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For His Was The Kingdom, And The Power, And The Glory … Briefly
On a green island in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, James Jesse Strang became the crowned, polygamous ruler of a Mormon “empire”
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Even though Strang some twenty years later was to be a strong contender to succeed Smith as head of the Mormon Church, as a boy he was unaware of Smith, Moroni, and the plates. Indeed, Strang’s youthful religious development moved from agnosticism to skepticism. As he grew into adulthood in the 1930’s, he turned to the rationalism of thinkers like Tom Paine and the Comte de Volney. Upon completion of his meager formal education, Strang read law; he was admitted to the Chautauqua County bar in 1836. He did a stint as a small-town postmaster and won admiration for his wit and eloquence as a debater.
But beneath this rather ordinary surface strange currents stirred. In his diary on his nineteenth birthday, March 21, 1832, Strang wrote: “I am 19 years old and am yet no more than a common farmer. ’Tis too bad. I ought to have been a member of the Assembly or a Brigadier General before this time if I am ever to rival Cesar or Napoleon which I have sworn to .” (The five underscored words were written in a cipher of Strang’s invention that was not decoded until a few years ago.)
Later that spring he confided to his diary in his private cipher: “I have spent the day in trying to contrive some plan of obtaining in marriage the heir to the English Crown.” (The lady would have been the future Queen Victoria, then twelve.) If a nineteen-year-old New York farm boy is to become a king, he obviously needs to give it quite a bit of thought. And James Jesse Strang gave it a great deal. His preoccupation with power appears again and again in his youthful diary. On New Year’s Day, 1835, for example, he wrote of those who had “died in obscurity” the previous year. Then Strang added fervently: “Curse me eternally if that be my fate.”
Yet nothing he did in the next half dozen years gave promise of escape from such a fate: he married a Baptist preacher’s daughter, served as a temperance lecturer, and became a small-town weekly newspaper editor. But when he migrated to Burlington, Wisconsin, with his wife and child in the summer of 1843, he had without knowing it taken a major step toward his royal destiny.
In Burlington, Strang took up for the first time the practice of law. During his first winter in the territory, he attended a Mormon meeting to hear an apostle of Joseph Smith’s known as the Wild Ram of the Mountains. Strang had never been susceptible to the theatricality of evangelical preachers. In fact, he had described himself in his diary as “a cool Philosopher.” But perhaps when he saw how the Wild Ram could shake the windowpanes and move his listeners to religious ecstasy, he was envious. We have no record of his feelings, but we know he was sufficiently interested in Mormonism to journey some two hundred miles to the south, to Nauvoo, Illinois, where after talking with Joseph Smith he was baptized a Mormon.
As he baptized Strang, the Prophet is reported to have said: “Thou shall hold the Keys of the Melchizedek priesthood, shall walk with Moses, Enoch, and Elijah, and shall talk with God face to face.” It was not quite like marrying the heir to the British throne, but it had possibilities. Especially in 1844; for Illinois seethed with political intrigue and violent anti-Mormon feeling. Clearly, the sect could not last much longer in Nauvoo. When Strang proposed to Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum that he found a Mormon colony near Burlington, Wisconsin, they made him an elder of the church and urged him to report on the possibilities to the north.
Strang’s report from Burlington came too late for Joseph Smith to do much about it. On June 27, a few days after receiving it, Joseph and Hyrum were killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. Smith had been such a colorful, powerful leader that to many his death meant the end of Mormonism. In the New York Herald ’s, obituary James Gordon Bennett wrote, “The death of the modern Mahomet will seal the fate of Mormonism. They cannot get another Joe Smith. The holy city must tumble into ruins, and the ‘latter day saints’ have indeed come to the latter day.”
To Bennett’s credit he revised this judgment two days later: “Instead of sealing the fate of Mormonism, we are now rather inclined to believe that this revolting transaction may give only additional and increased strength to that sect.” But the immediate future of the church was extremely dark. As the twelve apostles who ruled the church under Smith assembled in Nauvoo, they were in shocked despair. In this awful crisis of the young church only one Mormon responded with what must have amounted to joy: James Jesse Strang.
At the moment when a rifle ball struck Smith, causing him to fall to his death out of the second-story window of the Carthage jail, Strang was taking a solitary walk through the countryside outside Burlington. As the Prophet’s life was extinguished, Strang said later, he heard celestial music, looked into the sky, and saw an angel accompanied by a heavenly host glide down onto the meadow in which he stood. The angel stretched forth a hand, anointing his head with oil as a sign that henceforth Prophet Strang was to be the supreme ruler of the Saints on earth.