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Writings shed light on Church history

      Papers written by William E. McLellin, purchased by the Church in 1908 and locked away, eventually to be forgotten, have now been cataloged by the Church Historical Department and are available for study to qualified researchers.

      The papers by McLellin, who was one of the first apostles in this dispensation but later became an enemy to the Church, "contain some very significant information," said Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the Historical Department.He said the material consists of several journals and four little manuscript books.

      "It helps us understand William E. McLellin better than ever before," Brother Turley commented. "There are no book-length biographies of McLellin.

      "But to me, the most significant part of the collection is the portion that helps enlighten us on what was happening in the Church during the 1830s."

      McLellin joined the Church in 1831, only a year after it was organized. His devotion culminated in his being ordained as one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve on Feb. 15, 1835.

      Church members are generally familiar with McLellin through references to him in the Doctrine and Covenants. The revelations in Sections 66 and 68 were received by the Prophet Joseph Smith at McLellin's request. He was promised by the Savior that if he remained faithful he would have a crown of eternal life at the right hand of the Father. (See D&C 66:12.)

      But even before his apostasy, McLellin manifest a proud and rebellious nature. Joseph Smith recorded that when A Book of Commandments (forerunner to the Doctrine and Covenants) was being readied for publication in October 1831, some negative conversation was had concerning the language used in the revelations. In response, the revelation in D&C 67 was given, challenging the brethren to appoint the wisest among them to write a revelation as good as the least in the Book of Commandments.

      The Prophet recounted, "William E. M'Lellin, as the wisest in his own estimation, having more learning than sense, endeavored to write a commandment like unto one of the least of the Lord's but failed; it was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord." (History of the Church 1:226.)

      McLellin later lost confidence in Joseph Smith, apostatized and was excommunicated May 11, 1838. He took an active part in mobbing the Saints in Missouri. While the prophet was imprisoned in Richmond, Mo., McLellin unsuccessfully sought permission from the sheriff to flog him. (See Andrew Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia 1:82-82.)

      "Before and after his excommunication, McLellin collected materials about the church," wrote Brother Turley in his new book Victims, an account of the Church's victimization in the Mark Hofmann forgery and murder case. (A profile article about Brother Turley and his book is in the Oct. 17 Church News.)

      "At one time or another, he reportedly owned the original record of the Quorum of the Twelve, two copies of A Book of Commandments, manuscript revelations, certificates from early church members, and various books, pamphlets and periodicals containing church information. McLellin was also a writer. Late in his life he worked on a book about Mormonism that he nearly finished but never published."

      McLellin's name became prominent in news reports in the mid- and late 1980s. Mark W. Hofmann, confessed forger and killer, claimed to have obtained a "McLellin collection" of materials about the Church from a descendant of J. L. Traughber of Texas, an associate of McLellin. The collection purportedly contained some sensational materials, including a copy of Facsimile No. 2 from the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price, and also a copy of a purported revelation Joseph Smith received in which Oliver Cowdery was commanded to go to Canada to sell the copyright for the Book of Mormon. (See Comprehensive History of the Church 1:163-66 for B. H. Roberts' detailed discussion of the "Canadian copyright episode.")

      The "McLellin collection," as Hofmann described it, never existed. His inability to produce it in time to sell it to an investor who intended to donate it to the Church figured in his motive for the separate killings by pipe bomb of two Church members. The killings were in an effort to keep his forgery scheme from being revealed, according to testimony by investigators at a preliminary hearing. Some thought the McLellin collection may have been destroyed when a third pipe bomb exploded in Hofmann's automobile, seriously injuring him, but that theory was unfounded.

      However, as Brother Turley explained in his book, at least three other "McLellin collections" do exist:

      - A Salt Lake City newspaper reported in late November 1985 that it had located "what may be the McLellin collection" in the possession of Traughber's son in Texas. In a follow-up story Dec. 2, the newspaper reported that the located material consisted of just three small manuscript books thought to have been written by McLellin and some interpretive writing regarded as the work of Traughber.

      - Some McLellin letters are in the archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

      - The Church Historical Department has a collection of McLellin material found in 1986 - at the time the investigation into Hofmann's crimes was under way.

      The latter material was first obtained by President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency in 1908. Traughber of Docette, Texas, had offered to sell them McLellin's copy of A Book of Commandments along with a portion of McLellin's journal for $50, saying he had obtained the items from McLellin's widow. The First Presidency instructed Pres. Samuel O. Bennion of the Central States Mission to contact Traughber and purchase the material.

      The First Presidency's dealings with Traughber in 1908 were made known to the Historical Department in March 1986 by Dean Jessee, a former department employee, who remembered seeing a reference to them in his research notes. A search by Historical Department staff located a response from Pres. Bennion to the First Presidency, reporting that he indeed had obtained the McLellin materials from Traughber.

      Church officials had earlier said in a news release: "So far as we have been able to determine, no Church officials or personnel have ever seen the `M'Lellin Collection,' nor has it been purchased by the Church, directly or indirectly.' " At the time, they were unaware of the 1908 purchase of the McLellin papers from Traughber.

      In his book, Brother Turley wrote: "The journals, spanning most of the period when McLellin was active in the church, revealed a man deeply dedicated to his religion. McLellin endured hardship and persecution as he preached the gospel revealed through Joseph Smith. McLellin's faith was evident in his unflinching recording of a revelation [JosephT Smith received in 1831 in which McLellin was chastised for his shortcomings. [See D&C 66:10.T

      "The little manuscript books, on the other hand, typified the later McLellin, an avowed enemy of the church."

      The journals, Brother Turley said in a Church News interview, show that McLellin used the Book of Mormon as the focal point of his teaching. Even his writing about Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula - written after his apostasy - present evidence he felt confirmed the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, Brother Turley pointed out.

      The Hofmann affair is now history, and the Church-owned McLellin materials are available for research at the Historical Department.

      Here, published for the first time, are excerpts from the writings. Punctuation, capitalization and word usage have been retained to preserve accuracy. In the few necessary instances (McLellin was among the more educated of the early Church members), spelling has been corrected for the sake of clarity.