“Was Martin Harris ever excommunicated from the Church?” Ensign, June 1979, 34–35
Thomas G. Truitt, reference specialist, Church Historical Department Library It’s interesting that there’s been confusion on this matter, because the records are very clear: Martin Harris was indeed excommunicated from the Church, and he engaged for some time in apostate activities. However, he eventually returned to activity and full fellowship in the Church.
Martin Harris initially became a member of the Church in April 1830, shortly after the Church was formally organized. That baptism was just another indication of the righteous desires of Martin’s heart; he had earlier given much of his time and his means to the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. And Martin Harris filled the role of the man with the book that Isaiah saw in vision some twenty-six hundred years earlier (see Isa. 29:11–12).
After his baptism, Martin Harris continued to be directly involved in the leading affairs of the Church. In November 1831 he was named by the Lord, along with Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and other leaders, to be a steward “over the revelations and commandments which I have given” (D&C 70:3). In February 1835, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, as the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, were given the responsibility of selecting and ordaining the Twelve Apostles.
It is apparent that the Lord desired to bless and honor Martin and his fellow witnesses. But Martin was not without his weaknesses. As early as 1828 the Lord referred to Martin as “a wicked man,” for, said the Lord, “he has sought to take away the things wherewith you have been entrusted; and he has also sought to destroy your gift”—this referring, of course, to the incident where Martin—lost part of the Book of Mormon manuscript (D&C 10:7).
Martin’s weaknesses led to apostasy in 1837. The setting was Kirtland, Ohio, and Martin Harris, with several other leading members of the Church, became rebellious against Joseph Smith and some of the apostles. John Smith, assistant counselor to Joseph Smith, recorded the result of that rebellion in a letter he wrote to his son, George A. Smith, on 1 January 1838. “The spiritual condition at this time is gloomy,” he wrote. “I called the High Council together last week and laid before them the case of dissenters. 28 persons were, upon mature discussion, cut off from the Church; the leaders were Cyrus Smalling, Joseph Coe, Martin Harris, Luke S. Johnson, John F. Boynton, and W. W. Parrish.” (Journal History, 1 Jan. 1838, p. 2)
Nearly a year later Joseph Smith wrote sadly from Liberty Jail, “Such characters as McLellin, John Whitmer, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris are too mean to mention; and we had liked to have forgotten them” (History of the Church, 3:232). This entire group had been excommunicated, the first four in the spring of 1838, and Martin Harris in December 1837.
Some years later Martin Harris repented, and on 7 November 1842, five years after his excommunication, he was rebaptized in Kirtland (see Times and Seasons, 2 Jan. 1843, pp. 62–63). But his repentance was incomplete, and he was shortly led away from the Church again. Within two years he had become an avowed member of the Shakers. Subsequent to that he joined with James J. Strang and even served a mission for Strang’s church in England.
He later left Strang and on 23 January 1847, with William W. McLellin, an excommunicated former apostle, organized a new church, the Church of Christ. That particular church soon proved a failure.
Through all of his waverings, Martin Harris never denied his testimony of the Book of Mormon, the one thing of which he had a sure knowledge. He felt a special responsibility to testify of its truthfulness, and did so frequently.
Thus Martin remained until 1869, when Edward Stevenson, later a member of the First Council of the Seventy, saw him at the Kirtland Temple. Stevenson recorded that Martin “took from under his arm a copy of the Book of Mormon, the first edition, I believe, and bore a faithful testimony. … He said that it was his duty to continue to lift up his voice as he had been commanded to do in defence of the Book that he held in his hand, … and that he was daily bearing testimony to many who visited the Temple.”
After Edward Stevenson returned to Utah, in 1870, he felt impressed to write to Martin Harris “and soon received a reply, that the Spirit of God, for the first time prompted him to go to Utah.” When Brigham Young learned of Harris’s desire, he directed that an emigration fund be gathered for him. President Young contributed the first $25. Later that year Edward Stevenson escorted Martin Harris to Utah. Harris was then eighty-eight years old.
Brother Stevenson wrote:
“Brother Harris was taught the necessity of being rebaptized. He said that was new doctrine to him. … He claimed that he had not been cut off from the Church, but said if that was required of him it would be manifested to him by the Spirit. Soon after his arrival in Utah he applied by baptism, saying that the Spirit had made known to him that it was his duty to renew his covenant before the Lord. …
“In a short time the baptismal font was prepared, and by his request I baptized him, and President Geo. A. Smith, and Apostles John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Jos. F. Smith and Orson Pratt confirmed him by the laying on of hands, Orson Pratt being mouth.” (Millennial Star, 6 Feb. 1882, p. 87.)
Martin Harris’s statement that he “had not been cut off from the Church” was true in the sense that he had not been excommunicated since his rebaptism in Kirtland in 1842. But by his own choice he had left the Church by joining one break-off group after another. With a witness of the Spirit, however, he chose to do as he was directed and was rebaptized, as Edward Stevenson recorded, on 17 September 1870 (see Journal History, p. 1).
In the following months Martin Harris was invited from ward to ward in the Salt Lake area to bear his testimony. Then, after receiving his endowments in the House of the Lord, he went to live out the declining years of his life with his son, Martin Harris, Jr., in Smithfield, Cache County, Utah. The day before Martin’s death at age ninety-two, his son wrote in a letter, “He has continued to talk about and testify to the truth of the Book of Mormon, and was in his happiest mood when he could get somebody to listen to his testimony” (Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1901, p. 276).