For His Was The Kingdom, And The Power, And The Glory … Briefly

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In the fall of 1846 a short man with a great reddish-brown beard walked into the phrenology parlor of Fowler and Wells at 131 Nassau Street, New York City, to purchase a phrenological examination. He was barely five feet three and of slight build, but his full auburn beard, his curiously bulging forehead, and his intense, deeply set dark eyes gave him a vividness and dramatic presence that compensated, along with his black stovepipe hat, for his short stature. After the report of the examination was written by Samuel R. Wells, the short man read it with satisfaction and left.

A trip to the phrenology parlor was hardly a rare occurrence in mid-nineteenthcentury America. Nor was it even highly unusual that the short man in the stovepipe hat later published his nearly two-thousand-word phrenological description on the first page of a newspaper he edited. (Walt Whitman was so taken by the report Fowler and Wells wrote on him that he had it bound into early copies of Leaves of Grass .) But this particular visit to the phrenologist is of some interest because the man in the stovepipe hat was no ordinary person—as the phrenologist himself seemed to realize, even though his subject’s name, James J. Strang, meant nothing to him.

The report said, for example, “You are quite radical in your notions,” which is not a bad characterization of a man who convinced thousands of Mormons that an angel had designated him to succeed Joseph Smith as leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The phrenologist also credited him with “versatility of talent, which enables you to attend to a variety of things. …” Again, an apt comment on a man who besides serving as a state legislator was acknowledged as a full-fledged prophet to whom God had entrusted a major portion of the Bible, lost since the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in 597 B.C. , and who was also an instinctive linguist who translated the ancient Oriental language in which the Biblical fragment was written, even though he had never studied any language but English. And certainly not the least of this versatile man’s achievements was to have become a king whose kingdom lay within the United States and whose loyal subjects numbered in the thousands.

The learned phrenologist also said of him, “You are fond of variety and change,” as he indeed was. At the time of his death he had five wives, the oldest forty-three, the youngest eighteen. Not only had they borne him ten children, most of whom lived with him and his four youngest wives in the royal palace, a solidly constructed log house in northern Michigan, but when he died each of the four youngest wives was with child. As Professor Wells perceptively remarked after carefully feeling and measuring the long narrow skull of James Jesse Strang with its bulging forehead, “You are fond of children, warm-hearted and ardent, and fond of home.”

The professor erred, as a matter of fact, in only one observation he made; but admittedly it was a major error. He wrote: “Should you undertake to play the hypocrite, ‘lay low and keep dark,’ you would very soon expose yourself in some way, for you have not tact and cunning enough to enable you to carry it out into any great speculation or enterprise.” That one sentence is enough to repudiate forever the science of phrenology, for James J. Strang’s supply of tact and cunning was truly extraordinary. And how could anyone deny that creating a kingdom within the United States qualifies as a “great speculation or enterprise”? To have reigned even as briefly as a half dozen years was an achievement; for kings, as one historian drily summed it up, have never done well in the United States.

Strang was able to pull this off because he brought to the task of creating a kingdom not only tact and cunning but a rare mixture of idealism and deceit, saintly asceticism and sexual appetite, backwoods utopianism and Napoleonic authoritarianism. His followers, mostly a ragtag collection of poor, uneducated pioneers, were not too blinded by ignorance and superstition to perceive both sides of his character. The trouble was that few of them could see both sides simultaneously. As a result, during his career as prophet and king, at any given time most of his followers saw him as not merely godly but godlike, the prophet who would lead them to Zion. But there were always others, a minority who saw him as a cynical opportunist—eloquent, yes, but lascivious and dictatorial.

Strang’s origins were far from regal. He was born on a small farm near the town of Scipio in Cayuga County, New York, in 1813. It was a time of deep religious ferment, and upstate New York seemed to have more than its share of strange religious goings-on. For example, when Strang was ten years old, an angel with the odd name of Moroni allegedly appeared in the bedroom of a farmhouse in the next county to tell a seventeen-year-old farm boy that God had written a new Bible on golden plates and buried them in a nearby hill. Young Joseph Smith dug up the plates; then, with the help of two magical stones provided by Moroni, he translated them as The Book of Mormon and became the founder of the Church of Latter-day Saints.