Did Martin Harris change his religion five times prior to the Restoration?
Palmyra sources do not yet prove that Martin was a Quaker, though his wife probably was, and there is no evidence yet that associates Martin with the Baptist or Presbyterian churches
This is an old charge from one of the earliest anti-Mormon works. Richard L. Anderson noted:
The arithmetic of Martin’s five religious changes before Mormonism is also faulty. The claim comes from the hostile Palmyra affidavits published by E. D. Howe; G. W. Stoddard closed his in sarcasm against Martin Harris: “He was first an orthodox Quaker, then a Universalist, next a Restorationer, then a Baptist, next a Presbyterian, and then a Mormon.” Palmyra sources do not yet prove that Martin was a Quaker, though his wife probably was. And no evidence yet associates Martin with the Baptist or Presbyterian churches. Note that the other two names are religious positions, not necessarily churches—philosophical Universalists dissent from traditional churches in believing that God will save all, and Restorationists obviously take literally the many Bible prophecies of God’s reestablished work in modern times. An early Episcopal minister in Palmyra interviewed Martin and reduced his five positions to two: “He had been, if I mistake not, at one period a member of the Methodist Church, and subsequently had identified himself with the Universalists.” Of course Martin could have been a Universalist and Restorationer simultaneously. This view fits what other Palmyra sources say about Martin Harris. In the slanted words of Pomeroy Tucker, who knew him personally, “He was a religious monomaniac, reading the Scriptures intently, and could probably repeat from memory nearly every text of the Bible from beginning to end, chapter and verse in each case.”
Martin Harris: “In the year 1818—52 years ago—I was inspired of the Lord and taught of the Spirit that I should not join any church, although I was anxiously sought for by many of the sectarians”
This impression of Martin as Bible student outside of organized religions is just what Martin says in his little-known autobiography of this period:
In the year 1818-52 years ago—I was inspired of the Lord and taught of the Spirit that I should not join any church, although I was anxiously sought for by many of the sectarians. I was taught two could not walk together unless agreed. What can you not be agreed [is] in the Trinity because I cannot find it in my Bible, Find it for me, and I am ready to receive it. . . . Others’ sects, the Episcopalians, also tried me—they say 3 persons in one God, without body, parts, or passions. I told them such a God I would not be afraid of: I could not please or offend him. . . . The Methodists took their creed from me. I told them to release it or I would sue them . . . The Spirit told me to join none of the churches, for none had authority from the Lord, for there will not be a true church on the earth until the words of Isaiah shall be fulfilled. . . . So I remained until the Church was organized by Joseph Smith the Prophet. Then I was baptized . . . being the first after Joseph and Oliver Cowdery. And then the Spirit bore testimony that this was all right, and I rejoiced in the established Church. Previous to my being baptized I became a witness of the plates of the Book of Mormon.
Richard L. Anderson:
The above is Martin Harris’s creed, held for the half-century before giving this statement on returning to the Church, plus the five additional years that he lived in Utah. For the dozen years prior to joining Mormonism he was a seeker, like scores of other LIDS converts, and through life never departed from his confidence that the Bible prophecies were fulfilled in the Restoration through Joseph Smith. This core belief was what everything else related to, the structure that stood before, during, and after any gingerbread decorations at Kirtland.
In any case, such a charge is simply ad hominem–to deny Harris’ testimony because of beliefs he had prior to the restoration.
Does Martin Harris' involvement with other faiths after the Restoration discredit him?
Harris’s decision to oppose Joseph Smith in Kirtland led him into a series of theological adaptations
Richard L. Anderson discussed Martin’s involvement with various LDS break-off groups following his excommunication:
Martin Harris displays a certain instability not at all characteristic of David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, but his lifetime religious positions have a consistency that is clear because of remarkable information from him. As discussed, the Book of Mormon remained the mainstay of a life that was repeatedly confused by the loss of family, wealth, friends, and religious security. His decision to oppose Joseph Smith in Kirtland led him into a series of theological adaptations; eight of them brought him back the full circle to rejoin the Latter-day Saints in the West. This figure has been seized upon for condemnation rather than insight. Furthermore, one early source claims that Martin went through five religious positions before becoming a Mormon, so the “case” against the witnesses adds eight and five to exclaim in shock that Martin made thirteen changes. But this ignores my specific explanations of the eight changes after his 1838 excommunication: except for Shakerism, “every affiliation of Martin Harris was with some Mormon group.” Beginning algebra teachers caution against adding eight oranges and five apples—the answer is not thirteen because the categories do not mix.
We shall see that the “five changes” prior to Martin’s New York conversion are overstated—but differing churches of that period do not mix with Martin’s Ohio variations on Mormonism, which he told visitors he had never left. His specific Ohio stages include the following: (1) the Parrish-Boynton party (which he condemned for denying the Book of Mormon at the time he met with them); (2) an 1842 rebaptism by a Nauvoo missionary; (3) an 1846 English mission with a Strangite companion (where documents suggest that the Book of Mormon was really Martin’s message); (4) participation in McLellin’s attempts to set up Midwest leaders for the Church in 1847-48; (5) concurrent with one or more stages, sympathy for Shakerism without full participation; (6) support of Gladden Bishop in his program of further revelations based on the Book of Mormon; (7) continuation of his original “dissenter” status of stressing the Book of Mormon and early revelations of Joseph Smith—even when occasionally meeting with William Smith and others, he maintained this position for fifteen years after his 1855 conversations with Thomas Colburn; (8) his 1870 return to the Church in Salt Lake. Note that the emphasis could be on the number “eight” or Martin’s support of the Book of Mormon through all stages, which blended as different ways of trying to further the Restoration.
The fact that Martin joined other sects does not affect Harris’s testimony of the Book of Mormon, which for years remained the mainstay of his life
Matthew Roper wrote:
There is no evidence for the Tanners’ claim that Martin Harris ever denied or doubted his testimony of the Book of Mormon. However, since he affiliated with several Mormon splinter groups between 1838 and 1870, the Tanners claim that he was “unstable and easily influenced by charismatic leaders.” But that statement does not hold true of Harris’s testimony of the Book of Mormon, which for years remained the mainstay of his life. As one historian correctly notes, with each of these splinter groups “[Harris] desired to preach to them more than to listen to them. While separated from the body of the Church, he responded in friendship to those who sought his support and fussed over him. But in each case Harris wanted to preach Book of Mormon, which usually led to a dividing of the ways.” Martin was excommunicated in December 1837 in Kirtland, Ohio, where he remained for the next thirty-two years. During this time, Harris associated himself with Warren Parrish and other Kirtland dissenters who organized a church. On March 30, 1839, George A. Smith wrote a letter from Kirtland describing some of the divisions in the Parrish party. “Last Sabbath a division arose among the Parrish party about the Book of Mormon; John F. Boynton, Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson and others said it was nonsense. Martin Harris then bore testimony of its truth and said all would be damned if they rejected it.” Such actions suggest a significant degree of independence for which Harris is generally not given credit.
After the Saints left Kirtland, Harris lost contact with the main body of the Church and was not in harmony with some Church doctrines during this time. However, a rebaptism in 1842 suggests that he still sympathized with Mormon teachings. Although in 1846 Martin briefly affiliated with the Strangites and was sent by them on a mission to England, available sources from this period indicate that he was never fully committed to the Strangite cause. His main motivation in going seems to have been to testify of the Book of Mormon. On one occasion Martin attempted to address a conference of Latter-day Saints in Birmingham, but was forbidden from doing so, and then was curtly asked to leave the meeting. Bitter and obviously embarrassed by the rebuff, Harris then reportedly went out into the street and began to rail against Church leaders. However, George Mantle, who witnessed the event, later recalled:
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.”
Harris sympathized for a time with other dissenters such as William McLellin and Gladden Bishop, but these men still accepted the Book of Mormon. As Anderson rightly notes, “Every affiliation of Martin Harris was with some Mormon group, except when he accepted some Shaker beliefs, a position not basically contrary to his testimony of the Book of Mormon because the foundation of that movement was acceptance of personal revelation from heavenly beings.”
The Tanners attempt to downplay the significance of the witnesses’ written testimony by noting similarities between it and several nineteenth-century Shaker writings in which some Shaker believers claimed to have seen angels and visions. “Joseph Smith only had three witnesses who claimed to see an angel. The Shakers, however, had a large number of witnesses who claimed they saw angels and the book. [In Shaker writings,] there are over a hundred pages of testimony from ‘Living Witnesses.’ “ But the quantity of witnesses has little meaning if those witnesses afterwards admit that they were wrong. Unlike the Book of Mormon, the Shaker Roll and Book afterwards fell into discredit and dishonor among the Shakers themselves and was abandoned by its leaders and most believers, while the Book of Mormon continued to be a vitally important part of Mormon scripture to which each of the witnesses, including Martin Harris, continued to testify, even while outside of the Church.
On page 14 of their recent newsletter, the Tanners assert that “Martin Harris’ involvement with the Shakers raises some serious doubts regarding his belief in the Book of Mormon. We feel that a believer in the Book of Mormon could not accept these revelations without repudiating the teachings of Joseph Smith.” But such a conclusion is absurd, since the witnesses obviously did at times reject some of Joseph Smith’s teachings, while still maintaining that the Book of Mormon was true and that their experience was real. However, the Tanners’ conclusion is unjustified for another reason: Martin Harris never accepted all Shaker beliefs. For instance, while devoted Shakers advocated celibacy, Martin remained married during this period and had several children. Further, Harris never joined nearby communities of Shakers as the fully committed would have done. Shakers believed in spiritual gifts and emphasized preparation for Christ’s Second Coming, things that Harris had believed even before he joined the Church. Even an early revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith suggested that the Shakers had some truths (D&C 49:1–28). Harris was likely enthusiastic about certain elements of Shakerism that paralleled his own beliefs in a restoration, but he rejected other Shaker beliefs and practices, which his actions during these years clearly show. Thus, Harris’s brief interest in the Shaker Roll and Book is quite understandable and consistent. “Since it claimed to come from angels to prepare the world for the Millennium, it would be broadly harmonious with Martin Harris’ commitment to the Book of Mormon, which in a far more historical and rational sense is committed to the same goal.” But although Harris’s interest in Shakerism was short-lived, evidence from the same period shows that he never wavered from his testimony of the Book of Mormon.
Does Martin Harris' involvement with the Shakers undercut his testimony?
We do not know whether the Kirtland Mormons heard Martin Harris say this, or whether they heard it secondhand: The statement does not fit Martin’s other numerous statements
Matthew Roper wrote:
As Anderson rightly notes, “Every affiliation of Martin Harris was with some Mormon group, except when he accepted some Shaker beliefs, a position not basically contrary to his testimony of the Book of Mormon because the foundation of that movement was acceptance of personal revelation from heavenly beings.”
Richard L. Anderson discussed Martin’s involvement with the Shakers and considered it a good example of how an apparent problem can strengthen the force of the Witnesses’ testimony:
Studying a problem with a Book of Mormon witness will generally lead to better understanding of the witness, the situation with an 1844 report: “Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was of the Book of Mormon.” This word to the Twelve from Phineas Young and others is vague, for we do not know whether these Kirtland Mormons heard Martin Harris say this, or whether they heard it secondhand. His leaning to Shakerism is probably accurate, but Harris’s precise wording is all-important if one claims that he testified of Shakerism instead of the Book of Mormon. This “either-or” reading of the document does not fit Martin’s lifetime summary of all his interviews: “no man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates.” For instance, at the same time as the above 1844 letter, Edward Bunker met Martin in the Kirtland Temple, visited his home, “and heard him bear his testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon.” And six months later Jeremiah Cooper traveled to Kirtland and visited with Martin Harris: “he bore testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon.”
Martin’s Shaker sympathies terminated some time before 1855, when Thomas Colburn reported his attitude: “he tried the Shakers, but that would not do.” In the meantime Martin was intrigued by their claims of revelation, though he surely never espoused all Shaker beliefs, for thoroughgoing Shakers renounced the married life that Martin had during these years. Fully committed Shakers also lived in communities like nearby North Union, whereas Martin remained in Kirtland during this period. Their appeal lay in a Pentecostal seeking of the Spirit and emphasis on preparation for Christ’s coming. When Phineas Young mentioned Martin’s Shaker belief, a new book of Shaker origin was circulating, “A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, from the Lord God of Heaven to the Inhabitants of Earth.” Since it claimed to come from angels to prepare the world for the Millennium, it would be broadly harmonious with Martin Harris’s commitment to the Book of Mormon, which in a far more historical and rational sense is committed to the same goal. Indeed, the Shaker movement later tended to slough off the “Divine Roll” as produced by an excess of enthusiasm.
Martin still gave priority to his Book of Mormon testimony
We do not know whether Martin ever accepted this book as true, but he showed one like it to a visitor. This act does not show belief in that book, since it may have been exhibited as a curiosity, but the following journal entry shows that even if Shaker literature was present in 1850, Martin still gave priority to his Book of Mormon testimony: “I went to see Martin Harris. He was one of the 3 Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and said he knew it was true, for he saw the plates and knew for himself. I heard his little girl—she was 7 years old. I read some in what they called the Holy Roll, but no God.” Anyone following this discussion can soon see that authentic statements from the Book of Mormon witnesses are voluminous and always repeat the reality of their experience. Yet the first anti-Mormon book was written in 1834 within a dozen miles of their residences and set the precedent of not contacting them but devoting most space to show them to be either superstitious or dishonest. This became a formula: ignore the testimony and attack the witness, the same pattern as the detailed current treatments. That method is sure to caricature its victims: lead off with the worst names anyone ever called them, take all charges as presented without investigating, solidify mistakes as lifelong characteristics, and ignore all positive accomplishments or favorable judgments on their lives. Such bad methods will inevitably produce bad men on paper. The only problem with this treatment is that it cheats the consumer—it appears to investigate personality without really doing so.
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