From LDS apostle to spiritualist — the strange journey of Amasa Mason Lyman

Saturday , April 02, 2016 - 12:00 AM2 comments

DOUG GIBSON, Standard-Examiner Staff

In the spring 1983 edition of Dialogue, author Loretta L. Hefner recounts a sermon Mormon prophet Brigham Young delivered in 1867. Young said that doctrinal deviancy was not limited to the church rank and file. In fact, Young continued, among the present 12 apostles, “one did not believe in the existence of a personage called God,” another “believes that infants have the spirits of some who have formerly lived on earth,” and the third “has been preaching on the sly ... that the Savior was nothing more than a good man, and that his death had nothing to do with your salvation or mine.” 

Young was a sometimes caustic, even sarcastic LDS president, who once said that he kept the apostles in his pocket to take out when needed. He was not shy of public denunciations. The first two apostles mentioned by Young were Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde. Although Young used his influence late in life to make sure neither would be in a position to lead the LDS Church, Pratt and Hyde remained apostles.

The third apostle Young mentioned, Amasa Mason Lyman, would not survive his “heresy.” Lyman, baptized by Orson Pratt at 18, served 16 missions, spent months in a filthy Missouri jail cell with Mormon founder Joseph Smith, and attained the rank of apostle, only to lose it all in the final decade of his life. 

As Hefner relates in the Dialogue article, “From Apostle to Apostate: The Personal Struggle of Amasa Mason Lyman,” the LDS apostle proved his commitment to Mormonism countless times, but never seemed to shake an eccentric interest in spiritualism. In the 1850s, while establishing a branch of the church in San Bernadino, California, Lyman participated in seances.

The apostle’s interest in spiritualism might have remained a tolerated hobby — and of no danger to his church standing — had he not embraced “what later historians have termed the golden age of liberal theology,” writes Hefner. During this time, Lyman seems to have embraced “universalism,” or a belief that man, being derived from God, was inherently good and did not need Christ’s sacrifice to attain salvation.

In separate speeches — in 1862 in Dundee, Scotland and 1863 in Beaver, Utah — Lyman preached that Christ was only a moral reformer, and that man could redeem himself by correcting his errors. In short, Lyman denied the need for a savior.

If this occurred today in the LDS Church, an apostle’s views on the subject would spread rapidly. But 164 years ago, information trickled in over time. Young had to sift truth and discard rumors. Preaching in Parowan, Utah, Young turned to Lyman and before the audience asked him if he had ever preached that Christ was not our Savior or that the atonement was unnecessary.

Lyman said no. Relieved, Young continued his address.

Unfortunately for Lyman, his heretical positions had captured the attention of the 19th century media. The American Phrenological Journal, a liberal “highbrow” magazine of the era, praised Lyman, and the Mormon Church, for tolerating the apostle’s universalist, liberal views on God, Jesus, man and salvation. 

In fact, Lyman was called “the Mormon Theodore Parker,” after a noted liberal of that era. 

At about the same time, Young managed to get a copy of Lyman’s Scotland speech and read it. He learned that the apostle had denied Christ’s divinity and the need for an atonement. That knowledge, as well as the magazine article, sparked Lyman’s downfall as an apostle. Young chastised Lyman, telling him Joseph Smith would have cast him out of the church. He warned Lyman he was heading to Perdition, the Mormon concept of hell. Chastised for a while, Lyman wrote an apology that was published in the Deseret News. 

However, within a few weeks, Lyman repudiated his confession and preached sermons on the irrelevance of Christ’s atonement. By early May of 1867, Lyman was cut off from the Quorum, deprived of his priesthood, and disfellowshipped. That he was not excommunicated underscored the respect Young and other church leaders had for his previous service. Despite him lying to Young repeatedly, the president was patient with his former colleague.

For about two years, Lyman lived a quiet life with his several wives, working at his orchards and sawmill, repairing his homes and spending most of his time in Fillmore, Utah. He made an effort to return to church activity and seemed on the way to having his priesthood restored. Young and the apostles encouraged him, and he even spoke at an LDS sacrament service. 

But in the summer of 1869, Lyman resumed a friendship with William Godbe, an LDS convert from Great Britain who was a wealthy Salt Lake City businessman. By the mid-1860s, Godbe and some allies had drifted away from the church and were leading a dissident faction. In fact, Godbe and others would emerge as leading Mormon opponents in Utah over the next generation.

The “Godbeites,” as they were called, also supported spiritualism, and that appealed to Lyman. Within weeks, Lyman had abandoned his quiet life in Fillmore and become an enthusiastic missionary of spiritualism. Lyman preached the “New Movement” theological fad, which included his previous views on the atonement, and Lyman also participated in seances.

The inevitable occurred on May 12, 1870 — Amasa Mason Lyman was excommunicated from the LDS Church.

Although Lyman’s hope for a nationwide spiritualism-centric “New Movement” had fizzled by 1873, he remained a happy, content, peaceful apostate. He died of natural causes in 1877 at age 63. His actions caused strife within his family. Only one of his seven wives was loyal to his choices — she participated in seances — and several left him. His apostasy split his children; a handful supported him, and at least one marriage dissolved over his apostasy. Three of his children asked to have their membership records removed from the church.

Lyman’s oldest son, Francis Marion, who became an LDS apostle, suffered torment worrying about his father’s salvation. Apostle Abraham Cannon, in his journal entry of April 18, 1890, recounts Francis telling the other apostles of his efforts to bring the apostates within his family back to the gospel and his anguish over his father’s death and subsequent eternal judgment. The apostles, Cannon recounts, consoled Francis, saying that after paying a penalty, Amasa would be restored and “rewarded for his good deeds.”

Indeed, those good deeds earned Amasa Mason Lyman to be vicariously reinstated to priesthood and church membership in 1909, when the church was led by Joseph F. Smith.

In the decades after his death, a persistent excuse for the late apostle’s apostasy was that his forays into spiritualism and universalism were the result of a mental illness. There is no record as to whether Lyman objected to the church’s forgiveness in a seance. Perhaps he was grateful, perhaps he was merely amused. Time will tell for all of us.

Those interested in reading more about Lyman are advised to read “Amasa Mason Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Apostate: A Study in Dedication,” by Edward Leo Lyman, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2008. Both this book, and the Dialogue article, are the chief sources for this column.

This column was previously published at StandardBlogs.

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