James Strang and the Kingdom of St James
The early history of the Mormons shows that they were a fissiparous lot. The assassination of Joseph Smith in 1844 led to a power struggle between the adherents of Brigham Young and a former lawyer from New York, James Strang (1813 – 1856). Strang, whose oratorical skills had impressed Smith, produced a letter claiming that Smith had appointed him as his successor. Young contested this assertion, writing in a letter to the faithful, “and I say unto you beloved brethren, that Joseph Smith never wrote or caused to be written Strang’s letter of appointment. It is a lie – a forgery – a snare”.
The majority elected to follow Young and made their way to Utah. However, a sizeable minority followed Strang firstly to Voree in Wisconsin and then, after he had found some mysterious brass plates in the ground and had received instructions from God, to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Around 2,500 adherents settled there and they were ruthless in driving out non-believers, whom they termed gentiles, from the area. This led to a number of dust ups, the most notable of which was the so-called War of Whiskey Point during which the Mormons dispersed a mob of gentiles from the island’s trading post by firing a cannon at them. By the early 1850s most of the locals had got the message and left.
Strang’s brand of Mormonism deviated from the mainstream beliefs in a number of ways. He rejected the Holy Trinity, claiming that there was just one God who had always been God. He also believed that some things were outside of God’s power – this allowed Strang to see that religion and science could co-exist – and that God could not give man experience. The ultimate goal of each human was to prefer good to evil, not out of any fear of punishment but “on account of the innate loveliness of undefiled goodness; of pure unalloyed holiness”.
Strang’s adherents observed the seventh-day Sabbath which lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. They also believed in baptism for the dead and animal sacrifice –these remain Strangite tenets but are not now practised. He allowed women to hold the offices of Priest and Teacher and welcomed people of colour into the fold, ordaining at least two as elders. Conservation of land and resources was paramount and so large swthes of forest were retained and parks were built.
But power went to Strang’s head. The size of the Mormon community on Beaver Island was sufficient to see him elected twice to the State legislature. More ominously, Strang claimed he was empowered to be crowned king of his church and on July 8th 1850 in front of a crowd of some 300 and wearing a red flannel robe and a tin crown he was crowned by his prime minister, one George Adams, an actor. The date is still one of the two most important dates of the Strangite church.
Strang and Adams fell out and Adams started spreading lurid tales about life on the island. This prompted an official enquiry but Strang successfully defended himself. Relations with the neighbouring gentile community remained fractious but Strang also had an unerring knack of pissing off his followers. Two disgruntled followers – one who had been flogged for adultery on Strang’s orders and the other who had been excommunicated for drunkenness – assassinated him in 1856.
On July 5th 1856 a drunken mob of gentiles from nearby Mackinac descended on the island, rounded up the Strangites and evicted them from the island. After all this, only a few continued to observe Strang’s doctrines and although they are still practising, they divided still further into two factions. Numbers today are in the few hundreds.