See his diary (ed. by M. M. Strang, 1961).
In contrast to Joseph Smith, who had served as "president" of his church, Strang taught that Smith's prophetic office embodied an overtly royal attribute, by which its occupant was to be not only the spiritual leader of his people, but their temporal king as well. He offered a sophisticated set of teachings that differed in many significant aspects from any other version of Mormonism, including that preached by Smith. To bolster his prophetic claims, Strang published translations of two allegedly long-lost works: the Voree Record, deciphered from three metal plates unearthed in response to a vision; and the Book of the Law of the Lord, transcribed from the Plates of Laban mentioned in The Book of Mormon. These are accepted as scripture by his followers, but not by any other Latter Day Saint church.
Additionally, Strang was at various times a lawyer, educator, temperance lecturer, newspaper editor, Baptist minister, correspondent for the New York Tribune, state legislator, and amateur scientist. His survey of Beaver Island's natural history was published by the Smithsonian Institution, remaining the definitive work on the subject for nearly a century, while his career in the Michigan legislature was praised even by his enemies.
Strang's church was originally centered in Voree, Wisconsin, just outside present-day Burlington, which his "Letter of Appointment" named as the new "gathering place" for the Latter Day Saints. In 1848, Strang moved his followers to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, where he was proclaimed the "king" of his people in 1850. While his church suffered persecution there, it continued to grow, steadily gaining converts from other Latter Day Saint sects until Strang's assassination in 1856. His followers were subsequently driven from the island, and while most later disavowed him, a small but devout remnant still practices Strang's teachings today.
Strang's organization is formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. During the nineteenth century, followers of Brigham Young were sometimes referred to as "Brighamites," while those of Sidney Rigdon were called "Rigdonites," and disciples of Strang became "Strangites". Though the term "Strangite" is not officially a part of their church name, it is usually added to the title to avoid confusing them with other Latter Day Saint bodies.
But none of this meant that Strang was illiterate or simple. Although his teachers "not unfrequently turned me off with little or no attention, as though I was too stupid to learn and too dull to feel neglect," Strang recalled that he spent "long weary days...upon the floor, thinking, thinking, thinking....my mind wandered over fields that old men shrink from, seeking rest and finding none till darkness gathered thick around and I burst into tears. He studied works by Thomas Paine and the Comte de Volney, whose book Les Ruines exerted a significant influence on the future prophet.
As a youth, Strang kept a rather profound personal diary, written partly in a secret code that was not deciphered until over one hundred years after it was authored (ironically, by Strang's own grandson Mark Strang, a banker in Long Beach, California). This journal contains Strang's musings on a variety of topics, including his desire to "rival Caesar or Napoleon" and his regret that by age nineteen, he had not yet become a general or member of the state legislature, which he saw as being essential by that point in his life to his quest for fame. However, Strang's diary equally reveals a sincere desire to be of service to his fellow man, together with agonized frustration at not knowing how he might do so as a penniless, unknown youth from upstate New York.
At age twelve, Strang was baptised a Baptist. He did not wish to follow his father's calling as a farmer, so he took up the study of civil law. Strang was admitted to the bar in New York at age 23 and later at other places where he resided. He became county Postmaster and edited a local newspaper, the Randolph Herald. Later, in the midst of his myriad duties on Beaver Island, he would find time to found and publish the Daily Northern Islander, the first newspaper in northern Michigan.
Strang, who once described himself as a "cool philosopher" and a freethinker, became a Baptist minister but left in February of 1844 to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He quickly found favor with Joseph Smith, though they had known each other only a short time, and was baptized personally by him. Immediately ordained an Elder, Strang was sent forthwith at Smith's request to Wisconsin, to establish a Mormon stake at Voree. Shortly after Strang's departure, Joseph Smith was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob in Carthage, Illinois.
Following Smith's demise, several men claimed the right to lead the Latter Day Saints. The most significant of these were Brigham Young, president of Smith's Twelve Apostles; Sidney Rigdon, the sole surviving member of Smith's First Presidency; and James Strang. A power struggle ensued, and Young eventually led the bulk of Smith's followers to Utah while Rigdon led his to Pennsylvania. As a newcomer to the faith, Strang did not possess the name recognition enjoyed by his rivals, and so faced an "uphill" battle in his quest to be recognized as the heir to Smith's prophetic mantle. Though the Quorum of Twelve published a notice in the Times and Seasons of Strang's excommunication, Strang insisted that he had never received a legitimate trial. He equally asserted that the Twelve had no right to sit in judgment on him, as he was the lawful President of the church.
To back his claim, Strang produced a "Letter of Appointment" allegedly from Smith, carrying a Nauvoo postmark and dated June 18, 1844. He furthermore testified that an angel appointed him as Joseph Smith's successor at the time Smith died. Smith and Strang were some 200 miles (320 km) apart at the time, and Strang offered witnesses to affirm that he had made his announcement before news of Smith's demise was publicly available. Strang's letter is held today by Yale University. Although the postmark is legitimate, some modern analysts have asserted that Joseph Smith's signature on the third page is a forgery. One former Strangite claimed that Strang's law partner conspired with Strang to fabricate his Letter of Appointment and the Voree Plates, though no proof of this was ever produced.
Strang's letter convinced several eminent Mormons of his claims. Book of Mormon witnesses John and David Whitmer, Martin Harris and Hiram Page, Apostles John E. Page, William E. M'Lellin, and William Smith, Smith's sisters, Nauvoo Stake President William Marks, Bishop George Miller, and Joseph Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, with others, accepted Strang at first. Lucy Smith wrote to one Reuben Hedlock: "I am satisfied that Joseph appointed J.J. Strang. It is verily so." According to Joseph Smith's brother William, all of his family (except for Hyrum and Samuel Smith's widows), initially endorsed Strang.
Also championing Strang was John C. Bennett, a physician and libertine who had enjoyed a less than stellar career as Joseph Smith's Assistant President and mayor of Nauvoo. Invited by Strang to join him in Voree, Bennett was instrumental in establishing a so-called "Halcyon Order of the Illuminati" there, with Strang as its "Imperial Primate." Eventually Bennett's profligate ways caught up with him, as in Nauvoo, and Strang expelled him in 1847. His "order" fell by the wayside and has no role in Strangism today, though it did lead to conflict between Strang and some of his associates.
Most defections, however, were due to Strang's seemingly abrupt "about-face" on the turbulent subject of polygamy. Vehemently opposed to the practice at first, Strang reversed course in 1849 to become one of its strongest advocates, marrying five wives (including his original spouse, Mary) and fathering fourteen children. Since many of his early disciples viewed him as a monogamous counterweight to Brigham Young's polygamous version of Mormonism, Strang's decision to embrace plural marriage proved costly to him and his organization. Strang defended his new tenet by claiming that, far from enslaving or demeaning women, polygamy would liberate and "elevate" them by allowing them to choose the best possible mate based upon any factors deemed important to them--even if that mate were already married to someone else. Rather than being forced to wed "corrupt and degraded sires" due to the scarcity of more suitable men, a woman could marry the man she saw as the most compatible to herself, the best candidate to father her children and give her the finest possible life, no matter how many other wives he might have.
Strang's first wife was Mary Perce, whom he married on November 20, 1836, when she was eighteen and he was twenty-three. They were separated in May 1851, though they remained legally married until Strang's death. His second wife, married on July 13, 1849, was nineteen-year old Elvira Eliza Field (who disguised herself at first as "Charlie J. Douglas," Strang's purported nephew, before revealing her true identity in 1850). Strang's third wife was thirty-one year old Betsy McNutt, whom he married on January 19, 1852; his fourth was nineteen-year old Sarah Adelia Wright, married on July 15, 1855. Ironically, decades after Strang's death, Sarah would divorce her second husband, one Dr. Wing, due to his interest in polygamy. Strang's last wife was eighteen-year old Phoebe Wright, cousin to Sarah, whom he wed on October 27, 1855, less than one year before his murder.
Sarah Wright described Strang as "a very mild-spoken, kind man to his family, although his word was law." She wrote that while each wife had her own bedroom, they shared meals and devotional time together with Strang and that life in their household was "as pleasant as possible." On the other hand, Strang and Phoebe Wright's daughter, Eugenia, wrote in 1936 that after only eight months of marriage, her mother had "begun to feel dissatisfied with polygamy, though she loved him [Strang] devotedly all her life.
Strang also claimed to have translated the "Plates of Laban" described in the Book of Mormon. This translation was published in 1851 as the Book of the Law of the Lord, said to be the original Law given to Moses and mentioned in II Chronicles 34:14-15. Greatly expanded and republished in 1856, this book served as the constitution for Strang's spiritual kingdom on Beaver Island, and is still accepted as scripture by Strangites. One distinctive feature (besides its overtly monarchial tone) is its restoration of a "missing" commandment to the Decalogue: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Strang insisted that versions of the Decalogue found in Bibles used by other churches--including other Latter Day Saint churches--contain only nine commandments, not ten.
Strang received several other revelations, which while never formally added to his church's Doctrine and Covenants, are nevertheless accepted as scripture by his followers. These concerned, among other things, Baptism for the Dead, the building of a temple in Voree, the standing of Sidney Rigdon, and an invitation for Joseph Smith III, eldest son of Joseph Smith, Jr., to take a position as Counselor in Strang's First Presidency. "Young Joseph" never accepted this calling and refused to have anything to do with Strang's organization. Strang also authored The Diamond, an attack on the claims of Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young, and The Prophetic Controversy, ostensibly for Mrs. Martha Coray, co-author with Lucy Mack Smith of The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother. Coray, a partisan of Brigham Young's, had challenged "the vain usurper" to provide convincing evidence of his claims, and Strang attempted to oblige in this open letter addressed to her. Coray's reaction to Strang's missive has not been preserved.
Furthermore, Strang denied that God could do all things, and insisted that some things were as impossible for Him as for us. Thus, he saw no essential conflict between science and religion, and while he never openly championed evolution, he did state that God was limited in His power by the matter He was working with and by the eons of time required to "organize" and shape it. Strang spoke glowingly of a future generation who would "make religion a science," to be "studied by as exact rules as mathematicks." "The mouth of the Seer will be opened," he prophesied, "and the whole earth enlightened.
Musing at length on the nature of sin and evil, Strang wrote that of all things that God could give to man, He could never give him experience. Thus, if "free agency" were to be real, said Strang, humanity must be given the opportunity to fail and to learn from its own mistakes. The ultimate goal for each human being was to willingly conform oneself to the "revealed character" of God in every respect, preferring good to evil not out of a fear of punishment or any desire for reward, but rather solely "on account of the innate loveliness of undefiled goodness; of pure unalloyed holiness.
Strang allowed women to hold the Priesthood offices of Priest and Teacher, unique among all Latter Day Saint factions during his lifetime. He welcomed African Americans into his church, and ordained at least two to the eldership. Strang also mandated conservation of land and resources, requiring the building of parks and retention of large forests in his kingdom. He wrote an eloquent refutation of the "Solomon Spalding theory" of the Book of Mormon's authorship, and defended the ministry and teachings of Joseph Smith–as he understood them.
Strang never claimed to be the king of Beaver Island itself, nor of any other geographical entity. Rather, he claimed to be king over his church, which he saw as the true "Kingdom of God" prophesied in Scripture and destined to spread over all the earth. Nor did Strang ever say that his "kingdom" supplanted United States sovereignty over Beaver Island. However, since his sect was the main religious body on the isle, claiming the allegiance of most of its inhabitants, Strang often asserted authority even over non-Strangites on Beaver--which ultimately caused him and his followers a great deal of grief. Furthermore, he and many of his disciples were accused of forcibly appropriating property and revenue on the island, which made him few friends among the "gentiles."
On the other hand, Strang and his people lived in justified apprehension of what their nonmember neighbors, many of whom were bullying and threatening toward them, might do next. Strangites were often beaten up while going to the post office to collect their mail, and some of their homes were robbed and even seized by "gentiles" while Strangite men were away. On July 4, 1850, a drunken mob of fishermen vowed to kill the "Mormons" or drive them out, only to be awed into submission when Strang fired a cannon (which he had secretly acquired) at them. Competition for business and jobs added to tensions on the island, as did the increasing Strangite monopoly on local government, made sure after Beaver and adjacent islands were attached first to Emmet County in 1853, then later organized into their own insular county of Manitou in 1855.
As a result of his coronation, together with lurid tales spread by George Adams (who had been excommunicated by Strang a few months after the ceremony), Strang was accused of treason, counterfeiting, trespass on government land, and theft, among other crimes. He was brought to trial in Detroit, Michigan, after President Millard Fillmore ordered U.S. District Attorney George Bates to investigate the rumors about Strang and his colony. Strang's successful trial defense brought him considerable favorable press, which he leveraged to run for, and win, a seat in the Michigan state legislature as a Democrat in 1853. Facing a determined effort to deny him this seat due to the hostility of his enemies, he was permitted to address the legislature in his defense, after which the Michigan House of Representatives voted twice (first unanimously, then a second time by a 49-11 margin) to allow "King Strang" to join them.
In the 1853 legislative session, Strang introduced ten bills, five of which passed. The Detroit Advertiser, on February 10, 1853, wrote of Strang: "Mr. Strang’s course as a member of the present Legislature, has disarmed much of the prejudices which have previously surrounded him. Whatever may be said or thought of the peculiar sect of which he is the local head, I take pleasure in stating that throughout this session he has conducted himself with the degree of decorum and propriety which have been equaled by his industry, sagacity, good temper, apparent regard for the true interests of the people, and the obligations of his official oath. He was reelected in 1855, and did much to organize the upper portion of Michigan's lower peninsula into counties and townships. Strang ardently fought the illegal practice of trading liquor to local Native American tribes. This made him many enemies among those non-Strangite residents of Beaver and nearby Mackinac Island who profited mightily from this illicit trade.
Although Strang apparently knew that Bedford and the others were gunning for him, he seems not to have taken them very seriously. "We laugh with bitter scorn at all these threats," he wrote in the Northern Islander, just days before his murder. Strang's refusal to employ a bodyguard or to carry a firearm or other weapon made him an easy target.
On Monday, June 16, 1856, Strang was waylaid around 7:00 PM on the dock at the harbor of St. James, chief city of Beaver Island, by Wentworth and Bedford, who shot him in the back. All of this was carried out in full view of several officers and men of the USS Michigan, a U.S. Naval vessel docked in the harbor. Not one person on board the ship made any effort to warn or to aid the intended victim.
Strang was hit three times: one bullet grazed his head, another lodged in his cheek and a third in his spine. One of the assassins then savagely pistol-whipped the fallen prophet before running aboard the nearby vessel with his companion, where both claimed sanctuary. Some accused Captain McBlair of the "Michigan" of complicity in, or at least foreknowledge of, the assassination plot, though no hard evidence of this was ever forthcoming. The so-called "King of Beaver Island" was taken to Voree, where he lived for three weeks, dying on July 9, 1856 at the age of 43. After refusing to deliver Bedford and Wentworth to the local sheriff, McBlair transported them to Mackinac Island, where they were given a mock trial, fined $1.25, released, and then feted by the locals. None of the plotters was ever punished for his crimes.
Strang had refused to appoint a successor, telling his apostles to take care of their families as best they could, and await divine instruction. While his supporters endeavored to keep his church alive, Strang's unique dogma requiring his successor to be ordained by angels handicapped his church in its search for a new prophet. Lorenzo Dow Hickey, the last of Strang's apostles, emerged as an ad-hoc leader until his death in 1900, followed by Wingfield W. Watson, a High Priest in Strang's organization (until he died in 1922). Neither of these men ever claimed Strang's office or authority, however. Left without a prophet to guide them, most of Strang's members (including all of his wives) departed his church in the years after his murder. Most later joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which was established in 1860. A few, however, continue to carry on Strang's mission as best they can, while awaiting a new successor to their fallen founder.
Strang's disciples today are divided into two main factions; one is led by a Presiding High Priest, who does not claim to have the authority or priesthood office possessed by Joseph Smith or James Strang. The other claims that the first faction is in error, and that by incorporating in 1961, it lost its identity as a faithful continuation of Strang's organization. This second group claims that it is the sole true remnant of James Strang's church. Missionary work is no longer emphasized among the Strangites (unlike the LDS and many other Latter Day Saint sects), as they tend to believe that after three murdered prophets (Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith and James Strang) God closed His dispensation to the "gentiles" of the West. Consequently, Strang's church has continued to dwindle until the present day. Current membership figures vary between 50 and 300 persons, depending upon the source consulted.
While proving a key player in the 1844 succession struggle, Strang's long-term influence on the Latter Day Saint movement was minimal. His doctrinal innovations had little impact outside of his church, and he was largely ignored until recent historians began to reexamine his life and career. For all his efforts, Strang's most vital (albeit unintended) contribution to the Latter Day Saint religion turned out to be providing some of the impetus behind creation of the Reorganized Church, which became a major rival to the Utah-based LDS Church and other Latter Day Saint groups–including his own.
| Preceded by:|
Joseph Smith, Jr.
| President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite) |
James J. Strang
|No successor to date|