The Society for Strang Studies
founded in 2000 to facilitate research into the life and accomplishment of James Jesse Strang

   

 
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J.J. Strang Writer's Society
Issue No. 3
January 23, 2002

Welcome to Franklin Stover fhstovernetzero.net a new member from Eureka, CA. who tells us about himself as follows: "As a child, I had some very bad experiences with Mormons. I do not dislike them now as an adult, but as a kid brought up on Methodism, a denomination known for its moderate and pragmatic outlook, I wasn't easily swayed by talk of gold plates and such. Be that as it may, I had a couple very enthusiastic "elders" harass me endlessly about joining the church. This story is actually quite long and some people I've relayed it to just refuse to believe how aggressive these elders could be. Suffice it to say, I was not inspired to join their fold based on this very rude introduction, and as time passed, I became quite critical of the Mormon religion. In fact, I think that my criticism reached a point of being unhealthy for me. I diverted much of my distaste for the religion into research and became quite knowledgeable about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and anything to do with it. Realizing that I had amassed a ton of information on the subject, it came to me that this was basically a big waste of time. I also realized that religion often acts irrationally, and that no religion is ever completely apart from that. Taking a big sigh, I decided that I should take myself less seriously and that I should put all that I knew into a fantasy concerning 19th religion in America. In this fantasy, the mind set of those times came forward in my account, and I found myself not picking at any one system of beliefs, but rather enjoying the strangeness of the religious times. So, I created a part for Strang, for he was a part of the fabric that made religion in this country so interesting, but philosophically suicidal. I devote quite a bit of time to renegade Mormon prophet Hiram Page as well. The book was started in 1990, and I am still working on it. Yes. I'm slow." I hope we'll find out just what another new member, Doug Larche, at dlarcheuwc.edu is working on in the Strang arena. Welcome Doug.

Ann-Marie has graciously allowed me to use this reprint of her recent article in the Glen Arbor Sun. A Visit to Beaver Island: The Legacy of James Jesse Strang by Anne-Marie Oomen From The Glen Arbor Sun, Nov. 15, 2001 "On July 17, I caught the ferry to Beaver Island to participate in Museum Week, sponsored by the Beaver Island Historical Society. I'd been invited by Bill Cashman, museum director, to serve on a panel titled the "Life and Legacy of James Jesse Strang." Museum Week on Beaver Island is a celebrated event, but for those who hunger for history that seems stranger than the lies we tell, Beaver Island is downright provocative for its most controversial character, James Jesse Strang, the Mormon leader who in the 1840s broke with Brigham Young to form his own branch of the Mormon Church on Beaver Island, who took four polygamous wives in addition to his legal wife, who served two terms in the Michigan legislature and who crowned himself king of the island, the only man in America who has done so. Against my qualms about my competence - I insisted on coming as a writer, not a historian - I had accepted the invitation. I was hoping to learn something new about this wildly renegade and ironically American character. "I'd covered a good deal of the available reading on James Jesse Strang because, as a playwright who is writing a play centered on Strang and his second wife, Elvira Eliza Fields - who traveled on missions with him dressed as a man - I'd needed to. I'd read all three major biographies and other research down to copies of the meteorological records (supposedly written by Elvira Eliza Fields) for the Smithsonian. Despite the 1856 mobbing of the Mormon establishments after Strang's assassination, there is a good deal' of surviving information on the Beaver Island Mormons, as well as his own Book of the Law of the Lord. There is even more on the competitive situations surrounding the economic and political success of this band which consisted of fewer than a thousand. But there is little written on the wives, those five women who shared his life. And to complicate the issue, layers of regional legends, tall tales and outright lies flavored with religious bigotry surround this history. I was hoping for new insights. "While on the ferry I met two people who were also serving on the panel: John Hajicek, one of three hundred plus practicing Strangite Mormons, whose business is used and rare books; and Vicki Speeks, a traditional Mormon and a descendent from a polygamous marriage (though not related to the Mormons of Beaver Island) who is a journalist and expert on the wives. Upon arrival at the island, I walked the few blocks to the Museum (formerly the Mormon print shop) and met Jerry Post, the fourth member of the panel, a practicing Mormon and grandson of Warren.Post, one of James Jesse Strang's most loyal apostles. I also met John Leben, the panel moderator, a talented videographer who has just received a Michigan Humanities Council grant to do a documentary on Strang. All of the people involved were friendly, intelligent, and quickly won my respect for their knowledgeable and reasonable approach to the task at hand. After supper, we gathered at the Holy Rosary Hall. We- four sat at a plain reception table at the front of the room, facing an audience of about forty people. John stood at the microphone on the side. "Again I wondered what I was doing. However, from the introductions on, it became clear that my fellow participants were bright, insightful, informed, and articulate in their opinions, however different from each other. It also became clear that my role was to be in support of the informed imagination. Because I am not a formalist historian but one who trades in literary creation, I use history as a springboard to make suggestions about personality, to look at a man more complex and difficult than both the stories and histories made him. For example, John Leben's first question was to summarize some of the published views of Strang, and then to ask, "Was he scoundrel or prophet?" Of the four of us, only John Hajicek, the practicing Strangite, felt he was a prophet. In fact, he made a persuasive case for Strang's role as prophet, starting with the appointment letter from Joseph Smith. Vicki Speeks felt he was a fraud, but an interesting one. Jerry Post felt he started out well-intentioned and that his grandfather believed deeply and sincerely in Strang's calling and that perhaps Strang, in his ambition, assumed the characteristics of a prophet, but that ultimately, he was not. I found myself talking about him as a man who may have begun with a spiritual journey that he lost control of, and perhaps, over time, that corrupted him. "We moved on in that manner. John Leben's next questions revolved around Elvira, Strang's first polygamous wife following Mary. Was she a spiritual convert, the equivalent of a rock-star groupie, or were they truly in love? Again, John Hajicek suggested that their complimentary intelligences, her independence, willingness to take chances, and their mutual discovery of great love made them a good match. Vicki Speeks agreed, adding that she felt they may have been soul-mates in the deepest sense of that term, and that they remained loyal to each other throughout the other marriages. Speeks also suggested that one problem in the first marriage may have been Mary's various illnesses. After having read many letters in which some unnamed illness plagued Mary, Speeks suggested that Mary may have been deeply depressed and that this chronic illness, over time, had effected Strang's first marriage and his willingness to pursue a relationship with Elvira. "We also discussed Strang's coronation. Everyone acknowledged that this may have been one of the most bizarre decisions Strang made in a life of the bizarre. The participants argued that, even then, it must have been an odd, perhaps even embarrassing thing to witness, and that the most intelligent would have had to be skeptical. However, one suggestion was that perhaps the coronation served as a metaphorical crowning more than a literal one; that in fact, Strang's message, however badly presented, may have been that he was assuming authority over a spiritual kingdom. "About his reversal on polygamy, (his early teachings were against it) we were pretty much in agreement that because it came simultaneously with the birth of his first child from his polygamous marriage to Elvira, it was the point at which he could no longer deny his practice. However, our discussion revealed varied ideas about his leadership process. He could have been responding to political pressure. He could have been responding to pressure from Elvira. He could have been waiting until he had time to prepare his apostles and church leaders for such a dramatic about face. Or perhaps, in the course of his spiritual journey-if it was sincere-he needed time to trust what had been revealed to him. Or a combination of all those factors may have come into play. All of these ideas are, of course, conjecture, but in it there is the seed of a story that stirs this writer's imagination. "Other suggestions from the discussion also intrigued me: that Strang was not a charismatic figure as has been assumed by so many. Instead, that he was by stature, small; that his skin was pocked by childhood illness; that he had a wondering eye. But it seems that most of the reports agree that he had a powerful manner of speaking and, in one account, an infectious and memorable laugh." "A final question John Leben asked was what would have happened if James Jesse Strang had lived. John Hajicek believed that if Strang had lived and continued with the momentum he had .at the time of his assassination, Northern Michigan might be a community and culture similar to the culture surrounding Salt Lake City in this time. In thinking about this, I had to agree that he had the political savvy and economic power to continue building his community. But I wondered if he had the personal will to maintain the quest as he got older. "When the panel opened to audience questions, some centered around the rumors of thievery and counterfeiting. Again, no single answer serves because history is complicated too, depending on who's reporting it. As Vicki Speeks said, history is written by the victors, and that may be why so much storying about this branch of Mormons is negative. Except for John Hajicek, who said he has never found a single example of proven thievery in any of the documentation, the remainder of the panel felt that though the Beaver Island Mormons were probably blamed for everything that came up missing, including little sister's sock, some very specific examples of 'consecrating' goods may have existed among some Strangites. According to the biographies, the many have been judged by the behavior of the few. Thievery does not appear to have been practice. Other questions about polygamy and beatings gleaned similar answers. We don't have a lot of concrete evidence from truly reliable sources, but what we have suggests a much more complicated and difficult situation demanding a broader study of this man and his diverse followers, who did not always act in conjunction with him. "During the final discussion, I asked a question of the panel for myself. I asked how it felt to come to the island here in this time, knowing what had happened. John Hajicek said that the first time he came, he felt scared and sad. This was, after all, where his prophet was martyred (he never used the term murdered), but he also said that because the current residents of Beaver Island were so friendly and welcoming, and seemed so eager to learn, he quickly put that aside. He also said, since his family converted to the Strangite branch of the Mormon church, and are not direct descendants, the question might have more relevance for Jerry Post, who was a direct descendent of Strangites and whose grandfather lost his livelihood in the mobbing. There was a quiet moment, then Jerry agreed with John. Because of the honest curiosity and open welcome he has always received from the islanders, he has forgotten all the might-have-beens and simply loves the island and its people for what they are, an important and much valued part of his history. "In the final moments of the evening, John Hajicek brought forth a finely covered box which contained an authentic copy of Strang's allegedly "revealed" text, The Book of the Law of the Lord. The text is one of a few surviving of the unbound copies that were housed in the Beaver Island print shop when it was ransacked during the mobbing. Though I am not sympathetic to polygamy or many of the practices of that time, I felt awe to hold the book that was at the center of Strang's teachings, and the base for so much controversy and transition, both for good and ill, in that far past community of real people. As a playwright, I have to know both stories and history. And though I will, in the end, "story" the history, I am trying to see past stereotypes to create characters as complex human beings trying to meet difficult challenges, as people who were not solely good or evil but who were complicated blurrings, who should perhaps be approached with less judgment and more curiosity. To hold the book in my hands made me hope I can do justice to this amazing tale, and grateful to share ideas with these bright, searching people who gave me some sense of who the Strangite people were and what they can tell us about ourselves." Note: the play Anne-Marie is writing, Strang and Elvira, will have it's first reading this fall.

 

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