In 1841, rumors began to circulate that Martin Harris, one of the three Book of Mormon witnesses, had been murdered. The Mormons (who else?) had supposedly shot him to death. But, in fact, Martin Harris was perfectly healthy. He would live on until age 92, dying on July 10, 1875, in Clarkston, Utah. As Mark Twain later quipped after reading his own obituary, the report of Martin’s death was “an exaggeration.” He was now, the “Painesville Telegraph” wryly observed, “a living witness of what shall be said of him after his death.”
While still under the misapprehension that he had been killed, the Christian Mirror, published at Portland, Maine, printed an article by Alvah Strong about Martin Harris. Editor of the Rochester Daily Democrat, Strong had worked previously in Palmyra, N.Y., and had known Harris personally.
Strong was no admirer of Joseph Smith and Mormonism: “At that time,” he reminisced about Palmyra in the spring of 1828, “Jo. Smith had a mere handful of followers, most of whom were as destitute of character and intelligence as the ‘Prophet’ himself.” (By the time Strong was writing, the supposedly unintelligent Joseph Smith had founded a rapidly growing church and established a new and rapidly expanding city, Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Nevertheless, his name had become toxic in many circles, and condemning him was virtually mandatory in refined society.)
Unlike the poor family of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, however, Martin Harris had been a respectable Palmyra citizen. And, unlike Joseph Smith Jr., he could be excused as an innocent dupe.
Prior to his affiliation with Joseph Smith and Mormonism, Harris was generally regarded as a good and honest man. A successful farmer in the area of Palmyra, he eventually owned and cultivated 320 acres of land. Alvah Strong remembered his farm as “one of the best in the town.”
He had served as an overseer of highways, a manager of the Ontario (County) Agriculture Society, and, in a period when aging veterans of the American Revolution still lived in many local communities, a member of the “revolutionaries’ relief committee.” The trust that his neighbors placed in him can be seen in the fact that he was also selected as a “Fence Viewer.” Tasked with monitoring property boundaries, such “Viewers” inspected new fences and dealt with the disputes that periodically arose when livestock escaped their enclosures and trespassed on the fields of others (perhaps trampling or consuming valuable crops).
If he ever read it, Martin Harris probably found Alvah Strong’s article quite interesting. At this distance in time, I certainly do, and, fortunately, BYU-Idaho’s Kyle Walker has published the article, with historical introduction, in the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation’s very useful semiannual journal, “Mormon Historical Studies.”
“We have ever regarded Mr. Harris as an honest man,” Strong wrote, referring also to Martin’s sturdy “native honesty.” “He had long sustained an irreproachable character for probity.” As Strong recalled him, Harris seemed to be sincere, and he had dedicated himself to the cause of Mormonism “even at the expense of his own pecuniary interests.”
There is a particularly rich historical portrayal in one of Alvah Strong’s sentences about Martin:
“By his neighbors and townsmen with whom he earnestly and almost incessantly labored, he was regarded rather as being deluded himself, than as wishing to delude others knowingly, but still he was subjected to many scoffs and rebukes, all of which he endured with meekness becoming a better cause.”
Strong couldn’t, of course, grant any truth or worthiness to Mormonism. But, along with most if not all of the other residents of Palmyra, he also couldn’t bring himself to pronounce Martin Harris a deceiver. Instead, Strong remembered Harris as a humble, hardworking and sincere man, deeply devoted, notwithstanding mockery and opposition, to what he genuinely believed to be true.
This is no insignificant fact: Martin Harris testified to the end of his life that, with David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, he had “seen the plates” and “the engravings which are upon the plates.” With Whitmer and Cowdery, he testified that the Book of Mormon had “been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us.” “We declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon.”
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, teaches Arabic studies, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.