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Roger Nicholson
Tuesday, January 22 2013

Wikipedia’s Deconstruction of Martin Harris

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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.


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