A Surprising Non-LDS Witness of the Plates: Lucy Harris

We commonly think of Lucy Harris as a hostile critic who opposed the Church and the Book of Mormon and may have been the cause for the disappearance of the 116 pages that were entrusted to her husband, Martin Harris. But as Daniel Peterson has pointed out, it’s more complicated than that. In fact, in spite of her opposition to Martin’s financial support for the Book of Mormon and her later anger at the Church, she was one of several female witnesses of the reality of the plates.

The stories of these female witnesses are told by Amy Easton-Flake and Rachel Cope in “A Multiplicity of Witnesses: Women and the Translation Process,” a chapter in Dennis Largey, Andrew Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull, eds. The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder
(Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Company), 2015, pp. 133-153. The women discussed include:

  • Mary Musselman Whitmer, who saw the plates and details of the engravings on leaf after leaf, as shown to her by an angel (Daniel Peterson reviewed details of her witness in an article for The Deseret News);
  • Lucy Mack Smith, who handled the Urim and Thummim, saw the outline of the plates through a cloth covering, and was close to many aspects of the Book of Mormon work;
  • Katherine Smith, Lucy Mack Smith’s daughter and mentioned briefly in the section on Lucy Mack Smith, who had the opportunity to lift the plates;
  • Emma Hale Smith, who traced the outline and shape of the plates through cloth, felt the metallic leaves of the plates and heard their metallic rustle, in addition to serving as an early scribe; and
  • Lucy Harris, wife of Martin Harris.

When Joseph sought support from his wealthy acquaintance, Martin Harris, he asked Lucy Mack Smith if she could speak with him. First, though, she chose to visit Lucy Harris. She reported that Lucy Harris was intrigued about the plates and offered to donate money to support the Book of Mormon project, and said that she would come visit the Smiths soon. When she came the following week, she wanted to see the plates and was disappointed when Joseph explained that he was not allowed to show them except to those who were called as witnesses by God. But that night, while staying with the Smiths, she had a dream in which a personage chastised her and showed her the plates in vision, and that morning she gave Joseph $28 from her own funds.

Fascinated by the witness she had received and grateful for the support, Joseph then allowed Lucy Harris and her daughter (one more female witness) to handle the wooden box containing the plates. Martin Harris later stated that they were surprised by the weight, and it was about as much as they could lift. “My wife said they were very heavy.”

Though Lucy would later become antagonistic, she was apparently appeased for a while when she saw the 116 pages. It is not clear who took them from their home. She appeared to continue to believe in the existence of the plates, for later she tried to find them in and near Joseph’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. Though antagonistic in the end, in a sense she remains a witness of the physical reality of the plates, or at a minimum, of the physical reality of something very heavy in a box. If we reduce her experience to merely that, it is not all that trivial. As Martin Harris said in one of the more amusing statements from Book of Mormon witnesses, “While at Mr. Smith’s I hefted the plates, and I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead.” That quote comes from “Mormonism—No. II,” Tiffany’s Monthly, 5/4 (Aug. 1859), Joel Tiffany, ed., pp. 163–170, available at Wikisource.org.

There is abundant evidence for the tangible reality of the gold plates from a variety of sources, some rather surprising. And there is an intriguing mix of the miraculous and the mundane. As for the miraculous, how do you describe an experience when an angel and ancient artifacts appear before you and you hear the voice of God? This depends on your assumptions and background. Many people might call it a vision, though it occurred while wide awake in full daylight. There was an angel, a divine voice — can such a vision possibly be entirely mundane? Can we blame Martin Harris or David Whitmer for speaking of the supernatural experience in some interviews as a vision or as something that they perceived through supernatural or spiritual means? Yet they insisted that this was not an illusion, not imaginary, but real, and that what they experienced was clear evidence of the physical reality and divinity of the Book of Mormon. It was evidence that changed their lives and would make them boldly stand for the truth of what they witnesses until their deaths, when at times life would have been much easier if they said, “Well, I was a little over-exercised, maybe a touch hypnotized, and I guess I just imagined something that wasn’t exactly real.”

If you want to dismiss the many witnesses, you can dismiss those who experienced angels as suffering from imagination and hallucination, lacking any tangible reality, and you can then dismiss those who saw, touched or hefted the very tangible plates in broad daylight under non-supernatural conditions as subject to deception by carefully crafted fraudulent objects of some unexplained kind. But I don’t think you can credibly explain away the combined effect of witnesses seeing the plates in both supernatural and mundane conditions, and the failure of any witness to deny what they witnessed. Collectively, their accounts and their lives compel us to recognize that real plates were involved and that there is no explanation for the existence of the plates (or the occasional angel) that is more logical than that offered by Joseph and these many diverse witnesses.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

22 thoughts on “A Surprising Non-LDS Witness of the Plates: Lucy Harris

  1. "But I don't think you can credibly explain away the combined effect of witnesses seeing the plates in both supernatural and mundane conditions, and the failure of any witness to deny what they witnessed."

    So you admit that you can not credibly explain away Juan Diego's Tilma and the numerous, numerous witnesses to both its supernatural provenance, with its impossibly intricate patterns indicting its unearthly design, and countless devotees swearing to supernatural experiences testifying to its divine origin and the Tilma hanging as a "mundane" artifact for the public to witness.

    The Tilma and the Book of Mormon followers must belong to the same religion then. I know my Archdiocese explicitly invites all baptized Christians [it does not exclude Mormons], regardless of the congregation they were baptized into, to participate in the Eucharist under Paul's one body of Christ. Does yours?

  2. It seems to me Jeff has been failing to keep up with the ongoing research into the neurological basis of memory. I don't think any cognitive scientists these days would be surprised at "witnesses" remembering all kinds of things about Joseph Smith. Memory is not some kind of flawless storing and accessing of stable data files. They are active reconstructions, heavily influenced by all kind of external factors and sometimes highly mutable.

    So when Jeff claims that "there is no explanation for the existence of the plates (or the occasional angel) that is more logical than that offered by Joseph and these many diverse witnesses," I think he is simply wrong. The most logical explanation lies not in the actual existence of the golden plates but in the plastic nature of memory itself.

    Also, of course, Anon 9:34 is right to remind us that history offers many example of supposed supernatural occurences that have been widely attested by others, among them, of course, the miraculous appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are far more Mexicans who believe in the visions of Juan Diego than Mormons who believe in those of Joseph Smith.

    I would invite Jeff to revisit his arguments in light of what we know about the plastic nature of memory and what history and comparative religion teach us about the will to believe.

    As an aside, I would note that both Mormons and Mexican Catholics can point to material relics of these divine encounters. Mexican Catholics have Juan Diego's cloak, supposedly bearing the imprint of the Virgin, and Mormons, of course, have Joseph's magic pebble.

    — OK

  3. The fact that history offers many examples of supposed supernatural occurrences that have been widely attested by others for things Jeff does not believe in has been pointed out endlessly to Jeff and he has never addressed it. Until he does, he just another hypocrite that demands his questions be answered without answering others.

  4. The World Religions Tree (see here) is a great resource. The Latter-Day Saint movement is on the right side, near the bottom of the arc.

    As detailed as this graphic is, it's nowhere near complete — notice, for example, that it shows Mormonism as a single branch, without breaking it down further into LDS, FLDS, Community of Christ, Strangite, Bickertonite, or any of the dozens of other LDS sects (for that breakdown, see here).

    Also, of course, the tree leaves out thousands of religions practiced by native peoples around the globe. Even so, it helps one get a sense of just how many religions there are out there.

    As I said before, how lucky for Jeff to have been born into the only one that's true!

    — OK

  5. The World Religion Tree was pretty cool to see. I did notice that the Mormonism branch was listed as Latter Day Saint movement which would cover all of the Mormon sects.

    And, indeed, Jeff is lucky to be born in the only true church. There has to be one true church. Kind of like being lucky to be born in the USA. The USA does accept immigrants and the Church does accept converts.


  6. "There has to be one true church." Why? There were something like 7 churches in the New Testament and they were all equally valid.

    Sounds your philosophy is based on a fallacy and word game. Sandy foundations ….

  7. USA offers a lot of opportunities that other countries don't. I've traveled a bit and I prefer the USA. Since you put into question about my choice of countries then just say "You've been born in a highly industrialized country that affords you the opportunity of work beyond sustenance agriculture" and it is easier to immigrate to this particular industrialized country (USA) than any other.

    LOL, word game and fallacy… I suppose we could split hairs about the different meanings of church then versus church now. I guess that could be a word game that you would be referring to.

    "One Lord, one faith, one baptism."


  8. Exactly, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism." So why do you insist on dividing the faith?

    Anyways, no answer to what you mean by "only true church". Now that you have admitted you just play silly games and full of it, moving on.

  9. Hi Steve. Which countries have you been to and how much time have you spent in them? Please answer honestly.

  10. Steve – Have you spent any time in an American inner-city? I have, and like you suggest, I migrated out of those third world countries wondering why everyone that can doesn't. Take parts of Detroit or may be Baltimore right now for example?

  11. LOL. Steve complains about the definition of "church" then and now and then immediately takes a quotes from then and misapplies it his definition he uses now. Yes such word games were clearly what the anon was referring to.

  12. Fluid, unreliable memory is something I am keenly familiar with, OK, having watched with interest the fading memory of, for example, presidential candidates when questioned about apparent felonies, and of numerous criminals and their allies who can't seem to remember a thing of what interested them most for so long. I've also seen people inflate some offenses or incidents over the years into grandiose scenarios. Decades of self-interest can convert many memories into fantasy. But trying to dismiss the persistent, insistent, and consistent reports of numerous witnesses as merely the result of evolving fluidity in memory overlooks the fact that the most important witnesses gave their written testimony within a very brief time after seeing and handling the plates. They were profoundly affected, and their lifelong testimony of their experience did not drift into entirely new dimensions or become cloudy or heavily embellished. They stayed true to what they had testified to almost immediately after the experience.

    Those who saw the translation process were also rather consistent and relatively free of contradictions or obvious drift when they repeatedly affirmed what they had seen, with no evidence of Joseph working from manuscripts or with Bibles, maps, and notes of any kind. They get into trouble when they try to describe things they didn't see like what Joseph saw or how the translation occurred. Some details drift, such as Lucy Mack Smith long after the Book of Mormon came out recalling Joseph's discussions with family as involving stories with details like what animals the ancient Nephites rode, which does not fit what anyone else said and does not fit with the Book of Mormon, either. But the gist of what she shared makes sense: she was amazed that this son who had shown little little interest in books and wasn't a highly educated man could bring about such an amazing work. But in general, the picture created by all the witnesses of the plates or the translation, as far as I know, is remarkably consistent and supports the claim that the plates existed and that the translation was a miraculous process unaided by a previously written manuscript. It was dictated orally and recorded by scribes, just s described. That's not explainable by fading or evolving memory.

  13. It appears that Jeff and OK are shadow boxing some strawman the rest of us can't see.

    The take away is that Jeff now finally agrees with the critics in how the whole thing happened, only disagreeing with the critic's assessment of Smith and the BoM.

  14. Jeff writes this:

    Those who saw the translation process were also rather consistent* and relatively free of contradictions or obvious drift when they repeatedly affirmed what they had seen, with no evidence of Joseph working from manuscripts or with Bibles, maps, and notes of any kind.

    If Joseph wanted to obscure the actual production process of the Book of Mormon, what could be easier than to stage a few occasions for him to be observed by witnesses slaving away with no Bible etc. in the room? And then later, either alone or in cahoots with Oliver Cowdery or who knows who else, to resume the real work, with the aid of who knows what kinds of sources?

    This kind of scenario seems much more plausible to me than the silly cover story of gold plates that God won't let people see, and that then got taken up to heaven, etc.

    To anyone not already committed to the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the evidence of its 19th-century origins is simply overwhelming.

    — OK

    * One of the interesting things about memory is that we tend to forget things that contradict the things we want to believe. This "consistency" you speak of might well itself be a product of the plastic nature of memory.

  15. The countries I have been to:

    Italy – Roughly 3 years
    Malta – 5 months
    Ireland – 3 months
    Shanghai – 1 month

    Long enough for me to gain an appreciation for what is offered there versus what is offered here.


  16. Never spent time in an inner city. Not sure what point you are trying to make.

    No words games here and quite frankly, I don't know what you are referring to. I didn't nor the Church invent the concept of the "one true church." This idea has been around for thousands of years. Just a couple of examples, the Samaritans were despised because of their copied religion. Certain sects of Muslims despise other Muslim sects. There is the idea of the Great Schism that happened to the church which brought about the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.


  17. Funny. I had to ask the question twice, and you still could not answer. "What does that mean? How can a church be true or false?"

    That is exactly how someone playing word games would behave. They would also insist they are not playing word games when they clearly are. One would think that if the "idea has been around for thousands years" you would have no problem stating clearly and simply what it is.

    In your response you appear to reference the political disputes that played out via theological disputes. Today the concept of separation of Church and State is well established. The State is not to appoint religious leaders and religions are suppose to stay out of politics or lose they tax exempt status. A thousand years ago the church was the defacto confederated government of Europe, with the power to remove kings. The capital of this government was obviously of utmost importance. Later, protestants such Huguenots were more guerrilla or freedom fighters than theologians. So the idea of "one true church" in the way you implied would be similar to what is happening in Venezuela today with different governments recognizing different human parties as the rightful government leaders of the geographic region.

    You still have not answer why there has to be only one true church. In fact, Ephesians 4 in its entirety counsels to seek unity in the body of Christ, not division the way you do.

  18. Steve –

    BTW, I have seen non-Muslims insist the Sunni / Shia division is religious, but I have never met a Muslim, Sunni or Shia, that agrees with this. They say the division is much more political than religious.


    As the wikipedia lede indicates, there were are varying interpretations and those interpretations did not start until about 3 centuries after Christ, when the religion became a part of human government, something Christ never wanted.


    Boyd K. Paker, like you, could not explain why the "doctrine" has to be. A red flag and characteristic of a sandy foundation.

    Even LDS today now say many questions do not matter, things like the nature of God (a body designed by evolution?, as man is God once was?) or even if the LDS officially teaches a global flood, individually one can be fully LDS and believe in a local flood. The "doctrine" of "one true church" is not even required to be LDS, though it is used to convince the weak minded. For that matter, I know LDS in good standing that believe Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were adulterers, but still prophets.

  19. To address the 1st comment by anonymous:

    "So you admit that you can not credibly explain away Juan Diego's Tilma and the numerous, numerous witnesses to both its supernatural provenance, with its impossibly intricate patterns indicting its unearthly design, and countless devotees swearing to supernatural experiences testifying to its divine origin and the Tilma hanging as a "mundane" artifact for the public to witness".

    Answer: I'm very open to the idea of divine miracles regardless of the religion of those who experience a divine miracle. I'm certainly open to the possibility that the image was created through supernatural means.
    What I don't agree with though is the conclusion you make:

    "The Tilma and the Book of Mormon followers must belong to the same religion then".

    I don't see that as a requirement. I believe God blesses those who believe in Him and choose to follow Him regardless of their religion (or lack thereof) and yes, sometimes such a blessing can consist of a miracle. Their religious beliefs at the time are merely a vehicle which can allow a person to be in a position to believe and appreciate the miracle and share that testimony with others for their benefit as well, if they choose to believe it. I'm also not saying that I'm gullible enough to believe unquestioningly in every supposed miracle out there, but am just saying that I'm open minded enough to consider its possible validity.

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