Editor’s Note: Roger Nicholson has also written, “The Gospel Online: Who Should Define Mormonism on Wikipedia?” for Meridian.

In an attempt to abide by the Wikipedia guidelines to be unbiased and represent all sides of a story, the representation of Martin Harris has gone awry. An unbalanced mixture of facts and details taken out of context, have painted a picture of a man almost unrecognizable to Mormons. A better understanding of the misused quotes and the history of the region, as well as a desire to see the bigger picture, brings Martin Harris back into focus.

martin harris farm

The Martin Harris We Know

Every Latter-day Saint who has attended Sunday School is familiar with the story of Martin Harris. We have learned that Martin was a relatively wealthy man for the area in which he lived, and that he mortgaged his farm to finance the publication of the Book of Mormon. The importance of this act cannot be underestimated.

The cost of printing 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon was $3,000-a huge sum (approximately $73,000 in today’s economy). It was simply impossible for the Smith family to raise even a small fraction of that amount. But Martin… proved his devotion once again by pledging his valuable farm to cover the tremendous expense.[1]

We also know of Martin’s honesty. Despite his support for the prophet, Martin still wanted assurance that Joseph Smith was truly able to translate the ancient record contained on the gold plates. Martin carried a transcription of some of the characters from the plates to Charles Anthon, and Dr. Anthon fulfilled Biblical prophecy by claiming that he could not read a sealed book.

We also know that Martin was far from perfect. He was, in fact, referred to several times in the revelation comprising Doctrine and Covenants Section 10 as a “wicked man,”

Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them. . . . And for this cause I said that he is a wicked man, for he has sought to take away the things wherewith you have been entrusted; and he has also sought to destroy your gift. (D&C 10:1, 7)

This is pretty strong language to direct at an individual who would become a special witness to the Book of Mormon. The Church’s Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual states that, “Martin Harris was wicked’ in persisting to ask for what God at first refused to grant. He was wicked’ in not keeping the sacred pledge to guard the manuscript. But otherwise he was not a wicked man, as that term is generally understood.” [2] Furthermore, Martin’s actions, “placed the Prophet in the uncomfortable position of having to revitalize his trust in a man the Lord had labeled wicked’ because of his compromise of sacred covenants in the loss of the 116-page manuscript.” [3]

We know also that Martin eventually left the Church during a period of apostasy in Kirtland, and that he remained behind in Kirtland as the Saints moved westward. Finally, we also know that Martin Harris never denied having viewed the plates and the angel. His testimony of the Book of Mormon remained intact throughout his life. Martin was quite vocal about his testimony, even when he had every reason to deny it due to his disagreements with Joseph Smith. Martin eventually rejoined the Church toward the end of his life and traveled out to Salt Lake City. This is the Martin Harris that we know.

Martin Harris According to Wikipedia

Today we have many easily accessible sources of information, many of which are as close as our desktop computer or smartphone. Type the words “Martin Harris” into Google. What appears at the top of the results list? A Wikipedia article called “Martin Harris (Latter Day Saints).” [4]

martin harris google

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. One does not have to have any specific qualifications in order to be allowed to create or edit a Wikipedia article. All that is required is the desire to spend the time to edit articles and the ability to collaborate with others who wish to edit the same article. In fact, Wikipedia is one of the only places where it is common for believers and critics to work together to craft articles about Mormon history. The Wikipedia article on Martin Harris is no exception.

Upon reading the Wikipedia article about Martin Harris, we encounter quite a contrast from those things that we learn in church. The first thing that we learn about Martin is that he “was a prosperous farmer,” and that his neighbors “considered him both an honest and superstitious man.” The article then goes on in detail to note that Harris’ “imagination was excitable,” that he “once imagined that a sputtering candle was the work of the devil,” and that he was considered “a visionary fanatic.” The article continues by stating that “his belief in earthly visitations of angels and ghosts gave him the local reputation of being crazy,” and that “he was a great man for seeing spooks.” [5] It is easy to see which aspects of Harris’s life the Wikipedia article attempts to emphasize. There are a few token mentions of honesty and prosperity, followed by extensive recitations of Harris’s superstitious qualities.

What is going on here? Why is Wikipedia describing a different individual than the one that we learn of in church? The story that emerges from Wikipedia is that of a superstitious man who was driven from religion to religion based upon which way the wind was blowing at the time. Which account is correct? The honest, generous Martin Harris, or the superstitious visionary fanatic who was known for “seeing spooks?” In reality, both accounts contain accurate information related to Martin Harris. Wikipedia articles are required to be “balanced.” The accuracy of the “balance” in this article simply depends upon the perspective of the person who succeeds in editing it. It is a matter of emphasis on which particular aspects of Harris’s life the editor chooses to concentrate on.

According to Wikipedia rules, it would not be appropriate to emphasize only the positive aspects of Harris’s personality. Wiki articles are supposed to be balanced from a “neutral point-of-view.” An examination of Harris’s Wikipedia article, however, shows obvious signs that it goes out of its way to emphasize aspects that would cast doubt upon Harris’s credibility as a witness to the Book of Mormon. This has very much to do with the fact that these particular elements related to Martin’s history were added by a wiki editor who is hostile to the Mormon faith.

One might be surprised to learn that much of this uncomplimentary material about Martin’s life was culled from a 1986 essay written by a believing LDS scholar, Ronald W. Walker.[6] For those who wish to discredit the Church using Wikipedia, it is always desirable to use the words of LDS scholars to do so.


  In this case, the Wikipedia editor justifies his use of this source,

The reason I chose to quote Walker is because he’s a BYU faculty member and highly regarded in the LDS community. If even he doesn’t attempt to deny the stories about Harris’s superstitiousness, then they need to be taken seriously. Of course, I included the phrase “hostile and perhaps unreliable accounts” as my tip of the hat to you.[7]

The use of the phrase “doesn’t attempt to deny” is of particular interest. Walker, as anyone attempting to interpret history ought to, documented the opinions expressed by Harris’s neighbors, some of whom did not view him highly after his involvement with Mormonism.

The use of LDS scholars to provide negative material for Wikipedia is typically accomplished by extracting phrases which appear negative from their context and by subordinating any which are positive. Thus, when we examine Walker’s essay directly, we find that the treatment of Harris is much more balanced. Walker’s essay spends a considerable amount of time talking of Harris’s industriousness, his honesty, and his standing within the Palmyra community. It was primarily after Harris associated himself with Mormonism that his neighbors and acquaintances began to view him as a man who was easily swayed.

Wikipedia uses Walker’s essay to support the claim that “Harris’s neighbors considered him both an honest and superstitious man.” Walker does indeed note that Harris was “visionary,” but only after describing his “talent and growing prosperity,” his election to a variety of “minor offices appropriate to his growing status,” his work to raise donations during the Greek Revolution, and his intense interest in religion along with his ability to “quote more scripture than any man in the neighborhood.”

Martin was judicious in his acquisition of land, and, after acquiring a total of 320 acres, and by 1825, “was in a position to transport produce and livestock raised on his lands to eastern markets” on the newly completed Erie Canal. Martin’s determination to use a portion of his farm to cover the printing debt for the Book of Mormon was a significant commitment, and it ultimately cost him his farm and his marriage. This was not the act of a man who vacillated without being able to make a commitment.

LDS Martin HARRIS

Martin Harris the “Visionary Fanatic”

The fact that an assertion is cited in Wikipedia does not mean that the assertion is accurate. For example, Wikipedia states that “Harris once imagined that a sputtering candle was the work of the devil.” However, a Wikipedia footnote for this sentence provides the following detail from Walker’s essay, “Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired him to stop.” [8]

This isn’t simply a matter of excluding some of Walker’s comments. Note the subtle evolution of what was “reportedly” said by Harris in the footnote into solid “fact” in body of the Wikipedia article. Note also that the reference to Harris reading his scriptures has been omitted – one has to read the footnote in order to see it. Rather than viewing the sputtering as a “sign that the devil desired him to stop,” Wikipedia makes it appear that Harris credited a random event as “the work of the devil.” Wikipedia also omits Walker’s conclusion, “But such talk came easy. [Harris's] exaggerated sense of the supernatural naturally produced caricature and tall and sometimes false tales.” [9]

Consider Wikipedia’s portrayal of Martin as a “visionary fanatic” with a reputation for being “crazy,”

The local Presbyterian minister called him “a visionary fanatic.” [10] A friend, who praised Harris as being “universally esteemed as an honest man,” also declared that Harris’s mind “was overbalanced by ‘marvellousness'” and that his belief in earthly visitations of angels and ghosts gave him the local reputation of being crazy. [11] Another friend said, “Martin was a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks.” [12]

Again, Wikipedia cites Walker’s essay as the source. Further examination of Walker’s essay, however, provides the missing insight. Martin Harris was called a “visionary fanatic” by the local Presbyterian minister because he irritated the local religious ministers due to his outspoken nature and promotion of his own ideas regarding religion. Walker notes that “whatever Harris believed and preached during the early 1820, it was sufficiently unusual to stir neighborhood gossip and nettle the established clergy. During this time, some Palmyrans described Harris as a skeptic who was not very religious’ – a charge that probably stemmed from his refusal to accept the teachings of the traditional churches.” [13] None of this detail, however, was selected for inclusion in the Wikipedia article.

Regarding the wiki article’s assertion that Martin had “the local reputation of being crazy,” let’s consider what Pomeroy Tucker actually said in 1858, some 28 years after the publication of the Book of Mormon. Tucker states,

His mind was overbalanced by “marvellousness,” and was very much exercised on the subject of religion; and his betrayal of vague superstitions, with a belief in special providences,’ and in the terrest[r]ial visits of angels, ghosts, &c., brought upon him the imputation of being “crazy.” He was possessed of a sort of Bible monomania, and could probably repeat from memory every line of the scriptures, quoting chapter and verse in each instance. [14]

According to the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, the word “imputation” means “the act of imputing or charging; attribution; generally in an ill sense; as the imputation of crimes of faults to the true authors of them.” [15] Tucker is stating that some of the locals were insinuating that Harris was “crazy.” This does not necessarily imply that he had a “local reputation of being crazy” as the wiki article asserts. Note also that the wiki editor extracts mentions of “marvellousness,” “angels” and “ghosts” from the cited source as the reason for Harris’s alleged “reputation,” while skipping over Tucker’s mention of Harris being “very much exercised on the subject of religion” and his ability to extensively quote the Bible from memory. This selective extraction of the religious elements from the primary source alters Tucker’s original meaning by removing mention of religious fervor as being a contributing factor of Harris’s alleged “craziness.”

Can Wikipedia Be Trusted?

Wikipedia articles attempt to be unbiased and well-balanced, but at least in the case of the Martin Harris entry, such determinations have taken the facts out of context, in such a way as to change a story due to biased representation.

Every figure involved in the Restoration of the Gospel has a rich and complex history behind them. They were human, they were not perfect, and they were subject to the influences present in their society at that time. Martin Harris was no exception. This does not diminish in any way the importance of his role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

 

Tomorrow: Part Two: Martin Harris Changes His Religion and His Spiritual Eye

______________________________ 


[1] Larry E.


Morris, “The Life of Martin Harris: Patterns of Humility and Repentance,” Ensign, July 2012.

[2] Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, Section 3 “The Works and the Designs…of God Cannot be Frustrated.” Found on the Church website “lds.org”

[3] “For the Sum of Three Thousand Dollars” Susan Easton Black, and Larry C. Porter, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Vol. 14, Issue 2, p. 6. (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2005)

[4] This essay addresses the contents of Wikipedia article “Martin Harris (Latter Day Saint) as it existed on October 14, 2012. Wikipedia articles are subject to constant revision, and the contents may have changed since this essay was written.

[5] Phrases contained in Wikipedia article “Martin Harris (Latter Day Saint) as of October 13, 2012.

[6] Walker, Ronald W. (Winter 1986), “Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (4): 29-43.

[7] Wikipedia editor “John Foxe” responding to editor “gldavies” on Martin Harris (Latter Day Saint) Wikipedia Talk page, 19 March 2007.

[8] Walker, pp. 34-35. Walker states, “Once while reading scripture, he reportedly mistook a candle’s sputtering as a sign that the devil desired to stop him (Stephen Harding in Gregg 1890, 42-43).”

[9] Walker, p. 35.

[10] The Wikipedia article cites “Walker 1986, pp. 34-35.”

[11] The Wikipedia article cites “Pomeroy Tucker reminiscence, 1858, in Vogel 1996-2003, 3: 71.” This is found in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2000) 3:71.

[12] The Wikipedia article cites “Lorenzo Saunders Interview, November 12, 1884, in Vogel 1996-2003, 2: 149.” This is found in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1998) 2:149. Saunders said, “Martin was a good citizen. Martin was a man that would do just as he agreed with you. But, he was a great man for seeing spooks & believed in all these things. I never knew or heard Martin talk infidelity. They claimed that he was an infidel; but I never heard him talk infidelity on matters of Religion or anything of that.”

[13] Walker, 34.

[14] “Pomeroy Tucker reminiscence, 1858, in Early Mormon Documents, ed. Dan Vogel, (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2000) 3:71.

[15] 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.