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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
For several days he did nothing. Perhaps he was looking for another sign. He certainly received one in the mail twelve days later. In an envelope postmarked “Nauvoo, June 19th,” Strang received a letter supposedly written by Joseph Smith nine days before his assassination. In it Smith admitted to having wondered if Strang was under the influence of an evil spirit; but in the midst of his doubts, he wrote, God suddenly whirled him into the upper air. The moon and stars went out, the earth dissolved, and with heavenly music all about him Smith heard God reveal the Prophet’s approaching martyrdom. Still aloft, Smith then heard God say, according to the letter, “And now behold my servant james j. Strang hath come to thee from far … & to him shall the gathering of the people be for he shall plant a stake of Zion in Wisconsin & I will establish it & there shall my people have peace & rest & shall not be mooved … & the name of the city shall be called voree which is being interpreted garden of peace … and now I command my servants the apostles & priests & elders of the church of the saints that they communicate & proclaim this my word to all the saints of God in all the world that they may be gathered unto and round about the city of Voree. …”
Within a month of the death of Joseph Smith, Strang was in Nauvoo, mounting a campaign to succeed him. At first he said nothing of the angel; he based his claim solely on the letter. But at once there were questions as to its authenticity. Ironically, most were directed to the postmark, which is valid, instead of to the signature, which an expert in 1950 described as a manifest forgery. It was soon clear that more than a questionable letter would be needed if Strang, a relatively recent convert, was going to outdistance such stalwart contestants as the Wild Ram of the Mountains, Lyman Wight; the Archer of Paradise, Parley P. Pratt; or the most formidable of them all, the Lion of the Lord, Brigham Young. All these men enjoyed the prestige of being among Smith’s twelve apostles at the time of his assassination. They were known and respected not only in Nauvoo but wherever there were Mormons.
But James Jesse Strang had one incalculable advantage over all of them, and particularly over his chief rival, the stolid Brigham Young. The Mormon Church had been founded by a prophet, a soothsaying, crystalgazing seer who soared with the angelic host and talked to God Himself. To those who felt that Smith’s successor as head of the Church of Latter-day Saints should also be a prophet, Strang was a good choice. Three of the twelve apostles supported Strang, as did Joseph Smith’s mother and his brother William. And scores of other Mormons suddenly found that the words of a familiar Mormon hymn, number 297—”A church without a Prophet, Is not the Church for me;/It has no head to guide it; In it I would not be”—had new meaning. They migrated from Nauvoo to Strang’s new Mormon “stake” at Voree, outside Burlington. Brigham Young was not given to revelations, but he did go so far as to ban the singing of that hymn.
But a full-fledged prophet in the Joseph Smith tradition must have a testament. It had come to Smith in the form of The Book of Mormon; Strang was to receive it in The Book of the Law of the Lord . In each instance, an angel conducted the prophet to buried plates on which the holy writ was inscribed in a foreign language. Strang rceived the first angelic alert of the impending discovery early in 1845. That fall the angel appeared again and showed Strand the precise spot at which to dig. He led four of his disciples to the spot, then stood apart as they commenced to dig. After digging, then chopping their way through the roots of an oak tree, then using pick-axes to penetrate a layer of rock, they finally came to three brass plates.
Eighteen years earlier, when Joseph Smith had dug up his buried plates in upstate New York, he had allowed no one to see them. When anyone was in their presence, Smith kept the plates in upstate New York, he had allowed no one to see them. When anyone was in their presence, Smith kept the plates covered with a handkerchief. Strang showed his to his awed followers, then went into seclusion for a week to translate their strange markings, which he later reported to be passages in certain “lost Levantine languages.”
The Brighamites charged that Strang’s plates had been fashioned from an old brass kettle and that the inscriptions on them were unintelligible “hen tracks.” Strang insisted that they were the record left by Rajah Manchore of Vorito, an Oriental potentate who milleniums ago on the Wisconsin frontier had ruled a godlike people, now levelled to dust but destined one day to rise again. The instrument of their resurrection was to be the divinely guided prophet who would discover and translate the constitution of their theocratic monarchy. As the rajah inscribed it on the plates: “The forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth my records.” The forerunner was the slain Joseph; the prophet was his successor, James. It is regrettable that this is the rajah’s sole appearance in history, for the spectacle of this exotic figure transplanted to the Northwest Territory has the same incongruous charm as the appearance (courtesy of Mark Twain) about the same time of the “disappeared Dauphin, Looy the Seventeen” on a raft carrying a runaway boy and an escaped slave down the Mississippi.