The Prophet Jesse James

On June 9th, 1844, Joseph Smith may have sent James J. Strang (a relatively obscure Mormon living at Burlington, Wisconsin, who was known as Jesse James before he reversed his first and middle names in about 1834), a letter appointing Strang as Smith’s successor as Mormon prophet. In conjunction with an angelic ordination, this letter launched Strang’s 12-year career as one of the most colorful individuals in Mormon history. During that time, Strang played the parts of the prophet, the seer, the translator of ancient scripture, the polygamist, the colonizer, the theocratic king, the democratic legislator, and, last but not least, the martyr.

Strang’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while still nominally in existence, effectively died with its founding prophet. Hence, the man and his organization are of almost purely abstract, historical interest. In spite of the relatively limited religious legacy of Strang and his version of the Mormon church, however, a surprisingly broad collection of quite good books have been written about the man. The most recent addition to this library is Vickie Cleverley Speek’s excellent “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons.

Cover of God Has Made Us a Kingdom. Speek’s book, which has received a mixed review from DMI Dave, weaves an account of the Wisconsin and Michigan Mormons around a narrative of Strang’s prophetic years. It then provides an account of the post-martyrdom lives of Strang’s various wives and children. In tone, the book is measured and respectful; the story of the Strangites is rendered quite affectingly as tragedy rather than as fraud or farce.

The book’s literary virtues notwithstanding, a major question remains: who is this book for? There are some Strangites left in the upper midwest, although probably not enough to justify Signature’s decision to publish a book like this. Likewise, some Wisconsin and Michigan local history enthusiasts may find the book valuable. I would guess, however, that the main intended audience for the volume is members of the largest current Mormon church, the Utah-based group initially led by Brigham Young.

Utah Mormons interested in Strang typically have one of three motivations. 1) They want to rule Strang out as a possible successor to Joseph Smith, in order to clarify the line of succession in the Mormon church presidency. 2) They are intrigued by the very strong parallels between Strang’s prophetic career and Joseph Smith’s. 3) They want to better understand the full Mormon experience, including among the branches of Mormonism that are separated from us. Readers with each of these motives may have quite divergent responses to Speek’s work.

Mormons interested in discrediting Strang as a possible successor to Joseph Smith will find little value in “God Has Made Us a Kingdom,” for the fascinating reason that Speek has essentially adopted the historiographical approach of faithful history, most closely associated with Richard Bushman. That is, Speek narrates the Strangite odyssey without addressing issues of religious authenticity — instead writing as if each of Strang’s claimed visions, miracles, and so forth were genuine. This approach allows Speek to sidestep the extensive cynicism that dominates another excellent biography of Strang, Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island, but it also makes Speek’s book less useful to would-be debunkers than Van Noord’s volume.

Consider the treatment each of these books gives to Strang’s first discovery and translation of an ancient scripture, the Rajah Manchou of Vorito plates. Speek narrates Strang’s revelation describing the location and contents of the plates, emphasizing the parallels with Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon discovery. Speek then recounts the physical process of the plates’ extraction:

…Strang called together four of the most honest and respected men of the community… He disclosed his vision and led them to an oak tree on a nearby hillside. Strang noted the men would find a case of rude earthenware buried under the tree at a depth of about three feet. He instructed them to dig up the case and, while they were doing so, examine the ground closely so they would know the case had been buried there before the tree grew up. Strang kept entirely away while the men were digging.

The tree, which had a trunk about one foot in diameter, was surrounded by a patch of deeply rooted grass, and the men could not see any indication the sod had been cut through or disturbed. The roots from the tree struck down on every side and were closely interspersed with the roots from other trees. None of them had been broken or cut away. The men carefully dug up the tree and continued to dig to a depth of three feet, where they found a case of slightly baked clay. Over the case was a flat stone about one foot wide and three inches thick, which appeared to have been subjected to a fire. The case was embedded in clay that was so hard-packed, it broke when removed. The earth below it was so hard, it had to be dug with a pickaxe. (pgs. 24-25)

Some Utah Mormons base arguments for the authenticity of our faith on the evidence provided by the various witnesses to the Book of Mormon, as well as the extensive documentary record, by friends and enemies of the faith, describing episodes in which people handled the gold plates through cloth or in a box. Yet such evidence is trivial in comparison with the scene Speek describes! Here, the plates are discovered in untouched soil by multiple men in a totally this-worldly exercise in digging. Subsequently, after Strang completed his translation of the rather brief record found in the plates, a huge number of his supporters and opponents openly handled the plates. Truly an amazing event — one for which Speek provides no naturalistic account. The reader is left to marvel and, perhaps, believe.

Van Noord’s account provides the same basic details, but also furnishes readers with this retrospective explanation (from Isaac Scott, a one-time leader of the Strangites) for the seemingly miraculous events, as well as Strang’s possible appointment by Joseph Smith:

…C.P. Barnes had told him that both the letter of appointment [from Joseph Smith to Strang] and the plates were hoaxes, concocted by Strang, Benjamin Perce, and himself to help sell lands they owned at Voree [Wisconsin, the initial Strangite gathering place]. “Mr. Barnes said their aim, in the first place, was to have Joseph Smith appoint a gathering place, or Stake, on their lands, but as Joseph was killed about this time, they changed their plans and concluded to make Strang Smith’s successor and that would make a sure thing of building up Voree.” According to Scott, Barnes said Strang “dictated every word” of the letter of appointment. “He said they made the ‘plates’ out of Ben [Perce]‘s old kettle and engraved them with an old saw file and… that when completed they put acid on them to corrode them and give them an ancient appearance; and that to deposit them under the tree, where they were found, they took a large auger… which Ben [Perce] owned, put a fork handle on the auger and with it bored a long slanting hole under a tree on ‘The Hill of Promise,’ as they called it, laying the earth in a trail on a cloth as taken out, then put the ‘plates’ in, tamping in all the earth again, leaving no trace of their work visible.”

Whether this secondhand retrospective narration by a former Strangite is taken at face value or not, the effect is surely somewhat less transporting — but, perhaps, more entertaining — than Speek’s faith-compatible narration. In any case, a historical approach, like Van Noord’s, that highlights evidence of deception and fraud in the Strangite story is surely more useful for Mormons interested in discrediting the would-be prophet than is Speek’s faithful-history technique of passing such controversy by in silence. Additional material useful for arguing against the Strangite claim can be found in the section on J.J. Strang in D. Michael Quinn’s The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power.

Mormons whose interest in Strang derives from the close parallels between his prophetic career and that of Joseph Smith will find Speek’s volume more than satisfactory. Speek does not spend a great deal of space making explicit comparisons between the two Mormon prophets, yet the comparisons are clear enough that they essentially make themselves. Strang, like Smith, begins his public prophetic career with an angelic visitation. He finds and translates ancient scripture — the aforementioned Rajah Manchou plates, as well as the subsequent Book of the Law of the Lord. He establishes a gathering place at Voree, Wisconsin. When that colony fails, he moves on to Beaver Island, Michigan. He begins his prophetic career — like Joseph Smith — as an opponent of polygamy, but subsequently receives a revelation that leads him to practice polygamy in secret. His community ends up at war with its neighbors — a war that ends in Strang’s death and the scattering of the midwest Mormon people. The details are all more fascinating than this sketch could possibly make clear.

What does this all tell us about Joseph Smith? It’s hard to say, although, as Dave has noted, Grant Palmer’s book on Mormon origins uses Strang’s story to cast doubt on the historicity of faithful versions of Joseph’s life. Perhaps a less inflammatory lesson can be drawn about the chaotic experience of truly charismatic leadership. Both Joseph and James acted with a mantle of divine authority; as such, they were always free to reverse course and to demand anything of their followers. The heroic component of such leadership is on display in any Mormon life of Joseph; Speek’s life of James may help us more fully appreciate the turmoil, heartache, and chaos that charismatic leadership also often entails.

Mormons who come to Speek’s volume for the third purpose, interest in understanding the religious lives of separated bodies of Mormon believers, will be the best served by the book. “God Has Made Us a Kingdom” is structured around the life of Strang, but it frequently digresses into discussions of the lives, perceptions, and experiences of Strang’s followers. These side-trips make the book as much a portrait of the Strangite religious community as a biography of the community’s leader. Furthermore, the book’s discussions of the subsequent lives of Strang’s wives and children provides a panoramic and personal picture of the dissolution of the community — much as Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness does for Utah polygamy by describing the post-Nauvoo lives of Joseph Smith’s various plural wives.

I would, in closing, suggest a fourth reason to read “God Has Made Us a Kingdom.” It provides us with an opportunity to see how outsiders might feel about faithful histories of Joseph Smith or of the subsequent Utah church. Time and time again through the book, the reader is left to ask whether there is some naturalistic explanation for events in Strang’s life, some scholarly evidence against his claims of translation. These questions are our responsibility, not Speek’s; the book is complete in its own terms without addressing or, really, acknowledging such issues. Yet our questions, our desire for critical analysis of Strang’s religious claims, are also legitimate.

Anyone interested in the Strangite branch of Mormonism needs to read Speek’s new volume. Yet a fully adequate exploration of the topic requires more. Just as an inquiry into the life of Joseph Smith cannot be regarded as properly underway until an individual has read both Richard Bushman and Fawn Brodie, so an exploration of James J. Strang necessitates a reading of Speek and also someone like Van Noord.

Comments

  1. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks for this fascinating post. Growing up in Michigan, one occasionally heard of “the Beaver Island Mormons.” Beaver Island is actually a great place for a camping vacation during the summer months.

    As an avid student of the various branches of Mormonism, the Strangites have always appealed to me somehow. Their story does help me understand the original Restoration event brought about by Joseph Smith. I disagree that Palmer’s comparisons are “inflammatory,” however. They may be disturbing to literalists, but they’re unavoidable as well.

    The strangite.org web site and The Book of the Law of the Lord are both well worth checking out.

  2. Where, pray tell, can one read a copy of the Rajah Manchou?

  3. Mike, I’m glad you share my interest in the Strangites. One quick note: when I called Palmer’s comparisons inflammatory, I didn’t mean that as a condemnation of the comparisons. Rather, my point was that his historiographical approach is guaranteed to arouse controversy. Perhaps other approaches to the same material might produce something closer to a consensus reading.

    Ronan, the record of the Rajah Manchou is quite short. I’ll include the entire text in my comment here:

    My people are no more. The mighty are fallen, and the young slain in battle. Their bones bleached on the plain by the noonday shadow. The houses are leveled to the dust, and in the moat are the walls. They shall be inhabited.

    I have in the burial served them, and their bones in the Death-shade, towards the sun’s rising, are covered. They sleep with the mighty dead, and they rest with their fathers. They have fallen in transgression and are not, but the elect and faithful there shall dwell.

    The word hath revealed it. God hath sworn to give an inheritance to his people where transgressors perished. The word of God came to me while I mourned in the Death-shade, saying, I will avenge me on the destroyer. He shall be driven out. Other strangers shall inhabit thy land. I an ensign there will set up. The escaped of my people there shall dwell when the flock disown the Shepherd and build not on the Rock.

    The forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth thy record. Record my words, and bury it in the Hill of Promise.

    The Book of the Law of the Lord is a more substantial text, and for that reason may be of more interest, as Mike notes. On the other hand, it’s somewhat less colorful and lacks a narrative. In theory, the Book of the Law is a translation of the Brass Plates from the Book of Mormon, with prophetic commentary:

    With these five exceptions all the other chapters of this book were translated from the plates of Laban, taken from the house of Laban, in Jerusalem, in the days of Zedekiah, king of Judah.

    At the conclusion of each chapter of the Book of the Law of the Lord, there is a count of the number of paragraphs, words, and letters in the chapter. These are included so that any modifications of the scriptural text are immediately recognizable. Likewise, each verse has word and character counts.

    The text is of interest not only as a claimed prophetic translation, and not only for the history of the Strangites, but also as a primary source in the history of Mormon theology. If we conclude, as most faithful Mormons will do, that the book was an invention by Strang, then what we’ve got is one mid-19th-century Mormon’s relatively elaborate fantasia on the Mormon gospel. With a sensitive reading, it’s my view that a lot can be learned about what that gospel looked like at the time from what Strang saw fit to emphasize in his text.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the enlightening book review.

    I first encountered the Strangites while on my mission in Colorado. There was an article that alluded to them in the Ensign, and in a footnote it identified some of the prominent families in three locations of pockets of still existing Strangites. One of those locations was Pueblo, Colorado, which just happened to be where I was serving at the time. So I looked this family up in the phone book and called them. I spoke with a woman there who was very reticent to speak with me, and I don’t blame her, of course. She probably thought i wanted to convert her, but in reality I was just curious.

    These days one often sees Bill Shephard at MHA, JWHA and other conferences; he is a Wisconsin Strangite. And on the internet John Hajicek is a prominent presence.

    In our area, J., we used to have a “BYU Education Day” (sort of a local analog to BYU Education Week) in the Wilmette Stake building. This lasted for maybe three or four years, and I always presented something. One year we had a sister from the Naperville Stake (I don’t recall her name, but I want to say it was Ensign) who came and gave a killer presentation on the Strangites, with all sorts of books and illustrations and such. She had made herself an expert on them just out of interest (along the third aim you mention in your review), and a lot of what I know about the Strangites I learned from that good sister.

  5. Thanks for the interesting review, JNS. It has been a while since I looked into the Strangites, but if I remember correctly, didn’t Sidney Rigdon flirt with them or something?

    Also, I can’t remember, but was Strang a member of the council of Fifty? i.e., is that where he got his kingdom vision? If not (I should probably just look it up, but I am feeling lazy), where did he get the whole royal vibe from?

  6. J., I can provide answers on both fronts. Strang’s claims attracted the full or partial support of various prominent Mormons at one time or another, including Martin Harris, William Marks, George J. Adams, John C. Bennett, and William Smith (see, e.g., Speek, pg. 30). Strang was also interested in recruiting Sidney Rigdon. In an 1846 letter to Strang, Bennett wrote, “Sidney Rigdon will not, in my opinion, go for you: but, if he will, make him one of your Councillors instead of me…” (see Van Noord, pg. 46) So there was a one-sided effort of sorts to recruit Rigdon, but he never expressed interest in joining the Strangites.

    Strang himself was never a member of the Fifty. In fact, he was only baptized on Feb. 25, 1844 (Speek, pgs. 17-18). However, several men who were close to Strang, either in 1844 or subsequently, were members of the Fifty. These include Moses Smith, George J. Adams, William E. Marks, George Miller, William Smith, and John E. Page (Speek, pg. 20; c.f. D. Michael Quinn’s BYU Studies list of Council of Fifty members). So Strang had ample opportunity to learn about Joseph Smith’s theocratic system; indeed, Strang created his own Council of Fifty. Yet theocracy and kingship in the Strangite tradition owe at least as much to John C. Bennett as to anyone else; Bennett seems to have used the promise of kingship to try to work his way into the high ranks of the Strangite church (Speek, pgs. 40-48). Strang’s initially secret anointing as “Imperial Primate” was subsequently made public as a way of winning support for his practice of polygamy.

  7. Perhaps a less inflammatory lesson can be drawn about the chaotic experience of truly charismatic leadership. Both Joseph and James acted with a mantle of divine authority; as such, they were always free to reverse course and to demand anything of their followers.

    That’s a great insight, J. How did that affect their relationship to outsiders? In other words, how does the prophetic institution shape politics?

    Concentrating power in their hands, they undermine their own security. Regulating property, mores, and sexuality in the absence of accountability or checks and balances, their enterprise ultimately turns out to be self-destructive.

    That’s hardly surprising to students of international relations. Kant’s Perpetual Piece predicts the exacerbation of the security dilemma for actors who concentrate power. The fate of Strang and Smith could have been avoided had they been more humble and less imposing.

    Proclaiming divine authority, Smith and Strang assert that the lessons of the renaissance and the enlightenment do not apply to them. Unlike George Washington, Smith and Strang rejected Locke, Montesquieu, Madison, and Hamilton. George Washington got to retire. Smith and Strang were lynched.

    Of course, the Mormon message vigorously promotes America. It rejects, however, America’s leadership role as the enlightenment model to the world. In that sense, Mormonism remains a Jacksonian project, which defines America in terms of class transcending tribalism rather than Federalist ideas.

    I suppose one can justify to exempt prophets from the suspicion of power by renaissance and enlightenment philosophers. After all, why would prophets have to answer to mortals if they are answering to God?

    In the case of Smith and Strang, nothing was off-limits. They subjugated majority rule, the rule of law, sex, and property to their prophetic claims. To believers that was the will of God. The problem is that one can explain these revelations more easily in terms of self-interest.

    If one takes the latter attitude then Smith and Strang were scary men indeed. Fear fosters aggression. That is why the prophetic leader will find it difficult to sustain peaceful relationships with outsiders. The same logic applies if dissent emerges internally.

    Mormons would only escape the cruel institutional logic of their theology when they submitted to the federal government. It was the loss of power, which pacified Mormon politics. Our theology cannot generate self-contained sustainable institutions. That requires accountability to outsiders.

  8. MikeInWeHo says:

    Hellmut, If the Church based in SLC is not a self-contained sustainable institution, I don’t know what is. So it seems to me you do not prove your point.

  9. I am not quite sure what you mean by self-contained, Mike.

    Obviously, the LDS Church has to answer to courts, the IRS, the police and many other institutions of the secular government.

    The LDS Church benefits from public goods that it does not generate but are provided by the United States government. They include the rule of law, democracy, and the monopoly of legitimate violence.

    Not only does not the LDS Church generate these public goods but events in early Church history suggest that the LDS Church is structurally unable to provide for the rule of law and accountable government.

    As a result, LDS government in Ohio, Missouri, Nauvoo, and Utah was marked by episodes of extraordinary violence, which ended only when the federal government established its supremacy in Utah.

    The interesting aspect about Jesse James Strang is that those deficiencies of LDS theocracy where not only about Joseph Smith. It is not about personalities but about institutional design.

    If you allow men to suspend anything in the name of God then there will neither be law nor order and the government will be unstable. Everyone suffers, not least the prophets.

    The prophets become targets of violence because they cannot credibly assure outsiders and dissidents of their non-violent intentions.

    If, on the other hand, the power of prophets is limited by the supremacy of a secular government then even they can live peacefully into their nineties.

  10. Joseph Campbell is a professor/writer known for his work in comparative religion/mythology. He says, “Mythology is often thought of as other people’s religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology.” He also said, “Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message.”

    I think the above is a good reason to read about Strang, especially for born-in-the-faith Mormons who have always translated their own religious story as fact.

    The natural ease with which we read and doubt Strang’s story stands in ironic contrast to the natural ease with which we read and believe Joseph’s sotry. Any kind of comparative religious exercise should be personally revealing in and of itself, but the many almost too-good-to-be-true parallels between the Strang and Smith stories only enhances the comparative experience, and will hopefully lead one to humbly ponder religious certainty vs religious tolerance, if not to ponder the nature of belief itself.

    Excellent post JNS!

  11. In my work on Smith’s death conquest, I have come to see him as a geonecromancer, someone who receives revelations mediated by the dead, their relics, and the place of their interment. I have long felt that Strang understood as almost no one else that aspect of Smith’s prophetic career, and his record of Rajah Manchou is a stunningly faithful recapitulation of the early meaning of the Book of Mormon as relic. Strang was, in my view, the second Mormon geonecromancer. I suppose an important question is whether Mormonism needed a second geonecromancer, and I suspect we Brighamites would answer “no.”

    I think Strang’s primary gift to us now is this snapshot of an important aspect of Smith’s career, though the evidence is quite secure in the record of Smith’s life even without Strang. His appreciation and instantiation of Smith’s geonecromancy has little relevance to Smith’s truth claims on a logical level, though the anecdotal appeal is of course quite strong, as in comment #10.

    Thanks for a wonderful book review.

  12. Interesting tidbit:

    I had a very good roommate in Boston from northern Illinois with the last name of Strang. She was raised a fundamentalist Christian but then came out of the closet and had to leave her family and church (disappointed about the former, excited about the latter) and came to Boston. Anyhoo, we got to be really good friends. When I was reading Rough Stone Rolling I think I read about the Strangites and went and showed my roommate and said, maybe he’s a relative of yours. Isn’t this all wacky and cool?
    She didn’t talk to me for a month. She wasn’t mad. Just entirely freaked out at the prospect of being related to this dude. Which is funny because we Mormons get excited over links to JS or BY etc.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    A Strangite Lesbian….now that’s somebody I’d like to meet!

    re: 9 I see your point now, Hellmut. Thanks for clarifying what you meant by “self-contained.” I agree with you. The idea of any prophet governing society without secular oversight is terrifying indeed. Historically that has always been a one-way ticket to disaster.

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