Martin Harris Accounts of Literal Plates Seen

CES Letter Core Question

Did Martin Harris actually see the plates? The Stephen Burnett account makes it sound like he only felt and imagined them.

While we have “testimonies” from the witnesses recorded in later years through interviews and second eyewitness accounts and affidavits, many of the “testimonies” given by some of the witnesses do not match the claims and wording of the preface statements in the Book of Mormon.
For example, the Testimony of Three Witnesses (which includes Martin Harris) states:
...that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon;

Martin Harris:

...he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them...

— LETTER FROM STEPHEN BURNETT TO “BR. JOHNSON,” APRIL 15, 1838, IN JOSEPH SMITH LETTER BOOK, P.2 (third time of four times the CES Letter Quotes Burnett)

I did not see them as I do that pencil-case, yet I saw them with the eye of faith; I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me, though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.

There is a difference between saying you “beheld and saw the plates and the engravings thereon” and saying you “hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them” (4th of four 4 times the CES Letter Quotes Burnett) or that the plates “were covered over with a cloth” (CES Letter quotes this third-hand account from John A. Clark for the 6th of 7 times) and that you “did not see them as [you] do that pencil-case, yet [you] saw them with the eye of faith” (CES Letter quotes this third-hand account from John A. Clark for the 7th of 7 times) or “with a spiritual eye.” (CES Letter quotes John H. Gilbert for the 5th of 5 times)


CES Letter, Page 100

The two full quotes are below with the excerpts from The CES Letter in red:

TESTIMONY OF THE THREE WITNESSES

Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And 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. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.

Stephen Burnett:

“I have reflected long and deliberately upon the history of this church & weighed the evidence for & against it, loth to give it up, but when I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David & also that the eight witnesses never saw them & hesitated to sign that instrument for that reason, but were persuaded to do it, the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations was (sic) sapped & the entire superstructure fell a heap of ruins,…I was followed by W. Parish[,] Luke Johnson & John Boynton[,] all of the[m] concurred with me. After we done speaking M Harris arose & said he was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he knew it was true, he said he had hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain. And said that he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of him but should have let it passed as it was…”

Multiple other accounts from Martin Harris show that he did view the plates.  The CES Letter is promoting a position that poorly documented and contradicted by multiple manuscript evidences. Compare statements in Green.

In a letter dated 29 November 1829 coauthored with Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris wrote: "It was a clear, open beautiful day, far from any inhabitants, in a remote field, at the time we saw the record, of which it has been spoken, brought and laid before us, by an angel, arrayed in glorious light, [who] ascend [descended I suppose] out of the midst of heaven. Now if this is human juggling—judge ye."[16]

An anti-Mormon account reported: “Martin Harris, another chief of Mormon imposters, arrived here last Saturday from the bible quarry in New-York. He immediately planted himself in the bar-room of the hotel, where he soon commenced reading and explaining the Mormon hoax, and all the dark passages from Genesis to Revelations. He told all about the gold plates, Angels, Spirits, and Jo Smith.—He had seen and handled them all, by the power of God!”[17]

In 1853, Martin related: "I was the right-hand man of Joseph Smith, and I know that he was a Prophet of God. I know the Book of Mormon is true." Then, smiting his fist on the table, he said--"And you know that I know that it is true. I know that the plates have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice declared it unto us; therefore I know of a surety that the work is true. For....did I not at one time hold the plates on my knee an hour-and-a-half, whilst in conversation with Joseph, when we went to bury them in the woods, that the enemy might not obtain them? Yes, I did. And as many of the plates as Joseph Smith translated I handled with my hands, plate after plate....I should think they were so long, or about eight inches, and about so thick, or about four inches, and each of the plates was thicker than the thickest tin.[18]

In 1869 Martin gave similar testimony: “Young man, do you see that sun shining through that window? Just so sure as that sun shines and gives us light by day, and the moon and stars give us light by night, just so sure I know the Book of Mormon is true. For I saw the angel, I heard the <his> voice, I saw and handled the plates upon which the Book of Mormon was written; and by the power and influence of the Holy Ghost, the translation was made by the Prophet Joseph Smith, whom I know by the power and gift of the Holy Ghost, was a true Prophet of God....”[20]

The following year he reported: “"I had the privilege of being with the Prophet Joseph Smith, and with these eyes of mine," pointing to his eyes, "I saw the angel of the Lord and I saw the plates and the Urim and Thummim and the sword of Laban, and with these ears," pointing to his ears, "I heard the voice of the angel, and with these hands, "Holding out his hands, "I handled the plates containing the record of the Book of Mormon,[25] and I assisted the Prophet in the translation thereof."[26]

An 1874 account reads: “My mother has prepared I don't know how many meals for him [Martin Harris], but always the conversation of the early rise of the Church would be the main subject discussed at the table....And he became miffed with the Prophet Joseph because he thought that he should have been one of the leading men in the Church. He had helped Brother Joseph Smith means to publish the Book of Mormon and to assist him in many other ways, and for that reason, I say, and what he had done for the Church, he became miffed; but it would nearly always wind up with the testimony that you find here recorded in the Book of Mormon. He stated that he stood in broad day light, when an angel from Heaven came down with the plates in his arms, and he stood side by side with the angel when the angel did turn over leaf after leaf of the book that had been translated into our language...until he became perfectly satisfied that he has seen enough, and further, that after the angel had shown him the plates and disappeared, he heard a voice from Heaven that thrilled every fiber of his body, stating the the book had been translated by the gift and power of God, and not of man, and he was commanded by the Lord to so make that statement to the world. And he did. Now it was my privilege to hear Martin Harris relate that, time and time again at our table....”[28]

Another account from 1875 declares: "After they [David Whitmer, Joseph, and Oliver] had been visited by the angel the Prophet then came over to me where I was praying, and I asked the prophet to pray with me...after praying sometime the angel appeared with the golden plates and I saw with these two eyes the angel stand with the gold plates in his hands, and I saw him turn leaf by leaf the plates of gold, and I also heard the voice of the Lord saying that these words were true and translated correctly."[29 ]


Additional Resources:

Were the experiences of the witnesses spiritual or literal?

The Testimonies of the Eight witnesses Examined

Did the Book of Mormon witnesses ever recant?
Witnesses reaffirmed published statements in the Book of Mormon

Witnesses knew they would be ridiculed and not believed

Witnesses persisted even in the face of persecution or death
Witnesses who left the Church continued to maintain their witness
Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Book of Mormon Witnesses,” byu.edu

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31.

Kenneth W. Godfrey, “David Whitmer and the Shaping of Latter-day Saint History,” in The Disciple As Witness: Essays on Latter-Day Saint History and Doctrine in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew H. Hedges, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000),223–256.

Kirk B. Henrichsen, “How Witnesses Described the “Gold Plates,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 16–21.

Jeff Lindsay, “Circumstantial Evidence and the Witnesses of the Book of Mormon: Can They Be Ignored Any Longer?“, jefflindsay.com

Matthew Roper, “Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Credibility of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (eds.), (Provo, Utah : Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University ; Salt Lake City, Utah : Distributed by Bookcraft, 1996 [1982]),Chapter 9, 213–232.

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981).

Richard L. Anderson, “Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), Chapter 3.

Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1983).

Matthew B. Brown, Plates of Gold: The Book of Mormon Comes Forth (American Fork UT: Covenant, 2007).

John W. Welch and Larry E. Morris, editors, Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness (Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2006).

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 1: Motives (PDF) by Michael Ash

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 2: Oliver Cowdery (PDF) by Michael Ash

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 3: Martin Harris (PDF) by Michael Ash

Book of Mormon Witnesses, Part 4: David Whitmer (PDF) by Michael Ash

The Book of Mormon Witnesses: Evidence for The Book of Mormon

pt 1 Book of Mormon Witnesses and the Restoration

pt 2 Book of Mormon Witnesses and the Restoration

Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced (PDF) (2006 FAIR Conference) by Daniel C. Peterson

pt 1, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 2, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 3, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 4, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

pt 5, Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced 2006 FAIR Conference address

Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses–  by Richard Lloyd Anderson

Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner–  by Matthew Roper

David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness–  by Daniel C. Peterson

Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard Lloyd Anderson

Articles of Faith 2: Royal Skousen on Book of Mormon Critical Text Project and Mary Whitmer Witness to the Gold Plates, Royal Skousen, 0:38:05

Faith and Reason 7: Book of Mormon Witnesses, Michael R. Ash, 0:15:32

Mormon FAIR-Cast 150: The Apostasy of the Witnesses, Martin Tanner, 0:19:20

Mormon FAIR-Cast 150: The Apostasy of the Witnesses

Explaining Away the Book of Mormon Witnesses (2004 FAIR Conference) by Richard L. Anderson