“Martin Harris’s Consultations with Scholars,” Church History Topics
“Martin Harris’s Consultations with Scholars”
In February 1828, Martin Harris traveled to New York City with a transcription of some of the characters from the Book of Mormon plates, intending to show them to scholars at some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States.1 Harris recounted the story of this trip many times during his life, often to interviewers who wanted to know about his early experiences in the Church. Charles Anthon, one of the professors Harris met, also left accounts of his meeting with Harris, corroborating that the meeting did indeed take place. But disagreements between these historical accounts leave some questions about the trip unanswered.
For example, the sources point to several possible motivations for the trip. Some accounts suggest the Lord had commanded Harris to make the trip, while others point to Joseph Smith or Harris himself as the instigator.2 Harris may have hoped the endorsement of scholars would satisfy his wife Lucy, who had grown skeptical of the translation project, or help him feel more secure himself before finally deciding to help finance the translation. Other sources imply Harris hoped to seek the advice of scholars on how to approach the translation itself.
At the time of Martin Harris’s trip, neither Joseph Smith nor Harris appear to have known much about the language on the plates. According to Joseph’s later account, the angel who delivered the plates to him indicated it was an ancient American record. Rather than seeking a scholar with a knowledge of Egyptian (Joseph only later learned that the language on the plates was called “reformed Egyptian”), it is possible that Harris sought the advice of scholars with expertise in American antiquities.3
When Harris was en route to New York City, he stopped in Albany, New York, to visit Luther Bradish, a well-traveled man with family and personal connections in Palmyra. Harris evidently sought Bradish’s opinion about whom to visit regarding the translation. He then pressed on to New York City to meet with Samuel L. Mitchill, a linguist and leading scholar of ancient American culture.4 Harris also visited Charles Anthon, a young professor of grammar and linguistics at Columbia College in New York City. Anthon was trained in Greek and Latin but also had been collecting American Indian stories for publication and was eager to inspect the document Harris brought to him.5
According to Harris, Charles Anthon examined the characters and prepared a signed statement declaring them authentic, but tore up the statement when he learned how Joseph Smith had acquired the plates. Anthon suggested Harris bring him the actual plates, but Harris refused, adding that part of the plates were sealed. Anthon replied, “I cannot read a sealed book.” In later statements, Anthon denied having authenticated the characters and insisted he had merely counseled Harris not to invest in the translation and publication. He also indicated that Harris showed him only the copied characters while Harris, in some of his accounts, suggested he also brought a sample of Joseph Smith’s translation of the ancient writing.
Regardless of what happened during Harris’s meeting with Anthon, Harris came away more convinced than before that the plates and characters were authentic, and he willingly invested his time and energy into supporting Joseph Smith. He and Joseph later spoke of the visit to Anthon as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (also mentioned in the Book of Mormon itself) of “a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed” (Isaiah 29:11).
Related Topics: Book of Mormon Translation