- Historic Sites
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
From 1845 to 1848 Strang waged a vigorous campaign to succeed Joseph Smith as leader of the Church of Latter-day Saints. He travelled to all the big cities of the eastern seaboard, preaching and debating. He published a newspaper and wrote news stories, editorials, and reports of his travels. He repeatedly denounced Brigham Young as an imposter and finally “excommunicated” him, delivering him over to “the bufferings of Satan.” He assembled his own twelve apostles and created the Primitive Church of Latter-day Saints, with himself as leader and prophet. And he proceeded to develop his Utopian Mormon community, Voree, in southwestern Wisconsin.
Strang’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader are vividly revealed in his efforts to build his own church organization and the theocratic community that it would serve. To seize control of the Mormon Church, Strang needed even more than divine documentation of his legitimacy as Joseph Smith’s successor. He needed a cadre of experienced Mormons to represent his cause not only in Nauvoo but in the great population centers of the East that were the recruiting grounds for the church: Baltimore, Washington. Philadelphia, and New York. Lacking time to train men for this role, Strang assembled the leadership for his church from among those who had defected from Smith and Young. Some of them had good credentials, but many were scoundrels. A superb example of the latter was George J. Adams.
Adams was an actor and a preacher, noted for his taste for crude bombast, loose women, and bourbon. A tall, striking man, he had played the heavy in such melodramas as The Idiot Witness and Pizaro, or the Death of Rolla in a Mormon repertory company at Nauvoo. But when his womanizing cametoBrigham Young’s attention, Adams was thrown out of the church for “under the sacred garb of religion … practising the most disgraceful and diabolical conduct.” Packing up his theatrical costumes, Adams drifted to Ohio, where he came to Strang’s attention.
Strang was somewhat cautious in recruiting Adams. When questioned about his having been thrown out of the Mormon Church, Adams replied in writing that he was a victim of “base phalshoods,” including the charges that he was a drunkard and a fornicator; the truth was, according to Adams, that Young and his apostles were deeply jealous of Adams’ ability to spellbind his listeners “whereaver and wheneaver I lift up my voice.” Adams confessed to having some doubts about Strang, but he resolved these by conferring with God, who “condescended in a glorious manner” to verify that Strang was, indeed, the true prophet.
Adams reached Voree in the spring of 1846. With him was another prominent Mormon who had fallen out with the leaders at Nauvoo: Dr. John C. Bennett—former major general of the Mormon Legion (the Latterday Saints’ armed force) and also Nauvoo’s leading abortionist. While his medical skills had been in great demand in a community where plural marriage was already widely if secretly practiced, Bennet had made the mistake of becoming nonclinically interested in a nineteen-year-old girl named Nancy Rigdon, to whom Joseph Smith had taken a particular liking. Bennett was excommunicated in 1842 and like Adams eventually decided to throw in his lot with Strang.
Voree, when Adams and Bennett got there, was an unpromising frontier settlement of little more than a thousand people living in log houses and tents. The prospect of settling in this rude village must have been unexciting indeed—and not merely because of its size. In Nauvoo, then the largest city in Illinois, Joseph Smith’s paramonarchical state had engulfed the community. It organized the theatres, the army, businesses, schools, newspapers, and the government itself. The church, rt seemed, was merely another sphere it controlled.
Bennett proposed to Strang, in effect, the re-creation of a Nauvoo at Voree. Specifically, he suggested that Strang lay the basis for such a community by devising a secret order that would govern the Strangite kingdom of God on earth. The order would be organized along feudal lines, with noblemen, viceroys, grand councillors, and, above them all, God’s earthly regent, the king himself, James Jesse Strang. To the man who at nineteen had secretly sworn to rival Caesar and Napoleon and had spent a day trying to contrive a scheme to marry into the House of Hanover, Bennett’s suggestion had the sound of Destiny.
The Halcyon Order of the Illuminati bears abundant evidence of the blending of the powerful monarchical leanings of Strang with the brilliant charlatanism of Bennett. An initiate into the order, with ranks of chevaliers, earls, marshals, and cardinals drawn up around him in a darkened room, took an oath to
uphold sustain and obey the said James J. Strang and his lawful successors, if any he has, each in his time as the Imperial primate and actual sovereign Lord and King on Earth and as my true and lawful Sovereign wheresoever and in whatsoever kingdom state or dominion I may be; and in preference to the laws, commandments and persons of any other Kings, Potentates, or States whatsoever. …