54: Who are James J. Strang and the Strangites

Clay and Brandt sit down with John Hamer to discuss the curious case of James Strang and is break-off Mormon sect, The Strangites.

Play

References
Vickie Cleverley Speek — God Has Made Us a Kingdom
Riegel — Crown of Glory–The Life of James J. Strang, Moses of the Mormons
Book of the Law of the Lord (1948 Edition)
Official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite)

3 Comments

  1. John Hamer in Mormon Podcasts « Saints Herald

    […] Mormon Expositor Episode 54: Who are James J. Strang and the Strangites?  November 6, 2013. Hosts Clay Painter and Brandt Malone talk to John Hamer about the 1844 succession crisis, why and how James J. Strang emerged as a serious rival to Brigham Young and the history of the Strangite Church since Strang’s martyrdom. […]

    Reply Nov 06, 2013 @ 08:02:13
  2. John Hajicek

    This was a superior sketch of James Strang and I enjoyed listening to it during a propeller flight over Colorado. Strang had so many parallels with Joseph Smith, from traveling on the same boyhood roads in western New York (Strang was born across the lake from Fayette) to being killed and mobbed-out by violent neighbors, uprising apostates, and colors of government. Strang brought Mormonism back to its youthfulness (he being twelve years younger than Brigham Young), and reused Joseph’s early tools of angels, seer stones, a sacred hill, metallic plates, apostles, and revelations.

    I do not know Clay and Brandt so I could not always differentiate who was talking in this podcast, but I know John Hamer. Hamer is an amateur historian and Strangite hobbyist so he handles the subject ably. Despite great accuracy from all three of you, I did have a couple of suggestions. I would like to see John Hamer be more forthcoming about his educational background and the subject of his undergraduate degree. John, did you complete your graduate work? Was any of it in American history? Obviously you are highly intelligent but I notice that you are always indefinite about your education before lighting into Mormon history and becoming proficient in Strangism. The contributions of Strang were newer to Clay and Brandt but they grappled with it well. I would like to see Mormon Podcasters invite first-hand members of the lesser Mormon groups rather than always relying on secondary sources. There are a number of interesting historians within the Strangite movement, like William Shepard (former president of John Whitmer Historical Association) and Donna West Falk, who might tell the story better than getting it secondarily. I could also contribute, and I have reserved MormonBlogger.com and MormonPodcaster.com for future use. I am traveling without books but I caught a couple of minor mistakes in the podcast which I can correct without my Strangite references which are presently taking-up about 250 unreachable oak pallets.

    Strang was baptized by Joseph Smith and ordained by Hyrum Smith. Nobody disputes that much. But there were some previously undocumented facts presumed in your discussion, such as that Strang was baptized in the baptismal font in the unfinished basement of the temple in Nauvoo. About that time the font would have been supported by prototype wooden oxen for baptisms for the dead, but baptisms for the living were being done by Joseph in the Mississippi River. Strang was living.

    George J. Adams is an important character, because Adams (along with William Marks) became a counselor (and viceroy) to Strang. One of you whose voices I do not know, said a couple of times that Adams left the Church during the “Kirtland bank debacle” (1837). But actually, Adams was a Boston stage actor who rose to prominence in the Church around 1841 and brought his Shakespearean show to Nauvoo where he became an “especial apostle” in 1844 – he later claimed. John Hamer said work needs to be done on another character John C. Bennett, but that biography was thoroughly done by Andrew F. Smith and published by the University of Illinois Press.

    You guys describe Joseph as being into sports but not debating, and James being into debating but not sports. Of course we all know of Joseph’s fondness for wrestling. You have forgotten Joseph debating in societies in Palmyra as artistically described by Orsamus Turner. You may not be aware of James walking thirty miles per day when he crossed the country without the stage coaches and carriages of his predecessor, canoeing on Lake Superior with Elvira, living on beechnuts while scouting inhabited islands, crossing Lake Michigan ice on foot or sled, rowing and sailing over Lake Michigan, carrying on at sportsmanship fairs on Beaver Island, or traveling as royalty on a U.S. Naval vessel. Joseph was a clever money digger before the Book of Mormon was printed. Strang was a failure at law.

    I will say a little about the Letter of Appointment. An entire volume could be written about it. John Hamer dismisses it as a “faith claim” of his followers and says that “we” historians do not think it is authentic. That is not accurate. I have been familiar with this letter since 1972, I have been writing about it since 1981 when I began dealing in rare Mormon books, and I have been the leading dealer in rare Mormon documents since 1991 (see Mormonism.com/Mormonism.pdf for example) – and I think that the letter is authentic independent of my doubts about the authorship of the Book of Mormon. I have done extensive work on this project including documenting outlying handwriting styles (italic printing, actually) in Joseph Smith’s hand, isolating individual handwriting sections, matching phrases in the letter to Joseph’s words, and collecting identical Nauvoo postmarks. I am not going to elaborate at this time. Faith claims might be beliefs in angelic ordinations, or brass plates, or revelations. But this is not an object of miraculously divination but is a contemporary letter that is either genuine or a forgery based on the language, style, context, anachronisms, handwriting, paper, ink, postmark, and so forth.

    Most importantly, dismissing the letter as an “obvious” forgery discounts the credibility it had with the people who knew Joseph best. Presume it is a forgery if you will – but not so readily apparent. Remember that it was good enough (even briefly) to dupe Joseph’s wife, his mother, his only living brother, his sisters, his bishop, his stake president, his mayor, his former counselor, several from the quorum of twelve, a president of seventy, most of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, his main biographer (Lucy), his first historian (John Whitmer), several of his scribes or secretaries, and even some scribes of the Book of Mormon. And the postmaster whose name still appears outside the Nauvoo post office. They (and I) have read more of his papers than the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers at the Church History Library. I am in good company.

    Hamer’s dismissal of Stang as “a random person in the church almost” and even as a “bizarre” appointment ignores that this was exactly what Joseph Smith was doing in Nauvoo. How did William Marks rise to Nauvoo stake president and George Miller rise to Nauvoo bishop? How did John C. Bennet rise? George J. Adams? Where did William Law come from? These men were all unheard of before Joseph put them into important positions. Strang as a fresh country lawyer exactly fit Joseph’s profiling of new educated leaders. As we know Joseph feared his old circle from Kirtland and Missouri and their constant rebellion, including repeated apostasies from and conspiracies within the quorum of twelve.

    Hamer’s characterization of Mary Perce as “estranged” or “separated” from James is inaccurate. She moved to Voree from Beaver Island, managed the Church properties there, and James spent some of his time with her each year – even wintering with her. She also provided him safety after he was shot, and sheltered some of his wives for years after his death. But then you cannot have it both ways, argue that she was estranged (still one of his wives because it was not a legal divorce) and also argue that she was “one of his five wives” (meaning they were all his wives without legal marriages). Choose the law or choose his heart. Being consistent with you estranged story, using the law or not, James either had one wife or four, unless you count them by admitting all the wives he loved and stop saying Mary was estranged. By the way, I know of no provenance for the daguerreotype of the male often identified as Elvira Field disquised as Charles Douglass. It is irresponsible for any “historian” to use that image on mere folklore alone. Historians work with documentation, not wishfulness. I also wanted to mention that I discovered (and bought) the manuscript trial minutes of James Strang held by his followers in New York City over that Charlie affair, and of course have innumerable sources never used by other historians before. There is a better story unknown to past biographers and I will get to that someday.

    Mormons did not bloc vote on Beaver Island. That is not fair to characterize it that way. Nobody would find it acceptable to say that blacks bloc voted for Barack Obama, or Utahns bloc voted for Mitt Romney. Mormons on Beaver Island had liberty to vote for whomever they wanted. More important is the question of whether Strang stole the election using his feelings about black abolition and women’s suffrage to allow women (and Indians!) to vote for him using first initials to disguise feminine names. Charles Douglass voted for Strang. The surprise of Strang on the ballot was because of shifting county lines beyond his spiritual powers.

    Your assessment of Strang’s assassination and the driving of the Mormons was very fair, although you do refer to Strang’s “assassination” but Joseph’s “martyrdom” which is not equal treatment. I realize Hamer’s strength is the Voree years not the Beaver Island years, and that the other two of you were at the mercy of sensationalist biographies like Riegel’s 1935 work. But your treatment of the earlier years on Beaver Island was not as fair as your treatment of the assassination, as you accepted the folklore at face value that the Mormons were guilty of “piracy and thievery” and the non-Mormons “fled for their lives.” Nothing could be less true. The non-Mormons were simply uncomfortable and moved off the Island. They were not there “hundreds of years” either, as Hamer claimed. Ten maybe. Five probably. The word “consecrate” means to give, not to take. That is a plain-English word that folklore does not have right. Property is never “consecrated from” the Gentiles – it is “consecrated to” God. If you know that, you know how confused the claims of the non-Mormons were – it became that every boat that sank in a storm on the Great Lakes was the doing of the Mormon pirates and every horse who ran away in Michigan was the doing of the Mormon thieves. The individual accusations can be assessed individually and none of them has withheld scrutiny. You should not so effortlessly repeat them unfounded, as a real historian.

    Lakes have boats, not “ships,” and one of you called him Jesse Strang instead of James Strang. One of you claimed familiarity with the Mormon jail on Beaver Island, but your forerunners have highlighted the whipping on Beaver Island as the justification for the murder of Strang. The whipping happened because there was no jail on Beaver Island, as would seem apparent but is also well-known. The U.S.S. Michigan whipped sailors at that time. Brigham Young whipped adulterers at that time. Delaware whipped citizens for another hundred years. Hermann Melville was writing about whipping on the seas. And I am writing on all of this, which is forthcoming. I know this seems like quibbling with history – but if you got from the newsstand where two unfamiliar outsiders collaborated with one out-of-state historian with some graduate work in something else to tell the story: “James Smith and his brother Hiram were shot in the print shop in Carthage, Illinois” you would groan in resignation. We have all encountered that historian.

    Strang never said young Joseph Smith III would be his successor, and Lorenzo D. Hickey never said Strang ordained young Joseph to be Strang’s successor. They said he was to be a counselor (vice president or viceroy). For Strang and Hickey, that meant a member of the first presidency – one who could rule in the absence of the president or king, in his own lesser office, not being elevated as the president or king – not as the successor – unless he got yet an ordination by angels.

    Where I differ most from Hamer is in his characterization of the “state of the Strangite church” since 1856. The group has been largely fractured, with a number of attempts to centralize (besides the earliest attempts to unify or organize, there were reorganization attempts in 1918, 1924, 1939, 1955, 1961, and more). Hamer fixates on the 1961 reorganization which explicitly says it formed a new church with no connection to or affiliation with the prior churches. They invented a new office to preside, a new “ruling council,” and novel bylaws like requirements to use Utah scriptures, such that the Church is not governed solely by conference as Hamer suggested in the podcast. Hamer has (elsewhere) designated this as the “legitimate” Strangite church. Yet the group has a shaky foundation and thin trusses – weak support by most of the scattered believers and fans of Strang. Hamer accepts Strangite folklore that it was formed (in 1897!) by an ordination through remainder apostle Lorenzo D. Hickey passing on the priesthood, but there is compelling evidence that no ordination occurred by Hickey, no vote was had, ordination licenses were faked after Hickey’s death, bribery was offered and accepted, documents were altered, and so forth. Besides that, Hickey had joined the Reorganized Church before returning to Strangism without renewing his authority. After that, they carried on appointments with no ordinations whatsoever, and no votes as required by the D&C. After several generations of similar scandal and division, renaming and undoing, a fragment of newcomers formed their church in 1961, the founder is excommunicated for adultery in about 1974, they follow a false prophet in 1966 who they excommunicate in 1978, the church splits in 1978 with half becoming a wife-swapping group, the other half all but dies out, the wife-swapping group says they repent and they take over, they elect a presumed homosexual and former member of the wife-swapping group as their worldwide leader, and their historian William Shepard (former spokesman for the wife-swapping group) becomes the president of the John Whitmer Historical Association – and John Hamer’s colleague. So Hamer favors them as the correct line of Strang’s church, not because of doctrine or authority, but seemingly because despite their fundamentalist quirks they mirror Hamer’s ideal model of a reorganized church with progressiveness on gender issues. I have immense respect for Hamer for that added compassion, but you do need to know that his story of modern Strangism is skewed by that comradery. Really, identifying the 1961 reorganization as Strang’s own is like saying the Monongahela church of today is Sidney Rigdon’s own church. There is no continuity.

    Overall this was an enjoyable podcast that despite its minor errors was as good as it gets for charitable information on the internet about James Strang. Hamer has done much good in sharing an appreciation for the lesser and forgotten Mormon groups especially the followers of Strang. Unlike institutional historians, Hamer seems to create his contributions continuously without a salary or clock, traveling and sharing at his own expense, which shows the greatness of his generosity. But he should use the same standards for scholarship that would be expected of him if he were writing about Palmyra in 1825 and Nauvoo in 1844, when he writes about Beaver Island in 1856 or Voree in 1961.

    Reply Nov 08, 2013 @ 09:14:16
  3. Jay

    I have a free book promo this week.

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    Reply Nov 14, 2013 @ 20:04:12

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