Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
King Benjamin, Preacher of Righteousness
[p. 147]In Joseph Smith’s 1832 history, he wrote that the gold plates were taken away “by the power of God” and he was “not able to obtain them for a season” until “after much humility and affliction of soul.”1 Whatever other challenges he faced during this period, he would have had to struggle with how to continue the translation project—how to overcome having lost the opening portion of Mormon’s abridgment. Obscuring the nature and duration of his indecision when he wrote his 1838-39 history, he reported that “immediately” after he returned to Harmony, he received a revelation resolving the matter and that the plates and interpreters were returned after only “a few days.” Any delay beyond that was due to other, worldly matters. He explained that even after he regained possession of the plates, presumably in mid-July 1828, he “did not however go immediately to translating, but went to laboring with my hands upon a small farm which I had purchased of my wife’s father, in order to provide for my family.”2 Nevertheless, with Emma’s help, he eventually resumed his Book of Mormon project.
His family in Manchester was unaware of what was transpiring in Harmony, for Lucy reports that they had not heard from their son for two months when she and her husband traveled to Pennsylvania about September 1828. She said that as she and her husband were approaching Harmony, Joseph met them on the road a short distance from his house and greeted them “with a countenance blazing with delight,” explaining that he had had a premonition of their coming. It was evident to Lucy that her son’s joy exceeded the surprise of seeing his parents, and she quickly surmised that he had successfully resolved his dilemma.
As soon as she entered Joseph’s home, Lucy noticed a red moroccan trunk on [p. 148]Emma’s bureau which, Joseph informed her, contained the plates.3 Later that evening, Joseph told his parents about the loss and return of the plates and spectacles and receipt of the revelation. Obviously relieved, Joseph said, “God was pleased with my faithfulness and humility and loved me for my penitence and diligence in prayer.”4 Contradicting the “few days” of Joseph’s 1838-39 history, Lucy remembered that the angel had told him the plates would be returned on 22 September 1828 if he was sufficiently worthy.5 Regardless, Lucy remembered that by the time of their visit, which she evidently believed occurred soon after Joseph received the plates again,6 Joseph had resumed dictating to Emma. If Lucy is correct, Emma’s work as scribe was brief—probably not much beyond Mosiah 2:30.7
At this time, Joseph probably learned that Harris had suffered misfortune with his crops, which Lucy seems to have interpreted as divine providence. In consequence of having broken his promise, she said, Harris “not only lost his spiritual blessing but a great temporal blessing also—for there was a heavy fog which swept over his fields and blighted all his wheat while that on the opposite of the road remained untouched by the mildew which spoiled his grain.”8
Joseph’s parents met the Hale family for the first time and were duly impressed, Lucy describing them as “a lovely intelligent and highly respected Family.”9 Joseph informed his parents before they left that he expected God to send him a full-time scribe to replace Emma who had domestic matters to attend to. Joseph may have had his brother Samuel in mind.
Joseph Sr. and Lucy returned home with a clearer picture of what Joseph’s mission was, and Lucy, Hyrum, and Samuel stopped attending meetings at the Presbyterian church about this time. It may have been because of Joseph’s assumption of a prophetic role and the authority he derived from dictating God’s words that his mother was drawn away from Presbyterianism. Maybe Joseph communicated to his parents that the book’s purpose was to be a corrective to the corrupt churches and doctrines in the wake of Joseph’s estrangement from the Harmony Methodists. It may not have been clear to Joseph’s family that his book would support Joseph Sr.’s dreams about the degenerate state of the present religious world. On the other hand, maybe the family’s deteriorating social-economic status simultaneously caused them to feel increasingly out of place in a church where the social elite were well represented.
Despite his later assertion that he filled the season of penitence with farm work, Joseph and Emma found themselves in extreme poverty as winter approached. Emma’s family had little desire to help them, so Joseph reached out to his nearest friend, Joseph Knight. Knight remembered that Joseph and Emma came to Colesville about “the first of the winter of 1828” seeking financial help. “But I was not in [p. 149]easy circumstances,” he recalled, “and I did not know what [Joseph’s translation of the gold plates] might amount to and my wife and family [were] all against me about helping him.” Regardless, Knight could not turn them away empty-handed: “I let [Joseph] have some little provisions and some few things out of the store, a pair of shoes, and three dollars in money to help him a little.”10
In February 1829, Joseph Sr. and Samuel Harrison set out for Harmony, perhaps curious about Joseph’s progress. On their way, they stopped to visit Joseph Knight, who offered to take them the rest of the way in his sleigh. Knight remembered that they “went down and found them well and they were glad to see us [and] we conversed about many things.” Knight remained in Harmony over night. Before leaving the next day, his generosity was again displayed. He said, “I gave the old man a half a dollar and Joseph a little money to buy paper to translate, I having but little with me.”11
It is unknown how long Joseph’s father and brother stayed, but Samuel apparently helped briefly as a scribe.12 Joseph may have dictated the early portion of the present Book of Mosiah at this time, its focus—a speech by King Benjamin—containing information that would have been especially meaningful to Joseph Sr.
The Smiths’ contemporaries would have considered Benjamin a good, albeit peculiar king, for he labored with his own hands and taxed his people very little. So that his sons could read the brass plates and the plates of Nephi,13 this Book of Mormon king taught his sons the Egyptian language. At about 124 B.C., Benjamin prepared to pass his throne to his son Mosiah II and commands his people to gather at the temple to hear his farewell address. After the people pitch their tents near the temple, Benjamin speaks from a tower that has been constructed for the event. His address is delivered in three parts. In the first (Mosiah 2:9-3:27), he opens by proclaiming the social gospel, declaring that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (2:17). Benjamin quickly adds a warning about an eternal hell and proclaims deliverance through Jesus Christ (2:31-3:27).
Spanning the centuries, Benjamin seemed to speak directly to Joseph Sr.’s Universalism, as well as to the Universalistic beliefs of Joseph Knight, in the way he repeatedly emphasizes the eternal duration of hell and God’s justice in punishing the wicked. Before launching into the anti-Universalist portion of his sermon, Benjamin explains his motivation in a way that touches on Joseph Jr.’s own attitudes. Benjamin states that he called his people together to unburden himself or discharge his God-appointed duty concerning them. “I at this time have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together,” he explains, “that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me, when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you” (2:27). Joseph may have [p. 150]felt the same obligation towards his father, family members, and others.
Sounding like an anti-Universalist in the nineteenth century, Benjamin declares: “For behold, there is a wo pronounced upon him who listeth to obey that [evil] spirit; for if he listeth to obey him, and remaineth and dieth in his sins [John 8:21], the same drinketh damnation to his own soul; for he receiveth for his wages an everlasting punishment, having transgressed the law of God contrary to his own knowledge. … Therefore if that man repenteth not, and remaineth and dieth an enemy to God, the demands of divine justice do awaken his immortal soul to a lively sense of his own guilt, which doth cause him to shrink from the presence of the Lord, and doth fill his breast with guilt, and pain, and anguish, which is like an unquenchable fire, whose flame ascendeth up forever and ever [Rev. 14:11]. And now I say unto you, that mercy hath no claim on that man; therefore his final doom is to endure a never-ending torment” (vv. 33, 38-39).
Anti-Universalists sometimes quoted John 8:21, wherein Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come.” This passage was used in 1824 by the Reverend Stephen I. Bradstreet of Cleveland, Ohio, as a proof-text against universal salvation, arguing that “those Jews to which Christ spake, are never to reach heaven.”14 Based on passages in Revelation (14:10-11; 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8), anti-Universalists attempted to establish the doctrine of eternal torment. Those who take part in spiritual Babylon, Revelation states, “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone … and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up forever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast” (14:10-11). This passage was mentioned in 1824 by the Reverend Bradstreet as he argued against universal restoration.15
More than a hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Benjamin declares salvation through the blood of Christ, having heard about Jesus’ atonement from an angel who appeared to him, not in a dream, but like Joseph Jr., in an open vision (3:2). Quoting the angel’s teachings directly, Benjamin continues to impart information that is especially pertinent to Joseph Sr.
The angel confounds the doctrine of the trinity by declaring: “For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles” (3:5). In this and subsequent passages (e.g., Mosiah 15), one detects a rather sophisticated knowledge of nineteenth-century debates about the nature of the Christian godhead. Evidently rejecting the mystical three-in-one theology of the trinitarians, the Book of Mormon advances a modalistic concept wherein the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are conceived as being three modes [p. 151]or expressions of the one God. In other words, the Father not only begets the Son, but becomes the Son; Jesus is literally both Son and Father. This conception of the godhead is also referred to as Sabellianism after the third-century heretic who, according to one of his detractors, held that “the Son Himself is the Father, and vise versa.”16 Another third-century modalist, Noetus, similarly believed that “Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died.”17 Because modalism does not distinguish between the “person” of the Father and the “person” of the Son, it is considered heretical by the orthodox.
In adopting a modalistic concept of the godhead, Joseph Smith was not unique. David Millard, a pastor of a Christian Connection church in West Bloomfield, New York, about twenty-five miles from Palmyra, combated both trinitarian and Unitarian concepts of the godhead. In a thirty-eight-page tract published at Canandaigua in 1818, Millard described “some Trinitarians” who “reject the term person, and instead of this, use the term mode, or office: and hold that the Trinity consists in one God, acting in three distinct offices.”18 In 1823, Millard expanded his tract into a 214-page treatise on the godhead titled The True Messiah, also published in Canandaigua. In this work, Millard not only defended his binitarian views (i.e., a two-person godhead) but attacked trinitarianism, which for him included the heresy of “Sabellianism.” After describing the historical position of the Sabellians, Millard noted: “A great part of Trinitarians are now on the same ground, viz. that one God only acts in three distinct offices. They sometimes indeed call those offices persons, as they say for want of a better term, but when confuted upon the ground of three persons, they immediately assert that God acts in three offices, which is direct Sabellianism. It is therefore worthy of remark, how near many Trinitarians approach to the old doctrine of Sabellianism.”19 Indeed, it takes a good ear to distinguish among the variously nuanced positions on the godhead.20
Modalism was Smith’s compromise with the Unitarian-Universalist position, which also rejected trinitarianism as irrational but discarded the concept of Jesus’ divinity to maintain a monotheistic position. Thus, Unitarians and most Universalists in Smith’s day, while distinguishing between the persons of the Father and Son, nevertheless maintained that the Father alone was God. In his popular 1805 Treatise on Atonement, Unitarian-Universalist minister Hosea Ballou not only rejected orthodox trinitarianism and belief in the deity of Jesus but also objected to the idea that “God himself, assumed a body of flesh and blood … and suffered the penalty of the law by death, and arose from the dead.”21 Thus, Ballou and fellow Unitarian-Universalists discarded, along with the deity of Jesus, the concept of a vicarious atonement. In advancing the modalistic view, the Book of Mormon not only salvaged the orthodox Christian belief in Jesus’ deity and vicarious atonement but offered a conception of [p. 152]the godhead that appealed to both Joseph Sr.’s rationalism and to Lucy’s, Hyrum’s, and Samuel’s orthodoxy.
Describing the manner in which Jesus would atone for the sins of the world, the angel declared unto Benjamin: “And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold blood cometh from every pore [Luke 22:44], so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. … And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him. And he shall rise the third day from the dead; and behold, he standeth to judge the world; and behold, all these things are done that a righteous judgment might come upon the children of men” (3:7, 9-10). The angel not only tells Benjamin about “Jesus Christ, the son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning,” but reveals that “his mother shall be called Mary” (3:8). With such clarity, Joseph Sr. would have had no choice but to abandon his Unitarian-Universalism.
Vindicating father Smith’s angered response to the Reverend Stockton and rejection of Presbyterianism, the angel proclaims the salvation of those—like Alvin Smith—“who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned” (3:11).22 This comforting word was immediately followed by a warning to Universalists: “But wo, wo unto him who knoweth that he rebelleth against God! For salvation cometh to none such except it be through repentance and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 12). Thus, God’s mercy is balanced by justice.
Joseph Sr. would later confess that the death of his first-born son in infancy was a “matter of affliction” to him,23 so he must have been comforted by King Benjamin’s declaration that “the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy” (3:18). This was certainly a relief not only to Joseph Sr. and Lucy but also to Emma, who had recently lost an infant shortly after birth. However, the passage seems intended specifically for Joseph Sr. since it is followed immediately by a lengthy indictment, including: “But men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (v. 18). Again, God’s mercy and justice are contrasted. Salvation, Benjamin declares, comes to those who “putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child” (v. 19).
Benjamin continues his attack on Universalism, quoting the Lord directly in a paraphrase of Revelation 20:13, a common anti-Universalist proof-text affirming that the wicked will endure eternal torment: “They shall be judged, every man according [p. 153]to his works, whether they be good, or whether they be evil. And if they be evil they are consigned to an awful view of their own guilt and abominations, which doth cause them to shrink from the presence of the Lord into a state of misery and endless torment, from whence they can no more return” (3:24-25). Employing yet another familiar anti-Universalist proof-text from Revelation 14:10-11, the Lord concludes: “Therefore, they have drunk out of the cup of the wrath of God, which justice could no more deny than Adam should fall because of his partaking of the forbidden fruit; therefore, mercy could have claim on them no more forever. And their torment is as a lake of fire and brimstone, whose flames are unquenchable, and whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever” (vv. 26-27). Whereas Universalists believed that the concept of eternal punishment was incompatible with God’s infinite goodness, anti-Universalists argued that God is both merciful and just.24 Benjamin’s teachings about the atonement and the endless duration of hell—like those of Joseph Jr.—were not based on a private interpretation of scripture but rather, according to his claim, from revelation, either through an angel or directly from God.
When Benjamin concluded this portion of his sermon, he noticed that the multitude had “fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them” (4:1). This would have reminded Joseph Sr. and others of the revival camp meetings with which they were so familiar where people fainted when they realized the gravity of their sins. The theology and wording of Benjamin’s speech, as well as the temporary speaker’s stand, were similarly reminiscent of camp meetings.25 It was this kind of revival meeting that Joseph Jr. experienced firsthand on the outskirts of Palmyra Village, although on a more modest scale than Benjamin’s revival. Perhaps more importantly, it was Joseph Sr.’s and Lucy’s attendance at a revival of this sort that drew the criticism of Asael Smith, who implored his son to read the writings of rationalist Thomas Paine. On this matter, the Book of Mormon vindicated Lucy and proved Asael wrong.
Perhaps Joseph Sr. was convinced by Benjamin’s address and renounced his former Universalist beliefs, for Joseph dictated a revelation that called his father to the work of saving souls. “Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men,” the revelation begins. The marvelous work was the Book of Mormon, not the restoration of a church—an element of Joseph’s mission that had not yet been contemplated. Continuing, the revelation declares: “Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind, and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day. Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work; for behold the field is white already to harvest [John 4:35]; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might [Rev. 14:15], the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul” (Doctrine and Covenants 4:1-4; hereafter D&C).
[p. 154]The revelation advanced the view that one is “called to the work” because of one’s “desires to serve God,” a concept that was in sharp contrast to Joseph Jr.’s later teaching that one must be called of God through proper authority. It is likely that Joseph assigned the origin of these “desires” to God, believing that God, in a providential manner, kindled those “desires” within himself. The revelation advances the notion that the person so engaged may bring “salvation to his [own] soul.” While the wording of the revelation is taken from the New Testament, the concept of saving oneself by saving others is foreign to the Bible. Paralleling Benjamin’s need to discharge his duty in order to be “found blameless … when I shall stand to be judged of God” (Mosiah 2:27), the revelation enjoins Joseph Sr. to work with total devotion so as to “stand blameless before God at the last day.”
In calling others to the work, Joseph may have revealed the dynamics of his own call. Publicly, he claimed to have been called by God through an angel, but privately, his “desires to serve” were a sufficient calling. Having failed to achieve a true spiritual conversion during the Palmyra revival, not having experienced the falling power as Benjamin’s people had, Joseph turned to the idea of salvation through works. Indeed, as implied in the revelation, one’s salvation depended on putting one’s whole “heart, might, mind and strength” into the work so that one might be found “blameless before God at the last day.” Thus, there is an implied mission to compensate for what might be a perceived failing, that by saving others, especially his father, Joseph could save himself, or rather shift attention away from feelings of inadequacy and despair to the conversion of others.
Despite the possible psychological implications of the revelation, the reality was that Joseph had called his father to be a preacher of the Book of Mormon—a calling Joseph Sr. accepted. During their visit, Samuel and Joseph Sr. probably told Joseph Jr. about Oliver Cowdery, then living with the Smiths in Manchester and teaching school, and his interest in the gold plates. “[Cowdery] had not been in the place long,” Lucy remembered, “till he began to hear about the plates from all quarters and immediately he commenced importuning Mr. Smith upon the subject.” The Smiths had become wary of such an intrusion, and “for a long time” Joseph Sr. resisted Cowdery’s proddings. But Joseph Sr.’s refusal heightened Oliver’s curiosity. At last, Cowdery succeeded in extracting from the old man “a sketch of the facts” relating to the plates.26 But at the time of Joseph Sr.’s and Samuel’s visit to Harmony, it was decided only that Samuel would return in the spring, perhaps to help Joseph on the farm as well as to work as his scribe.
When the two Smith men returned to Manchester, Martin Harris voiced his intention of visiting Joseph in Harmony and of, perhaps, assisting him financially. To prevent this, Mrs. Harris brought a suit against Joseph Jr. and subpoenaed her husband [p. 155]as one of several witnesses. Recalling the circumstances of the trial in 1870, Martin said: “In March  the people rose up and united against the work, gathering testimony against [the existence of] the plates, and said they had testimony enough and if I did not put Joseph and his father in jail for deception, they would me.”27 The trial, or preliminary hearing, was held in Lyons, the Wayne County seat. Mrs. Harris enlisted the help of Oliver Cowdery’s older brother, Lyman, who practiced law in Wayne County, hoping that after receiving a guilty verdict, he would accompany the sheriff to Harmony to arrest Joseph.
Mrs. Smith, on the other hand, asked Hyrum what to do, and he responded: “We can do nothing—look to the Lord for in him is all help and strength and he can deliver from every trouble.”28 Following Hyrum’s advice, Lucy turned to prayer. While praying earnestly on Joseph’s behalf, a voice told her: “Not one hair of his head shall be harmed.”29 A calm, peaceful feeling came over her and she cried for joy knowing that Joseph would be protected.
According to Lucy Smith, Mrs. Harris had found three witnesses to testify that Joseph had told them he had no gold plates. The first said, “Joseph Smith told him that the box which he had contained nothing but sand and he only said it was gold plates to deceive the people.” The second similarly stated, “Joseph Smith told [him] upon a certain occasion that it was nothing but a box of lead and he was determined to use it as he saw fit.” The third testified that “he enquired of Joseph Smith what he had in that box and Joseph told him that there was nothing in the box, saying I have made fools of the whole of you and all I want is to get Martin Harris’s money away from him.”30
Although Lucy did not name the witnesses, Peter Ingersoll was probably one of them. In an 1833 affidavit, he alleged that Joseph confided to him that the frock he had brought home to his family concealed nothing but several quarts of white sand. Ingersoll claimed that Joseph said: “On my entering the house, I found the family at the table eating dinner. They were all anxious to know the contents of my frock. At that moment, I happened to think of what I had heard about a history found in Canada, called the golden Bible; so I very gravely told them it was the golden Bible. To my surprise, they were credulous enough to believe what I said. Accordingly I told them that I had received a commandment to let no one see it, for, says I, no man can see it with the naked eye and live. However, I offered to take out the book and show it to them, but they refused to see it, and left the room. Now, said Jo, ‘I have got the damned fools fixed, and will carry out the fun.’”31
Joseph’s supposed confession is at odds with the experience of the Smith family members who felt the plates through the cloth. Such testimony might have been convincing to Mrs. Harris, whose experience with the plates was limited to feeling the [p. 156]weight of the box, but the Smith family and Martin Harris would have dismissed the witnesses as incredible. It is also possible that Joseph had told Peter Ingersoll something privately in an effort to discourage the money diggers. If so, it was a confession that Joseph could easily deny, and those who knew better would not be troubled by it. Even Ingersoll was puzzled by Joseph’s confession, as it seemed to contradict his acquaintance’s later effort to get a box made. “Notwithstanding, he told me he had no such book, and believed there never was any such book,” Ingersoll recalled; “yet, he told me that he actually went to Willard Chase, to get him to make a chest, in which he might deposit his golden Bible. But, as Chase would not do it, he made a box himself, of clap-boards, and put it into a pillow case, and allowed people only to lift it, and feel of it through the case.”32 Those who believe that Ingersoll invented Smith’s confession must explain why he would also weaken its effect by casting doubt upon it.33
At the trial, Mrs. Harris’s affidavit was read, accusing Joseph of attempting to defraud her husband of his property. The judge ordered Martin to testify. According to Lucy Smith, he “testified with boldness, decision and energy,” stating: “I can swear, that Joseph Smith never has got one dollar from me by persuasion, since God made me [do it]. … And as to the plates which he professes to have, gentlemen, if you do not believe it, but continue to resist the truth, it will one day be the means of damning your souls.”34 Upon hearing this, the judge dismissed the case as unactionable, destroyed the record, and advised the prosecutors to go home and mind their own business. Lucy recalled with some satisfaction that Joseph’s accusers “returned home abashed and confounded hanging down their heads with shame and confusion.”35 Lucy undoubtedly believed that her prayer had been answered.
Immediately following the trial, Harris journeyed to Harmony. For some reason, he went through Waterloo in Seneca County and picked up a Mr. Rogers, an acquaintance of his wife, as his traveling companion. Perhaps he took Rogers in the hope that Smith would allow his friend to feel the plates through the cloth and thereby once and for all silence the critics. Harris later recalled that “Rogers unknown to me had agreed to give my wife 100 dollars if it was not a deception and had wet [sharpened] his knife to cut the covering of the plates as the Lord had forbid Joseph exhibiting them openly.”36 How Rogers’s scheme was interrupted is not clear, but he may have actually attempted to cut through the cloth covering the plates.
Some of the testimony at the trial must have troubled Harris, for when he arrived at Harmony, he began insisting that he see the plates. Harris had told the Reverend John A. Clark in 1828 that he had had a spiritual view of the plates, that he had seen the plates “with the eye of faith … just as distinctly as I see any thing around me,—though at the time they were covered over with a cloth.”37 Harris yearned for more certainty as Isaac Hale remembered: “Martin Harris informed me that he must [p. 157]have a greater witness, and said that he had talked with Joseph about it.”38 Harris must have been persistent because Joseph eventually received a revelation on the subject.
As published in 1833 in the Book of Commandments, the revelation opens by referring to Harris’s specific request: “Behold, I say unto you, that my servant Martin has desired a witness from my hand, that my servant Joseph has got the things of which he has testified, and borne record that he has received of me” (Book of Commandments 4:1; hereafter BofC; cf. D&C 5). Explaining that Joseph was under strict commandment not to show the plates unless instructed, the revelation declared: “I the Lord am God, and I have commanded [Joseph] that he should stand as a witness of these things, nevertheless I have caused him that he should enter into a covenant with me, that he should not show them except I command him, and he has no power over them except I grant it unto him” (v. 2). Vaguely reminiscent of Jesus’ hyperbole about those who would persist in unbelief even if he raised Lazarus from the dead (Luke 16:31), the revelation criticized those like Harris who did not believe Joseph’s word but insisted on seeing for themselves: “And verily I say unto you, that wo shall come unto the inhabitants of the earth, if they will not hearken unto my words, for, behold, if they will not believe my words, they would not believe my servant Joseph, if it were possible that he could show them all things. O ye unbelieving, ye stiffnecked generation, mine anger is kindled against you!” (v. 3).
The revelation does mention that three special witnesses would be chosen to testify to the world. “Three shall know of a surety that these things are true,” God declares, “for I will give them power, that they may behold and view these things as they are, and to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation.” After confirming that three witnesses would see the plates “as they are,” the revelation continued: “And the testimony of three witnesses will I send forth and my word [Book of Mormon], and behold, whosoever believeth in my word, them will I visit with the manifestation of my Spirit, and they shall be born of me, and their testimony shall also go forth” (BofC 4:4).39 At this point, it was unclear to Harris which group, if either, he would be a part of. Would he be a special witness, presumably of the tangible plates, or would he receive a spiritual witness—or neither? It was up to God and out of Joseph’s hands.
The revelation outlined the conditions upon which Harris’s request would be granted: “And now I speak again concerning the man that desireth a witness: behold I say unto him, he exalteth himself and doth not humble himself sufficiently before me, but if he will go out and bow down before me, and humble himself in mighty prayer and faith, in the sincerity of his heart, then will I grant unto him a view of the things which he desireth to know” (BofC 4:8). In the event that Harris was successful, he was told what he would be required to say as a witness: “And then he shall say [p. 158]unto the people of this generation, behold, I have seen the things and I know of a surety that they are true, for I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God and not of man” (v. 8). Harris was instructed to limit his testimony to just such a simple confirmation and to refrain from elaboration: “And I command him that he shall say no more unto [the people of this generation], concerning these things, except he shall say, I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God” (v. 8). One reason for this instruction might be that Harris’s experience with the plates would be visionary, not physical, and elaboration might point out inconsistencies in the varying spiritual experiences of the three witnesses.
Joseph must have suspected that he could lose Harris. The revelation predicts: “Yea, I foresee that if my servant [Martin] humbleth not himself, and receive a witness from my hand, that he will fall into transgression” (BofC 4:11). The prediction stood a good chance of being proven true. On the other hand, Harris was known for his religious eccentricities and visionary frame of mind. The Reverend John A. Clark, with whom Harris visited immediately following his 1828 trip to New York City, said Harris “had always been a firm believer in dreams, and visions, and supernatural appearances, such as apparitions and ghosts, and therefore was a fit subject for such men as Smith and his colleagues to operate upon.”40 Lorenzo Saunders said Harris was “a great man for seeing spooks.”41 Presbyterian minister Jesse Townsend of Palmyra went so far as to call Harris a “visionary fanatic.”42 Moreover, Harris’s Quaker background would have made him open to such supernaturalism.
The interest Harris showed in seeing the plates would not end in failure, but the request would not be immediately satisfied. Harris told Isaac Hale that “Joseph informed him that he could not, or durst not show him the plates, but that he (Joseph) would go into the woods where the book of plates was, and that after he came back, Harris should follow his tracks in the snow, and find the book, and examine it for himself.” Hale said that “Harris informed me afterwards, that he followed Smith’s directions, [but] could not find the plates, and [that he] was still dissatisfied.”43
Hale also remembered seeing Smith and Harris engaged in translating the book. Hale remarked: “The manner in which he [Joseph] pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the book of plates were at the same time hid in the woods!” “I told them then,” Hale recalled, “that I considered the whole of it a delusion, and advised them to abandon it.”44 The revelation to Harris contains an aside to Smith, that “when thou has translated a few more pages, thou shalt stop for a season, even until I command thee again” (BofC 4:10; cf. D&C 5:30). It is possible that Harris was the scribe for the second and third parts of King Benjamin’s address (Mosiah 4:4-5:15), the content of which is particularly suited to Harris’s situation.
[p. 159]As in the revelation to Harris (BofC 4:8, 9), King Benjamin emphasizes the need for humility, exhorting his audience in good Methodist style: “If the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state, … even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel” (Mosiah 4:5, 11). Benjamin exhorts his people further in the same vein as the revelation to Harris: