Gentlemen, do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Are your eyes playing a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates.
—Martin Harris, quoted in “Statement of William M. Glenn to O. E. Fischbacher,” May 30, 1943, Cardston, Alberta, Canada, cited in Deseret News, October 2, 1943.
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It is not a mere belief, but is a matter of knowledge. I saw the plates and the inscriptions thereon. I saw the angel, and he showed them unto me.
—Martin Harris, quoted in Robert Aveson, “Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon,” Deseret News, April 2, 1927.
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Well, just as plain as you see that chopping block, I saw the plates; and sooner than I would deny it I would lay my head upon that chopping block and let you chop it off.
—Martin Harris, quoted in “Statement of Comfort Elizabeth Godfrey Flinders to N. B. Lundwall,” September 2, 1943, Ogden, Utah, cited in Assorted Gems of Priceless Value.
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I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen, and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates…An angel appeared to me and others.
—Martin Harris, quoted in “Affidavit of George Godfrey, October 29, 1921, original still held by attesting notary John J. Shumway, Garland, Utah.
∗ ∗ ∗
Did Martin Harris tell people that he did not see the plates with his natural eyes, but rather the “eye of faith”?
A former pastor, John A. Clark, said that a “gentleman in Palmyra” told him that Harris said that he saw the plates with the “eye of faith”
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.
John A. Clark did not interview Martin Harris – he was repeating what someone else told him
The source cited is “Martin Harris interviews with John A. Clark, 1827 & 1828,” Early Mormon Documents 2:270. However, 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 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.” (Larry E. Morris, FARMS Review, Vol. 15, Issue 1.)
Clark’s account mixes elements from both before and after Harris viewed the plates as one of the Three Witnesses and portrays Harris as contradicting himself
The two elements that are mixed together in Clark’s account are the following:
- Martin Harris said that he only saw the plates through the “eye of faith” when they were covered with a cloth prior to his experience as a witness.
- Martin Harris saw the plates uncovered as one of the three witnesses.
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.
When Martin Harris said that he had seen the angel and the plates with his “spiritual eyes” or with an “eye of faith” he may have simply been employing some scriptural language that he was familiar with. Such statements do not mean that the angel and the plates were imaginary, hallucinatory, or just an inner mental image—the earliest accounts of Martin Harris’ testimony makes the literal nature of the experience unmistakable.
Rather than being hallucinatory or “merely” spiritual, Martin claimed that the plates and angel were seen by physical eyes that had been enhanced by the power of God to view more objects than a mortal could normally see (cf. DC 76:12; DC 67:10-13).
Did Martin Harris tell people that he only saw the plates with his “spiritual eye”?
John H. Gilbert, who printed the Book of Mormon, reported that Harris said that he saw the plates with his “spiritual eye”
John H. Gilbert:
Martin was in the office when I finished setting up the testimony of the three witnesses,—(Harris—Cowdery and Whitmer—) I said to him,—”Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, “No, I saw them with a spir[i]tual eye.”
Pomeroy Tucker told of Harris using the phrase “seeing with the spiritual eye”
Pomeroy Tucker in his book Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (1867) also refers to Harris using the phrase “spiritual eye”:
How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement, in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never be easily explained. In reply to uncharitable suggestions of his neighbors, he used to practise a good deal of his characteristic jargon about “seeing with the spiritual eye,” and the like.
Martin elsewhere emphasized that the vision was also with the “natural eye,” to enable them to “testify of it to the world”
In 1875, Martin said:
“The Prophet Joseph Smith, and Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer and myself, went into a little grove to pray to obtain a promise that we should behold it with our
eyesnatural eyes, that we could testify of it to the world (emphasis added).”
Harris did not, then, see “spiritual eye” and “natural eye” as mutually exclusive categories. Both described something about the witness experience.
Why would Martin Harris use the phrases “eye of faith” or “spiritual eye” to describe his visionary experience?
Martin Harris was using scriptural language to describe his visionary experience
Why did Martin Harris use the particular phraseology that he did in describing his experience? Perhaps the answer lies in another passage found in the book of Ether 12:19.
And there were many whose faith was so exceedingly strong, even before Christ came, who could not be kept from within the veil, but truly saw with their eyes the things which they had beheld with an eye of faith, and they were glad.
Here it is noted that those people who have “exceedingly strong” faith can see things “within the veil.” But even though they see things in the spiritual realm “with their eyes” it is described as beholding things with “an eye of faith.”
Another possibility can be seen in the text of Moses 1:11. It reads:
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.
This dovetails nicely with the description of David Whitmer who “explained that he saw the plates, and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it—that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God.” 
Do Martin Harris's statements related to the “spiritual eye” or “eye of faith” contradict the reality of his witness?
Some wish to make it appear as though the statements made by Martin Harris about the Three Witnesses’ manifestation discount its reality. Doing so pulls Harris’ statements out of their proper context. This vital viewpoint can be regained by simply taking a look at several passages from the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants—which all predate Martin’s public statements about the nature of his experience.
The scriptural witnesses
This prophetic passage had a direct application to Martin Harris as one of the Three Witnesses. It said: “the plates . . . . unto three shall they be shown by the power of God”
“unto [three of my servants] I will show these things . . . . I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are.” Speaking specifically of Martin Harris: “then will I grant unto him a view of the things which he desires to see. And then he shall say unto the people of this generation: Behold, I have seen the things which the Lord hath shown unto Joseph Smith, Jun., and I know of a surety that they are true, for I have seen them, for they have been shown unto me by the power of God and not of man. And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say.”
All three of the witnesses were told: “you shall have a view of the plates . . . . And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old . . . . And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them . . . . And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith”
From these scriptural texts it is evident that:
- The Three Witnesses were required by God to exercise faith like “the prophets of old” in order to view the angel and the plates (cf. Moroni 7:37; DC 20:6).
- God would exercise His power to enable the Three Witnesses to see things that were not usually visible to mortal eyes.
- Nevertheless, the Three Witnesses would see the angel and the plates “with [their] eyes” and “as they are” in objective reality.
Joseph Smith was an eyewitness to what Martin Harris said at the exact moment that the manifestation took place. He reported that Martin’s words were: “Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld“.  Another eyewitness, named Alma Jensen, saw Martin Harris point to his physical eyes while testifying that he had seen both the angel and the plates. 
Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to a skeptical author in November 1829, and spoke for both himself and Harris on the question of whether there was some trickery or “juggling” at work:
“It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling—judge ye“.
What did the Book of Mormon witnesses mean when they used the word “supernatural” to describe their experiences?
The term “supernatural” is used as a synonym for “miraculous”
An early hostile account of the three witnesses’ testimony from February 1830 is instructive:
In the Investigator, No. 12, Dec. 11, I published, by way of caution, a letter of Oliver H.P. Cowdry, in answer to my letter to Joseph Smith, Jun. Martin Harris, and David Whitmore—the believers in said bible of gold plates—which they affirm they have miraculously, or supernaturally beheld. I sought for evidences, and such as could not be disputed, of the existence of this bible of golden plates. But the answer was—the world must take their words for its existence; and that the book would appear this month.
Clearly, the author here uses “supernatural” as a synonym for “miraculous,” not an attempt to argue that the plates do not literally exist, since “their words” are intended as “evidences…for its existence.”
Martin Harris was claimed to have “supernaturally” seen the plates and angel, yet he also insisted that the experience was tangible and literal
Furthermore, Martin Harris’ testimony is reported in a mocking newspaper article, which still makes it clear that Harris’ experience was tangible and literal:
Martin Harris, another chief of Mormon imposters, arrived here last Saturday from the bible quarry in New-York. He immediately planted himself in the bar-room of the hotel, where he soon commenced reading and explaining the Mormon hoax, and all the dark passages from Genesis to Revelations. He told all about the gold plates, Angels, Spirits, and Jo Smith.—He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God! 
John Whitmer, one of the eight witnesses, did not see an angel, but he did say that he “handled those plates.” Yet, Whitmer was also said by Theodore Turley to have described the plates as being shown to him by a “supernatural power”.
…all I know, you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.” Whitmer replied “I now say I handled those plates. there was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them.” and he described how they were hung “and they were shown to me by a supernatural power.” he acknowledged all. Turley asked him why the translation is not now true, & he said “I cannot read it, and I do not know whether it is true or not.
In a letter written by Myron Bond in 1878, Whitmer is said to have “saw and handled” the plates:
John Whitmer told me last winter….[that he] ‘saw and handled’ [the plates and]….helped to copy [the Book of Mormon manuscript] as the words fell from Joseph’s lips by supernatural or almighty power
Some who repeated John Whitmer’s words may have conflated his “non-supernatural” experience in handling the plates with his “supernatural” experience of listening to Joseph dictate the Book of Mormon
Note that Bond describes how Whitmer helped to copy the manuscript as Joseph dictated the words “by supernatural or almighty power.” It is possible that Theodore Turley’s recollection conflated Whitmer’s non-supernatural handling of the plates with the description of the translation process by a “supernatural” power.
Like Martin Harris, John Whitmer, when speaking in his own words, was very clear that he had physically handled the plates:
It may not be amiss in this place, to give a statement to the world concerning the work of the Lord, as I have been a member of this church of Latter Day Saints from its beginning; to say that the book of Mormon is a revelation from God, I have no hesitancy; but with all confidence have signed my named to it as such; and I hope, that my patrons will indulge me in speaking freely on this subject, as I am about leaving the editorial department. Therefore I desire to testify to all that will come to the knowledge of this address; that I have most assuredly seen the plates from whence the book of Mormon is translated, and that I have handled these plates, and know of a surety that Joseph Smith, jr. has translated the book of Mormon by the gift and power of God, and in this thing the wisdom of the wise most assuredly has perished: therefore, know ye, O ye inhabitants of the earth, wherever this address may come, that I have in this thing freed my garments of your blood, whether you believe or disbelieve the statements of your unworthy friend and well-wisher.
What did the other witnesses say regarding “spiritual” versus “natural” viewing of the plates?
David Whitmer clarified the idea of “spiritual” versus “natural” viewing of the plates
David Whitmer helps clear up the “spiritual” vs. “natural” viewing of the plates. Responding to the questions of Anthony Metcalf (the same Metcalf who interviewed Harris) Whitmer wrote:
In regards to my testimony to the visitation of the angel, who declared to us three witnesses that the Book of Mormon is true, I have this to say: Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view, but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time. Martin Harris, you say, called it ‘being in vision.’ We read in the Scriptures, Cornelius saw, in a vision, an angel of God. Daniel saw an angel in a vision; also in other places it states they saw an angel in the spirit. A bright light enveloped us where we were, that filled at noon day, and there in a vision, or in the spirit, we saw and heard just as it is stated in my testimony in the Book of Mormon. I am now passed eighty-two years old, and I have a brother, J. J. Snyder, to do my writing for me, at my dictation. [Signed] David Whitmer. 
And to leave absolutely no doubt about the nature of the manifestation Whitmer explained, “I was not under any hallucination . . . . I saw with these eyes.” 
The young James Henry Moyle would write of a visit he had with Whitmer:
I inquired of those whom I met: What kind of man is David Whitmer? From all I received the same response, that he was a good citizen, an honest man, and that he was highly respected in the community….
I wanted to know from him…what he knew about the Book of Mormon, and what about the testimony he had published to the world concerning it. He told me in all the solemnity of his advanced years, that the testimony he had given to the world, and which was published in the Book of Mormon, was true, every word of it, and that he had never deviated or departed from any particular from that testimony, and that nothing int he world could separate him from the sacred message that was delivered to him. I still wondered if it was no possible that he could have been deceived. I wondered if there was not something in that psychological operation which some offer as the cause of these miraculous declarations and by which he could have been deceived…so I induced him to relate to me, under such cross-examination as I was able to interpose [Moyle had just graduated from law school], every detail of what took place. He described minutely the spot in the woods, the large log that separated him from the angel, and that he saw the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated, that he handled them [this may be in error, given that the contemporaneous record says otherwise], and that he did hear the voice of God declare that the plates were correctly translated. I asked him if there was any possibility for him to have been deceived, and that it was all a mistake, but he said, “No.”
He also wrote later:
He said that they (Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris) were out in the primitive woods in Western New York; that there was nothing between them and the Angel except a log that had fallen in the forest; that it was broad daylight with nothing to prevent either hearing or seeing all that took place…he did see and hear the Angel and heard the declaration that the plates had been correctly translated; that there was absolutely nothing to prevent his having a full, clear view of it all. I remember very distinctly asking him if there was anything unnatural or unusual about the surroundings or the atmosphere. He answered that question. I do not remember exactly the words he used, but he indicated that there was something of a haze or peculiarity about the atmosphere that surrounded them but nothing that would prevent his having a clear vision and knowledge of all that took place. He declared to me that the testimony which he published to the world was true and that he had never denied any part of it.
We note here that the experience is very literal and real–but there is also a difference in atmosphere or “haze” that renders it different from day-to-day life. This dovetails well with the Three Witnesses’ insistence that there was a spiritual component to their experience, though it was also literal and “real.”
How did newspaper accounts describe the nature of the witnesses experience?
Hostile newspaper accounts clearly stated that both Harris and Whitmer physically handled and examined the plates
Early hostile newspapers claimed that the witnesses’ descriptions did not match, but were clear that both Harris and Whitmer had at some point physically handled and examined the plates:
Whitmar’s [sic] description of the Book of Mormon, differs entirely from that given by Harris; both of whom it would seem have been of late permitted, not only to see and handle it, but to examine its contents. Whitmar relates that he was led by Smith into an open field, on his father’s farm near Waterloo, when they found the book lying on the ground; Smith took it up and requested him to examine it, which he did for the space of half an hour or more, when he returned it to Smith, who placed it in its former position, alledging that the book was in the custody of another, intimating that some Divine agent would have it in safe keeping. 
David, like Martin, had been charged with being deluded into thinking he had seen an angel and the plates. One observer remembers when David was so accused, and said:
How well and distinctly I remember the manner in which Elder Whitmer arose and drew himself up to his full height–a little over six feet–and said, in solemn and impressive tones: “No sir! I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes, and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!” (Joseph Smith III, et al., Interview, July 1884, Richmond Missouri, in Lyndon W. Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 134-35) 
On another occasion in which Whitmer was asked about the plates, the interviewer recorded:
He then explained that he saw the plates, and with his natural eyes, but he had to be prepared for it–that he and the other witnesses were overshadowed by the power of God and a halo of brightness indescribable. 
How did the apostle Paul describe spiritual experiences?
The apostle Paul understood the difficulty of describing spiritual experiences
Paul understood the difficulty of describing spiritual experiences when he wrote:
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) 2 Corinthians 12:2
Paul’s vision was real, yet he was unsure whether he had the experience in or out of his body. Harris may have felt a similar experience. He knew the plates were real, yet he also knew that when the angel showed him the plates he was only able to see them by the power of God. On a separate occasion Harris testified to the reality of his vision. The scene as recorded by Edward Stevenson was instrumental in getting Harris to re-enter the Church.
On one occasion several of his old acquaintances made an effort to get him tipsy by treating him to some wine. When they thought he was in a good mood for talk they put the question very carefully to him, “Well, now, Martin, we want you to be frank and candid with us in regard to this story of your seeing an angel and the golden plates of the Book of Mormon that are so much talked about. We have always taken you to be an honest good farmer and neighbor of ours but could not believe that you did see an angel. Now, Martin, do you really believe that you did see an angel, when you were awake?” “No,” said Martin, “I do not believe it.” The crowd were delighted, but soon a different feeling prevailed, as Martin true to his trust, said, “Gentlemen, what I have said is true, from the fact that my belief is swallowed up in knowledge; for I want to say to you that as the Lord lives I do know that I stood with the Prophet Joseph Smith in the presence of the angel, and it was the brightness of day.” 
Martin Harris: “The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard”
George Godfrey, and Martin Harris’s response to him, after Godfrey suggested that Harris had been deceived:
A few hours before his death and when he was so weak and enfeebled that he was unable to recognize me or anyone, and knew not to whom he was speaking, I asked him if he did not feel that there was an element at least, of fraudulence and deception in the things that were written and told of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and he replied as he had always done so many, many times in my hearing the same spirit he always manifested when enjoying health and vigor and said: ‘The Book of Mormon is no fake. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen and I have heard what I have heard. I have seen the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon is written. An angel appeared to me and others and testified to the truthfulness of the record, and had I been willing to have perjured myself and sworn falsely to the testimony I now bear I could have been a rich man, but I could not have testified other than I have done and am now doing for these things are true.
Edward Stevenson (1870): Martin Harris said “my belief is swallowed up in knowledge; for I want to say to you that as the Lord lives I do know that I stood with the Prophet Joseph Smith in the presence of the angel”
Elder Edward Stevenson reported in 1870:
On one occasion several of his old acquaintances made an effort to get him tipsy by treating him to some wine. When they thought he was in a good mood for talk they put the question very carefully to him, ‘Well, now, Martin, we want you to be frank and candid with us in regard to this story of your seeing an angel and the golden plates of the Book of Mormon that are so much talked about. We have always taken you to be an honest good farmer and neighbor of ours but could not believe that you did see an angel. Now, Martin, do you really believe that you did see an angel, when you were awake?’ ‘No,’ said Martin, ‘I do not believe it.’ The crowd were delighted, but soon a different feeling prevailed, as Martin true to his trust, said, ‘Gentlemen, what I have said is true, from the fact that my belief is swallowed up in knowledge; for I want to say to you that as the Lord lives I do know that I stood with the Prophet Joseph Smith in the presence of the angel, and it was the brightness of day.” 
George Mantle (1888): Martin Harris said “Do you know that is the sun shining on us? Because as sure as you know that...he translated that book by the power of God”
When in England to preach for an LDS splinter group, Martin Harris was ejected from a meeting of Latter-day Saints. He left, and began to loudly criticize the Church leadership. Critics of Mormonism arrived quickly.
George Mantle to Marietta Walker, 26 December 1888:
When we came out of the meeting Martin Harris was beset with a crowd in the street, expecting he would furnish them with material to war against Mormonism; but when asked if Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, he answered yes; and when asked if the Book of Mormon was true, this was his answer: “Do you know that is the sun shining on us? Because as sure as you know that, I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that he translated that book by the power of God.”
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