SALT LAKE CITY &
The writings and documents known as the McLellin collection had once been considered nothing more than Mormon mythology, a rumored set of papers 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 real &
and are now available to the public.
His letters, sermon-like essays and journals are being published for the first time in a 570-page book that was recently released by Signature Books, a Salt Lake City company that specializes in Mormon history. 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, an editor of the book and curator of manuscripts at the library.
McLellin's writings have sparked enormous curiosity among church historians. Mormons wondered whether they would be critical of Smith's leadership and what the religion teaches. McLellin left the church in 1836 &
some claim after looting Smith's home and stealing important church papers &
and was excommunicated in 1838.
The papers also were linked with the notorious case of Mark Hofmann, a forger who claimed he had the collection and that it contained information that would unravel the worldwide church. Close to being found out and desperate to deflect attention from his lies, Hofmann built pipe bombs that killed two people in 1985 and left him seriously wounded.
He is now in Utah State Prison.
"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."
Much of the authentic collection was found in the mid-1980s in the Texas basement of Otis Traughber, son of John Traughber, a confidant of McLellin. Another set of journals, written while a faithful McLellin served a church mission, were discovered in the LDS archives, where they had been stored since 1908.
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.
After he left, there were attempts to bring him back to the fold. But in an 1854 letter to apostle Orson Pratt, McLellin wrote 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, according to book coeditor 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 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.
During the earliest days of the church, McLellin said he never heard Smith tell of what is now known as his "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.
McLellin said he also wasn't aware of the angel Moroni, who led Smith to buried gold plates that became the church's 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.
McLellin's claims raise questions about whether Smith was padding the Mormon story as time passed, or whether McLellin was so embittered that he was trying to undermine the church.
"We're never going to find the answer," Larson said.
Still, the McLellin collection falls short of discrediting a faith that claims some 13 million members. "There was nothing there," Passey said, "that hadn't been said already by other apostates."
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Collection of early Mormon apostle released
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