Historical Context and Background of D&C 3

Martin Harris Home
Photo Credit: Kenneth Mays

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

A respected and prosperous farmer from Palmyra, New York, Martin Harris left his home in the spring of 1828 and traveled southeast until he crossed into Pennsylvania. There he dictated as Joseph Smith, Jr., who was about half Martin’s age, translated the abridged Book of Lehi by the gift and power of God.

Meanwhile, Martin’s wife Lucy told neighbors that Joseph had duped her husband into giving him money. She dramatically moved her favorite pieces of furniture out of the house, claiming she did not want Martin to give them away too. Martin resented the damage Lucy was doing to his good name, and he asked Joseph to let him take the translated manuscript home to prove that he was no fool.

“The Lord said unto me that he must not take them,” Joseph recalled, “and I spoke unto Martin the word of the Lord.” Dissatisfied, Martin told Joseph to ask again. “I inquired again and also the third time,” Joseph said, “and the Lord said unto me let him go with them.”1

The Lord knew what was about to happen. Martin was sure he knew better than Joseph, and Joseph feared to disappoint him. Joseph struggled to please both Martin and the Lord. He made Martin vow solemnly to show the pages only to his wife Lucy, her sister Abigail, his brother, and his parents. The Lord’s answer made them free agents, but with agency came accountability. They could do their own will instead of God’s, but making that choice meant that Joseph could no longer be the seer chosen to bring forth the marvelous work. Moroni confiscated the seer stones. Sincerely but unwisely, Martin left for a brief trip to Palmyra with the translated manuscript. He did not return as promised.

Finally, Joseph went to Martin and learned that he had lost the manuscript.

“It is gone and I know not where,” Martin confessed.

“Oh, my God, my God,” Joseph uttered humbly, “all is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned. It is I who tempted the wrath of God by asking him for that which I had no right to ask.” And he wept and groaned and paced the floor, forsaken. “How shall I appear before the Lord?” Joseph wondered. “Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?”2

Back home in Pennsylvania, Joseph went to the woods and prayed for redemption, poured out sorrow, and confessed weakness. Moroni appeared and returned the seer stones. Joseph looked and saw strict words:

Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men; for although a man may have many revelations, and have power to do many mighty works, yet if he boasts in his own strength, and sets at naught the counsels of God, and follows after the dictates of his own will and carnal desires, he must fall and incur the vengeance of a just God upon him. (D&C 3:3–4)

It’s not clear whose words they were. They could have been Moroni’s. They could have been from the Lord, speaking in third person.

The words pierced Joseph. “You have been entrusted with these things, but how strict were your commandments; and remember the promises which were made to you if you did not transgress them.” Joseph recalled Moroni’s commission to be responsible for the sacred records and powers and the warning that “if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them . . . they should be protected.”3 Joseph had let Martin persuade him to transgress these commands. “You should not have feared man more than God,” the revelation said. Historian Richard Bushman wrote that these words “were hard for a young man who had lost his first-born son and nearly lost his wife, and whose chief error was to trust a friend, but there was comfort in the revelation as well.”4

Indeed, notice the way the tone of the revelation changes about halfway through. “Remember,” it says, “God is merciful.” It tells Joseph he is still chosen to translate if he will repent. Then it teaches him why the manuscript is sacred and can’t be treated as taken for granted. The plates were preserved so the Lord could keep this promise (Enos 1:15–18). And by keeping His promise to give Lehi’s descendants their ancestors’ knowledge of the Savior, “they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ” (D&C 3:20), exercise faith, repent, and be saved.

The revelation in section 3 marked a turning point in the life of the young seer. This was the first time Joseph committed one of his revelations to writing. Only twenty-two years old, he had learned to use the prophetic voice to foretell the fulfillment of the Lord’s promises to the house of Israel. He was the seer chosen to bring forth the marvelous work that would eventually teach all nations “to rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ,” as the revelation said, “and be glorified through faith on his name, and that through their repentance they might be saved” (D&C 3:20).

Moroni kept the plates while Joseph acted on the revelation’s command to repent. Then in September 1828, one year after he first received them, Joseph received the plates again. By choosing to obey the revelation, Joseph was still chosen and again called to the work.

1. “History, circa Summer 1832,” pages 5–6, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 21, 2020.

2. “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” p. 131, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 22, 2020. “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, Page [6], bk. 7,” The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 22, 2020.

3. “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 8, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 22, 2020.

4. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 68.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

The revelation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 3 was given shortly after Martin Harris lost the earliest manuscript of the Book of Mormon. It was given through the Urim and Thummim and is the earliest revelation given to Joseph Smith of which we have record. Martin Harris arrived in Harmony in February 1828 and began working on the translation with the Prophet. By June, they had produced a substantial manuscript of what Joseph Smith described as “one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon” (Book of Mormon, 1830, iii).

According to Joseph Smith’s 1832 history, Martin took the manuscript because “he desired to carry them to read to his friends that peradventure he might convince them of the truth.” Joseph sought the will of the Lord and was told “no” twice, but upon his third request the Lord told Joseph to “let him go with them only he shall covenant with me that he will not shew them to only but four persons” (History, circa Summer 1832, 5–6). The 1838 history written by the Prophet added one more person identifying the five people to whom Martin was allowed to show the manuscript as his brother, Preserved Harris; his wife, Lucy Harris; his father, Nathan Harris; his mother, Rhoda Lapham Harris; and Polly Harris Cobb, his wife’s sister. Martin willingly entered into this covenant with the Lord (JS History, 1838–1856, vol. A-1, 9, JSP).

We know almost nothing about Lucy Harris except what Lucy Mack Smith shares in her 1845 history. She depicts Harris as a woman who, because of a vision shown to her, was initially convinced of the importance of Joseph’s work and who at first assisted in the work. Harris’s faith wavered, however, and she began to pester her husband and Joseph for proof of the plates and the translation. Lucy Mack Smith even describes an incident in which Lucy Harris went to Joseph and Emma’s home in Harmony and ransacked it in an attempt to locate the plates. Unable to locate the record, Lucy Harris left in a rage and “went from place to place and from house to house, telling her grievances to everyone she met but particularly bewailing the deception which Joseph Smith was practicing a deception upon the people which was about to strip her of all that she possessed” (Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845, 125-126, JSP). Martin took the manuscript with him to Palmyra, to placate his wife and to dispel rumors spreading in the community.

Joseph remained in Harmony with Emma, who was about to give birth to their first child. The child, which Joseph and Emma named in honor of Joseph’s deceased brother Alvin, lived only a few hours, and Emma very nearly died during the delivery. For the next two weeks, Joseph took care of Emma while his anxiety over the manuscript grew steadily as no word arrived from Martin. Finally, at Emma’s urging, Joseph undertook the journey to Palmyra to find out what had happened to Martin and the manuscript (Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, bk 7, 2, JSP).

Lucy Mack Smith provides the most vivid description of what happened when Martin finally arrived at the Smith home to meet with Joseph. Arriving four hours later than expected, he hesitated to enter when the Smiths welcomed him in and offered him food. Martin sat in silence until he burst out, “I have lost my soul!” Lucy wrote, “Joseph who had smothered his fears till now sprang from the table exclaiming Oh! Martin have you lost that manuscript! have you broken your oath and brought down condemnation upon my head as well as your own.” “Yes,” replied Martin,  “it is gone and I know not where.” “Oh! My God My God,” said Joseph clenching his hands together, “All is lost what shall I do I have sinned it is me that tempted the wrath of God.” After Martin left, Joseph wept and walked the floor continually while “sobs and groans and the most bitter lamentations filled the house” (History, 1844–1845, bk 7, 6, JSP).

Unable to locate the manuscript, Joseph returned to Harmony in defeat. According to his 1838 history, “Immediately after my return home I was walking out a little distance, when Behold the former heavenly messenger appeared and handed to me the Urim and Thummim again (for it had been taken from me in consequence of my having wearied the Lord in asking for the privilege of letting Martin Harris take the writings which he lost by transgression) and I enquired of the Lord through them and obtained the following revelation [Doctrine and Covenants 3] (JS History, vol. A-1, 10, JSP).