The LDS hierarchy was divided in 1837 over the militarization of the church in Missouri. Many in the leadership eventually reconciled, but one of the twelve apostles, William E. McLellin, became what might be termed a friendly critic. He retained his belief in the divinity of the Book of Mormon and kept in contact with former colleagues in the Quorum of the Twelve but could not support the new policies and directions. He resigned from the quorum in 1836 and was excommunicated in 1838.
Most interesting for readers of the present volume may be McLellin’s observations about how the church changed during his separation. McLellin said that in his five years of activity in the church, he never once heard of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Available historical evidence confirms that the First Vision was not known in the church until the 1840s, after McLellin’s departure.
McLellin wrote further: “I heard Joseph [Smith] tell his experience of his ordination and the organization of the church probably more than twenty times to persons who, near the rise of the church, wished to know and hear about it. I never heard of Moroni, John [the Baptist], or Peter, James, and John.” McLellin believed that angels had visited Joseph Smith but not that human beings could become angels—a teaching not yet current in the 1830s—or that priesthood authority could be conveyed in that way.
In addition, McLellin wrote of his disappointment in attending the Kirtland, Ohio, temple dedication in 1836 and not seeing angels, as he had hoped. The narrative regarding the appearance of Elijah and others in the temple would not be publicized until 1852. So in many ways, it was a much different church in the 1830s. McLellin illuminates what it meant to be LDS when the emphasis was on Christ’s imminent return to earth; the gathering to Independence, Missouri; revelation through seer stones; and gifts of the Spirit—all of which McLellin continued to promote as beliefs of a true follower of Christ in the last days.
from the jacket flap:
Historians, including those represented in the present volume, are divided on questions surrounding William E. McLellin’s life and teachings. For instance, whether he was cordial or cranky comes down to interpretation of scant evidence. On whether he was a personal enemy of Joseph Smith, McLellin condemned what he considered excessive frivolity and drinking in Kirtland but otherwise restricted his comments to doctrine. In fact, he professed an enduring affection for his former brethren, especially for Joseph Smith, even though he thought Smith was wrong to have launched a military campaign against the State of Missouri, to have engaged in secret political machinations in Illinois, and to have married more than one wife.
How accurate was McLellin’s memory? When compared to other available documents, his recollections are clear and seem factually correct, although always subject to personal interpretation. What is disconcerting to historians is that, as a high-ranking church official, McLellin must have played a larger role in some key events than he indicates. For instance, he watched for weeks as editors prepared Joseph Smith’s revelations for publication and does not say he voiced an objection, so the conclusion must be he either condoned the activity at the time or reserved judgment. Yet in later years, his complaint that God’s words were edited formed a large part of his narrative. For whatever reason, out of an abundance of humility, or alternately out of pride, he chose to distance himself from the history he participated in and narrated.
McLellin hoped the church Joseph Smith founded would somehow right itself, that if Joseph failed to acknowledge his alleged errors, a new prophet would emerge to replace him. In a letter to “dear friends” in 1870, McLellin wrote the following:
O I feel happy this morning! I have no doubts!!! I feel sure the Lord is at the helm. My old heart has burned within me ever since I received that glorious intelligence from Heaven. Now I feel sure that we shall prevail, because I have lost the love of money, the love of riches, honors, or pleasures. I have no object before me only to serve and only God. I mean to be humble, meek and Lowly; and not have contention with any. If any comes, and wishes to unite with us, who have not shed innocent blood, who have not been polygamists, nor run so far into abominations that they cant be forgiven, we will receive them, but polygamists will have to wait until some man rises with the Interpreters or Urim in order to tell their fate.
Stan Larson is Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah. Among his published works are Prisoner for Polygamy: The Memoirs and Letters of Rudger Clawson; Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon; and Working the Divine Miracle: The Life of Apostle Henry D. Moyle. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the University of Birmingham, England.
Samuel J. Passey is director of the Uintah County Library and Regional History Center, Vernal, Utah. Previously an archivist at the Marriott Library, with degrees from Brigham Young University and the University of North Texas, he is currently part of a six-member task force uniting on-line archival databases as part of the Mountain West Digital Library. He is also editor of the Outlaw Trail Journal.