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The Trouble With Martin Harris

Rich Kelsey


Note: The quotes in this article, which are mostly taken from LDS source material, are mean spirited to say the least. For this reason, this article is not very edifying; and because of that, I have come close to deleting it on a few occasions. However, if I did I would be contributing to LDS faithful history instead of telling the story like it really happened. Therefore, the article remains — Rich Kelsey. 


Elder Dallin H. Oaks, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said,

"Having a special interest in Martin Harris, I have been saddened at how he is remembered by most Church members. He deserves better than to be remembered solely as the man who unrighteously obtained and then lost the initial manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon." (The Witness: Martin Harris, Ensign, May 1999)

It may be unfair for Harris to be remembered solely for having lost the 116 initial manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon; especially when there are other important events in early LDS Church history which he could be remembered for.   

Perhaps he could be remembered as the witness who told the world about the Smith family's money digging ventures:

“These plates were found at the north point of a hill two miles north of Manchester village. Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase, twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by means of this stone he first discovered these plates… Joseph had had this stone for some time. There was a company there in that neighborhood, who were digging for money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients. Of this company were old Mr. Stowel--I think his name was Josiah--also old Mr. Beman, also Samuel Lawrence, George Proper, Joseph Smith, jr., and his father, and his brother Hiram [Hyrum] Smith. They dug for money in Palmyra, Manchester, also in Pennsylvania, and other places. When Joseph found this stone, there was a company digging in Harmony, Pa., and they took Joseph to look in the stone for them, and he did so for a while… (Joel Tiffany, Interview with Martin Harris, in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, New York, p. 163-164)

Harris might also be remembered for using the word "enchantment" to describe why Joseph Smith could not see the treasure the money diggers were trying to obtain:  

Tiffany Interview Continued:

“… and then he [Joseph Smith] told them the enchantment was so strong that he could not see, and they gave it up.” (Joel Tiffany, Interview with Martin Harris, in Tiffany's Monthly, 1859, New York, p.163-164) (See documentation) 

Harris could also be remembered as the man who "God," through his servant Joseph Smith, threatened with endless punishment if he did not pay the entire cost of printing the Book of Mormon:

The Doctrine

and Covenants

Section 19

Revelation given through Joseph Smith, at Manchester, New York, March 1830…  In his history, the Prophet introduced it as “a commandment of God and not of man, to Martin Harris, given by him who is Eternal”

Verse (10): For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore—

Verse (11): Eternal punishment is God’s punishment. 

Verse (12): Endless punishment is God’s punishment. 

Verse (13): Wherefore, I command you to repent, and keep the commandments which you have received by the hand of my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., in my name;

Verse (14): And it is by my almighty power that you have received them;

Verse (15): Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not

Verse (26): And again, I command thee that thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon, which contains the truth and the word of God—


Verse (32): Behold, this is a great and the last commandment which I shall give unto you concerning this matter; for this shall suffice for thy daily walk, even unto the end of thy life.

Verse (33): And misery thou shalt receive if thou wilt slight these counsels, yea, even the destruction of thyself and property.

Verse (34): Impart a portion of thy property, yea, even part of thy lands…

Verse (35): Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage.

(See Book of Mormon Printing Arrangements) 

Martin Harris might also be remembered as the man who "God" threatened to condemn if he did not say he had seen the gold plates:

The Doctrine

and Covenants

Section 5

Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, March 1829, at the request of Martin Harris (see History of the Church, 1:28–31).

1—10, This generation will receive the Lord’s word through Joseph Smith… Martin Harris may repent and be one of the witnesses...

Verse (1): Behold, I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., have got the plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me; 

Verse (2): And now, behold, this shall you say unto him—he who spake unto you, said unto you: I, the Lord, am God, and have given these things unto you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and have commanded you that you should stand as a witness of these things;


Verse (26):  And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, [the plates] and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say.

Verse (27): But if he deny this he will break the covenant which he has before covenanted with me, and behold, he is condemned.

Harris once publicly stated:

"...that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither [did] Oliver nor David” (Stephen Burnett letter to Lyman E. Johnson dated April 15, 1838, Joseph Smith papers, Letter book).

Martin Harris could also be remembered for being rebuked in LDS publications after leaving the Church:

“…a few others who acted as lackies, such as Martin Harris… are so far beneath contempt that a notice of them would be too great a sacrifice for a gentleman to make… no sooner were they excluded from the fellowship of the church and gave loose to all kind of abominations, swearing, lying, cheating, swindling, drinking with every species of debauchery…” (Elders’ Journal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, August 1838, Vol. 4, p. 59. "edited by Joseph Smith")

Also, LDS scholar, Wayne Cutler Gunnell, noted in his thesis written at Brigham Young University that that on December 31, 1844 Phineas H. Young who was Brigham Young's brother, and other leaders of the Kirtland organization wrote a letter to Brigham Young in which they spelled out:

“Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon.” (Martin Harris - Witness and Benefactor to the Book of Mormon, 1955, p. 52  /  Joseph Smith History, 31 Dec 1844, p. 3.)  

In 1846, Martin Harris went on a mission to England as a member of the LDS splinter-group led by James J. Strang; who claimed to be the true successor to Joseph Smith.  Shortly after Harris arrived in Liverpool, the LDS publication: Latter-Day Saints' Millennial Star, said this about him:

"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 the 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....

In one of his fits of monomania, he went and joined the 'Shakers' or followers of Anna Lee. ...but since Strang has made his entry ... Martin leaves the 'Shakers,' whom he knows to be right,... and joins Strang.... We understand that he is appointed a mission to this country,... if the Saints wish to know what the Lord hath said to him they may turn to ... the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and the person there called a 'wicked man' is no other than Martin Harris ... Elder Wheelock will remember that evil men, like Harris, out of the evil treasure of their hearts bring forth evil things....

Just as our paper was going to press, we learned that Martin Harris, about whom we have written in another article, had landed in Liverpool,... there was a strangeness about him, and about one or two who came with him ... A lying deceptive spirit attends them, and has from the beginning. ... 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" (Wayne Gunnell, "Martin Harris," p. 55. / Latter-Day Saints' Millennial Star, vol. 8, pp. 124-28)

Martin Harris could be remembered for being the scribe who's wife called Joseph Smith a grand imposter:  

As Martin Harris was making preparations to leave the farm and become Smith’s scribe for a season, his wife Lucy asked if she could come with him and stay for a week or two.  Martin agreed.  Together they traveled from their farm in Manchester, New York to Harmony, Pennsylvania where Joseph and Emma Smith were living at Emma’s parent’s home.

However, while in Pennsylvania, Lucy

“…did all that lay in her power to injure Joseph in the estimation of his neighbours— telling them that he was a grand impostor, and, that by his specious pretensions, he had seduced her husband into the belief that he [Joseph Smith] was some great one, merely through a design upon her husband’s property…” (Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, 1853 edition, Cory/Pratt, chapter 24)

Then, while Lucy was back home in New York,

“…she went from place to place, and from house to house, telling her grievances, and declaring that Joseph Smith was practising (sic) a deception upon the people, which was about to strip her of all that she possessed…” (Lucy Smith: Biographical Sketches, 1853 edition, Cory/Pratt, chapter 24)

What an embarrassing history!  Joseph Smith was called a “grand impostor” by none other than his principal scribe’s wife.  She also claimed that he was, “practicing a deception upon the people.”  In other words, Lucy Harris was telling people that Joseph Smith was a con-man.

Along these lines, the well known and highly respected LDS author: Richard L. Bushman asked this question about Harris:

“Was he the classic dupe, to be cheated out of his money and farm when the fraud was complete?” (Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, Richard L. Bushman, p. 90)


One thing Martin Harris should be remembered for is the inclusion of the plates of Nephi in the golden record:

"Joseph Smith began with the book of Lehi when he was translating the Book of Mormon. It was a record that Mormon had abridged from the plates of Lehi. After he had 116 pages of manuscript that he had translated from this book, Joseph gave the manuscript to Martin Harris, who had briefly served as Joseph’s scribe in the translation of the Book of Mormon. The pages were then lost. Joseph did not retranslate the book of Lehi to replace the lost manuscript but instead translated other related accounts from the gold plates." (Guide to the Scriptures, the Book of Lehi, Lehi, Father of Nephi, The Scriptures, LDS.org)

If not for Harris losing the 116 pages, there may have been no Words of Mormon, and certainly not any 1830 BOM preface explaining the loss of the 116 pages; or, the related Book of Commandments page:

The Words of Mormon:

Verse (6) But behold, I shall take these plates, which contain these prophecying (sic) and revelations, and put them with the remainder of my record, for they are choice unto me; and I know they will be choice unto my brethren.

Verse (7) And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will (Words of Mormon 1:6-7).

In the Words of Mormon the Prophet Mormon is explaining that he is taking the plates of Nephi and adding them to the golden record.  Words of Mormon is one small chapter in the Book of Mormon, half of which is devoted to explaining that the prophet Mormon found the plates of Nephi and inserted those plates in with the rest of the record.  "The Lord" instructed Joseph Smith to replace the section of the original Book of Mormon manuscript which Harris lost with the record from the plates of Nephi:

To The Reader--

As many false reports have been circulated respecting the following work, and also many unlawful measures taken by the evil designing persons to destroy me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon; which said account, some person or persons have stolen and kept from me, notwithstanding my utmost exertions to recover it again--and being commanded of the Lord that I should translate the same over again, for Satan had put it into their hearts to tempt the Lord their God, by altering the words, that they did read contrary from that which I translated and caused to be written; and If I should bring forth the same words again, or in other words, if I should translate the same over again, they would publish that which they had stolen, and Satan would stir up their hearts of this generation, that they might not receive this work: but behold, the Lord said unto me, I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing: therefore thou shalt translate from the plates of Nephi, until ye come to that which ye have translated, which ye have retained; and behold ye shall publish it as the record of Nephi; and thus I will confound those who have altered my words. I will not suffer that they shall destroy my work; yea, I will shew unto them that my wisdom is greater than the cunning of the Devil. Wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, I have, through his grace and mercy, accomplished that which he hath commanded me respecting this thing. I would also inform you that the plates of which hath been spoken, were found in the township of Manchester, Ontario county, New-York. (1830 Book of Mormon Preface)


Book of Commandments

Revelation, Spring 1829 [D&C 10]


A Revelation given to Joseph in, Harmony,  Pennsylvania, May, 1829, informing him of the alteration of the Manuscript of the fore part of the book of Mormon.

NOW, behold I say unto you, that because you  delivered up so many writings, which you had  power to translate, into the hands of a wicked man,  you have lost them, and you also lost your gift at the  same time, nevertheless it has been restored unto  you again: therefore, see that you are faithful and  go on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work  as you have begun. Do not run faster then you  have strength and means provided to translate, but  be diligent unto the end, that you may come off con querer; yea, that you may conquer satan, and those  that do uphold his work.

 Behold they have sought to destroy you; yea,  even the man in whom you have trusted, and for  this cause I said, that he is a wicked man, for he has  sought to take away the things wherewith you have  been intrusted; and he has also sought to destroy  your gift, and because you have delivered the wri tings into his hands, behold they have taken them  from you: therefore, you have delivered them up;  yea, that which was sacred unto wickedness. And  behold, satan has put it into their hearts to alter the  words which you have caused to be written, or which  you have translated, which have gone out of your  hands; and behold I say unto you, that because they  have altered the words, they read contrary from that  which you translated and caused to be written; and  on this wise the devil has sought to lay a cunning [p. 22]


Martin Harris left the LDS Church in 1838 and remained a non-member through 1870.  Only near the end of his life did Martin re-join the Church; yet, his testimonies of seeing the gold plates were hardly believable:

  “I will tell you a wonderful thing that happened after Joseph had found the plates. Three of us took some tools to go to the hill and hunt for some more boxes of gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. We got quite excited about it and dug quite carefully around it and we were ready to take it up, but behold by some unseen power the box slipped back into the hill. We stood there and looked at it and one of us took a crowbar and tried to drive it through the lid and hold it but the bar glanced off and broke off one corner of the box. Sometime that box will be found and you will see the corner broken off and then you will know I have told the truth again.” (Martin’s death-bed statement - signed as witnesses Clarkston, Utah, July, 1875 - John Godfrey, Ole A. Jensen and James Keep)

I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. I wrote a great deal of the Book of Mormon myself, as Joseph Smith translated or spelled the words out in English. Sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room in which Smith did the translating, covered over with a cloth. I was told by Smith that God would strike him dead if he attempted to look at them, and I believed it.” (Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70–71; quoted in Dale Morgan, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986).

“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 decyphering (sic) the mysterious characters.” (1827 — Account of Martin Harris given to the Rev. John A. Clark, as related in his 1842 book Gleanings by the Way, W.J. & J.K. Simon, pp. 222ff). [Microfilm copy]

John H. Gilbert, who participated in printing of the Book of Mormon said: "Martin was something of a prophet: He frequently said that 'Jackson would be the last president that we would have; and that all persons who did not embrace Mormonism in two years would be stricken off the face of the earth.' He said that 'Palmyra was to be the New Jerusalem, and that her streets were to be paved with gold.' Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses, (Harris — Cowdery and Whitmer) I said to him, 'Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?' Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, 'No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.'" (Wilford C. Wood, Joseph Smith Begins His Work, Vol. 1, 1958, introduction. This is a photomechanical reprint of the first edition [1830] of the Book of Mormon. It also contains biographical and historical information relating to the Book of Mormon.)

More Harris quotes