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in Context

William McLellin’s Five Questions

D&C 1, 65, 66, 67, 68, 133

Matthew C. Godfrey

Book of Commandments title page

William McLellin

Within two months of his baptism on August 20, 1831, William E. McLellin, a former schoolteacher, became deeply involved in the restoration story. Following his conversion, McLellin was ordained an elder and preached the gospel with Hyrum Smith for a few weeks before traveling to Orange, Ohio, in late October for a general conference of the Church. McLellin noted in his journal that it was at this conference that he “first saw brother Joseph the Seer, also brothers Oliver [Cowdery], John [Whitmer] & Sidney [Rigdon] and a great many other Elders.” At the conference, McLellin was ordained a high priest and heard Joseph teach about the powers and duties of that office. “This conference was attended by me with much spiritual edification & comfort to my heart,” he declared.1

D&C 66

D&C 66 on
D&C 66 on

After the conference, McLellin traveled to Kirtland and in the course of his journey “stepped off of a large log and strained my ankle very badly”—so much so that he petitioned Joseph to heal him. “He laid his hands on” the ankle, McLellin wrote in his journal, “and it was healed although It was swelled much and had pained me severely.”2 Just a few days later, McLellin decided to test Joseph Smith’s calling. After going to Joseph’s home in Hiram, Ohio, on October 29, McLellin “went before the Lord in secret, and on my knees asked him to reveal the answer to five questions through his Prophet.” Without letting Joseph know what these five questions were, McLellin asked Joseph to provide to him God’s will. The resulting revelation—section 66 in the current Doctrine and Covenants—answered McLellin’s five questions to his “full and entire satisfaction.” Even after he fell away from the Church, McLellin stated that he still considered this revelation an “evidence” of Joseph’s prophetic calling “which I cannot refute.”3

D&C 65

D&C 65 on
D&C 65 on

Just a day after this revelation was given, McLellin attended a Church meeting at John Johnson’s home, where Joseph was living, and spoke to those in attendance for an hour and a half. “And it was not I but the spirit and power of God which was in me,” he explained.4 At the same meeting, Joseph received another revelation, canonized as section 65 in the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The revelation proclaimed that “[t]he keys of the kingdom of God” were again “committed unto man on the Earth” and that the gospel would “roll forth unto the ends of the Earth ... until it hath filled the whole Earth"5 (see D&C 65:2).  

D&C 68

D&C 68 on
D&C 68 on

Two days later, on November 1, McLellin attended a conference of elders convened in Hiram, Ohio. Even though he had already received a revelation by Joseph providing the Lord’s will for him, McLellin joined three other men at the conference—Orson Hyde, Luke Johnson, and Lyman Johnson—in petitioning Joseph to reveal “[t]he mind & will of the Lord” pertaining to their responsibilities.6 McLellin later recollected that when he was ordained a high priest, he “did not understand the duties of the office.”7 Perhaps that lack of understanding led in part to his request, for the revelation that followed— now Doctrine and Covenants 68—provided McLellin and his companions with information about the duties of high priests and elders to preach the gospel to all the earth.8

D&C 1

D&C 1 on
D&C 1 on

Given that responsibility to preach, and given that the October 30 revelation stated that the gospel would “roll forth unto the ends of the earth,” it was imperative that the revelations Joseph had already received should be published. McLellin later recollected that “hours were spent” at the conference discussing whether to publish the revelations before “it was finally decided to have them printed.”9 According to McLellin’s recollections, that November conference assigned him, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon to draft a preface for the Book of Commandments. Yet when the men presented the preface to the conference, its participants “picked it all to pieces” and “requested Joseph to enquire of the Lord about it.” After bowing in prayer with the conference, Joseph, according to McLellin, “dictated by the spirit the preface,” doing so as he sat “by a window of the room in which the conference was sitting.” McLellin remembered that “Joseph would deliver a few sentences and Sydney [Rigdon] would write them down, then read them aloud, and if correct, then Joseph would proceed and deliver more.” According to McLellin, “by this process the preface”—now section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants—“was given.”10

D&C 67

D&C 67 on
D&C 67 on

Joseph Smith also desired that the participants in the conference provide their testimony of the divine origin of the revelations. Some were reluctant to do so, leading to the dictation of another revelation, currently section 67 in the Doctrine and Covenants. In this revelation, the Lord provided a way for the elders to determine whether the revelations were from God: “[I]f there be any among you that shall make one like unto” the revelations, it stated, “then ye are Justified in saying that ye do not know that is true.” If no one could “make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear that it is true”11 (see D&C 67:6-8).

According to one account, McLellin volunteered to try to write his own revelation, but failed miserably.12 Thereafter, McLellin, along with other conference attendees, affixed his name to a testimony, prepared by Joseph, stating that “[G]od hath born record to our souls through the Holy Ghost shed forth upon us that these commandments are given by inspiration of God & are profitable for all men & are verily true.”13

D&C 133

D&C 133 on
D&C 133 on

After the conference concluded, McLellin stayed with Joseph Smith for another two weeks, copying revelations and preparing for an upcoming mission with Samuel H. Smith to the eastern states.14 He may even have been present on November 3 when Joseph received what would become known as the appendix to the Book of Commandments, which appears in the current Doctrine and Covenants as section 133.

Like section 1, it warned the inhabitants of the earth of Christ’s imminent return and the need to repent and accept God’s direction as provided in the revelations he had given to Joseph. Bolstered by the word of God, McLellin departed for his mission with Smith on November 16 and preached the gospel for several weeks thereafter.15

McLellin would eventually be called as one of the initial members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but he did not remain true to his testimony; he fell away from the Church and even participated in the persecution of the Saints in Missouri.16 Yet for a few short weeks in the fall of 1831, he was an eyewitness to Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, witnessing several revelations, including ones addressed directly to him, and participating in the decision to publish the revelations as the Book of Commandments. McLellin, together with other participants in another November 1831 conference, declared that these revelations were “worth to the Church the riches of the whole Earth.” To him, they contained “the Keyes of the mysteries of the Kingdom, & the riches of Eternity to the church.”17


For more on the sections mentioned in this article, see the forthcoming volume, Matthew C. Godfrey, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Grant Underwood, Robert J. Woodford, William G. Hartley, eds. Documents, Volume 2: July 1831-January 1833. Vol. 2 of the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2013.


[1] Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Studies, 1994), 44-45; Minute Book 2, 25-26 October 1831, Joseph Smith Papers.

[2] Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Studies, 1994), 45.

[3] William E. McLellin, Ensign of Liberty, Kirtland, Ohio (Jan. 1848): 61.

[4] Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Studies, 1994), 46-47.

[5] Revelation, 30 October 1831, JSP.

[6] Revelation, 1 Nov. 1831-A, JSP.

[7] W. E. McLellan, M.D., to Davis H. Bays, 24 May 1870, in Saints’ Herald, 15 Sept. 1870, 553-557.

[8] D&C 68:1-12.

[9] William E. McLellin, “From a Letter dated Dec. 14th, 1878,” in John L. Traughber Papers, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[10] “Letter from Elder W. H. Kelley,” Saints’ Herald, 1 March 1882, 67.

[11] Revelation, circa 2 November 1831, JSP.

[12] Joseph Smith, History, 1838-1856, volume A-1, 162, JSP. McLellin himself never mentioned such an incident. See also Mark R. Grandstaff, “Having More Learning Than Sense: William E. McLellin and the Book of Commandments Revisited,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 (Winter 1993): 23-48.

[13] Testimony, circa 1-2 November 1831, JSP.

[14] Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Studies, 1994), 47.

[15] Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Studies, 1994), 47.

[16] Minutes, 14 February 1835, Minute Book 1, 149, JSP; Larry C. Porter, “The Odyssey of William Earl McLellin: Man of Diversity, 1806-83,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 325-327.

[17] Minutes, 12 November 1831, Minute Book 2, 18, JSP.