Question: Does Martin Harris' involvement with other faiths after the Restoration discredit him?

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Question: Does Martin Harris' involvement with other faiths after the Restoration discredit him?

Harris's decision to oppose Joseph Smith in Kirtland led him into a series of theological adaptations

Richard L. Anderson discussed Martin’s involvement with various LDS break-off groups following his excommunication:

Martin Harris displays a certain instability not at all characteristic of David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, but his lifetime religious positions have a consistency that is clear because of remarkable information from him. As discussed, the Book of Mormon remained the mainstay of a life that was repeatedly confused by the loss of family, wealth, friends, and religious security. His decision to oppose Joseph Smith in Kirtland led him into a series of theological adaptations; eight of them brought him back the full circle to rejoin the Latter-day Saints in the West. This figure has been seized upon for condemnation rather than insight. Furthermore, one early source claims that Martin went through five religious positions before becoming a Mormon, so the "case" against the witnesses adds eight and five to exclaim in shock that Martin made thirteen changes. But this ignores my specific explanations of the eight changes after his 1838 excommunication: except for Shakerism, "every affiliation of Martin Harris was with some Mormon group."[1] Beginning algebra teachers caution against adding eight oranges and five apples—the answer is not thirteen because the categories do not mix.

We shall see that the "five changes" prior to Martin's New York conversion are overstated—but differing churches of that period do not mix with Martin's Ohio variations on Mormonism, which he told visitors he had never left. His specific Ohio stages include the following: (1) the Parrish-Boynton party (which he condemned for denying the Book of Mormon at the time he met with them); (2) an 1842 rebaptism by a Nauvoo missionary; (3) an 1846 English mission with a Strangite companion (where documents suggest that the Book of Mormon was really Martin's message); (4) participation in McLellin's attempts to set up Midwest leaders for the Church in 1847-48; (5) concurrent with one or more stages, sympathy for Shakerism without full participation; (6) support of Gladden Bishop in his program of further revelations based on the Book of Mormon; (7) continuation of his original "dissenter" status of stressing the Book of Mormon and early revelations of Joseph Smith—even when occasionally meeting with William Smith and others, he maintained this position for fifteen years after his 1855 conversations with Thomas Colburn; (8) his 1870 return to the Church in Salt Lake. Note that the emphasis could be on the number "eight" or Martin's support of the Book of Mormon through all stages, which blended as different ways of trying to further the Restoration.[2]

The fact that Martin joined other sects does not affect Harris's testimony of the Book of Mormon, which for years remained the mainstay of his life

Matthew Roper wrote:

There is no evidence for the Tanners' claim that Martin Harris ever denied or doubted his testimony of the Book of Mormon. However, since he affiliated with several Mormon splinter groups between 1838 and 1870, the Tanners claim that he was "unstable and easily influenced by charismatic leaders."[3] But that statement does not hold true of Harris's testimony of the Book of Mormon, which for years remained the mainstay of his life.[4] As one historian correctly notes, with each of these splinter groups "[Harris] desired to preach to them more than to listen to them. While separated from the body of the Church, he responded in friendship to those who sought his support and fussed over him. But in each case Harris wanted to preach Book of Mormon, which usually led to a dividing of the ways."[5] Martin was excommunicated in December 1837 in Kirtland, Ohio, where he remained for the next thirty-two years. During this time, Harris associated himself with Warren Parrish and other Kirtland dissenters who organized a church. On March 30, 1839, George A. Smith wrote a letter from Kirtland describing some of the divisions in the Parrish party. "Last Sabbath a division arose among the Parrish party about the Book of Mormon; John F. Boynton, Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson and others said it was nonsense. Martin Harris then bore testimony of its truth and said all would be damned if they rejected it."[6] Such actions suggest a significant degree of independence for which Harris is generally not given credit.

After the Saints left Kirtland, Harris lost contact with the main body of the Church and was not in harmony with some Church doctrines during this time. However, a rebaptism in 1842 suggests that he still sympathized with Mormon teachings. Although in 1846 Martin briefly affiliated with the Strangites and was sent by them on a mission to England, available sources from this period indicate that he was never fully committed to the Strangite cause.[7] His main motivation in going seems to have been to testify of the Book of Mormon. On one occasion Martin attempted to address a conference of Latter-day Saints in Birmingham, but was forbidden from doing so, and then was curtly asked to leave the meeting. Bitter and obviously embarrassed by the rebuff, Harris then reportedly went out into the street and began to rail against Church leaders.[8] However, George Mantle, who witnessed the event, later recalled:

When we came out of the meeting Martin Harris was beset with a crowd in the street, expecting he would furnish them with material to war against Mormonism; but when asked if Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, he answered yes; and when asked if the Book of Mormon was true, this was his answer: "Do you know that is the sun shining on us? Because as sure as you know that, I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that he translated that book by the power of God."[9]

Harris sympathized for a time with other dissenters such as William McLellin and Gladden Bishop, but these men still accepted the Book of Mormon. 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."[10]

The Tanners attempt to downplay the significance of the witnesses' written testimony by noting similarities between it and several nineteenth-century Shaker writings in which some Shaker believers claimed to have seen angels and visions. "Joseph Smith only had three witnesses who claimed to see an angel. The Shakers, however, had a large number of witnesses who claimed they saw angels and the book. [In Shaker writings,] there are over a hundred pages of testimony from 'Living Witnesses.' "[11] But the quantity of witnesses has little meaning if those witnesses afterwards admit that they were wrong. Unlike the Book of Mormon, the Shaker Roll and Book afterwards fell into discredit and dishonor among the Shakers themselves and was abandoned by its leaders and most believers,[12] while the Book of Mormon continued to be a vitally important part of Mormon scripture to which each of the witnesses, including Martin Harris, continued to testify, even while outside of the Church.

On page 14 of their recent newsletter, the Tanners assert that "Martin Harris' involvement with the Shakers raises some serious doubts regarding his belief in the Book of Mormon. We feel that a believer in the Book of Mormon could not accept these revelations without repudiating the teachings of Joseph Smith."[13] But such a conclusion is absurd, since the witnesses obviously did at times reject some of Joseph Smith's teachings, while still maintaining that the Book of Mormon was true and that their experience was real. However, the Tanners' conclusion is unjustified for another reason: Martin Harris never accepted all Shaker beliefs. For instance, while devoted Shakers advocated celibacy, Martin remained married during this period and had several children.[14] Further, Harris never joined nearby communities of Shakers as the fully committed would have done. Shakers believed in spiritual gifts and emphasized preparation for Christ's Second Coming, things that Harris had believed even before he joined the Church. Even an early revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith suggested that the Shakers had some truths (D&C 49:1–28). Harris was likely enthusiastic about certain elements of Shakerism that paralleled his own beliefs in a restoration, but he rejected other Shaker beliefs and practices, which his actions during these years clearly show. Thus, Harris's brief interest in the Shaker Roll and Book is quite understandable and consistent.[15] "Since it claimed to come from angels to prepare the world for the Millennium, it would be broadly harmonious with Martin Harris' commitment to the Book of Mormon, which in a far more historical and rational sense is committed to the same goal."[16] But although Harris's interest in Shakerism was short-lived, evidence from the same period shows that he never wavered from his testimony of the Book of Mormon.[17]


  1. Richard Lloyd Anderson, "The Certainty of the Skeptical Witness," Improvement Era (March 1969), 63..
  2. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981), 169-170. ISBN 0877478465.
  3. Jerald and Sandra Tanner, "Roper Attacks Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?" Salt Lake City Messenger 82 (September 1992): 14. This religious instability has been greatly exaggerated by the Tanners and others. For a clearer perspective see Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 167–70.
  4. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 111–12.
  5. Rhett S. James, The Man Who Knew: The Early Years: A Play about Martin Harris 1824–1830 (Cache Valley, UT: Martin Harris Pageant Committee, 1983, 168 n. 313; James's annotations provide a valuable historical commentary on Harris's life.
  6. George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming, 30 March 1838, Kirtland, Ohio.
  7. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 112–13. Obviously distrustful of Harris's apostate status, Latter-day Saint leaders in England complained that Martin Harris, "ashamed of his profession as a Strangite . . . tells some of our brethren on whom he called, that he was of the same profession with themselves—that he had just come from America and wished to get acquainted with the Saints"; Millennial Star 8 (3 October 1846): 128 (emphasis added). Harris's lack of enthusiasm for Strang and his Latter-day Saint sympathies so troubled Strangite leaders that they soon brought him back to Philadelphia, where he abandoned them for good; Lester Brooks to James M. Adams, 12 January 1847, in Milo M. Quaife, The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930), 243. Martin emphatically denied that during the journey, he had ever lectured against Mormonism: "No man heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates; nor the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under the administration of Joseph Smith, Jr."; Journal History, 1 June 1877, as cited in Madge Harris Tuckett and Belle Harris Wilson, The Martin Harris Story (Provo: Vintage Books, 1983), 65.
  8. Millennial Star 8 (31 October 1846): 128.
  9. George Mantle to Marietta Walker, 26 December 1888, Saint Catherine, Missouri, cited in Autumn Leaves 2 (1889): 141.
  10. Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 111. Harris's involvement with the Shakers has already been discussed by Richard Anderson, 164–66, yet the Tanners have ignored his discussion of the matter. Is this, to paraphrase the Tanners (p. 13), an indication of the "superficiality" of their review?
  11. Tanner and Tanner, "Roper Attacks Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?" 14.
  12. One nineteenth-century authority on the Shakers relates, "Some of the most curious literature of the Shakers dates from this period [early-to-mid nineteenth century]; and it is freely admitted by their leading men that they were in some cases misled into acts and publications which they have since seen reason to regret. Their belief is that they were deceived by false spirits, and were unable, in many cases, to distinguish the true from the false. That is to say, they hold to their faith in 'spiritual communications,' so called; but repudiate much in which they formerly had faith, believing this which they now reject to have come from the evil one. . . . The most curious relics of those days are two considerable volumes, which have since fallen into discredit among the Shakers themselves, but were at the time of their issue regarded as highly important. One of these is entitled 'A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, from the Lord God of Heaven to the Inhabitants of the Earth.' . . . The second work is called 'The Divine Book of Holy and Eternal Wisdom, revealing the Word of God, out of whose mouth goeth a sharp Sword.' . . . These two volumes are not now, as formerly, held in honor by the Shakers. One of their elders declared to me that I ought never to have seen them, and that their best use was to burn them," in Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States (New York: Hillary House Publishers, 1961), 235, 245, 248, 250; this is a reprint of the 1875 edition.
  13. Tanner and Tanner, "Roper Attacks Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?" 14.
  14. Wayne C. Gunnell, "Martin Harris: Witness and Benefactor to the Book of Mormon," Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1955, 58–59.
  15. For a discussion of Martin Harris's attitudes regarding the Shaker Book in relation to his testimony of the Book of Mormon, see Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, 164–66.
  16. Ibid., 165–66.
  17. Ibid., 165.