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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
Upon swearing to the oath, the initiate into the Illuminati knelt before the king, who anointed his head with oil. And miraculously, according to the testimony of more than one member of the order, the initiate’s head would thereupon radiate with a glowing halo. Even given his deep yearning for power—kingly power—it is remarkable enough that James Strang finally would find himself on a throne. But it is perhaps even more remarkable that on their knees before that throne were rugged American pioneers imperturbably forfeiting both their souls and their American citizenship.
But before the top nobility of the order had been initiated, the summer of 1846 had arrived and Strang had gone East on business. The blueprint of the kingdom of God on earth had been sketched out; now the prophet needed to round up the Saints and march them to Voree. Accompanied by Bennett, Adams, and some of his other apostles, Strang began in earnest to woo the Mormon Church of the martyred Joseph Smith. Brigham Young’s followers had already started their long trek from Nauvoo to the West when James Jesse Strang headed for Ohio. His objective: to capture the first Mormon Church established by Smith, the Kirtland Stake.
When Strang appeared in Kirtland, he was no mere upstart. He had three of Joseph Smith’s twelve apostles in his Primitive Church of Latter-day Saints. He had the support of Smith’s mother and brother William. Moreover, the Brighamites were in disarray as they fled westward from the ruins of Nauvoo. As he rose to speak to the Kirtland Saints assembled for their morning worship one Sunday in the summer of 1846, James Jesse Strang must have realized that this could be a decisive day in his life. Even though he was small and thoroughly unprepossessing in appearance, Strang could galvanize an audience. On that Sunday he preached for eight hours in what one of his followers described as his “most rapid manner.” It was a superb performance. The Kirtland Saints were dazzled and won over. The new prophet took possession of the first Mormon temple; then with George J. Adams and others, he headed for Philadelphia, New York, and Boston with the plan of setting the Mormon churches there “in order,” that is, winning them over from the Brighamite faction to the Strangite.
Although Kirtland was the most heartening victory that summer, Strang made many converts throughout the East. His attack was two-pronged. First, he denounced Brigham Young and his apostles for teaching that “polygamy, fornication, and adultery are required by the command of God in the upbuilding of his kingdom.” He climaxed his denunciation of them with what must be one of the most revolting curses uttered by a nineteenth-century clergyman: “may their bones rot in the living tomb of their flesh; may their flesh generate from its own corruptions a loathesome life for others; may their blood swarm with a leprous life of motelike, ghastly corruption feeding on flowing life, generating chilling agues and burning fevers. May peace and home be names forgotten to them; and the beauty they have betrayed to infamy, may it be to their eyes a crawling mass of putridity and battening corruption. …”
The second prong of Strang’s attack was an appeal to his listeners to gather into the fold at Voree planned for them by God and revealed by God to his two prophets, Joseph and James. That fall and winter Voree harvested the fruits of the prophet’s eastern swing, and the village nearly doubled in size. But it was also gathering the bitter harvest of Bennett’s secret Order of the Illuminati. Somehow the covenant of the order leaked out and by January, 1847, two thousand copies had been printed along with a handbill denouncing it as an undemocratic cabal whose members were banded together for purposes of iniquity. Perhaps the handbill’s most telling thrust was at the initiation ceremony. It did not deny that the heads of the initiates glowed, but pointed out that this was a hoax engineered by Strang, who rubbed their heads with a mixture of olive oil and phosphorus. One apostate even found the bottle and repeated the “miracle.”
The attack on the Illuminati was only the first of a series of harassments by local non-Mormons, or “Gentiles,” as the Latter-day Saints dubbed everyone else. As Strang’s converts made their way toward Voree from the East, it became a common Gentile practice to stop their wagons a few miles outside of town and try to convince them they had made a terrible mistake. Shrewd Gentile farmers also curbed the growth of the community by early buying up much of the land in and around it and offering it for sale to the Saints at prohibitive prices.
In spite of his blunders in the selection of some of his lieutenants, Strang was capable of decisive leadership. By the winter of 1846–47 he saw that Voree was doomed and that a new site needed to be found that possessed an abundance of fertile land and isolation from hostile Gentiles. And he had a prophetic hunch that he had seen the New Jerusalem from the deck of a Great Lakes steamer on his way from Buffalo to Chicago. After moving through the Straits of Mackinac, the steamer had passed among some lush, green islands fifty miles southwest of the straits. It occurred to Strang at the time that these islands would offer the land as well as the safety that his kingdom needed. The events of the following winter greatly increased the appeal of those remote islands. Soon the garden of peace reverberated with the rumble of excommunications. William Smith, Joseph’s brother, was charged with being one of the most lascivious libertines ever to prey upon American womanhood and was consigned to the buffetings of Satan. His lengthy defense contains little of interest except for one minor point: he claimed to have discovered the bottle of olive oil and phosphorus used at initiations.