Baptized in 1831, Tennessee native William E. McLellin was ordained a member of this dispensation’s original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835. He was only 29 years old at his ordination, but he was already an experienced missionary, schoolteacher and self-taught physician and among the most astute members of the small, humble Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Unfortunately, he broke with his leaders in the wake of the Kirtland financial difficulties of 1837 and was excommunicated in May 1838.
McLellin quickly became an active, even irascible, opponent of the church and was personally hostile — to the point, apparently, of seeking to do violence — to Joseph Smith.
Significantly, though, after the prophet's martyrdom in 1844, McLellin affiliated himself continually with various splinter factions that claimed to represent the Restoration. He moved from group to group until his death in Independence, Mo., in April 1883.
He did so, notwithstanding his personal complaints, because he continued to believe in the Book of Mormon.
“When a man goes at the Book of M.,” he wrote in 1880 to James Cobb, a Utah-based critic of Mormonism who had sought his support, “he touches the apple of my eye. He fights against truth — against purity — against light — against the purest, or one of the truest, purest books on earth. I have more confidence in the Book of Mormon than any book of this wide earth!”
A significant source of McLellin’s confidence in the Book of Mormon was his direct personal familiarity with its witnesses.
“When I first joined the church in 1831,” he told Cobb, “soon I became acquainted with all the Smith family and the Whitmer family, and I heard all their testimonies, which agreed in the main points; and I believed them then and I believe them yet. But I don’t believe the many stories (contradictory) got up since, for I individually know many of them are false.”
He met three of the witnesses — Martin Harris, David Whitmer and Hyrum Smith — when they passed by his house in the late summer of 1831.
He later reported having walked several miles with them and having “talked much” not only with them but also with other knowledgeable church members during that summer. “I took Hiram the brother of Joseph,” he recalled, “and we went into the woods and set down and talked together about 4 hours. I inquired into the particulars of the coming forth of the record, of the rise of the church and of its progress and upon the testimonies given to him.”
This was, plainly, a careful and searching interview, conducted by an intelligent, skeptical man who, as his subsequent story shows, could be quite independent-minded. However, the next day, based on what he had learned from Hyrum Smith and others, “I rose early and betook myself to earnest prayer to God to direct me into truth; and from all the light that I could gain by examinations, searches and researches I was bound as an honest man to acknowledge the truth and Validity of the Book of Mormon.”
Thereupon, having made an informed and prayerful decision, McLellin asked Hyrum Smith to baptize him.
“When I thoroughly examine a subject and settle my mind,” McLellin reflected in his 1880 letter, “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 are above them all!”
“It is hard to imagine someone better positioned to evaluate the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses than William McLellin,” said historian Steven Harper in "Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses." “He spent much of his life disaffected from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had no interest in sustaining it. Yet as he wrote of his 1831 experience with the book and its witnesses, he was bound by the evidence to acknowledge its truth and validity.
"He not only knew the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses, he knew some of them personally and interviewed them intimately. He was no fool, no dupe. And he was positioned to know whether the witnesses were fools, dupes or conspirators. So well informed, McLellin chose to believe the testimonies of the witnesses were truthful.”
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.