he insisted upon it that they should go and dig and see if the chest was there -- not with any view to remove it till the appointed time, but merely to satisfy themselves. Accordingly they went forth in the stillness of the night with their spades and mattocks to the spot where slumbered this sacred deposit. They had proceeded but a little while in the work of excavation, before the mysterious chest appeared; but lo! instantly it moved and glided along out of their sight. Directed, however, by the clairvoyance of Jo, they again penetrated to the spot where it stood, and succeeded in gaining a partial view of its dimensions. But while they were pressing forward to gaze at it, the thunder of the Almighty shook the spot, and made the earth to tremble - a sheet of vivid lightning swept along over the side of the hill, and burnt terribly around the place where the excavation was going on, and again with a rumbling noise, the chest moved off out of their sight. They were al terrified and fled towards their home. Jo took his course silently along by himself.

On his way homeward, being alone and in the woods, the angel of the Lord met him, clad in terror and wrath. He spoke in a voice of thunder: forked lightnings shot through the trees, and ran along upon the ground. The terror which the appearance of the divine messenger awakened, instantly struck Smith to the earth, and he felt his whole frame convulsed with agony, as though he were stamped upon by the iron hoofs of death himself. In language most terrific did the angel upbraid him for his disobedience, and then disappeared. Smith went home trembling and full of terror. Soon, however, his mind became more composed. Another divine communication was made to him, authorizing him to go along by himself and bring the chest and deposit it secretly under the hearth of his dwelling, but by no means to attempt to look into it. The reason assigned by the angel for this removal, was that some report in relation to the place where this sacred book was deposited had gone forth, and there was danger of its being disturbed. According to Harris, Smith now scrupulously followed the divine directions. He was already in possession of the two transparent stones laid up with the Golden Bible, by looking through which he was enabled to read the golden letters on the plates in the box. How he obtained these spectacles without opening the chest, Harris could not tell. But still he had them; and by means of them he could read all the book contained. The book itself was not to be disclosed until Smith's child had reached a certain age. Then it might be published to the world. In the interim, Smith was to prepare the way for the conversion of the world to a new system of faith, by transcribing the characters from the plates and giving translations of the same.

This was the substance of Martin Harris' communication to me upon our first interview. He then carefully unfolded a slip of paper, which contained three or four lines of characters, as unlike letters of hieroglyphics of any sort, as well could be produced were one to shut up his eyes and play off the most antic movements with his pen upon paper. The only thing that bore the slightest resemblance to the letter of any language that I had ever seen, was two uprights marked joined by a horizontal line, that might have been taken for the Hebrew character. My ignorance of the characters in which the pretended ancient record was written, was to Martin Harris new proof that Smith's whole account of the divine revelation made to him was entirely to be relied on. . . .

[Journey to New York] He [Martin Harris] was so much in earnest on this subject, that he immediately started off with some of the manuscripts that Smith furnished him on a journey to New York and Washington to consult some learned men to ascertain the nature of the language in which this record was engraven. After his return he came to see me again, and told me that, among others, he had consulted Professor Anthon, who thought the characters in which the book was written very remarkable, but he could not decide exactly what language they belonged to. Martin had now become a perfect believer. He said he had no more doubt of Smith's commission, than of the divine commission of the apostles. The very fact that Smith was an obscure and illiterate man, showed that he must be acting under divine impulses: - "God had chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things to confound the mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised - yea, and things that are not to bring to nought - things that are - that no flesh should glory in his presence:" that he was willing to "take of the spoiling of his goods" to sustain Smith in carrying on this work of the Lord; and that he was determined that the book should be published, though it consumed all his worldly substance.

It was in vain I endeavoured to expostulate. I was an unbeliever, and could not see afar off. As for him he must follow the light which the Lord had given him . . . The way that Smith made his transcripts and translations for Harris was the following. Although in the same room, a thick curtain or blanket was suspended between them, and Smith concealed behind the blanket, pretended to look through his spectacles, or transparent stones, and would then write down or repeat what he saw, which, when repeated aloud, was written down by Harris, who sat on the other side of the suspended blanket. Harris was told that it would arouse the most terrible divine displeasure, if he should attempt to draw near the sacred chest, or look at Smith while engaged in the work of deciphering the mysterious characters. This was Harris' own account of the matter to me. What other measures they afterwards took to transcribe or translate from these metallic plates, I cannot say, as I very soon after this removed to another field or labor where I heard no more of this matter till I learned the Book of Mormon was about to be published . . . This book, which professed to be a translation of the Golden Bible brought to light by Joseph Smith, was published in 1830--to accomplish which Martin Harris actually mortgaged his farm.” (John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way (1842), pp. 222-31)

 

MARTIN HARRIS' EARLY EXPERIENCES WITH MORMONISM AS RELATED BY THE NEW YORK PRESS, 1831

"Golden Bible." -- The Palmyra. Freeman Says, the greatest piece of superstition that has ever come within our knowledge, now occupies the attention of a few individuals of this quarter. It is generally known and spoke of as the "Golden Bible." Its proselytes give the following account of it: In the fall of 1827, a person by the name of Joseph Smith of Manchester, Ontario County, reported that he had been visited in a dream by the spirit of the Mighty, and informed that in a certain hill in that town, was deposited this Golden Bible, containing an ancient record of a divine nature and origin. After having been thence thus visited, as he states he proceeded to the spot and after having proceeded to the spot and after having penetrated "mother earth a short distance, the Bible was found together with a huge pair of spectacles! He had directed, however, not to let any mortal being examine them, under no less penalty than instant death! They were therefore nicely wrapped up and excluded from the vulgar gaze of poor wicked mortals!" It was said that the leaves of the Bible were plates of gold about eight inches long, six wide and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were engraved characters or hieroglyphics by placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into, Smith could (he said so at least) interpret the characters.

An account of this discovery was soon circulated. The subject was almost invariably treated as it should have been with contempt. A few however believed the "Golden" story, among whom was Martin Harris, an honest and industrious farmer of the town of Palmyra. So blindly enthusiastic was Harris, that he took some of the characters interpreted by Smith, and went in search of some one; besides the interpreter, who was learned enough to English them; but to all whom he applied (among the number was Professor Mitchell, of New York,) happened not to be possessed of sufficient knowledge to give satisfaction! Harris returned, and set Smith to work at interpreting the Bible. He has at length performed the task, and the work is soon to be put to press in Palmyra. Its language and doctrines are said to be far superior to the book of life! ("Golden Bible," Painesville Telegraph, 1831, p. 3)

 

A NEGATIVE ACCOUNT OF MARTIN HARRIS' CONVICTIONS, 1831

Martin Harris, another chief of the Mormon impostors, arrived here last Saturday from the bible quarry in New York. He immediately planted himself in the bar-room of the hotel, where he soon commenced reading and explaining the Mormon hoax, and all the dark passages from Genesis to Revelations. He told all about the gold plates, angels, spirits, and Jo Smith. He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God! Curiosity soon drew around thirty or forty spectators, and all who presumed to question his blasphemous pretentions, were pronounced infidels. He was very flippant, talking fast and loud, in order that others could not interpose an opinion counter to his. Every idea that he advanced, he knew to be absolutely true, as he said, by the spirit and power of God… [He] had a fair specimen of the Mormon slang, in this display of one of their headmen. The meeting was closed, by a request of the landlord that the prophet should remove his quarters, which he did, after declaring, that all who believed the new bible would see Christ within fifteen years, and all who did not would absolutely be destroyed and damned. ("Golden Bible," Painesville Telegraph, 15 Mar 1831, p. 3)

 

SELECTION FROM JAMES GORDON BENNETT'S REPORT ON MORMONISM, 1831

(James G. Bennett, "History of Mormonism," Hillsborough Gazette (Ohio), 29 Oct 1831)

[For additional information on this article see Leonard J. Arrington, "James Gordon Bennett's 1831 Report on `The Mormonites'," BYU Studies 10 (Spring 1970):353-64. Arrington includes in his work the same article cited above which appeared in the Morning Courier and Enquirer, 1 Sep 1831.]

It is probable that Joe Smith is well acquainted with the trick, but Harris the farmer and the recent converts, are true believers. --Harris was the first man who gave credit to the story of Smith and the ex-preacher. He was their maiden convert - the Ali of the Ontario Mahomet, who believed without a reason and without a murmur. They attempted to get the Book printed, but could not raise the means till Harris stepped [sic] forward, and raised money on his farm for that purpose. Harris with several manuscripts in his pocket, went to the city of New York, and called upon one of the professors of Columbia College for the purpose of showing them to him. Harris says that the professor thought them very curious, but admitted that he could not decipher them. Said he to Harris, "Mr. Harris you had better go to the celebrated Doctor Mitchell and shew them to him. He is very learned in these ancient languages, and I have no doubt will be able to give you some satisfaction." "Where does he live?" asked Harris. He was told, and off he posted with the engravings from the golden plates to submit to Doctor Mitchell - Harris says that the Doctor received him very "politely,"[?] looked at his engravings - made a learned dissertation on them - compared them with the hieroglyphics discovered by Champollion in Egypt - and set them down as the language of a people formerly in existence in the East, but now no more.

 

APOSTASY OF MARTIN HARRIS, 1838-1870

Source: John Smith to George A. Smith, cit. JH, 1 Jan 1838, p. 2.

“The spiritual condition at this time is gloomy also. I called the High Council together last week and laid before them the case of dissenters; 28 persons were, upon mature discussion, cut off from the Church; the leaders were Cyrus Smalling, Joseph Coe, Martin Harris, Luke S. Johnson, John F. Boynton and W. W. Parrish. We have cut off between 40 and 50 from the Church since you left. . .

Source: George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming, 30 Mar 1838, cit. JH, 30 Mar 1838, p. 1.

The state of affairs in Kirtland is very unsettled; the Warren Parrish party has become divided, three against two, and two against three, and they are entering into a long debate upon the Book of Mormon and the revelations. One of them told me that Moses was a rascal and the Prophets were tyrants, and that Jesus Christ was a despot, Paul a base liar and all religion a fudge. And Parrish said he agreed with him in principle . . . .

Last Sabbath a division arose among the Parrish party about the Book of Mormon; John F. Boyington, Warren Parrish, Luke S. 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. Cyrus Smalling, Joseph Coe and others declared his testimony was true. In this way a division arose to bring about the above-mentioned debate and thus the enemies of truth are divided, while the Saints are growing in grace and in union and knowledge and increasing in number. . .

Source: Justin Brooks to Joseph Smith, 7 Nov 1842, cit. JH, 7 Nov 1842, p. 2.

The labors of the elders seem to have effected a union of all parties; and if I must give my opinion I think upon the right principle.

Twelve persons were baptized yesterday and information has just reached me that Brother Martin Harris has been baptized, and is now on his way home from the water. I would further state that Bro. Wight expects to administer baptism to several persons in Painsville [Painesville], on his way east.

Source: Phineas H. Young to Brigham Young, 31 Dec 1844, cit. JH, 31 Dec 1844, p. 3.

There are in this place all kinds of teaching; Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon. Luman Heath is running after them continually. Hiram Kellog, the presiding officer here is a Rigdonite and says Sidney is the man God has called to lead his people, that Bro. Joseph was cut off for transgression and the Twelve are carrying out his principles; and if we follow them, we shall all be cut off. . . .

MARTIN HARRIS' MISSION TO ENGLAND, 1846

Source: O. W. Riegal, Crown of Glory - A life of James J. Strang (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), pp. 85, 102, 103, cit. Wayne Gunnell, "Martin Harris," p. 53.

[The following is an account of Martin Harris' mission to England during the fall of 1846:]

Another blow at Brighamism was the appointment of a mission to raid the rich proselyting field of industrial England. Moses Smith, Leicester Brooks, Hazen Aldrich, and Martin Harris, the last of whom had financed and been one of the three witnesses of Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon, were delegated to leave in the fall for the British Isles . . . .

The English mission, on which Strange had counted for reinforcements in money and souls, ended in disaster. Without the stalwart Moses Smith, who was detained at Voree to help Strange fight the schisms and apostasies which threatened to shatter the walls of Zion, the mission lacked a dependable leader. Moreover, the other two members of the mission, Martin Harris, and Leicester Brooks, had been preceded to England by Orson Hyde and John Taylor, the Brighamite Apostles and scourges of Strangism, who had prepared a hot reception for them.

The landing of Harris and Brooks at Liverpool was the signal for Hyde and Taylor to let loose a torrent of scorn. Unfortunately, both of the Strangite missionaries were vulnerable to impeachments of their honesty. The Brighamites lost no time in publishing the fact that Martin Harris had once been a follower of Anne Lee in Shakerism as well as a recidivist Mormon. "Any one can see that he must have been a wicked man, and no wonder that a man without revelation should join Anne Lee, Strang, or any other imposition or strong delusion, having rejected the truth.

Source: Orson Hyde, "Martin Harris," MS 8 (15 Nov 1846):124.

One of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, yielded to the spirit and temptation of the devil a number of years ago--turned against Joseph Smith and became his bitter enemy. He was filled with rage and madness of a demon. One day he would be one thing, and another day another thing. He soon 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. In one of his fits of monomania, he went and joined the "Shakers" or followers of Anne Lee. He tarried with them a year or two, or perhaps longer, having had some flare ups while among them; but since Strang has made his entry into the apostate ranks, and hoisted his standard for the rebellious to flock to, Martin leaves the "Shakers," whom he knows to be right, and has known it for many years, as he said, and joins Strang in gathering out the tares of the field. We understand that he is appointed a mission to this country, but we do not feel to warn the Saints against him, for his own unbridled tongue will soon show out specimens of folly enough to give any person a true index to the character of the man; but if the Saints wish to know what the Lord hath said of him, they may turn to the 178th page of the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and the person there called a "wicked man" is no other than Martin Harris, and he owned to it then, but probably might not now. It is not the first time the Lord chose a wicked man as a witness. Also on page 193, read the whole revelation given to him, and ask yourselves if the Lord ever talked in that way to a good man. Every one can see that he must have been a wicked man, and the Lord said that that revelation was the last he should receive; and no wonder that a man without revelation should join Anne Lee, Strang, or any other imposition or strong delusion, having rejected the truth.

Source: Orson Hyde, "Notices," MS 8 (15 Nov 1846):128.

[After the arrival of Martin Harris and Leicester Brooks in England, Elder Orson Hyde published two additional articles in the Star. One of the editorial notes pertained to their visit in Birmingham; the second was prompted by the arrival of Harris and Brooks in Liverpool.]

We stop the press to say that our letters by this morning's mail (October 31) bring cheering accounts from our elders in various parts. They are baptizing in almost all directions. We also learn, from Elder Wheelock's letter of Birmingham, that Martin Harris and his escort have paid them a visit. He introduced himself to their conference meeting and wished to speak, but on being politely informed by Elder Banks that the season of the year had come when Martin sought a more genial climate than England, he had better follow. On being rejected by the united voice of the conference, he went out into the street and began to proclaim the corruption of the Twelve; but here the officers of government honored him with their presence--two policemen came and very gently took hold of each arm and led Martin away to the Lock-up. We would insert Brother Wheelock's letter entire if we had room. Elder Wheelock will remember that evil men, like Martin Harris, out of the evil treasure of their hearts shall bring forth evil things.

Just as our paper was going to press, we learned that Martin Harris, about whom we had written in another article, had landed in Liverpool, and being afraid or ashamed of his profession as a Strangite, and we presume both, for we are confident we should be, he tells some of our brethren on whom he called, that he was of the same profession with themselves--that he had just come from America and wished to get acquainted with the Saints. But there was a strangeness about him, and about one or two who came with him, that gave them plainly to see that the frankness and honest simplicity of true hearted brethren were not with them. A lying deceptive spirit attends them, and has from the beginning. They said they were of the same profession with our brethren, when they knew they lied. If they were of our profession, why not call at our office and get their papers endorsed? Because they know that they are of their father, the devil, who was a liar from the beginning, and abode not in the truth. The very countenance of Harris will show to every spiritual-minded person who sees him, that the wrath of God is upon him. . . . Source: Wayne Gunnell, "Martin Harris," p. 55.

Upon the failure of his British Mission, Martin Harris withdrew from the ranks of Strang and joined William E. McLellin, formerly one of the Twelve Apostles and who had been excommunicated from the Church in 1838. On January 23, 1847, a small group under the leadership of McLellin and Harris proceeded to organize a church. "It was moved by McLellin and seconded by Martin Harris that this following take upon them the name of `The Church of Christ,' and wear it henceforth shorn of all appendages or alterations, which motion was carried." Soon after the organization was effected, McLellin communicated with the Whitmer brothers who had remained in Missouri, and in September of 1847, he visited them.