Editor’s Note: Roger Nicholson has also written, “The Gospel Online: Who Should Define Mormonism on Wikipedia?” for Meridian.

Read Wikipedia’s Deconstruction of Martin Harris here.

In an attempt to abide by the Wikipedia guidelines to be unbiased and represent all sides of a story, the representation of Martin Harris has gone awry. The Wikipedia authors have allowed equal weight to hearsay as they have to Martin Harris’ own words regarding his testimony, the golden plates, and whether or not he saw an angel.

Wikipedia’s Deconstruction of the Faith of Martin Harris

Wikipedia portrays quite a different version of Martin Harris than the one that we learn of in Sunday School. In Part 1, we saw that the emphasis in the article of particular aspects of Harris’s life is influenced by the editor who happens to chooses to edit the Wikipedia article. In Part 2, we continue to examine Wikipedia’s treatment of Martin Harris, his commitment to his faith, and how non-members perceived him.

Martin Harris Changing His Religion

The Wikipedia article “Martin Harris (Latter Day Saint)” [1] portrays Harris as being unstable by highlighting his changes in religion.

Even before he had become a Mormon, Harris had changed his religion at least five times. [2]  After Smith’s death, Harris continued this earlier pattern, remaining in Kirtland and accepting James J. Strang as Mormonism’s new prophet, a prophet with his own set of supernatural plates and witnesses to authenticate them.

The wiki article implies that Mormonism was simply one of many religions in a long string of changes, ignoring the fact that Harris’s commitment to Mormonism far outweighed anything that he had committed to either prior to or subsequently. Harris did not mortgage his farm during any of his previous religious affiliations. He did not claim to have seen an angel or testify of the truthfulness of what he had seen for the remainder of his life. Martin didn’t simply “change his religion” at least five times – he actively attempted to determine which was correct.

Ronald W. Walker notes that “Harris doubted that any church was properly authorized to act for God,” and that Harris concluded, “I might just as well plunge myself into the water as to have any one of the sects baptize me.” [3]

That search culminated in his association with Mormonism, where he played a pivotal role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The Wikipedia editor, however, feels that “Harris’s continual changes of religion speak to his character as much as do his honesty and diligence.”[4] In other words, the editor perceives Harris’s changes in religion indicate a weakness in Harris’s character. A seeker of true religion is recast as a man who is simply following a “pattern” of instability.

kirtland temple

It is well known that Martin Harris had a falling out with Joseph Smith, and he never accepted polygamy. He remained behind in Kirtland, Ohio as the Church moved west. During this time, he continued to try and recapture what he had lost when he left the Church. Late in his life, Martin “confessed that he had lost confidence in Joseph Smith, consequently, his mind became darkened, and he was left to himself; he tried the Shakers, but that would not do, then tried Gladden Bishop, but no satisfaction; [he] had concluded he would wait until the Saints returned to Jackson Co., and then he would repair there.”[5] With regard to Martin’s stability and commitment, he “was called to give freely of his considerable means, knowing full well that external consequences could further place his reputation, financial standing, and already-strained marriage in harm’s way.” [6] This is certainly not the act of a man who cannot commit himself to a particular course of action that he believes to be correct.

The Wikipedia article further attempts to diminish Harris’s importance as one of the Three Witnesses by noting Harris’s association with James Strang. Strang attempted to reproduce the experience of Joseph Smith and establish himself as the leader of a new church by producing a set of plates. However, there was no “supernatural” aspect to these plates as the wiki article asserts – there was no witnessed angelic visit associated with them, although Strang claimed that an angel had given him the location of the plates. Martin was one of a number of people who felt that Strang might be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. Martin, however, was ultimately dissatisfied with the variety of attempts to re-create the church that Joseph Smith had founded, and eventually traveled to Utah to rejoin the Saints. Yet, throughout his period away from the Church, Martin never wavered in his testimony of the Book of Mormon, and continued to testify that he had seen an angel until the day he died.

Martin Harris and the “Spiritual Eye”

In Church we learn that Martin stood by his testimony that he saw the angel and the plates; Wikipedia’s version of Martin Harris portrays him as a man who was not quite sure about what he saw. The article takes great pains to cast doubt on whether or not Harris actually viewed the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. A typical tactic is to state a positive, followed by a collection of negatives, and ending with a positive in order to demonstrate contradiction.

In Harris’s case, the words of second- and third-hand accounts from hostile witnesses of what he allegedly said are used to offset what Harris himself actually said. Wikipedia begins by noting that Harris testified of the Book of Mormon, but then immediately attempts to cast doubt upon what Harris said. The wiki article states,

Although he was estranged from the LDS Church for most of his life, Harris continued to testify to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, at least during the early years, Harris “seems to have repeatedly admitted the internal, subjective nature of his visionary experience.” [7]

The article then notes that Harris is said to have claimed to have viewed the plates with his “spiritual eye.

” In the Pearl of Great Price, the term “spiritual eyes” is a term used by Moses to describe how he was able to see God.

But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. (Moses 1:11)

grandin building

Wikipedia then devotes half of the “Testimony of the Book of Mormon” section of the article to Harris’s “spiritual eye” comments,

The foreman in the Palmyra printing office that produced the first Book of Mormon said that Harris “used to practice a good deal of his characteristic jargon and ‘seeing with the spiritual eye,’ and the like.” [8] John H. Gilbert, the typesetter for most of the book, said that he had asked Harris, “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” According to Gilbert, Harris “looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, ‘No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.'” [9] Two other Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spiritual eyes.” [10] 

In 1838, Harris is said to have told an Ohio congregation that “he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision or imagination.”[11] A neighbor of Harris in Kirtland, Ohio, said that Harris “never claimed to have seen [the plates] with his natural eyes, only spiritual vision.”[12]

Let’s examine one of the references for the “eye of faith” claim. The Wikipedia footnote supporting the “eye of faith” comment cites “Martin Harris Interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828.” (Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2:270).

John A. Clark, a former pastor who considered Joseph Smith a fraud and the Book of Mormon “an imposture,” states,

To know how much this testimony [of three witnesses] is worth I will state one fact. A gentleman in Palmyra, bred to the law, a professor of religion, and of undoubted veracity told me that on one occasion, he appealed to Harris and asked him directly,-“Did you see those plates?” Harris replied, he did. “Did you see the plates, and the engraving on them with your bodily eyes?” Harris replied, “Yes, I saw them with my eyes,-they were shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.” “But did you see them with your natural,-your bodily eyes, just as you see this pencil-case in my hand? Now say no or yes to this.” Harris replied,-“Why I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see any thing around me,-though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.[13]

Rather than being an interview between Clark and Harris, as implied by the title of reference work using in the citation, Clark’s actual statement clearly says that he received his information from a “gentleman in Palmyra…a professor of religion,” who said that he had talked with Harris. This is not an interview between Clark and Harris. Larry E. Morris notes that the “claim that Harris told John A. Clark’ is not accurate. This is not secondhand testimony but third-hand-he said that he said that he said.’….As if that weren’t enough, Clark does not name his source-making it impossible to judge that person’s honesty or reliability. What we have is a third-hand, anonymous account of what Martin Harris supposedly said.” [14]

The “spiritual eyes” comment is sourced using “Jesse Townsend to Phineas Stiles, 24 December 1833,” (Early Mormon Documents 3:22). Jesse Townsend, another hostile source, writes a letter to Phineas Stiles in which he describes Harris’s involvement with Joseph Smith. He does not claim that Harris communicated with him. In his letter, Townsend refers to Harris as a “visionary fanatic” and a “dupe” who was fooled by the “wily deceiver” Joseph Smith and who subsequently claimed to have seen the plates with his “spiritual eyes.” [15]

Neither Clark’s “eye of faith” comment nor Townsend’s “spiritual eye” comment quote Martin Harris directly, yet they are used to source Wikipedia’s claim that two Palmyra residents said that Harris told them that he had seen the plates with “the eye of faith” or “spiritual eyes.” A more accurate portrayal of the sources would be to state that two Palmyra residents heard rumors from other people that Harris had made these comments. Unfortunately, the existence of these statements in Wikipedia, supported by two sources, implies to the casual reader that the statements are simply factual.

Although Wikipedia certainly attempts to drive the “spiritual eye” comments home, such thorough treatment is not given to Harris’s own numerous statements regarding what he saw.

Did Harris Recant His Testimony?

Next, Wikipedia continues the attempt to destroy Harris’s testimony by offering a paragraph claiming that a number of members who apostatized during the Kirtland period did so because of Harris’s “recantation” of having seen or handled the gold plates. According to Wikipedia,

In March 1838, disillusioned church members said that Harris had publicly denied that any of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon had ever seen or handled the golden plates-although he had not been present when Whitmer and Cowdery first claimed to have viewed them-and they claimed that Harris’s recantation, made during a period of crisis in early Mormonism, induced five influential members, including three Apostles, to leave the Church. [16] 

The Wikipedia editor then implies that Harris from this point onward denied his testimony even until the end of his life by stating,

Even at the end of his long life, Harris said that he had seen the plates in “a state of entrancement.”[17]

The facts, however, are quite the opposite of what Wikipedia is attempting to portray. At the “end of his long life,” while on his deathbed, Martin was quite clear about what he saw,

I stood by the bedside holding the patient’s right hand and my mother at the foot of the bed. Martin Harris had been unconscious for a number of days. When we first entered the room the old gentleman appeared to be sleeping. He soon woke up and asked for a drink of water. I put my arm under the old gentleman, raised him, and my mother held the glass to his lips. He drank freely, then he looked up at me and recognized me. He had been unconscious several days. He said, “I know you. You are my friend.” He said, “Yes, I did see the plates on which the Book of Mormon was written; I did see the angel; I did hear the voice of God; and I do know that Joseph Smith is a Prophet of God, holding the keys of the Holy Priesthood.

”  This was the end. Martin Harris, divinely-chosen witness of the work of God, relaxed, gave up my hand.He lay back on his pillow and just as the sun went down behind the Clarkston mountains, the soul of Martin Harris passed on.[18]

This testimony, unsurprisingly, is not used or referenced by the Wikipedia article.

After all of the effort to discredit Martin Harris through the words of second- and third-hand witnesses, the Wikipedia article then finally includes quotes from interviews with Harris himself. He clearly and unequivocally states that he saw and handled the plates. According to Wikipedia,

Nevertheless, in 1853, Harris told one David Dille that he had held the forty- to sixty-pound plates on his knee for “an hour-and-a-half” and handled the plates with his hands, “plate after plate.”[19] Even later, Harris affirmed that he had seen the plates and the angel with his natural eyes: “Gentlemen,” holding out his hand, “do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Or are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the Angel and the plates.”[20] The following year Harris affirmed that “No man heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon [or] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates.”[21]

It would be nice if Wikipedia gave as much attention to Martin’s statements regarding what he actually saw as it does to his “spiritual eye” and “eye of faith” comments. Martin testified of the Book of Mormon many times in such clear language.

“Young man,” answered Martin Harris with impressiveness, “Do I believe it! Do you see the sun shining! Just as surely as the sun is shining on us and gives us light, and the [moon] and stars give us light by night, just as surely as the breath of life sustains us, so surely do I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, chosen of God to open the last dispensation of the fulness of times; so surely do I know that the Book of Mormon was divinely translated. I saw the plates; I saw the Angel; I heard the voice of God. I know that the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. I might as well doubt my own existence as to doubt the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon or the divine calling of Joseph Smith.”[22]

Can Wikipedia Be Trusted?

Wikipedia articles are simply the sum of the efforts of the individual editors that choose to focus on a particular subject. Rather than simply dismiss what Wikipedia says, the reader should be encouraged to independently check the sources when a questionable claim is encountered. Every figure involved in the Restoration of the Gospel has a rich and complex history behind them. They were human, they were not perfect, and they were subject to the influences present in their society at that time. Martin Harris was no exception. This does not diminish in any way the importance of his role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.


[1] This essay addresses the contents of Wikipedia article “Martin Harris (Latter Day Saint) as it existed on October 14, 2012. Wikipedia articles are subject to constant revision, and the contents may have changed since this essay was written.

[2] The Wikipedia article provides the following citation: “Harris had been a Quaker, a Universalist, a Restorationist, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and perhaps a Methodist. (Walker 1986, pp. 30-33)”

[3] Walker, Ronald W. (Winter 1986), “Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (4): 33. 

[5] Letter of Elder Thomas Colburn to Erastus Snow, 2 May 1855, St. Louis Luminary 1/24 (5 May 1855) quoted in Susan Easton Black, and Larry C. Porter, “Rest Assured, Martin Harris Will Be Here in Time,” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture: Vol. 20, Issue 1.

[6] “For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars” Susan Easton Black, and Larry C. Porter, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 14, Issue 2, p. 6. (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2005)

[7] Dan Vogel, “Introduction to Martin Harris CollectionEarly Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998) 2:255.

[8] “Pomeroy Tucker Account, 1867,” Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2000) 3:122.

[9] John H. Gilbert, Memorandum,’ 8 September 1892Early Mormon Documents 2:548. Gilbert was the typesetter for the Book of Mormon.

[10] Wikipedia cites “Martin Harris interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828,” in Vogel 1996-2003, 2: 270 and , “Jesse Townsend to Phineas Stiles, 24 December 1833,” in Vogel 1996-2003, 3: 22.

[11] “Stephen Burnett to Lyman E. Johnson, 15 April 1838,” in Early Mormon Documents 2:291.

[12] “Reuben P. Harmon statement, c. 1885, ” Early Mormon Documents 2:385

[13] “Martin Harris interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828,” Early Mormon Documents 2:270.

[14] Morris, FARMS Review, Vol. 15, Issue 1. Note also that the date assigned to these comments places them prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon, yet Clark’s statement appears to include elements from both before and after Harris viewed the plates as a witness. Harris “saw them” with his eyes when he acted as one of the Three Witnesses, but he only saw them through the “eye of faith” when they were covered with a cloth prior to his being a witness. Clark’s third-hand hostile relation of another hostile source, makes no distinction between these events, and instead portrays Harris as contradicting himself.

[15] “Jesse Townsend to Phineas Stiles, 24 December 1833,” Early Mormon Documents 3:22.

[16] “Stephen Burnett to Luke S. Johnson, 15 April 1838, “ Early Mormon Documents 2:290-92.

[17] “Martin Harris Interview With Anthony Metcalf, Circa 1873-1874,” Early Mormon Documents 2:347.

[18] William Harrison Homer, “The Passing of Martin Harris,” Improvement Era Vol. 29, No. 5 (March 1926): 472

[19] “Martin Harris interview with David B. Dille, 1853,” in Early Mormon Documents 2:297.

[20] “Martin Harris interview with Robert Barter, circa 1870,” Early Mormon Documents 2:390.

[21] “Martin Harris to H.

B. Emerson, January 1871,” Early Mormon Documents 2:338.

[22] Homer, “The Passing of Martin Harris,” 470.