McLellin journal finally is located

Published: Thursday, Jan. 22 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Detail of the journal of early apostle William E. McLellin.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

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 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)."

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