Book review of:

The William E. McLellin Papers: 1854-1880

edited by Stan Larson and Samuel J. Passey
Signature Books, Salt Lake City 2007
(xxx + 607 pages, $39.95)

Reviewed by Richard Packham

          Not many Mormons will recognize the name William E. McLellin (sometimes spelled M'Lellin, McLellan, McClellan), even though he was an early convert to the church (1831) and a member of the first quorum of apostles. He is mentioned several times in revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. The fact that he left the church in 1836 is undoubtedly the reason he is relatively unknown and ignored by modern Mormons.

          McLellin's name became prominent again around 1985, however, when Mark Hofmann, a successful dealer in old Mormon documents, announced that he had located McLellin's long-lost papers, and suggested that the writings of this early apostate would throw considerable light on early Mormonism. Many Mormons (and Mormon leaders) were concerned that "the McLellin Collection" would cause the church some embarrassment, as had other documents that Hofmann had found (the "Salamander Letter" and the "Joseph III Blessing," for example). Efforts were made to raise the money to acquire this collection on behalf of the church. Soon, however, Hofmann was exposed as a forger and murderer, having set off three bombs in Salt Lake City to divert attention from his forgeries.

          During the course of the murder investigation it was learned that the church had already acquired a number of papers from McLellin, and investigators learned the location of the rest, having been preserved privately by a family in Texas whose ancestor had befriended McLellin in his old age and had been entrusted with McLellin's writings and letters.

          Some of the letters and other writings have been published previously, but the present volume appears to be the most complete.

          In addition to McLellin's actual notebooks, letters, and some items published during his lifetime, the editors have included six long essays by scholars about McLellin and his importance. These articles are perhaps the most interesting part of the book, although differing among themselves both in point of view and in their conclusions. One essay, by RLDS historian Richard P. Howard, characterizes McLellin as a "stormy petrel," wild and vascillating. Another characterizes him as unable to change as the church received "further light and knowledge." D. Michael Quinn's essay, on the other hand, criticizes him for changing his mind too much. It is not often one gets to compare the drastically different interpretations by historians looking at the same materials.

          The most readable essay is the account by newspaper reporter Dawn House, telling how she located the family in Texas who had the bulk of the papers. It reads like a detective story.

          As for the actual notebooks and letters that make up the bulk of the book, they do indeed provide a valuable picture of what Mormonism was like in the early 1830s and how, at least in McLellin's view, it drastically changed. McLellin gives compelling reasons for his loss of confidence in Smith and his church: the unscriptural idea of two priesthoods; the dubious late account of the priesthood restoration by angels (which McLellin says he had never heard of); the deletion of the name "Christ" from the name of the church in 1834; the major revision of the revelations when they were published; the absence of any divine endowment in the Kirtland temple (McLellin recounts it as a drunken orgy); the Kirtland Bank scandal; the failure of Zion's Camp (which McLellin attributed to its violation of the earlier revelation enjoining peace); the Danite expulsion of dissenters from Missouri; and so on.

          McLellin firmly believed that Smith was a fallen prophet after 1834, but he also staunchly believed in the divinity of the Book of Mormon until his death, just as did his good friend David Whitmer. He continued to believe that God would eventually re-establish the true Church of Christ. He looked in turn to Rigdon, to Hedrick, and to David Whitmer, and all of them disappointed him.

          By their very nature, the notebooks and letters tend to be repetitious reading. After reading half a dozen times the account of the wild excursion by church leaders and their women from Kirtland to Cleveland, where they smashed up a restaurant and a carriage in their drunkenness, one begins to skim for something new. In a dozen places in the letters and notebooks McLellin expounds on why there should be no Aaronic priesthood in the church. We have, repeated in notebooks and letters a dozen times, his arguments against polygamy and his reports of Smith's adulteries. As a historical source, this collection is extremely valuable. As casual reading, the repetition makes for tedious going.

          McLellin remained vitally interested in all things relative to Mormonism, but rejected every form of it that developed in the decades after his leaving the original church. It is clear from these readings that few modern Mormons would recognize the church that McLellin joined.

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©  2008 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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