Martin Harris, the Great Benefactor

Museum Treasures

This simple leather wallet belonged to Martin Harris, who is arguably one of the more complicated figures in early Church history.

This simple leather wallet belonged to Martin Harris,1 who is arguably one of the more complicated figures in early Church history. While most Church members know him as the man who borrowed and lost the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript, he was also chosen as one of three witnesses to whom the angel Moroni showed the plates from which the record was translated. And while his association with the Church later became inconsistent, he never wavered in his witness of the Book of Mormon.

Martin Harris was a wealthy and respected resident of Palmyra, New York, and was one of Joseph Smith’s earliest supporters. He defended Joseph to critics and gave him $50 to help him move from Palmyra to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph would have more privacy to translate the Book of Mormon. Martin then hired someone to manage his family’s farm so he could serve as the Prophet’s full-time scribe.

When the translation was finished, Joseph found printing costs to be prohibitive. To pay the printer for the first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris mortgaged his home and farm for $3,000.2 It is difficult to confirm, but Harris family tradition states that Martin carried that sum of money to the printer in this wallet.

Three thousand dollars is a generous loan in any era. That amount in 1830 would be equal to $67,000 today. By some estimates, however, if you compare Martin’s wealth to the local economy at that time, his gift would be worth more than $1.6 million today.3

To help repay the mortgage on Martin’s farm, Joseph Smith gave him the right to sell copies of the book.4 The books did not sell as well as they had hoped, however, and Martin struggled to repay the loan. In a revelation given through Joseph Smith, the Lord told Martin:

I command thee that thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon, which contains the truth and the word of God. . . . Impart a portion of thy property, yea, even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family. Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage. (Doctrine and Covenants 19:26, 34–35)

Obeying this commandment, Martin sold 151 acres of his property to pay the debt. In addition to this great financial sacrifice, Martin sacrificed much for the gospel of Jesus Christ. While at one time he was “one of the most socially and politically prominent members of the community,”5 his support of Joseph Smith and the Church “cost him his political office, his social position and ultimately helped lead to the dissolution of his marriage.”6

Nevertheless, Martin remained faithful to the Church and to Joseph for many years, serving as a missionary and high councilor. In a period of intense conflict in Kirtland, however, he and other Church leaders “lost confidence in Joseph Smith” and separated from the Church.7 Although he was rebaptized in 1842, Martin did not rejoin the Church community until 1870, when he was 87 years old. At that time the Church was headquartered in Utah, and President Brigham Young gave Martin a “warm invitation” to come to Utah, “a ticket for his passage, and an official escort from one of the Presidents of Seventy.”8

Many people heard him testify of what he had seen and heard as one of the Three Witnesses. One person reported him saying, “It is not a mere belief, but is a matter of knowledge. I saw the plates and the inscriptions thereon. I saw the angel, and he showed them unto me.”9 He died in 1875, solid in his testimony of the Book of Mormon and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Although Martin Harris is often remembered for his failings, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said that Martin’s sacrifice to finance the printing of the Book of Mormon was “one of Martin Harris’ greatest contributions to the Church, for which he should be honored for all time.”10