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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
As spring approached, the thirty-sevenyear-old prophet faced the necessity of returning to Beaver Island with his new bride, his first wife, and their four children. But his supply of tact and cunning was so large that Strang was able to make the shift from monogamy to polygamy without in the least rippling the waters of Paradise Bay. He matter-of-factly announced that he had just translated one passage of 165 characters on the sacred plates the angel had led him to in Wisconsin. It read: “Thou shall not take unto thee a multitude of wives disproportioned to thy inheritance, and thy substance; nor shall thou take wives to vex those thou hast; neither shalt thou put away one to take another.” This was a bit subtle, but the implication was clear: with proper reservations, a Saint could have several wives.
At the same time the prophet finally disclosed to his people that in obedience to Chapter XX of the Book of the Law of the Lord he would shortly be crowned king. The Book said: “God has chosen his servant James to be King; He hath made him his Apostle to all nations; He hath established Him a prophet above the Kings of the Earth; and appointed him King in Zion; by His voice did he call Him, and He sent his angels unto him to ordain him.” Despite some wavering on the question of whether the pronouns describing himself should be capitalized, Strang had a feeling for Biblical language that Joseph Smith lacked. Mark Twain said of Smith that “Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as ‘exceeding sore,’ ‘and it came to pass,’ etc., and made things satisfactory again.” Strang had more the hang of it.
The coronation occurred on July 8, 1850 (Elvira’s twentieth birthday), in the log tabernacle, a roofless structure eighty feet long. A fifteen-year-old girl who managed to squeeze into the tabernacle later wrote an awed account of the ceremony. A trumpet sounded, and James Strang was escorted into the tabernacle by the council and the twelve apostles, followed by the quorums, or minor orders of the ministry. The king wore a long flowing robe of bright red. The procession moved the length of the tabernacle to the platform on which the coronation would take place. Awaiting them there, garbed in the most regal costume he could assemble from his collection, was the actor-preacher president of the council, George J. Adams. He towered over the little bearded king enveloped in his red robe. The climax of the ceremony came when Adams, wearing a short tin sword attached to a brass-studded belt, with enormous dignity held out the crown in both hands. It was a shiny metal ring with a cluster of glass stars in the front. The July sun shone into the roofless tabernacle and made the stars sparkle as Adams slowly lowered the crown onto the elongated and perspiring head of King James Jesse Strang.
For the next few years this ceremony did not seem as pathetically absurd as it does today. The island’s economy flourished. The Chicago-Buffalo steamer made sixty stops a year at St. James, and many other vessels sailed into Paradise Bay for fish, firewood, and lumber. In Mackinac the reign of King Jimmy was no longer a subject for crude jokes. The king’s handling of the island’s polity was too impressive: he combined with remarkable adroitness the throne and the ballot box.
Strang ruled the Saints with the absolute power of a divinely ordained monarch; but at the same time he ran as a Democrat for the Michigan state legislature and won two terms. He introduced a bill to have the Beaver Islands incorporated into a new county; and when this passed he controlled that county and another on the mainland that had a bloc of Mormon voters.
By l855 King Strang was arthe peak of his power. His kingdom embraced Beaver Island and certain outlying islands with a total population of about twenty-six hundred Saints. His people were prosperous and, for the most part, loyal and happy. And the king’s household had waxed most royally. In 1852 he had married Betsy McNutt, a thirty-one-year-old maiden, and she, like Mary his first wife, and Elvira his second, bore him four children. Then in the summer and fall of 1855, he married two teen-age cousins, Sarah and Phoebe Wright, each of whom shortly became pregnant. The king and his four wives and children lived in a sturdy but trim log house overlooking Paradise Bay. (Mary, his first wife, had taken her children and moved back to Wisconsin, evidently feeling that six was a crowd.) Sarah wrote of their life together, “[We] had separate rooms [but] … all met in prayer and ate at the same table.” Of Strang she said, “He was a very mild-spoken, kind man to his family, although his word was law—we were all honest in our religion and made things as pleasant as possible.”
Through hard work, shrewdness, and what would today be called charisma, James Strang had, unbelievably, fulfilled the outlandish dreams of royal power that he had confided to his diary as a frustrated farm boy of nineteen. But if the ascent to power had been slow and uncertain, the descent was to be breathtakingly swift.