CES Reply: The Three Witnesses – Martin Harris

Picking up where I left off with my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

3. Witnesses:

We are told that the witnesses never disavowed their testimonies,

Which is both true and not unimportant. At different points in their lives, all of the Three Witnesses were bitterly opposed to Joseph Smith and could have profited greatly from exposing him as a fraud. They never did, even at great personal cost to their own reputations. David Whitmer never came back and had plenty of nasty things to say about Joseph, yet he never once denied his testimony and reaffirmed it on his deathbed.

but we have not come to know these men or investigated what else they said about their experiences.

We haven’t? Who’s “we?” People in and out of the Church have scrutinized the Three and Eight Witnesses for the better part of two centuries. Maybe you hadn’t, but don’t drag “we” into this.

They are 11 individuals: Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. – who all shared a common worldview of second sight, magic, and treasure digging – which is what drew them together in 1829.

No, what drew most of them together was that they were related to each other. You keep citing people believing in harmless superstitions as some kind of indictment, but it certainly wouldn’t have been seen as such in the early 19th Century, nor was it, as you falsely imply, the defining characteristic of these people’s lives.

The following are several facts and observations on several of the Book of Mormon Witnesses

  • Martin Harris:

Martin Harris was anything but a skeptical witness. 

Martin Harris was a remarkably skeptical witness. He swapped out Joseph’s seer stone with another one to test its veracity. The reason we don’t have the lost 116 pages is that he begged Joseph to have something tangible to satisfy his wife’s skepticism. He undertook an expensive journey to New York to have an academic – Charles Anthon, to be precise – verify the particulars of the translated characters. The record shows that he was constantly looking for external validation of Joseph’s claims, which is what skeptical witnesses do.

He was known by many of his peers as an unstable, gullible, and superstitious man.

That reputation befell him largely as a result of his belief in Mormonism. Prior to his acceptance of a religion his neighbors despised, he was a well-respected and wealthy landowner with a stellar reputation. Even after the Mormons got him, a virulent anti-Mormon critic conceded that “only his [belief in Mormonism] was Martin deemed insane; on other subjects he exhibited all of his former clearness of brain; he could drive a good bargain, and manage his farming matters as well as ever.” Another non-Mormon contemporary of Martin reported that “There can’t anybody say a word against Martin Harris. Martin was a good citizen . . . a man that would do just as he agreed with you.” None of that jibes with a reputation for instability or gullibility.

As for superstition, the 19th Century standard is quite different from today’s standard, and anyone willing to hang out with the Mormons probably got tarred with that particular brush. Even after he cast his lot with the Mormons, he had a reputation for honesty. As one critic wrote, “How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement [i.e. the Testimony of the Three Witnesses], in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never easily be explained.” That comes from our old friend Pomeroy Tucker, who was certainly no fan of Harris or the Church.

In any case, this is all ad hominem nonsense. If it was a fraud, Martin, no matter how unstable, gullible, or superstitious he was, he had plenty of opportunity and motive to come clean. In fact, if he truly was gullible and unstable, it’s likely that he would have cracked under pressure, and there was plenty of pressure on him to expose Joseph as a fraud.

Reports assert that he and the other witnesses never literally saw the gold plates, but only an object said to be the plates, covered with a cloth.

Which reports? Because I think there’s a big issue of the report published at the beginning of every edition of the Book of Mormon – i.e. the Testimony of the Three Witnesses, of which Harris was one, and its firsthand account directly contradicts such reports in every respect.

Additionally, Martin Harris had a direct conflict of interest in being a witness.  He was deeply financially invested in the Book of Mormon as he mortgaged his farm to finance the book.

He lost that farm, too, as I recall. When he was excommunicated and disaffected with Joseph Smith, his financial losses would have given him extra incentive to deny his testimony. Why didn’t he?

The following are some accounts that show the superstitious side of Martin Harris:

“Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop. Another time he excitedly awoke from his sleep believing that a creature as large as a dog had been upon his chest, though a nearby associate could find nothing to confirm his fears. Several hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts told of visionary experiences with Satan and Christ, Harris once reporting that Christ had been poised on a roof beam.”

– BYU professor Ronald W. Walker, “Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert,” p.34-35 [I added some emphasis there for you.]

Please quote the next sentence of Professor Walker’s paragraph. “But such talk came easy. His exaggerated sense of the supernatural naturally produced caricature and tall and sometimes false tales.” [Emphasis added.]

So much of this information comes from people eager to discredit Martin that it’s impossible to sort out what’s true and what’s nonsense. If the best indictment you can come up with is that once got weirded out by a sputtering candle and he had a bad dream about a dog, I don’t think you’re making a compelling case that the guy was a loon. I do think he was probably more superstitious than most 21st Century folks, but as we’ve observed with Joseph and Oliver, that kind of world view actually opened his mind to the possibilities of revelation, so it wasn’t necessarily a negative.

“No matter where he went, he saw visions and supernatural appearances all around him. He told a gentleman in Palmyra, after one of his excursions to Pennsylvania, while the translation of the Book of Mormon was going on, that on the way he met the Lord Jesus Christ, who walked along by the side of him in the shape of a deer for two or three miles, talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another.”
– John A. Clark letter, August 31, 1840 in Early Mormon Documents 2:271

This can also be found in John A. Clark’s book “Gleanings by the Way,” page 258, a book dedicated to exposing the “Mormon delusion” by highlighting the thoroughly debunked and discredited theory that the Book of Mormon was copied from Solomon Spaulding’s lost manuscript. (Everyone now knows it was copied from View of the Hebrews, the Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, and the First Book of Napolean, with sprinkles of Captain Kidd, obscure African maps, and names from a 2,000 square mile radius on local maps.)

Clark never met Martin Harris, and there is every reason to believe this second-hand hearsay story is a complete fabrication.

“According to two Ohio newspapers, shortly after Harris arrived in Kirtland he began claiming to have ‘seen Jesus Christ and that he is the handsomest man he ever did see. He has also seen the Devil, whom he described as a very sleek haired fellow with four feet, and a head like that of a Jack-ass.’”

– Early Mormon Documents 2:271, note 32.

Another unreliable John Clark hearsay fable. Next.

Before Harris became a Mormon, he had already changed his religion at least five times.

False. Your link takes us to the Wikipedia article about Martin Harris, which sources this bogus assertion by referencing the Dialogue Article “Martin Harris, Mormonism’s Early Convert,” pp. 30-33. You can read the actual article online. Nowhere in pages 30-33 of this article – or anywhere else in the article, for that matter – does Ronald Walker make this claim. Richard L. Anderson, however, has this to say about the subject.

“The arithmetic of Martin’s five religious changes before Mormonism is also faulty. The claim comes from the hostile Palmyra affidavits published by E. D. Howe; G. W. Stoddard closed his in sarcasm against Martin Harris: “He as first an orthodox Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and then a Mormon.” Palmyra sources do not yet prove that Martin was a Quaker, though his wife probably was. And no evidence yet associates Martin with the Baptist or Presbyterian churches. Note that the other two names are religious positions, not necessarily churches–philosophical Universalists dissent from traditional churches in believing that God will save all, and Restorationists obviously take literally the many Bible prophecies of God’s reestablished work in modern times. An early Episcopal minister in Palmyra interviewed Martin and reduced his five positions to two: “He had been, if I mistake not, at one period a member of the Methodist Church, and subsequently had identified himself with the Universalists.” Of course Martin could have been a Universalist and Restorationer simultaneously. (Anderson 1981, 168-169)

After Joseph’s death, Harris continued this earlier pattern by joining and leaving 5 more different sects, including James Strang (whom Harris went on a mission to England for), other Mormon offshoots, and the Shakers. 

The Strangs actually pulled Martin out of the Strangite mission field, because his only interest was in the Book of Mormon, not Strang. As soon as he was yanked off of Strangite missionary duty, Harris abandoned and repudiated the Strangites. His repeated affiliations with splinter groups demonstrates an eagerness to cling to the testimony of the Book of Mormon, which never wavered. Since he refused to accept plural marriage and the authority of the mainstream Church, he was clearly seeking some way to stay true to his testimony when he could not stay true to Joseph. His flirtation with the Shakers didn’t last long, and he eventually found his way back to full fellowship with the Saints, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Again, all of this is ad hominem hooey that doesn’t erase Martin Harris’s consistent and credible witness for the Book of Mormon.

Not only did Harris join other religions, he testified and witnessed for them.

No, he testified and witnessed for the Book of Mormon, using splinter groups as the vehicle to do so. The splinter groups grew impatient with the fact that this was the only thing Harris really wanted to discuss, which is why he fell out with them so quickly.

It has been reported that Martin Harris “declared repeatedly that he had as much evidence for a Shaker book he had as for the Book of Mormon” (The Braden and Kelly Debate, p.173).

The Braden and Kelley debate took place thirteen years after Martin Harris’s death, and this is the first time anyone made such a charge. The person making the charge had never met Harris and had no way to substantiate this allegation, and, furthermore, neither do you.

In addition to devotion to self-proclaimed prophet James Strang, Martin Harris was a follower to another self-proclaimed Mormon prophet by the name of Gladden Bishop.  Like Strang, Bishop claimed to have plates, Urim and Thummim, and that he was receiving revelation from the Lord.  Martin was one of Gladden Bishop’s witnesses to his claims.

A gross exaggeration. Martin never gave any witness that Gladden Bishop actually had any plates or a Urim and Thummim or anything else. His testimony in this splinter group, as in all the splinter groups he joined, was focused on the Book of Mormon and his original witness.

If someone testified of some strange spiritual encounter he had, but he also told you that  he…

conversed with Jesus who took the form of a deer

As noted above, it’s highly unlikely Martin ever said this.

saw the devil with his four feet and donkey head

Martin almost certainly didn’t say this, either.

chipped off a chunk of a stone box that would mysteriously move beneath the ground to avoid capture

First time you’ve mentioned this one. Source, please?

interpreted simple things like a flickering of a candle as a sign of the devil

Hearsay and dubious, but harmless even if it’s accurate.

had a creature appearing on his chest that no one else could see

More like woke up from a bad dream. (Also dubious hearsay.)

…would you believe his claims?  Or would you call the nearest mental hospital?

I’d do neither. Instead, I’d verify my sources for these claims, as all of them are either grossly exaggerated or altogether bogus.

With inconsistency, conflict of interest, magical thinking, and superstition like this, exactly what credibility does Martin Harris have and why should I believe him?

With all the faults and statements that you falsely attribute to him, all the while ignoring the voluminous evidence that Harris was a well-respected man known for his honesty and good character, no one would believe the testimony of such a caricature, because the straw man you’ve created bears little or no resemblance to the actual Martin Harris.

Tomorrow: David Whitmer

CES Reply: The Priesthood and Magic
CES Reply: Three Witnesses - Whitmer & Cowdery

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