'Lost Apostles' an interesting history of Mormonism's originals who left the quorum

Wednesday , May 14, 2014 - 12:03 AM

Doug Gibson

Signature has a new Mormon history book, "The Lost Apostles: Forgotten Members of Mormonism's Original Quorum of Twelve," that provides a valuable look at the early years of Mormonism. Authors William Shepard and H. Michael Marquardt outline characteristics of the original apostles. They were mostly frontier men, chosen for their candor, stamina, independence, testimonies and personalities. These 12 were not administrators; they were young action-oriented men, sent out with virtually no assistance to study during the day, preach at night and try to baptize enough new members to form a small branch. If they were rejected, they left the "unbelievers" with a curse. If an apostle encountered a comely, unattached young woman, it was not uncommon for him to marry her, enjoy a quick honeymoon, and then go back to the mission, with a young wife waiting for his return.

The "Lost Apostles" are John Boynton, Lyman Johnson, his brother Luke Johnson, Thomas Marsh, the first president of the 12, William Smith, brother to the church's founder, and William McLellin. To those with at least an acquaintance of Mormon history, perhaps only Boynton and Lyman Johnson are historical strangers, no more than pictures in a church almanac. They are the two who managed to divorce themselves emotionally from Mormonism. Of the others, two -- Marsh and Luke Johnson -- returned to the now-Utah church, one, McLellin, skipped from Mormon offshoot to offshoot, never content, and William Smith, the legitimate rogue of the outfit, was finally allowed into the reorganized LDS church led by his nephew, ... so long as he behaved himself.

"Lost Apostles," is most interesting when it details the passions, strife, successes, setbacks, celebrations and violence that characterized Mormonism's growth in the 1830s, prior to the emigration to Nauvoo. As Joseph Smith moved the Mormons into the frontier, there were inevitable clashes between the unified newcomers and the older settlers, who didn't cotton to a large new voting bloc roiling the land. A lack of tact and propensity toward violence from both sides inevitably led to outnumbered Mormons being forced out. These exoduses were conducted under duress, in dangerous situations, and innocents died. Although the apostles were supposed to be separate from administrative duties, in reality they were not. They were often caught in the conflicts, internal and external, that roiled Mormonism.

What led most of the "lost apostles" from Mormonism was the 1838-1839 years in Ohio and Missouri. Besides the increasing violence, which became deadly, church leaders made the common mistake of wanting to get rich quick. They started an "anti-bank," due to not being able to get a charter, and created their own money (this could be done 180 years ago). During a brief real estate bubble, investors imagined themselves rich. The bubble broke, sellers and investors wanted their money, and the "currency" of the financial institution became worthless. As the authors detail, there's nothing like disputes over money to destroy harmony. Boynton, the Johnson brothers, McLellin, and later Marsh, left the church during this period. Other prominent church leaders who left were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Others who came close to long-time estrangement include apostles Parley P. Pratt, his brother Orson Pratt, and Orson Hyde. William Smith, a product of nepotism, clung to the quorum due to his familial relationship. However, after Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, his thuggish behavior was not tolerated much longer.

There is a paradox in this account. All of these men witnessed what they believed were heavenly manifestations, they believed that Jesus Christ had blessed them through revelation and assigned them to be apostles.So why was the quorum shattered by greed and violence in only several years? The authors do note that despite disagreements that flared into violence, all of the men were either cordial to, or even confidantes toward one another for the rest of their lives. They were generally kind to the members of the faith they had left. Even John Boynton, who became a celebrated physician and inventor in the mid-1800s, took time out of a tour to visit his old friends in Salt Lake City. Boynton was a man who made pains to avoid mention of his youthful adventure with Mormonism, but decades later, was drawn to reminiscing with his old companions. The short answer to the paradox is that most of the early leaders of the "Mormonites" retained their belief in the Book of Mormon, as well as the early appeal that it was a book designed to usher in the return of Christ, within a generation. Their reasons for leaving, or being forced out via excommunication, were probably close to what the loquacious McLellin often said; in their opinion, the leaders, Joseph Smith, etc., became corrupted, and fell short of the principles they believed the church required.

The "Lost Apostles" is a sympathetic account of the six, but not hagiographies. The commitment to Mormonism that drove these men to be early-Mormon historical figures is acknowledged. Most of the book covers various episodes of Mormon history as the apostles related to them. Late in the book the apostles' lives post-1844 (Smith's death) are covered. As a scholarly offering of Mormon history, it's another of a series of books, including biographies of Parley P. Pratt and Brigham Young, that are part of an ongoing process of shedding "teddy bear" accounts of Mormon history with more detailed, accurate, and fulfilling, "grizzly bear" accounts. The book contains a few 1830s' journalistic accounts of the apostles' missionary efforts that are fascinating to read.

I'll conclude the review with brief recaps of the six apostles and how their lives ended:

John Boynton: Like Lyman Johnson, he was one of two apostles able to shed Mormonism. He became a legitimate celebrity of the 19th century, with inventions, 4,000 lectures and fame as a naturalist doctor. His ultimately unsuccessful marriage to a much younger woman in 1865 was illustrated in Harper's Weekly. He died in 1879 in Syracuse, N.Y.

Lyman Johnson: He stayed close to the roots of Mormonism, and was involved in legal cases of interest to the church in the 1840s. Cordial to his former apostles, he never returned to the LDS church. Tragically, he died Dec. 20, 1859, when the frozen Mississippi River broke while he and another man were crossing on a sled. He had just rented a nearby hotel to run.

Luke Johnson: Even as an excommunicated member, Johnson, as a marshal, helped the Smiths escape from lawmen seeking the Mormon prophet. In 1846, he returned to membership in the church. He emigrated to Utah, where his skills as a dentist helped the pioneers. In Utah, he assumed a respected standing west of Salt Lake City, but was passed over when a spot in the Quorum of the Twelve opened. He died in July 1861, somewhat broken by the recent murder of his son. His younger wife, America, outlived him by 39 years and is buried in Ogden.

Thomas Marsh: Many Mormons know Marsh through the myth of him "leaving the church due to his wife's fight with another sister member over milk strippings." That is nonsense. Marsh left the church in Far West, Mo., because he opposed the violence of some church members' retaliation against anti-Mormons. He testified against the church in hearings. Some blame Marsh's testimony for the extermination order against Mormons issued by Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs. When, almost 20 years later, Marsh, poverty-stricken, in ill health, abandoned by his wife, and virtually friendless, requested to be admitted to the Utah church, it was granted. Marsh died in Ogden, a pauper, on Jan. 25, 1865. Despite his return to Mormonism, Brigham Young and other church leaders frequently mocked Marsh in his last years, even when he was on the stand with them preparing to deliver a penitent lecture. This cruel behavior indicates that the circumstances of Marsh's apostasy must have had bitter roots.

William McLellin: Thanks to his legacy of diaries, McLellin is a well-traveled figure in Mormon history. Considered a learned but temperamental man, McLellin, perhaps engaging in historical license, created a history of himself joining a church of pure christianity, anchored by the Book of Mormon, without priesthood, apostles, etc. The mercurial McLellin, who lived a very long life, stayed in contact with his former colleagues, frequently reproving them. He joined several offshoots of Mormonism, often as a leader, but eventually became disenchanted and would leave each, usually within several months. He died in 1883.

William Smith: As the authors note, Smith was a legacy apostle, chosen over Phineas Young because brother Joseph Smith requested William. Although the authors note that William Smith was devoted to his brother's church, he was a scoundrel. He was a lecher, a chronic adulterer, a man who enjoyed the company of criminals, and was easily capable of abandoning a wife and young children. He skipped to many offshoots of Mormonism, only to be thrown out of the groups as soon as his character was revealed. In the later years of his life, Joseph Smith III, first president of the Reorganized LDS Church, allowed a chastened William to lecture about his father's early years, but kept his uncle on a very tight leash. William Smith died on Nov. 13, 1893, a few days after catching cold during an RLDS speaking engagement.

Information on “The Lost Apostles ...” is available here.

dgibson@standard.net

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