Was Martin Harris A Superstitious, Gullible, And Unreliable Witness?


Skeptical & Well Regarded

  • Martin Harris was very skeptical of Joseph Smith’s abilities, and tested it several times. According to one story, he secretly replaced the seer stone with a similar stone to see if it would work.
  • Martin Harris took a copy of some characters from the gold plates to a professor in New York named Charles Anthon to see if they were authentic, who verified they were “true characters.” He also took them to an expert named Dr. Mitchell.
  • Martin Harris repeatedly insisted that Joseph Smith give him the Book of Mormon translation to show his wife and prove the legimacy of his work. This is why the 116 pages got lost.
  • CES Letter claims:

    “Martin Harris was anything but a skeptical witness. He was known by many of his peers as an unstable, gullible, and superstitious man.” (CES Letter)

This is not true. Martin Harris’s overwhelmingly considered him intelligent and a good man. They called him “honest,” “industrious,” “benevolent,” and a “worthy citizen.” I don’t find any accounts from actual associates with anything bad to say about him.

This is a no-win argument for Mormons. If Martin Hariss were any more skeptical, anti-Mormons would be saying, “Look, even Joseph Smith’s own witness doesn’t believe him.” But when Martin Hariss’s skepticism isn’t over the top, anti-Mormons smear him as “unstable, gullible.” Either way, anti-Mormons attack his character.

Martin Harris Literally Saw The Gold PlatesCES Letter claims:

“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.” (CES Letter)

Completely false. He made clear that he had “seen and handled them all.” He testified that he saw the gold plates uncovered, and “an angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record.” Martin Harris said:

“I saw with these two eyes the angel stand with the gold plates in his hands, and I saw him turn leaf by leaf the plates of gold, and I also heard the voice of the Lord saying that these words were true.”

False AccountsCES Letter‘s quotes besmirching Martin Harris as a superstitious wreck come from lying anti-Mormons. They quote Ronald W. Walker who relates three stories.

“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.” (Ronald W. Walker)

Of course, CES Letter clips out the next sentence after this quote: “But such talk came easy. His exaggerated sense of the supernatural naturally produced caricature and tall and sometimes false tales.”

  • The story of the sputtering candle was started by anti-Mormon Thomas Gregg, who started his feud with Mormons in Nauvoo and had nothing to do with Martin Harris’s early associates. So he certainly made it up and printed it many years after it supposedly happened.
  • The story of the creature on his chest was not a literatal creature, but a metaphor Martin used for the answer he had received in revelation in answer to his prayers “I felt something as big as a great dog sprang upon my breast.” Where do skeptics get “a creature” from this? It sounds like his feelings were impacted like a slug to the chest, nothing more.
  • The story of Christ on the roofbeams comes from anti-Mormon journalist Fredrick G. Mather who collected anti-Mormon rumours.

CES Letter quotes anti-Mormon John A. Clark:

“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, 1840)

John A. Clark was an anti-Mormon Episcopalian minister in Palmyra, and his book from which this is quoted claims the Book of Mormon was copied from Solomon Spaulding’s lost manuscript, a claim that CES Letter evidently does not follow as they give us a complex, convoluted alternative theory.

CES Letter quotes another phony rumour by John A. Clark that Martin Harris that he saw the devil and he had “a head like that of a Jack-ass.”

Martin Harris Changed Religions 5 Times?CES Letter incorrectly claims Martin Harris switched religion five times prior to Joseph Smith:

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

CES Letter‘s source for this claim, Wikipedia, references a Dialogue article that makes no such claim. They invented it out of thin air.

Well to be fair, anti-Mormon E.D. Howe started this rumor. But it is false. Associates agreed Martin Harris was only two religions: Methodist and then Universalist (which isn’t even really a religion.) Martin Harris himself claimed that he had been a member of no church prior to Mormonism.

After he left the Mormon church, Martin Harris joined a couple sects that accepted the Book of Mormon, and he served a mission in England with one of them for the purpose of preaching the Book of Mormon. The Strangites sent him home for insisting on preaching the Book of Mormon.

Not A Witness For Other ScriptureCES Letter falsely claims:

“Not only did Harris join other religions, he testified and witnessed for them. 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).” (CES Letter)

There is no credible evidence that Martin Harris ever testified for or witnessed for non-Mormon scripture. This claim about the Shaker book is totally made up by provable liar Clark Braden.

Maybe the Shakers and Gladden Bishop claimed Martin Harris as a witness, but Martin Harris never himself claimed it. In everything, Martin Harris never denied or condtradicted his testimony of the Book of Mormon. He demonstrated upstanding intelligence and character as a witness.

CES Letter Logical Fallacies

Falsehood Martin Harris displayed plenty of skepticism, contrary to what CES Letter claims. The dectractors who besmirched him were not his peers, but competing religious leaders.

Martin Harris made it clear that he saw and felt the gold plates, in a very literal sense.

CES Letter says Martin Harris joined the Shakers, but this is impossible because the Shakers advocated celibacy.

CES Letter‘s claim that Martin Harris joined 5 religions before Mormonism is completely false, and references a phony Wikipedia article.

Red Herring CES Letter says the Book of Mormon witnesses “all shared a common worldview of second sight, magic, and treasure digging – which is what drew them together in 1829.” There is literally nothing in their narrative of Martin Harris that substantiates any of this. Everything they say about Martin Harris is a non sequitur to this claim.
Ad Hominem The entire argument is an attack on Martin Harris’s character. CES Letter asks, “If someone testified” all of this, “would you believe his claims? Or would you call the nearest mental hospital?” Call a mental hospital? My answer would be, don’t throw stones from a glass house, CES Letter. At least Martin Harris didn’t quote white supremacists to attack a religion of people. At least his didn’t flip out and have a meltdown after leaving the church.
Shifting Goalposts CES Letter uses wacky third-hand accounts from people who did not know Martin Harris and who have a conflict of interest in what they are claiming. Yet CES Letter accuses Martin Harris of having “a direct conflict of interest in being a witness” because he mortgaged the farm to help out the church. Did Martin Harris ever earn money being a witness? If not, then how does supporting a point of view lead to a conflict of interest when you advocate for that point of view? I do not think that word means what you think it means!

CES Letter relies on a source for one of their fake quotes that backed the Spaulding theory which contradicts CES Letter‘s narrative for how the Book of Mormon was produced.

Begging The Question Martin Harris mortgaged, and lost, his farm because he had a witness testimony, not the other way around. Shouldn’t this be further evidence of his sincere conviction?
Argument From Ignorance It is very easy to attack a man’s character 200 years after his death, from wacky third-hand rumors from religious competitors who hated him, known liars.
Etymology CES Letter uses present tense to describe a past event. They say superstition “is” what drew them together, rather than “was” what drew them together. The incorrect use of present tense suggests the superstitious mindset applies still to Mormons today .

At first, I was confused why CES Letter devoted so much to attacking the Book of Mormon witnesses. Like most Mormons I never considered the witnesses and anything more than a nice supporting page for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, not really all that necessary. Why does CES Letter attack their characters, almost as much as they attack Joseph Smith’s? Derision is currency for anti-Mormons; people will be turned off if they display too much bitterness so they need to choose their battles carefully.

Daniel C. Peterson gave a great explanation for the importance of the Book of Mormon witnesses. It is not by accident that CES Letter attacks them after having reduced Mormon testimonies as nothing more than emotion. Suddenly, the witness testimonies of the Book of Mormon are like the positive vibes you feel from watching Forrest Gump?

But we are living in a secular Western world, and ex-Mormons tend to become secularists. The witness testimonies are some of the best secular evidences for the Book of Mormon’s truth. It is one thing for a guy to claim visions, but it gains a lot more credibility when a dozen other men swear they the same thing and know it for a fact. Anti-Mormons are reduced to dismissing the entire 19th century New England area as a bunch of superstitious primitives in order to undercut their testimonies.

Skeptics risk a lot by exposing such dark derision for men like Martin Harris simply for being witnesses to the Book of Mormon. At this point, the audience must be invested in the anti-Mormon narrative in order to not reject CES Letter as haters. But once they adopt the same kind of derision, it makes it a lot easier for them to hate Mormons in turn. For people who insist on sound physical evidence, I am stunned that CES Letter would attack a man–indeed, the entire 19th century New England civilization–based on such shaky evidence and fake quotes.

Use Opponent As Authority Tactic
This is a popular Marxist tactic that anti-Mormons use. They use Mormonism’s own authorities to discredit the faith, such as an alleged Mormon scholar. What makes this argument powerful is:

  • Deceptively discredits the vast libraries of study on Book of Mormon theology by LDS professionals.
  • Gives more focus to a phony frame that attacks the Mormon church.
  • Divides the ranks of the church.
  • Establishes a frame that demands a clear, modern explanation in the Book of Mormon for every religious issue in existence, and that it be exactly corroborated by every other Mormon source.