Section 5: Martin Harris — Witness of the Book of Mormon
After being rebuked by the Lord for losing the 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript (section 3) in June of 1828, the persistent Martin Harris came to Joseph Smith in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in March 1829 probably seeking the assurance that he was still accepted of the Lord. He probably also wanted to reassure himself once again that Joseph did indeed have the plates which he claimed to have. Martin wanted to actually see them that all doubt might be erased. Section 5 is the Lord’s answer to Martin Harris’s petition. The Lord informed him that if he would humble himself and repent, he would one day be privileged to be one the three special witnesses of the Book of Mormon and be allowed to view the plates.
verses 1-22 These verses are directed to Joseph and not to Martin Harris.
1 Behold, I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., have got the plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me;
verse 1 “my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand” Though Martin Harris seems rather stubborn, inclined to doubt, and easily swayed by the opinions of his family and friends, it would seem that he was basically honest and simply wanted to be very certain of the validity of everything he undertook. Martin wanted to actually see the plates and the Urim and Thummim, since in his mind this would be the surest way to satisfy himself that Joseph still had them. But Joseph did not have control over these sacred items. Rather, the Lord did, and the Lord forbade Joseph to show them to Martin or anyone else except at the Lord’s specific command. At this point in time, not even Joseph’s immediate family was allowed to view the plates.
2 And now, behold, this shall you say unto him—he who spake unto you, said unto you: I, the Lord, am God, and have given these things unto you, my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and have commanded you that you should stand as a witness of these things;
verse 2 “you should stand as a witness of these things” The Lord is speaking here to the Prophet Joseph. Joseph’s calling was not to display the sacred objects to others, but only to testify of them. Only God could authorize them to be shown, and after the episode of the lost 116 pates, Joseph was not about to disobey the Lord on this point. We probably do not fully appreciate the emotional burden put on Joseph by his not being allowed to show the plates to others—not even to his wife and family.
3 And I have caused you that you should enter into a covenant with me, that you should not show them except to those persons to whom I commanded you; and you have no power over them except I grant it unto you.
4 And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished.
verse 4 The “gift” spoken of in this verse is the gift of translation. The reader simply cannot begin to understand this incredible and astonishing gift until he or she comes to understand the process by which Joseph will soon translate the Book of Momon. Please see The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon, in volume 2, Appendix A, of Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine. In time, after the translation is completed, other gifts, including the priesthood of God, will be added.
5 Verily, I say unto you, that woe shall come unto the inhabitants of the earth if they will not hearken unto my words;
6 For hereafter you shall be ordained and go forth and deliver my words unto the children of men.
7 Behold, if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you should show them all these things which I have committed unto you.
8 Oh, this unbelieving and stiffnecked generation—mine anger is kindled against them.
9 Behold, verily I say unto you, I have reserved those things which I have entrusted unto you, my servant Joseph, for a wise purpose in me, and it shall be made known unto future generations;
10 But this generation shall have my word through you;
verse 10 “this generation” In one sense this designates Joseph’s own generation (1805-44). Future generations of saints will receive additional revelation through their own prophets. But in a larger sense, “Joseph’s generation” is the whole present dispensation of the gospel from the opening of the dispensation down to the second coming of Christ, which dispensation enjoys the fulness of the gospel only through the work of the prophet Joseph Smith.
“shall have my word through you” The Lord’s message to the world, the gospel of Jesus Christ, will come through the Prophet Joseph and through the Book of Mormon.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has defined the expression “my word:”
The word is the gospel of salvation; the word is the plan of salvation; the word is the mind and will and purposes of the Lord as pertaining to his children on earth; the word is all the truths and rights and powers and doctrines and principles that are needed by men so they can take the souls they possess and transform them into the kind of souls that can go where God and Christ are (“This Generation Shall Have My Word Through You” in Sperry Symposium Classics, The Doctrine and Covenants, 35).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has placed the calling of Joseph Smith in a particularly poignant perspective. Please see the supplemental article, Joseph Smith and the Gospel Dispensation.
11 And in addition to your testimony, the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these things, and they shall go forth with my words that are given through you.
verse 11 (see also verses 15, 18) The Lord is still speaking to the Prophet Joseph. The Lord’s law of witnesses is introduced. Joseph’s testimony was not to stand alone, in keeping with the law revealed to Moses and also taught by Jesus during his earthly ministry: “At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses,” was a matter to be established or verified (Deuteronomy 17:6, Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1). The three witnesses of the Book of Mormon will be Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. These three witnesses had been prophesied of by the prophet Moroni some fourteen hundred years previously (Ether 5:2-4).
12 Yea, they shall know of a surety that these things are true, for from heaven will I declare it unto them.
verse 12 “they shall know of a surety” The three witnesses will experience the plates with their own physical senses. They will see and converse with the angel Moroni, and will hear the voice of God bear witness from heaven. They will no longer have to depend upon their faith.
13 I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
14 And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony among this generation, in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners.
verses 12-14 The witnesses are to be given much more than the privilege of physically viewing the plates. They will also receive a spiritual witness of the divine authenticity of the book (see also D&C 17:3). The physical experience alone would likely have been denied or rationalized away by the witnesses. But the spiritual witness burned into their souls was never forsaken even to the end of their lives. No other person on earth will be allowed the privilege of obtaining a testimony in the same way. The eight witness saw and handled the plates but were not favored with the visit of a heavenly messenger. All the rest of us must earn our testimonies in the manner prescribed in Moroni 10:3-5.
The term “coming forth of my church out of the wilderness” refers to symbolism used by John the Apostle in the book of Revelation (Revelation 12:6). The woman who “fled into the wilderness” (Revelation 12:6) is the Church of Christ which deteriorated into a state of apostasy in the first few centuries AD. In 1830 the Church will be restored or come “out of the wilderness”—out of a state of apostasy. See the commentary on D&C 33:5.
In scripture, the “wilderness” might also be a place of safe retreat—separate from the world or “Babylon.” Thus, Joseph went into the woods, Moses up onto the mountain, and Jesus into the wilderness of Judea to encounter or commune with God. John the Baptist is a voice “that crieth in the wilderness” (Isaiah 40:3). The saints are often called out of Babylon to go into the wilderness to avoid God’s punishments upon the world, as was Israel under Moses, Lehi before the destruction of Jerusalem, and the modern saints in their trek to the mountain West.
Here in verse 5 perhaps both of these concepts of “the wilderness” apply. In the time following Jesus’s mortal sojourn, the Church was metaphorically driven out of “the world” into “the wilderness” (see Revelation 12:6, 14; JST Revelation 12:5-7). That is, it was no longer found in the wicked and apostate world of men, but was taken to God. Thus, the Church’s being called forth out of the wilderness to take the gospel “into all the world” (D&C 18:28) here symbolizes the restoration of the true Church to the earth in the latter days.
The expression “clear as the moon, and fair as the sun and terrible as an army with banners” is used here to describe the restored gospel. The expression is taken from the Old Testament book, the Song of Solomon, which, interestingly, Joseph did not consider inspired writing.
15 And the testimony of three witnesses will I send forth of my word.
16 And behold, whosoever believeth on my words, them will I visit with the manifestation of my Spirit; and they shall be born of me, even of water and of the Spirit–
verse 16 “manifestation of my Spirit” A spiritual witness may be received by all human beings in answer to their honest prayers. Still, this does not mean they have received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
“they shall be born of me” That is, born of Christ. When we are “born again” in the gospel covenant, we are born spiritually as the sons and daughters of Christ who has given us life through his suffering.
“even of water and of the Spirit” This phrase refers to the ordinance of baptism, part of which is receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. It also refers to spiritual rebirth. For a better understanding of the profoundly important ordinance of baptism, see Baptism, the Ordinance that Brings Spiritual Growth, chapter 18, volume 1 of Ye Shall Know of the Docrine.
17 And you must wait yet a little while, for ye are not yet ordained—
verse 17 Joseph has not yet received the priesthood—the authority to baptize and to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery will receive this authority about two months later.
18 And their testimony shall also go forth unto the condemnation of this generation if they harden their hearts against them;
19 For a desolating scourge shall go forth among the inhabitants of the earth, and shall continue to be poured out from time to time, if they repent not, until the earth is empty, and the inhabitants thereof are consumed away and utterly destroyed by the brightness of my coming.
verses 18-19 These two verses read differently in the 1833 Book of Commandments. The changes were made by the Prophet Joseph himself in the 1835 edition, perhaps because of the inflammatory effect the original words had on the enemies of the Church. In the 1833 Book of Commandments, these two verses were numbered as verses 5-6. The 1833 wording, though not now officially the scripture of the Church, is as follows:
5 And thus, if the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a reformation among them, and I will put down all lyings, and deceivings, and priestcrafts, and envyings, and strifes, and idolatries, and sorceries, and all manner of iniquities, and I will establish my church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old.
6 And now if this generation do harden their hearts against my word, behold I will deliver them up unto satan, for he reigneth and hath much power at this time, for he hath got great hold upon the hearts of the people of this generation: and not far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah, do they come at this time: and behold the sword of justice hangeth over their heads, and if they persist in the hardness of their hearts, the time cometh that it must fall upon them.
verse 19 “For a desolating scourge shall go forth among the inhabitants of the earth” A scourge is literally “a whipping” or “a flogging” and refers here figuratively to the punishment that is about to be poured out upon the nations. It is difficult to identify this scourge with any particular disease or disaster. Section 87 teaches that this scourge or punishment is to come in many forms—war, famine, plague, earthquake, and so on—“until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations” (D&C 87:6). It is a “desolating” scourge because it will culminate with the Lord’s second coming in glory and leave the world empty or desolate of all telestial inhabitants and elements. As it was in the days of Noah, even so in our own dispensation, as the second coming approaches, all who will not repent will be erased. It is either repentance or destruction. In giving us this choice the Lord is treating our dispensation no differently than he treated the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem, or the Nephites, or the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. The world in our dispensation will find the Lord’s ultimatum just as unavoidable as it was anciently (see verse 20).
In agreement with verse 6 of the 1833 Book of Commandments (reproduced above), it is likely that the great scourging will begin with the Civil War: “The sword of justice hangeth over their heads.” Brigham Young clearly believed this: “The war now raging in our nation [the Civil War] is in the providence of God, and was told us years and years ago by the Prophet Joseph; and what we are now coming to was foreseen by him, and no power can hinder” (JD, 10:294).
“utterly destroyed by the brightness of my coming” At the Lord’s second coming, the energy that will consume the wicked will be the very glory of the resurrected Christ himself. That glory will burn away all things that cannot abide at least a terrestrial law. Thus, the earth will “be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory” (Articles of Faith 1:10).
20 Behold, I tell you these things, even as I also told the people of the destruction of Jerusalem; and my word shall be verified at this time as it hath hitherto been verified.
verse 20 “even as I also told the people of the destruction of Jerusalem” Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC by the Babylonians and again in AD 70 by the Romans. In the former case the people were warned by Jeremiah and Lehi among others (1 Nephi 1:18). In the latter case they were warned by the Savior himself (JS-M 1:4-20).
21 And now I command you, my servant Joseph, to repent and walk more uprightly before me, and to yield to the persuasions of men no more;
verse 21 “repent and walk more uprightly” Even prophets like Joseph Smith must repent when they err.
22 And that you be firm in keeping the commandments wherewith I have commanded you; and if you do this, behold I grant unto you eternal life, even if you should be slain.
verse 22 “even if you should be slain” Note that even as early as March 1829, the Lord gives an intimation of Joseph’s future martyrdom (see also D&C 6:30).
23 And now, again, I speak unto you, my servant Joseph, concerning the man that desires the witness—
verse 23 “the man that desires the witness” The Lord is referring to Martin Harris.
24 Behold, I say unto him, he exalts himself and does not humble himself sufficiently before me; but if he will 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 desires to see.
verse 24 “then will I grant unto him a view of the things which he desires to see” Martin is promised that he will become one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon plates (see D&C 17).
25 And then he shall say unto the people of this generation: Behold, I have seen the things which the Lord hath shown unto Joseph Smith, Jun., and I know of a surety that they are true, for I have seen them, for they have been shown unto me by the power of God and not of man.
verse 25 “and I know of a surety that they are true” Again, Martin will see and hear with his own physical senses. He will know as Joseph knew with no further need of faith. The spiritual witness he received and the covenant he entered into at the time he saw the plates would be indelibly burned into his soul. He will know of himself with no need of any other witness.
26 And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say.
verses 25-26 “and these are the words which he shall say” Notice how the Lord boxes in Martin Harris and the testimony he is to bear. Martin had the nasty habit of preaching his own pet ideas and theories. When it was appropriate, he had to say what he was commanded to say and no more, or else he would break his covenant with God and stand condemned (see verse 27).
27 But if he deny this he will break the covenant which he has before covenanted with me, and behold, he is condemned.
verse 27 The covenant spoken of in this verse is defined by the Lord in verses 2-3 of this section.
28 And now, except he humble himself and acknowledge unto me the things that he has done which are wrong, and covenant with me that he will keep my commandments, and exercise faith in me, behold, I say unto him, he shall have no such views, for I will grant unto him no views of the things of which I have spoken.
29 And if this be the case, I command you, my servant Joseph, that you shall say unto him, that he shall do no more, nor trouble me any more concerning this matter.
verses 28-29 Martin was wealthy and impetuous, and despite the witnesses he had received, was not yet sufficiently humble, even after losing the manuscript. This was Martin’s last chance. If he would not repent and humble himself, the Lord did not want to be troubled again concerning him in the process of restoring the gospel to the earth. In this respect, Doctrine and Covenants 5:28-29 may be called Martin Harris’s “wake up call.”
30 And if this be the case, behold, I say unto thee Joseph, when thou hast translated a few more pages thou shalt stop for a season, even until I command thee again; then thou mayest translate again.
verses 30, Joseph is commanded to stop translating “for a season” until the Lord provides “means” by which the translation may be accomplished. The “means” will be explained in section 6.
31 And except thou do this, behold, thou shalt have no more gift, and I will take away the things which I have entrusted with thee.
32 And now, because I foresee the lying in wait to destroy thee, yea, I foresee that if my servant Martin Harris humbleth not himself and receive a witness from my hand, that he will fall into transgression;
verse 32 If Martin Harris will not accept a quiet witness of the Spirit but continues to demand more dramatic proof, then he will fall.
33 And there are many that lie in wait to destroy thee from off the face of the earth; and for this cause, that thy days may be prolonged, I have given unto thee these commandments. 34 Yea, for this cause I have said: Stop, and stand still until I command thee, and I will provide means whereby thou mayest accomplish the thing which I have commanded thee.
verse 34 See verse 30 and its commentary.
35 And if thou art faithful in keeping my commandments, thou shalt be lifted up at the last day. Amen.
verse 35 “thou shalt be lifted up at the last day” To be lifted up is to be resurrected with a celestial body and be admitted into the celestial kingdom of God. This expression seems to have originated from the idea of being lifted up from the earth at the second coming of Christ when all wickedness is left behind and burned (see D&C 88:96; 1 Thessalonians 4:17).
“at the last day” This expression refers to the last day of Babylon, or the world, which is the present telestial earth. It will also be the day of Jesus’s return to earth in glory.
- Michael J. Preece