By 1827, Martin Harris had built for himself a comfortable life. His father was an early settler of the region around the village of Palmyra, New York, and the community had come to respect the Harris family. Martin learned at an early age how to clear land, plant, and harvest, and he exemplified the ideals of hard work, honesty, and faith in God.
Over the previous fourteen years, he had acquired 320 acres of farmland, made them profitable through his industry and progressive ideas, and built a handsome frame home.He married Lucy Walker in 1808 and the couple had five children, three of whom lived to be adults. Harris’ talent and prosperity had not gone unnoticed by his neighbors, who thought of him as “an industrious, hard-working farmer, shrewd in his business calculations, frugal in his habits, and … a prosperous man in the world.”
Now age 45 and enjoying the fruits of his labors and the respect of his peers, Harris even considered hiring someone to care for his farm for several months so he could do some travel. But just when he began to contemplate this excursion he received a visit from Lucy Mack Smith, who bore some intriguing news.
Martin Harris knew most of the story: An angel had visited Joseph Smith and revealed to him the existence of a record on ancient metallic plates buried in a hill near his home. For three years, Joseph had watched and waited.
Now, Lucy Smith had come to tell them that her son had, at length, obtained the plates from the angel and was intent on seeing them translated. Joseph and his family were not in a position to afford publishing this translation, but Martin Harris was. Lucy Mack Smith asked Harris if he would come visit Joseph. He agreed, and his wife, Lucy Harris, insisted she would come also.
Joseph Smith likely considered Martin Harris a friend. He had previously confided in Harris regarding his angelic visits and the existence of the plates. Harris apparently returned his friendship; he had hired Joseph Smith as a day laborer on his farm and found him to be a reliable hand.
But he apparently harbored some doubts. He later told an interviewer that when he first heard the story of the plates, he assumed that Joseph and his money-digging friends had simply found an old brass kettle. However, Harris was a religious man. Some even thought him superstitious in his views, disparagingly calling him a “visionary fanatic.” Nevertheless, it was this openness to the presence of the supernatural in daily life that allowed Harris to at least consider Joseph’s claims. Lucy Harris promptly kept her promise to visit Joseph, even offering to help finance the translation of the plates herself. Martin remained aloof, perhaps needing some time to think it over.
During the fall and early winter, hostile neighbors made several attempts to steal the plates from Joseph. In this precarious situation, he decided to move with his wife, Emma, to her parents’ home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Whatever the cause for his earlier hesitation, Harris concluded that he needed to help Joseph. He met him in a tavern in Palmyra, gave him $50 in silver, and said, “I give this to you to do the Lord’s work.”When Joseph insisted it be considered a loan, Harris reaffirmed his desire to contribute freely to the cause.
Meanwhile, Lucy Harris had begun to doubt Joseph’s story, possibly due to his insistence on keeping the plates hidden from view. This suspicion led her to resent Martin’s increased interest and involvement with Joseph. Martin and Lucy’s relationship was already strained, and Martin’s support of Joseph Smith caused the rift between them to deepen.
A short time after the Smiths departed for Harmony, Harris paid them a visit, intent on assisting Joseph. Joseph had completed a very brief portion of the translation, with Emma and perhaps his brother-in-law Reuben Hale acting as scribes. Harris proposed to journey east to New York City with a transcription of some of the characters on the plates, together with a sample of the translation, and show them to several scholars asking their opinion. Perhaps he wanted additional reassurance the plates were authentic or thought a testimonial would help them borrow money to publish the translation. Either way, he felt the Lord had prompted him to make the trip.
Harris departed in February 1828. En route, he stopped in Albany to visit Luther Bradish, a former Palmyra resident and family friend who had traveled extensively throughout the near east and Egypt, seeking his opinion about whom to visit regarding the translation. Harris then pressed on to New York to visit Charles Anthon, a young professor of grammar and linguistics at Columbia College. While Anthon was familiar with the classical languages of Greek and Latin, he was at a loss when faced with the reformed Egyptian characters Harris showed him. He referred Harris to the celebrated scholar and keen student of ancient American culture Samuel L. Mitchill, who had spent years accumulating and studying samples of hieroglyphics.
Though the varying accounts of their conversations conflict, we do know this: Harris came away from his visits with the eastern scholars more convinced than ever that Joseph Smith was called of God and that the plates and characters were ancient. He came to view those visits as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (also mentioned in the Book of Mormon itself) of “the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed” (Isa. 29:11). Harris returned to Harmony prepared to help in any way he could.
During the spring and early summer of 1828, Harris scribed as the young seer dictated the translation. Though the process must have seemed miraculous to him, Harris was still on guard against deception. He once replaced Joseph’s seer stone with another stone to see if Joseph would notice the difference. When Joseph was unable to continue translating, Harris confessed his ruse and returned the seer stone. When Joseph asked him why he had done it, Harris explained he wanted to “stop the mouths of fools, who had told him that the Prophet had learned those sentences and was merely repeating them.”
Though Harris came to believe quite sincerely, his wife had turned hostile. Lucy Harris was concerned, quite understandably, that Martin might take a large financial risk to help publish the book, that her peers would mock her husband’s participation in what they viewed as a fraudulent scheme, and that Martin had simply left her feelings out of his calculations. She was also stung by the way Joseph rebuffed her every attempt to see the plates, and she beleaguered Martin incessantly to see some evidence of Joseph’s ability to translate.
To ease Lucy’s disquiet, Harris asked Joseph to “enquire of the Lord through the Urim and Thummin” if he might “carry the writings home and exibit them”to his wife and others. Joseph wanted to please Harris because he had shown him friendship “when there seemed to be no earthly freind to succour or to sympathize.”
Joseph did inquire for his friend, and later explained, “The answer was that he must not. He was not satisfied with this answer and desired that I would enquire again. I did so and the answer was as before. Still he could not be contented and insisted that I should enquire once more. After much solicitation I again enquired of the Lord and permission was granted on certain conditions.”Harris was to show the translated pages only to his wife, parents, brother, and sister-in-law.
Elated, Martin Harris returned home with the manuscript pages and showed them to his wife. He did not, however, handle the precious manuscript with the prescribed care and it was soon lost. Precisely how it happened is difficult to ascertain. One commonly repeated rumor was that Lucy removed the pages from Martin’s bureau and burned them, though she denied any responsibility for their loss. Some, including Joseph Smith, suspected a conspiracy on the part of Lucy Harris or perhaps others.
Harris made every effort to find the manuscript, dreading the thought of confessing to Joseph what had happened. He even “ripped open beds and pillows” but to no avail. When Joseph came to his parents’ home after several weeks, eager for news, Harris trudged reluctantly three miles to the Smith’s Manchester home to break the news. As he approached, he walked “with a slow and measured tread towards the house, his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon the ground. On coming to the gate, he stopped, instead of passing through, and got upon the fence, and sat there some time with his hat drawn over his eyes.”
He at last entered, and having little appetite for the dinner they had prepared him, he soon “pressed his hands upon his temples, and cried out in a tone of deep anguish, ‘Oh, I have lost my soul!’”Joseph understood immediately what had happened. He demanded that Harris return and look again for the manuscript, but Martin insisted it would be in vain.
Exhausted and discouraged, Joseph returned to Harmony and, walking a short distance from his home, prayed for mercy. The angel appeared and gave again to Joseph the Urim and Thummim, or interpreters Joseph had originally received with the plates but had lost for having “wearied the Lord in asking that Martin Harris might take the writings.”Using the Urim and Thummim, Joseph received the earliest of his revelations for which a text survives.
Now known as Doctrine and Covenants 3, the revelation rebuked Joseph: “How oft you have transgressed the Laws of God & have gone on in the Persuasions of men for behold you should not have feared men more than God.” However, it held out hope: “Remember God is merciful therefore repent of that which thou hast done & he will only cause thee to be afflicted for a season & thou art still chosen & will & will again be called to the work.”
For months, Martin Harris remained at his Palmyra home, haunted by the loss of the manuscript. He was also distressed to discover that his wife and others sought to discredit Joseph Smith and make him out to be a fraud who was simply after Martin’s money. Longing for reconciliation and bearing news of these disturbing efforts, he visited Joseph Smith at Harmony in March 1829.
To Harris’ relief, Joseph had obtained forgiveness and was preparing to resume the translation. Harris asked Joseph once again for the privilege of seeing the plates. He desired a firm witness that “Joseph hath got the things which he hath testified that he hath got,” perhaps to stifle his lingering doubts and to help him persuade Lucy. Joseph received a revelation for Harris, found today in Doctrine and Covenants 5. In it, the Lord reveals that three witnesses would be called to see and give testimony of the plates. Then, to Martin Harris’ delight, the Lord promised him that “if he will go out & bow down before me & humble himself in mighty prayer & faith in the sincerity of his heart then I will grant unto him a vew of the things which he desireth to vew.” The revelation also indicated that the book’s authenticity would be evidenced by its message rather than the plates and that many would not believe even if Joseph Smith were to “show them all things.”
Work on the translation recommenced in earnest April 5, 1829, when Oliver Cowdery assumed the role of scribe. They picked up where Joseph and Harris had previously left off, but in May, as they approached what would become the end of the Book of Mormon, they became concerned about whether to retranslate the lost portion. To address this question, the Lord gave Joseph Smith another revelation, now contained in Doctrine and Covenants 10. The revelation confirmed Joseph’s fears of a conspiracy: “Behold, satan has put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written.” However, the Lord reassured Joseph that he had a long-prepared-for solution. Joseph was commanded not to retranslate the lost portion, but to supplant it with a translation of “the plates of Nephi,” which covered a similar time period. Thus, the Lord would frustrate the plans of the conspirators and fulfill the prayers of the ancient Nephite record keepers who desired these writings to “come forth unto this people.”
As the translation neared completion, Harris, together with Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, begged Joseph to have the privilege of being the three promised witnesses mentioned in the earlier revelation and in a passage of the Book of Mormon itself. Joseph again inquired and received the revelation now contained in Doctrine and Covenants 17, promising each of the men they would witness the plates if they would “rely upon my word” with “full purpose of heart.”
Martin Harris was no doubt euphoric that he would be allowed to see the plates, but in June 1829, when the three men attempted to pray and obtain a view of the plates from the angel, they were at first unsuccessful. Harris feared “his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished.” He retired and shortly thereafter the angel appeared and showed Whitmer and Cowdery the plates. Joseph then searched for Harris and found him some distance away. Harris had been praying on his own, and soon after Joseph joined him he received the manifestation he had long sought. After witnessing the plates, he shouted “tis enough tis enough mine eyes have beheld mine eyes have beheld.”
Bolstered by this miraculous and faith-affirming experience, Harris renewed his efforts to provide financial support for the Book of Mormon publication. Joseph Smith had talked to several printers in Palmyra and Rochester, New York. He hoped to convince Egbert B. Grandin of Palmyra to print the book, and Harris took up the negotiations. Grandin’s price was $3,000 for the unusually large printing of 5,000 copies, but he would not buy the type or begin the job until Harris or Smith had “promised to insure the payment for the printing.”In order to do this, Harris would have to impart essentially all of the property to which he had a legal right.
This moment of decision would sound the depth of Martin Harris’ faith in Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Seeking guidance, he spoke with Joseph, who received yet another revelation. Known today as Doctrine and Covenants 19, the revelation admonished Harris, “Thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the book of Mormon.” On August 25, 1829, he mortgaged his property to Grandin as payment for the publication. His neighbors were amazed that their sensible friend would “abandon the cultivation of one of the best farms in the neighborhood” to underwrite the publication.
Initially, Harris hoped to redeem his mortgaged farm by selling copies of the Book of Mormon. In January, Joseph Smith signed an agreement with Harris giving him “equal privilege” to sell copies of the Book of Mormon until he had fully recouped the cost of printing. He began selling the book as soon as it was available in March 1830. Unfortunately, sales did not go as well as planned.
Joseph Smith reportedly spotted a distraught Martin Harris late in March 1830 near Palmyra. According to Joseph Knight, Harris was carrying several copies of the Book of Mormon. He said, “The Books will not sell for no Body wants them,” and told Joseph, “I Want a Commandment.” Joseph Smith’s reply referred Harris to the above revelation, “Fulfill what you have got.” “But I must have a commandment,” repeated Harris.
He received no further commandment.However, in compliance with the earlier revelation, Harris eventually sold enough of his property to pay his debt. By so doing, he secured his place as the most significant financial supporter of the Book of Mormon and, thus, the early Church. None among Joseph Smith’s younger associates could have provided this critical contribution.
For more on the sections mentioned in this article, see the forthcoming volume, Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, William G. Hartley, eds. Documents: July 1828-June 1831. First volume of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013.