To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here 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 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 his life to make sure both would not 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 age 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 Lyman proved his commitment to Mormonism countless times, but never seemed to shake an eccentric interest in spiritualism. In the 1850s, while establishing the LDS church in San Bernadino, Calif., 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 happened today in the LDS Church, the news would get out in minutes. It’s doubtful an LDS general authority would survive past the 6 p.m. Utah news. But 159 years ago, information trickled back to President Brigham Young disguised more as rumor than evidence. Later, 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 looked the prophet in the eye, and told him no. Relieved by the news, Young continued his discourse.
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 time, 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 got his hands on a copy of Lyman’s Dundee, Scotland, speech and learned that indeed his apostle had denied Christ’s divinity and the need for atonement. That news, coupled with the magazine article, sparked Lyman’s downfall as an apostle. Young chastised Lyman, assuring him that Joseph Smith would have cast him out. He warned Lyman he was heading to Perdition, the Mormon hell. Chastised for a while, in 1867 Lyman wrote a groveling 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, 1867, Lyman was cut off from the Quorum, deprived of his priesthood, and disfellowshipped. That he was not excommunicated underscores the patience Young and church leaders had with the former apostle, who had lied to them and repeatedly preached what the church regarded as false doctrine. His courageous past as an early LDS convert probably was the reason for the patience.
For almost 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 his way to priesthood restoration. Young and the apostles encouraged him, and he even spoke in an LDS sacrament service.
However, in the summer of 1869, Lyman renewed his relationship with an old friend, William Godbe. Godbe, an LDS convert from Great Britain, was a wealthy Salt Lake City businessman. By the mid-1860s, Godbe and allies were slowly apostasizing from the Mormon Church and leading a dissident faction. Godbe and others would eventually 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 became a missionary of the “New Movement” theological fad, which included atonement without salvation and participated regularly in seances.
The inevitable occurred on May 12, 1870 — Amasa Mason Lyman was excommunicated from the Mormon Church.
Although Lyman’s hope of a nationwide spiritualism “New Movement” fizzled out by 1873, by all accounts he was a happy peaceful apostate. He died of natural causes in 1877 at age 63. His actions caused tremendous strife within his family, however. Only one of his wives stayed loyal to his choices, and several left him. The 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 records removed from the church.
Lyman’s oldest son, Francis Marion, who became an 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 from 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 eventually earned at least LDS salvation for Amasa Mason Lyman. In 1909, when Joseph F. Smith was prophet and church leader, Amasa was vicariously reinstated to the priesthood and church membership. In the decades following his ouster from the church, a persistent beliefs that Lyman’s forays into universalism and spiritualism were caused by mental illness had become generally accepted. 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 Amasa Mason Lyman are advised to read “Amasa Mason Lyman, Mormon Apostle and Apostate: A Study in Dedication,” authored by Edward Leo Lyman, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 2008.