THE WILLIAM E. McLELLIN PAPERS, 1854-1880, edited by Stan Larson and Samuel J. Passey, Signature, 638 pages, $39.95

"The William E. McLellin Papers," just published by Signature Books, has a long and checkered history. It became famous in modern day when master forger Mark Hofmann, now in the Utah State Prison, claimed he had possession of the papers in 1985.

When Hofmann's myriad documents turned out to be forged, and he was convicted of murder, it became clear that he never had the McLellin collection. Instead, Otis Traughber did. Traughber, a Texan, had inherited the collection from his father, a friend and confidante of McLellin, who was a member of the first LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knew about Traughber as early as 1908. Representatives of the church met with him, acquired much of his materials, but it didn't announce the acquisition until 1994. Because the Marriott Library at the University of Utah also has McLellin holdings, it was logical that Stan Larson and Sam Passey, Marriott Library archivists, would transcribe and annotate the documents. The editors also included McLellin's correspondence from the Community of Christ archives (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in Missouri.

The book also contains compelling essays by former RLDS Church historian Richard Howard, Brigham Young University history professor Tom Alexander, prolific LDS historian D. Michael Quinn, RLDS Graceland University professor Bill Russell and North Carolina graduate student John-Charles Duffy.

McLellin is a controversial figure, having joined the LDS Church in 1831 and becoming an apostle in 1835. He resigned from the apostleship in 1836 and lost his membership in 1838. He always claimed he only heard about Joseph Smith's First Vision years after he left the church. He never returned to the church, yet he remained close to the Smith family and always maintained high regard for the first LDS prophet.

McLellin, a native of Tennessee, also allegedly didn't know of other crucial elements of LDS doctrine, including appearances to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni, John the Baptist, the apostle Peter or the Hebrew prophet Elijah. Yet he always maintained a strong belief in the Book of Mormon.

Michael Quinn thinks McLellin cultivated a "selective memory," which he called on in later years to write opinions and descriptions about Mormonism that he had never mentioned while a member. Nevertheless, the written record left by the former apostle is considerable and makes good reading for Mormons interested in their history.

It's especially instructive that McLellin made adultery accusations against Joseph Smith — but Joseph Smith cautioned McLellin in a revelation contained in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants against his committing adultery (Section 67).

Kudos to the editors and the publisher for issuing such a meticulous, interesting and important scholarly work relating to Mormon history, complete with biographical notes, bibliography, footnotes and index.