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.”