Adventures in Strangism

The last three months of my mission were spent in Pueblo, Colorado, just prior to my return home in mid-October 1979.  While I was in that area I read Russell R. Rich, “Nineteenth-Century Break-offs,” Ensign (September 1979), which includes several paragraphs on James Jessee Strang and the Strangites.  This was my very first exposure to Strangism; I had never heard of it before reading that article.  The last sentence of the Strang portion of the article reads as follows: “Since 1922 there have been two factions in the group with a total of about 250 members centered in Voree, Wisconsin; Boyne City, Michigan; Kansas City; Pueblo, Colorado; and Artesia, New Mexico.”  The accompanying footnote lists several books and a number of personal interviews conducted by the author, including ones with Joseph Flanders and Mrs. Milo Flanders in Pueblo, Colorado, on July 6, 1960.

My eyes lit up when I saw “Pueblo, Colorado,” since that is where I was physcially located at the time.  So I decided to see whether I could find anyone named “Flanders” in the phone book who was a relative of one of the interviewees.  And I succeeded.  I don’t recall the name of the person I reached, but whoever it was did graciously talk to me on the phone for a while.  I wanted to try to meet in person, but he politely declined, for which I couldn’t blame him at all.  I suspect he had been burned by over-zealous missionaries over the years trying to make him a notch on their belts. But I was virtually out the door and did not make that call as a proselyting exercise; I was just curious about his experience in the faith.

Fast forward many years, and our region in Chicago sponsored a “BYU Education Day” (meant to be a local analog to “BYU Education Week”) for several years.  I was usually asked to participate, which I was happy to do (I recall giving sessions on Joseph’s study of Hebrew and on the Book of Abraham).  One year a woman from Naperville, the stake just south of mine, gave a presentation on the Strangites.  I don’t recall her name with certainty (I didn’t know her otherwise), but I want to say it was something like Elaine Ensign.  She had a long standing interest in the subject, and was very well prepared with lots of literature.  There was nothing polemical about her presnetation, it was purely historical.  I learned a lot from that class and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Later, I had a friend who moved into my area named Jonathan Thomas who had served a mission in southern Wisconsin, and who was very familiar with the Strangite sites there and had become friends with many of the Strangites.  (Again, he did not approach them from a proselying perspective, but from a perspective of interest.)  We were in a study group together, and while I don’t specifically recall I think he may have presented on the Strangites for our group one evening.

I learned more over the years from attending Mormon historical conferences, particularly from my friends John Hamer, Mike Karpowicz and Vickie Cleverley Speak.

Although I live in northeastern Illinois, I had never actually gone to the Strangite stronghold in southeastern Wisconsin.  That changed this past Saturday, when a fairly sizeable group of us Brighamites made the trek there to attend a church service and see their sacred sites.  Bill Shepard was there, and we regonized each other from previous conferences (I knew he was a Strangite but had never had occasion to talk to him; that was quickly remedied.)  I found it interesting that they are apparently seventh-day sabbatarians, as they hold their services on Saturdays.  Our group misjudged how long it would take to get there and arrived quite late, but they had simply put off the start of the meeting until we got there, which was very kind.

We all knelt for the opening prayer.  The singing was great; really good volume and, while I’m no expert, I think it was up to tempo (Ardis would have been happy).  I give our group partial credit, since many of us sang parts while only a few of the locals did, and the effect was a rich, rousing sound.  I think their service normally lasts an hour, but given the late start this one was truncated to a half-hour.  Afterwards we sat and talked in the chapel while a luncheon was prepared.  At first I assumed they had done this for our benefit, but then I leanred that they do this after services every week.  And the lunch was terrific, it sure knocked the socks off any LDS pot luck I can recall.

Bill showed us the (impressive) archives housed in the back of the church.  This is a group that is committed to its history.  After that, we got to tour a number of the sacred sites in the area, such as the old church and the Hill of Promise.  After that most of our group left, but a friend and I (who were not burdened by children to get back to) spent some time at the home of one of the elders (which he built himself in the style of a period home, it was gorgeous) and had a long talk about their faith and history.

What were my impressions?  The one word that kept coming to mind was “impressed.”  I think that was partly because I had sort of an assumption about this group being almost dead on the vine.  Yes, they are small, but there were more there than I expected, and they were happy and committed to their faith.  The Church building was impressive, the music was impressive, the youth were impressive (and yes, they had some, a good sign for the future).  It was small, but they were a community.  It actually reminded me of when my family first moved to DeKalb, Illinois in 1965, and we became part of the little branch there, and that branch was a family.  We did everything together and loved each other, a dynamic that starts to dim with a lot of growth.

This post is my way of publicly thanking our very gracious hosts.  I’m happy to count you as brothers and sisters in the Gospel.

Comments

  1. It was delightful. They were so warm, with many of their congregation coming up and introducing themselves to various members of our group. The only complaint was the bugs that decided to join us on our outdoor tour up the Hill of Promise.

  2. Really wish I could have been there. I was lucky to attend JWHA’s annual conference when it was held in Voree, and I had a lot of fun touring the Strangite historic sites. There’s something about a charismatic self-proclaimed prophet claiming visions, an ancient record, angelic ordinations, threatened schisms, secret polygamy, and assassination by dissenters that just grabs my attention. Also, Bill Shepherd is a top-notch guy.

  3. This is touching, Kevin. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. Thanks for this post, Kevin. It led me to browse a website (strangite.org) about some of their beliefs, which resulted in a non-billable hour this afternoon. Some of their purported beliefs are interesting, i.e. the reason they do not have a formal tithing program is because they lack a bishop, etc.

  5. zbbrown2000 says:

    Here is an article about a very small and very old religious community that – in some ways – has too much of a sense of community. One will have to read the article closely to divine this.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritanism#Samaritanism

  6. Thanks for the article – great stuff. Anyone interested in learning more – I would strongly recommend Vickie Speek’s book titled “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons (Amazon link below).

    The Samaritans are an interesting parallel. it’s interesting that as a Church that is very interested/focused on the gathering of Israel, we don’t ever talk about them. I taught this year’s Sunday School class on the gathering of Israel and brought them up in discussion – after all, here is a remnant of some of the northern ten tribes!

  7. marginalizedmormon says:

    Thank you–

  8. Mark B. says:

    I remember my first introduction to Strang–from an article in American Heritage magazine back in the late 60s or early 70s. Here’s a link to the article: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/his-was-kingdom-and-power-and-glory-%E2%80%A6-briefly

    I haven’t time to read it this morning, and I cannot comment on where this fits in Strangite historiography (if at all), but it was, as I say, my introduction to Strang.

  9. Carol Sanders Green says:

    I am from the Artesia Branch and was born in to this great Church. We still live in the New Mexico area and are very much alive. It is good that you visited the Wisconsin site which I love to visit every two years. Thank you for your kind thoughts concerning our Church.

  10. Very nicely written, Kevin. I know about everyone in your article (including Elaine Ensign) and most who have commented.

  11. Angela C says:

    Kevin, thanks for writing this up. I really wanted to attend, too, but this is at least a good recap for those of us who couldn’t make it.

  12. Kev, that backstory regarding your mission is especially interesting, and I’m sure added dimension to your visit. I wish I had been able to attend, but I appreciate your recounting.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    John, thanks for letting me know I remembered Elaine’s name correctly.

  14. MDearest says:

    This was fun and useful; a good combination. I especially like the warm and generous spirit evident in your telling. Your report of the fabulous potluck reminded of a trip we took to Independence where our meals were prepared by some of the CoC RS ladies. All of us were blown away by their home cookin’. It was like eating at grandma’s house, and my grandma was the best cook ever.

  15. I live in Elkhorn, WI which is about 10 miles from Burlington, the town which encompasses the unincorporated town of Voree. When I moved here from international service in USAF, I bought a lot in Burlington for our house. As the landowner walked me around the lot, he pointed to the west and said “those are the Mormon Lands”. That was my first introduction to the Strangites. Members of our ward have had occasional interactions with the congregation and all have been very positive and cordial. Burlington also has a historical Placard downtown which discusses Oliver Cowdrey as he lived in Burlington for a time. Thanks for great and kind post.

  16. Meldrum the Less says:

    When we moved to Minnesota in 1994 my new boss wanted to make me as comfortable as possible. He knew i was Mormon, raised in Utah. He thought most all Mormons lived in Utah and was not aware of the extent of the Mormon diaspora and conversions in his area. He studied Mormonism enough on his own to know about this Wisconsin off shoot. He thought that the local Strangites would be the closest fit for me and made attempts to find them so I could transition smoothly. I don’t think they had a congregation in Minnesota since he was unable to find one and I had no problem finding the local ward.

    I think we under estimate the influence our off-shoot cousins have. Cultivating favorable opinions of one another has benefits to all.

    I also think they have much to teach us. Better music, more flexibility in meeting length, weekly pot-luck dinners done right; these are among my favorite hobby horses that I have been vocal about all of my life.

  17. Leonard R says:

    Thanks for this great write up. It makes me want to drive across the border to up-state New York and attend the small “Church of Christ” there (a branch of the Temple Lot).

    When I first moved to my current ward, I met our own Brother Strang. Upon meeting I said, “as in James Strang?” Sure enough, he is a great-great(?- not sure how many) grandson.

    While teaching his granddaughters in Sunday School, I discovered that they have no idea who James Strang is. I decided it wasn’t my place to tell them about their own family history, but hope that what I did said inspire questions of their own.

  18. Thanks for this Kevin. I was also very impressed by the sense of community that the Strangite congregation has been able to achieve. The service was enjoyable as was subsequent discussion with Bill Shephard.

    Carol, a very friendly woman who might be your sister introduced herself to us and we talked for a while. She was from New Mexico but was there visiting her mother.

    I had a fun discussion over lunch with a Strangite who had been born and raised LDS (Brighamite) in Utah and his wife who had converted to the Gospel as practiced in Strangism from an atheist background.

    The youth were very impressive. Like Kevin, I had heard all the basics about Strang and Strangism before having this opportunity but had assumed that their remnant in the Voree area would be mostly a group of old adherents left over from a more numerous past. But the branch was vibrant with a number of families and a good representation of youth and children. Frankly, it looked like any Mormon branch in any area with a relatively low population of Church members.

    But the meal was excellent as was the company. A big thanks to the Strangites for their hospitality toward a motley crew of Brighamites!

  19. Bill Shepard says:

    The attendance of members of bycommonconsent Saturday at the Strangite Church near Burlington, WI was a very pleasant experience for the Strangites. For me, it ranks with the special feelings I had after interactions with Leonard Arrington and Val Avery. I have noted with pleasure the positive impression made in comments above and hasten to say our guests seemed to truly be brothers and sisters. This experience was truly up-lifting for us. I keep thinking of the hymn which proclaimed “bless be the tie that binds our heart in Christian love.” Through the many years of attending Mormon history conferences I have been asked “How are the Strangites doing ” and I often respond “better than the Cutlerites.” Our religion has been marked by doctrinal differences and schism since the death of Mr. Strang. We seem to be stable at this time. I sometimes observe to Mountain Saints and members of the Community of Christ that having a authorized head has a designated head to say “the buck stops here.” Like other restoration churches, we feel have an authorized priesthood and a sense of purpose. If you would like to read historical [not polemic] information why the Strangites believe they are an authorized remnant read my article “The Concept of a ‘Rejected Gospel’ in Mormon History,” Journal of Mormon History 34, No. 2 (Spring 2008):130-81. Some of the efforts by Strangites to prevent the church from being absorbed by the Reorganized Church are covered in my Presidential Address to the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal in Volume 30, 2010. Very best wishes — Bill Shepard

  20. Bill, it was great to meet you and I feel like I have met up with some cousins I never knew I had. Extended family, perhaps, but family nonetheless and I’m pleased to have had the chance to break bread with you.

  21. Nice article, Kevin. Hey, w/rgd a couple of offhand items of minor curiosity:

    In light of the Strangites’ being 100 years before their time in terms of women’s fashion (“[...A]t that time most women in America wore long dresses or skirts; Strang commanded all women in his group to wear bloomers [pants]“), do Stangites dress formally (as do many Modern Orthodox Jewry and Brighamite Mormons, etc.) or informally (as do evangelical megachurches, ad infinitum) to services?

    Also, a Wisconsin historical weppage http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/dictionary/index.asp?action=view&term_id=11202& ) Strangites are formally the CoJCoLDS, do they tend to use some type of semi-formal shorthand term to refer to themselves other than “Strangite,” analogous to the LDS people’s self-description?

  22. They were dressed in Church clothes. Frankly, the meeting looked indistinguishable from branch meetings I attended many times in East Germany — a small group but tightly knit and very friendly.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Anon, the men tended to wear ties without jackets; I didn’t really notice what the women were wearing; dresses, I think. The formal name of the church is “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” but outside the church they add “(Strangite)” at the end to avoid confusion with other branches of the Restoration.

  24. Butch Bowman says:

    Thank you for sharing this ultra-cool experience. Glad to hear the positive things going on up in Voree. I hope to make it up there someday.

    I was also intrigued by the Ensign article you mentioned. Strange that they didn’t mention the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites). Anyone in the Pittsburgh, PA area during April or October really ought to check out one of their conferences. They are wonderful people.

  25. My first understanding of the Strang “branch” of the church was during the media presentation given as an opening to the tour of the Kirkland Temple in Ohio. This was within the last five years. I remember the graphic that showed, perhaps up to 10 or more arrows, denoting the groups that separated from the church after the death of Joseph. The Brigham Young “branch” was not any larger than any of the other arrows for the other groups. Don’t know if that means anything or not. Whatever. But the nice college student from the CoC church expressed a special feeling she had about the Strang group. Overall, it was a very good trip and helps me feel the need to visit additional historical church and church related locations. Thanks for the story of your adventure, Kevin.

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