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Martin Harris wallet donated to Church

Leather billfold called symbol of sacrifice, friendship

Wallets are like wrist watches and eye glasses — simple items that folks use every day and don't consider much until they're missing or stolen.

Martin Harris might not have thought much about the leather wallet that, according to family tradition, he used to carry $3,000 to the printer's shop to pay for the Book of Mormon's maiden publication. But for Brother Harris' descendants and Church members alike, that simple billfold is a priceless artifact. It's a well-worn symbol of sacrifice that memorializes the faith of an imperfect man who would witness the divine origin of the Book of Mormon and play a pivotal role in that book's first printing.

Now millions will be able to examine that symbol and learn its lessons. On March 23, Martin Harris' wallet was donated to the Church by its owner's great-great-grandson, Russell Martin Harris, at the Museum of Church History and Art. Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and a direct descendent of Martin Harris' brother, Emer Harris, accepted the wallet on the Church's behalf.

"This is a very significant artifact — the wallet Martin Harris used to carry the money to pay the printer," said Elder Oaks, who added that the wallet's authenticity has been established. "It's been in the family for several generation and we're thrilled to have it in the collections of the Church."

Indeed, passing the wallet from one generation to the next had become a family tradition. In 1875, the 93-year-old Martin Harris gave the wallet to his eldest son, Martin Harris Jr. Martin Jr. then passed it on to Russell King Harris, who gave it to Russell Walker Harris, who gave it to Russell Martin Harris in 1964.

After consulting with his family, Brother Harris recently decided the wallet belonged in the Church collections. "It was time to put it where more people could see it," he said.

Martin Harris
Martin Harris

Richard Oman, the museum's curator of acquisitions, said the now-famous $3,000 that was once encased in the wallet was a "gift of major proportions." Considering the average income and buying power at the time of the Book of Mormon's publication in 1830 in upstate New York, Martin Harris' financial donation would today be the equivalent of more than $1 million, Brother Oman said.

The wallet will also remind museum visitors of Martin Harris' faith in Joseph Smith and his unshakable testimony of the Book of Mormon, Elder Oaks said.

"It is unfortunate that many members of the Church know Martin Harris only as the man who was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the loss of the 116 (Book of Mormon) manuscript pages," he said. "Lost is the fact that he was probably the most significant financial benefactor of the Church in its first century of existence, putting up what was then an enormous sum of money in order to publish the Book of Mormon."

Elder Oaks also called Martin Harris a friend of the Prophet, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and a man who was "looked to with great reverence and affection in the early days of the Church."

He then spoke of the value that artifacts such as the aged wallet have in teaching the lessons of Church history. "Artifacts bear a quiet but significant testimony to the events they represent — and we're in the business of testifying to the world that the gospel has been restored."

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