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.
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.