The Colorful Career of Increase Van Deusen

headstone of Increase Van DeusenI’ve spent the past few days editing a great little book by Janet Lisonbee, entitled Mormon Graves in Kirtland: A Biographical Dictionary of Early Saints Buried in the Kirtland Area.[1] The book covers everyone who was a church member during the early period (1830-1844) who was subsequently buried in Lake County, Ohio.

Early Mormons liked to compare the church to the stone cut without hands, rolling forward in Daniel’s vision. Historians inevitably follow the stone as it rolled from Kirtland, to Missouri, to Nauvoo, and beyond. Members who were left behind at each of those places fall out of church records — and they tend to fall out of our history too. Janet’s book will surely be most useful as a research tool for genealogists, but I’ve found it fascinating to view as a composite picture of a diverse group of early members who didn’t follow along the broad path of our mainline historical narrative.

Among the many early members buried in and around Kirtland, few had as colorful a Mormon career as Increase McGee Van Deusen. With good reason, Van Deusen’s antics are favorite fodder for guides at the Kirtland Temple. His name alone is worth the price of admission, but the stories even better than his name.[2]

Van Deusen was a fiery and often unstable member of the early church. He was in his mid-thirties when Joseph Smith Jr. was killed, and during the succession crisis, Increase and his wife Maria initially became followers of Brigham Young and the Twelve. Although they were endowed in the Nauvoo Temple on January 29, 1846, they did not travel west with most of the other Nauvoo Saints. Instead they traveled east, ultimately to New York, where they published the first ever exposé of the temple ceremonies. Assuming the pseudonyms “Mr. and Mrs. McGee,” Increase and Maria titled the book with the clear intention of creating a best seller: The Mormon Endowment: A Secret Drama, or Conspiracy, in the Nauvoo-Temple, in 1846; in which Process Mr. & Mrs. McGee, (the Authors of this Work,) Were Made King & Queen, to which Is Added a Sketch of the Life of Joseph Smith, the Circumstances of his Finding the Mormon Bible; His Last Revelation in the Appointment of His Successor; the Angel’s Appearance to Him; His Revelation Concerning Polk and the Mexican War; Baptism for the Dead—Mormon Faith—Spiritual-Wife-Doctrine; Description of Nauvoo and the Temple, &c., &c.[3]

The title was almost longer than the brief and often inaccurate book. One of the subtitles “His Last Revelation in the Appointment of His Successor,” revealed that the Van Deusens had become convinced that James J. Strang was Joseph Smith’s true successor. In fact, Increase Van Deusen had attended the General Conference of Strang’s church held at Voree, Wisconsin Territory, in April of 1846. The records of the Voree High Council indicate that Van Deusen was one of a dozen or so witnesses who testified in the church trial (in absentia) of Brigham Young and seven of the apostles loyal to Young. Facing charges including “usurpation,” “tyrannous administration,” “teaching false doctrines,” and “blasphemy,” Young and the others were excommunicated, “their Priesthood taken away; and they [were] delivered over to the buffetings of Satan in the flesh.”[4]

Although Van Deusen was certainly an ally against Young, Strang may have remained wary of Van Deusen’s publishing activities. In 1848, Van Deusen felt compelled to write Strang to explain that his temple exposés were anti-Brighamite in particular, rather than anti-Mormon in general.

DEAR BRO. STRANG:—When I left Voree I expected to labor in the gospel, which I know is my duty. I preached a few times, baptized three, then went to work for myself. I published the endowment as given by the impostor Brigham Young. When I commenced selling that I quit preaching entirely, except in a private capacity, when I say to all the Mormons brother Strang is the head of the church, and all other ways will lead astray….I want you to send me a line with a word of advice, with regard to the circulation of this book. I have sent you two copies. You say you have not received them. The pamphlet does not meddle with doctrines. It reveals the endowment, Joseph’s letter of appointment, your claims, &c. I have sold 10,000 copies.
Yours with great respect, I. VAN DEUSEN. [5]

This explanation failed to satisfy Strang, causing Van Deusen to write a stronger apology.

I confess my folly in the course I have taken the last two years in leaving the work of God and turning to my own in publishing the Endowment as given by the Imposter B. Young. I sinned not that I believe it should be kept a secret but it was fare beneath my calling to do so I stooped low in doing it…. I say therefore to all the honest in heart in all the world I hereby confess my sin.[6]

Although teaching “that polygamy, fornication, adultery, and concubinage are lawful and commendable,” were among the “false doctrines,” under which Brigham Young had been condemned at his trial,[7] Strang himself eventually became a convert to the doctrine of plural marriage. On July 13, 1849, he married Elvira Field as his second wife and began to practice the principle in secret. In a bizarre charade, Strang then took Elvira on a missionary tour disguised in men’s clothing as his personal secretary, “Charlie Douglas.”
Matters came to a head at a church conference held in New York City on October 22, 1849. Van Deusen and Strangite apostle Lorenzo Dow Hickey had learned “Charlie’s” secret and tried to expose Strang. According to the conference proceedings:

Van Deusen assaulted [Strang] by thrusting his hands into his face and breast, and screaming to the highest pitch of his voice, “you are guilty, you are guilty, you are guilty[!]” insulting and grossly abusing him.[8]

Van Deusen’s shouting prevented any response, forcing Strang to withdraw “to avoid further insult.” According to witness L. R. Foster, “the conduct of Van Dusen was the most abusive he ever saw.” During the church trial that followed, J. W. Jenks related that Van Deusen had previously said:

Joe Smith and J. J. Strang and the Twelve were all of a piece; that Mormonism and the Book of Mormon was a humbug; that it was all a humbug from beginning to end.[9]

Although Van Deusen initially disputed this testimony, he later “acknowledged that he might have said so for the purpose of selling his books [the temple exposés], but he never designed it in his heart.” The trial ended in Van Deusen’s excommunication from Strang’s church.[10] Van Deusen predictably responded by publishing a tract denouncing Strang, which he forwarded to the Voree prophet along with a barrage of fiery letters. Strang replied with a request that Van Deusen cease writing to him.

Strang may have been finished with Van Deusen, but Van Deusen was not finished with Mormonism. He continued to republish his exposés, occasionally updating them with new materials. An 1852 edition ominously warned, “The whole Mormon world in California (Utah) is leaguing in a dark conspiracy for [the country’s] ruin, but more particularly Illinois and Missouri.”[11]

As the novelty of temple exposés worn thin, Van Deusen began to lecture on the subject of spiritualism, which had become an extremely popular fad. In 1860, he and his wife moved from New York to Kirtland, Ohio. Increase began to lecture regularly in the Temple, as the Painesville Telegraph reported:

A Mr. Vandusen from Brooklyn, has for two or three Sabbath’s past, been edifying a few addle headed people with a Spiritual-Mormon exhibition in the temple. He asserts, and the Mormons believe, god has sent him on a mission to this place. His language is in an unknown tongue, imitating the hallooing of a drunken ro[w]dy and the barking of a cur. A resident interpreter of tongues tenders into English the Bacchanalian, as well as the canine language, for the edification of the saints.[12]

A community of early Mormons had remained in Kirtland since the 1830s. At times they were organized and looked to the Brigham Young or to Strang for leadership, at times they operated under local leaders like William E. McLellin, Austin Cowles, or Zadoc Brooks, and at times they were merely disorganized and inactive. In the later part of 1860, many of these Saints gathered for a conference in the temple to hear more about the news that Joseph Smith III had been ordained prophet of a “new organization” of the church. Included in the audience were Martin Harris and Leonard Rich (who had been on the original Kirtland High Council and had also been president of Strang’s Kirtland Stake), along with representatives of both Brigham Young’s and Joseph Smith III’s competing church organizations.

After a discourse from a Utah elder, RLDS apostle W.W. Blair reported that a “a tall, long-haired, blue-eyed, ashy-complexioned, but well dressed man” next arose and demanded to know, “what practical thing [the Mormons] proposed doing” in Kirtland.[13] When Leonard Rich attempted to answer, “the long-haired stranger sprang to his feet, uttered an unearthly yell, hissed, stamped his feet, shook his head, and looked like the embodiment of evil.” According to Blair:

Mr. Rich at once dropped into his seat, and the stranger sprang upon the partition between the seats, came to the front, facing the stand, stamping, hissing, and making other violent demonstrations. Martin Harris, who sat on my left, whispered to me, saying, “I guess he has got the devil in him.”[14]

As the meeting devolved into chaos, the stranger sprang up on the temple’s distinctive pulpits. On the Melchisedec side of the temple, he jumped higher from stand to stand until he finally reached the highest pulpits. Next he “turned and faced the frightened, fleeing congregation, and stripping off his broadcloth coat, tearing it in strings and shreds, he again stamped and hissed and shook his head, swinging his torn coat and shouting to the people repeatedly. ‘Now is come the time of your trial!’” He then repeated his performance atop the Aaronic pulpits, before exiting the temple. Blair reports:

Looking out upon the people, a large number of them were in tears and all seemed filled with astonishment and consternation. Stepping down upon the street, we turned and saw the before mentioned stranger, his ragged coat rolled up and tucked under his arm, striding down the steps and then down the street in an excited way, after which we saw him no more. Upon inquiry we learned that he was a prominent spiritual medium, resided in New York, and that his name was Van Deusen.[15]

Van Deusen lived another twenty-two years in Kirtland, dying at the age of 73. According to his obituary:

He was a Methodist exhorter for a short time, was taken up with the Mormon doctrines but soon left them. He held, however, that the gift of prophesy and power of healing may be, and ought to be, in the church. His native powers of intellect were strong, much above the average, in person he was quite tall and very erect, quick in all his movements, yet perfectly easy in his carriage. He was industrious, temperate, and disposed to mind his own business, not meddling with the affairs of others. His funeral services were held at the house on the 6th of August. Remarks were made by Mr. Hale. He leaves a widow and three children—two sons and a daughter—all living in Kirtland.[16]

After his wild odyssey ended, Increase McGee Van Deusen was buried in the cemetery immediately adjacent to the Kirtland Temple. His wife Maria joined him twenty-four years later. You can read about them and their neighbors in Janet Lisonbee’s book when it’s out in the next few months.


[1] To be published next month by John Whitmer Books. The new book significantly updates booklets previously published by the author under the title, “Obituaries and Life Sketches of the Early Saints Who Died in the Kirtland, Ohio, Area” (2003).

[2] For the principle article on Van Deusen, see Craig L. Foster, “From Temple Mormon to Anti-Mormon: The Ambivalent Odyssey of Increase Van Dusen,” Dialogue, 27, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 275-286.

[3] Syracuse: N. M. D. Lathrop, Printer, 1847. Earlier that same year, the Van Deusens had published another version or their tract under the title: Positively True. A Dialogue between Adam and Eve, The Lord and the Devil, called the Endowment: As was acted by Twelve or Fifteen Thousand, in Secret, in the Nauvoo Temple, said to be revealed from God as a Reward for Building that Splendid Edifice, and the Express Object for which it was built (Albany: C. Killmer, 1847).

[4] Chronicles of Voree, typescript, 1986, 72-76.

[5] Gospel Herald, III, no. 27 (Sept. 21, 1848): 126.

[6] Increase Van Dusen to James J. Strang, June 18, 1849, Strang Papers, as quoted by Foster, 282.

[7] Chronicles of Voree, typescript, 1986, 74.

[8-10] Gospel Herald, IV, no. 36 (Nov. 22, 1849): 190-91.

[11] Foster, 284.

[12] Painesville Telegraph, (Sept. 6, 1860): 3.

[13-15] Frederick B. Blair, compiler, The Memoirs of President W. W. Blair, (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Publishing House, 1908): 35-38.

[16] Painesville Telegraph, (Aug. 10, 1882): 3.

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  1. Vickie Speek says:

    Ha, ha! I love this story! The “Devil” Van Deusen is my second-most favorite Mormon history character (George J. Adams is number one). Can’t you just imagine Deusen jumping from pulpit to pulpit, hissing at the crowd, and the shocked old ladies fainting in fright?! Thanks for sharing, John.

  2. Fascinating. That is one guy that wasn’t afraid to mix things up in a church meeting.

  3. This is great, John. I share your desire in making the stories of these “left behind” Mormons more well known.

    Also, at JWHA last year, I remember that John Haijcek had out on display the original “Chronicles of Voree,” of course opened to the page of BY and the 12’s excommunication that you quote from here. Definitely one of the highlights of the conference!

  4. Real people are so much more fascinating than fictional characters. Thanks for the post.

  5. esodhiambo says:

    What a title for his book! I don’t even feel like I need to read it now.

  6. If they chose not to go along, are they correctly described as being “left behind”? That seems to imply that the group left them behind whereas it would seem more accurate to say they left the group and stayed behind as the group moved on.

  7. Vickie: Couldn’t agree more — it’s a crazy, but vivid image.

    J: It seems like every time he makes it into a source, he’s screaming something at a meeting.

    Ben: John’s collection is remarkable — it was great that he was willing to display so many interesting materials during that tour, it made it a real treat.

    AspieMom: couldn’t agree more.

    Esodhiambo: I love these unending 19th century &c. &c. titles.

    John F: I used the phrase “left behind” in reference to the metaphor of the stone rolling. I think David Whitmer is a good example of someone who was metaphorically left behind as the stone rolled forth. He was attracted in 1829 to a kind of Mormonism that was quite different from what existed when he separated himself from the main body of the church in 1838. When Whitmer reorganized his Mormon church, it had the original name (Church of Christ), the original officers (First Elder, Second Elder), and it included revelations through the medium of seer stones. In this sense, by evolving, the church left him behind while he tried to recreate the experience that he had originally found so compelling.

    On your point — when Jan Shipps was program chair of JWHA a few years ago, she used the phrase “Places of Decision” to describe a theme on the same topic. The idea of that phrase was that each spot along the Mormon path was a place of decision where some moved on (in different directions), some stayed, and some went and came back. That said, we probably shouldn’t overemphasize the idea of “choice.” Increase Van Deusen certainly chose his path, but not everyone was entirely free to choose whether they went or stayed.

  8. John, what a great piece of history. I’m always so surprised by the things I’ve never heard of. Thanks for bringing this to light.

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