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Roger Nicholson
Wednesday, January 23 2013

Wikipedia Attacks Martin Harris' Faith

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

Read Wikipedia’s Deconstruction of Martin Harris here.

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. The Wikipedia authors have allowed equal weight to hearsay as they have to Martin Harris’ own words regarding his testimony, the golden plates, and whether or not he saw an angel.

Wikipedia’s Deconstruction of the Faith of Martin Harris

Wikipedia portrays quite a different version of Martin Harris than the one that we learn of in Sunday School. In Part 1, we saw that the emphasis in the article of particular aspects of Harris’s life is influenced by the editor who happens to chooses to edit the Wikipedia article. In Part 2, we continue to examine Wikipedia’s treatment of Martin Harris, his commitment to his faith, and how non-members perceived him.

Martin Harris Changing His Religion

The Wikipedia article “Martin Harris (Latter Day Saint)” [1] portrays Harris as being unstable by highlighting his changes in religion.

Even before he had become a Mormon, Harris had changed his religion at least five times. [2]  After Smith's death, Harris continued this earlier pattern, remaining in Kirtland and accepting James J. Strang as Mormonism's new prophet, a prophet with his own set of supernatural plates and witnesses to authenticate them.

The wiki article implies that Mormonism was simply one of many religions in a long string of changes, ignoring the fact that Harris’s commitment to Mormonism far outweighed anything that he had committed to either prior to or subsequently. Harris did not mortgage his farm during any of his previous religious affiliations. He did not claim to have seen an angel or testify of the truthfulness of what he had seen for the remainder of his life. Martin didn’t simply “change his religion” at least five times – he actively attempted to determine which was correct.

Ronald W. Walker notes that “Harris doubted that any church was properly authorized to act for God,” and that Harris concluded, “I might just as well plunge myself into the water as to have any one of the sects baptize me.” [3]

That search culminated in his association with Mormonism, where he played a pivotal role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. The Wikipedia editor, however, feels that “Harris's continual changes of religion speak to his character as much as do his honesty and diligence.”[4] In other words, the editor perceives Harris’s changes in religion indicate a weakness in Harris’s character. A seeker of true religion is recast as a man who is simply following a “pattern” of instability.

kirtland temple

It is well known that Martin Harris had a falling out with Joseph Smith, and he never accepted polygamy. He remained behind in Kirtland, Ohio as the Church moved west. During this time, he continued to try and recapture what he had lost when he left the Church. Late in his life, Martin “confessed that he had lost confidence in Joseph Smith, consequently, his mind became darkened, and he was left to himself; he tried the Shakers, but that would not do, then tried Gladden Bishop, but no satisfaction; [he] had concluded he would wait until the Saints returned to Jackson Co., and then he would repair there.”[5] With regard to Martin’s stability and commitment, he “was called to give freely of his considerable means, knowing full well that external consequences could further place his reputation, financial standing, and already-strained marriage in harm's way.” [6] This is certainly not the act of a man who cannot commit himself to a particular course of action that he believes to be correct.

The Wikipedia article further attempts to diminish Harris’s importance as one of the Three Witnesses by noting Harris’s association with James Strang. Strang attempted to reproduce the experience of Joseph Smith and establish himself as the leader of a new church by producing a set of plates. However, there was no “supernatural” aspect to these plates as the wiki article asserts – there was no witnessed angelic visit associated with them, although Strang claimed that an angel had given him the location of the plates. Martin was one of a number of people who felt that Strang might be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. Martin, however, was ultimately dissatisfied with the variety of attempts to re-create the church that Joseph Smith had founded, and eventually traveled to Utah to rejoin the Saints. Yet, throughout his period away from the Church, Martin never wavered in his testimony of the Book of Mormon, and continued to testify that he had seen an angel until the day he died.

Martin Harris and the “Spiritual Eye”

In Church we learn that Martin stood by his testimony that he saw the angel and the plates; Wikipedia’s version of Martin Harris portrays him as a man who was not quite sure about what he saw. The article takes great pains to cast doubt on whether or not Harris actually viewed the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. A typical tactic is to state a positive, followed by a collection of negatives, and ending with a positive in order to demonstrate contradiction.

In Harris’s case, the words of second- and third-hand accounts from hostile witnesses of what he allegedly said are used to offset what Harris himself actually said. Wikipedia begins by noting that Harris testified of the Book of Mormon, but then immediately attempts to cast doubt upon what Harris said. The wiki article states,

Although he was estranged from the LDS Church for most of his life, Harris continued to testify to the truth of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, at least during the early years, Harris "seems to have repeatedly admitted the internal, subjective nature of his visionary experience." [7]

The article then notes that Harris is said to have claimed to have viewed the plates with his “spiritual eye.


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