Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Coronation of James J. Strang and the Making of Beaver Island Mormonism

Academic journal article Communal Societies

The Coronation of James J. Strang and the Making of Beaver Island Mormonism

Article excerpt

On July 8, 1850, on isolated Beaver Island in the middle of northern Lake Michigan, a few hundred Mormons met to crown their leader "King in Zion" in one of only a handful of American coronation ceremonies. The ceremony was elaborate. A royal procession accompanied James Jesse Strang, prophet and soon to be monarch, as he entered the main hall of the island's tabernacle dressed in royal regalia. Once he was seated on a throne positioned on the middle of the stage, George James Adams, a key disciple, placed a makeshift crown on Strang's head and a scepter in his hand. Turning to face the crowd, Adams announced the new king to the gathered assembly. Unbeknownst to many then attending, there were deep similarities between this meeting and one that was held six years earlier. On May 11, 1844, in a meeting of a group known alternately as the Kingdom of God or the Council of Fifty, "President Joseph [Smith] was voted out P[rophet] P[riest] and K[ing] with loud hosannas." (2) According to some sources, this too included a ritualized anointing in which Joseph Smith was "ordained a king, to reign over the house of Israel forever." (3)

There have been, according to some estimates, about four hundred incarnations of Mormonism. (4) Indeed, Latter Day Saints have a sometimes forgotten tendency to fracture. (5) This was a tendency that was especially apparent, as one might expect, in the decade following the death of Joseph Smith. Three major groupings of Latter Day Saints coalesced in the months after their prophet's assassination: those who united under the twelve apostles, with Brigham Young at their head; those who united with Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith's former first counselor; and those who joined with James Strang. Even after other Latter Day Saint movements arose, it was the Strangites, the least likely of the churches, that proved the most serious threat to the largest branch of Mormonism headed by Brigham Young.

Strang was a new convert to the faith when he announced his claim to succeed the recently martyred Smith. He had, in fact, been baptized fewer than six months before. For many, this alone was sufficient reason to discount the newcomer's pretensions, yet for his supporters, Strang's recent conversion seemed less important in light of his other credentials. His claim hinged on his possession of a letter allegedly written by Joseph Smith that he claimed designated him as the martyr's successor. (6) Evidently, this was not simply a bureaucratic appointment. Even before the letter arrived at Strang's residence in Wisconsin, he claimed he had been the recipient of another messenger, an angel who ordained him in Smith's stead. (7) This angelic ordination mirrors Smith's own encounters with angels at the beginning of his ministry. In fact, Strang followed the model of Smith's career as he reported visions, translated ancient records with the Urim and Thummim, and recorded revelations taken from the words of Deity. (8) In Voree, Wisconsin, the first Strangite community, Strang replicated the public faith of Joseph Smith, working quickly to reconstruct the organization with a first presidency, twelve apostles, and other basic structures of Mormon ecclesiastical government.

Yet in Nauvoo, Illinois, the location of the Latter Day Saint capital between 1839 and 1846, Mormonism had both public and private layers of theology, ritual, and organization. As a six-month convert, Strang remained unfamiliar with the instruction Smith offered confidentially to his intimates. He did not have firsthand knowledge of plural marriage, the rituals later associated with the Nauvoo Temple, or the "Kingdom of God" organization. Nevertheless, Strang's movement eventually implemented a version of Mormonism that borrowed extensively from Nauvoo esotericism. This article traces the integration of this private or esoteric layer of Joseph Smith's Nauvoo theology into Strang's church, with particular emphasis on the coronation on Beaver Island. …

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