Martin Harris

From from an essay: “The Life of Martin Harris” by Rhett Stephens James

published by Whittier Community Center, Logan, Utah 1993.

Martin Harris was born May 18, 1783, in Easton, Washington. New York. He is referred to in Latter-day Saint (Mormon) Christianity as one of “The Three Witnesses.” He testified of the reality of God and Jesus Christ, and of the divine origin and historical authenticity of The Book of Mormon.

Renowned for honesty, an excellent memory, shrewdness in business, civic spirit, financial generosity, neighborliness, Martin Harris, first Mormon financier, provided sole finance ($3,000 gold) for the first publication of The Book of Mormon. Harris also helped finance publication of The Book of Commandments, and other varied Mormon publications and activities.

Martin Harris, popular orator, energetic, enthusiastic, methodical about confirming facts, was about five feet eight inches tall with light complexion, blue eyes, brown hair, and wore a Greek style beard off the edge of jaw and chin. A businessman, he wore a favorite grey suit and a large, stiff hat. His wife characterized him as industrious, attentive to domestic concerns, an excellent provider and father.

Harris was an unchurched Christian, choosing to follow God and not man in matters of religion. A “restorationist,” Harris looked for the return of Biblical Christianity.

Weaver, stockman, farmer, merchant, Harris promoted the Erie Canal construction through Palmyra, New York, facilitating cloth, meat, and grain exports. A  Jeffersonian-Jacksonian Democrat, Harris believed in yeoman farmer wisdom.  He favored gold and silver. He rejected the use of paper money. He distrusted banks, Federalists and authoritarians. A Christian democrat activist, Harrìs idealized ancient Greek culture, raised money for Greek Christians to fight Turks, was elected road overseer seven years and was a member of Palmyra’s vigilance committee.

March 27, 1808, Harris married his first cousin Lucy Harris. At least six children were born to the couple. Harris inherited 150 acres from his father Nathan. By 1828, he owned 320 acres.

In the War of 1812, Private Harris was a teamster in the Battle of Buffalo. By May 1814, at the Battle of Puttneyville, Harris was a First Sergeant in the 39th New York Militia. He returned home an honored war veteran.

Martin Harris met Joseph Smith after 1816. Meeting the young Joseph Smith - a lad half his age - changed Martin Harris’s life forever.  Sympathetic to the need for Joseph Smith’s Biblical-like revelations and understanding of Joseph Smith’s unchurched status, Harris would later remember, “In the year 1818... I was inspired of the Lord and taught that I should not join any church....”

By 1824, Joseph Smith, Sr. told Martin Harris about the angel Moroni’s appearances and about The Book of Mormon on “golden plates.” Harris was inclined to believe the report. It had a Biblical ring to it. Harris recalls that in the summer of 1826 the still, small voice spoken to the soul told him the Lord had a work for him to do and that he should be patient and it would be made manifest in due time.

Martin Harris recounted in a 1859 that in the fall of 1827 he set his mind on asking God to show him that Joseph Smith was indeed God’s prophet and that it is God’s work “Oh, Lord, God, show me these things concerning the plates Joseph has,” he prayed, “and I covenant that if it is thy work, and thou wilt show me so, I will put forth my best ability to bring them before the world.” In the still small voice spoken to the soul, Martin was told Joseph Smiths work was of God. Harris placed himself under covenant to publish The Book of Mormon and consented to help young Joseph Smith publish the plates. Harris helped Smith protect the plates from thieves, and financed the young prophet’s move to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where the translation continued.


February 29, 1828, Harris visited Joseph Smith, collected and showed gold plate inscriptions and translation copies to scholars near Palmyra, Albany  and finally New York City where Samuel Latham Mitchill and Charles Anthon examined the texts.  Harris’s purpose was to gather evidence to gain community financial and religious support for The Book of Mormon’s publication and remarkably fulfilled an Isaiah 29:11-14 prophecy. Joseph Smith records in his Letter Books that the Lord appeared to Martin Harris, instructing this activity be undertaken.  


April 12 to June 14, 1828, Harris acted as Joseph Smith’s scribe, producing 116 foolscap manuscript pages. To gain family support, Harris took the 116 pages to Palmyra. In a three-week period, while Harris was visiting relatives, attending to business and serving jury duty, the 116 pages were stolen and altered. Suffering progressive deafness, resultant insecurity and paranoia, fearing Palmyra’s boycott of The Book of Mormon meant her family’s financial ruin, it is said Lucy Harris burned the altered 116 pages.

The special witness came in June 1829. Martin Harris, with Joseph Smith, saw, then handled the golden plates. Harris saw and heard the angel Moroni who showed him the plates and other artifacts referred to in the plates. Martin Harris was told by the voice of God that Joseph’s translation was correct.  Jesus Christ commanded Martin Harris to testify of what he had seen, heard, and felt. Earlier that same day, separate from Harris’s experience, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, in company with Joseph Smith, saw, heard and felt the same manifestation. Doctrine and Covenants, Section 17, gives a full account of what the witnesses were to experience. A short time later, eight other men were shown, then handled the golden plates. Formal accounts by the eleven men were written down, and are found in every copy of The Book of Mormon.

Harris, present at the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ, April 6, 1830, was baptized that day by Oliver Cowdery.  May 27, 1831, Harris led fifty converts from Palmyra to Kirtland, Ohio. Wife Lucy and children remained in Palmyra. Two households were established, Harris making periodic trips between the two locations. Assumptions that Martin and Lucy were divorced are false.  June 6, 1831, Harris was ordained “high priest.” In the summer of 1831, the “Witness” accompanied Joseph Smith and others to Missouri to purchase property and dedicate the Independence, Missouri temple site. There, Harris was the first called to observe the “law of consecration.” That year, Harris helped supervise and finance church publications.

Martin and his brother, Emer Harris, both called to serve as missionaries in 1832 baptized 100 persons at Chenango Point, New York.  Most of 1833, Martin Harris was held in Springville, Pennsylvania’s jail in an attempt to stop his preaching.   January 1834, Harris became a member of the church’s first High Council. The same year, he volunteered to go to Jackson County, Missouri, to assist persecuted Mormons. On April 1, Harris and a son left with Zion’s Camp on a nine hundred mile trek to Missouri.
February 14, 1835, Harris, with the other two of “The Three Witnesses,” directed by the Quorum of the First Presidency, selected and empowered the first modern Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

August 27, 1835, Joseph Smith, Sr. blessed Martin Hams, “thy mind shall be enlarged, and thy testimony shall yet convince its thousands, and its tens of thousands; yea, it shall shine like the sun, and though the wicked seek to overthrow it, shall be in vain, for the Lord God shall bear it off victorious.” This blessing proved prophetic. In 1836, Martin Harris attended the Kirtland, Ohio Temple dedication. The heavens were opened.  Later that summer Lucy Harris died.  Martin married Caroline Young (Brigham Young’s niece) on November 1, 1836. The couple had at least seven children.

In Kirtland, Ohio, Martin Harris experienced conflicts with Sidney Rigdon, Mormon Federalists, and refused to join the paper money Kirtland Safety Society. Harris was released from the High Council September 3, 1837. He was excommunicated by January 1, 1838. Later traditions affirm Brigham Young, Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie believed Harris’s excommunication was never official. Harris accepted the action and reapplied for baptism which took place November 7, 1842. Years later Harris would lament he had been wrongfully critical of Joseph Smith in Kirtland.

One tradition asserts when Harris’s friend Brigham Young succeeded Joseph Smith, “the Witness” wanted to be asked to return to church leadership. Martin was not enamored with position and meetings. He was known to miss High Council meetings.  Fall 1846, Brigham Young led most Mormons west and Harris went to England to bear witness of The Book of Mormon. The Strangites paid Harris’s expenses though “the Witness” did not believe or preach Strangite doctrine.  In 1829, Harris had prophesied The Book of Mormon would be preached in England and was eager to do so himself.


Returning to Kirtland, Martin Harris prospered, acted as a self-appointed guide-caretaker of the deserted Kirtland Temple, listed himself in the 1860 Census, “Mormon Preacher,” and proselyted sectarian groups to belief in The Book of Mormon. The assumption that Harris joined other churches in this period is false, based on Harris’s own statements and sectarian church records. Harris sought out religious groups in order to bear witness of The Book of Mormon, not to join their groups.

Prior to 1856, Mormon missionaries, the Harris family, and Brigham Young invited Martin and Caroline Harris to join the Mormons in Utah. In the Spring of 1856, Caroline and the children journeyed to Utah. Seventy-three-year-old Martin remained in Kirtland until 1870. In 1860 Harris was living with his son George (Lucy’s child). Between 1860 and 1865, his sons and sons-in-law were killed in the Civil War. 1865 to 1870, in Kirtland, Harris leased ninety acres to families providing for his care. He was neither destitute, in poor health, nor disaffected from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as represented in various books and even on the Utah Historical Monument at his grave.

In 1869 efforts were renewed to bring “the Witness” to Utah. William H. Homer, Edward Stevenson, Brigham Young, and many Mormons assisted Harris financially so he could make the journey. Active and vigorous for a man aged eighty-seven, Martin Harris arrived by train in Salt Lake City, Utah, August 30, 1879. A religious revival occurred among Mormons who heard Martin Harris’s testimony for the first time. After doing temple work for his relatives in the Salt Lake Endowment House, Martin Harris responded to Brigham Young’s invitation to go on a speaking tour. After the tour ended, hundreds journeyed to Smithfield and Clarkston to meet Martin and hear his account of the coming forth of The Book of Mormon.


Harris traveled throughout Cache Valley, speaking of his 1829 experience. He made a few trips to Springfield, Utah, by railroad, to be with family. On these occasions, he was often asked to relate his experiences with Joseph Smith and his own 1829 heavenly visitation.Of this period, Charles W. Nibley (later a member of the First Presidency), writes:”.., when he spoke, his hearers were thrilled with [Martin Harris’s] earnestness and the fiery, animated tone of his voice, the bright, keen expression in his eyes, but withal a deep humility when he repeated his unwavering testimony.”


A group of Cardston, Alberta, Canada residents visited Martin Harris. The interview was recorded by Bishop Robert Barter:  “Are you sure you saw the Angel and the records of the Book of Mormon in the form of Gold Plates?” Martin Hams:” ‘Gentlemen,’ and he held out his right hand, ‘do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Or are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so surely did I see the Angel and the plates.  Brethren I know I saw and heard these things, and the Lord knows I know these things of which I have spoken are true. “

A Mr. Glen recounts the following: “I was a young barber in Clarkston’s general store ... He [Harris] walked with his cane every day to town for exercise, conversing along the way with those he met.  He came to get this haircut so I told him I would be honored to shave him and keep his hair trimmed without charge as long as he lived. He was very appreciative.  One day as he sat slumped in the barber chair with me working at his side, I felt the need to fill the slight pause and said carelessly, ‘I guess now that you are old and wiser you don’t tell about seeing the golden plates and the angel.’ He jerked erect so quickly my hands were dislodged as he grasped my arms in a viselike grip, pulled me around in front continuing to hold on with both hands, and looked me straight in the eye.  I felt the tremor of his earnest declaration: ‘Young man, the longest day you live I want you to remember what I say to you now: I did see the angel, I did handle the gold plates, and I did hear the voice of God.’ I was silent the rest of this particular occasion.  Another time I promised him I would faithfully repeat his testimony.”

William Homer recorded Martin Harris’s last words. Others were in the room.  Harris asked for a drink of water. William Homer raised Harris up. He drank. Then the ninety-two year old man delivered his deathbed testimony: “Yes, I did see the plates on which The Book of Mormon was written I did see the angel; I did hear the voice of God and l know that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God, holding the keys of the Holy Priesthood” Homer writes, Martin Harris “relaxed, gave up my hand. He lay back on his pillow, and just as the sun went down behind the Clarkston Mountains, the spirit of Martin Harris passed on.” Martin Harris died July 10, 1875, in Clarkston, Cache County, Utah.

In 1983 an attempt was made to “overthrow” the testimony and character of Martin Harris. Mark Hofmann forged, and his eager, unwitting cohorts promoted, the fraudulent so-called “Salamander Letter.” Hofmann forged the document sometime before late 1983. The fraudulent letter portrayed Joseph Smith’s and Martin Harris’s religious experiences as rooted in folk magic instead of in revelations from God — a thesis first invented and promoted by historians, popularized by journalists, beginning at The Los Angeles Times, then picked up by the national press and spread to the international media.

Disgruntled intellectuals and detractors celebrated the fraudulent letter as authentic, thinking finally the way had been found to explain Joseph Smith, Martin Harris and the origins of Mormon Christianity as other than Divine; an approach that would finally dismantle the seemingly invincible structure of testimony built by Joseph Smith, Martin Harris and the other witnesses. The media barrage generated by historians, apostates, evangelicals, newspaper, magazine and television journalists so concentrated and focused that even some among the Mormon faithful grudgingly accepted the fraudulent letter as authentic before it was finally proved a fraud.

Near the Martin Harris grave, at the Martin Harris Memorial Amphitheater, every August, up to seventeen thousand citizens gather to enjoy the historical musical drama about Martin Harris’s experience with the American Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., and the events surrounding publication of The Book of Mormon.

Returning to Joseph Smith, Sr.’s blessing given to Martin Hams:” ... thy testimony shall yet convince its thousands, and its tens of thousands; yea, it shall shine like the Sun, and though the wicked seek to overthrow it, shall be in vain, for the Lord God shall bear it off victorious.”  Whatever an individual’s personal religious beliefs, Martin Harris’s witness, what he saw and heard and felt that beautiful June day in 1829, remains one of the great events of recorded religious history: “I saw the plates on which The Book of Mormon was written. I saw the angel. I heard the voice of God declaring the translation to be true. Joseph Smith is a prophet of God.”