Bradley J. Birzer is the author of Russell Kirk: American Conservative and co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative website.
The Mormon King of Lake Michigan
Who can resist a story that begins with a regicide? Or, at the very least, the slaying of a man who would be king?
In his latest writing, noted journalist (Wall Street Journal, National Review), novelist, and journalism professor John J. Miller movingly tells the true story of James J. Strang, a nineteenth-century Mormon cult leader who attempted to form his own independent kingdom in the heart of Lake Michigan. As Miller so ably describes him:
Strang was one of the most colorful men of his time — a political boss who called himself a king, a cult leader who proclaimed himself a prophet, and a con artist who persuaded hundreds of people to move to a remote island and obey his commands. He emerged during a turbulent period of sectarian passion and frontier settlement, twin forces that helped give birth to what may remain as the greatest display of Christian religious diversity ever seen in the United States. During a six-month period in his early thirties, he converted to the new faith of the Mormons, launched an audacious bid to become their leader, and lost a power struggle to Brigham Young.
Miller’s gripping tale is a short one, published by Amazon as a “Kindle Single,” costing only $2.99, and taking around two hours to read. These singles provide a much needed form of reading technology—something longer and deeper than an academic or journal article but not as long as a full-blown book. One of the great joys of the internet, of course, is that one is not limited by the availability and cost of paper, binding, and printing. Amazon has effectively taken advantage of this niche and great writers such as Miller have seen and embraced the new form.
As much as nineteenth-century Americans hated Catholics and often treated them as third-class citizens, Americans still somewhat—if reluctantly—respected Catholic history, daring (especially the Jesuits), and sheer tenacity. For the Mormons, however, Americans held nothing but seething hatred. From the time that Joseph Smith proclaimed his new religion, Americans denounced him and his followers as con artists, a sham, and a terrible internal danger to the cohesion and spirit of the republic. From the early 1830s through the 1880s, Mormons became the quintessential scapegoats, the subjects of ridicule, government persecution, and mistrust. When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes mystery, he set the background murder in Utah, with a vicious Brigham Young and his bloodthirsty and sycophantic Danite militia tyrannizing the settlers who only wanted a chance to make a life on western soil.
Born in 1813 in the so-called Burned-Over District of upstate New York, Strang was raised in a culture that had come to distrust all orthodox, institutionalized religion as something hateful—having witnessed first-hand the competing ministers of the Second Great Awakening who spent more time denouncing their Christian rivals than promoting the love of Christ. A bright young Jacksonian man, Strang decided early in life that he would love to be a Caesar or a Napoleon. History, science, and epic poetry captured the restless young man’s imagination.
This desire to conquer was also a part of the American culture. Called filibustering in America, notions of manhood often revolved around “fame,” the ability to create a new republic or nation. “Fame alone of all the productions of man’s folly may survive,” Strang wrote in 1834. More often than not, as in the case of Rhodesia or Honduras, filibustering often fought in the name of republicanism while actually creating the seeds of an empire. The founding of the Republic of Texas somewhat proved an exception, but it was far more common to try and found a republic outside of the territorial limits of what would become the continental United States. The Mormons—in every permutation—also proved the exception. While they did try to conquer abroad, they mostly desired to settle lands in what would become part of the union.
When an anti-Mormon mob assassinated Joseph Smith in Carthage, Illinois, a power vacuum quickly formed within the young religion. Brigham Young took control of the vast majority of Mormons, ultimately ending up in Utah, but Joseph Smith’s wife claimed a large share of Mormons, too, leading them to southwestern Missouri. Strang, however, considered the move toward Utah “a crackpot scheme, doomed to fail.” Instead, he and his followers moved north, eventually founding a Mormon settlement on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. An angel, he claimed, commanded him to do so. Well, the angel at least commanded him to become a prophet and a leader, though the divine messenger left the details of this future somewhat vague. Strang distanced himself from Brigham Young by denouncing plural marriage (what the Mormons incorrectly call “polygamy”) as not only immoral but as unbecoming to a free people. The divine messenger also gave Strang his own set of golden tablets which he would translate as “The Book of the Law of the Lord,” a set of rules by which civil society should live a godly life.
Almost immediately after creating a following, though, Strang began to cultivate his own sort of cult of personality. “Rather than earn the devotion of his followers,” Miller explains, “Strang demanded that his councilors take a comprehensive oath of fealty during a private ceremony, replete with the theatrics of secret handshakes and gestures.” Further, Strang, now styled as King, began the bizarre task of clothing himself and creating a liturgy around his new court.
Miller’s description of Strang is darkly hilarious:
He held a wooden scepter and wore a bright red robe trimmed with white, perhaps looking a bit like Santa Claus. An entourage of men with various church titles surrounded him, like dukes, earls, and barons at a court. At the climax of the coronation, Adams placed a crown on Strang’s head. Witnesses described it as a metal circlet, but it was in fact cast of heavy paper and decorated with tinsel. According to one account, the royal costume was a hodgepodge of Masonic garb. It was supposed to make Strang appear as a Jewish king from the Old Testament. Strang was now the King of Beaver Island.
As the reader knows from the opening of Miller’s retelling, Strang’s end came unnaturally, and the entire piece brilliantly leads back to this opening shot to the cult leader’s head. Strang’s rule became openly creepy from his first moments as king. Tellingly, he embraced plural marriage, ultimately having fourteen children by five different women. He also established a series of draconian living codes, though he was quite gentle in terms of taxation.
Not surprisingly, those already living on or near Beaver Island saw the formation of this cult kingdom as a serious danger to the American republic. When they tried to challenge it through the law, Strang played this up as unjust persecution against a righteous man. He told himself and his people that all such persecution would only make him stronger. “Like Moses of old my name will be revered and men scarcely restrained from worshipping me as a God.”
Yet few remember Strang now. This is our loss. Not because Strang was god-like, but because he believed he was god-like. Miller beautifully tells the story and exposes the folly of such men. As I’ve noted, the story begins in regicide. But just who murders Strang and how, I’ll leave for the reader to discover. Miller is a truly fine writer—whether in an article, the full-blown mystery novel, the public policy expose, or the Kindle single. From the first word of Polygamist King to the last, Miller holds the reader in rapt attention. The plot grabs ahold of you and never lets you go. Amazingly enough, it’s all true—true crime at its best.