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.