William E. McLellin (1806 – 1883)

William McLellin 1830 First Edition Index

William E. McLellin was an early apostle who left Joe’s church and was later excommunicated. McLellin continued to believe in The Most Holy & Sacred Book of Mormon. There are three separate journal publications of his listed below. He also published a circular in 1847 called the Ensign of Liberty that was similar to the writings of David Whitmer.

George D. Smith, Signature Books Introduction

William Earl McLellin’s writings document aspects of a community of believers that coalesced around Joseph Smith in nineteenth-century America, showing the church’s place in its historical context. McLellin’s notebooks and letters portray the Mormons from their inception in the 1830s up to the 1880s when they began to evolve from a mystical Christian offshoot into a modern world church. In the twenty-first century, his perspective provides a marker for comparing that bygone spiritualist movement with a church much less isolated from competing faith ideas and society’s widespread skepticism.

McLellin’s name became prominent in 1983-86 through the forger Mark W. Hofmann. When Hofmann invented a phantom “McLellin Collection” based on historical references, portions of the apostle’s writings were found to reside in LDS archives. Some of these were published by the University of Illinois Press and BYU Studies thirteen years ago. Now other portions of the collection – including additional material at LDS archives and documents housed at the Marriott Library and Community of Christ archives – become available for the first time.

One of the original twelve apostles of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, as Mormons then presented themselves, McLellin advocated the genuine antiquity of the Book of Mormon. However, when questions emerged in 1837 Kirtland, Ohio, about founder Joseph Smith’s connection to a live-in housekeeper, Fanny Alger, then issues of money and control of property, divided church leadership, McLellin criticized his once-beloved leader. Most pointedly, he questioned additions to an 1831 revelation regarding a second priesthood. A year after this dispute, McLellin was tried and excommunicated along with fellow stalwarts Oliver Cowdery, Apostles Luke and Lyman Johnson, David Whitmer, John Whitmer, and in 1839 William W. Phelps and Frederick G. Williams, all of whom had joined in the dissent against Joseph Smith.

Yet even after the prophet’s death in 1844, McLellin remained close to the Smith family. It was McLellin whom the prophet’s primary wife, Emma Smith, had told in Kirtland of seeing her husband, through a barn door, positioned on a hay mow with a young servant girl. McLellin recalls the struggle within the Smith family as Frederick Williams and others encouraged Joseph to offer a public apology. McLellin later related these incidents to the prophet’s son, Joseph Smith III. An apostle at the time Joseph Jr. was offering new revelation to the church, McLellin was able to record early LDS events as an eyewitness, in their cultural context.

His treatises on many aspects of religion offer a fascinating glimpse into his struggle to fit his own religious dogma within the confines of any established religion of his day. Furthermore, his notebooks and letters highlight his own evolving theology. Throughout, he cites flaws he felt were apparent in the various branches of the faith. Because he had left Joseph at an early juncture, his commentaries described Mormonism as he remembered it – as it was taught in the pre-Nauvoo era. His writings therefore offer an important perspective into the thinking of one who was with the church early on as both a leader and critic. (George D. Smith, Excerpt – The William E. McLellin Papers, Link)

  • Ensign of Liberty, of the Church of Christ. nos 1-7. Kirtland, OH: W. E. McLellin, 1847-49.
  • The Journals of William E. McLellin 1831-1836

“Although McLellin became disaffected from the LDS Church in 1838, he retained belief in the historicity and truthfulness of the Book of Mormon until his death.” (Jan Shipps and John W. Welch eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, University of Illinois Press and BYU Studies, 1994, p. 264)

“William E. McLellin (1806-1883) was an early Mormon apostle who later left the church. In his later years he questioned the authority of founder Joseph Smith, but he always said he believed that the Book of Mormon was truly the word of God. In 1871 he wrote a notebook in which he recorded his contacts with men who had filled special roles as Book of Mormon witnesses in 1829. McLellin described his 1833 interview of Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, his circa-1850 visit with Martin Harris, his 1869 visit with John Whitmer, and a report of an 1833 event involving Hiram Page. Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Harris steadfastly reaffirmed that they had handled the Book of Mormon plates and were visited by an angel. John Whitmer and Page reaffirmed that they had handled the plates. All continually testified that they believed the Book of Mormon to be the word of God. McLellin’s 1871 notebook was thought to be lost but is in fact extant, in a private collection.” (Mitchell K. Schaefer, “‘The Testimony of Men,’ William E. McLellin and the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” BYU Studies, vol. 50, no. 1, (2011); synopsis.)

  • The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854-1880

“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.” (Amazon Book Description, Stan Larson and Samuel J. Passey, The William E. McLellin Papers, 1854-1880, Signature Books, 2007)

  • William E. McLellin’s Lost Manuscript (1871-1872)

Inside the lost McLellin notebook, By Michael De Groote Mormon Times, Jan. 28 2009:

Memorabilia collector Brent Ashworth announced last week the rediscovery of a notebook of William E. McLellin, a Mormon apostle who was excommunicated for apostasy in 1838.

Make no mistake about it. William E. McLellin had no love for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after his excommunication in 1838. But the former apostle’s testimony of the Book of Mormon survived and forms a significant part of his recently rediscovered 1871 notebook. McLellin’s widow, who had joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), gave or sold the notebook to W.O. Robertson, who sold it to John Resch in 1919. Resch then sold it to RLDS apostle Paul M. Hanson, who put excerpts into a newspaper in 1929. Photographs exist from the 1920s or ’30s of a few pages of the notebook. The notebook remained in Hanson’s family until Brent Ashworth acquired it this summer at his store, B. Ashworth’s, in Provo, Utah. The following excerpts are presented with the original spelling and punctuation as they appear in the notebook. Deletions are crossed out and insertions are in <brackets>. Editorial insertions are in (parenthesis). Ashworth hopes to have the full notebook published soon.


(What is arguably the angriest comment in the notebook by the former member of the church was crossed out with a large “x” – apparently by McClellin’s own hand. It probably refers to plural marriage as practiced by the LDS Church until 1890:)

I do not endorse many of the acts of Joseph Smith. And the older he grew, the wider of the mark his course until finally he died at the hands of his enemies, as “a fool dieth.” In his afterlife he introduced great wickedness, and even abominations the “church of Latter Day Saints.” And to day that people at the great Salt Lake valley are carrying out the measures introduced by him in Nauvoo. I firmly believe that the people called Latter Day Saints are the wickedest people of any that now live on this wide earth. But here I will stop, but could say more.


(This extended excerpt covers several pages in McLellin’s notebook. In it he explores several testimonies of the Book of Mormon. The numbering of the sections is in the original. The excerpt mentions the last of the eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon – this was was John Whitmer who died in 1878. Also, notice how McLellin spells his name as “McLellan” in this notebook. There are several different spellings of his name in various historical documents.)


11. In open day light, in an open wood lot, with their sensitive powers all calm and serene, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris testify that an angel of glorified appearance and countenance came down from heaven, and stood before them, and took The plates which Joseph Smith had possessed, from which he had translated <read <off> the translation of the book> the Book, and held them in his hand, and showed as many of <the> leaves or plates as Joseph Smith had translated <completed>, to them. So that they saw and looked upon them until they were entirely satisfied. And <the angel> he spoke to David Whitmer and said, “David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keepeth his commandments.” These men saw his form, saw his glorified appearance, heard his words, saw all that he showed them, and then saw him ascend to heaven again. This was no collusion. These men could not be mistaken. They either told the truth, or they wilfully lied. How shall we tell which, how shall we know? This vision was in 1829. More than forty years ago, and what has been the conduct of those men since that day? Two of them are dead – <and probably> two living. Those who are dead testified to the last hour of their lives of to the truth of this vision. Those who are still living are firm in their testimony. I visited David Whitmer after he was more than 65 years of age, and <he>solemnly declared to me “I saw the Angel of God, I heard his voice, hence I know of a truth! Martin Harris is some over 89 years of age, and still he carries the book of Mormon under his arm, and testifies to all great and small, “I am Martin Harris in all the world, and I know the book of Mormon to be verily true. And although all men should deny the truth of that book, I can not do it. My heart is fixed! I could not know more truly or certainly than I do.”

12. In 1833, when mobbing reigned triumphant in Jackson Co. Mo. I and O. Cowdery fled from our homes, for fear of personal violence on Saturday the 20th day of July. The mob dispersed, agreeing to meet again on the next Tuesday. They offered eighty dollars reward for any one who would deliver Cowdery or McLellan in Independence on Tuesday. On Monday I slipped down into the Whitmer’s settlement, and there in the lonely woods I met with David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery. 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 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 declare to you its truth”!! Said I, boys, I believe you. I can see no object for you to tell me false<hood> now, when our lives are endangered. Eight men testify also to handling that sacred pile of plates, from which Joseph Smith <read off the> translated<ion> that heavenly Book.

13. One circumstance I’ll relate of one of these eight witnesses. While the mob was raging in Jackson Co. Mo. In 1833 some young men ran down Hiram Page <in the woods> one of the eight <witnesses,> and commenced beating and pounding him with whips and clubs. He begged, but there was no mercy. They said he was <a> damned Mormon, and they meant to beat him to death! But finally one of them said to him, if you will deny that damned book, we will let you go. Said he, how can I deny what I know to be true? Then they pounded him again. When they thought he was about to breathe his last, they said to him, Now what do you think of your God, when he don’t save you? Well, said he, I believe in God – Well, said one of the most intelligent among them, I believe the damned fool will stick to it though we kill him. Let us let him go. But his life was nearly run out. He was confined to his bed for a length of time. So much for a man who knows for himself. Knowledge is beyond faith or doubt. It is positive certainty.

14. I in company with friend, visited one of the eight witnesses <in 1869.> – The only one who is now alive, and he bore a very lucid and rational testimony, and gave us many interesting particulars. He was a young man when he had those testimonies. He is now <was then> sixty eight years old, and still he is firm in his faith. Now I would ask what will I do with such a cloud of faithful witnesses, bearing such a rational and yet solemn testimony? These men while in the prime of life, saw the vision of the Angel, and bore this testimony to all people. And eight men saw the plates, and handled them. Hence these men all know the things they declared to be positively true. And that too while they were young, and now when old they declare the same things.


(This short extract has McLellin looking at Joseph Smith’s mind. McLellin had started a church in 1847 that he called, like the name of the church in 1830, “The Church of Christ.”)

33. I have read the Book many, many times through; and am well acquainted with the manner of its coming to light, and the circumstances of the organization of the “church of Christ”, as probably any man who (is) now living. I was personally and intimately acquainted with Joseph Smith, <the man who read off the> the translator <translation> of the book, for five years near the beginning of his ministry. He attended my High school during the winter of 1834. He attended my school and learned science all winter. I learned the strength of his mind as <to> the study and principles of science. Hence I think I knew him. And I here say that he had one of <the> strongest, well balanced, penetrating, and retentive minds of any <man> with which <whom> I ever formed an acquaintance, among the thousands of my observation. Although when I took him into my school, he was without scientific knowledge or attainments. And I know that I do know the truth of this great work of the Last Days. And I would advise all people, kindreds, and tongues to believe and embrace the Book, and the doctrine, and the principles, and government and practice of the true “church of Christ.” For the time of Christ’s second coming is soon at hand(.)


LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter issued a statement on the McLellin notebook after Ashworth’s announcement last week:

“In recent years, a number of historical documents have been found that have added to our understanding of Joseph Smith, the time in which he lived and the challenges he faced. The church has welcomed and encouraged this process. While the church is not pursuing the acquisition of the McLellin manuscript, we are pleased the long-lost document has been found.”

Although he had left The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was highly critical of its leaders, practices and doctrines, McLellin has left a record of value to those who believe in the Book of Mormon and in the prophet Joseph Smith.

To purchase: Mitchell K. Schaefer, William E. McLellin’s Lost Manuscript, Eborn Books, 2011)

  • Letter to Cobbs

[Larry C. Porter, “William E. McLellan’s Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies, vol. 10, no. 4, 1970, pp. 1-3.]

In 1880 James T. Cobb, a graduate of Dartmouth and Amherst colleges and a resident of Salt Lake City, was making an attempt to establish the falsity of the Book of Mormon through an extensive examination of its origins. Among those to whom he directed letters of inquiry was William E. McLellan, whose close association with Joseph Smith and the witnesses of the Book of Mormon in the early years of the Church made him an appropriate subject for correspondence.

William E. McLellan joined the Church in 1831. Although he became an early critic of Joseph Smith and other Church leaders, he nevertheless progressed to top leadership positions and on February 15, 1835, he was ordained as one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve. He later wrote a letter criticizing the Prophet, was suspended from fellowhip and then restored. He again lost confidence in Church leadership, not, apparently, from what he had seen but from what he had heard, and soon stopped praying and keeping the commandments. On May 11, 1838, he was excommunicated. Later he tried to start a church of his own, which failed, after which he took up the practice of medicine. He died in Missouri in 1883. [fn. Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 1901, vol. I, pp. 82-83.]

The following testimony was written in reply to James T. Cobb’s inquiry. Its significance lies in the fact that even though McLellan was disillusioned with Joseph Smith and other Church leaders, as the letter makes clear, nevertheless was unable to deny his conviction that the Book of Mormon was what it claimed to be. The original of this letter is located in the New York Public Library, New York City.

Letter [italics by Porter]

Independence, MO, August 14th 1880Mr. J. T. Cobb.

Yours of Aug. 9th lies before me, and has been carefully read and considered. I did not answer your former letter because I did not think I could do any good by it, and I now have doubts as to any good resulting, but I’ll comply with your request.

I am opinionated. When I thoroughly examine a subject and settle my mind, then higher evidence must be introduced before I change. I have set to my seal that the Book of Mormon is a true, divine record and it will require more evidence than I have ever seen to ever shake me relative to its purity.” I have read many ‘Exposes.’ I have seen all their arguments. But my evidences [p 1] are above them all!

“I have no faith in Mormonism, as an ism, even from its start, neither have I in Latter day Saintism from its start – through all of its developments. I have no confidence that the church organized by J. Smith and O. Cowdery was set up or established as it ought to have been. And the further its run, its run still further from the true way – further from the plain simplicity of that Divine record, the Book of M. I don’t know that I am surprised at a thinking man for rejecting L.D.S.ism as it’s now developedin any and allbranches of what is called Mormonism. But when a man goes at the Book of M. he touches the apple of my eye. He fights against truth – against purity – against light – against the purist, or one of the truest, purist books on earth.I have more confidence in the Book of Mormon than any book on this wide earth! And its not because I don’t know its content, for I have probably read it through 20 times. I have read it carefully through within a year, and made many notes on it. It must be that a man does not love purity when he finds fault with the Book of Mormon!! Fight the wrongs of LDSism as you please, but let that unique, inimitable book alone. I have but little confidence in the purity of a man’s life or in his principles of action after becoming acquainted with that Book, and then fighting or opposing its divine excellence! Hence, you may know what I think of your course!!

When I first joined the church in 1831, soon I became acquainted with all the Smith family and the Whitmer family, heard all their testimonies, which agreed in the main points; and I believed them then, and I believe them yet. But don’t believe the many stories (contradictory) got up since, for I individually know many of them are false.

My advice to you is cease your opposition and strife against the Book, and fight against wrong doing in professors; for you might just as well fight against the rocky mountains as the Book!!

David Whitmer has lost his thumb on his right hand several years ago, and cannot write. And he would not be willing to write much to a man who fights the Book of M. which he knows to be true. I saw him June 1879, and heard him bear his solemn testimony to the truth of the book – as sincerely and solemnly as when he bore it to me in Paris, Ill in July 1831. I believed him then and still believe him. You seem to think he and I ought to come out and tell something – some darkness relative to that book. We should lie if we did, for we know nothingagainst its credibility or divine truth.

I can but hope you will alter your course and use your talents, energy and all your exertions in behalf of the truthfulness of that glorious volume!!

With profound respect for truth, purity & holiness I subscribe myself a lover of all that is true and wholesome.

I as ever.

W. E. McLelland, M.D.

P. S. Like you I want to add a few words. I never had but one letter from you until this one. You seem to think S. Rigdon the bottom of all M.ism. Many people know better. He never heard of the work of Smith & Cowdery until C. and P. P. Pratt brought the Book to him in Mentor, OH. True enough, I have but little confidence in S. Rigdon, but I know he was more the tool [p 3] of J. Smith than his teacher and director. He was docile in J. S. hands to my knowledge.

I left the church in August 1836, not because I disbelieved the Book or the then doctrines preached or held by the Church, but because the Leading mento a great extent left their religion and run into and after speculation, pride, and popularity! Just like the Israelites and the Nephites often did. I quite because I could not uphold the Presidency as men of God; and I never united with Joseph and party afterward!! I have often examined all the reasons youassign, but they have but little bearing in my mind. I know a man can sit down and find crookedness in almost anything by prying closely with it. In that light you are to work at the Book, and M.ism. Your life like all other exposerswill be spent in vain, and worse than in vain. Then Great events are just a little ahead of us. Great things are on hand today, but they will increase. Again. I live alone outside of all churches. I most firmly believe that the Lord will establishthe Church of Christshortly, then if they will accept me, I’ll unite with them!!! Thus I look for power from God to be displayed among his ministers. And then the Book of M. will be a kind of standardfor faithful. But I’ll close hoping you may yet come to see the truth. “

[Note: the word “establish” does not mean found, only organize Mosiah 27:13]

(Larry C. Porter, “William E. McLellan’s Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies, vol. 10, no. 4, 1970, pp. 1-3)

[McLellin also has a section under the Semi-Reformed chapter.]

See Also

  • “This issue also features a selection from a newfound document written in 1871 by William McLellin that tells about McLellin’s interviews of the Book of Mormon witnesses.” (Mitchell K. Shaefer, “The Testimony of Men: William E. McLellin and the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” BYU Studies, vol. 50, no.1, 2011.)
  • Mark R. Grandstaff, “Having More Learning Than Sense: William E. McLellin and the Book of Commandments Revisited,” Dialogue, vol.26, no.4, p.23
  • Steven C. Harper, “Drawing Lessons from a Life: William E. McLellin, 1831-1832,” Lives of the Saints: Writing Mormon Biography and Autobiography, ed. Jill Mulvay Derr (Provo: BYU Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, 2002), 77.
  • Richard P. Howard, “William E. McLellin: ‘Mormonism’s Stormy Petrel,'” in Launius and Thatcher, eds., Differing Visions, 76, 78, 97.
  • “McLellin Became Enemy of Church,” LDS Church News, Oct. 27, 1985.
  • “Writings Shed Light on Church History,” LDS Church News, Oct. 24, 1992.
  • Wilford Woodruff, “History of William McLellin,” Deseret News, May 12, 1858.
  • The most substantial McLellin biography to date is Larry C. Porter’s “The Odyssey of William Earl McLellin: Man of Diversity, 1806-83,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, eds. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (Provo and Urbana: BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 291-378.