“I prophesy in the name of the Lord God of Israel, unless the United States redress the wrongs committed upon the Saints in the state of Missouri and punish the crimes committed by her officers that in a few years the government will be utterly overthrown and wasted, and there will not be so much as a potsherd left.”
So it was that Sharon, Vermont native Joseph Smith, who supposed himself a prophet of God and founded what is now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (informally the LDS or Mormon Church), rather mistakenly announced the demise of these United States on May 6, 1843.
It would be Smith however, who met an untimely fate, murdered and mutilated by a mob of vigilantes in Illinois on June 27, 1844. In the feud that erupted after his death, native New Yorker James Jesse Strang would proclaim himself Smith’s appointed successor.
Strang’s parents were born in Saratoga and Washington Counties at the end of the 18th century. He was born March 21, 1813, in Scipio, Cayuga County, NY. He struggled in school, but nonetheless believed he would be an important world leader, on par with Napoleon, or Caesar.
In an entry in his diary (written partially in secret code and later deciphered) on his nineteenth birthday in 1832 he regretted that he had not yet been appointed a General, or elected to the State Legislature. A few years later he was admitted to bar.
Strang moved with his wife Mary Perce to Chautauqua County where he served as postmaster for several years in Ellington and edited the Randolph Herald. Following his wife’s family to Wisconsin, he met Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois and was baptized by him personally on February 25, 1844.
A week later he was ordained an elder and encouraged by Smith to form a Latter Day Saints community in Wisconsin. Strang was on this mission when Smith was murdered, setting off what church historians call the “succession crisis.” The internecine conflict divided the church and has been the subject of much debate since.
Strang’s part in the conflict was founded on a letter to him from Joseph Smith, written June 19, 1844 (a week before Smith’s death) and mailed from Nauvoo. The letter makes several somewhat ambiguous statements praising Strang as a church leader. It’s been disputed by various factions since, but appears to be authentic, if not exactly clear in naming Strang as Smith’s successor.
Strang of course, also claimed a heavenly election to the leadership of the church. He claimed to have had visions in which an angel appeared to him to tell him the secret location of – you guessed it – another buried account of ancient people, this time etched into brass plates. Like Smith, Strang could claim for himself the honorific “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.”
Unlike Smith’s, Strang’s plates were confirmed to exist by several reputable witnesses who saw them. Although the plates were written in an unknown script reminiscent of his secret diary code, Strang conveniently produced a translation:
“My people are no more.The mighty are fallen, and the young slain in battle. Their bones bleached on the plain by the noonday shadow. The houses are leveled to the dust, and in the moat are the walls. They shall be inhabited.
“I have in the burial served them, and their bones in the Death-shade, towards the sun’s rising, are covered. They sleep with the mighty dead, and they rest with their fathers. They have fallen in transgression and are not, but the elect and faithful there shall dwell.
“The word hath revealed it. God hath sworn to give an inheritance to his people where transgressors perished. The word of God came to me while I mourned in the Death-shade, saying, I will avenge me on the destroyer. He shall be driven out. Other strangers shall inhabit thy land. I an ensign there will set up. The escaped of my people there shall dwell when the flock disown the Shepherd and build not on the Rock.
“The forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth thy record. Record my words, and bury it in the Hill of Promise.”
Because they were found at the Mormon community in Voree, Wisconsin led by Strang, the plates bolstered his claim to church leadership. Known as “The Record of Rajah Manchou of Vorito” or the “Voree Record,” they also contained a small map of where they were found along with an “all seeing eye” on the reverse.
In 1847, Strang’s congregation moved to Beaver Island, in northern Lake Michigan. There Strang said he received the “plates of Laban,” which sanctioned polygamy (actually polygyny; Strang had four wives) and authorized his theocratic monarchical rule. Strang named himself a king and was elected to the state legislature by his followers the next year (and reelected in 1854). Meanwhile, his leadership was generally angering the local fishermen and farmers by attempting to extract tithes from them.
Strang died on June 16, 1856, murdered by two former followers. On July 8th a mob arrived at the community, burned their meeting house, and forcefully rounded up and drove from their homes some 2,600 Strangites.
Today, a small number of his spiritual descendants are said to remain, spread around the Midwest, Canada, Mexico and Africa.
Illustrations, from above: James Jesse Strang (1856 daguerreotype taken by itinerant photographer J. Atkyn, who later became one of Strang’s assassins); “Martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith in Carthage jail, June 27th, 1844” lithograph by C. G. Crehen (Nagel and Weingaertner, NY) from a painting by G W Fasel; page three of Joseph Smith’s “Letter of Appointment” to James Jesse Strang (Yale University Library); 1845 broadside depicting the Voree Plates; and the main branches of the LDS Movement (Wikipedia).