reviews – The William E. McLellin Papers

William E. McLellinWhitmer Historical Journal, Steve LeSueur
Until about twenty years ago, Apostle William E. McLellin was a one-dimensional cardboard figure in the pages of early Mormon history, a much-reviled apostate and object lesson illustrating the fruits of disloyalty and pride. McLellin’s resurrection from cartoon status began in 1986 when two collections of McLellin’s writings were unearthed as a result of the controversy surrounding Mormon murderer and forger Mark W. Hoffman. The first set of documents, tracked down in Texas by Salt Lake City Tribune reporter Dawn House and now held by the University of Utah, consisted of twenty-six letters and seven notebooks of essays on Mormonism and religion. These were published last year as the William E. McLellin Papers, 1854-1880.

In addition to nearly four hundred pages of McLellin’s papers, the new book contains six splendid interpretative essays examining his life and writings. Tribune journalist Dawn House contributes a riveting personal account of how she came to discover this set of McLellin papers. The five remaining authors, all prominent Mormon historians, wrestle with the man and his character, and provide context for understanding his activities, motives, and place in Mormon history.

Born January 18, 1806, in Smith County, Tennessee, McLellin was baptized in August 1831 by Hyrum Smith in Jackson County, Missouri. He devoted himself immediately to building the nascent church, travelling extensively as a missionary, gathering with the saints in Independence, and rising in leadership to become one of the original twelve apostles. By his own account, he left the church in August 1836, disenchanted with the prophet’s leadership in Kirtland and with what he regarded as serious deviations from original church teachings and practices. However, he never stopped believing in the Book of Mormon or in the movement’s original precepts; and so, rather than abandoning Mormonism, he began a meandering odyssey among its various Restoration branches, yearning to find the true Church of Christ. Among the stops on his pilgrimage, McLellin in 1843 joined George M. Hinkle’s Church of Jesus Christ, the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife, becoming an apostle and counselor. He subsequently affiliated with Sidney Rigdon’s Church of Christ in 1845, James J. Strang in 1846, and the Hedrickite Church of Christ in 1869. At various times over the decades, McLellin also tried to persuade David Whitmer to step forward as Joseph Smith’s rightful successor. When McLellin died on March 14, 1883, he was not affiliated with any church, though he still believed strongly in the Book of Mormon and in the imminent restoration of the true church.

McLellin’s papers are an eclectic assortment of essays and letters, ranging from lengthy discussions of faith and original sin to equally lengthy lists detailing the reasons why he left Mormonism. In letters to friends and church authorities, he details—often ad nauseam—his objections to teachings and practices that crept into the church. For example, he argues that Joseph Smith and his advisors significantly altered many of Smith’s revelations before they were published; that the alleged priesthood ordinations by John the Baptist and Apostles Peter, James, and John were later inventions of the Kirtland period; that the original name of the church—the Church of Christ—was improperly changed; that no spiritual manifestations occurred at the Kirtland Temple dedication; and that Joseph Smith and Mormon leaders became autocratic, greedy, and reckless in their temporal affairs in Kirtland, and dangerously militaristic in their response to troubles in Missouri.

McLellin stated his opinions forcefully, and in some instances condemned Mormon leaders as ferociously as they denounced him. In an 1861 letter to Joseph Smith III, for example, he called the “Twelvites” leading the Utah church “the wickedest people now on this wide earth” (443). But other letters often tempered his blunt opinions with expressions of admiration and friendship. To Apostle Orson Pratt, McLellin concluded an 1854 letter by saying, “You will please to take this letter to the Valley, and show it to the Leading men in the church; especially those of the original council of the ‘Twelve.’ There is not one of them as men for whom I entertain the least personal ill feeling” (438). He signed the letter, “your old friend and sincere well-wisher.” He wrote wistfully about his close ties with the original Twelve, saying in an 1878 letter, “they almost perfectly knew me, and I now think they loved me” (513).

McLellin presents controversial accounts of many teachings and events. Regarding the Kirtland Temple dedication, for example, McLellin contends that some of the Mormon men were not visionary but drunk, having imbibed too much wine on empty stomachs following a fast. In an 1872 letter to Joseph Smith III, McLellin wrote, “I took care of S. H. Smith [the prophet’s brother Samuel] in one of the stands, so deeply intoxicated that he could not nor did sense anything … he vomited the spit-box five times full, and his dear brother Carlos would empty it out of the window” (494). In addition, the older McLellin raises objections to teachings and practices—such as editing and publishing the prophet’s revelations and taking up arms in Zion’s Camp—that he apparently endorsed without objection when they occurred.

The scholarly essays that accompany this volume help make sense of McLellin’s varied opinions and recollections—though not completely. But ambiguity is what makes history an intriguing enterprise. For example, Richard P. Howard (“Mormonism’s Stormy Petrel”) traces McLellin’s affiliation with Mormonism and its various branches, acknowledging his intellect but seeing a man who was moody, blustery, and self-absorbed. By the end of his life, Howard says, McLellin had become a strident and at times boorishly repetitious “crank,” unable to persuade anyone but himself of the truths he saw (26-27). In contrast, William D. Russell (“Portrait of a ‘True Believer’ in Original Mormonism”) regards McLellin as a prophetic figure who summoned the saints to be true to the original genius of the movement. Just as many of the saints could not accept the evolving theology developed in Nauvoo, McLellin had been unable to accept changes made in Kirtland. McLellin is “an essentially likeable person—not a crank, not a power-hungry fanatic or an immoral person. He was a true conservative who quite logically became distressed with the innovations he observed,” says Russell (135).

Both Thomas G. Alexander (“The Past as Decline from a Golden Age”) and D. Michael Quinn (“My Eyes Were Holden in Those Days”) examine McLellin’s apparent selective memory and his tendency to edit himself out of scenes and reconstruct the past to suit his later opinions. Neither author claims that McLellin is any different from other participants in that regard, but they help us to understand McLellin’s particular biases and contributions to the historical record. Quinn, for example, argues that of all the documents in this volume, McLellin’s 1878 letter to John Traughber “deserves the most attention as one of the more personally revealing and historically accurate writings” (59). Alexander says McLellin’s papers not only help us understand why some people left the body of the saints but also “offer a glimpse into the operations of the human mind in re-envisioning and reconstructing the past” (58).

Perhaps the most intriguing essay is John-Charles Duffy’s “Reinventing McLellin: A Historiographical Review.” Duffy argues that McLellin’s extreme makeover among historians has been driven in part by the LDS Church’s desire to present itself as a mainstream Christian religion. Upon their discovery, McLellin’s missionary journals were held up by LDS scholars as evidence that early Mormonism was deeply rooted in the Bible and its gospel teachings. Consequently, “if McLellin’s journals were to be used to demonstrate the Christian, not esoteric, essence of Mormonism,” Duffy writes, “then McLellin himself had to be rehabilitated” and shown to be a “reliable” eyewitness and “a consummate insider to the faith community,” at least during the period covered by the journals (93). McLellins’s transformation from “perfidious apostate” to a “model for Mormonism’s Christian witness” reflects present-day controversies within the LDS Church, Duffy says.

The book’s editors should be commended for providing extensive footnotes with helpful explanations of people and events. The book also contains a helpful bibliography and short biographies of the people mentioned in McLellin’s notebooks and writings.

Readers whose primary interest is Mormon history may not find McLellin’s treatises on original sin or the blood of Adam and Christ to be compelling reading. But overall his writings provide a provocative window on both Mormonism and the man, and the scholarly interpretations help give meaning and greater insight to what he wrote. I still can’t make up my mind whether McLellin was a crank. By the end of his life, he was certainly a lonely voice of one crying in the wilderness. Nevertheless, as Quinn concludes, “it would please McLellin to know that he remains a controversial, aggravating, and essential source for early Mormonism” (82).

Deseret News, Dennis Lythgoe
“The William E. McLellin Papers,” just published by Signature Books, has a long and checkered history. It became famous in modern day when master forger Mark Hofmann, now in the Utah State Prison, claimed he had possession of the papers in 1985.

When Hofmann’s myriad documents turned out to be forged, and he was convicted of murder, it became clear that he never had the McLellin collection. Instead, Otis Traughber did. Traughber, a Texan, had inherited the collection from his father, a friend and confidante of McLellin, who was a member of the first LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knew about Traughber as early as 1908. Representatives of the church met with him, acquired much of his materials, but didn’t announce the acquisition until 1994. Because the Marriott Library at the University of Utah also has McLellin holdings, it was logical that Stan Larson and Sam Passey, Marriott Library archivists, would transcribe and annotate the documents. The editors also included McLellin’s correspondence from the Community of Christ archives (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in Missouri.

The book also contains compelling essays by former RLDS Church historian Richard Howard, Brigham Young University history professor Tom Alexander, prolific LDS historian D. Michael Quinn, RLDS Graceland University professor Bill Russell and North Carolina graduate student John-Charles Duffy.

McLellin is a controversial figure, having joined the LDS Church in 1831 and becoming an apostle in 1835. He resigned from the apostleship in 1836 and lost his membership in 1838. He always claimed he only heard about Joseph Smith’s First Vision years after he left the church. He never returned to the church, yet he remained close to the Smith family and always maintained high regard for the first LDS prophet.

McLellin, a native of Tennessee, also allegedly didn’t know of other crucial elements of LDS doctrine, including appearances to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni, John the Baptist, the apostle Peter or the Hebrew prophet Elijah. Yet he always maintained a strong belief in the Book of Mormon.

Michael Quinn thinks McLellin cultivated a “selective memory,” which he called on in later years to write opinions and descriptions about Mormonism that he had never mentioned while a member. Nevertheless, the written record left by the former apostle is considerable and makes good reading for Mormons interested in their history.

Kudos to the editors and the publisher for issuing such a meticulous, interesting and important scholarly work relating to Mormon history, complete with biographical notes, bibliography, footnotes and index.

Association for Mormon Letters, Nick Literski
From the earliest days of the 1830 “Church of Christ,” Mormons have always held a special animosity toward “apostates,” those dastardly characters who dared to turn away from “inspired truth.” Apostasy has traditionally been portrayed in the LDS church as the consequences of pride and serious, unrepented sin. A certain “folklore of apostasy” has developed, providing stories of warning to those church members who might waver in their commitment to the LDS church.

The story of William E. McLellin (1806-1883) is one such “hiss and byword” in Latter-day Saint history. In LDS cultural memory, McLellin’s contributions are rarely acknowledged. Rather, he is remembered only as an example of damning pride, and the story of his failure to write a revelation equal to Joseph Smith’s is told as both an evidence of Joseph’s inspiration, and a stern warning to modern members who might question priesthood leadership.

In his treatises, essays, and letters, McLellin’s real story emerges as that of a deeply sincere religious seeker who believed that the pure church of Jesus Christ had been restored to the earth, but experienced profound disappointment and frustration as that church organization evolved in structure and doctrine. For McLellin, the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” as it was named in 1838, was no longer recognizeable as the pristine “Church of Christ” which he had joined.

McLellin’s writings provide a snapshot of one early apostle’s understanding of Mormon beginnings. We learn the key elements which attracted McLellin, perhaps the most highly educated of early Mormon converts, to the new faith. While it may be tempting for some to suspect an “apostate’s” recollections, McLellin’s views need not be an infallible record of early Mormonism, in order to shed light on the movement. In particular, I was surprised at several of the doctrines mentioned by McLellin, which are generally thought to have originated in Nauvoo-era Mormonism. McLellin’s perspective provides a view of pre-1838 Mormonism that is more doctrinally complex than I had expected.

McLellin also provides his own perspective on several events of Mormon history, such as the printing of Joseph Smith’s revelations and the Kirtland Temple “endowment from on high.” While McLellin’s descriptions differ considerably from traditional LDS accounts, they are difficult to dismiss. Honest readers will consider McLellin’s eyewitness accounts as an important source in reconstructing these events as they were originally perceived.

On this note of historiography, the editors have prefaced McLellin’s writings with no less than six introductory essays, including such notable writers as Richard P. Howard, Thomas G. Alexander, D. Michael Quinn, John-Charles Duffy, and William D. Russell. A full exposition of the source material’s discovery is provided by Dawn House, a direct participant. Some of the essays predated this book’s production by several years, while others were prepared for the current publication. Each author provides a distinct view of McLellin and his writings, and where one writer may irritate (as Alexander’s did me), another will illuminate. In particular, John Charles-Duffy’s outstanding essay, “Reinventing McLellin” provides a history of changing perspectives on McLellin, which is worth the book’s purchase price alone.

The editors of this volume have produced an exemplary work, unencumbered by excessive annotation. They have also included a masterful appendix of biographical sketches, which I found quite useful. The only one editorial practice which I found unfortunate was that of transcribing McLellin’s textual insertions as if they were in the original text, with a footnote identifying the insertion. I would have preferred the more standard practice of setting off the insertions with brackets. Still, this is a minor matter of preference, and hardly a “criticism” at all. Larson and Passey have produced this work as complete professionals, neither taking up McLellin’s cause nor defending against him. They, along with their publisher, Signature Books, have simply allowed McLellin to speak for himself, and that “old apostate,” as some called him, has done so admirably.

Ogden Standard-Examiner, Doug Gibson
Ask an active member of the LDS Church if they recall William McLellin. Some will know the name. Most will furrow their brows, say something like, “I’ve heard that name before … but I can’t place it.”

For most, McLellin is a footnote–a name in the church almanac. William E. McLellin, apostle excommunicated in 1838 …  

For many years in Mormon “apocrypha,” McLellin was depicted in both sinister and absurd terms. LDS apostle Parley P. Pratt describes McLellin as taking arms against the early Saints. He reportedly led an anti-Mormon militia in a search of Joseph Smith’s home.

 In seminary class I heard an amusing tale in which McLellin offered to wrestle the Mormon prophet Smith, but only if Smith’s hands were bound. Another anecdote recalls McLellin trying–and failing–to receive a revelation.  

During Mark Hofmann’s 1980s crime spree, McLellin’s name resurfaced. Hofmann pitched the “McLellin papers.” He didn’t have them, but interest in the early Mormon was high. The Salt Lake Tribune‘s Dawn House found a collection of McLellin’s writings with a Texas family and, LDS Church leaders discovered, in the First Presidency’s vault, more McLellin writings and keepsakes.  

When some of McLellin’s writings were published in the 1990s, they revealed an enthusiastic early LDS convert who worked hard, gained the notice of LDS leader Smith and was called to be an LDS apostle. The early church’s struggles in Kirtland led to McLellin’s apostasy.  

Except McLellin never really left Mormonism. For the rest of his life he searched for a divergent path of Mormonism–one that would bring to him the euphoria he experienced in 1831 with Joseph Smith, and then believed Smith lost due to what he described as wickedness.  

McLellin never found another permanent church, although he sampled just about every offshoot of Mormonism that surfaced after Smith’s assassination. A doctor, he remained a prolific writer, offering his interpretations of scripture and opinions of Mormonism past and present. They were published in journals, church magazines, and letters. He swapped opinions with Utah LDS apostle Orson Pratt and Joseph Smith III, who became president of the Reorganized LDS Church in 1860.  

Signature Books has published The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854 – 1880. The volume is as much history as theology. McLellin, with ponderous prose but sincere effort, represents Christian theology in early America, particularly the frontier. He’s opinionated, yet maintains a friendship with his adversaries. He blasts Joseph Smith III’s father, exhorting the RLDS leader to check with his mother to verify his accusations, but ends in a gentle manner. His letters to Pratt–while contentious–have that same polite undertone. Like many 19th-century early Mormons who left the church, he never stopped believing in the Book of Mormon.  

There are several essays in the volume that accompany the writings. One, by John Charles-Duffy, suggests that historians stop trying to tag McLellin as either an embittered apostate or an “enlightened Paul” who saw through Smith. Rather, the essay suggests that McLellin’s life and writings can be used to add to a Mormon historical narrative that encompasses the 19th-century frontier.  

That makes sense, and it is why McLellin’s writings are important today. It is easy to erase McLellin from Mormon history with the harsh tag of apostate, but the truth is he played a role in the early growth of the Mormon Church. And then he left it in a time duress. And while many criticize McLellin for leaving, some of his complaints–such as the ill-advised organization of a bank–were valid.  

Why McLellin and others became disillusioned is part of the young church’s history. his refusal to completely abandon the beliefs that brought him to the Book of Mormon reflect the fervent beliefs and hopes of revelations and manifestations that early Americans–particularly rural settlers–embraced.  

McLellin seems to have grown more disillusioned as he aged. He died in 1883, 45 years after he left Smith’s church. His post-LDS religious efforts usually met with failure. He was often out of new churches within months after joining. Perhaps he was hard to get along with?  

Late in his life McLellin was publicly rebuffed by early Mormon David Whitmer, who McLellin believed was the true successor to Smith. That repudiation must have hurt the proud ex-Mormon. After Whitmer finally started a church, McLellin seems to have mostly ignored it.  Some of McLellin’s accusations in his writing are contradictory. He criticizes events he must have once approved of, such as early LDS church revelations. But those are theological squabbles, and that isn’t the value of this volume of McLellin’s papers. They are historical documents, and will provide patient readers valuable insights into early Mormon history.

Once considered myth, former Mormon’s writings are published
By Jennifer Dobner
The Associated Press

Once upon a time, the McLellin collection was nothing more than Mormon mythology, a rumored set of writings and documents from an influential 19th century church apostle who was close to founder Joseph Smith but fell away.

The papers of William E. McLellin, however, are not a myth. His letters, sermon-like essays and journals have been published for the first time in a 570-page book released this week by Signature Books. The originals are at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library and in the archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“It provides the opportunity for a snapshot into early LDS history,” said Stan Larson, one of the book’s editors and curator of manuscripts at the library.

McLellin joined the church in 1831, just after its creation. He quickly rose in Smith’s regard and was an original member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the second-most powerful group of Mormon men. But McLellin left the church in 1836—some claim after looting Smith’s home and stealing important church papers—and was excommunicated in 1838.

Despite attempts to bring him back to the fold, McLellin wrote in an 1854 letter to apostle Orson Pratt that “aside from the principles you learned in the first three years of Joseph Smith’s public ministry, I know of no principles or practices of that people now, which they have learned since, that I believe or admire.”

McLellin’s struggle was with Smith and a changing church, not Mormon theology, said book co-editor Sam Passey, director of the Uintah County Library and Regional History Center in Vernal, Utah. “He bought onto Mormonism as it was preached by Joseph Smith in the early 1830s, and as it changed he really didn’t,” Passey said. “A train was in motion and he couldn’t stay on it anymore. He had certain boundaries in his faith.”

Letters between McLellin and confidant John Traughber, who inherited the collection upon McLellin’s death, reveal a Mormon story far different than the one believed today by most church members.

He writes of never hearing the story of Smith’s “first vision,” the visit by God and Jesus Christ to a young, prayerful Smith in a grove of trees that led to the church’s founding in New York state. Nor was McLellin familiar with the angel Moroni, who led Smith to buried gold plates that became the foundational text, the Book of Mormon, or the story that John the Baptist had appeared to Smith on the banks of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River.

Some will wonder whether Smith was adding to the church story as he saw fit, or McLellin was so embittered that his recollections were intended to undermine the church. “We’re never going to find the answer,” said Larson, who admits to having his own suspicions.

It was those contradictions that Mark Hofmann exploited when he first circulated rumors about the collection in 1985. Hofmann, who claimed to have discovered McLellin’s works in Texas, said it contained bombshells that would unravel the worldwide church.

It turned out that Hofmann was a forger who never had the collection, nor knew what it contained. But his lies generated interest. He promised a sale to more than one collector, including the Mormon church, and borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from a Salt Lake City bank for its alleged purchase.

“It was a big deal,” said Brent Ashworth, a Utah collector who unwittingly bought other forgeries from Hofmann. “People wanted it because it was going to be controversial and interesting. I don’t know if anybody on either side thought it would damage the church, but I think they thought it would be fascinating, entertaining and probably valuable,” Ashworth said.

Deadlines to repay the $185,000 loan and deliver the papers passed and Hofmann’s desperation rose. To deflect the attention of bankers and buyers, he built pipe bombs, killing two people and wounding himself. In 1987, Hofmann pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and remains in the Utah State Prison.

After the bombings, much of the collection was found in the Texas basement of Otis Traughber, son of John Traughber. Another set of journals scripted while a faithful McLellin served a church mission were discovered in the church archives, where they had been stored since 1908.

The McLellin collection falls short of discrediting a church that claims some 13 million members. “There was nothing there that hadn’t been said already by other apostates,” Passey said. “No big bombshells.”

This news story was published in the Austin American-Statesman, Baton Rouge Advocate, Birmingham News, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Charlottesville Daily Progress, Fairbanks Daily-News Miner, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Greensboro News, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Lynchburg News & Advocate, Macon Telegraph, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nashville Tennessean, New York Daily News, Philadelphia Tribune, Provo Daily Herald, Tulsa World, San Diego Union-Tribune, Stamford Advocate, Twin Falls Times-News, Warren Times Observer, Washington Post, Wilmington Star-News, Winston-Salem Journal, and elsewhere.