Question: What was the relationship between William McLellin and Emma Smith?

Question: What was the relationship between William McLellin and Emma Smith?

McLellin committed offenses against Emma and Joseph's family while Joseph was in Liberty Jail

Following his excommunication, McLellin played an active role in mobbing and robbing the Saints. Joseph was taken to Liberty Jail, and Emma returned home to find that she had been robbed of everything. A contemporary journal records that McLellin “went into brother Joseph’s house and commenced searching over his things . . . [and] took all his [jewelry] out of Joseph’s box and took a lot of his cloths [sic] and in fact, plundered the house and took the things off.” When Emma asked McLellin why he did this, McLellin replied, “Because I can.” This theft affected Emma profoundly. She received word that Joseph was suffering greatly from the cold in Liberty Jail, and he asked her to bring quilts and bedding. “Sister Emma cried and said that they had taken all of her bed cloths [sic] except one quilt and blanket and what could she do?” Emma sought legal redress but recovered nothing.

McLellin’s offenses against Joseph extended beyond robbing his family:

While Joseph was in prison at Richmond, Missouri, McLellin, who was a large and active man, went to the sheriff and asked for the privilege of flogging the Prophet. Permission was granted on condition that Joseph would fight. The sheriff made known to Joseph McLellin’s earnest request, to which Joseph consented, if his irons were taken off. McLellin then refused to fight unless he could have a club, to which Joseph was perfectly willing; but the sheriff would not allow them to fight on such unequal terms.

If we accept the late, secondhand accounts of McLellin as reliable, we must accept that Emma made her (only?) admission of Joseph’s plural marriages to a man who had robbed her and her family and had saucily insisted that he did so merely because they could do nothing to stop him. While her husband froze in Liberty Jail, Emma had to worry about her children going cold because McLellin had stolen their bedding.

It seems an enormous leap of faith in McLellin—who clearly does not deserve such faith—to presume both that he was truthful and that Emma disclosed humiliating details about Joseph and Fanny to him of all people. Todd Compton acknowledges that McLellin may have “‘bent’ the truth in this case,” but if the account is false, the truth has not been bent but shattered.[1]

It is worth noting that some, such as Michael Quinn, have argued that after Joseph’s death Emma had a high opinion of McLellin. Quinn writes that “[i]ronically between his receipt of these two letters, Emma . . . wrote Joseph Smith III on 2 February 1866 and highly praised McLellin.” Quinn reads too much into his source or does not represent it properly. Emma’s exact words were “I hope that Wm. E. McLellin will unearth his long buried talents, and get them into circulation before it is everlastingly too late . . . for he is certainly a talented man.”[2]</ref> This does not strike me as high praise. It sounds instead as if Emma is claiming that McLellin had great potential but that he has squandered it or left it untapped.


  1. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness, 35. See also Compton, “Fanny Alger Smith Custer,” 197 n. 170: “In the aggregate, these stories [Fanny Brewer, cited in Bennett’s History of the Saints; McLellin’s 1872 account of Miss Hill; and Martin Harris’s posthumously published and attributed claim in Ten Years Before the Mast establish only that three individuals were willing to publish their belief that Joseph Smith had been sexually involved with a woman other than his wife during the Kirtland period; but no one story is completely convincing.”
  2. Emma Smith to Joseph Smith III, 2 February 1866, RLDS Library-Archives; cited in Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, 291. Newell and Avery likewise believe this “reinforced McLellin’s credibility.” As noted in the main text, I disagree.