Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Meaning of the McLellin Papers

Not much has been said about these new papers. Obviously I haven't read them and don't know if I ever will. Not that I wouldn't, but doubt there would ever be a personal reason to look for the printed collection. What has been said about the papers are of passing interest.

The report by Jennifer Dobern of The Associated Press sums up the issue:

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.

The report itself has some incongurities that a close reading exposes. The statement above is related to the comment:

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.

Yet, earlier in the story it reports one of the co-authors as saying, "McLellin's struggle was with Smith and a changing church, not Mormon theology," a rather dubious claim considering the above explanation of what McLellin says. It is apparent that McLellin did have some serious issues with Mormon theology, at least as it developed over the years.

It still leaves something to think about, considering the implications of his criticism. As an isolated statement I would fully believe McLellin had never heard the "First Vision" story, as it wasn't that important at the start of Mormonism. A closer look at what we do have shows it was considered more of a personal rather than organization Vision. Before Joseph Smith wrote it down as part of a more complete history, it was mostly known from diary enteries and personal interviews. It was even consistant with a typical, but still contraversial, "born again" religious experience.

The more problamatic statements really have to do with the Angel Moroni and John the Baptist. These also bring McLellin's version of early Mormonism to question. It can be argued that Joseph Smith's pre-Book of Mormon religious discussion didn't mention an Angel. What cannot easily be refuted is that he did teach about the Angel Moroni at the time The Book of Mormon was published. Even his critics recognized by that time there was the story of an angel delivering the plates.

As for not aware of the John the Baptist story? Again possible, as the development of the Priesthood is to this day far from completely understood. Putting down the history back in Joseph Smith's day was not like keeping a blog. Still, it is hard to believe that he wasn't told any of this considering his position in the Church. There were other members who both remained in the higher leadership positions and those who left the church whose writings seem to refute McLellin's version of events.

Most of the problems I have with the idea that Joseph Smith "developed founding stories" is that Mormonism can't be understood without them. That doesn't neccesarily count with the First Vision, but it does a lot of other teachings. For instance, how do you explain the Book of Mormon if you don't mention Moroni (or at least an angel)? The three witnesses of the Book of Mormon are very specific about an angelic ministry. Same goes for the priesthood and baptism, since angelic deliverance of the Priesthood and Authority are clearly taught early on in the journals and history of the time. Again, critics of the LDS Church witness specifically these things were taught even if the details don't mention angels by name. It was all very scandalous and brought persecutions and condemnation.

Without reading the material by McLellin, it is hard to understand what he says was taught from the start. A simple declaration of what wasn't taught needs to have an alternative explanation for what is known. Where, for instance, did McLellin believe the authority he was given as an Apostle come from? It might be McLellin is correct that he wasn't taught some things and was increasingly disturbed as he learned the particulars of the faith. He was not with the LDS Church leading up to its development and left before much of the revelatory innovations. In the end, the papers will do more as a snapshot of McLellin than early LDS history.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the papers and the associated essays, but I have heard that Mike Quinn's essay is very, very critical of McClellin. As you say, A late 1800's claim that he hadn't heard of the angels isn't particularly convincing. Of course you had folks like David Whitmer, who had some problems with some of the founding visitations, but still.

All that said, McLellin's early diaries, edited by Welch and Shipps, are invaluable. While they don't explicitly mention Moroni's name, he recognizes in several places that the Book of Mormon was delivered by an Angel. He is silent on the priesthood restoration.

- J. Stapley

Nick Literski said...

I've been asked to review this volume, and I've finished reading the introductory essays already. The essays are worth reading in themselves, just from the standpoint of lessons on historiography. J. Stapley is right that Quinn is highly critical of McLellin's inconsistencies, particularly in comparison with McLellin's 1831-36 journals. Also, McLellin has a tendency to downplay his own direct involvement in the events he later criticized.

BHodges said...

I don't view McLellin as a very reliable source from the documents I have read. I also can't justify the money to purchase his writings in the new work.

Anonymous said...

McLellin has traditionally been maligned as an apostate. As with anyone who leaves an institution. The institution gets to label the departer in any fashion they wish and that’s what has happened here. The problem is that McLellin left early Mormonism over integrity issues. He saw Joseph fooling around with revelations and his integrity forced him to part ways. Take for example section 28 in the 1833 Book of Commandments. In this revelation there is no mention of Moroni being the “angel” who gave Joseph the gold plates or the priesthood restored by Peter, James and John. In the 1835 edition (Section 27 in the Modern LDS edition) Joseph extensively revised the revelation to be section 50 in the 1835 edition of the first Doctrine and Covenants which include Moroni for the first time and the first narrative of the restoration of the Priesthood. (See The Joseph Smith Revelations page 72 for a full rundown.) McLellin asked Joseph not to tamper with the words of God and the two split. Who’s reliable here? McLellin is the most educated, the most honest and frankly the most consistent.

The irony of course is that McLellin is essentially Quinn. Same type of issues of intellect and integrity vs authority.

The William McLellin Papers offers a redemption for McLellin for those who care enough to dig. He was a widowed school teacher just trying to do what he thought was the right thing. He died believing in the Book of Mormon, seer stones and the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just like any other convert to Mormonism from his time. He didn’t change, Mormonism changed.


Nick Literski said...

I'd suggest that there is very much a "personal reason" to read this collection of McLellin documents. McLellin's notebooks and letters provide a snapshot of one highly-involved leader's understanding of Mormon beginnings, as well as his later musings on the same. We learn the key elements which attracted McLellin, perhaps the most highly educated of early Mormon converts, to the new faith. McLellin's views need not be an infalliable record of early Mormon teachings, in order to shed light.

As I progress through the book, I'm rather surprised at how much of Mormon doctrine actually preceded the Nauvoo era. Ideas which I've thought rose from Joseph's Nauvoo teachings, show up in McLellin's picture of pre-1838 Mormonism. While it's true that McLellin disputes some of the standard claims of Mormon sacred history, he simultaneously presents a pre-Nauvoo Mormonism which was much more doctrinally complex than I had thought.

This is also, of course, a personal story--the story of a religious seeker who experienced disappointment and frustration. In pre-Nauvoo Mormonism, McLellin believed he had found the true restored faith of Jesus. Unlike many of his peers, however, McLellin observed change in that faith, to the point where he no longer could believe that it retained its beauty. Mormonism developed beyond what McLellin held as its "pristine" state.

I can sympathize with McLellin. In my own 26 years in the LDS church, I was really a Nauvoo-era Mormon at heart. The rapid changes (ala correlation and public relations) of the last decade and a half left me cold, to the point that I distinguished between Mormonism and what I could only call "LDS-ism." I well understood that the vast majority of LDS welcomed those same changes, but for me, they felt more like betrayal. While we're both very flawed individuals, I find reading McLellin to be an experience with a kindred spirit.

Joe Geisner said...

I anticipated this book as one who loves Mormon history and books. We have such a rich history and a large interest in our history. A friend told me that there may be two or three top notch historians working on Michigan history. Utah/Mormonism has dozens. He is not a Mormon but he too has had an interest most of his adult life. You have to wonder why this is the case.
McLellan, Larson and Passey, along with the six authors of the essay’s gives us a unique glimpse into the ideas, teachings and history of a early convert to Mormonism. This from a well educated individual who held a prominent position and left the church but remained a believer and close friend. David Whitmer is the closest we have to someone like this and we as a church have devoured his writings and interviews. Why would anyone in their right mind turn their back on this book? Are people so paranoid that they are unable to see how rich we are because we have such wonderful documents as the McLellan papers and journals in print? Do these same people shun Wilford Woodruff’s journal, John D. Lee’s journal, Eliza Snow’s writings, Brigham Youngs addresses and journals, Hosea Stouts journal and the numerous others that have been printed?
I hope people who have jumped to this idea that McLellan was a critic or apostate can see that they are only hurting themselves by not reading our history. No matter how you slice it, McLellan was an important part of that history.

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