"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof."-- Marcello Truzzi
The proof provided for the most extraordinary claims made by theistic religions is often as extraordinary as the claims themselves. Prophesy usually involves an infinitely powerful being revealing critical information to a single person in such a way as to be almost indistinguishable from the act of that person making the information up or hallucinating it. Think of all the people who hallucinate or invent stuff every day. We are to believe that amongst this multitude a true prophesy reveals itself every so often with little –if any- distinguishing character; that is extraordinary. It is even more extraordinary when true revelation and hallucinations come from the same individual.
Martin Harris was one of the original Latter Day Saints. He financed the original printing of the Book Of Mormon. He often saw angels or Jesus, and was the recipient of many revelations and prophesies. He was one of the few people who actually saw the gold plates from which the Book Of Mormon was translated. Every copy of the Book Of Mormon I have ever flipped through has a statement signed by Martin Harris attesting to his witnessing the gold plates.
“And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true.” -- "Testimony of Three Witnesses" Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris
Notice how much more extraordinary this testament is than we would expect from a mundane viewing of the plates. It is worthwhile to point out here that Joseph Smith carted around the plates for quite some time during the translation process. He would sit for hours with one or two of the witnesses and translate the plates. Never once did he actually show the witnesses the plates. He always kept them covered. If he did show the plates to them in person it would not have been as extraordinary. The witnesses would have just looked at the gold plates with strange “reformed Egyptian” characters on them and said “Hey look at those gold plates with strange characters on them. I guess what you are saying is true, and BTW we could scrape a bit of gold off the margins and pay for printing this Book Of Mormon.” That would not have been as extraordinary as an angel coming down in person and personally showing each of the three witnesses the plates; that is truly extraordinary.Unfortunately it also left them short on cash for the printing.
I think it is even more extraordinary that the angel of God did not really show Martin the plates. He showed him a vision of the plates. Why not show him the real plates? Joesph was carting them around.
"he never saw the plates with his natural eyes, only in vision or imagination." – one of several reports of statements made by Martin Harris in march 1838
This should prove to even the most unwashed skeptic that the gold plates did exist; if only in Martin's imagination. In that crowded place they would never be alone. Martin once told of seeing Jesus himself “poised on a roof beam”. Another time Jesus came to him in the form of a deer and walked beside him for two or three miles “talking with him as familiarly as one man talks with another." Once Satan pounced on his chest in the form of a large dog-like creature, but others in the room saw no evidence of this.
According to Martin Jesus was “the handsomest man he ever did see”
According to Martin the devil was “a very sleek haired fellow with four feet, and a head like that of a Jack-ass."
Martin lived in a world that was much more extraordinary than the one you and I experience. The veil between the supernatural and mundane was shot full of holes, and awesome visions seeped through. This was noticed by many people he interacted with.
“had always been a firm believer in dreams, and visions and supernatural appearances, such as apparitions and ghosts” -- The Reverend John A. Clark
“great man for seeing spooks.” -- Lorenzo Saunders
“visionary fanatic.” Presbyterian minister Jesse Townsend
"The very countenance of Harris will show to every spiritual-minded person who sees him, that the wrath of God is upon him." [Latter-Day Saint's, Millennial Star, Vol 8 pp124-128.]
Despite personally being ministered to by Jesus and his angels Martin was not a steadfast member of the LDS church. He was excommunicated from the LDS church in 1837, and re-baptized in 1842. He was excommunicated from the LDS church later in 1842, and re-baptized in 1870. God even identified alternative LDS prophets, and Martin was arrested at least one time for disorderly conduct while preaching on a street corner about some alternative prophet’s teaching.
Prophesy is a tricky business. If a prophesy is too specific the mundane fact that it does not come true can appear to outweigh any amount of extraordinary evidence that it will come true. We saw this in May of 2011 and December of 2012 when the world inconveniently refused to end. Martin was caught in this prophesy trap a few times.
“Martin was something of a prophet--he frequently said that "Jackson would be the last president that we would have; and that all persons who did not embrace Mormonism in two years' time would be stricken off the face of the earth." He said that Palmyra was to be the New Jerusalem, and that her streets were to be paved with gold. “ -- Recollections of John H. Gilbert
"I do hereby assert and declare that in four years from the date hereof, every sectarian and religious denomination in the United States shall be broken down, and every Christian shall be gathered unto the Mormonites, and the rest of the human race shall perish. If these things do not take place, I will hereby consent to have my hand separated from my body." – Martin Harris 1832
So it should not be surprising that, thirty years ago in early 1984, the LDS church was not ubiquitously overjoyed to come into possession of an extraordinary letter written by Martin in 1830. Some in the LDS church surely saw it as more delusional ramblings of an awkwardly deranged man. Others undoubtedly saw it as more of the extraordinary proof that the extraordinary claims in the Book Of Mormon required.
Experts attested to the letter’s age and apparent authenticity. So the LDS church released the text of “The Salamander Letter” for the world to see. Here is the full text of that letter:
Palmyra October 23d 1830
Your letter of yesterday is received & I hasten to answer as fully as I can--Joseph Smith Jr first come to my notice in the year 1824 in the summer of that year I contracted with his father to build a fence on my property in the corse of that work I approach Joseph & ask how it is in a half day you put up what requires your father & 2 brothers a full day working together he says I have not been with out assistance but can not say more only you better find out the next day I take the older Smith by the arm & he says Joseph can see any thing he wishes by looking at a stone Joseph often sees Spirits here with great kettles of coin money it was Spirits who brought up rock because Joseph made no attempt on their money I latter dream I converse with spirits which let me count their money when I awake I have in my hand a dollar coin which I take for a sign Joseph describes what I seen in every particular says he the spirits are grieved so I through back the dollar in the fall of the year 1827 I hear Joseph found a gold bible I take Joseph aside & he says it is true I found it 4 years ago with my stone but only just got it because of the enchantment the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it because I lay it down to cover over the hole when the spirit says do not lay it down Joseph says when can I have it the spirit says one year from to day if you obay me look to the stone after a few days he looks the spirit says bring your brother Alvin Joseph says he is dead shall I bring what remains but the spirit is gone Joseph goes to get the gold bible but the spirit says you did not bring your brother you can not have it look to the stone Joseph looks but can not see who to bring the spirit says I tricked you again look to the stone Joseph looks & sees his wife on the 22d day of Sept 1827 they get the gold bible--I give Joseph $50 to move him down to Pa Joseph says when you visit me I will give you a sign he gives me some hiroglyphics I take then to Utica Albany & New York in the last place Dr Mitchel gives me an introduction to Professor Anthon says he they are short hand Egyption the same what was used in ancient times bring me the old book & I will translate says I it is made of precious gold & is sealed from view says he I can not read a sealed book--Joseph found some giant silver specticles with the plates he puts them in an old hat & in the darkness reads the words & in this way it is all translated & written down--about the middle of June 1829 Joseph takes me together with Oliver Cowdery & David Whitmer to have a view of the plates our names are appended to the book of Mormon which I had printed with my own money--space and time both prevent me from writing more at present if there is any thing further you wish to inquire I shall attend to it
If a transfiguring white salamander demanding that Joseph Smith unearth the remains of his dead brother is not extraordinary proof I don’t know what is.
Beleiving that necromancy-obsessed amphibians might be a little too extraordinary for the more mundane of Earth’s citizens the church engaged in a bit of image prophylaxis. They attempted to explain that “salamander” might mean “a spirit supposed to live in fire”. I suppose they thought the fire spirit interpretation would be more believable.
”there is another meaning of salamander, which may even have been the primary meaning in this context in the 1820s. That meaning, which is listed second in a current edition of Webster's New World Dictionary, is 'a spirit supposed to live in fire' (2d College ed. 1982, s.v. 'salamander'). Modern and ancient literature contain many examples of this usage” -- "Reading Church History," an address by Elder Dallin H. Oaks to the 1985 CES Doctrine and Covenants Symposium at Brigham Young University, 16 August 1985.
It turns out that the person who was selling Martin’s 1830 letter was also selling some Emily Dickenson poems and a handful of other interesting historical documents. Some of these turned out to be fakes. In an attempt to cover his misdeeds the forger (Mark Hofmann) blew up the LDS contact who was buying the letter to donate to the LDS church, and then he accidentally set off another bomb and blew himself up. Mark survived, and is now doing time at Point Of The Mountain State Penitentiary.
But just because Mark forged the “Salamander Letter” how do we know it is fake? It would be even more extraordinary if God had directed Mark to re-create the document so that we could have the proof we needed to show that the events in the Book Of Mormon really happened. If God must test the faith of the faithful then demonstrably forging the evidence they need to believe would be a stroke of genius.