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Changing First Vision Accounts - 1859 First Vision Account by Martin Harris

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Changing First Vision Accounts - 1859 First Vision Account by Martin Harris

1859 — Interview with Martin Harris, Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, New York: Published by Joel Tiffany, vol. v.—12, pp. 163-170. This account is included because the source, Martin Harris, was a close associate of Joseph Smith during the translation of the Book of Mormon, and one of the earliest non-family members to be introduced to Joseph’s claims. His recollections are largely uninfluenced by later published accounts of Joseph Smith and therefore likely to reflect the earliest details provided to him by Joseph Smith and his family.

Principle elements of the account:

  • The origin of Mormonism linked to the finding of the gold plates
  • Joseph found plates using the seer stone he found in the well of Mason [Willard] Chase.
  • Plates found in the context of money-digging
  • Joseph’s family corroborated this story to Martin Harris
  • No mention of a revival
  • Age 21 (1827)
  • Joseph retrieves plates while out with his wife but hides them in the woods
  • Angel appeared to Joseph after finding the plates, and told him it [Book of Mormon] was God’s work and Joseph must “quit the company of the money-diggers.”
  • Angel said the plates must be translated, printed and set before the world.
  • Angel revealed to Joseph that Martin Harris was the man to assist in this work.

The Account

Tiffany's Monthly, p. 163
“The following narration we took down from the lips of Martin Harris, and read the same to him after it was written, that we might be certain of giving his statement to the world .… We did this that the world might have a connected account of the origin of Mormonism from the lips of one of the original witnesses, upon whose testimony it was first received. …

Mr. Harris says: “Joseph Smith, Jr., found at Palmyra N.Y., on the 22nd day of September, 1827, the plates of gold upon which was recorded in Arabic, Chaldaic, Syriac, and Egyptian, the Book of Life, or the Book of Mormon. I was not with him at the time, but I had a revelation the summer before, that God had a work for me to do. These plates were found at the north point of a hill two miles north of Manchester village. Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase, twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by means of this stone he first discovered these plates.

Tiffany's Monthly, p. 164
“… Joseph had had this stone for some time. There was a company there in that neighborhood, who were digging for money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients. Of this company were old Mr. Stowel — I think his name was Josiah — also old Mr. Beman, also Samuel Lawrence, George Proper, Joseph Smith, jr., and his father, and his brother Hiram Smith. They dug for money in Palmyra, Manchester, also in Pennsylvania, and other places. …

Tiffany's Monthly, p. 165
“After this, on 22nd of September, 1827, before day, Joseph took the horse and wagon of old Mr. Stowel, and taking his wife, he went to the place where the plates were concealed, and while obtaining them, she kneeled down and prayed. He then took the plates and hid them in an old black oak tree to which was hollow. …

“Joseph did not dig for these plates. They were placed in this way: four stones were set up and covered with a flat stone, oval on the upper side and flat on the bottom. Beneath this was a little platform upon which the plates were laid; and the two stones wet in a bow of silver by means of which the plates were translated, were found underneath the plates.

Tiffany's Monthly, p. 166
“… When Joseph had obtained the plates he communicated the fact to his father and mother. The plates remained concealed in the tree top until he got the chest made. He then went after them and brought them home. …

Tiffany's Monthly, p. 167
“… The money diggers claimed that they had as much right to the plates as Joseph had, as they were in company together. They claimed Joseph had been traitor, and had appropriated to himself that which belonged to them. For this reason Joseph was afraid of them, and continued concealing the plates. After they had been concealed under the floor of the cooper’s shop for a short time, Joseph was warned to remove them. He said he was warned by an angel. …

“These things had all occurred before I talked with Joseph respecting the plates. But I had the account of it from Joseph, his wife, brothers, sisters, his father and mother. I talked with them separately that I might get the truth of the matter.

Tiffany's Monthly, p. 168, p. 169, p. 170
… “A day or so before I was ready to visit Joseph, his mother came over to our house and wished to talk with me. I told her I had no time to spare … I waited a day or two, when I got up in the morning, took my breakfast, and told my folks I was going to the village, but went directly to old Mr. Smith’s. I found that Joseph had gone away to work for Peter Ingersol to get some flour. I was glad he was absent, for that gave me an opportunity of talking with his wife and family about the plates. I talked with them separately, to see if their stories agreed, and I found they did agree. When Joseph came home I did not wish him to know that I had been talking with them, so I took him by the arm and led him away from the rest, and requested him to tell me the story, which he did as follows. He said, ‘An angel had appeared to him, and told him it was God’s work.’” Here Mr. Harris seemed to wander from the subject, when we requested him to continue and tell what Joseph then said. He replied, “Joseph had before this described the manner of his finding the plates. He found them by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason Chase. The family had likewise told me the same thing.

“Joseph said the angel told him he must quit the company of the money-diggers. That there were wicked men among them. He must have no more to do with them. He must not lie, nor swear, nor steal. He told him to go and look in the spectacles, and he would show him the man that would assist him. That he did so, and he saw myself, Martin Harris, standing before him. That struck me with surprise. I told him I wished him to be very careful about these things. ‘Well, ‘ said he, ‘I saw you standing before me as plainly as I do now.’ …

“While at Mr. Smith’ 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. I left Mr. Smith’s about eleven o’clock and went home. …

“The excitement in the village upon the subject had become such that some had threatened to mob Joseph, and also to tar and feather him. They said he should never leave until he had shown the plates. It was unsafe for him to remain, so I determined that he must go to his father-in-law’s house in Pennsylvania. … I advised Joseph that he must pay all his debts before starting. I paid them for him, and furnished him money for his journey.” (pp. 168-170)


Despite differences in tone, there are striking similarities between this final account of Harris and the first account by Chase:

The discovery of a gold treasure in the context of money-digging
The use of a seer stone to find/obtain the plates
No indication that Joseph was a spiritual seeker before the angelic visitation
Martin Harris identified as the “divinely” appointed financier of the project
“Persecution” comes from former money-digging associates who want their share of the treasure, not from religiously incensed clergy
These common elements from early accounts raise questions about what appears to be a gradual evolution of Joseph Smith’s first vision story.

First Vision - Conclusion


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