As I mentioned previously, I really enjoyed the Strangite session of the Mormon History Association meetings a few weeks ago. Vickie Speek, John Hamer, and Mike Karpowicz gave some fascinating presentations on this little known group. Following the session, they answered additional questions, and I thought it would be interesting to provide a transcript of the Q&A session. But before I get into the transcript, I should tell you a brief history of the Strangite Church.
James Strang was baptized into the church just a few months before Joseph Smith was killed in 1844. He said he had a letter from Joseph proclaiming that Strang was to lead the church. The letter is currently owned by Yale University; in the past few decades, they have declared Joseph Smith’s signature on the letter a forgery.
Evidently Strang was a dynamic leader. His church (officially known with slightly different punctuation as the Utah church: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [no hyphen, different capitalization]) rivaled the Brigham Young movement in size. They had some well known converts too: Martin Harris, William Smith (Joseph’s brother), William Cowdery (Oliver’s father), William Marks (stake president in Nauvoo), William McLellin (former apostle), Hiram Page, and some of the Whitmer brothers.
Strang claimed an angel visited him, appointing him as prophet. As part of his calling, he translated the Brass Plates into a book of scripture called “The Book of the Law of the Lord” written by Moses, and in Laban’s possession. Originally against polygamy, Strang translated the book (first published in 1851), which said polygamy was a godly commandment.
Strang originally moved his followers to Voree, Wisconsin, and then received another revelation to move to Beaver Island, Michigan. He crowned himself king, and was assassinated there by disgruntled followers. The Strangites still exist today. The have a few hundred members in Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wisconsin. Here is a website from a Strangite follower. (It contains an online version of the Book of the Law of the Lord.) John Hamer says the official website for the church is found here.
Independent historian Vickie Speek, John Hamer & Mike Karpowicz of John Whitmer Books, and Bill Russell of Graceland University (the CoC version of BYU) answered a few questions following their presentation on the past 160 years of Strangite history.
Newell Bringhurst, “I found it very enlightening too, but the one area I wanted to hear a little bit more about was the core teachings, the liturgy. Did you get a sense, particularly John and Mike? [Vickie] You went into the Law of the Lord in your paper and those tenets and teachings, but what core teachings were perpetuated to the make things that give them an identity as far as their Mormonism or moving beyond or in a different direction in terms of their Mormon teachings that we would identify with as Mormons, from a Latter-Day Saint tradition?”
John Hamer, “I identified in my paper that there is a remarkable continuity. When we first looked into this, we weren’t sure how this church that had been on Beaver Island and in Wisconsin, how did it end up being in New Mexico? So we wondered, ‘is this a Neo-Strangite Church? Is this a bunch of people who got converted and started calling themselves Strangites that don’t have any actual continuity?’ But we found in the course of looking through the records–we had incredible access to all the church’s records, we interviewed a dozen of the oldest members of the church, the branch records going all the way back to the 19th century are all kept in the vaults and all maintained—there is a remarkable continuity of practice and teaching that occurs because these Beaver Island members taught this new generation. The practices remain and all sorts of things remain.
Some of the things we mentioned were sealing—sealing continues to be done, so that is unusual for Midwestern Mormons for example. Most of the other branches other than the Cutlerites don’t do that. You don’t have that in the Community of Christ. It’s not in the Hedrickites. They’re sealed for time and all eternity. This idea of adopting into a noble and a princely household, these kingdom powers—that was being done all the way up through the 60’s, especially members of the Flanders clan were sealed, adopting into this Ketchum household that they were intermarried with in the 19th century, but essentially had forgotten that they were inter-married with. This was more or less forgotten. Some of this history has been recovered from the records, this connection between Joseph Ketchum and Granny Flanders. Remember that Granny Flanders was this matriarch who had done this.
I would just say there are an incredible number of practices, there are all kinds of Strangite practices. The Book of the Law of the Lord is integral as scripture. It is read. The Voree Branch are 7th day Sabbath-tarians—that’s Strangite practice. The Laws of Sacrifice so they would sacrifice first fruits so again a lot of Strangite practice, because they had a second prophet, there’s all sorts of things that they have that other branches don’t have. So I think the continuity is actually remarkable and the amount of practice and preservation is remarkable. There are just a few things that fall out, because they don’t have the top priesthood offices. So some things they don’t feel are valid to do. One of those is plural marriages for example, they’re not done.
Vickie Speek, “There’s something we didn’t mention is the fact that according to Strangite belief, the lesser cannot ordain the higher. So they’ve lost their prophet, they’ve lost their priesthood, because only God can make a prophet. Man can’t. Man can’t make another prophet, so when James Strang died, the prophet died.
John Hamer, “It’s simply invalid for a teacher to ordain a priest. Likewise, you cannot have an apostle ordain a prophet. So that’s why Joseph [Smith] III’s ordination is invalid. William Marks, as great of priesthood or whatever as he had is not a prophet, he cannot ordain a prophet. Likewise Brigham Young, the other apostles that ordain him—that’s simply invalid in Strangite view, because the lesser cannot ordain the greater.
Newell Bringhurst, “So then the highest priesthood office then is a high priest, is that correct?”
Hamer, “Yes, High Priest.”
Bill Russell, “Since prophets die, and Joseph was killed, then how are you going to have a successor to Joseph?”
Hamer, “Angelic ordination.”
??? “Just the way Strang was ordained.”
Vickie, “James Strang could have, under the direction of God, laid his hands and ordained somebody before he passed, but he did not.”
Larry Foster, “I also commend the excellent papers. I had a couple questions more to Vickie, and maybe I missed part of it, or maybe it was answered elsewhere. On the Book of the Law of the Lord, that’s an extremely impressive book I think. I looked at it, but the 1856 edition is much bigger than the original book which is only about 50 pages? A lot of the best stuff in the 1856 edition is these extended explanatory notes, I don’t know if polygamy is in the original text of the edition, or is it part of that explanatory notes stuff that extends the length of the book so much?
The other question I had was an inevitable question about Strang—what does one make of him? He didn’t ordain a successor even though he was alive for several weeks after he was shot fatally. Going back, how does polygamy get in there? How about John C. Bennett? It seems like John C. Bennett is right there at the heart of Nauvoo polygamy and Strangite polygamy and it seems like he was equally destructive in both contexts. [audience chuckles]
I also wondered, I read one of Strang’s articles. Golly, he could sure write. He almost convinced me that polygamy was a great thing to liberate women. [audience chuckles] It gives them all kinds of choices they don’t have and they’re not stuck with a bunch of dodos. It would appear, and I’ve been criticized by one of the Strangites for saying this, that certainly his letter of appointment was a forgery, that it seems to reflect his own diary. It is block printed, the name has no relationship to Joseph Smith.”
Bill Russell, “We talked about his appointment at the beginning.”
Foster, “Oh you did. There’s a pretty clear cut case of forgery, or maybe did you find some other approach?”
Vickie, “The way that I have looked at it. When I wrote my book about the Strangites, I approached it basically as a newspaper reporter. I was not going to take a position either way, I was just going to tell the story. Because to me, it doesn’t matter to me what my opinion of James Strang was, but I was doing the story of the people who believed him, so that’s the way I wrote my book, and that’s the way I still basically look at it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who followed James Strang, and the Strangites of today, because their [road] is not the main road. Theirs has been a very hard, hard road with a lot of heartache.
Now I would like to make one comment. As far as I know, there is only a few copies of the 1851 Book of the Law, and there is somebody here who is familiar with the 1851 Book of the Law, and I’d like to ask him if there is polygamy in it?”
John Hajicek, “Yeah, there is.”
Vickie, “It’s basically the same thing?”
Hamer, “It’s in the main text, right? In other words, it just lacks the commentary, so it has the text, it just doesn’t explain it, right?”
John Hajicek, “Are you guys asking me?” [audience chuckles] “Yeah, I have an 1851 Book of the Law and it’s an 80 page preliminary version. It was published as a pamphlet with colored, printed wrappers on it. It doesn’t have the explanatory notes. It has 95% of the sections. He continued to translate some additional sections. There are some interesting differences. For example, the first edition doesn’t have a chapter on baptism for the dead, and Strang includes his earlier 1849 revelation on baptism for the dead instead, and then has a footnote that says baptism for the dead evidently didn’t exist in the Old Testament. Later he translates a chapter after on baptism from this Mosaic period, allegedly Mosaic period record. So his own views changed. But on polygamy he didn’t change. The laws on the number of wives a king could have and things like that are all in that first edition.”
Bill Russell, “That 1851 edition does have that you say?”
John Hajicek, “Right.
Mike, “Bill, is my assumption correct that with the assassination of Strang, that the tensions between the Strangites and the state and federal government kind of dissipated at that point. It is interesting to me that whereas the army had a relationship with the Utah church for quite a while, Strang was shot virtually under the guns of the USS Michigan, a naval vessel on the Great Lakes. I don’t know what the reports that were filed by the state of Michagan were, and how they were considered when they got back to Washington to the Navy Department in the Pierce administration, but were the tensions with the state governments of in Michigan and Wisconsin and federal government dissipated after the assassination?”
Hamer, “Yeah, because they also got expelled. They picked up all the members. They spoiled them of all their property. They put them on rented boats and they dropped them off all along the coast line destitute in little tiny groups. So it was the worst kind of persecution results than any other Mormons faced.”
Mike, “Did the navy play a part in that or was it all surveyance from Mackinaw City?”
Vickie, “There is no positive evidence. However, you take all the circumstantial evidence together, and I say yes.”
Hamer, “Not in the dropping off of the people.”
Vickie, “Not in the dropping off of people, no.”
Hamer, “But like Mike said, the warship is there in the murder.”
Mike, “Does the USS Michigan ferry people from Mackinaw City to St. James as part of the mob?”
Vickie, “As part of the Mob?”
Vickie, “I don’t believe it was the Michigan. There were 2 ships in Michigan. There was a steamer and there was a warship.”
Mike, “I’m asking about the USS Michigan, the warship.”
Vickie, “I don’t know.”
Hamer, “Right, The warship left the dock though.”
Vickie, “Right, it left the dock when Strang was murdered and the murderers jumped on the ship and then left.”
Mike, “2 guys jumped on the ship.”
Vickie and Hamer, “Right.”
Mike, “They left on the USS Michigan?”
Vickie and Hamer, “Yes”.
Mike, “It’s an interesting parallel with the 2 churches: one with the army involved, and the other with the navy.” [audience chuckles]
Vickie, “I think the conflict was gone, because the Strangites were gone, they were scattered.”
Mike, “and the polygamy issue kind of faded away, then?”
William Russell, “Here’s a question right here, and then our time is expired so maybe this should be our last one.”
Woman, “Why did they kill James Strang?”
Vickie, “That’s a good question. Basically, people had become disillusioned with Strang. Strang was caught trying to follow the Book of the Law and one of the tenets of the church is no alcohol, and basically the Strangites didn’t allow alcohol and they did not support the sale of alcohol to the Native Americans and there was a lot of conflict with the gentiles, and so forth who wanted to sell alcohol. Strangites became thirsty and they left the fold for other reasons, and those are the ones that basically were in the conspiracy to kill Strang.”
Hamer, “That’s one of them. That’s on ongoing conflict. Whenever Mormons gather together in big numbers and took political control and things like that, they would have conflict with their neighbors. There are all kinds of problems that result from that including the 2 groups don’t trust each other, they don’t feel they can get justice from each other. The other Americans see Mormons gathering under one prophet as being un-American. There’s a lot of tendency to go and kill that prophet.”
Bill Russell, “One other thing though, he did serve 1 term in the Michigan legislature.”
Hamer, “Two terms.”
Russell, “Well 2 years I think is all. But anyway, he was considered very effective according to the Detroit Free Press. It’s interesting that a prophet and king could be elected to the Michigan legislature and get along well.” [audience chuckles] He was also a member of the farms. Well thank you very much, this was an excellent session.”
Like I said, it was a fascinating question. I’ve invited John Hamer and a few others to entertain questions if you have any. Do you have any questions for them?