Martin Harris (May 18, 1783–July 10, 1875) underwrote the first printing of The Book of Mormon and also served as one of Three Witnesses who testified that they had seen the Golden Plates from which Joseph Smith said the Book of Mormon had been translated.
Until 1831, Harris lived in Palmyra, New York, where he was prosperous farmer. Harris's neighbors considered him both an honest and superstitious man. A biographer wrote that Harris's "imagination was excitable and fecund." For example, Harris once imagined that a sputtering candle was the work of the devil. An acquaintance said that Harris claimed to have seen Jesus in the shape of a deer and walked and talked with him for two or three miles. The local Presbyterian minister called him "a visionary fanatic." A friend, who praised Harris as "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. 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.
Because Harris desired assurance of the work's authenticity, Smith transcribed characters from the plates to a piece of paper, perhaps the one now known as the Anthon transcript. Harris took this document to New York City, where he met with Charles Anthon, a professor of linguistics at Columbia College. Although Harris and Anthon later told conflicting versions about their encounter, the episode apparently satisfied Harris's doubts about the authenticity of the Golden Plates. Nevertheless, Harris's wife continued to oppose his collaboration with Smith. After translating the first 116 pages of the manuscript, Harris asked Smith for permission to take the manuscript back to his wife in order to convince her of its authenticity. Smith reluctantly agreed. After Harris had shown the pages to Lucy and some others, the manuscript disappeared. The loss temporarily halted the translation of the plates, and when Smith began again, he used other scribes, primarily Oliver Cowdery. Nevertheless, Harris continued to support Smith financially, and as the translation neared completion, Smith revealed that three men would be called as "special witnesses" to the existence of the Golden Plates. Harris, along with Cowdery and David Whitmer, was one of these Three Witnesses, although Joseph Smith clearly indicated that Harris's experience occurred separately from that of Whitmer and Cowdery. Harris's attestation above what was implied to have been a joint testimony was printed with the book, and it has been included in nearly every subsequent edition.
In part due to their continued disagreement over the legitimacy of Joseph Smith and the golden plates, and because of the loss of his farm, which he had mortgaged to publish the Book of Mormon, Harris and his wife separated. Lucy Harris was described by Lucy Mack Smith as a woman of "irascible temper," but Harris may also have abused her. Lucy Harris also suggested that her husband may have committed adultery with a neighboring "Mrs. Haggart.)
On February 17, 1834, Harris was ordained a member of Kirtland High Council, which was then the chief judicial and legislative council of the church. In response to the conflicts between Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri, Harris joined what is now known as Zion's Camp and marched fruitlessly from Kirtland to Clay County, Missouri. Afterwards, Harris — along with Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer — ordained a "traveling High Council" of twelve men that eventually became the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. (Some early church leaders claimed that Harris, like Joseph Smith, Jr. and Oliver Cowdery, was ordained to the priesthood office of apostle; however, there is no record of this ordination, and Harris—as with Cowdery—was never a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.)
Lucy Harris died in the summer of 1836, and on November 1, 1836, Harris married Caroline Young, the 22-year-old daughter of Brigham Young's brother, John. Although he was thirty-one years older than his new wife, Harris and Caroline had seven children together.
In 1837, dissension arose in Kirtland over the failure of the church's Kirtland Safety Society bank. Harris called it a "fraud" and was among the dissenters who broke with Smith and attempted to reorganize the church. Led by Warren Parrish, the reformers excommunicated Smith and Sidney Rigdon, who relocated to Far West, Missouri. Parrish's church in Kirtland took control of the temple and became known as The Church of Christ. In its 1838 articles of incorporation, Harris was named one of the church's three trustees. By 1839, Parrish and other church leaders had rejected the Book of Mormon and consequently broke with Harris, who continued to testify to its truth. By 1840, Harris returned to communion with Smith's church, which had subsequently relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois.
In March 1838, disillusioned church members said that Harris had publicly denied that neither he nor the other Witnesses to the Book of Mormon had ever seen or handled the golden plates—although he had not been present when Whitmer and Cowdery first claimed to have viewed them—and they claimed that Harris's recantation, made during a period of crisis in early Mormonism, induced five influential members, including three Apostles, to leave the Church. Even at the end of his long life, Harris said that he had seen the plates in "a state of entrancement. Nevertheless, in 1853, Harris told one David Dille that he had held the forty- to sixty-pound plates on his knee for "an hour-and-a-half" and handled the plates with his hands, "plate after plate. Even later, Harris affirmed that he had seen the plates and the angel with his natural eyes: "Gentlemen," holding out his hand, "do you see that hand? Are you sure you see it? Or are your eyes playing you a trick or something? No. Well, as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the Angel and the plates." The following year Harris affirmed that "No man heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon [or] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates.