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

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.

Share
This entry was posted in The Political Surf and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Bob Becker says:

    “Time will tell for all of us.”

    Or not.

  2. Michael Trujillo says:

    My first reaction to today’s blog was, why do you feel he lost it all in the final decade of his life? You say he, “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 even spoke in an LDS sacrament service” and that he, “(became) an enthusiastic missionary of spiritualism” who “by all accounts … was a happy peaceful apostate.” That hardly sounds like someone who lost it all. I would guess that you are saying that any man who is removed from a church’s governing body and subsequently kicked out really has nothing left, but I would disagree. He seems to have followed the path he was meant to follow. At any rate, you write that he was eventually “reinstated to the priesthood and church membership” posthumously so, no harm no foul, right?

    It’s also interesting how you’ve stated here, and in other blogs, that people who stray from their LDS beliefs towards less conventional ideologies must be suffering from cognitive problems. You write that he “never seemed to shake an eccentric interest in spiritualism” and that many believe “Lyman’s forays into universalism and spiritualism were caused by mental illness.” Yet, I’m sure you would never dismiss someone abandoning a belief in spiritualism for a belief in the Book of Mormon as being eccentric or due to mental illness. Obviously, you believe that the one true belief system is your own, but that hardly means that someone who turns away from it is, somehow, mentally deficient.

    I’m also curious about the apology he wrote in the Deseret News and why you termed it as groveling. I couldn’t find the apology on line. I did read the Loretta Hefner Dialogue piece, but it doesn’t contain the apology. Would you be able to steer me towards a copy? I’m curious to see its “groveling” nature.

    Finally, I notice a liberal use of the word “liberal” in this blog (pun intended). I realize that you are using the term, nearly verbatim, from Hefner’s article, but I wonder if you’re doing your readers a disservice by failing to explain that the word “liberal” as used by you and Hefner is in relation to the term “liberal theology”, which has nothing to do with a progressive political agenda or set of beliefs. Or, perhaps you’re counting on your readers’ own capabilities to do their own research. In any case, it was hardly the pejorative then that it is now.

  3. Doug Gibson says:

    Michael, As for the term \eccentric,\ I wasn’t intending to make a personal judgment. My intent in using \eccentric\ was that it was eccentric for that time period. I disagree with you that I have accused others who stray from Mormonism to be wrong in the head. I try to avoid that and ironically I have been scolded by many LDS readers who think the opposite of what you stated.
    I am an active, believing Mormon and that background may underscore why different readers have different reactions.
    The mental illness assertion derived from LDS members who were trying to find a reason for his apostasy. I’m sorry if I did not make that clear enough.

    Michael, the entire apology is published in Hefner’s article, on pages 95 and 96 of the Dialogue issue. It began: \To the Latter-day Saints Throughout All the World, \I have sinned a grievous sin in teaching a doctrine … LATER HE WRITES \In this I have committed a great wrong, for which I most humbly crave and ask their forgiveness. …\

  4. Mikeasell says:

    The church has gone to great lengths to dissuade dissenters among the leadership. They have learned the lessons from those early years. I know that there are financial and contractual obligations to the church for the higher ups. Still, people like 70′s, church historians and others often leave the flock to “liberal” ideals such as facts, accepted doctrine or just plain truth. I have heard that the 12, aside from getting a decent “stipend” of 60-80k, a driver, free cars, travel and housing, give their earthly possessions to the church (by a trust). But in exchange they get to keep them titled in the family, they get free vacations and use of church land and even get to borrow money, interest free for projects such as books, etc. My source tells me that this lending practice goes back to Brigham Young, who reserved the right to recall those loans if the person fell astray. Aside from these monetary binds, leaders are asked to sign agreements with the legal arm of the church and intellectual reserve, to never disclose or discuss sensitive church matters outside of their role.
    So although lifelong “humble” leaders that have been seminary teachers, or project managers, like Boyd Packer, or Benson or McKay may disagree with some of the official stances of the church, they are reluctant to speak out of turn knowing that the millions of dollars they have amassed are at stake. I know of a handful of 70′s that have left the church recently (last 8 years) and the have left under the radar of emeritus or otherwise and have simply and quietly been replaced.

    • Pat says:

      Following are 4 quotes from your comments to the Standard Examiner article about Amasa Lyman. I am writing an article about some common misconceptions in the church that are verifiably wrong. What evidence you can offer for each of the quotes.

      April 13, 2011 at 12:18 pm
      1) I have heard that the 12, aside from getting a decent “stipend” of 60-80k, a driver, free cars, travel and housing, give their earthly possessions to the church (by a trust). But in exchange they get to keep them titled in the family, they get free vacations and use of church land and even get to borrow money, interest free for projects such as books, etc.
      2) My source tells me that this lending practice goes back to Brigham Young, who reserved the right to recall those loans if the person fell astray.
      3) Aside from these monetary binds, leaders are asked to sign agreements with the legal arm of the church and intellectual reserve, to never disclose or discuss sensitive church matters outside of their role.
      4) I know of a handful of 70′s that have left the church recently (last 8 years) and the have left under the radar of emeritus or otherwise and have simply and quietly been replaced.

      Thanks,

      Pat

  5. 1010_Uncorrelated says:

    Great article, Doug. I love historical, uncorrelated Mormonism in all it’s glory. Sometimes I think I was born a hundred years too late. (Couldn’t have done the polygamy thing, though.) Keep them coming!

  6. Larry says:

    The fairy tale of LDS rolls on….

  7. tom says:

    Great article Doug, thanks once a gain for an interesting read on Church History.

    I think one message inherent in this piece is that if you are a practicing Mormon you better not mess around with the Big Kahuna regardless of what your inner beliefs are. This was true in the time of brother Brigham and it is true today. The Mormon Church is not a Democracy (or a Republic). As stated in a rock & roll song of a few decades ago: “Step out of line and the man comes and takes you away”

  8. Doug Gibson says:

    Thanks Tom, I’m going to take issue with the claim that tangling with Brigham Young was a “job killer.” He was certainly a forceful executive leader and not shy about condemning those he disagreed with, but Young showed lots of tolerance and open-mindedness in engaging in many, many debates with the apostles, particularly Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde. The situation with Lyman was apostasy from LDS core beliefs, and he was given a lot of chances.

  9. Erick says:

    On the one hand I would agree with the idea the Brigham Young appears to have shown some tolerance, as per this article, and ultimately did what had to be done. I can’t see how you can hang on to an Apostle who rejects the fundamental divinity of Jesus Christ, including our dependence on the Atonement, without undermining the foundation of the Church.

    On the other hand, while not the intent of this article, we also have to consider Brigham Young’s own eccentricities on the doctrine’s of Christ which have been formally repudiated as recently as Spencer W. Kimball. Orson Pratt, I believe, was known to have engaged in private and public debate with President Young on the “Adam-God” doctrine. In one instance he was made to publicly apologize for his disagreement with President Young, under threat of disfellowshipment – only to shortly thereafter recant his apology and resume his debate on this principle.

    Joseph Fielding Smith, Bruce R. McConkie, and Spencer W. Kimball, have each more or less referred to the Adam-God doctrine/theory as a “damnable hersey”. Given that, I can’t help but wonder if it is any less of a heresy on the continuum compared with Amasa Lyman. If so, where is the dividing line for permissable misunderstandings? If not, then what of Young? Was he just smarter for waiting till he was on top before publicly discussing his heresy?

  10. Doug Gibson says:

    Excellent point, Erick; and it’s interesting that Orson Pratt ultimately won the debate with Young over the Adam-God theology.

  11. gloria says:

    what a book THAT is!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>