Notes From The 2nd Annual Eborn Book Event: Brent Ashworth and Harvard Heath on the Recently Discovered McLellin Manuscript

By August 8, 2009

On August 6, 2009, I attended two sessions from Bret Eborn’s 2nd annual book event. It was a small affair, under 30 people when I was there.  Here are notes from Brent Ashworth and Harvard Heath on the McLellin manuscript (I’ll put up notes from the second session I attended next week):

Brent Ashworth

I?ve been honored to have the assistance of Harvard Heath to put this journal into context, we have the beginnings of that, once we have the complete text roughed out, I will say as preparing for this, my first goal was to try to avoid talking about Hoffman, but it?s impossible to do that.  Reading some of what Stan Larson wrote about how the persona has changed over the years, Hoffman had an effect on that. The first time I met Mark it was in a conversation on the phone, I?ve been a collector for decades, I was interested in Joseph Smith material, I had heard about the Anthon transcript, JS III blessing. Another collector I had known, Steve Arnet, gave me his number, in the first conversation, I said I was interested in any JS material, he immediately came up with one, in retrospect, it?s not surprising. People would put in a request and he?d come up with things.  In retrospect it?s obvious, but not at the time. I mentioned I was interested in a letter, he said he just happened to have one. It?s a letter I saw recently used in a new book on Emma Smith, one of the first orders of business should be to get Hoffman out of circulation, that?s one of the things I offered to Marlin Jensen to do.  I mention that because in the first conversation, I bought a letter saying they should donate their plow for the poor, it ended up in a recent book.  He also mentioned that the source of this letter, I was surprised he had one, I had only seen one or two…it came from a large Texas collection. I know this because in 1992, several years after he went to jail, I decided to clean out my desk, I found my notes from the call with him in 1981, 11 years later, in those notes, I?d written down from a large Texas collection, what he?d said to me. The first contact dealt with what became known as the McLellin collection and one of the last conversations I had with him dealt with the McLellin collection.  He had a piece of papyrus excised from a longer papyrus, five cut off heads sideways, tried to sell me as part of the McLellin collection whenever someone wanted a source of his finds, when he didn?t have another story, the McLellin collection did suffice. He offered me pieces of the collection over the years, talked at some length about how it had sexual notebooks, the actual number was similar to what he described, but the content was not anything like what Hoffman described.  I hadn?t heard much about McLellin but that he joined the anti-Mormon mobs that ransacked Missouri, Well, Hoffman said nothing to tone down that anti-Mormon persona?[Some McLellin material sold to Joseph F. Smith for $50, made it to the First Presidency?s Vault] McLellin notebooks found down in Texas, Traughber family, most of those ended up in Utah…two different books have been published, one that Jan Ships and Jack Welch co edited, 1994, U of I press, BYU, that went through the originals in the FP vault, the others that were known were published in 2007, it changed what we?ve known about Hoffman. It?s the reason we looked at McLellin in greater detail. Larson and Passey book, entitled this notebook notebook #2, only a small portion available, the original not extant, Two partial pages, images taken by C. Edward Miller, from the notebook then in possession?[There were three photographic images from this notebook with the collection published by Signature].

Well, further on in the [Passey-Larson] book, there is an excerpt as far as they could read it from the Glass plates from those three pages, interesting to me, how this came about. This collection has been on top of collectors? minds since Hoffman put it there. A few years after he went to prison, I noted in a catalog that McLellin?s first edition of the D&C came up for sale. I picked it up, you can?t see his signature here, he signed it, Kirtland May 15, 1836, there?s a presentation to another person, it was particularly interesting to me because there are minor notes on some of the pages.  May be his notes or may be of others. Had it not been for the interest started by Hoffman, I wouldn?t have gone after it, but interesting in light of what I had heard of him.  Many years later, we have everything we could find published, but there?s this lost manuscript. Referred to in the Larson and Passey book, mention of the glass plate negatives, we thought the notebook had not survived.

A friend of mine gave me a tip, collecting is easier when you have a store [referring to his antiques and collectibles store on Center Street in Provo, by Pioneer Book?if you haven?t gone, it?s well worth the time, it?s like a museum in its own right].  This friend walked in the door. He told me about a family member that he thought had the McLellin lost journal [he refers to this as a journal, but I understand it?s a notebook with a history of the Church and treatises on doctrine] I was very interested. July last year, 2008, I followed up with it, ultimately able to pick it up, true to form, excellent, Prior owners mentioned on the front inside of the cover.  Including Robertson. It said the book was purchased of John Raishe 1919, has stamp of library of Hansen, #43 of his library, McLellin?s book 1871, the title page was just like the glass plate photo. The two pages partially readable, are there.  Fascinating story, fascinating book, interesting things about it to me, it didn?t come from the Traughber papers, McLellin?s widow kept it for a while, maybe thinking that it was to be published, that?s guessing on my part. But it does have an index with 40 chapters, So, it starts out like an LDS General authority title on Church doctrine and history, First four chapters on Baptism, faith, etc.  He has his own doctrine received while in and out of the Church. Clearly the theme throughout the manuscript is what has to be the truthfulness of the BOM, in line with his other writings.  Capstone book to all the rest since this was for publication. In chapter form, comments like, ?the reader will note?, ?the reader will see?, so he was conscious of a readership.  After the first four principles of the gospel, chapter 5, The Seer of the Lord, Joseph Smith and ancient seers. Chapter on the two priesthoods, manner of giving and receiving revelations, call to the ministry, man, spiritual existence; ministry of church of Christ, one of the keys, the devil, the performance of miracles, the personality of the holy spirit, communion with heaven, unity of godhead, Book of Mormon, Faith and testimony in the holy scriptures, Church of Christ follows that, dispensations, restoration of the ancient order of things, various views some LDS some not, ends with 40 chapters. I will read a few then turn it over to Harvard who is a historian and who I?m honored to have working on this. [Reads some sections]

Book written in that period, by the time he died in 1883, he hadn?t affiliated with any sect, his wife was affiliated with the RLDS, he was living in Independence.  He never did, he tired to get his friend David Whitmer to begin a church as Prophet. He felt he didn?t have that authority, so nothing ever came of it, he attended a church in Texas for a while.  Didn?t last…[Reads More Sections]

Frankly, I think it?s ironic that I ended up with it, it?s a testimony of the Book of Mormon, maybe not much new information, in the journal he is antagonistic, written in 1871, he has some tough things to say about BY and the Utah church. Been an honor to be a part of it.

[Someone, I don?t remember who?and please don?t identify yourself if you come and read this?had the sensitivity to ask the following question]

I understood you were meant to be blown up by Hoffman?

Ashworth: He?s the only one who knows that, thanks.  [End of Q&A]

Harvard Heath:

I should disabuse you of the idea that I?m a great historian, this is not my field of expertise, but this is an incredible find, perhaps not much new, but some things that will help us understand McLellin.  As a historian, I?m always concerned about documentation, footnotes, and memoirs, written for publication, Mike Quinn in his essay in the Larson-Passy book says this manuscript was meant for publication. I?ve edited the Reed Smoot diaries and will do David O. McKay and James E. Talmage. In a journal, if you go back and try to edit those, someone might have missed the essence of a conversation but he wrote it down as he saw it that day, but a memoir presents a challenge and problem. McLellin was one of those persons that lived through interesting times, had the luck of knowing some interesting people, would be of interest to generations…McLellan was caught in this vortex of early Mormonism, associated with them, and 35 years later he sits down to write this document to tell the story of early Mormonism.  It seems to me that McLellin was one of those individuals like Pres. Hinckley talks about that left the church but couldn?t leave it alone. Was interested for some reason in associating with it, he went around to the Hedrickites, Bennett, Strang, talked to Whitmer about being a prophet, made the rounds but never stayed too long, found some reason to be disenchanted and leave. Tried to make this document in 1871. I have to find out how much is an accurate perspective, even the best historians have trouble with this. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has this great story he tells?he wrote a memoir, on one occasion he said, I know the fallibility of memory. He was lunching with Dean Acheson, former Sec. of State, writing a memoir, said I had a disconcerting morning Arthur, I was writing about the decision in ?41 to freeze Japanese assets and that led to the attack on Pearl Harbor, I have a vivid recollection, the president was at his desk, I was in a chair, and [so and so was doing something]. I can close my eyes and see the scene…but my damn secretary checked the records and said that [so and so] wasn?t there, he was home sick, but I was sure he was there.

This was only 6 years after the fact. He was a bright man. So how do we give credence to those who write 30 or 40 years later, our task is to see what he did nor didn?t get right.  I?ve dealt with memoires.  They should be called Things I did or things I think I did. With time, increasingly problematic, agendas enter in. What is McLellin trying to do here. We find a conflicted man, why does he write in terms of faith of Joseph Smith and  the BOM and then in the next portion disavowing Joseph, which is it?  It almost makes you wonder what the purpose of the book was. You get a sense he?s trying to revise history and criticize the brethren, then on another page, he tries to get to the facts.  Quinn says he edits himself out of scenes where he?s in?

Years ago, I was helped write the history of BYU under Wilkinson [chuckles from the audience]

Ernest was  a difficult task master. He was pretty hard on us. In writing, as we got closer to his administration, he wrote more stuff in the margins,

He?d say, we?re paying you to be researchers, can?t you get this right? This isn?t what happened, this is what happened.

We?d say, President, as you noticed, we have four footnotes from the minutes of the meeting and an oral history.

He?d say, I don?t care what they said, that?s not what happened.

Well, President, that?s not a footnote.

Why not? I was there.

But these views are not yours.

I don?t care, I was there.

Caused consternation on our parts. When McLellin gets involved, he tends to be a little more desirous to turn out as the good guy. So difficult, trying to figure out what the agenda is in McLellin. The problem is that he?s a figure that both sides of the Mormon tension like to use. Some say, well, McLellin was convinced of the BOM, others say that McLellin was convinced JS was a charlatan…it almost comes down to that famous quote, San Bernadette, for those who believe no explanation is necessary, for those who don?t believe, no explanation is possible, like McLellin, I?m not sure what he was trying to do. If this was an expose, he says a lot of nice things. I would like to have him on the couch for a few hours.  Some of it doesn?t jive with what he wrote, some, though, fairly consistent.  Page after page of laudatory stuff, others parts not.  Complex man, not sure we?ll really understand his motivations, but he took the time to write this history of the Church. What was his purpose? To vindicate himself? To placate others, to impress? We?ll never know. But for us as historians of the early church, this is a very important document that demands careful scrutiny, our job is to find what really happens how much is conjecture and what all this is all about. Wonderful parallel, he was from Tennessee…Abraham O. Smoot also Tennessean, 1830s journals of his mission, a year later I was going through the Juvenile Instructor in 1888, he recalled his days back in Tennessee? a 50 year gap, he didn?t read his diaries ?cuz the accounts aren?t similar. He had them, but probably chose not to use them, felt his memory captured it.

How much of his documents did he [McLellin] use? Did he go back to his personal writings? Where do we get sources from him, he isn?t unlike any other 1800s writer, assumes when he states something in his memoir it did happen, he was there.  So, I?m not certain how much research he did or what he had access to, our challenge is to find out how much of this he really knew, how much he tried to change and why he changed it. Not sinister connotations necessarily, many really believe what they write?

Our lives force us to see things differently.  With McLellin his value to us is that he gives us an account not vicious, but not laudatory, not apologetic, maybe in this new age of Mormon history writing when we find more ambiguity, we can explore what it was to be a Mormon.

I was skeptical, I read Shipps and Passey, thought it has all been said, maybe it has, but this will add some things and hopefully enlighten us about who he was, and see things differently.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Great notes Jared. I really wish I could have attended this conference. Getting to hear Ashworth and Heath sounds like a real winner.

    I look forward to the publication of this important piece of history. Ashworth is a class act. Most private collectors would not publish a work like this. Usually when a manuscript like this is published the value is not maintained. I heard Ashworth speak on Van Hales show and have talked with Ashworth personally about this find. Ashworth has put to rest any chance of this being a forgery or suspect provenance. Having Heath as editor is a coupe. Heath has always done excellent work.

    Again, thanks for the good work Jared.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — August 8, 2009 @ 10:00 am

  2. Thanks for putting this up Jared. Very interesting.

    It’s interesting to get Ashworth’s perspective on this. It is an ironic twist that it has come full circle here. And Ashworth is right: Hoffman did more than anyone else to uncover the papers of McLellin by turning the focus on the real collection. It’s really unfortunate it happened the way it did. And it’s too bad we couldn’t get all the papers McLellin was supposed to have had.

    Why does it feel to me that McLellin can either be believing in Mormonism, or writing an expose? Many, many individuals following Smith’s death viewed Smith–the true prophet for a time–as a fallen prophet who turned from the gospel he restored. McLellin eventually took that view. I find no complexity in this position.

    he tired to get his friend David Whitmer to begin a church as Prophet. He felt he didn?t have that authority, so nothing ever came of it, he attended a church in Texas for a while.

    I would say McLellin was critical in helping David Whitmer start his church (which he did as early as 1847 if I remember correctly). This early start paved the way for Whitmer to continue such thinking throughout his life. The Whitmerites was an important, albeit small schism, so something fairly important “came of it.”

    I’m looking forward to the editing of this notebook (I’m with you Jared, from what I understand, this is NOT a journal). I hope they can uncover more detail about the provenance and solidify in their minds the makeup and nature of the volume. These things can get pretty tricky and it’s challenging to do well.

    Comment by Robin Jensen — August 8, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  3. Thanks for the write up Jared. Very interesting stuff.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 8, 2009 @ 10:42 am

  4. It is interesting stuff for sure Jared T. The Hoffman forgeries kind of remind me in a way of the various forgeries that were committed between the end of the apostles and the renaissance. They devalued the real thing because they made everything questionable.

    It is good to see that some good is coming from this but at the same time how frustrating the whole thing is.

    Comment by JonW — August 8, 2009 @ 11:36 am

  5. Yeah, thanks Jared. Good stuff.

    Comment by David G. — August 8, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

  6. Gracias, Jared.

    Comment by Christopher — August 8, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  7. Gracias a ustedes 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — August 8, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

  8. sé muy poco Español

    Comment by JonW — August 8, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

  9. […] Books will also publish the newest found manuscript of William E. McLellin with Harvard Heath as editor, though I do not […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Recently Published and Forthcoming Books on Mormon History, November 2009 Edition — November 30, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  10. […] Books will also publish the newest found manuscript of William E. McLellin. Word on the street is that Harvard Heath has […]

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