Question: Does Martin Harris' involvement with the Shakers undercut his testimony?

FAIR Answers Wiki Main Page

Question: Does Martin Harris' involvement with the Shakers undercut his testimony?

We do not know whether the Kirtland Mormons heard Martin Harris say this, or whether they heard it secondhand: The statement does not fit Martin's other numerous statements

Matthew Roper wrote:

As Anderson rightly notes, "Every affiliation of Martin Harris was with some Mormon group, except when he accepted some Shaker beliefs, a position not basically contrary to his testimony of the Book of Mormon because the foundation of that movement was acceptance of personal revelation from heavenly beings."[1]

Richard L. Anderson discussed Martin’s involvement with the Shakers and considered it a good example of how an apparent problem can strengthen the force of the Witnesses’ testimony:

Studying a problem with a Book of Mormon witness will generally lead to better understanding of the witness, the situation with an 1844 report: "Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon."[2] This word to the Twelve from Phineas Young and others is vague, for we do not know whether these Kirtland Mormons heard Martin Harris say this, or whether they heard it secondhand. His leaning to Shakerism is probably accurate, but Harris's precise wording is all-important if one claims that he testified of Shakerism instead of the Book of Mormon. This "either-or" reading of the document does not fit Martin's lifetime summary of all his interviews: "no man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates."[3] For instance, at the same time as the above 1844 letter, Edward Bunker met Martin in the Kirtland Temple, visited his home, "and heard him bear his testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon."[4] And six months later Jeremiah Cooper traveled to Kirtland and visited with Martin Harris: "he bore testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon."[5]

Martin's Shaker sympathies terminated some time before 1855, when Thomas Colburn reported his attitude: "he tried the Shakers, but that would not do."[6] In the meantime Martin was intrigued by their claims of revelation, though he surely never espoused all Shaker beliefs, for thoroughgoing Shakers renounced the married life that Martin had during these years.[7] Fully committed Shakers also lived in communities like nearby North Union, whereas Martin remained in Kirtland during this period. Their appeal lay in a Pentecostal seeking of the Spirit and emphasis on preparation for Christ's coming. When Phineas Young mentioned Martin's Shaker belief, a new book of Shaker origin was circulating, "A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, from the Lord God of Heaven to the Inhabitants of Earth." Since it claimed to come from angels to prepare the world for the Millennium, it would be broadly harmonious with Martin Harris's commitment to the Book of Mormon, which in a far more historical and rational sense is committed to the same goal. Indeed, the Shaker movement later tended to slough off the "Divine Roll" as produced by an excess of enthusiasm.[8]

Martin still gave priority to his Book of Mormon testimony

Anderson continues,

We do not know whether Martin ever accepted this book as true, but he showed one like it to a visitor. This act does not show belief in that book, since it may have been exhibited as a curiosity, but the following journal entry shows that even if Shaker literature was present in 1850, Martin still gave priority to his Book of Mormon testimony: "I went to see Martin Harris. He was one of the 3 Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and said he knew it was true, for he saw the plates and knew for himself. I heard his little girl—she was 7 years old. I read some in what they called the Holy Roll, but no God."[9] Anyone following this discussion can soon see that authentic statements from the Book of Mormon witnesses are voluminous and always repeat the reality of their experience. Yet the first anti-Mormon book was written in 1834 within a dozen miles of their residences and set the precedent of not contacting them but devoting most space to show them to be either superstitious or dishonest.[10] This became a formula: ignore the testimony and attack the witness, the same pattern as the detailed current treatments. That method is sure to caricature its victims: lead off with the worst names anyone ever called them, take all charges as presented without investigating, solidify mistakes as lifelong characteristics, and ignore all positive accomplishments or favorable judgments on their lives. Such bad methods will inevitably produce bad men on paper. The only problem with this treatment is that it cheats the consumer—it appears to investigate personality without really doing so.[11]


  1. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 111. ISBN 0877478465.
  2. Phineas Young et al. to "Beloved Brethren" who in the last of the letter are defined as "our brethren, the Twelve," Dec. 31, 1844, Kirtland, Ohio.
  3. Martin Harris, Sr., to H. Emerson, Jan., 1871, Smithfield, Utah, cit. True Latter Day Saints' Herald 22 (1875: 630.
  4. Edward Bunker, Autobiography, manuscript, p. 3.
  5. Jeremiah Cooper to E. Robinson, Sept. 3, 1845, cit. Messenger and Advocate of the Church of Christ 1 (1845): 319.
  6. Thomas Colburn to Elder Snow, May 2, 1855, cit. St. Louis Luminary, May 5, 1855.
  7. Martin remarried Caroline Young before his estrangement from the Church and had children in the years 1838, 1842, 1845, 1849, 1854, and 1856.
  8. For a survey of the rise and fall of the 1843 "Divine Roll," see Charles Nordhoff, Communistic Societies of the United States (New York, 1874), pp. 245-50.
  9. James Willard Bay, Journal, Nov. 23, 1850, p. 27.
  10. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 96-99. (Affidavits examined)
  11. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 169-170. ISBN 0877478465.