Reviews – “God Has Made Us A Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons
BYU Studies 46, no. 3 (2007), Roger Terry
Surprised to find evidence of Mormons in Wisconsin, she took Mormon Road that day. It led to the community of Voree and to the beginning of a fifteen-year odyssey that would result in yet another book about James Jesse Strang, self-proclaimed successor to Joseph Smith.Award-winning journalist Vickie Cleverley Speek was not looking for the Mormons during the summer of 1991. She was looking for basket-making materials, and the nearest shop was in Burlington, Wisconsin, at the corner of Highway 36 and Mormon Road.
Several biographies about Strang were already in print in 1991, including Milo M. Quaife’s seminal history The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930); O. W. Riegel’s Crown of Glory: The Life of James J. Strang, Moses of the Mormons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935); Doyle C. Fitzpatrick’s partisan The King Strang Story: A Vindication of James J. Strang, the Beaver Island Mormon King (Lansing, Mich.: National Heritage, 1970); and Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
The existence of such works raises the valid question, why does the world need yet another biography of the enigmatic Strang? Speek offers several reasons for writing her book. First, she relied extensively on primary sources, some of which were unavailable to earlier biographers. “New facts and resources are still being discovered,” and “old records are ready for re-examination and reinterpretation” (x). Second, Speek claims her book is not a biography but “an attempt to tell the fuller story of the Strangites—their trials and tribulations and efforts to maintain the Strangite Church during their founder’s ministry and after his death” (xi). Third, the story of the Strangites is “a compelling and intriguing one. Many writers, including Strang’s own descendants, have struggled with the logistics of how to relate the tale without sensationalizing it, and,” Speek confesses, “so have I” (xi). The difficulty in writing about Strang is similar tot he complex task of writing about Joseph Smith. As Van Noord pointed out in his book’s preface, bias and misinformation abound. The original sources, in particular, are often inclined for or against Strang. many of them come from Strang himself—his autobiography, diary, letters, and publications—or from his followers. Others come from his enemies. Sorting out fact from misrepresentation is no easy task. In spite of these difficulties, Speek’s book is an engaging, insightful, and well-researched exploration of a complicated man, his family and his followers.
God Has Made Us a Kingdom divides unevenly into two separate sections: the first (and longer) part details Strang’s life and death; the second part explores what happened to his family and followers after his murder. Speek cannot avoid the almost eerie parallels between James Strang and Joseph Smith: self-proclaimed divine appointment, claims of finding and translating engraved metal plates, persecution resulting from unconventional doctrines and a concentrated gathering of followers, public denial and private practice of polygamy, coronation as “King on earth,” dissension within the ranks, John C. Bennett’s ruinous role in both men’s lives, and, finally, untimely assassination. Although neither Strang nor Smith explicitly named a successor, the circumstances of their deaths were different enough that while Strang’s flock remained shepherdless, numerous would-be successors to Joseph Smith stepped forward, one (Joseph III) as late as 1860.
Speek is sympathetic toward Strang and his followers, but she is also careful to explore Strang’s duplicities (as when his first plural wife, Elvira Field, accompanied him to New York masquerading as a nephew and personal secretary named Charley Douglass); his questionable doctrines (for instance, the practice of “consecration”—stealing Gentiles’ property for the kingdom of God); and his aspirations to nobility. God Has Made Us a Kingdom is well documented, but the author’s preference for allowing biased eyewitnesses to speak for themselves obscures at times the objectivity of her history. She also fails to explore the validity of the appointment letter Strang claimed he received from Joseph Smith or the authenticity of the metal plates he reportedly found and translated.
By all accounts, the story of James Jesse Strang and his disciples is both bizarre and tragic; and it has not yet ended, as about one hundred members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite) persist. Where Speek’s book sets itself apart from other histories, however, is in her research of the lives of his five wives, their children, and many of Strang’s followers. The second and shorter part of the book focuses on what happened after Strang’s death to the people whose lives were bound together with his.
Using the controversial letter purportedly sent to him by Joseph Smith and also the claim that an angel anointed him Smith’s successor, Strang gathered as many as believed him, first to Voree, Wisconsin, then to Beaver Island, the largest island in Lake Michigan. It was on Beaver Island that he instituted polygamy and was crowned king; it was also there that two disaffected followers shot and mortally wounded him on June 16, 1856. He died twenty-three days later in Voree.
During those twenty-three days, Strang steadfastly refused to name a successor, even though he knew his demise was imminent. Consequently, when his followers were driven from Beaver Island, they gathered either in small groups or went their separate ways, often in search of work, having lost all their possessions in the forced exodus. Many of Strang’s followers gave up on Mormonism altogether and simply settled into new lives, never revealing their past to their neighbors.
When James Strang died, he left five wives, four of whom were pregnant. Their stories, interestingly, are quite characteristic of what happened to Strang’s followers in general. Strang had his first wife, Mary Abigail Perce, banished from Beaver Island five years prior to his death, perhaps because she had tried to kill the baby of his first plural wife, Elvira. Mary and her three surviving children lived for a time with her brother in Illinois, but they later returned to their home in Voree, where they ran a farm. Ironically, they were not at home on July 1, 1856, when James was brought, mortally wounded, from Beaver Island, nor did they return before he died. Mary lived in Voree for several years before moving to Terre Haute, Indiana. She lived there with her daughters, her son, and his family until her own death on April 30, 1880. She never remarried. Her son, William, was so bitter about his father’s polygamous involvement that he discouraged his sister Myraette from even writing her half brothers and sisters.
When a dying Strang left Beaver Island, wives Betsy McNutt and Phoebe Wright traveled with him. The two other wives, Elvira Field and Phoebe’s sister Sarah, left the island a few days later. Sarah visited her husband briefly on his deathbed but left with her father’s family. Phoebe stayed until James died, then also joined her parents. Elvira did not arrive in Voree until two days after Strang’s death. She and Betsy lived together in Voree for a time, and both women gave birth in January 1857. Eventually, Elvira returned to her parents’ home in Michigan. After her father’s death, Elvira fell desperately ill and placed her four children with other families. After three years she finally recovered and was able to retrieve the older three children, but the couple who had adopted the youngest, James J. Strang, considered him their own and even renamed him Charles J. Grier. In 1865, Elvira married John Baker, a widower with five children. Although he was a good man, he was not religious. Elvira did not join another church but was involved in “Christian work” the rest of her life (266). She died of bronchitis on June 13, 1910. While James Strang was living, Elvira obviously believed his claim to be a prophet and Joseph Smith’s successor, but later in life she apparently harbored doubts that she shared with her children. Two of her sons, Charles Strang (named after his mother, “Charley Douglass”) and Clement Strang, took an interest in their father’s life, and the documents Speek references in her book include their letters and other writings.
After Elvira departed for Michigan, Betsy and her brother John, also a Strangite, moved their families to Indiana, then back again to Wisconsin. Betsy’s daughter Evangeline married John Denio, a Strangite widower who, at forty, was closer to his mother-in-law’s age (forty-seven) than his wife’s (thirteen or fourteen). In 1883 the Denios moved to Davis City, Iowa, where they joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They eventually moved to Lamoni, Iowa, headquarters of the RLDS Church. Betsy McNutt accompanied the Denios to Iowa, where she passed away in 1897, but it is not clear whether she ever joined the RLDS Church. James Strang had told Betsy before his death that she would be one of the last to deny him. And this indeed appears to have been the case. Of note is the report that Betsy carried with her a chest containing manuscripts, letters, and other articles of interest, including the controversial plates Strang claimed to have found near Voree. According to Heman H. Smith of the RLDS Church, Betsy still had the plates with her when she moved to Lamoni but loaned them to Charles Hall, a Hedrickite. Hall’s wife then purportedly loaned the plates to two elders from the LDS Church in Utah, and they were never returned.
Phoebe Wright lived for many years with her father, Phineas, in Wisconsin. She dropped the name Strang, however, and instead used her husband’s middle name. Phoebe Jesse seldom talked about Strang, but she genuinely loved him. When her daughter Eugenia, married Thomas Phillips, a local businessman, Phoebe moved in with them. Phillips became manager of a bank in Duluth, Minnesota, and spent two years in Salt Lake City before being assigned to Tacoma, Washington. Phoebe accompanied them on these moves, eventually dying in Tacoma on November 9, 1914, at the age of seventy-eight. She never remarried, and Eugenia was her only child.
Of Strang’s five wives, Sarah Wright’s story is the most remarkable. After leaving her dying husband, Sarah eventually married a self-taught doctor named Joseph Smith Wing who, ironically, was not a Mormon. When “Brighamite” missionaries came to the area, Joseph joined the Utah church and set out for the Rocky Mountains with his family. While passing through Illinois, Sarah had a disconcerting experience. They stopped to visit a family Joseph said he knew. The only person at home was the twelve-year-old daughter. After asking her if she would like to go riding with them, Wing put her on the horse with him and rode off. He never took her back home. When Sarah questioned her husband, Joseph disclosed that the girl was his daughter from a previous marriage. This was not Sarah’s only surprise. Wing had also married and abandoned two other women. So Sarah was not his first wife; she was his fourth. And she would not be the last: in Utah, Church leaders asked Joseph to participate in polygamy. Although Sarah had renounced the practice after Strang’s death, she watched Joseph marry six additional wives. Eventually, as she grew increasingly dissatisfied with both her marriage and polygamy, she left Wing and established her own medical practice in Springville, having learned the profession from her much-married husband. Sarah served her Mormon neighbors for many years, but she eventually became disenchanted with the LDS Church and left it. She died at age eighty-seven at the home of her daughter Amanda in Boise, Idaho. Even though Sarah admitted to Milo Quaife in 1920 that she no longer believed God spoke to prophets, her grandson Mark claimed she “remained faithful to Strang’s underlying religious convictions and high moral standards” (294), and she always spoke highly of him.
God Has Made Us a Kingdom does not answer all the questions surrounding James Jesse Strang and the people who followed him, but anyone interested in this branch of Mormon history will surely want to read Vickie Cleverley Speek’s book.
Journal of Mormon History, Robin Scott Jensen
In 1930, Milo M. Quaife, editor of both James K. Polk’s and Meriwether Lewis’s diaries, as well as the history of Illinois by Thomas Ford, published his ten-year work on James J. Strang.1 Quaife undertook the first scholarly approach to the many questions concerning Strang’s life, and his work brought forth new insights as well as new questions; it should still be consulted as part of any serious study of Strang. Since 1930, more scholars have addressed Strang’s life and his influence over those who followed him.
Vickie Speek has now contributed to that body of knowledge with her new work on Strang, his followers, and his church—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangites). Speek, an acclaimed journalist, has been studying Strangism for fifteen years. Her study is refreshingly different in several ways, but one crucial element stands out: Speek emphasizes the story of Strang’s believers instead of focusing solely on Strang himself. As controversial as Strang’s methods of establishing and running his church may be and as important as it is to understand his modus operandi, Speek recognizes the significance of telling the untold story of those who held fervent beliefs in the prophetic king. Yet like Quaife in 1930, Speek also raises additional questions about Strang and his church.
At times the similarities between the Strangite Church and the Mormon Church are striking. So too are the continual parallels between Joseph Smith and James Jesse Strang. Persecution seemed to constantly dog the two groups, enemies from without and opportunists and traitors from within. Both churches grew as a result of missionary work, but each had unique doctrines that strengthened some members’ testimonies and weakened the resolve of others. Both leaders claimed that angels ministered to them, translated ancient records, and became martyrs to their religion. Speek, like many contemporary Mormons, had not heard of Strangism or its founder until she inadvertently stumbled across remnants of Strangism in Voree, Wisconsin; however, the story she learned has been well crafted in this narrative.
Speek characterizes Strang as an intelligent and discerning man. Born in New York, Strang was a talented young man, prone to intellectual activities over physical exertion. His gift for debate helped him become a talented lawyer and newspaper editor. He married Mary Perce in 1836. Like so many of his fellow Americans, he responded to the promise of quick money in land speculation farther west and moved to southeastern Wisconsin in 1843 where his wife’s family resided. While he was establishing his law practice, he began investigating the faith of Moses Smith, his wife’s relative. Moses Smith had been a member of the Mormon Church since shortly after its founding. Strang, earlier a self-proclaimed atheist or agnostic, was driven to investigate Mormonism and wanted to hear it straight from its founder, Joseph Smith.
According to the Strangite record, when Strang visited Nauvoo in 1844, he was baptized and ordained an elder into the LDS Church. Joseph Smith then asked Strang to investigate a possible place in Wisconsin where the Saints could settle. Strang returned to Wisconsin and made the report to Smith. In answer to Strang’s letter, Smith wrote back less than a fortnight before he was killed at Carthage. This letter from Smith, according to Strang and his followers, appointed Strang to be the leader of the LDS Church following Smith’s death. Strang was to call the Saints to Voree, Wisconsin, and there build a temple. The day Smith was killed, an angel visited Strang and anointed Strang to the new office of prophet.
Strang wasted no time in providing proof to potential followers of his appointment. He found three brass plates that many felt were of ancient origin and translated them; like Smith more than twenty years earlier, witnesses attested to the find’s miraculous nature.
Speek unfortunately offers little critical analysis for these controversial topics in Strangite history. As the plates of Voree and letter of appointment provided Strang with the strongest evidence of divine succession, critics often first attacked the genuine nature of these artifacts. Likewise, historical works on Strangism should focus on the questions surroundings the artifacts as well. Speek, who has spent more than a decade studying Strang and his church, has developed insight into some of the more controversial aspects, including the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s letter of appointment and the plates found at Voree. Understanding the sources is essential in understanding what the Strangites claim. Almost all of the historians who have written about Strangism claim that the letter of appointment was a forgery.2 Speek, however, provides little in the way of modern analysis and sources. Other such events are narrated to the reader without hypotheses from other historians or from Speek’s own work with the sources. A lack of analysis in no way destroys the usefulness of the book but leaves much for the readers to analyze on their own.
Strang began an aggressive missionary program designed to bring Mormons and non-Mormons alike to Voree. Speek shows the readers the different individuals who made their way into the Strangite Church. Characters like John C. Bennett and William Smith did Strang more harm than good. Their checkered history in the Mormon Church had preceded them, and Strangites were not willing to trust them. Other characters like George J. Adams and John E. Page did some good by preaching and bringing attention to the church, but eventually left it with bitter feelings on both sides. Still others, like Warren Post and Lorenzo D. Hickey, were faithful to Strang to the end of their lives. Speek has rightly given these individuals an important position in the story of Strangism, for without them, Strangism would not have reached its peak.
Strangism brought in many converts because of Strang’s initial rejection of the contentious issue of polygamy. Mormons, shocked at the news in Nauvoo of “spiritual wifery,” turned to Strang in hopes of finding a version of Mormonism without polygamy. However, Strang soon introduced polygamy into the church and his family, leading to trials and misunderstandings. Strang’s first plural wife, Elvira Field, attended Strang on a missionary tour dressed as a teenage boy. Some members discovered her identity, and the news sent schisms and apostasy throughout the church. When the Strangites began to practice polygamy more openly, difficulties similar to those that plagued the Utah Mormons arose.
Although Strang appointed Voree as his “gathering place,” Beaver Island in Lake Michigan became the central location of Strangites who wished to practice their faith. However, Beaver Island was a fuel stop for the many steamboats traversing the lake and home to many non-Mormon fishermen who did not take kindly to the Strangite presence. These suspicions were aggravated when Strang had himself crowned king over the Strangites in July 1850. Strang’s rule, according to the gentiles on and around the island, was not a just reign. Speek documents the Strangite practice of “consecration” (stealing non-Mormon property for the good of the kingdom). In contrast to her earlier lack of analysis on founding events, she devotes an entire chapter to consecration on Beaver Island and what happened when the Strangites left. Utilizing many sources, both negative and positive, Speek provides significant analysis of the thefts. Not surprisingly, these crimes were a main reason for the antagonism between the Strangites and the gentiles.
But Strang’s dictatorial rule of Beaver Island was the eventual cause of his downfall. Polygamy and the recent trend toward—or forced appearance of—bloomers seemed to dominate gentile descriptions of the Mormons on Beaver Island. These problems, with perhaps unspoken others, caused many Strangites to become dissatisfied. Two former members, Thomas Bedford and Alexander Wentworth, furious at Strang’s iron rule, shot and fatally wounded him in 1856. And like those who killed Joseph Smith, Bedford and Wentworth entirely escaped the law.
Some of Strang’s close associates asked him on his deathbed who was to lead the church, but according to one report, Strang, with “a tear … in his eye … said, ‘I do not want to talk about it'” (224). Although Strang had capitalized on Smith’s ambiguous succession plans at his death, he did not correct the potential problem that would follow his own death. Many members hoped for a successor to Strang but lost hope as months and years passed.
When Strang was carried off Beaver Island wounded, he left five wives who were all pregnant. After Strang died at Voree on July 9, 1856, his wives were left on their own to survive, some finding new homes with siblings or parents, and still others remarrying. All felt lost religiously after their husband and religious leader was gone. Speek documents the lives of each woman and what became of her after Strang’s death. Personal religious conviction is obviously difficult to track, but the sources hint that each of Strang’s wives eventually left the Strangite movement. Although they all viewed Strang in a positive light, they each felt that his religious life had elements that contradicted the good, honest man they knew and called husband.
A few Strangites remained faithful to Strang and his memory throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A son captured their difficulty: “They waited; and when no divine manifestation came, … they began to doubt themselves and their past.” Speek comments, “When they thought of the king’s advice to take care of their families rather than jeopardize their safety for the sake of the church, ‘they did as he ordered, and they have been doing that since, as best they knew'” (317). The story of this group is the story of the dedicated few who honored the memory of their prophet by carrying their tradition to the following generations. Speek’s strongest contribution is her ability to enlarge the previous story of Strang. She deftly weaves an interesting narrative of his five wives in as many chapters. She also describes the Strangites who scattered following Strang’s assassination. And finally, we are also treated to a brief discussion of modern Strangites and their status as a religion. Upon all three topics, little or nothing has been written before. In several aspects, Speek has opened up the topic of Strangite studies that should have been addressed long ago. Speek’s work, in some ways, will blaze the trail for years to come for future writers of Strang and the people he influenced.
No one interested in the history of Strang or his church can overlook God Has Made Us a Kingdom. There are still unanswered questions, unmentioned parallels, and missing context in the current Strangite historiography, but Speek’s work will help scholars identify some of those topics and will ignite their interest in Strang and the fascinating people who followed him.
1Milo M. Quaife, The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1930). See page 193 of Quaife’s work for the time he spent studying Strangism.
2The best source that discusses the letter’s authenticity is Charles Eberstadt, “A Letter that Founded a Kingdom,” Autograph Collectors’ Journal, Oct. 1950. See also D. Michael Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 423n134 for other sources declaring the letter a forgery.
Journal of American History, W. Michael Ashcraft
James Jesse Strang (1813-1856) was the leader of a dissident Mormon group that coalesced in the years following the death of the Mormon Church founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, in 1844. Strang had only been a convert to Mormonism for four months when Smith was killed, yet Strang stepped forward to claim the mantle of the prophet. Eventually, he produced his own golden plates and a translation of them, the Book of the Law of the Lord (1851). Strang’s followers, or Strangites, first settled in Voree, Wisconsin, then on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. In the latter location, Strang ruled as a king and practiced polygamy, even though earlier he had denounced plural marriage. He married five women: Mary Abigail Perce Strang, Elvira Field Strang Baker, Elizabeth “Betsy” McNutt Strang, Sarah Wright Strang Wing, and Phoebe Wright Strang Jesse. The Strangites were tightly knit and suspicious of those outside their group. Their homes and possessions were destroyed and their families threatened by locals on several occasions during their six-year tenure on Beaver Island, but the Strangite men gave as good as they got. When Strang died, his kingdom dissolved. His wives went their separate ways, three of them remarrying. Some Strangites journeyed westward to join the Mormons in Utah. Others remained in the Midwest and became part of the Reorganized Church. Seventy or more Strangites survive today, most of them not descended from the nineteenth-century Strangites.
The author of “God Has Made Us a Kingdom,” Vickie Cleverley Speek, is an award-winning journalist whose family has been Mormon for six generations. She knew nothing about the Strangites until she happened on references to them while writing a story about Beaver Island. Her curiosity grew, and eventually she amassed enough information to produce the present volume. Speek’s work is carefully documented and rich in historical detail. She covers every aspect of Strang’s story from start to finish. In particular, Speek is to be commended for providing detailed chapters on Strang’s wives. They have been either overlooked or their importance underrated in previous work on the Strangites. Unfortunately, her narrative lacks historical contextualization. No cues are provided to locate Strang’s kingdom in nineteenth-century history. No assessments are made of the value of Strang’s movement for Mormon historical studies. Speek simply describes a sequence of events: this happened, then this, then this, and so on. Therefore, those unfamiliar with Mormon history should read introductory material about Strang, polygamy, and the history of Mormonism from the 1830s through the 1850s before opening Speek’s book. Only then can they appreciate her first-rate historical investigation.
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Bill Shepard
Vickie Speek is a fifth-generation Mormon whose progenitors were pioneers in Idaho. An award-winning journalist, she received the Award of Excellence from the Illinois Historical Society in 2001 for her research on the Civil War. Demonstrating her skills again in “God Has Made Us a Kingdom,” she has written objectively in a narrative style that captivates the reader.
The book had its genesis when Speek journeyed from Illinois to Burlington, Wisconsin, in 1992 to purchase craft supplies from a store bordering on Highway 36 and Mormon Road. When she saw the sign designated “Mormon Road,” she was puzzled because she knew of no Mormon settlement in the area. Her subsequent investigations changed her life as she began a twelve-year study of James J. Strang, his church, and his wives.
Although this book does not rival Milo M. Quaife’s outstanding 1930 biography, The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press), Speek adequately covers Strang’s background, his entrance into Mormonism, his claims of leadership of the Mormon Church, his ministry, his settlements at Voree and Beaver Island, and the hostile interactions there between the Mormons and Gentiles. Moreover, she provides a wealth of new information about Strangite polygamy and presents Strang’s wives so realistically that they seem to be acquaintances.
A great strength of this book is her examination of the confusion and desperation among Church members after Strang was mortally wounded by disaffected members on Beaver Island on June 16, 1856, and died at Voree less than three weeks later.
A central figure in this book is Strang’s first wife, Mary Abigail Perce, whom Strang married in November 1836. Speek brings her to life. Like Emma Smith, Mary was an intelligent woman whose life was marked by hardship, tragedy, and her husband’s betrayal. Her struggle with polygamy and a husband who sired children by four “new” wives is told in a manner that will cause most readers to both admire and pity her. We follow that struggle from Strang’s entrance into Mormonism in 1844 until her death in 1880. It is a narrative that describes the dark side of Mormon polygamy.
The examination of Elvira Eliza Field, Strang’s first plural wife, is representative of Speek’s fine scholarship. Speek explains that Elvira was an extremely intelligent woman who was a tailor, school teacher, feminist, meteorologist, legislative secretary, and avid hunter. The eighteen-year-old Elvira first became acquainted with Strang at a conference at Voree in April 1848; and after her family moved to Beaver Island the following year, Elvira and Strang married in secret on July 13. From September 1849 through March 1850, Elvira masqueraded as Strang’s nephew and scribe, using the name Charley Douglass, as they journeyed on an important mission to the eastern churches. In spite of Strang’s denials, rumors abounded that “Charley” was a woman and the escapade did much to tip the Church into a downward spiral.
Speek documents that Elvira had four children by Strang: Charles James in 1851; Evaline in 1853; Clement in 1854; and James Jesse in January 1857. She situates Elvira, five months pregnant, at Voree when Strang died in July 1856, leaving her dependent on others and on her labor in the fields at Voree. She next moved to Jackson County, Wisconsin, where she joined other Strangites, then moved to be near relatives at Eaton Rapids, Michigan, around 1860. At Eaton Rapids, Elvira came so near death from typhoid fever that she gave the guardianship of her four children to non-relatives. Upon regaining her health, she recovered three of the children, but Jesse’s guardians refused to return the child, considering their adoption of him final.
Elvira married widower John Baker, the father of five, in 1865 and bore him two additional children. John was a wonderful husband, and they had a good life together. Although Elvira continued to love Strang for years, she ultimately concluded that God had taken him because of his pride and secret sins.
Born in 1820, Elizabeth (“Betsy”) McNutt Strang converted to Strangism with her family in 1846-47 and moved with them to Beaver Island in 1850. Betsy was not considered pretty and was referred to as an “old maid.” When pestered about getting married, she made it known she would marry only the prophet. Accordingly, she and Strang were, in fact, married in early 1852, and she moved in with Strang and Elvira. She bore Strang four children: Evangeline in 1853; David James in 1854; Gabriel in 1855; and Abigail in January 1857, some six months after Strang’s death. She was known for her fine cooking and for managing the family’s domestic affairs effectively.
Following Strang’s death, Betsy and her children shared a small home with Elvira and her children at Voree where they survived by working in the fields and by charity. The sister wives moved to Jackson County, Wisconsin, by early 1859 and joined other Strangites, surviving by working in the fields and by picking and selling blueberries. Living in numerous locations during the ensuing years, Betsy preserved many invaluable Strangite records, finally living with daughter Evangeline and her husband John Denio. The latter ultimately moved to Lamoni, Iowa, and joined the Reorganized Church, but it is unclear whether Betsy also affiliated. She died in September 1897 and was buried in the Lamoni Cemetery. Speek indicates that Betsy was the last of the polygamous wives to deny Strang.
Although Elvira is the best-known plural wife, the most remarkable may have been Sarah Wright Strang Wing. Sarah’s father, Strangite Apostle Phineas Wright, told his seventeen-year-old daughter that he “would almost as soon see you buried [than] marry in to polygamy” (194). Nevertheless, Sarah married Strang in July 1855 and joined Elvira and Betsy as sister wives. In a 1920 letter to Milo M. Quaife, Sarah provided a glimpse into Strangite polygamy: “You ask if we all lived in the same house. We did but in separate rooms. All met in prayer—ate at the same table. We had no quarrels, no jealousies that I knew of. He was a very mild-spoken kind man to his family although his word was law. We were all honest in our religion and made things as pleasant as possible” (196).
Sarah come to Voree to visit Strang prior to his death but could not stay because she accompanied her family to Jackson County where James Phineas, her only child by Strang, was born in November 1856. Within three years Sarah married non-Mormon Joseph Smith Wing, a self-taught doctor, and bore his son by 1859. In 1862 Wing joined the church under Brigham Young, and he, the pregnant Sarah, and their two children set out for Utah. Wing stopped unexpectedly at a house near Clayton, Illinois, and convinced a twelve-year-old daughter by a previous marriage to join the emigration to Utah. The incredulous Sarah then learned that, in addition to the mother of this daughter, her husband had been married to and divorced from two other women before he met Sarah. Speek summarizes: “She was in fact not his first wife as she had supposed—she was his fourth!” (289).
Pregnant and already the mother of two young children, Sarah had no choice but to remain with Wing. They arrived in Utah in August 1862 and ultimately settled near Provo, where within four years Wing married six women. Thoroughly disillusioned with polygamy, Sarah separated from him by the early 1870s and went on to make a remarkable contribution to frontier Utah: “At a time when it was unusual for women to work in a profession, Sarah Wright became a respected physician in Springville, earning as much as $2,500 a year. She officiated at the birth of hundreds of children, including her own grandchildren” (292). She died in Boise, Idaho, in 1923. In a letter to Milo M. Quaife in 1920 she wrote: “I had faith that James was a prophet of God and would not do wrong. I don’t believe today that God ever speaks to any man” (294).
Phoebe Wright, daughter of Benjamin Wright, a leading member of Strang’s Church, became Strang’s fourth and last plural wife in October 1855. Described as pretty, energetic, ambitious, and witty, she moved in with Strang, Elvira, Betsy, and her cousin Sarah. She was at her husband’s bedside when he died at Voree and shortly thereafter moved with her family to Jackson County, Wisconsin, where Strang’s posthumous daughter, Eugenia Jessie, was born in October 1856. She changed her last name to Jesse with the expectation she would again take Strang’s name when the Strangites were sufficiently “gathered.” This never occurred, although she apparently loved him all her life. Phoebe never remarried and lived with Eugenia and her husband until her death in 1914 at Tacoma, Washington.
“God Has Made Us a Kingdom” will appeal not only to descendants of the Strangites but also to others interested in Mormon history. Providing new insight into the legacy of James J. Strang and his wives, it is well researched and deeply documented. A great strength of this book is its clear, easy-to-read style.
John Whitmer Historical Journal, John Quist
Because two satisfactory studies exist regarding James J. Strang, many readers of the Whitmer Journal may suspect another to be unwarranted. Milo M. Quaife’s path-breaking Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (Yale University Press, 1930) stood as the unquestioned standard for almost six decades. Although his prose lacked Quaife’s witticisms, Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (University of Illinois Press, 1988) unearthed new details by incorporating sources unavailable to Quaife. Despite Van Noord’s refusal to take the Strangite faith seriously, his book became a worthy companion to the Kingdom of Saint James, if not the definitive work in its own right.
Vickie Cleverley Speek’s “God Has Made Us a Kingdom” will join the books by Quaife and Van Noord as the most important works on Beaver Island Mormonism. Speek raises many questions they ignored. She examines, with great sensitivity, sources they missed as well as ones they used. At the same time, recurrent interest in Beaver Island Mormonism means that Speek’s book probably will not be the last word on Strang and Strangism.
The outlines of Strang’s life are widely known. Shortly after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, Strang produced a “Letter of Appointment,” purportedly authored by Smith, that Strang argued designated him as Mormonism’s prophet. Coupled with claims of angelic visitations and the translation of ancient records, Strang threatened Brigham Young’s authority and persuaded many Mormons—including two of Joseph Smith’s apostles—to accept his leadership. Strang gathered his disciples to Voree, Wisconsin, and then to Beaver Island, Michigan, where in 1850 they witnessed his coronation as a king. Originally a staunch opponent of polygamy, Strang later reversed himself and married four plural wives. Internal dissent and conflict with non-Mormon neighbors led to Strang’s assassination in 1856 and to the Saints’ subsequent dispersion from Beaver Island in 1856. Strang’s charisma and the parallels between his prophetic credentials and Joseph Smith’s led many Mormons to accept Strang as their leader—temporarily—before abandoning his church for other Mormon factions. Strang’s most important dissidents proved to be some in Wisconsin who, in the 1850s, broke with him to form the New Organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Reorganization’s forerunner. After Strang’s death, may of his one-time adherents united with this body.
Speek asserts that her book is not another biography of the prophet (x). Certainly her emphasis on the Strangite Church and the lives of Strang’s wives and children distinguish her book from both Quaife’s and Van Noord’s. Yet the prophet, not surprisingly, figures prominently in her volume, as one cannot separate Strangism from its founder. Missing is Quaife’s and Van Noord’s skeptical tone regarding Strang’s religion. Speek, in contrast, writes that she admires the “faith and devotion” of modern-day Strangites “more than I can say” (xii). Readers expecting to find a critique of Strang’s supernatural claims will not find any here. As Speek explains in her introduction: “It really doesn’t matter to me whether Strang was a ‘genuine prophet’ or not” (xi). Knowing that Strang’s believers accepted him as a prophet is sufficient for her purposes.
Speek clearly provides the most complete account of Strangism after the Beaver Island expulsion—a saga previously limited to a few journal articles focusing on the Beaver Island generation—and carries her narrative, in outline form, to the twenty-first century (as of 2003, some 100 individuals, scattered throughout several states, remained active in the church). Whereas previous biographers’ focus on Strang overshadowed their coverage of the prophet’s wives and children, Speek breathes life into these fascinating individuals. She also demonstrates how new information can be gleaned from a careful re-examination of old sources. For example, Speek advances a strong case for Strang’s having concubines, in addition to his five recognized wives, and sensitively discusses Strang’s legal marriage to Mary Perce, describing the marriage’s disintegration and illustrating how Strang neglected Mary during her bouts with depression. Among Speek’s most noteworthy findings is an explanation for Mary’s 1851 expulsion from Beaver Island, which resulted from Mary’s attempted murder of Charles J. Strang, Strang’s first-born child from a polygamous union.
Speek also unveils and intriguing connection between Elvira Field and Phoebe Johnson. Elvira posed as Strang’s male secretary, Charles J. Douglass, during an 1849-1850 tour of Strang’s churches in the eastern states. During this tour, Phoebe, a young Strangite living in New York, fell in love with Charles, and Charles reportedly expressed affection for Phoebe. Only after Phoebe relocated to Beaver Island did she discover her beau to be a woman. Phoebe eventually married Alexander Wentworth, who became one of Strang’s assassins, while her father, Franklin Johnson, emerged as a leader among Strang’s disaffected island disciples. We cannot know the effect that the Charles J. Douglass charade had upon Phoebe, her husband, and her father, but these connections make for some intriguing speculation regarding the grievances that led to Strang’s assassination. Speek also persuasively argues that charges of Strangite “consecration”—the church’s enemies called it thievery—were far from baseless, although she maintains that “Strangites did not steal anything more than the Gentiles stole from them” (330).
These insights result from Speek’s diligent sleuthing and from her careful reading of the primary sources. While Quaife, Van Noord, and Speek all used the Strang Papers now at Yale (indisputably the most important manuscript collection on the topic), Van Noord and Speek both relied on important manuscript collections assembled since 1930 at the Detroit Public Library and Central Michigan University. Van Noord’s emphasis on Strang’s public career led to his greater reliance upon the Detroit Public Library collection, which he called the “second most important source of manuscript materials” after Yale’s Strang collection.1 With her focus on Strang’s family and church, Speek made more extensive use of the Central Michigan University collections. Yet Speek, who wisely researched these and other Strang manuscript collections (including those at the Community of Christ archives) surprisingly did not utilize important Strang materials at the Mormon Church archives in Salt Lake City (including the Stephen Post Papers), Brigham Young University (especially the Warren Post Diaries), or Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library (particularly the theological treatises from the School of the Prophets and the papers of Strang’s daughter, Eugenia J. Phillips).
Speek could have asked tougher questions of her sources. One source that Speek could have used to better advantage is Strang’s youthful diary—which Quaife and Van Noord analyzed at some length and historian Dale Morgan calls “one of the great American diaries.”2 Both Quaife and Van Noord saw Strang as an ambitious opportunist, and by citing passages from Strang’s diary they argue that Strang’s life course followed from his youthful dreams of power. Speek ignores this diary and the questions it raises—ones fundamental to understanding Strang and ultimately his relationship with is disciples—and generally does not engage the work of other scholars. For the most part, she depicts the story of Strangism as an intrinsically important tale and seldom provides historical or historiographical context for her readers.
Speek sometimes accepts Strangite sources’ veracity without seeking to verify them independently—an important matter because Strangite claims sometimes run counter to modern scholarship. For example, using Strang’s “Chronicles of Voree” as her source, Speek states that Moses Smith, one of Strang’s earliest disciples, belonged to the Council of Fifty. D. Michael Quinn’s work on the Council of Fifty, however, does not list Moses Smith among the council’s members.3 Speek also accepts, without qualification, Strang’s story of his conversion to Mormonism in Nauvoo—one that described Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith baptizing and ordaining Strang, respectively. Again, the only account of this Nauvoo visit—and one that a skeptic may regard as self-promoting fabrication—is Strang’s “Chronicles of Voree.”
While Speek brings new details to light and fills important holes in Strangism’s narrative, a number of gaps persist in our thinking regarding Strang and his followers. While a few short biographical studies have informed us regarding some of the prominent Strangites, we need to know more about the Strangite rank-and-file.4 Strang attracted the support of many for merely a season, making elusive the number of Mormons who recognized him as a porphet5 (identifying the extent of his Beaver Island following is complicated by Strang’s inflating of the 1854 Michigan census enumeration for Emmet County, Michigan, calling into question those who have numbered his Beaver Island following in the thousands6). Although Speek devotes more attention to the Strangite Church than any previous writer, we need to know more about nineteenth-century Strangite theology and to understand where Joseph Smith stood in Strangite thinking. Despite Strang’s apparent emulation of Smith, Smith’s position among Strangites arguably diminished during the 1850s, a particularly noteworthy development in comparison to the Utah church’s growing adoration of the Mormon founder. Strang’s most important work, the Book of the Law of the Lord, remains understudied, with William D. Russell’s 1984 article the only scholarly work on the topic.7 Why did Strang shift worship from Sunday to Saturday? Why did Strangites practice the Old Testament-style rituals prescribed in the Book of the Law?
Strang’s political career remains understudied as well. Van Noord continues to be the best source on Strang’s political career in print, but he failed to incorporate Richard G. Hutchins’s 1959 University of Michigan seminar paper or the brief but important insights of Ronald P. Formisano.8 More could be done with Strang’s efforts to secure political patronage and favor on both the state and federal level. Finally, we need a book that will connect Strang with the larger issues within Mormon history, religious history, and American history. While Speek is no more successful on these scores than Quaife or Van Noord, essays by Klaus Hansen and Lawrence Foster suggest still-promising tracks for future scholars.9
Although scholars have relied chiefly upon Quaife and Van Noord, modern Strangite writers have long preferred Doyle C. Fitzpatrick’s The King Strang Story, its shortcomings notwithstanding.10 Strangites will not find Speek’s book to be entirely satisfactory, as her depiction of Strang often reveals the prophet’s behaviors to have been less than saintly. Nonetheless, believing Strangites will favor “God Has Made Us a Kingdom” over The King Strang Story yet recognize the need for a sympathetic, faith-promoting history.11 That Speek’s book will appeal to believers, scholars, and general readers is a remarkable accomplishment. Meanwhile, students of Mormon and American history still await a volume that will explain why Strang and the church he launched mattered.
1Van Noord, King of Beaver Island, 325.
2Dale Morgan, review of Mark A. Strang, ed., The Diary of James J. Strang (Michigan State University Press, 1961), in Michigan History, Sept. 1961, 277.
3D. Michael Quinn, “The Council of Fifty and Its Members, 1844 to 1945,” BYU Studies 20 (Winter 1980): 163-97; Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994), 209-10, 521-31.
4These biographical studies include: Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Reuben Miller, Recorder of Oliver Cowdery’s Reaffirmations,” BYU Studies 8 (Spring 1968):277-93; Richard E. Bennett, “A Samaritan had passed by: George Miller, —Mormon Bishop, Trailblazer, and Brigham Young Antagonist,” Illinois Historical Journal 82 (Spring 1989): 2-16; M. Guy Bishop, “‘Simply Folly’: Stephen Post and the Children of Zion,” Whitmer Historical Journal 16 (1996): 79-90; David L. Clark, “Moses Smith: Wisconsin’s First Mormon,” Journal of Mormon History 21 (Fall 1995): 155-70; John Cumming, “Wingfield Watson: The Loyal Disciple of James J. Strang,” Michigan History 47 (Dec. 1963): 312-20; Cumming, “Lorenzo Dow Hickey: The Last of the Twelve,” ibid., 50 (Mar. 1966): 50-75; Paul M. Edwards, “William B. Smith: A Wart on the Ecclesiastical Tree,” in Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, eds. Roger D. Launius and Linda Thatcher (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 140-57; Craig L. Foster, “From Temple Mormon to Anti-Mormon: The Ambivalent Odysseys of Increase Van Dusen,” Dialogue 27 (Fall 1994): 275-86; Jerry Gorden, “Warren Post: Beaver Islander Too,” Journal of Beaver Island History 5 (2002): 1-36; Richard P. Howard, “William E. McClellan: ‘Mormonism’s Stormy Petrel,'” in Differing Visions, 76-101; Roger D. Launius, “William Marks and the Restoration,” Saints Herald, May, June, 1979, 7-8, 6-7; Robin Scott Jensen, “A Witness in England: Martin Harris and the Strangite Mission,” BYU Studies 44:3 (2005): 79-98; Jensen, “Witness to the Plates: Aaron Smith, Strangism, and the Search for His Religion,” Whitmer Historical Journal 25 (2005): 123-33; R. Ben Madison, “‘Something Was Wanting’: The Meteoric Career of John Greenbow, Mormon Propagandist,” ibid., 15 (1995): 63-80; H. Michael Marquardt, “Martin Harris: The Kirtland Years, 1831-1870,” Dialogue 35 (Fall 2002): 1-40; John Quist, “John E. Page: Apostle of Uncertainty,” in Mormon Mavericks: Essays on Dissenters, eds. John Sillito and Susan Staker (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002); Bill Shepard, “Wingfield Watson and the Reorganization,” Whitmer Historical Journal 16 (1996): 65-78; Shepard, “James Blakeslee, the Old Soldier of Mormonism,” ibid., 17 (1997): 113-32; Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). See also Frank J. Young, Strangite Mormons: A Finding Aid (Vancouver: by the author, 1996).
5One important work that has begun to address this matter is Robin Scott Jensen, “Gleaning the Harvest: Strangite Missionary Work, 1846-1850,” M.A. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2005, 39.
6Van Noord, King of Beaver Island, 208-12, 245.
7William D. Russell, “Printed by Command of the King: James J. Strang’s Book of the Law of the Lord,” Restoration 3 (Apr. 1984): 19-21.
8Richard G. Hutchins, “King Strang in the Michigan Legislature,” seminar paper, University of Michigan, 1959, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan; Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827-1861 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 158-60.
9Klaus Hansen, “The Making of King Strang: A Re-examination,” Michigan History, 1962; Lawrence Foster, “James J. Strang: The Prophet Who Failed,” Church History, 1981.
10William Shepard, Donna Falk, and Thelma Lewis, James J. Strang: Teachings of a Mormon Prophet (N.p.: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Strangite], 1977), 328; Stanley L. Johnston to Richard Brough, July 3, 25, 1982, copies in reviewer’s possession. Regarding the inadequacies of Fitzpatrick’s The King Strang Story (Lansing: National Heritage, 1970), see Klaus J. Hansen, “James J. Strang and the Amateur Historian,” Dialogue 6 (Spring 1971): 73-76; and William D. Russell’s review in Courage: A Journal of History, Thought, and Action 2 (Summer 1972): 527-28.
11In an article that remains invaluable, Dale Morgan wrote: “No history of the Strangite church, written from its own point of view, has yet been published. The colorful character of this history has led to studies of it by outside observers … but none of these works is regarded with conspicuous favor within the church,” in “Bibliography of the Churches of the Dispersion,” Western Humanities Review 5 (Winter 1949-50): 46.
Mormon-Library, Joe Geisner
I finished reading Vickie Speek’s “God Has Made Us a Kingdom” and have now started Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island. Not that the two books should be compared but to help with my own ignorance of the subject. Matter of fact, the two books are totally different, and if you have read Van Noord’s book you need to do yourself a service and read Vickie’s immediately. If you are interested in Mormon history or American religious history, Vickie’s book will give you a better understanding and help you learn about an all but forgotten religious group.
This has been my introduction to James Strang and the Strangite Church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Growing up a Utah Mormon in California, I knew nothing about the Strangites. My teaching was confined to the knowledge that Joseph Smith had only one successor, Brigham Young. Not until going off to BYU did I learn there was a Reorganized LDS Church, currently called the Community of Christ. Vickie’s book, along with a new book about the Wightites, is a bonanza for students of LDS history and experience. These well-written books help us see ourselves because these other groups are not “us,” so we can be detached, yet they are “us” because they believed like us, lived like us, were persecuted like us, and made mistakes like us.
Vickie writes clearly and concisely. She presents the story in the first two chapters with Strang’s early life, his conversion into Mormonism, and his call to replace Joseph Smith as prophet of the Mormon Church. After this introduction, she combines the story chronologically and topically until the death of Strang. In the second part of the book, Speek has a chapter for each of Strang’s wives, a chapter that deals with the accusations against the Mormons by the gentiles, and finally a chapter about the church after Strang’s death.
Strang is a fascinating individual and I find the similarities with Joseph Smith to be startling. Their revelations, translations, and visions clearly were attractive to their followers. In turn, they both were attracted to people like John C. Bennett, George J. Adams, George Miller, and William Smith, Joseph’s brother. They both tested their close associates’ faith to the breaking point, and yet these same people dedicated their lives to their leader even after their prophet’s death. Speek’s book details the life of Lorenzo Dow Hickey, who compares favorably to Brigham Young as a disciple of Joseph Smith.
Some of the highlights of the early chapters include how the plates of Rajah Manchou of Vorito were found, the communal living in Voree, the details about the Order of the Illuminati, the coronation of Strang as sovereign of the kingdom of God, the settling of Beaver Island, and most interestingly Strang’s first plural wife, Elvira Field, posing as a man to keep her relationship secret to both members and non-members.
The second part of the book is probably stronger in detail and flow. Vickie brings to life the wives of Strang, each of whom dealt with Strang’s death and the institutional church differently. His first wife was exiled from Strang years before his death, so she and her children thereafter had nothing to do with the church. The other wives and their children each had different feelings for and experiences with the fragmented Strangite movement. Some followed new leaders to different parts of the Midwest, saving their father’s papers—preserving for us the rich history surrounding Strang—while one became a convicted felon over a self-serving interpretation of the law of consecration and one family came to Utah and joined the so-called Brighamites. What is interesting is that none followed in their father’s foot steps like Joseph Smith III did. One chapter details a fairly large group who settled the Black River Falls area in Wisconsin. This is interesting because this is where the Lyman Wight group was sent by Joseph Smith to build a mill and make lumber for the Nauvoo Temple.
I became interested in George Miller from reading Vickie’s book. He is someone who needs to be written about. He played central roles in the Mormonism of Joseph Smith, the Mormonism of Brigham Young before the pioneers reached Utah, and in both the Strangite and Wightite communities. While a member of the Strangite community, he became sheriff of Emmitt County, which gave the Strangites legal control over Beaver Island. Miller was a polygamist and his presence helped make sure this peculiar practice touched all the groups. Miller’s presence also caused member cross-over and correspondence among the diverse groups. The correspondence was sometimes civil and occasionally antagonistic. The Northern Islander, the Strang newspaper, is a wonderful source of communication among these groups.
Vickie does an excellent job in her chapter on the accusations made against the Mormons by the gentiles. She shows her deep respect and sympathy for the Mormons of Beaver Island in pointing out that not all of the criminal acts they were accused of can be supported by the evidence. She also brings evidence to the fore showing that they cannot be defended as innocents either. Too many Mormons themselves admitted to stealing and acts of violence. There are a couple of areas I would like to have seen more information provided, such as regarding voting irregularities by the Mormons. There seems to be enough extant evidence to deal with this accusation. One piece of evidence from another recent book could have been mined for such details, where Melvin Johnson, in his Polygamy on the Pedernales (162), quotes George Miller’s letter to Lyman Wight asking for the names of heads of households so he can inflate the census numbers and voting tallies. I would have liked to see Vickie deal with the accusations of counterfeiting—”bogus money,” as it was called. From the little I know, it seems that the evidence for this is slim, but in a book about the Strangites it needs to be addressed.
I also wondered about the connections between Strang and the Whitmers and Cowderys—Oliver Cowdery and his father. I find the Utah Church’s claim that Oliver united with them to be somewhat flawed, so it interests me to know if Oliver supported Strang in any way. I doubt he or the Whitmers supported Strang any more than they did Brigham Young since they saw David Whitmer as the successor to Joseph Smith. Technically Oliver was also a designated successor; but I remain perplexed as to why Strang was attracted to Bennett and Adams, knowing their reputations before they ever came to Voree. I also wonder, considering how Strang’s provocative statements and actions engendered hostility, which endangered himself and his people, if he did not harbor a secret death wish. Vickie approaches this but not comprehensively—never really resolving the question of such a self-destructive character trait/flaw. Van Noord cites Strang’s diary to show a grandiose view Strang had of himself. Strang believed he was destined to mingle with princes. There is further evidence in Strang’s boyhood diaries of atheism and of attraction to sexually experienced women. I wonder what Vickie’s historical perspective would be on the significance of these early diary entries?
I would also like to know if there is new information and/or new analysis concerning the letter of appointment and the plates of Vorito. I know the Strangites continue to believe they were both authentic. Is there evidence supporting or contradicting their stance?
In any case, Vickie has given us an important historical analysis and good narrative story of the Strangite movement. Her book is fair to everyone she writes about. She is able to write about distant figures from a little-understood religious movement with such sympathy because she is herself a Utah Mormon, where there is a similar history or perception of having been a persecuted people, just as the Strangites see themselves. Yet Vickie is able to keep enough distance because she is not a Strangite; she can see the gentile perspective and give them historical credit as well. Thank you, Vickie, for a very good book.
John Whitmer Journal, Richard E. Bennett
Vickie Cleverley Speek’s new book, “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons has so many pluses yet enough serious shortcomings that one wonders where to start. It may not replace Milo Quaife’s Kingdom of St. James in terms of its breadth and scope, but I believe it to be superior to either Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island (1988) or Doyle Fitzpatrick’s The King Strang Story (1970). The great strength of Speek’s work is that it picks up so fully and so well from where the earlier biographies left off, particularly in section II—the last third of the book—that details and analyzes the domestic, familial, more feminine story of all of Strang’s five wives, their children, and even the families of many of his other followers. The essential weakness? Its failure to explain and analyze sufficiently the doctrines and religious priorities, other than plural marriage, of Strang and his followers. This may not have been her original intention, but as the book grew in scope these omissions prevent what is a very good book from being the great work it could have been.
There are many positives to this work. First of all, Speek is a beautiful writer, a fine and gifted journalist, and a literary craftsman. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her findings, the reader will fall in love with her style of writing. An absolute pleasure to read, she knows how to coin phrases, what to quote and how much of it, and how to end and lead off chapters. Too many historians excel in argument but fail as writers. Would that more histories were as well-written as this one.
Second, if one cannot judge a book by its cover, one can certainly enjoy a book with a cover, layout and design, and quality of binding and printing that this work from Signature Books exhibits. This is a book that draws the reader into it from the very start.
Third, the appendix alone is worth the price of admission. Here are found not only three excellent maps and quality photographs, but also Strang’s purported 1844 Letter of Appointment from Joseph Smith (unfortunately it is dated 1845 in the print version), transcriptions from the Plates of Voree, the full and complete initiation ceremony of the Order of the Illuminati—which is reminiscent of Mormon temple rituals—and a complete listing not only of Strang’s five wives and children but also of the wives of several other Strangite polygamists. Clearly one of the enduring contributions of this book is to show and prove the depth and breadth of plural marriage in Strang’s communities.
Fourth, her research, especially into primary sources found at Yale’s Beinecke Library, the Burton Historical Library in Detroit, Michigan, the State Library of Michigan in Lansing, the state library of Wisconsin, the archives of the Community of Christ, and especially the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, is highly commendable and forms the basis of Speek’s book.
Fifth, if it takes a woman to understand another woman, then we are in most capable hands. I have never read anything before that comes near to matching the author’s treatment of Elvira Field, alias “Charley Douglass,” the young woman Strang dressed up as his clerk to take on a tour of his church’s eastern branches—surely an attractive stick of female dynamite that almost blows his polygamy-denying membership apart. This is one for Hollywood! The author’s sensitive, caring treatment of Mary, Strang’s first wife, as well as his three other wives, is no less engaging. Speek gives us a fine perspective on Strang’s old story. Not even Richard Bushman in his new book Rough Stone Rolling, a biography of Joseph Smith, gives the women full credit. Here Speek is telling all of us never to forget the woman’s perspective, from the characteristic bloomers they were forced to wear to their unique contributions, characteristics, problems, and heartaches.
Sixth, the author writes in a highly respectful tone, as respectful as Quaife’s was sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek. She writes objectively, if not in praise of Strang then certainly sympathetically of him, at least of his character and followers. She strives hard to make him not only believable but respectable, something many are not likely to accord Strang.
Despite these many strengths, the book has its flaws and deficiencies. The author began her work looking at it as a demographic, family history, kind of study. However, as her research expanded, the scope of the topic likewise broadened with it taking the author into uncharted waters. In the process her book inevitably became a major contribution to the field of Mormon and American history and challenged her understanding of the many and diverse historical contexts that make Strang the fascinating study he is.
The book, therefore, is unfortunately stronger when discussing Strang’s character and family and weaker when presenting his essential doctrines. The theological underpinnings of his claim to Mormon leadership are mentioned but all-too-often undeveloped and unexplored, as this seems not to have been part of the author’s intended purpose. The problem, of course, is that Strang was a religious charismatic whose followers were eager to give him the benefit of the doubt doctrinally and theologically as Joseph Smith’s legitimate successor until he proved otherwise. Missing are full treatments of Strang’s vision of temples and of temple work, his honest views on the Book of Mormon, why he chose Saturday as his Sabbath day, the full story of his finding plates and their significance to his movement, the meaning of the Book of the Law of the Lord to his theology, an examination of his many sermons, his view of succession after he died, and his understanding of Jackson County and of the Millennial return of Christ that figure so prominently with Lyman Wight and Alpheus Cutler who also broke with Brigham Young and established their own, similar communities. A book about a religious figure must talk much more about his religion.
Another drawback is also one of her strengths. She seems unaware of many recent published works in Mormon history that bear on Strang. These include Richard Bennett’s “We’ll Find the Place”: The Mormon Exodus 1846-1848 (see especially chapter 1) and Glen Leonard’s Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise, to name just two. And as strong as the author is with mid-western archival sources, she entirely misses those potentially very helpful sources in the archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City as well as the Special Collections Department at Brigham Young University. Such collections as those of Brigham Young, Reuben Miller, Heber C. Kimball, Benjamin Wright, and scores of others would have greatly informed this book.
I fear also that Speek may have been misinformed about the Mormon history context out of which Strang’s story springs. A historiographical essay, let alone a bibliography of her sources, would have added much to her research and to her book. With all due respect, the Council of Fifty did not direct the exodus west although it did help plan it (19); Nauvoo’s city charter was no more unique in its provisions than Springfield’s or Alton’s (18); and Nauvoo was not exempt from the laws and the constitutions of either the state of Illinois or the United States of America (20).
Further to her command of church history, the author on at least four different occasions tries to explain, almost justify, Strang’s actions since Joseph Smith purportedly did the same. For instance, Strang’s vigilantes or militant supporters are vindicated since Joseph Smith did much the same in Missouri. She writes, “He [Joseph Smith] has been implicated by association in the research of some recent historians” (307). Which historians? Recognize also that some historians do not share such a view. Further, in Speek’s discussions of Strang being crowned “king” (122), she parallels, if not justifies, such action by comparing it again to Joseph Smith. “It would have been a natural progression,” she writes (122), “for Strang, as Smith’s successor, to organize his own coronation.” This is a delicate and complex issue and one that deals much with Joseph Smith’s teachings about temple work and needs far more explaining than a simplistic comparison to Joseph Smith. One wonders how much of Smith’s theology Strang obtained in garbled form from no greater enemies to Joseph Smith than John C. Bennett and George W. Adams. Indeed, their influence on Strang, his teachings, and his church await much more careful scrutiny.
In Speek’s careful attempt to remain fair and objective and almost totally non-judgmental of Strang, she timidly shies away from addressing the truly great issues of the day. For instance, what impact did Strang’s early childhood have on his later kingly ambitions? Is Quaife still accurate in his Brodie-like psychoanalysis of Strang? How legitimate was his 1844 Letter of Appointment? How could Strang have been so foolish as to take Ms. Charley Douglass with him when it proved so destructive to the faith of his followers? Why did he not name a successor? It is nice to be non-judgmental in our more tolerant age, but good historians must be like baseball umpires sometimes—call it a ball or strike, safe or out. You have studied the sources; now tell us your educated opinion. In short, the author is strong on evidence, short in argument.
The tragedy of James J. Strang, as it was with Lyman Wight, may well have been that in the end they did much to destroy the faith of their own followers. The proof is in the survival of their movements and in their followers who, for the most part, abandoned their leaders and sought faith’s fulfillment elsewhere, in this case with many such followers eventually helping to lay the foundation of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—which denied plural marriage and much of what these followers once believed.
On balance, however, Vickie Speek’s volume has more positives than negatives. The last few chapters detail the sad and tragic story of Strang’s murder, the awful injustices surrounding it, the unmerciful persecutions mounted against his followers on Beaver Island, and the eventual unraveling and almost total dissolution of his church. Speek is fair enough to admit that Strang’s followers were not lily white in all of this and were guilty of stealing and other crimes. But it is clear that they were more the offended than they were the offenders. The killing of James J. Strang and the persecution and forced expulsion of his followers from Beaver Island is a disgraceful chapter in the history of the state of Michigan and of the United States. Speek does an excellent job in explaining the murder, almost as if condoned by the government itself. Justice was robbed! Speek’s continued sense of balance, fair play, and respect, and her fine writing and good research carry through to the end of the book. Despite its Weaknesses, “God Has Made Us a Kingdom” is a very worthy addition to American and Mormon history. She has given to Mormon history wonderful new insights and valuable new information that will be of interest to both the casual reader and the informed scholar. She deserves to be commended.
Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, Thomas G. Alexander
Superseding Milo Quaife’s The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (1930) and Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (1988), this is a new history of Strangite Mormonism. Following the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, Strang claimed to have received a letter calling him as Smith’s successor. Although most Mormons went west with Brigham Young, Strang attracted prominent Mormon leaders, various apostates, and future leaders of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Strang instituted polygamy, a United Order, and baptism for the dead. He had himself crowned king, sent out missionaries, and had members settle on Beaver Island on Lake Michigan, as well as in Voree, Wisconsin. The book’s major strength is that in addition to telling the Strang story, a substantial portion tells of the lives of the women and men who belonged to the movement, the movement’s expulsion from Beaver Island, and its history after Strang’s assassination in 1856. Most fascinating are the stories of the lives of Strang’s wives. Summing up: highly recommended, all levels/libraries.