Cover image: Martin Harris. Photo by Savage & Ottinger. Retouching and colorization by Bryce M. Haymond.
Several years ago, my son and I attended a father’s and son’s basketball camp at BYU. The camp was held over Memorial Day weekend and on Sunday we went with 400 other fathers and sons to Temple Square. We attended the Music and the Spoken Word program and then went to sacrament meeting in the Assembly Hall. The speakers for our meeting were Joe Christensen and L. Tom Perry. Elder Perry gave one of the most memorable testimonies that I can remember.
Elder Perry told us about his youth. He said that as a priest age young man, one of the men who served in the Aaronic priesthood in his ward was William Pilkington. Willie came to the United States when he was 13 years of age. A few years later he was hired as a farm hand by Martin Harris Jr. who had just moved to Clarkston Utah. Willie moved to the Harris home and lived with them for about one year as an employee. Upon arriving at the Harris home the first night, he noticed an elderly man sitting in the corner in a rocking chair. After getting settled the elderly man called Willie over and told him that after Willie was through with his chores on the following day, they would visit.
The elderly gentleman was Martin Harris who had come to Clarkston to live with his son. Martin Harris would go on to tell Willie about his experiences as a witness of the Book of Mormon. He told Willie that, “Just as sure as you see the sun shining, just as sure am I that I stood in the presence of an angel of God with Joseph Smith, and saw him hold the gold plates in his hands. I also saw the Urim and Thummim, the breastplate, and the sword of Laban.”[i]
Later in life, Willie would write, “I testify to the whole world that I held up [Martin’s] right hand while he bore his last and dying Testimony, that he with the Prophet Joseph Smith did stand in the presence of an Angel of the Lord while he held the Golden Plates in his hands, and that he saw the engravings on the plates. And after the Angel [ascended] up into Heaven the Heavens were opened and he heard the voice of God declare that everything the Angel had told them was [verily] true, and that The Book of Mormon which contains the fullness of the Everlasting Gospel was translated correctly.”[ii]
For my son and me, it was a moving experience to hear directly from L. Tom Perry, an honest man, that Elder Perry heard from William Pilkington who heard directly from Martin Harris that he saw an angel, beheld the plates, and heard a voice from heaven testifying of the truth. Elder Perry concluded his testimony by telling us that he has had many experiences in his life that formed the basis for his testimony but few were more powerful or had as much impact on his testimony than what he heard from William Pilkington.
On our return trip from the basketball camp, my son and I talked about Elder Perry’s testimony. I asked my son Jared, “If it had been you instead of Willie Pilkington who spoke with Martin Harris and heard directly the experience of seeing the angel Moroni, would you have a stronger testimony of the Book of Mormon?” His answer was insightful, “Not really, hearing it from Brother Perry is about the same.”
I think Jared felt the power of Elder Perry’s testimony. Of this power, President Harold B. Lee wrote: “[A] person is not truly converted until he sees the power of God resting upon the leaders of this church, and it goes down into his heart like fire.”[iii]
Martin Harris was 46 years old when he accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was 20 years older than Oliver Cowdery and was considered an “honest, industrious citizen, by his neighbors.”[iv] In 1827 several manifestations convinced Martin that Joseph Smith was a prophet and he should help Joseph in bringing forth the Book of Mormon.
While not educated, he enthusiastically helped Joseph in several ways: He gave Joseph and Emma money to liquidate their debts and gave them fifty dollars to move from Palmyra to Harmony where they could escape the dangers of people seeking to steal the plates or harm Joseph. Martin also helped to fulfill the ancient biblical prophecy by taking a copy of some of the characters to Professor Charles Anthon in New York City.
Martin served as scribe in translating some of the first 116 pages of Book of Mormon. Being a well-respected man in his community, Harris’ involvement with Joseph Smith created a great deal of interest. “The affair ‘excited a good deal of curiosity and comment’ mainly because ‘such a man as Martin Harris’ was involved in it.”[v]
Harris likewise was the subject of much criticism from friends and town members because of his support of Joseph Smith. Some called him a religious fanatic and lunatic. Martin’s wife Lucy was also critical of Martin and Joseph. No doubt this criticism and the desire to prove himself something other than a religious fanatic, was a motivating factor for Martin wanting to show the 116 pages of manuscript translation to a few of these critics.
As a result, Martin asked if he could take the manuscript home to show his wife and a few friends. After several requests from Joseph, the Lord gave permission with strict instructions as to who could see the manuscript. Martin failed to follow those instructions and subsequently lost the manuscript.
This led the Lord to tell Joseph in D&C 3:4: “For although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him.”
I think all of us can relate to Martin: Seeking the honor and respect of neighbors, wanting to be seen as important, and as a result following our own will rather than God’s will in our life. These carnal desires of fame and reputation have been Satan’s tools as long as Satan has been seeking to thwart the work of God.
Eight months later (in D&C 5:24), the Lord tells Joseph that Martin, “exalts himself and does not humble himself sufficiently before me; but if he will bow down before me and humble himself in mighty prayer and faith, in the sincerity of his heart, then will I grant unto him a view of the things which he desires to see.”
It seems that Martin’s pride, his fear and desire for the praise of men, caused him to put his will ahead of the Lord’s will.
Pride and Humility
Often, we define pride as a feeling of pleasure from one’s own achievements. That definition is much too narrow. Pride can be best described by thinking of a balance scale that consists of two plates hanging at equal distances from a fulcrum. On one plate we place our will and on the other plate God’s will. Pride occurs when our will outweighs or takes priority over God’s will in our life.
How do we become prideful? Ironically, oftentimes pride is driven by fear. Fear of loss, fear of failing, fear of stepping out into the unknown, or fear of not knowing beforehand what will happen. Because we are afraid, we do it our way instead of the Lord’s way. We place our will ahead of His will.
Sometimes we are prideful when we assume our way of doing things is the best and fail to consider the Lord’s way. In our day when we have so much abundance, and we can solve a lot of our own problems, we can easily let our way or the world’s way of doing things take priority over the Lord’s way.
Neil L. Andersen taught, “In its most severe form, as President Ezra Taft Benson has stated, pride pits ‘our will against God’s.’ When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of my will not thine be done. As Paul said, they ‘seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.’”[vi]
The opposite of pride is humility. “Pride is your greatest enemy. Humility your greatest friend.”[vii] As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Humility and obedience are our best friends. They reflect honesty and strength. They will serve us well throughout our life.
In my own life, when I have been humble and sought the Lord’s will, I have had more peace and afterwards assurance that I am on the right path. I have also learned that the Lord is patient and His will often takes time. I have made the mistake of putting my will ahead of the Lord’s because I wanted it done now, but the Lord wants it done in the right way which often takes more time than I wanted.
This principle of being humble enough to let the Lord do things in his time is best illustrated by Joseph Smith. Sometimes, we may forget just how young Joseph was when he was tutored by the Angel Moroni. Every year for four years, Joseph was patiently given instruction. It has often occurred to me that the Lord understands the value of patient preparation. Perhaps Joseph needed time to let his earthly tendencies and his spiritual understanding become congruent. In our life we may be in a rush to do good things now—without realizing the Lord’s counsel can sometimes be to wait and prepare.
Patient preparation was not limited to Joseph’s life. The Lord told Samuel Smith that he would be a great missionary, but “Wait a little longer, until you shall have my word, my rock, my church, and my gospel, that you may know of a surety my doctrine. And then, behold, according to your desires, yea, even according to your faith shall it be done unto you. Keep my commandments; hold your peace; appeal unto my Spirit….” (D&C 11:16-19).
You see, most of us want results now and may even exercise some poor judgment in being overly zealous. In the Book of Mormon, Zeniff talks of his over eagerness to make peace with the Lamanites and return to the land of Nephi, “And yet, I being over-zealous to inherit the land of our fathers, collected as many as were desirous to go up to possess the land, and started again on our journey into the wilderness to go up to the land; but we were smitten with famine and sore afflictions; for we were slow to remember the Lord our God.” (Mosiah 9:3).
The Lord views life’s events in his time and for his purpose. In our day of “hurry up and get results” we seem to have become increasingly impatient and unwilling to wait for the Lord. This is pride.
The Lord’s Way
The Lord’s way is a gentle way full of invitation, love, service, and humility. The New Testament is filled with hundreds of gentle invitations to follow Him. He is a shepherd not a magician. The process is just as important as the result because it is the process that changes our hearts.
In the process of being tutored, Joseph learned lessons that would form the basis of his teachings for many years.
Robert Woodford wrote about Moroni’s visits to Joseph Smith, “Naturally, Moroni, who held the keys of the restoration of the Book of Mormon, was most prominent during this time of preparation. In at least twenty-two visits, he worked with the young prophet, appearing three times during the night of September 21-22, 1823, once the following day while Joseph was on his way back to the house from the field, later the same day at the Hill Cumorah when Joseph first saw the plates, three times more as Joseph returned to the hill on 22 September 1824, 1825, and 1826, and once during the summer of 1827.[viii]
Twenty-two visits over the course of five years. Moroni’s message was repeated more than once. At least four times repeated word for word. Patience, preparation, and waiting on the Lord. Through this prolonged preparation Joseph was not only willing but also able to carry forth his calling.
Repent and Come Unto Me
In D&C 5:21, the Lord commands Joseph to “repent and walk more uprightly before me, and to yield to the persuasions of men no more.”
This is an incredibly useful insight into the process and principle of repentance. Sometimes we think about repentance erroneously. Repentance is more than stopping the bad behavior or even asking forgiveness. Elder Andersen said, “Repentance is turning away from our sins and from the thinking of the world, and turning toward the Savior.” He goes on to point out that in many scriptures, the Lord commands us to “repent and come unto me.” “As we garner sufficient faith and trust to meekly surrender ourselves to the Lord’s way,” Elder Andersen continues, “we are repenting.”[ix]
I have reflected on Elder Andersen’s definition of repentance over and over again. What I’ve learned is that when we come to Christ, we often see our weakness. When we do, we get the opportunity to repent which means to do our best to stop the behavior and come to Christ, with humility placing his will ahead of our own. When we do, we partake in the grace and power of Christ, not only to help us stop our sinning, but also to become more like him.
As the Lord commanded, Joseph did repent. Through repentance, he became stronger and found the help he needed. We often forget that by repenting and coming to Christ we gain strength to do what we might not otherwise be able to do.
When I was younger, my stake president said, “Obedience is easier to maintain than create.” I didn’t understand this concept the first time he taught it. But what he was trying to say is that it is easier to keep a commandment all the time than only some of the time. Because when we don’t we have to re-develop the habit or capability to keep the commandment.
Clayton M. Christensen said, “It’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again.”[x]
Just as it took time to live a life of sin, so it may take time to develop the capability to live a life of obedience. Sometimes when we have made mistakes, we hope the Lord will remove the tendencies and habits we have developed through our poor choices. But the Lord does not always work that way. As we come to Him, in his due time, we will find that desires and weaknesses that once tempted us will become more and more unattractive to us.
In my efforts to repent, many times, the inspiration I’ve received is to be patient, do my best and not be too anxious to move on. The Lord wanted me to learn important lessons in the processes of repenting. In other words, for a season, I was to focus on one thing only—repenting and coming closer to Him. When we wait on the Lord in this way, we often find a miracle waiting for us at the end of our waiting.
Stand Still and Wait on the Lord
In D&C 5:34 the Lord tells Joseph, “Stop, and stand still until I command thee, and I will provide means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee.”
On April 5, the Lord sent the help Joseph needed. That scribe was Oliver Cowdery.
Years later, after his leaving and returning to the church, Oliver attended a special conference held at Kanesville, Iowa. Oliver said: “Friends and Brethren, My name is Cowdery, Oliver Cowdery. In the early history of this Church I stood identified with her, and one in her councils. True it is that the gifts and callings of God are without repentance; not because I was better than the rest of mankind was I called; but, to fulfill the purposes of God. He called me to a high and holy calling. I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, or, as it is called by that book, ‘holy interpreters.’ I beheld with my eyes, and handled with my hands, the gold plates from which it was transcribed. I also saw with my eyes and handled with my hands the ‘holy interpreters.’ That book is true…I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet…..
“I was present with Joseph when a holy angel from God came down from heaven and conferred on us, or restored, the lesser or Aaronic Priesthood, and said to us, at the same time, that it should remain upon the earth while the earth stands. I was also present with Joseph when the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood was conferred by holy angels from on high. This Priesthood we then conferred on each other, by the will and commandment of God. This Priesthood, as was then declared, is also to remain upon the earth until the last remnant of time.”[xi]
Oliver was the help Joseph needed and the reason Joseph was commanded to “Stop and stand still.” I wonder how many blessings we don’t realize because we are unwilling to stop and stand still when the Lords asks us to do so. The Lord knows what we need and knows the end from the beginning.
A Scripture for Those in the Service of God
While Joseph was waiting to begin translating he was laboring on the farm he had purchased from his father in law. In February 1829, his father Joseph Smith Sr., came to visit. It was then that Joseph received the revelation in section 4 for his father.
In speaking of section 4, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said “It is a revelation to each member of the Church…. Perhaps there is no other revelation in all our scriptures that embodies greater instruction pertaining to the manner of qualification of members of the Church for service of God…than this revelation.” He continues, “No elder of the Church is qualified to teach…or carry the message of Salvation to the world, until he has absorbed, in part at least, this heaven-sent instruction.”[xii]
As a young missionary, I remember standing with my fellow missionaries at the MTC as we would stand and quote from memory this revelation. Each time we would say, “For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul.” As we would say these words in unison, each time a spirit of purpose and feeling of being part of the great mission of Jesus Christ would pass through me. A sense of strength would infuse me with determination to raise my level of service and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I wonder if Joseph Smith Sr. felt the same spirit of purpose when he read this revelation from the Lord for the first time. I expect he felt the same way I felt and other missionaries have felt—infused with the spirit of being called to serve. He was called to serve and there is no better place to be than in the service of God.
May God bless us in the new year, to follow the example of Joseph to repent, obey and serve.
[i] William Pilkington to Vern C. Poulter, 28 February 1930, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
[ii] Martin Harris’ Dying Testimony Resounds, LDS Church News, 1996, 08/24/96.
[iii] Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975], 63.
[iv] Richard Loyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, Deseret Book, 1981, p. 96.
[v] Ibid. p. 97.
[vi] Neil A. Andersen, The Divine Gift of Forgiveness, Deseret Book 2019, p. 124.
[vii] John R.W. Stott, as quoted in The Divine Gift of Forgiveness, p. 124.
[viii] Robert J. Woodford, Book of Mormon Personalities Known by Joseph Smith, lds.org.
[ix] Andersen, The Divine Gift of Forgiveness, 12.
[x] Clayton M. Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?, Harper Collins, 2012.
[xi] Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4 vols. 246.
[xii] Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:35.