James J. Strang

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James J. Strang is probably one of the lesser-known claimants in the succession crisis following the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—sometimes inadvertently called the Mormon Church. Strang, a convert of only four months at the time of Smith’s martyrdom, produced a letter he claimed was sent by the prophet naming Strang as his successor. His claims were denounced, and he was excommunicated from the main body of The Church of Jesus Christ. He founded his own sect—called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite)— settling first in Wisconsin and then on Beaver Island in Michigan. His followers served proselytizing missions, built temples and practiced polygamy. He had himself crowned king of Beaver Island. But Strang’s reign was cut short when he was shot by former members of his congregation and died 12 days later. He refused to name a successor, and his organization largely disintegrated, except for a small contingent that still remains today.

Strang—His Early Years and Education

Born March 21, 1813, Strang’s given name was Jesse James Strang. But he had changed it to James Jesse Strang by the time he reached adulthood. He was born on his father’s farm in Scipio, Cayuga County, New York, and was the second of three children born to Abigail James and Clement Strang. David, his older brother, was born June 9, 1811; Myraette, his sister, was born April 24, 1818.[1]

As a child, Strang apparently was considered frail and sickly. After his death, the beginnings of an autobiography were discovered. Of his childhood, Strang wrote:

My infancy was a period of continual sickness and extreme suffering and I have understood that at one time I was so low as to be thought dead, and that preparations were made for my burial. All my early recollections are painful, and at this day I am utterly unable to comprehend the feeling of those who look back with pleasure on their infancy, and regret the rapid passing away of childhood. Till I had children of my own, happy in their infantile gambols, the recollection of those days produced a creeping sensation akin to terror.[2]

When James was about 3 years old, the Strang family moved to Hanover, Chataqua County, New York, where they led a normal, somewhat frontier-like existence.[3] He attended school until the age of 12. [1] To supplement his rural public education, Strang read extensively. He also studied for a time at New York’s Fredonia Academy. [4] Strang became known around his hometown for his restless energy as well as his persuasive skills as a debater and public speaker.[5] One reason for his reputation for restlessness was undoubtedly his myriad occupational choices. He was, at one time or another, a school teacher, a newspaper editor, a politician and a temperance lecturer. [6] He had also served as the county postmaster and, prior to his conversion to Mormonism, had been a Baptist minister. [1]

Strang and Mormonism

At the age of 23, Strang was admitted to the New York State bar. That same year, he married Mary Perce, the 18-year-old daughter of a Baptist minister. Mary’s sister was married to Moses Smith (no known relation to the Prophet Joseph Smith), who was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ. In 1843, James Strang moved his family to Burlington, Wisconsin, to be closer to his relatives. [1]

Strang was apparently introduced to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ by Mary’s uncle, Benjamin Perce, and her brother-in-law Moses Smith, both of whom were members of The Church of Jesus Christ. After listening to the message of two proselytizing Mormon missionaries, Strang decided to take a trip down to Nauvoo, Illinois, the headquarters of the Church, to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith.[7] Strang was baptized by Joseph Smith in the unfinished font of the Nauvoo Temple on February 24, 1844. [2] However, there is some disagreement on the date of Strang’s baptism, as other sources list it as February 25, 1844. [8]

Even as early as 1844, the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ were considering the possibility of relocating and were scouting various areas, and Strang was asked to study the area near Burlington, Wisconsin. He sent a favorable report a few months later—the end of May 1844. [2]

Strang and the Mormon Succession Crisis

The sudden death of the Prophet Joseph Smith at the hands of an angry mob on June 27, 1844, left an apparent leadership vacuum in The Church of Jesus Christ. Most of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—with the First Presidency, the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ—were on proselytizing missions for the Church in the Eastern States. Before he died, Joseph Smith had instructed the Twelve Apostles that upon his death, they were to take over the leadership of the Church. [3]

During this time, there was some confusion among the membership, as most had never anticipated the need to choose another leader, and the situation was ripe for opportunists to take advantage. While the members of the Church in Nauvoo awaited the Apostles’ return, several contenders emerged claiming rights of succession. Among those was James Strang, a convert of only four months. [2] Sidney Rigdon, the first counselor in the First Presidency, was another. Rigdon claimed he had received a vision naming him as “guardian” of The Church of Jesus Christ and that no one could replace Joseph Smith as the prophet. But Rigdon had lost the confidence of the prophet in the years leading up to Joseph’s death. [3]

The majority of the Twelve Apostles returned on August 6, and they asserted their rights as the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ. They set the solemn assembly to address the crisis for August 8, 1844. The day stands as one of the most important in the history of Christ’s Restored Church. Not only was the crisis resolved, the precedent for succession was set. At the meeting, Rigdon first addressed the congregation for an hour and half, describing his visions and explaining his bid for guardianship of the Church. [3]

Although history books—and many Strang biographers—are perhaps mistaken about the reasons that Brigham Young succeeded Joseph Smith as the prophet and president of The Church of Jesus Christ, those who were in attendance that day witnessed the mantle of the Lord fall upon His chosen leader. Many wrote of their experience:

Benjamin F. Johnson, twenty-six at that time, remembered, “As soon as he [Brigham Young] spoke I jumped upon my feet, for in every possible degree it was Joseph’s voice, and his person, in look, attitude, dress and appearance was Joseph himself, personified; and I knew in a moment the spirit and mantle of Joseph was upon him.” Zina Huntington, who was a young woman twenty-one years old at that time, said “President Young was speaking. It was the voice of Joseph Smith—not that of Brigham Young. His very person was changed. … I closed my eyes. I could have exclaimed, I know that is Joseph Smith’s voice! Yet I knew he had gone. But the same spirit was with the people.” [3]

For many of the Latter-day Saints, the succession crisis was over, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—with Brigham Young as the president—took over leadership of the Church. But some isolated branches (or congregations) became confused as to which leader to follow. [3] This is where some believe James Strang found success in his claim to be the next prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ.

Strang and His Prophetic Claims

At about the same time the Twelve Apostles were addressing the leadership crisis in Nauvoo, Strang was asserting his claim that Joseph Smith had named Strang as his successor. Rather than presenting his position to the Apostles or the main body of The Church of Jesus Christ in Nauvoo, Strang addressed a Church conference in Florence, Michigan, on August 5, 1844. He produced a letter, supposedly written by Joseph Smith before his martyrdom, stating that James Strang was to be the new leader of the Church and was to move the headquarters to Voree, Wisconsin. Crandall Dunn, the presiding priesthood leader in the meeting, denounced the letter as a fraud. Dunn observed that even the postmark on Strang’s letter proved it was a forgery. Strang also claimed that the day Joseph Smith died, he was visited by an angel and anointed Smith’s successor. Strang persisted in his assertions and was excommunicated by the branch in Michigan.[9] The Twelve Apostles also branded the letter a forgery and excommunicated Strang from the Church later in Nauvoo. [3] Of the letter, Brigham Young said, “Every person acquainted with Joseph Smith, and his style of dictation and writing might readily know that he never wrote nor caused to be written that letter to Strang.”[10]

Despite being excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ, Strang was still able to persuade some Church members—including, for a time, three former Apostles and some members of Joseph Smith’s own family—to join his flock. [3] As his following grew, he sent out missionaries who converted both sincere seekers of the truth as well as dissatisfied former Church officials. He “excommunicated” the Twelve Apostles and asserted his claim as the prophet of his congregation, which he called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangites). [2] Strang also claimed to have been led by heavenly messengers to two sets of inscribed plates—one found in Wisconsin and the other in Michigan—that he subsequently translated. [4]

The Migrations of the Strangite Sect

The Latter-day Saints who followed Strang gathered in Voree, Wisconsin, where the self-proclaimed leader set up his church in much the same manner as Joseph Smith organized The Church of Jesus Christ. As early as 1845, the members were required to pay tithing. By 1846, Strang commanded his followers to build a house for him and a temple for God. In January 1848, Strang implemented a communal living system, in which members “consecrated their earthly goods to the church.” But Strang denounced some of the practices of The Church of Jesus Christ—which he called the “Brighamite” sect—including the practice of plural marriage. Some members of The Church of Jesus Christ who disagreed with the practice joined the Strangite movement. [1]

Land shortages for immigrating members as well as disputations and defections among the membership were problematic for the Strangites. In 1847, Strang started moving his followers to Beaver Island, on the northern end of Lake Michigan, to try to combat some of the issues. There, they established a town they named Saint James where, in June 1850, Strang had himself “crowned” king of the church. [1]

Strang Embraces Polygamy

Despite initially rejecting polygamy, Strang reversed his views on the practice—which alienated his followers who opposed it—in 1848. Some of those dissenters—including William Smith, Joseph Smith’s brother—became instrumental in founding the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now called the Community of Christ. [1]

Strang’s first and only legal wife, Mary Perce, was “more than mildly disturbed” about her husband practicing polygamy, although she remained with her husband for two years after he married his second wife.[11] She was asked to leave in May 1851 due to her objections to the policy of plural marriage. Although never legally separated or divorced, the two lived apart until his death in 1856. She bore him 4 children—Mary, who died in infancy; Myraette; William J.; and Hattie.[12]

Although Strang began supporting the practice in 1848, he did not wed his first plural wife until July 13, 1849, when he married 19-year-old Elvira Eliza Field. He married Betsy McNutt in 1852; and cousins Sarah and Phoebe Wright in 1855. [1]

The End of the ‘King’ and his Reign

In 1851, Strang and his followers were accused of crimes ranging from cutting timber on federal land to tampering with mail and counterfeiting. Residents of the island had accused the religious sect of forcefully removing them from their land and taking their money. Strang and several followers were arrested and prosecuted on various charges. Although the Strangites were eventually acquitted, he decided to get himself elected to the State Assembly of Michigan the following year to counteract the perceived bias and persecution of his flock. Strang kept his candidacy secret until just before the election, then his followers voted in a bloc. He won the election and the seat as the Newaygo District representative. This move exacerbated rather than reduced the hostility toward Strang’s movement. [1]

James Strang was shot by two disgruntled followers in June 1856. The two sought refuge on a Navy vessel and were never prosecuted for the crime—although there was literally a boatload of witnesses.[13] Strang lived for three weeks until the wounds from the shooting took his life. He had ample opportunity to name a successor to his presidency but refused to do so, telling his adherents he didn’t want to talk about it. After his death, his approximately 2,600 followers were forcibly evicted from the island and their homes. The contingent scattered and dwindled in numbers. Today, there are about 200 Strangite followers. [2]

  1. Doyle C. Fitzpatrick, The King Strang Story: A Vindication of James J. Strang, the Beaver Island Mormon King (Lansing: National Press, 1970), 21.
  2. Henry E. Legler, A Moses of the Mormons: Strang’s City of Refuge and Island Kingdom, Issues 15-16, p.118.
  3. Fitzpatrick, The King Strang Story, p. 24.
  4. Legler, A Moses of the Mormons, p. 118-119.
  5. W.A. Titus, “Historic Spots in Wisconsin: Voree,” The Wisconsin magazine of history, Vol. 9, No. 4, July 1926, p. 435.
  6. Titus, “Historic Spots in Wisconsin: Voree,” The Wisconsin magazine of history, Vol. 9, No. 4, July 1926, pp. 435-436.
  7. Fitzpatrick, The King Strang Story, p. 27.
  8. D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” BYU Studies, Vol. 016, No. 2, p. 194.
  9. D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” BYU Studies, Vol. 016, No. 2, p. 195.
  10. D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” BYU Studies, Vol. 016, No. 2, p. 195.
  11. Fitzpatrick, The King Strang Story, p. 82.
  12. Fitzpatrick, The King Strang Story, p. 118.
  13. Fitzpatrick, The King Strang Story, p. 210-211.