Cover image via History.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
“No matter where he went,” John A. Clark wrote of Martin Harris, “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.”
Rev. John Alonzo Clark, who served as rector of Zion Episcopal Church in Palmyra, New York, from 1826-1828, was writing in August 1840. Martin Harris became one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon in June 1829 and emigrated from New York to Kirtland, Ohio, in May 1831. Clark had already left Palmyra sometime prior to March 1830. By 1840, he was a resident of Philadelphia, where he died in 1843.
The “deer Jesus” story has been popular for nearly two centuries with people who, seeking to discredit the Book of Mormon witnesses, have eagerly branded Martin Harris gullible, superstitious, and very possibly unbalanced.
It’s striking, though, that Rev. Clark doesn’t claim that he heard the story directly from Harris himself. Instead, he relates what he says he heard from an unidentified “gentleman in Palmyra.” This is at best a secondhand account from a demonstrably unsympathetic person of an account given by another person, probably also unsympathetic, of an account that Martin Harris might possibly have given at some time or another under unspecified conditions.
It’s also striking that the story seems to be an outlier. Reverend Clark’s report of the unnamed “gentleman’s” report of it is all that we have about the alleged talking deer, as opposed to the many accounts that we possess of Martin Harris bearing testimony—throughout his life and in terms familiar to most informed Latter-day Saints—of his experience with the angel and the plates.
Moreover, this image of a weirdly delusional Martin Harris seems inconsistent with what solid historical sources (as opposed to later partisan gossip) tell us about him. Consider, for example, the descriptions given of Martin Harris by his neighbors:
He was “an honest, industrious citizen,” “an honest and industrious farmer,” “an honest worthy citizen,” “an honest man,” “a very honest man,” “honest and benevolent.” He was “a prosperous, independent farmer, strictly upright in his business dealings,” “a very worthy and substantial farmer,” “one of the most respectable farmers in Wayne County,” “one of the first men of the town,” and “an honorable and upright man”
One contemporary describes him as “an industrious, hard-working farmer, shrewd in his business calculations.” But shrewdness in business calculations seems quite incompatible with being delusional, irrational, and prone to hallucination.
Martin Harris was plainly an able farmer. He served as a judge of hog production at his county’s agricultural fairs and won multiple prizes for cloth manufacturing. In 1824, he was named one of Palmyra’s two town managers for the Ontario County Agricultural Society. He served with the local militia in the War of 1812, and in 1824, he was elected to a committee to raise money in support of the struggle for Greek Christian independence from the Muslim Ottoman Empire. (This was a popular cause of the day: 1824 also saw the death of the English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, who was fighting on the Greek side.) In 1827, Martin was appointed to the Palmyra “committee of vigilance” by the Wayne County anti-Masonic convention.
Harris served as a grand juror in his county and, on at least three occasions, as a witness in important criminal trials for either defense or prosecution. Moreover, his neighbors elected him district overseer of highways in 1811, 1813, 1814, 1815, 1825, 1827, and 1829 (this last being the very year in which Martin saw the angel and the plates), often with the added responsibility of inspecting fences and settling disputes over trespassing livestock.
That Rev. Clark’s second- or third-hand crackpot might become involved with Joseph Smith’s “gold Bible” would have been quite unsurprising. But the involvement of “such a man as Martin Harris,” one neighbor later recalled, “excited a good deal of curiosity and comment.”
Indeed, says one unbelieving neighbor, “he was subjected to many scoffs and rebukes.” Another later reported that no other early Palmyra resident “received so many rebuffs” or was subjected to “so many unfeeling comments” as Martin. Rev. Clark’s anonymous yarn probably reflects the very hostile atmosphere that surrounded the early Restoration. As William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother, later reminisced regarding his own family: “We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable till then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in a remarkable way.”
The gullible fool suggested by Rev. Clark’s unidentified source is difficult to square with the Martin Harris of history. Even in the matter of the Book of Mormon itself, Martin comes across as a hard-headed skeptic rather than the naïvely trusting dupe that some plainly want to see in him.
“Martin Harris,” wrote the late Richard Lloyd Anderson, “was not surpassed in doubt by Thomas nor in absolute assurance by any apostle. His testimony of the Book of Mormon was ridiculed by unbelievers as superstition, but he did not reach such certainty easily, for no witness required more evidence for his faith. This successful farmer of middle age was a seasoned trader, fully aware of possible deception in a business transaction or religious experience. And his examination of Mormonism proceeded with the methodical care that built his material estate.”
First, Martin Harris carefully investigated Joseph Smith’s story of golden plates before involving himself in it. Only after his wife and daughter made personal inquiries and came away positively impressed, did he himself visit the Smiths. And, even then, he “talked with them separately, to see if their stories agreed,” “that I might get at the truth of the matter.” At one point, he lifted the box containing the plates, concluding from its exceptional weight that it must contain either lead or gold—“and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead.”
Praying that evening, Martin later recalled, he received a spiritual assurance that the work was true and that he should support it. Even then, though, he remained skeptical. Famously, he took a copy of some of the characters on the plates to at least three noted linguists and scholars, including not only Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia College in New York City but Anthon’s fellow townsman Samuel Latham Mitchill and the state legislator Luther Bradish in Albany. He returned with enhanced confidence.
But even while serving as a scribe for Joseph’s dictation of the Book of Mormon, Martin still needed more proof. Once, when the two paused from the tedious work of dictation and writing and went outside to skip rocks on the Susquehanna River, Martin spotted a stone that resembled the seer stone that Joseph was using for the translation. Seizing an opportunity, he substituted his newfound stone for the accustomed one. Suddenly, Joseph was unable to translate and very puzzled. After Martin confessed what he had done, the Prophet demanded to know why he had done it. “To stop the mouth of fools,” Martin responded. People were saying that Joseph had simply memorized a text that he repeated to his naively trusting scribe. Martin was testing him. And he frequently asked whether he himself might be able to see the golden plates.
And then, of course, there is the well-known story of Martin’s repeated requests to show his wife the manuscript pages that he had written, hoping to convince her that he wasn’t wasting his time and, eventually, his money. He understood full well the importance of evidence.
Even on the day that Martin Harris had his encounter with the angel and the plates, he struggled with his faith and had to withdraw from the group. Only later and separately, after Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer received their witness, did Martin receive his own. According to Lucy Mack Smith, upon returning to the Whitmer home immediately following the vision, “He seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard.”
And Martin’s testimony never wavered over the nearly fifty years that remained to him, even though he spent most of those years lonely and disaffected from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Between his excommunication from the Church at the end of 1837 and his rebaptism in late 1870, Martin was frequently on his own. But he often sought fellowship with some or another organized religious group in the meantime—a fact that some have seen as evidence of psychological instability. However, in all but one of those cases, the groups with which he flirted were splinter sects of the Restoration. In the other case, that of the Shakers, he seems to have resonated with their claim of modern revelation. In 1846, he served as a missionary in England for the cause of James J. Strang, who claimed to be the chosen successor of Joseph Smith. Even at that time, though, his efforts were devoted not to advocating Strang’s claims but to testifying powerfully of the Book of Mormon.
Let’s return now to another statement from the Reverend John A. Clark that has been popular among critics:
“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.”
Notice that, once again, rather than reporting a statement made directly to him by Martin Harris, Clark actually claims to have received his information from a “gentleman in Palmyra . . . a professor of religion” (meaning not an academic scholar but, simply, a man who professed religion—and who, most likely, was unfriendly to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon), who said that he had talked with Martin Harris.
As Larry E. Morris observes of this very passage, the common “claim that ‘Harris told John A. Clark’ is not accurate. This is not secondhand testimony but thirdhand—’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 thirdhand, anonymous account of what Martin Harris supposedly said.”
Moreover, we know that Martin once held the plates in a box and that, perhaps more than once when he was serving as Joseph Smith’s scribe, he felt them while they were covered with a cloth. It seems very likely that either Rev. Clark or his anonymous source has conflated those episodes with Martin’s experience as one of the Three Witnesses.
How much weight should we place on Rev. Clark’s report of his anonymous source’s report of what Martin Harris said? Probably not much.
This column draws considerably upon two books, both still available: Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981) and Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, “Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon” (Provo: BYU Studies, 2018). The new website “Witnesses of the Book of Mormon” (https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/) is also valuable.