10 questions with Susan Easton Black

Susan Easton Black is the co-author of Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon, and Professor Emerita of Church History and Doctrine at BYU.

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic career?

I was born and reared in Long Beach, California. I presume my claim to fame is that I was the first woman to teach religion at BYU and the first woman to receive the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award for my research and writing, the highest award given a professor at BYU. What I would like to be remembered for is being a wife and a mother and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Since retiring from BYU I have had the privilege of serving several missions including a mission as a psychologist for LDS Social Services, a mission to the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, a mission in the St. George Temple Visitors’ Center, and a mission as a writer for the Priesthood and Family Department in Salt Lake City.

I am currently an instructor at the Utah Valley Institute of Religion.

When did you first notice you had a passionate interest in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

I grew up in a home where my grandmother was the daughter of a Mormon pioneer. As you can tell, women in my family line live long. Instead of telling me stories like Cinderella, my grandmother told me stories of the pioneers and Joseph Smith. I was enthralled by her stories and amazed at the struggles and sacrifices of the early Latter-day Saints.

Who was Milton V. Backman Jr. and why did he have such a profound influence upon you? What do you think is his most lasting legacy?

After my grandmother’s death, I thought the best storyteller was gone and greatly lamented her passing. When enrolled in BYU as I freshman, I took a Church history class taught by Dr. Milton V. Backman Jr.

Brother Backman could not only tell the same stories as my grandmother, but add details and tell me what books I should check out at the library to learn more. I viewed Brother Backman as a consummate scholar. The summer after his class, I went on a Church history tour directed by him. Once I had seen Nauvoo, nothing else seemed quite as important. I have never gotten over my great love for Nauvoo and the Saints that Joseph Smith knew and loved.

As for Brother Backman, I think his legacy to Church history was his book, Heaven’s Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio.

‘Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon,” by Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter. Image provided by BYU Studies.

When did you first come up with the idea for a biography of Martin Harris and how did you form a partnership with BYU Studies? How did you and co-author Larry C. Porter divide your duties and what do you most admire about his contributions?

The idea of writing a biography on Martin Harris began at a donor’s meeting at BYU in 2004. I was seated next to one of my favorite students of yesteryear, David Christiansen. David asked me if I did any research and if so, what I would most like to find. I assured him that I did research all the time and would most like to find the 116 lost pages.

We both laughed, but before I said goodbye to David, he promised to put money in my research account to help me financially find those pages. As the meeting ended, I assured David that I would accept his money but couldn’t guarantee the find of the 116 pages. However, I assured him that I would write a biography on Martin Harris.

As to Larry Porter’s involvement—at a Mormon History Association meeting in 2004 I told Larry of my experience with David Christiansen. Larry reminded me that he had lived in the home on the property of Martin Harris when he was working on his dissertation and that he had files and files on the life of Martin. By the end of our conversation, we agreed to write the biography of Martin Harris together. The division of labor varied through the years. Larry more than did his part. I will forever be grateful to him and his dogged determination to uncover details about the life of Martin Harris.

What was one of the most significant research obstacles you faced in writing this book and how did you overcome it?

There were several significant obstacles in writing the biography of Martin Harris. Martin didn’t keep a journal and he didn’t write his memoirs or any autobiographical material. Trying to pull his life together from newspapers, journals of those who wrote about him, land transactions, etc., left many gaping holes in research.

What I had hoped would be a writing project that would be finished within a few years went on for about 15 years. When I was ready to pronounce a chapter done, Larry would say, “Just one more inch.” That inch stretched out to fill a 500-page biography on Martin Harris.

I am especially grateful to Jack Welch and Roger Terry of BYU Studies for his patience and confidence that we could complete the biography.

In what ways do you think this book would be different without the research made available through the Joseph Smith Papers Project? How do you hope your book might be used in future research?

The Joseph Smith Papers Project is wonderful and represents original documents, for the most part, held by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We began our research efforts long before there was ever a Joseph Smith Papers Project. Due to the Joseph Smith Papers Project after most of our chapters had been written, we reread and resourced the biography where necessary. Having original manuscripts to compare and contrast with our work proved most valuable.

As to our hope of how this book might be used in future research, I would hope that the book will serve as a reference for anyone wanting to write about aspects of Martin’s life.

The Joseph Smith Papers: The First 10 Years

For readers who think they are already quite familiar with Martin Harris, provide a brief overview of what kind of new information you provide.

Readers will discover in Martin Harris: Uncompromising Witness of the Book of Mormon that there is much more to the story of this Book of Mormon witness than the follies which led to the loss of the 116 page manuscript.

This biography reveals the compelling story of a man who struggled to keep his faith in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ when family and friends turned against him. It tells of a businessman whose fascination with worldly honors, flirtations with apostasy, and pride nearly cost him the joy of his later years in the west.

If readers will set aside their preconceived notion about the flawed character of Martin Harris, they will discover in the text insights about this Book of Mormon witness not found elsewhere.

Provide a brief snapshot of how Harris’s life weaved together strengths and weaknesses. What are the dangers of stereotyping historical figures into categories of either saints or sinners with not much in between?

Too often when we think of Martin Harris we think of the lost 116 pages. At one point I wanted to title the biography, “More Than a Lost Manuscript.”

Portrait of Martin Harris by Lewis A. Ramsay (circa 1840). This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published without a copyright prior to Jan. 3, 1989.

Martin was a financer whose contribution to the Restoration was formidable. Yet, he too often succumbed to weaknesses. The objects and lessons from his life give me pause. At one point he is generous, and then not. At another point he serves faithfully in Church callings, and then does not.

The most consistent part of his life was always his testimony of the Book of Mormon.

What do you think most attracted Harris to Joseph Smith and vice versa? Do you think their relationship has mended and remains strong in the eternities?

I don’t know much about the eternities, but I have confidence in the words of prophets about the eternities. Perhaps in a few years I will have firsthand knowledge of the topic. There is no question that Martin Harris was a strong supporter of Joseph Smith in the New York period, but lost his way in Ohio.

Will their relationship mend in the eternities? One thing I have learned about Joseph Smith is that he was very forgiving.

What do you think Harris would think of this biography?

I am sure that Martin Harris would wish Larry and I were better writers and had dug deeper. He probably laments that we included his warts along with his successes. In retrospect, he is probably frustrated with himself for not keeping a journal or writing his memoirs. Overall, I think Martin Harris would think this book is acceptable.

If you could go back in time and witness any event from the history of Harris, what would you most want to observe and why?

Who wouldn’t want to be at his side when he saw an angel and the plates? If I was given a second choice, I would like to have been seated next to him when he scribed the Book of Lehi and had a tape recorder.

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