An Introduction to William E. McLellin
by Samuel J. Passey
William E. McLellin (1806-1883) was an observer of Mormonism in its infancy, a member of the original LDS Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and an apostate who left the LDS Church in the mid-1830s. He remained a legend for many years as a caricature of an apostate and because of a rumor, which later proved to be true, that he had written a secret exposé of the LDS Church.Mark Hofmann, the document forger and murderer, claimed to have found McLellin’s secret writings in the 1980s. Although he had not, the publicity surrounding Hofmann’s crimes resulted in the discovery of McLellin’s papers in the First Presidency’s vault at LDS Church Archives, while the rest of the apostle’s writings were located at the home of a descendant of one of McLellin’s friends.
McLellin was born on January 18, 1806, in Smith County, Tennessee. In July 1831 he encountered two pair of Mormon elders, including “Book of Mormon witness” David Whitmer. McLellin became convinced of the truth of their message and traveled to Independence, Missouri, to learn more about the new Church. Within a few days, he was baptized and moved to Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio.
In 1835 McLellin was called by Joseph Smith to be an apostle, serving in that capacity for three years until he had a falling out with Smith over the Kirtland bank failure. Significantly, McLellin always retained the same basic religious convictions, such as a firm belief in the Book of Mormon, from 1838 through the rest of his life even though he was no longer a Church member. In fact, he was scandalized by historical claims and doctrinal teachings by later LDS leaders that varied from what had been taught in 1838. According to McLellin—a view similarly expressed by David Whitmer—no one in the 1830s had heard of priesthood being restored to the earth by angels, for instance, or that the angel of Palmyra was Moroni from the Book of Mormon, both key teachings today. In McLellin’s time, these things would have been impossible to conceive of because Church members had not yet learned that angels were resurrected human beings.
McLellin famously attended the Kirtland Temple dedication. Whereas modern Mormon narratives portray it as a new pentecost attended by heavenly beings, including Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, McLellin expressed great disappointment that the promised messengers did not appear. All he observed, he said, was disorderly conduct on the part of people who had come to the event fasting and soon became drunk on the sacrament wine, which was served in individual glasses, refilled frequently throughout the day.
McLellin is best remembered by Church members for an incident that occurred when the Book of Commandments was being prepared for printing. The book contained Joseph Smith’s revelations. McLellin tried to write a revelation equal to one of Smith’s and failed, according to his peers. The assumption many people made was that because McLellin had been a school teacher, he had no doubt criticized Smith’s competence as a writer. McLellin’s failure to best Smith therefore substantiated the stamp of divine approval on Smith’s prose. Recent scholarship by Mark Grandstaff of Brigham Young University has challenged this view and shown McLellin to have been a willing participant, not a critic, in creating empirical evidence for Smith’s calling.
McLellin left Mormonism early enough to be widely demonized in frontier speeches and retrospectives, perhaps due in part to the distance between Utah and McLellin’s residence in Independence, Missouri. In an essay in The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854-1880, John-Charles Duffy described various ways in which McLellin’s name was invoked in early Utah to caricature heretics. Duffy went on to show how today McLellin is cited to demonstrate how normative early Mormonism was in the context of Christian beliefs. In fact, McLellin was characteristic of Mormons from the 1830s as a believer in the Trinity, prophetic dreams, guardian angels, peep-stones as a means of receiving revelations, numerology, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the imminent return of Jesus to the earth.
Throughout his life, McLellin was an avid reader of biblical studies. His wife belonged to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). Of the diaries, notebooks, and editorials he wrote during his lifetime, many are still extant. Toward the end of his life, he gave his papers to John Traughber, who was contemplating writing a book on Mormons. Traughber never finished his book, and McLellin’s papers seemingly vanished until Hofmann claimed to have found them.
However, before he could produce the writings, Hofmann was arrested; thereafter personnel at LDS Church Archives rediscovered some of the diaries and related material, and in cooperation with BYU Studies, the University of Illinois Press published McLellin’s early writings from LDS Archives in 1994 as The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836. His later notebooks, essays, and news editorials were published by Signature Books in 2007 as The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854-1880, in cooperation with the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, which owns the holographs. Even more recently in January 2009, Brent Ashworth, an avid Mormon document collector, purchased a notebook that was long thought lost. The only evidence of its existence had been a poor-quality photocopy of a fragment of the notebook in the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) Archives in Independence. In other words, the odyssey continues.