- The three men chosen as witnesses of the Book of Mormon were Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. Their written “Testimony of Three Witnesses” has been included in all of the almost 100 million copies of the Book of Mormon the Church has published since 1830. These witnesses solemnly testify that they “have seen the plates which contain this record” and “the engravings which are upon the plates.” They witness that these writings “have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us.” They testify, “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; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true.”
In modern day society, the testimony of one witness can lead to harsh penalties and incarceration. So the weight of three men saying the same thing, never denying it, and attesting to their accounts until their death is significant. What makes this difficult to believe for some is the fact that heavenly messengers were involved and that some people reject the idea because of heaven's part.
- People who deny the possibility of supernatural beings may reject this remarkable testimony, but people who are open to believe in miraculous experiences should find it compelling. The solemn written testimony of three witnesses to what they saw and heard—two of them simultaneously and the third almost immediately thereafter—is entitled to great weight. Indeed, we know that upon the testimony of one witness great miracles have been claimed and accepted by many religious people, and in the secular world the testimony of one witness has been deemed sufficient for weighty penalties and judgments.
What is more spectacular and reaffirming of their testimonies is that each of these men left the church but never denied or changed their witness testimony.
- As is well known, because of disagreements or jealousies involving other leaders of the Church, each one of these three witnesses was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by about eight years after the publication of their testimony. All three went their separate ways, with no common interest to support a collusive effort. Yet to the end of their lives—periods ranging from 12 to 50 years after their excommunications—not one of these witnesses deviated from his published testimony or said anything that cast any shadow on its truthfulness.
Most members of the church remember Martin Harris as the person that lost the 116 pages of the manuscript of the Book of Mormon. President Oaks says this is significant but we should remember many of the other significant contributions of Martin Harris after this event.
- About nine months after Martin’s rebuke, the Prophet Joseph received a revelation declaring that there would be three witnesses to the plates and if Martin would humble himself he would be privileged to see them. A few months later, Martin Harris was selected as one of the Three Witnesses and had the experience and bore the testimony described earlier.
- He was present at the organization of the Church on April 6, 1830, and was baptized that same day. A year later he was called to journey to Missouri with Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Edward Partridge. In Missouri that year—1831—he was commanded to “be an example unto the church, in laying his moneys before the bishop of the church,” thus becoming the first man the Lord called by name to consecrate his property in Zion. Two months later he was named with Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, and others to be “stewards over the revelations and commandments,” a direction to publish and circulate what later became the Doctrine and Covenants.
- During 1837 there were intense financial and spiritual conflicts in Kirtland, Ohio. Martin Harris later said that he “lost confidence in Joseph Smith” and “his mind became darkened.” He was released from the high council in September 1837 and three months later was excommunicated.
- Martin’s wife, Lucy, who had been involved in the loss of the manuscript pages, died in Palmyra in 1836. Within a year thereafter, Martin and his family located in Kirtland, and Martin married Caroline Young, a niece of Brigham Young.
- When most of the Saints moved on—to Missouri, to Nauvoo, and to the West—Martin Harris remained in Kirtland. There he was rebaptized by a visiting missionary in 1842. In 1856 Caroline and their four children took the long journey to Utah, but Martin, then 73 years of age, remained on his property in Kirtland. In 1860 he told a census taker that he was a “Mormon preacher,” evidence of his continuing loyalty to the restored gospel. Later he would tell a visitor, “I never did leave the Church; the Church left me,” meaning of course that Brigham Young led the Church west and the aging Martin remained in Kirtland.
- During part of his remaining years in Kirtland, Martin Harris acted as a self-appointed guide-caretaker of the deserted Kirtland Temple, which he loved. Visitors reported his alienation from the leaders of the Church in Utah but also his fervent reaffirmation of his published testimony of the Book of Mormon.
- Finally, in 1870, Martin’s desire to be reunited with his family in Utah resulted in a warm invitation from Brigham Young, a ticket for his passage, and an official escort from one of the Presidents of Seventy.
- When he reiterated his testimony of the Book of Mormon in the closing days of his life, Martin Harris declared, “I tell you of these things that you may tell others that what I have said is true, and I dare not deny it; I heard the voice of God commanding me to testify to the same.”
From these highlights of his extraordinary life, we learn that Martin Harris was a disciple of the Jesus Christ and a significant influence of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. President Oaks details 3 things we have learned from Martin Harris that can help us in our lives.
- What do we learn from this example? (1) Witnesses are important, and the testimony of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon is impressive and reliable. (2) Happiness and spiritual progress lie in following the leaders of the Church. (3) There is hope for each of us, even if we have sinned and strayed from a favored position. The Lord’s invitation is warm and loving: “Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the saints.”
We have great history within the church. We have great men and women that have devoted their lives to the gospel and Martin Harris is one of the great examples of faithfulness to the end of his life. Despite difficulties that lead to a period of time away from the church, he demonstrated the atonement in his life and returned to the gospel, devoted to support and live the gospel throughout his life. We would be wise in remembering the significant contributions made by this great man.