January 22, 2009

Lost William McLellin Journal Located

From the Deseret News: 

Published: January 22, 2009
PROVO — Brent Ashworth found a long-lost notebook of one of the earliest and most controversial general authorities of the LDS Church. The rediscovery of what Ashworth believes is a notebook of William E. McLellin, an excommunicated Mormon apostle, also brings closure to a central part of the forgery schemes of convicted murderer Mark Hofmann.

Ashworth, an attorney and a collector of Mormon and other historical memorabilia, remembers the first time he heard about Hofmann's "McLellin collection." In 1981 Hofmann often cited the collection as a catchall source to bolster his document forgeries' credibility — and price. Ashworth lost thousands of dollars in cash and in real documents traded to Hofmann for forgeries.

Hofmann contended the collection held many documents that would be embarrassing to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As time went on the stories became more elaborate until Hofmann simultaneously sold the collection to two people and tried to sell it to Ashworth.

"That's sort of what happened in the evolution of Hofmann. People started buying things sight unseen, including myself, because he was coming up with such great stuff," Ashworth said. "He offered (the McLellin collection) to everybody, but I didn't have the $185,000 he wanted at the time."

The elaborate scheme fell apart in October 1985 after Hofmann murdered Steve Christensen and Kathleen Sheets with pipe bombs and a third bomb accidentally went off in his own car. Hofmann's McLellin collection was a fraud — a figment of Hofmann's imagination.

But even though Hofmann's collection was fictional, there was a William McLellin who did keep journals and notebooks. But in October 1985 nobody knew those items still existed.

McLellin joined the Mormons in 1831 and kept a journal almost from the beginning. He was an original member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve but was excommunicated in 1838.

After he left the church he tried unsuccessfully to persuade David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, to take leadership of a new church more to McLellin's liking. Whitmer refused.

McLellin became an outspoken critic of the LDS Church and, to a lesser extent, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ). He wrote his beliefs and recollections in several notebooks. Those records were given to a family friend, John Traughber, after McLellin died in 1883. That friend sold some of them 25 years later for $50 to the LDS Church.

They were forgotten until after Hofmann's arrest in 1985.

Some of McLellin's real papers were discovered in Texas, and soon after that the items sold to the LDS Church in 1908 were found. There was a real McLellin collection after all.

"The Journals of William E. McLellin 1831-1836" was published in 1994 by BYU Studies and the University of Illinois Press. This was followed by "The William E. McLellin Papers 1854-1880," published by Signature Books in 2007.

But one piece was missing.

There was a record of two partial pages of one McLellin notebook. Those pages had been photographed probably in the 1920s. An excerpt from those same pages appeared in an RLDS Church newspaper in 1929. But by the time "The William E. McLellin Papers" was published it was thought the notebook was "not extant."

Ashworth, however, was always on the lookout for McLellin materials and hoped to find the lost notebook. After about 20 years he finally did so.

The notebook is about 6 by 8 inches and 266 pages long. It is filled from binding to page edges with the fine and clear handwriting of a teacher of penmanship. McLellin wrote in it in 1871 and 1872. The notebook has a detailed index of the many subjects it contains.

"My opinion is he was trying to write a book. And this is written with more care than some of his other notebooks. I think he was actually trying to put a book together," Ashworth said.

Hofmann's fictional McLellin collection was claimed to be devastating to the LDS Church and Joseph Smith's reputation. Ashworth believes the evidence shows that this is a real notebook of McLellin's. Although it does contain some pointed criticisms of the church, they are similar to those already published in "The William E. McLellin Papers."

Ashworth, however, sees the notebook as one of the most significant finds in the past 50 years because of an unexpected element: McLellin's faith in the Book of Mormon.

The notebook puts a story in context that was only partially known through the photograph and excerpt from the 1920s. McLellin asks his readers a question in a section titled, "The Testimony of Men." He says the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon, who said they saw an angel, "either told the truth or they willfully lied. How shall we tell which, how shall we know?"

McLellin then recounts a story of meeting two of the witnesses, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, in July 1833 in Missouri. McLellin and the two were in danger of their lives from anti-Mormon mobs. McLellin wrote:

"I said to them, 'Brethren, I never have seen an open vision in my life, but you men say you have, and therefore you positively know. Now, you know that our lives are in danger every hour, if the mob can only catch us. Tell me, in the fear of God, is that Book of Mormon true?' Cowdery looked at me with solemnity depicted in his face and said: 'Brother William, God sent his holy angel to declare the truth of the translation of it to us, and therefore we know. And though the mob kill us, yet we must die declaring its truth.' David said: 'Oliver has told you the solemn truth, for we could not be deceived. I most truly declare to you its truth!!' Said I: 'Boys, I believe you. I can see no object for you to tell me falsehood now, when our lives are endangered.' " (punctuation modernized)

Ashworth said: "This 'apostate' had a rock-solid testimony of the Book of Mormon. And you can extrapolate his belief in Joseph Smith. Obviously he believed Joseph Smith was a prophet at the beginning of the church."

Another surprise is McLellin's description of Joseph Smith as a student in McLellin's "High school" he taught during the winter of 1834. McLellin wrote: "I learned the strength of his mind as to the study and principles of science. ... And I here say that he had one of the strongest and well-balanced, penetrating and retentive minds of any man with whom I ever formed an acquaintance."

Harvard Heath, a historian who has seen the notebook, said, "I don't think we've had too many individuals who write about the LDS Church from a former-member standpoint that wrote so articulately — his grammar and his way of expressing himself in this journal is rather remarkable for its time."

Ashworth is hoping to have the notebook published soon, and at least one publisher has shown interest. This will fulfill McLellin's aim to produce a book and Ashworth's goal to share his discovery with others.

The discovery and eventual publication of the notebook likely also will have another impact. Both Ashworth and McLellin have been living to some extent under Hofmann's shadow of lies, forgeries and schemes. Ashworth hopes that will change.

"I think that it's kind of ironic that I would be the one to find this last lost journal. That seems to me to be more than just coincidental," Ashworth said. "It kind of puts an end to the speculation that Hofmann began."

E-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com


Ben said...

This is fascinating....but I admit I got my hopes up before seeing that it is his writings from 71-72. Still interesting stuff, but just falls in line with the recent publication of his writings: McLellin's later musings about early Mormonism, often misremembering history in order to conform to what he wishes it was.

But I don't want to sound too pessimistic; this is a great find, and I the McLellin Papers are on my shelf.

BHodges said...

Yes, the later date is a little "meh." Still, interesting find. I still need to read the McLellin stuff we already had.

Justin said...

Did I miss something or did the article fail to specify how and where the journal was located?

Ardis Parshall said...

The story doesn't say anything about that Justin. In this case, with this particular cast of characters, that detail really needs to be made transparent at some point.

BHodges said...

Agreed. I know some collectors can be pretty mum about their sources, etc. but I think in the case of B. Ashworth, the forgeries, etc. the provenance of the journal should have been answered in the article.

Christopher said...

Thanks for the heads up on this, Blair. Information on the provenance of this find would be helpful, as Justin and Ardis point out.

Justin said...

Here is some rather odd commentary on this story:


BHodges said...

That is a rather bizarre and hectic response, to put it bluntly. The wicked fleeth when none pursue?

Steve Smoot said...

That signature Books blurb was not only hectic and bizarre, but incoherent and disjoined.

True to form, Signature's knees jerked when some sort of differing commentary is offered of this subject. Notice how defensive the tone was? Good grief, George Smith and others must be loosing it.

And what did all that mention of other events, i.e. First Vision, Priesthood Restoration or the works of John Sorenson (which seemed like a rather blatant straw man to me) have to do with anything?


BHodges said...

Looks like they already edited down the blurb. Well, for posterity's sake, here is the original:

News Item: January 22, 2009
> Alleged McLellin Discovery
> Today the Deseret News reported that documents collector
> Brent F.. Ashworth had found a William McLellin
> "journal." Ashworth declined to say where he had
> obtained the document (It is actually a notebook, not a
> diary), thereby taking us back to the days of
> cloak-and-dagger deals conducted by document collectors in
> the secrecy of back rooms.
> Equally interesting in this time-warp story was that
> Ashworth gushed over how McLellin in this new document
> attested his belief in the Book of Mormon—as if that had
> ever been in question based on the previously available
> historical evidence—and then avoided the real significance
> of McLellin's authenticated writings.
> For instance, unless this is due to the limitations of a
> news story, Ashment appears to be hightly credulous and
> unaware of the context of one incident he cites from the new
> document. The date is July 1833 and McLellin has asked
> Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer about their vision of an
> angel, which they confirm. This incident is also mentioned
> in McLellin's other writings. But McLellin says
> elsewhere that in July 1833 no Mormon had yet heard of the
> First Vision, priesthood restoration, or the angel
> Moroni--as confirmed, for instance, by John W. Welch's
> Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations,
> 1820-1844 (the texts of the documents, not the apologetic
> commentary). The summer of 1833 predated the concept of
> Mormon angels, literal visions, and so on; and the Book of
> Mormon was thought to have confirmed Joseph Smith's
> ability with a seer stone.
> Ashment may be forgiven for this since few people care to
> look beyond the shallow commentary in Welch's book,
> again as an example, and consider the content of the
> documents themselves. But this was laid out explicitly in
> The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854-1880. Perhaps Ashment
> is persuaded by Welch's arguments, such as in his volume
> of The Journals of William E. McLellin where Welch asserts
> that when McLellin mentioned an LDS sermon that was based on
> Galatians 1:8 ("But though we, or an angel from heaven,
> preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have
> preached unto you, let him be accursed"; see pp. 53,
> 59), this is evidence that the speaker discussed the First
> Vision (which would have made it the earliest public mention
> of the First Vision by nine years). But Welch's strained
> attempt to defend the "traditional" narrative
> ranks with John Sorrenson's portrayal of ancient
> American cavalry riding deer behind pig-drawn chariots as
> among the most
> inane apologetic strategies yet. Meanwhile, it will be
> interesting to see if the document is real and what further
> interpretation will be given to it..

BHodges said...

Steve: there was some obvious poisoning of the well a-transpirin' there.

Ben said...

Interesting. In Signature's volume on McLellin, two of the essay writers specifically mention how McLellin mixes up his history quite a bit to conform to his own political agenda--why would this recounting of antels be any different?

cinepro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BHodges said...

cinepro, I look forward to any little finds like this one. ;)

cinepro said...

This is an interesting find, but it sounds like it will add little to what is already known.

If anything, the lasting impact will be that Signature will take a little more time before posting "responses" on their website.

BHodges said...

cinepro, I look forward to any little finds like this one. ;)

BHodges said...

I emailed the journalist who talked a little about Brent's reluctance to name the exact source, etc. He updated the article, adding the following:

"The notebook has an excellent provenance, going back to the beginning of the last century," Ashworth said. "And it's pretty hard to argue with the photographs (taken of the notebook in the 1920s)."

Ashworth said the evidence implies that the notebook came from McLellin's widow in Missouri who had joined the RLDS Church. Ashworth believes that she gave or sold the book to someone named W.O. Robertson, who has two signature stamps in the notebook. Robertson then sold it to John Resch in 1919, according to an inscription and signature. Resch then sold it to RLDS apostle Paul M. Hanson who put excerpts into a 1929 newspaper.

The notebook remained in the family until a trusted contact of Ashworth's brought it to his attention this summer.

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