(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here) I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Martin Harris, one of two of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon to die a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To my knowledge, no esteemed biography of Harris has been written, although H. Michael Marquardt has written a strong article of his years in Kirtland 1830-1870 in the Fall 2002 issue of Dialogue. (read) Harris is an important man in Mormon history. Without his farm being mortgaged, publication of The Book of Mormon would have been delayed. But Harris, born in 1783, was also a gullible soul, an amiable, man prone to hyperbole and bumbling, a sort of “Chief Wiggum” of Mormon history; a man who would walk the straight and narrow like a drunk trying to maneuver a policeman’s chalk line.
However, let there be no dispute that Martin Harris believed in The Book of Mormon. Like the other witnesses, he never recanted his testimony. The one-time wealthy farmer remained prosperous until he mortgaged his farm and provided other funds to raise $5,000, a small fortune, to publish the Book of Mormon. To give one an idea of how much $5,000 was in 1831, one can note that $5,000 in 1913 is worth $114,000 today. Not surprisingly, Harris’ wife, Lucy, was opposed to her husband paying the tab for the restored scripture. Mormon lore has it that Harris, the original transcriber, begged Smith for the first 116 pages of translated material, brought it home, and promptly lost it. In my youth, I was always told the “shrewish” Mrs. Harris was to blame. One Sunday school teacher told me she took the pages and burned them in the fireplace? (In the recent “Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold” film, a more mystical, divine explanation was offered — the missing pages disappeared from a locked drawer.) In any event, Harris has always played the bumbling, foolish, dimwitted “heavy” who deprived the world of “The Book of Lehi.”
To add insult to injury, the Book of Mormon received negative reviews and poor sales, and Harris lost his farm, and later his wife.
Harris remained committed to Mormonism, though, and became an early LDS traveling elder. However, like other witnesses Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, he later apostasized from the original LDS Church, the reason was the failure of a church-sponsored financial institution in 1837 Kirtland. That was a stressful time for the young church, as many members lost both their savings and faith as a result of the ill-advised financial venture. However, Harris remained on the pheriphery of the LDS Church — after Lucy’s death in 1836, he had married 22-year-old Caroline Young, a niece of Brigham Young, and had seven children with her.
In 1840, Harris was back in the LDS Church and lived in Nauvoo. When Joseph Smith was martyred in 1844, Harris did not accompany Brigham Young and other members to the Rocky Mountains. By now an old man, he became a Mormonism offshoot-hopper, aligning himself with James J. Strang, David Whitmer, Gladden Bishop, William Smith, and even the Shakers. In one, humiliating instance, Harris, financed by Strang to preach in England shortly after Smith’s murder, was shunned and ridiculed by Mormon leaders. According to Marquardt’s Dialogue piece, an LDS newspaper of that era warned against Harris, saying “his own unbridled tongue will soon show out specimens of folly enough to give any person a true index of the character of the man.”
As he became more erratic, Harris’ slowly descended into poverty and obscurity. In the mid 1850s, his wife Caroline left him and — with their children — went to Utah. Harris became a self-appointed caretaker of the deserted LDS temple in Kirtland, Ohio, and described himself as a Mormon preacher.
For the Harris family, and the LDS Church, the saga of Martin Harris had a happy ending. As 1870 approached, sympathetic Mormon missionaries, feeling compassion for the 87-year-old Harris, raised money for him to join his family in Utah. In an 1881 issue of The Latter Day Saints’ Millennial Star, taken from earlier Deseret News reports, there is an account of Harris’ return to “Zion.” Not surprisingly, it recounts perhaps the last encounter with the supernatural Martin Harris experienced. I quote from the article: “A very singular incident occurred at this time. While Martin was visiting his friends, bidding them farewell, his pathway crossed a large pasture, in which he became bewildered, dizzy, faint and staggering through the blackberry vines that are so abundant in that vicinity, his clothes torn, bloody and faint, he lay down under a tree to die. After a time, he revived, called on the Lord, and finally at twelve midnight, found his friend, and in his fearful condition was cared for and soon regained his strength. He related this incident as a snare of the adversary to hinder him from going to Salt Lake City.”
Harris was rebaptized upon his arrival in Utah. He eventually moved to Clarkston and lived, by all accounts, happily until his death there at age 92 in 1875. To this day, Clarkston hosts The Martin Harris Pageant, a play based on his life that attracts thousands to the small community.
This post also ran in Currents, the Standard-Examiner’s digital-only section on politics and culture. For more information on Currents, call 801-625-4400.
After publication, a correction was made that Martin Harris was one of two Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon who died members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.