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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
Strang exposed this illegal exploitation of the Indians in numerous articles in his newspaper The Northern Islander and in a forty-eight page pamphlet, “Ancient and Modern Michilimackinac, Including an Account of the Controversy between Mackinac and the Mormons.” Even though there were only twenty or thirty Indian families on Beaver, their presence made the island more attractive to Strang and his followers, who shared Joseph Smith’s notion that the Indians were members of a fallen race, the Lamanites, mentioned in The Book of Mormon . Proselyting among this “noble and intellectual race of men,” to use Strang’s words, had been one reason for choosing Beaver Island.
Fishing rights and trade with the Indians may have been the two basic causes of friction between Gentiles and Saints, but in terms of interest, especially in newspapers in Michigan and throughout the East, these were eclipsed by something far more sensational: polygamy.
By this time the widespread practice of “spiritual wifery” among the top leadership of Brigham Young’s Mormons had become common knowledge. This made it an ideal issue by which the Strangites could differentiate their sect from the Brighamites. In 1847 one of the elders of Strang’s church, John E. Page, had issued a statement denouncing polygamy in which he declared: “We have talked hours, yea, even days with President Strang, and we find to our utmost satisfaction that he does not believe in or cherish the doctrine of polygamy in any manner, shape, or form imaginable whatever.”
The following spring, when the migration to Beaver Island was under way, Strang held a conference at which members of the Strangite sect living outside Voree assembled to meet the prophet and discuss the future of the church. One of those who attended was a seventeenyear-old schoolteacher from Charlotte, Michigan, whose parents had switched from the Brighamite to the Strangite church. Elvira Eliza Smith was bright, modest, devout, and attractive. She deeply impressed Prophet Strang. She returned to Michigan, and some months later she was visited by an emissary from the prophet, Councillor Adams, who bore a remarkable proposal.
He told Elvira that the prophet had received from God, by means of an angel, the divine plan for the kingdom of God on earth. James Jesse Strang was to rule the kingdom as king and vice-regent of God. And the new society was to be polygamous: the king was to set the example for his subjects! Then Adams, the histrionic old lecher, with suitable dramatic flourishes, hand-pressings, and other business, came to the point: Would Elvira accept the honor of being the king’s first plural wife and a queen of his kingdom? That Elvira quickly accepted tells us something about Councillor Adams’ special talents and a great deal about the prophet’s remarkable ability to convince his followers of his divine mission.
On July 13, 1849, in defiance of the laws of Michigan, the United States, and—up till then—the Primitive Church of Latter-day Saints, James and Elvira were “married” in a bedchamber somewhere in Michigan. As a lawyer, Strang knew their marriage was legally impossible; and as one of the loudest opponents of Mormon polygamy, he recognized that in terms of the struggle for power within the Mormon Church, it was politically dangerous. So he cropped his young bride’s dark hair, bought her a black broadcloth suit and a black silk hat like his, gave her the name Charles J. Douglass, and took her with him as his nephew and secretary on his customary fall and winter recruiting drive through the major cities of the eastern seaboard. While his first wife, Mary, and their four children stayed with his relatives in Chautauqua County, New York, the prophet and his bride honeymooned in New York City. In letters to Mary, Strang wrote of “Charley’s” being with him, but we do not know whether Mary .was hoodwinked by the fiction of this newly discovered nephew. At any rate, there were those who were not.
That October, during a church meeting in New York City over which Strang was presiding, with Charley beside him as secretary, the newlyweds had a jolting experience. After Strang concluded his sermon and pronounced the benediction, one of his apostles jumped to his feet to accuse Strang of “adultery, fornication, and spiritual wifery.”
It is a delightful irony that the only report we have of this contretemps is to be found in Strang’s newspaper The Gospel Herald in a lengthy article signed “C. J. Douglass.” Elvira, alias Charley, describes how President Strang preached “with burning and matchless eloquence, in words that seemed to fall from angels’ lips.” While he spoke, Apostle Lorenzo D. Hickey listened with “a kind of nervous twitching which sometimes marks incipient insanity”; then, the sermon over, he jumped up and shouted his accusation at Strang. The account ends with the comment that Strang’s refutation of the charges against him “convinced every person present that Hickey’s accusations were all utterly false.” The same issue of The Gospel Herald , November 22, 1849, contains the report by the phrenologist who found Strang lacking in “tact and cunning.”