I recently finished an advance copy of "God Has Made Us a Kingdom": James Strang and the Midwest Mormons (Signature, 2006) by Vickie Cleverley Speek, a former journalist. Her book retells the improbable story of Jesse James Strang, a relatively recent convert to Mormonism who put forth a claim to be Joseph Smith's successor following his death in 1844. While it seems odd to modern Mormons, some Mormons of that day took Strang's claim seriously, and he gathered hundreds of scattered post-Nauvoo Mormons to him, first in Wisconsin, then later on Beaver Island in the remote northern waters of Lake Michigan. His death at the hands of an assassin (who was immediately given refuge in a US warship docked at Beaver Island) cut short his "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" (commonly known as the Strangites). What are we to make of this strange episode in LDS history?
Maybe a better question is: What does the whole Strang episode tell us about the Midwest Mormons, those who were left after Brigham Young took the main body of Mormons west? They were confused, having lost both Joseph and Nauvoo. They were Mormons, but most of their fellow believers had gone west. Those who stayed behind were either too old or infirm to make the trek, or disagreed with the leadership of Brigham and the Twelve. For those who stayed behind, there was a leadership vacuum. For some, Strang was able to fill that role for a period.
Strang's claim to leadership was based on a letter he claimed to have received from Joseph Smith, postmarked June 19, 1844, just a few days before his death. There are authenticity questions about the letter and his claims were not well received by those in Nauvoo, where Strang was promptly excommunicated. But he persevered in Wisconsin. In 1845 he had a vision and discovered what the book described as "three small plates of brass, scratched on all sides with queer writings and drawings." These Strang translated with the help of a Urim and Thummim given him earlier by an angel. The resulting translation went over pretty well among his followers. Sound familiar?
It's interesting to compare all this to the path followed by Brigham Young, who had no visions, found no plates, and did no translating. He didn't even attempt to assume the role of President of the Church until 1847. Maybe Brigham was just too concerned with getting the Saints out of Nauvoo and across the plains to even worry about becoming another Joseph Smith. In any case, reflecting on the details of Strang's initial religious actions reminds me how much I like Brigham Young. Had I been in Nauvoo, I think I'd have followed Brigham.
You can read the book for the other religious details (which don't really get much analytical attention in Speek's narrative). What I found compelling at times about the middle portion of the book was the familiar story of Mormons coming into conflict with the locals and (in the end) getting run out of town after their religious leader is brazenly killed. Again, the perpetrators walked away with no punishment. Again, the propery of these Mormons fell into the hands of their enemies. Sure, these weren't "our" Mormons, but even so you will be rooting for them as you read.
The Mormons couldn't stay in Nauvoo. There were only three choices: (1) scatter and disperse; (2) move as a group to a new location north (Wisconsin?) or south (Texas?) of Illinois; or (3) go west. Going back east was never an option. No one goes east. The tragic end of Strang and the eclipse of his Strangites suggests Brigham had it right again. Going west wasn't easy, but it worked. Strang and the Strangites in Wisconsin and Michigan didn't last long. Lyman Wight with a group of Mormons in Texas didn't fare much better.
About the Wives ...
The book actually has two major parts, the first following Strang as he set up his version of a Mormon church, and the second following what happened to his five wives and the children after his death. [Yes, despite early opposition to polygamy, it came to play a primary role in Strang's church.] Think of the second part of the book as ISL, Jr. I sort of skimmed through this section, but some readers might be more interested in the fate of the wives. The 19th was just a bad century for widows and retirees, who just always seemed to end up poor and struggling.
Grant Palmer, in An Insider's View of Mormon Origins, devoted six pages to Strang (p. 208-14). He noted the similarity of Strang's religious claims to Joseph's (hard to miss) and how many early LDS followers were drawn to Strang, including Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Hiram Page, and William Smith. He notes:
The one living witness who had not yet joined with Strang was Oliver Cowdery. His father, William Cowdery, converted in the summer of 1846. A year later Oliver had moved to Elkhorn, Wisconsin, twelve miles from Strang's Voree [Wisconsin] headquarters, and associated with the church, although it is unknown how close his affiliation was.
For more on Strang, see the Wikipedia article. There's also an earlier biography of Strang, King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988) by Roger Van Noord.