The Strangites share the same early history with other Latter Day Saint denominations, up until the assassination of Joseph Smith Jr., the founding prophet of the movement. During the resulting succession crisis, several early Mormon leaders asserted claims to succeed Smith, including Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young.
Rigdon's pretense rested on the fact that he was the sole surviving member of Smith's First Presidency, the church's highest leadership quorum. Young initially argued that Smith could have no immediate successor, but that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (of which he was president) should be sustained as the presiding body of the church. Rejected by the main church body in Nauvoo, Rigdon and his followers soon relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but there his organization soon faltered. A descendant of the Rigdonite church lives on today as the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite).
Brigham Young and his followers migrated west to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah Territory, continuing to use Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as their name until incorporating in 1851, when the spelling was standardized as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; it is the largest Latter Day Saint body today.
Although he was a relatively recent convert at the time of Smith's death, James J. Strang posed a strong and initially quite successful challenge to the claims of Young and Rigdon. Strang was a Mormon elder charged with establishing a stake or a place of refuge in Wisconsin, should the Mormons be forced to abandon their headquarters in Nauvoo. He possessed a document that came to be known as the Letter of Appointment, alleged to have been written by Smith prior to his death. The wording of this missive was somewhat ambiguous; some insist that it only appointed Strang to be president of the new Voree Stake of the church, while Strang and his followers interpreted it as a call to follow Smith as Church president. Strang also claimed that at the moment of Smith's death, he was visited by angels who ordained him to be Smith's successor.
Strang's claim appealed to many Latter Day Saints who had been attracted to Mormonism's doctrines of continuing revelation through the mouth of a living prophet. Strang announced that there still was, indeed, a Mormon prophet who communed with God and conversed with angels. Strang's claim was bolstered by his discovery of the Voree Plates, purporting to contain the last testament of an ancient Native American. These plates were found in the Hill of Promise, which would become the temple site in the new Strangite town of Voree. Strang's translation of the plates indicated that they were the history of one "Rajah Manchou of Vorito." This event may have reminded some Latter Day Saints of Smith's translation of the Golden Plates and the Book of Abraham, and encouraged them in their decision to accept Strang over any of his competitors.
Another adherent was John C. Bennett, former mayor of Nauvoo and a former member of the First Presidency. Bennett had been in Smith's innermost circle but had broken with the founding prophet and had written an Anti-Mormon exposé. Bennett founded a secretive Strangite fraternal society known as the Order of Illuminati, but his presence disrupted Strang's church and ultimately led to his excommunication. His "order" fell by the wayside, and no longer exists among the Strangites.
All of these persons, with the exception of George Miller (who would remain loyal to Strang until death), would leave the Strangite church by 1850. Many of these defections were due to Strang's seemingly abrupt "about-face" on the turbulent subject of polygamy. Violently opposed to the practice at first, Strang reversed course in 1849 to become one of its strongest advocates. Since many of his early disciples had looked to 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 church.
Strang found his greatest support among the scattered branches of Mormonism, which he frequently toured. His followers may have numbered as many as 12,000, at a time when Young had perhaps 50,000 or so altogether. After Strang won a debate at a conference in Norway, Illinois, he converted the entire branch. While in Voree, the Strangites published a periodical known as the Voree Herald. The church also fielded a mission to England, one of the primary sources of converts to Mormonism. This mission was led by Martin Harris, the financier of the Book of Mormon and one of its Three Witnesses. Harris proved a poor spokesman, however, and the English missions sided with the LDS Church led by Brigham Young.
Contrary to popular misconception, Strang never claimed to be king over Beaver Island, or any other geographical entity. Rather, he asserted that he was king over his church, which he saw as the one, true "Kingdom of God" prophesied in Scripture and destined to spread over all the earth. The constitution of this kingdom was contained within the Book of the Law of the Lord, which Strang claimed to have translated from the Plates of Laban mentioned in The Book of Mormon. Originally published in 1851, this new book of Strangite scripture would be republished in a greatly-expanded edition in 1856, just after Strang's untimely murder. It is still revered by Strangites today.
In addition to printing religious materials, the Strangite printing press on Beaver Island became the source of a new periodical, the Northern Islander, which was the first real newspaper in all of northern Michigan. As St. James became an entrepôt for Great Lakes shipping, the Strangites began to compete with more established commercial lake ports such as Mackinac Island. Tensions grew between Mormons on Beaver and their non-Mormon neighbors, frequently exploding into violence. Accusations of thuggery and thievery were leveled by both parties against each other, compounded by ever-increasing dissension among some of Strang's own disciples, who chafed at what they saw as his increasingly tyrannical rule.
In 1854 Strang published Ancient and modern Michilimackinac, including an account of the controversy between Mackinac and the Mormons "Strang surveys the geography and history of Mackinac and the surrounding region, particularly the islands of Lake Michigan, and after giving an account of the Mormon settlement upon Big Beaver Island, addresses himself to the bitter controversies between the people of Mackinac and the Mormons. Although dealing with controverted matters and colored by Strang's indignation at the outrages he and his people had to endure, the pamphlet is a responsible source on the events of which it treats, and is also interesting for the considerable measure of learning it reveals in Strang" (Dale L. Morgan, Bibliography, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite.)
Matters came to a head on June 20, 1856, when two Strangite malcontents shot their "king" in the back, leading to his death three weeks later. Since Strang refused to appoint a successor, and insisted that the next Strangite prophet must be ordained by angels just as he and Joseph Smith had been, the Strangite church was left leaderless and vulnerable. One day before Strang's death, vigilantes from Mackinac Island and other Lake Michigan communities converged on Beaver Island. The Strangites were rounded up, forced onto hastily-commandeered steamships and removed from the island. Most were simply dumped onto docks in Chicago and Green Bay, destitute and deprived of all their property.
A few congregations of Strangites, however, remained loyal to their prophet's memory. Wingfield W. Watson, a High Priest who had known and served under Strang personally, kept the church alive into the 20th century. 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 office possessed by Joseph Smith or James Strang. The other claims that this first assemblage is in error, and that by incorporating in 1961, organizing a new order of the priesthood to rule them, and by establishing a new man-made set of laws to govern them, 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.
The first group no longer emphasizes missionary work (unlike the LDS and many other Mormon 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, this group's congregation remains small. Current membership figures vary between 50 and 300 persons, depending upon the source consulted.
There are two groups among the second. One group has a website based in Independence, Missouri The second group has a website based in Shreveport, Louisiana Both conduct their missionary work on the Internet. The Shreveport group has a growing membership in America and in Africa; including Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, and Djibouti; and is organizing a group in Ghana. There are also members in Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, Hawaii, and Canada. Their membership exceeds a thousand.
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A valid claim to the Melchisedec Priesthood still exists.