Saturday, April 25, 2009

Book Review: “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons, by Vickie Cleverly Speek.

One victim of the current financial crisis was the Seagull Book and Tape on Santa Monica Blvd. This was an unfortunate loss as it was the only LDS themed book store in SoCal.

The only silver lining in L.A. Seagull Book’s demise was the massive fire sale during its final week. I doubt I ever would have bought this history of the Strangites if it hadn’t been so cheep but Speek’s work would have been well worth the list price.

The story of the Srangites is the most fascinating of all of the Mormon break-off sects. (spoiler alert! I know this is nonfiction but the story twists and turns much like an airport page-turner. so if you want to be surprized by the book itself you should stop reading now). James Strang was a relatively new convert to the church when Joseph Smith was killed. Shortly after the prophet’s death Strang showed up in Nauvoo with a “letter of appointment” wherein, Strang clamed, Joseph had named Strang as his heir. He also claimed that an angel appeared to him and ordained him to that role at the exact moment of the prophet’s martyrdom. Thus Strang became a key player in the succession crisis. Because of his claims, Strang was excommunicated by Brigham Young whereupon he promptly started his own church from which he then excommunicated Young.

James Jesse Strang (Daguerreotype)

Strang had the tendency to draw the most controversial Mormon figures into his version of the faith. These included John C. Bennett (quite possibly the most notorious apostate of all Mormon history) and William Smith (Joseph’s volatile and often violent brother). Strang moved his followers to Voree, Wisconsin where like Smith he discovered ancient metal plates that he then translated into The Rajah Manchou of Vorito. This was a sort of Moroni-esque chronicle of the last man left of civilization prophesying Strang’s rise to the head of the church. Strang also started secret society called the Order of the Illuminati (not to be confused with Dan Brown) that consisted of an elaborate system of secret codes and initiation rights.

Reproduction of the Voree Plates

Though one of Strang’s major platforms for his new church had been opposition to polygamy,  shortly after becoming a prophet he decided that he was suddenly ok with it. He married Elvira Field as his second wife. In order to keep this marriage secret, she changed her name to Charles Douglass and she became Strang's nephew. Elvira also cut her hair and disguised herself as a man. “Charlie” became prophet’s missionary companion and acted as his secretary as the two toured the eastern states as a secret honeymoon. Some of Strang’s followers began to suspect the truth behind his nephew and, disturbed by this discovery, left the church.

Elvira Feild as Charles Douglass

Strang moved his followers to Beaver Island on the north end of Lake Michigan were he set up his kingdom. He made himself king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that shocked some of his followers. Many people believe that Strang and his followers were the true identity behind a mysterious band of pirates that plagued the great lakes during this period. They were accused of as much by their gentile neighbors and an all out war unfolded between the two groups on the lake. There were shootouts between boats, high-speed chases across the ice, an attempt by the gentiles to maroon a group of Strangites on remote island, and their narrow escape from this plot. The war culminated with the assassination of Strang by some of his former followers on a pier in Beaver Island’s harbor. The assassins, though their identities were known, were never brought to justice by a corrupt legal system that endorsed their actions.

Map of Mormon Settlements on Beaver island

After the prophet’s death his sheep wee scattered, the largest group joining the Reorganized Church, or “Josephites,” a few joining the Utah Church, or “Brighamites,” and many leaving Mormonism altogether. Strang’s most loyal followers waited for a successor to appear. They are still waiting.

God Has Made Us a Kingdom is great reading. Speek skillfully tells one of the most interesting stories in the history of Mormonism.

No comments: