Section 19: Eternal and Endless Punishment — the Atonement
On March 26, 1830, E. B. Grandin announced that the Book of Mormon was ready for sale. The first edition consisted of 5,000 copies which were offered for sale at $1.75 per copy, but this price was soon adjusted to $1.25 because of lagging sales. The citizens of Palmyra, hoping to limit sales of the book, had placed a boycott on the book and refused to buy any copies. As a result, initial sales of the book were slow. This was of great concern to Martin Harris since he was worried about the security of his $3,000 investment.
The debt for the printing of the book came due on February 5, 1831. Unable to pay off the contractual agreement with proceeds from the sale of the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris arranged a private sale of 150 1/4 acres of his Palmyra farm on April 7, 1831 at twenty dollars per acre. Following a series of sales of Martin Harris’s land, E. B. Grandin finally received his $3,000 in January or February of 1832. By the time the debt was paid, Martin had sold a little over half of his entire farm.
It is interesting also to note that the building which housed the E. B. Grandin printing establishment was purchased by the Church in December of 1978. The agreement allowed the Church to take occupancy of the space in March 1979. Following two and one-half years of exacting reconstruction, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the “Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site” in services conducted at the Palmyra Ward meetinghouse on the commemorative date of March 26, 1998, 168 years after the publishing of the Book of Mormon.
In late March 1830, Joseph Knight brought Joseph up from Harmony. As they approached the Hyrum Smith farm in Manchester, where the Smith family was now living, they spotted Martin crossing the road with a pile of books in his arms. “The books will not sell, for nobody wants them,” Martin reported dejectedly. “I think they will sell well,” Joseph replied encouragingly. “I want a commandment,” Martin said, presumably wanting a revelation assuring him he was doing the right thing. Joseph was initially reluctant to seek another revelation for Martin since he had not fulfilled the commandments he had been given in prior revelations. Martin insisted three or four times, however, that he wanted a revelation. The next morning after a night at the Smiths, Martin repeated his demand. Later that day Joseph sought and received a revelation on Martin’s behalf—section 19 (Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 110-11).
Basically, section 19 is a reprimand of Martin Harris. It is also one of the great doctrinal revelations given in this dispensation. The Lord’s exposition of the doctrines of the atonement and eternal and endless punishment are here set forth. The section also deals with repentance and the nature of hell.
The churches of Joseph’s day generally taught that the punishments of God last forever and that sinners will suffer endless burning in fire and brimstone. In section 19, the Lord clarifies the doctrine of hell by explaining that the condemned do not suffer forever, though the scriptures sometimes give that impression for the sake of increased effect (see verse 7).
D&C 19 Eternal and Endless Punishment—Atonement
D&C 19:10-12 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment, endless punishment is God’s punishment.
D&C 19:15-19 I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not. For behold, I God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent. Which suffering caused myself . . . to bleed at every pore.
D&C 19:21-22 Milk and meat.
D&C 19:23 Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me.
D&C 19:28 Pray vocally as well as in thy heart, before the world as well as in secret.
1 I am Alpha and Omega, Christ the Lord; yea, even I am he, the beginning and the end, the Redeemer of the world.
verse 1 “I am Alpha and Omega” Alpha and Omega are respectively the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Christ is both the beginning (the creation) and the end (the judgment) of our mortal existence, and he is the point of everything in between.
“the Redeemer of the world” The word redeem comes from the Latin re(d)emo, which means literally “buy back.”
2 I, having accomplished and finished the will of him whose I am, even the Father, concerning me—having done this that I might subdue all things unto myself—
verse 2 “I, having accomplished and finished the will of him whose I am, even the Father” We must remember that the Father orchestrated the atoning experience of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross (3 Nephi 11:11; D&C 76:107).
“having done this that I might subdue all things unto myself” If there had been no atonement, Jesus would have been bound by the law of justice. He would have been unable to exercise his mercy in blessing mankind. The reason for this is simple. When the Lord exercises his mercy and grace, he provides blessings over and above what a man or woman might merit. This is possible because of his atoning sacrifice. Those who enforce the law of justice allow him carte blanche in mercifully providing whatever blessings he deems appropriate. He thus has “subdue[d] all things unto [him]self.” He has removed all obstacles to his encouraging and enabling all people to return and live with forever. He also is enabled to exercise all of the powers itemized in the following three verses.
3 Retaining all power, even to the destroying of Satan and his works at the end of the world, and the last great day of judgment, which I shall pass upon the inhabitants thereof, judging every man according to his works and the deeds which he hath done.
verse 3 “Retaining all power, even to the destroying of Satan and his works” Christ and the truth will ultimately prevail over Satan’s power and influence. But what is the nature of God’s (both Father’s and Son’s) ultimate control over Satan? Generally God, in dealing with his children, is loath to interfere in any way with their agency. He places his offspring in a setting where they may learn the law and then decide to obey or not to obey all on their own. Has he dealt with Satan and his minions in this manner, or has he at times had to place arbitrary restrictions on their agency? Satan and his supporters, who total a third of all the hosts of heaven, will not have the privilege of receiving a mortal body. Satan will be bound during the millennium. Ultimately their “falling and rejection” has been made sure—they will not inherit a kingdom of glory. Rather, they will be cast into outer darkness. Are these restrictions the natural consequence of their recalcitrance—simply the result of failure to grow spiritually in the premortal world? Or has God, by his purposeful and deliberate decision placed limitations upon them? It would seem that we have not been given to know the answer to this question. We do know, however, that God’s judgments are inevitably perfectly fair and just. According to the law of the harvest (D&C 6:33), Satan and his angels have harvested what they have sewn. We are taught that ultimately Satan will not be able to come where God is because he has insufficient power (D&C 29:27-29). In an analogous way, no individual will have the power to inherit a higher glory than that which they have earned through their obedience. While each man is given agency free of charge, agency is the right and ability to choose among available alternatives. The blessing of having many available alternatives is not agency. Rather, it is freedom. Freedom must be earned and is not given free of charge. At the final judgment a degree of glory will not be an available alternative to Satan and his friends. See Agency and Freedom in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 1, chapter 13.
“at the end of the world” The Hebrew word for world is ‘olam, meaning “age.” The end of the world is therefore the end of an age or an era. The “end of the world” is the end of the telestial mortal world and not the end of the earth. It marks the beginning of the Millennium which follows a period of destruction of the wicked, telestial elements of the earth. At that time there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17-25; D&C 101:23-24). The earth will receive its terrestrial or paradisiacal glory (see Articles of Faith 1:10).
“last great day of judgment” There is a “last day of judgment” for this telestial world. It will be at at Christ’s second coming when the wicked who are alive will be burned and when the righteous, both living and dead, will be raised up. The reference in this verse, however, is probably to the last day of judgment at the end of the millennial age, which is also the end of the earth’s terrestrial existence or age. This judgment is also known as the judgment from the great white throne (see Revelation 20:5-7, 11-15)—when all who have not previously been resurrected will be raised up and consigned finally either to some degree of glory or to outer darkness, and when the earth shall also receive its celestial glory.
4 And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless.
verse 4 The doctrine of eternal and endless punishment states that if a man sins (breaks the eternal law—the law of God), he has only two choices. He must either repent or suffer a punishment called “God’s punishment.” The unrepentant will go to a place called hell, which is the spirit world, to suffer the required punishment. Here they will suffer torment of mind and spirit (there will be “weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth”—verse 5) as they are disciplined and taught those things they failed to learn on earth. By this process they are cleansed and readied to be admitted into a degree of glory. When they are sufficiently prepared, figuratively, the prison doors will open, they will be resurrected, and there will be rejoicing among those who welcome them to a better state. Thus the words “endless” and “eternal” do not describe the duration of the punishment in hell. Rather “endless” and “eternal” are other words for God. Therefore the punishment men suffer in the spirit world—in hell—is “endless” and “eternal” in that it is God’s punishment. The Lord’s explanation that such terms as endless, eternal, and everlasting punishment are to be interpreted qualitatively rather than quantitatively is a marked departure from the widespread belief of many Christians that the wicked are doomed to suffer in a hell of infinite duration. Happily, such is not the case.
Repentance is a better alternative. Through the process of the atonement, the Savior acquired the ability to spare man some of the pain associated with overcoming one’s natural tendencies and obeying. It is always painful to overcome our natural self and obey, but much less so when we accept Christ and his atoning sacrifice.
5 Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand.
verse 5 “Those who are found on my left hand” are those who die unrepentant and are assigned a state called prison in the spirit world.
6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
verse 6 As we learned in the commentary for verse 4 above, the words “endless” and “eternal” are other names or titles for God. Thus, “eternal punishment” or “endless punishment” or “endless torment” are not terms which mean punishment that goes on forever. Rather, they mean God’s punishment which is defined in the commentary for verse 4. The punishment is limited in its duration—it does have an end.
7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.
verse 7 Elder Bruce R. McConkie has defined the expression “eternal damnation” as being the state of all those who are not exalted in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. They are damned eternally in that their progress is limited forever. Spirit children are denied them for all eternity (Mormon Doctrine, 234).
The phrase “eternal damnation” or eternal condemnation might, however, be interpreted by others as applying only to those who are condemned to outer darkness.
8 Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
verse 8 “I will explain unto you this mystery” For a discussion of the term mystery, see the commentary for D&C 6:7. In this verse, the Lord is likely referring to the information in section 19 that allows us to properly understand the phrases “endless punishment,” “eternal punishment,” and “endless torment.”
“for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles” “Meet” means suitable, fitting, proper. The Lord states that it is important for his apostles to know the mysteries taught in section 19. The only ones with apostolic office, or special witness status, at this point in time include Joseph, Oliver, and the other two Book of Mormon witnesses—David Whitmer and Martin Harris.
9 I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.
verse 9 It would seem that the Lord is not sealing anyone up to eternal life. Rather, he is simply expressing his hope that the special witnesses will one day be exalted. For further discussion on the concept of the rest of the Lord, see the commentary for 2 Nephi 21:10.
10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore–
11 Eternal punishment is God’s punishment.
12 Endless punishment is God’s punishment.
verses 10-12 See the commentary for verse 4.
verses 13-41 These verses contain instructions to Martin Harris. In spite of his many experiences with the Book of Mormon, he was still tormented by doubts. A degree of skepticism is probably healthy in that it may motivate one to investigate and learn. However, continued disbelief when there has been ample opportunity to receive the promptings of the Spirit is a sin.
13 Wherefore, I command you to repent, and keep the commandments which you have received by the hand of my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., in my name;
verse 13 “Wherefore, I command you to repent” The Lord is speaking to Martin Harris. Perhaps the Lord has in mind Martin’s persistent tendency to doubt and his need for repeated reassurance which borders on asking for a sign.
14 And it is by my almighty power that you have received them;
verses 15-18 These verses contain a graphic description of the sufferings Christ endured during the atonement process and which the unrepentant will suffer in hell. We are not to understand that we will be nailed to a cross, but we are assured there will be plenty of mental anguish. It is suggested that the reader review the discussion in “The Atonement Principle” in The Roles of Suffering in Our Lives, chapter 2, volume 3 of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine.
15 Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
verse 15 “repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth” The rod or stick with which the unrepentant are metaphorically smitten will be the judgment pronounced on them at the day of the final judgment.
“how sore you know not” The suffering in hell will be worse than anything the unrepentant would have suffered here on earth.
16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
verse 16 This is not to say that the repentant do not suffer, but their burden of suffering is more tolerable than for the unrepentant.
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
verse 17 “they must suffer even as I” The reader should be reminded that the unrepentant are simply the disobedient. No unrepentant individual will, of course, even begin to duplicate the experience of the Savior in Gethsemane, but they will suffer the pains of self-denial and repentance unmitigated by the Savior’s atonement—just as did the Savior. The Savior has already suffered all the pains of hell to a near infinite degree.
The negative approach of this verse is instructive and serves to remind us that while the Jesus, on the one hand, is a merciful Savior who has assumed the moral burden of every soul, on the other hand he is a just but demanding Judge whose wrath will be poured out without measure upon those who reject his sacrifice and refuse to repent.
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit— and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
verse 18 This verse and Mosiah 3:7 are the only verses in the four standard works that definitely declare that Christ did bleed from every pore. Luke 22:44 is somewhat ambiguous as it declares, “And his sweat was as it were great drops of blood.”
Elder James E. Talmage wrote:
Christ’s agony in the garden is unfathomable by the finite mind, both as to intensity and cause. . . . He struggled and groaned under a burden such as no other being who has lived on earth might even conceive as possible. It was not physical pain, nor mental anguish alone, that caused him to suffer such torture as to produce an extrusion of blood from every pore; but a spiritual agony of soul such as only God was capable of experiencing. No other man, however great his powers of physical or mental endurance, could have suffered so; for his human organism would have succumbed” (Jesus the Christ, 613).
“would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” Would here means “I wish” or “I desire.” The suffering or the anticipation of the suffering was so overwhelming that it caused even the Savior to request of the Father that he might not have to suffer it further: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).
19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
verse 19 The Savior’s “preparations unto the children of men” consist of his part in the implementation of the plan of salvation, which required his infinite suffering and atoning sacrifice.
20 Wherefore, I command you again to repent, lest I humble you with my almighty power; and that you confess your sins, lest you suffer these punishments of which I have spoken, of which in the smallest, yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit.
verse 20 “yea, even in the least degree you have tasted at the time I withdrew my Spirit” When Martin Harris lost the 116 pages of manuscript, he experienced the loss of the Spirit and alienation from God which was but a tiny foretaste of what he would experience were he to fail to completely repent.
21 And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me.
verse 21 “I command you that you preach naught but repentance” “Repentance” here is used to indicate the whole process of entering the gospel covenant—the baptismal covenant.
“show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me” The Lord cautions that the world around Joseph and Martin, steeped in traditions about hell as an endless furnace, was not yet ready to be taught such things as the temporary nature of “endless punishment.” Martin should start with the more basic principles such as “naught but repentance.”
22 For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish.
verse 22 We may divide gospel teachings, though somewhat arbitrarily, into two categories, the milk and the meat. The milk consists of those fundamentals of the gospel doctrines, the “nuts and bolts” or the “whats” of the doctrine. The meat, on the other hand, consists of the “whys”—the deeper and more complex teachings. The Lord warns that “spiritual indigestion” might result when a person is taught too much too soon (Matthew 7:6). To “perish,” you will recall, does not mean to cease to exist. Rather it means to perish spiritually—to be cut off from the presence of God and die a spiritual death.
23 Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me.
verse 23 To have “peace” in the Lord is to achieve a calm assurance that all will be well in the eternity that follows this earth life. Here we learn that to have that peace we must listen humbly to the teachings of the Savior and to “walk in the meekness of [his] Spirit—to obey his commandments (see also D&C 59:23.)
24 I am Jesus Christ; I came by the will of the Father, and I do his will.
25 And again, I command thee that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife; nor seek thy neighbor’s life.
verse 25 It is unclear whether this commandment was meant in its original context specifically for Martin in his own personal situation, or for the whole Church generally, or both.
26 And again, 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—
verse 26 Martin Harris is commanded to impart freely of his resources for the printing of the Book of Mormon.
A good scriptural example of coveting one’s own property is found in the story of Ananias and Sapphira who covenanted to sacrifice everything for the kingdom if necessary, but then, coveting their own property, withheld part of their consecration from the Lord and lied to Peter to hide that fact (see Acts 5:1-11).
27 Which is my word to the Gentile, that soon it may go to the Jew, of whom the Lamanites are a remnant, that they may believe the gospel, and look not for a Messiah to come who has already come.
verse 27 The Book of Mormon and the gospel, in this dispensation, will go first to the Gentiles—the citizens of the great Gentile nation, the United States of America. We are currently living through a period of time known as the “times of the Gentiles” (see D&C 45:28) which began at the time of the restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith. Then it will go to the Jews. The descendants of Lehi are referred to as “Jews” in that Lehi was a citizen of the land of Judah. Therefore politically he was a Jew even though he was a blood descendant of the tribe of Joseph through Manasseh.
“look not for a Messiah to come who has already come” This phrase refers to the Jews who do not, as yet, acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and they still await a Messiah who has not yet come to earth.
28 And again, I command thee that thou shalt pray vocally as well as in thy heart; yea, before the world as well as in secret, in public as well as in private.
verse 28 We are commanded to pray both privately and publicly. The spirit of prayer must be in our hearts unceasingly.
verses 29-32 In the four following verses, the Lord again places limits on what Martin Harris can say as he preaches the gospel (see also the commentary for D&C 5:24-26).
29 And thou shalt declare glad tidings, yea, publish it upon the mountains, and upon every high place, and among every people that thou shalt be permitted to see.
verse 29 The “glad tidings” are the good news that the gospel has been restored and that the kingdom of God is on the earth again. “Publish” here is used in the archaic sense of “make available” by means of any medium, not just in print.
30 And thou shalt do it with all humility, trusting in me, reviling not against revilers.
verse 30 “reviling not against revilers” The Lord commands Martin and all of us not to abuse or attack those anti-Mormons who attack the Church.
31 And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.
verse 31 “of tenets thou shalt not talk” A tenet is a point of doctrine or dogma. It would seem that the Lord is counseling not to become involved in arguments over points of doctrine—rather bear testimony and preach repentance.
32 Behold, this is a great and the last commandment which I shall give unto you concerning this matter; for this shall suffice for thy daily walk, even unto the end of thy life.
verse 32 “this is a great and the last commandment which I shall give unto you” Martin Harris had demanded a commandment, or revelation, and here he received it—the last revelation that will be addressed directly and exclusively to him in the Doctrine and Covenants. In General the Lord’s instruction to Martin, in section 19, is to restrict himself for the rest of his life to declaring the basic message of the restoration and to leave the fine points of the doctrine alone. As a special witness to the Book of Mormon, Martin’s duty to bear apostolic witness of the restoration was even greater than that of some others.
33 And misery thou shalt receive if thou wilt slight these counsels, yea, even the destruction of thyself and property.
verse 33 The Lord warns Martin that if he does not do as he is commanded, he will not only suffer spiritual destruction, but lose all of his property.
34 Impart a portion of thy property, yea, even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family.
35 Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage.
verses 34-35 The Lord further counsels Martin to mortgage a portion of his property in order to pay the three thousand dollar debt to the printer. This was actually a great sacrifice to ask of him, considering it was not Martin’s understanding at the beginning of the project that the publishing costs would come out of his pocket. Originally, payment of the printing costs was supposed to come from the proceeds of book sales, and Martin’s property merely guaranteed payment should the book not sell as expected. Eventually, the book did sell well, but not in time to save Martin’s farm. It should be noted that Martin later claimed he got all his money back and more (see Gunnell, “Martin Harris—Witness and Benefactor,” 40). It is a tribute to Martin that he did as the Lord commanded him and settled the entire debt out of his own pocket.
36 Leave thy house and home, except when thou shalt desire to see thy family; 37 And speak freely to all; yea, preach, exhort, declare the truth, even with a loud voice, with a sound of rejoicing, crying—Hosanna, hosanna, blessed be the name of the Lord God!
verses 36-37 Martin is called on a mission to preach the gospel.
verse 37 “Hosanna, hosanna” The word “Hosanna” is a transliteration of a Hebrew word that literally means “save now.” Its meaning might be extended to something like “grant us salvation.” It is often associated with the arrival of the Lord at his temple, whether Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to visit the temple there, or the arrival of the divine presence at a temple dedication in the modern Church. We might also shout “Hosannah” whenever the word, Spirit, or presence of God is manifested among us.
“blessed be the name of the Lord God” The name of the Lord God is Jesus Christ (see also 3 Nephi 11:17). This name is blessed because this is the name by which all things are done for our salvation and exaltation. It is the power of Jesus’s name that makes all prayers, ordinances, and performances valid, and anything that is to last beyond this telestial world must be done, asked, or sealed in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
38 Pray always, and I will pour out my Spirit upon you, and great shall be your blessing—yea, even more than if you should obtain treasures of earth and corruptibleness to the extent thereof.
verse 38 “Corruptibleness” is a colorful word indeed for what we might be more inclined to day to call corruptness—that quality that characterizes the individual whose heart is set on things of the world.
39 Behold, canst thou read this without rejoicing and lifting up thy heart for gladness?
verse 39 In section 19 the Lord has counseled Martin to repent (verse 15), make sacrifices for the kingdom (verses 34-35), pray (verses 28, 38), humble himself and be wise and meek (verse 41), and follow counsel (verse 33). These things, if followed, will bring him joy and rejoicing.
40 Or canst thou run about longer as a blind guide?
verse 40 If the Lord’s counsel in this section is not followed, on the other hand, Martin will be a “blind guide,” who is unable to find his own spiritual direction and unable to lead others correctly in spiritual things.
41 Or canst thou be humble and meek, and conduct thyself wisely before me? Yea, come unto me thy Savior. Amen.
Martin Harris was a farmer and rancher of great ability. For two decades prior to 1829, he had managed over 240 acres of productive land, together with associated interests. He had obvious ability in raising animals, particularly sheep, and he won prizes for his textile manufacturing. He produced linen, cotton and woolen ticking, blankets, and worsted and flannel fabrics. He was involved in a few different local civic activities and was mustered out for the War of 1812 when the British threatened to attack his region.
By 1829 it was well known in Palmyra that Martin Harris believed in Joseph Smith and the gold plates. Martin was twenty-three years older that the Prophet. He was therefore 46 years old when he became a witness of the Book of Mormon while the other two witnesses were half his age. He had already achieved considerable prestige in his community before accepting Mormonism. He was generally considered an industrious, hard-working farmer who was shrewd in his business calculations and frugal in his habits. He was not particularly noted for personal brilliance or leadership qualities.
He was skeptical by nature but when convinced, he was unshakable in his convictions. He was not surpassed in doubt by Thomas nor in absolute assurance by any apostle. His examination of Mormonism proceeded with methodical care. This is evidenced by his first talking to several members of the Smith family about the Book of Mormon plates to see if their stories coincided and his taking a copy of the characters from the plates to Charles Anthon of Columbia College. Joseph Smith’s claims were taken seriously by this mature man conditioned by life to use his analytical powers in all circumstances, but he had difficulty suppressing his doubts.
His doubts were even evident on that day in late June of 1829 in Fayette where he saw the angel and the plates. Earlier in the day, upon failure of repeated prayers of Joseph Smith and the witnesses, Martin acknowledged that his attitude was probably the cause of their failure to obtain the promised revelation, and he withdrew. His revelation came somewhat afterward in company with Joseph Smith who remembered Martin’s cry of conviction: “‘Tis enough; mine eyes have beheld!” (Joseph Smith, “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, 3 , 898). The ecstasy of that experience was indelibly stamped upon the mind of the former doubter. Lucy Mack Smith especially remembered the return of Martin Harris to the Whitmer home immediately after the vision: “He seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard” (Biographical Sketches, 139). The force of his conviction never diminished in nearly a half-century’s ideological transitions and personal trials.
His conversion to the claims of Joseph Smith caused former friends to ridicule him and produced intense domestic conflict that resulted in a separation from his wife. A survivor of this period later wrote that no early resident of Palmyra “received so many rebuffs” and endured “so many unfeeling comments” as did Martin Harris (Palmyra Courier, May 24, 1872). His association with Mormonism was generally deplored by his fellow townsmen. Many felt that it was truly phenomenal that such a dignified man as Martin Harris was involved in it. Yet none of his townsmen exceeded his established reputation as a responsible and honest individual. He lacked the polish of intellectual training, but he was admired for the solidity of his character by many educated men.
Pomeroy Tucker, who later gained considerable stature in western New York as a politician and editor for forty years, summarized the enigma that was Martin Harris: “How to reconcile the act of Harris in signing his name to such a statement [his testimony of the Book of Mormon], in view of the character of honesty which had always been conceded to him, could never be easily explained” (Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, [New York, 1867], 71).
Martin’s father, Nathan Harris, was admired as a rugged hunter and fisherman who loved the sociability of the frontier gatherings. The elder Harris was universally honored by his neighbors for his kindness of heart and willingness to assist those in need.
Martin’s exodus from Palmyra in 1831 occasioned a touching tribute written by E. B. Grandin, editor of the Wayne Sentinel during the years 1827-32. Interestingly Grandin perhaps knew Martin more intimately than any other non-Mormon. Grandin wrote: “Mr. Harris was among the early settlers of this town, and has ever borne the character of an honorable and upright man, and an obliging and benevolent neighbor. He had secured to himself by honest industry a respectable fortune—and he has left a large circle of acquaintances and friends to pity his delusion” (Wayne Sentinel, May 27, 1831).
Although Martin Harris was honored by appointment to the first high council of the Church, his main contribution was in the missionary service of formal journeys and private conversations. He and his brother Emer baptized a hundred converts in a few weeks (The Evening and the Morning Star, 1 [February, 1833]: 70), and Martin was imprisoned for his forthrightness in proclaiming the restored gospel. But when the trials of Job descended upon the Latter-day Saints community of Kirtland, and Martin was affected. The first steps toward plural marriage rankled him, and unlike Job he felt that the loss of property in the failure of the church bank was inconsistent with divine favor. Consequently, as he explained in 1855, he “lost confidence in Joseph Smith” and “his mind became darkened” (Letter of Thomas Colburn to Erastus Snow, May 2, 1855, Saint Louis cit. St. Louis Luminary, May 5, 1855).
He and other prominent dissenters in the Church were formally excommunicated in December 1837. These men, who shared Martin Harris’s skepticism on church policy, admired the sweep of Mormon doctrine and were talking of forming a reorganized church that would retain the great doctrinal concepts but jettison what to them was irrational. In a private meeting in early 1838, several former leaders insisted that the Book of Mormon was “nonsense.” “Martin Harris then bore testimony of its truth and said all would be damned that rejected it” (Letter of George A. Smith to Josiah Fleming, March 30, 1838, Kirtland, Ohio).
Although the Mormons moved from Kirtland, following his excommunication, Martin remained at Kirtland for the next thirty years in the condition of a fossil embedded in an earlier layer of sediment. His constant and vocal testimony to scores of visitors is all the more remarkable in the light of the psychology of the man in this period. No other Book of Mormon witness remained in Kirtland, and he had practically lost touch with them after 1840. Not only had the Latter-day Saints deserted him (according to his point of view) by moving away, but his second wife, Carolyn Young, immigrated to Utah in 1856 with their children. As the years passed in Kirtland, Martin was increasingly a solitary figure in non-Mormon society, which only ridiculed him for his persistence in declaring that he had seen the angel and the plates. He also felt strong resentment against church leaders, in large part stemming from the blow to his ego in never being given a major office in the Church. If such thinking is obviously immature, it was nevertheless real to the man who had sacrificed domestic peace, fortune, and reputation to bring about the printing of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church. Though such feelings were clearly held, in the face of them Martin insisted that the Mormon cause was founded on objective truth as he had experienced it in his vision of 1829.
In this Kirtland period of his life he changed his religious position eight times, including a rebaptism into the Church by a Nauvoo missionary in 1842. Every affiliation of Martin Harris was with some Mormon group, except when he accepted some Shaker beliefs, a position not basically contrary to his Book of Mormon testimony because the foundation of that movement was acceptance of personal revelation from heavenly beings. The only constancy of this period is his witness of the Nephite record and his unshakable testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.
Throughout the Ohio residence, Martin Harris was a forceful missionary for the Book of Mormon. Some two years after Joseph Smith’s death the unstable Kirtland branch was largely converted to the pretensions of James J. Strang. Apparently at first a disciple of Strang’s, Martin embarked for England with the Strangite leader Lester Brooks. But private correspondence from Brooks shows that Martin was not committed to the Strangite cause, and he was hastened back to the States. George Mantle later recalled attending a Strangite conference in which Martin Harris unsuccessfully demanded the right to speak and was publicly repudiated by the presiding officer, Cyrus H. Wheelock. Mantle recorded in a letter: “When we came out of the meeting Martin Harris was beset with a crowd in the street, expecting that he would furnish them with material to war against Mormonism; but when he was asked if Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, he answered yes; and when asked if the Book of Mormon was true, this was his answer: ‘Do you know that is the sun shining on us? Because as sure as you know that, I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, and that he translated that book by the power of God’” (Letter of George Mantle to Marietta Walker, December 26, 1888, Saint Catherine, Mo., cit. Autumn Leaves 2 : 141).
In 1870, at age 87, he moved to Utah and lived with his eldest son by his second wife Carolyn, Martin Harris, Jr. in Smithfield, Utah, and then Clarkston, Cache County. Listened to by thousands in two Tabernacle speeches in Salt Lake City, and in talks in wards and in many private conversations, the aged Harris never tired of repeating his story. President Brigham Young also spent some time with him discussing his experiences with the Book of Mormon.
He died July 10, 1875 at the age of 92. Perhaps Martin Harris’s words in a private letter best summarize his mission as a modern witness: “No man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon, the administration of the angel that showed me the plates, nor the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints under the administration of Joseph Smith, Jun., the prophet whom the Lord raised up for that purpose in these the latter days, that he may show forth his power and glory” (Letter of Martin Harris, Sr., to Hanna B. Emerson, Jan., 1871, Smithfield, Utah Territory, cit. Saints’ Herald 28 : 43).
Brief Historical Setting
Now that the Book of Mormon, which had a fundamental and vital role in the restored gospel, was published, the time was right for organization of the Church. Some time between April first and early June 1830, Joseph received a revelation which has functioned as the constitution of our Church [D&C 20 -Constitution of the Church].
- Michael J. Preece