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(816) 846-0123

 
COLLECTING SINCE 1981, BUT HALF OF ALL NEW DISCOVERIES IN
MORMON HISTORY HAVE COME THROUGH MY HANDS SINCE 1991
Book Contents

 

Chapter 2

Intolerance Toward Great Lakes Mormons

The reason that I was a suspect despite my alibi, is that the police investigators were not concerned with my whereabouts, they were interested in my heritage. To explain why, I must first provide a brief history of the cultural background that caused so much apprehension, before I can narrate the exciting drama of how the case transpired and then crumbled.

In 1844, Joseph Smith Jr., the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,(1) was killed by a couple of unknown assassins inside the Carthage, Illinois jail, while escaping a mob that intended rather to lynch him in the nearby town square. In 1847, a segment of the church elected Brigham Young to be their new leader, under the counsel of two men who stood unwaveringly behind Smith during the assassination; and that church settled Utah. However, thousands of other Latter Day Saints remained in the Midwest and maintained that Smith had appointed a successor. Most of them agreed initially that Smith's replacement was James Strang, a Wisconsin lawyer who presented them with a signed and postmarked document from Smith.(2) His claims of presidential succession by appointment had the most merit in consideration of the printed constitution of the church called the Doctrine and Covenants.(3)

When Strang was killed in 1856, the movement was supplanted by the RLDS Church, organized in 1860 on an alternative mode of succession by lineal descent, with Joseph Smith III as its president. Smith's great-grandson, Wallace B. Smith, recently demonstrated just how akin Strang's views are to the RLDS Church though, when he announced that his own new succession plan would return to Strang's "appointment" interpretation of the law rather than continue by the RLDS patriarchal tradition:

As far as the issue of leadership staying in the Smith family, there is no rule about that now. It's only a custom and understanding, and the things that are called for in terms of succession in the church are just simply that the present president and prophet--it is incumbent upon that person to name a successor through revelation, and that person has to be accepted by the vote of the conference and has to be ordained by persons who are authorized to do so.(4)

Moreover, Strang matched Joseph Smith Jr.'s ministerial style more closely than did any other person. For example, he uncovered what he said were ancient records inscribed on brass tablets, and eleven eyewitnesses (none of whom ever denied their testimony) stepped forward to substantiate his claims.(5) Thus, his assertions were as plausible and reasonable as were those of his predecessor, and were within the mainstream of Judeo-Christian religions in America.

Contrary to the prosecution's case, that distinct heritage does not identify me as a "fanatic" Mormon. Strang conducted himself as the ablest and brightest of those who claimed to be Smith's successor, and was the most moderate. He passively told prospective settlers that his communities were "too peaceable to need guns."(6) He was a strong environmentalist and wrote laws protecting forests, lakes, and parks.(7) He presided over general conference resolutions to allow African Americans to hold the high priesthood by 1849,(8) and invited Native Americans to church feasts and celebrations.(9) Women were welcome to wear loose pants in his settlements by 1849, when hooped tight dresses were required apparel for women in American cities.(10) In 1851, Strang invited women into lesser priesthood roles; in 1853, a substantial number of women were ordained to be teachers; and by 1856, women were lecturing in the School of the Prophets.(11) Some of those are conventions only recently espoused by the progressive RLDS Church.

While Strang would have been politically correct on those issues today, his critics point to conservatism on other social issues: Polygamy, flogging, kingship, and austereness--practices that endure in quarters of the world free from American cultural hegemony.(12) Those four over dramatized censures are of defensible antecedent social customs, in part for the following respective reasons: (1) Strang led the last of the major Mormon groups to begin polygamy (oligogyny rather than polygyny);(13) and yet he became the first to acknowledge the ceremony publicly. Though he had theological, historical, scientific, and social arguments for the system, those that were socially-based demonstrate his surprisingly balanced advocacy. He theorized that it liberated women by giving them greater choice, advantage, and opportunity in the selection of a preferred companion and fit reproductive mate.(14) Any unwed woman who fastidiously complained that the best men were married, Strang inferred, understood the desire for free agency and social liberation--which benefited society by encouraging competition among men to prove themselves successful husbands and fathers. Only a sampling of families opted to test the alternative familial structure. (2) His mild beech-flogging of law breakers was more natural than other punishments, invariably followed a just and impartial trial, and preceded freeing of the guilty rather than placing them in inhumane cages as does modern civilization.(15) (3) His sensational crown of "King" was just semantic--an honorable priesthood title equated with being presiding elder of the church. While holding the distinctive and picturesque office, he was twice elected to the Michigan legislature as a democrat, and served at the state capitol with eminence.(16) (4) Most significant, his austerity was his emphasis on adherence to the full Ten Commandments, including the commandment "Thou shalt not steal," such that any intelligent, knowledgeable, and experienced member of the church could not simultaneously be both fanatically devout and be a thief.(17)

Whether or not Strang was an extremist in the 1850s ought not even to matter. The suggestion that I am more likely to steal because of my cultural identity is the very epitome of prejudice. For anyone to make inferences about either my societal mores or my individual acculturations, based on socioeconomic experiments conducted by a frontiersman one hundred and fifty years ago, is pure discrimination. In so doing, they make a distinction against me on the basis of the heritage of the segment to which I belong, rather than according to my own merits. Far from being an extremist, I have never owned a weapon,(18) and I am integrated into American civilization as much as the average citizen, with private property, free enterprise, technology, conspicuous fashion, and monogamy, despite the imaginations of my persecutors.

Ethnic rivalry is the source of conflict throughout the world. In America, bias is dominant where personal traits are visually perceived (such as color), while religious diversity is subdued because personal beliefs are invisible and can be kept private and silent. The standard of ethical, moral, and dietary conduct among Mormons, though, is so high that their faith is usually more conspicuous than others, and is often the subject of public scrutiny.

In my situation, I not only live in the midst of interfaith intolerance, as do most Mormons and Latter Day Saints, but also intrafaith intolerance, because the major Mormon groups are biased against the minor Mormon groups. In the circumstance of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the fear is descended from reasonable competition and debate between Brigham Young and James Strang from 1844 to 1856, and the position of the LDS that they are right because they are larger, and all others are diabolic. In 1855, after learning through pioneer experience that Mormons will be falsely accused of theft, they microcosmically made the same accusations of the subgroup led by Strang. He rebutted:

The gentiles began fifteen or twenty years ago to accuse the Mormons of stealing and living by plunder. That accusation has been the excuse for every persecution since the exodus from Missouri. We are not surprised to hear the same accusation from apostates, or any who have the gentile spirit.(19)

The LDS Church now recognizes the importance of becoming tolerant of minority religious faiths. Recently, the new president of the LDS Church urged:

Live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we do not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.(20)

In the situation of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), the fear is more complicated. In 1856, after he was killed in a conspiracy of the U.S. Navy and local governments in Michigan, Strang's supporters dispersed. With others who had been excommunicated by Strang earlier, they formed the RLDS Church in 1860, which theoretically did not exist from 1844 to 1860 while its members were with Strang.(21) However, that is not the traditional account. Richard Howard, who served as RLDS Church historian for nearly thirty years, recently abstracted the common view as follows:

Those forming the Reorganized Church had remained aloof from all the various schisms. RLDS founders simply held fast to the pure, original faith. They flatly rejected affiliation with any of the wandering factions of Mormonism. They were waiting for the day when Joseph Smith III would take his place at the head of the church.(22)

Contrarily, Jason Briggs, Zenus Gurley, and William Marks, who ordained Joseph Smith III to be the president of the RLDS Church in 1860, had been outspoken backers of Strang, and active and willing participants in all of Strang's peculiar endeavors.(23) Data demonstrates that approximately 60 percent of the members of the RLDS Church from 1860 to 1864 were formerly associated with Strang, and in reverse that approximately 90 percent of everyone who ever associated with Strang eventually joined the RLDS Church.(24) So great was the impact of Strang, that the RLDS-sponsored Graceland College now defines its advanced scripture course as "A study of [1] the Doctrine and Covenants, [2] Joseph Smith's 'New Translation' of the Bible, and [3] the Strangite [sic] Book of the Law of the Lord, considered in light of their historical setting, literary qualities, and theology."(25)

As for identity, the origination of the RLDS Church from within the church presided over by Strang has multifaceted implications. Generally, it means that Strang was midway between the LDS and RLDS chronologically, historically, politically, and theologically. Moreover, it suggests that where the LDS Church is conservative and the RLDS Church is liberal, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints formerly presided over by Strang is invariably moderate. One would expect, therefore, that members of the RLDS and LDS churches would mutually find Strang closer to themselves than they would find the RLDS and LDS churches to each other--if there was an assumption of no prejudice.

Some religious prejudice is inherent in Anglo-Saxon language. Our vocabulary is problematical in that it evolved in a church-state with few avenues of religious protest. English has only pejorative words to distinguish unusual people--such as divergent, separatist, apostate, heretic, dissenter, dissident, break-off, offshoot, faction, splinter, extremist, fanatic, and schism. Yet unusual objects are assigned favorable names like rare, extraordinary, scarce, uncommon, special, unique, distinctive, exceptional, and precious.

Moreover, discriminatory people prefer to affix the suffix of nouns "-ite" to distinguish anyone smaller than themselves. The suffix is not itself disagreeable in consideration of the larger groups identified by words such as Israelite, Levite, Nazarite, Nephite, Jaredite, Mormon(ite), and Wisconsinite. But in affixing the suffix to the name of James Strang, the intent has always been derogatory, contemptuous, and belittling. Besides, there is a similar appearance between Strang (rhymes with "sang") and strange, an already derisive word for anyone unusual. That invokes preconceptions when a person sees the name of Strang with the suffix "-ite" for the first time, and more so when they hear it mispronounced. Additionally, every intelligent, educated, and skilled historian abandoned the terms "Brigham-ite" and "Joseph-ite" decades ago in favor of the acronyms "LDS" and "RLDS" respectively. Any similarly derived words related to Strang are inappropriate and unscholarly.

Definitively, denominating a church by the name of Strang is repugnant to its own christening attributed to Jesus: "And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses' name then it be Moses' church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel."(26) The precise name and style in use by Joseph Smith Jr. from 1838 to 1844, and by James Strang from 1844 to 1856, was "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints."(27)

Though members of the church prefer to be greeted as "Latter Day Saints," I acknowledge that where the different churches are compared and contrasted in printed works, there needs to be some differentiation. For that purpose the term "Great Lakes Mormons," parallel to the term "Rocky Mountain Mormons," is most historically specific, although there are many other suitable descriptives.(28) Even so, the proposed phrase is only appropriate in cultural histories or sociological studies, not as a title for personally addressing people.

In this chapter, I have provided a setting for the intra-Mormon intolerance that led to the accusations in this case. The intolerance is misdirected because James Strang was moderate, not extreme; and regardless, his pioneer philosophies cannot be arbitrarily applied to modern people except prejudicially. Finally, I have examined the roots of the intolerance and demonstrated that the RLDS Church has an unacknowledged common heritage with Strang, and that it ought to develop language to communicate about its shared history. Persistent intolerance led to the accusations recounted in subsequent chapters.

1. In this monograph I have retained contemporary styling, such as here using the 1844 capitalization and hyphenation in the church name.

2. The document is in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. As a rare book and manuscript expert, I have authenticated the hand printing of Joseph Smith Jr. and the Nauvoo, Illinois postmark under a microscope, by ultraviolet light, and over a light table; I have discovered matching Smith hand printing, including characteristic lower case j's; and I have located identical Nauvoo postmarks.

3. For a synopsis, see [James Strang], The Diamond: Being the Law of Prophetic Succession, and a Defence of the Calling of James Strang as Successor to Joseph Smith. Gospel Tract No. 4. (Voree, Wis.: Gospel Herald Print, 1848).

4. Wallace B. Smith, "State of the Church," Theological Colloquy, Graceland College, 25 February 1995. Smith exhibited courage and wisdom, in thus conceding the succession debate to Strang, in the sesquicentennial year since the original crises that followed the assassination of his own great-great-grandfather.

5. See testimony of four witnesses, 13 September 1845, first published in the Voree Herald, January 1846; facsimile of Voree Plates [Voree, Wis.: circa 1845-47]; and testimony of seven witnesses in [James Strang, trans.], The Book of the Law of the Lord [St. James, Mich.: Royal Press, 1856].

6. James Strang to the Saints in Hancock County (Illinois), Voree Herald, April 1846.

7. [James Strang, trans.], "Groves, Forests, and Waters," The Book of the Law of the Lord [St. James, Mich.: Royal Press, 1856], Chapter XXXVIII. (pp. 286-87).

8. Minutes of a General Conference, Held in the City of New York, 5-8 October 1849, in Gospel Herald, 8 November 1849.

9. Northern Islander, 19 July 1855.

10. Ibid., 12 August 1852.

11. [James Strang, trans.], "Priests," and "Teachers," The Book of the Law of the Lord, Consisting of an Inspired Translation of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Law Given to Moses, and a Very Few Additional Commandments, with Brief Notes and References (St. James, Mich.: Printed by Command of the King, at the Royal Press, A.R. I. [1851]), Chapter XXIII., 7, and Chapter XXIV., 1 (pp. 199-200 in 1856 edition); A History of the Church at the City of James, Beaver Island, State of Michigan, U.S.A. (1847-55, commonly called the "Beaver Island Record"), p. 42; and School of the Prophets essays, James Strang papers, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

Any similarities between my treatise on Strang's moderation, and a passage on ecology, social progress, race, gender, and fashion in Bil Gilbert, "America's Only King Made Beaver Island His Promised Land," Smithsonian Magazine, August 1995, are the result of Gilbert plagiarizing my work in progress without credit, following his interview of me.

12. See for example the intolerance of Bil Gilbert, "America's Only King Made Beaver Island His Promised Land," Smithsonian Magazine, August 1995, which thus describes Strang. Even though I was a paid consultant to the editor, the opinions expressed were those of the author and editor, along with the sensationalism, dramatization, and errors of historical fact that they retained for effect.

13. Polygamy is the custom of having many spouses. Polygyny is the custom of having many wives. Oligogyny is the custom of having only "a few" wives.

14. [James Strang, trans.], "Household Relations," The Book of the Law of the Lord, Consisting of an Inspired Translation of Some of the Most Important Parts of the Law Given to Moses, and a Very Few Additional Commandments, with Brief Notes and References (St. James, Mich.: Printed by Command of the King, at the Royal Press, A.R. I. [1851]), Chapter XXXVI. (pp. 310-28 in 1856 edition).

15. Northern Islander, 9 January and 6 February 1851; and 3 April, 1 May, and 19 June 1856.

16. [James Strang, trans.], "Calling of a King," The Book of the Law of the Lord [St. James, Mich.: Royal Press, 1856], Chapter XX. (pp. 168-71).

17. [James Strang, trans.], "The Decalogue," The Book of the Law of the Lord [St. James, Mich.: Royal Press, 1856], Chapter I., 8 (pp. 32-33).

18. I did, however, purchase Joseph Smith Jr.'s 1840s hunting rifle from the Smith family, but never fired it.

19. James Strang in Northern Islander, May 31, 1855.

20. Gordon Hinckley, General Conference, April 1995.

21. The conference of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is in The True Latter Day Saints' Herald, May 1860.

22. Richard Howard, The Church Through the Years, Volume 1: RLDS Beginnings, to 1860 (Independence, Mo.: Herald Publishing House, 1992), p. 330.

23. In my forthcoming book I demonstrate, for example, that Jason Briggs had been affiliated with Strang for longer than ever disclosed by the RLDS, from April 1846 until July 1851; that he had been ordained to be a high priest by Strang himself; that he had promoted Strang's united order; that he had proclaimed by "revelation" that Joseph Smith Jr. wrote the document appointing Strang; and that he remained in the church during the kingdom and while polygamy was tried. Further, I demonstrate that Zenus Gurley had also been with Strang longer than acknowledged by the RLDS, from when he was rebaptized in June 1849 until he was excommunicated in July 1852; that he had served as a seventy and a missionary; that he had performed sealings for the dead; that he had participated within the domain of the kingdom ruled by Strang, and that he had prophesied success to that kingdom; and that he remained in the church while polygamy was tried. Finally, I show that William Marks served under Strang from January 1846 until July 1850, that he was ordained by Strang to be his assistant in the first presidency of the whole church, that he broke ground for the temple planned by Strang, that he administered baptisms for the dead, and that he announced that he too knew by "revelation" that Strang's work was the will of God.

24. The data for early membership affiliation is derived from the periodicals Voree Herald, Zion's Reveille, Gospel Herald, Northern Islander, and Daily Islander; from the manuscripts, Chronicles of Voree (1844-49), and A History of the Church at the City of James, Beaver Island, State of Michigan, U.S.A. (1847-55, commonly called the "Beaver Island Record"), both in private hands; and the Beaver Island Tithing Account Book, James Strang Papers, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. Membership in the RLDS Church is based on Susan Easton Black, comp., Early Members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993).

25. Graceland College 1994-95 Catalog (Lamoni, Ia.: Graceland College, 1994), p. 151 (course 49:342).

26. Joseph Smith Jr., trans., "Book of Nephi," The Book of Mormon (Nauvoo, Ill.: Printed by Robinson and Smith, 1842), p. 493 (LDS 3 Nephi 27:8 or RLDS 3 Nephi 12:20).

27. The name has been in the public domain since 1844. The additional corporate first article and British hyphenation differentiate The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is now incorporated as "Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah"; which existed without a presidency from 1844 to 1847, was incorporated in 1851, and was dissolved (see the Late Corporation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. The United States, Supreme Court, 1888-89).

28. Strang's presence around the Great Lakes was meaningful. His first headquarters, Voree, Wisconsin, was twenty-six miles from Lake Michigan, in Racine County bordering the lake. His second headquarters, St. James, Michigan, was on the largest island archipelago in Lake Michigan. On 8 July 1850, the church "appointed the Islands of the Great Lakes for the gathering of the Saints." Strang also settled islands in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Drummond Island in Lake Huron, and dominated the mainland in several Michigan counties bordering the lake. He honeymooned on serene Lake Superior in a Native American bark canoe. Church members constantly traversed the Great Lakes on missions to Canada and the East, particularly Lake Erie to reach Kirtland, Ohio and New York State; and return emigration was by water. They had their own schooners on Lake Michigan. Finally, they were dependent on the lakes because salted fish and steamboat timber were their primary exports, and merchandise and dry goods were shipped in as trade from port cities. Truly, they were the Great Lakes Mormons in every sense that there were Rocky Mountain Mormons.

Both terms indicate the historical region that the respective churches settled. While Strang declared that the church should gather to the "Great Lakes," Brigham Young comparatively chose the "Rocky Mountains" as his geographic location, based on a spurious prophesy attributed to Joseph Smith: "I prophesied that the Saints would . . . be driven to the Rocky Mountains. . . [and] become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains" (posthumously added in the margin of the manuscript history of the church, in an unknown hand--original in the possession of the Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City).

Others names that have been suggested include Voree Mormons, Beaver Island Mormons, Primitive Mormons, and Seventh-day Mormons.

 

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