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.