I was thrilled that John Miller was willing to do a Q&A with me for your benefit.
For those not familiar with James J. Strang, he was the 1844 convert who claimed to be Joseph Smith’s chosen successor.
Strang started by renouncing polygamy and spiritual wifery at a time when Brigham Young and Heber Kimball were continuing Joseph Smith’s secret teachings regarding the possibility of plural wives in Celestial marriage. Ironically, men known to have participated in illicit intercourse and spiritual wifery under the leadership of John C. Bennett and William Smith would become Strangites. Strang came to Nauvoo right around the time William Law and Austin Cowles were becoming lethally disaffected with Mormonism. He was baptized in the month when Law and Cowles were gathering conspirators with the intent of murdering Joseph Smith. As many who actively conspired against Joseph allied themselves with Strang (including my ancestor, Austin Cowles), I have come to regard membership in Strang’s sect as a highly suspicious sign.
A few years after Strang put himself at the front of a post-martyrdom Mormon sect claiming to renounce polygamy, Strang began gallivanting around the country with “Charles J. Douglas,” a 19-year-old woman whose real name was Elvira Eliza Field. Ms. Field would dress in men’s clothing to permit her to accompany the man she regarded as her husband. Strang’s original wife, never more than lukewarm about her husband’s association with Mormonism, left him. Strang married three more plural wives. All four of his plural wives were pregnant in 1856 when matters came to a head.
By 1856 tension between Strang and those who opposed him resulted in his shooting. Strang lingered for weeks before dying, never conferring on another the keys to his Strangite kingdom. In Strang’s case, he had actually had himself coronated king, hence the title of John Miller’s book.
Meg: I enjoyed this slim volume immensely. What brought you to write about James Strang?
John Miller: Thank you! I’m always on the lookout for a good story, especially a story that isn’t well known or could use a new telling. I don’t recall when I first heard about James Strang, but it must have been on one of my visits to northern Michigan, a region I love and where many of the key events in his life took place. Eventually I decided that Strang’s astonishing story ought to be told at a length that is too long for a magazine article and too short for a book—but just the right length for a $2.99 ebook that can be read in 90 minutes or less.
Meg: I was gratified by your consistent assertion that Strang was a fraud and the letter of appointment was a forgery. What do you think compelled Strang to attempt his audacious hijacking of Joseph Smith’s legacy?
John Miller: He hungered for power. When Strang was 19, he wrote an interesting line in his diary: “My mind has always been filled with dreams of royalty and power.” We don’t need to hold the musings of 19-year-olds over their heads for the rest of their lives (though the advent of Facebook makes it possible like never before). In the case of Strang, this particular musing highlights a character trait and explains a lot of his behavior later on.
Strang was ambitious and charismatic, but also reckless, and clearly he thought he could get away with forgery in staking his claim as Joseph Smith’s heir.
Meg: James Strang was a self-declared atheist in his youth. His obvious fabrication of religious artifacts and use of phosphorus-infused oil to perform glow-in-the-dark anointings seem entirely cynical. Do you think he remained a cynical non-believer while lording it over his followers in Voree and Beaver Island, or do you think he became convinced he did actually speak for God?
John Miller: If you tell a lie enough times, you may start to believe it. I suspect that the best con men have this capacity. Strang may have come to believe that he really was a Mormon prophet and that this justified all of his actions.
Meg: Reading Polygamist King, I came to appreciate the role James Strang played in forming Republican opposition to polygamy. Do you think the Utah War (and therefore the Mountain Meadows Massacre) might not have happened if it hadn’t been for James Strang? 2
John Miller: For all of the abuses of James Strang, Mountain Meadows is a lot to rest on his shoulders. Having said that, I think it’s fair to recognize that he aggravated anti-Mormon sentiments that were already well established. He may have been a fraud, but it’s hard not to have some sympathy at the end, when he’s murdered and his followers are forcibly evicted from Beaver Island, all with either the active collaboration or willful neglect of federal officials.
Meg: As James Strang’s end nears, you focus on his insistence that women wear pants, or bloomers, as a key factor in Strang’s violent death. Did you find it ironic that some Mormon feminists, upset with cultural expectations, have made wearing pants to Church a symbol of their cause?
John Miller: I’m not a Mormon, and was not aware that wearing pants to church held any special significance today. This is a fascinating connection. It struck me as a bit odd and perhaps darkly humorous that Strang’s theocratic experiment collapsed most directly over a controversy involving pants, but it does show that what we wear is form of self-expression and attempts to control it are fraught with difficulties.
Meg: Many of Strang’s followers eventually ended up in Joseph Smith III’s Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). How much do you think Strang’s opposition to Brigham Young informed the opposition of the RLDS Church?
John Miller: One of Strang’s accomplishments, for better or worse, was to show the possibility of alternatives to Brigham Young’s leadership, and perhaps this played some part in the rise of the RLDS. Following Strang’s death, many of his followers in fact joined the RLDS. Others, though, went to Utah and joined the LDS. Some left Mormonism entirely. Oddly, a handful have stayed true to Strang in the 21st century. They have a website. 3
Meg: As a researcher, I was frustrated by the lack of footnotes and context, for example in your assertion that Strang was embracing Black converts such as Walker Moore in contrast to Brigham Young’s restrictions of Black priesthood. 4 What led you to avoid footnotes in your delightful book?
John Miller: My main goal in writing “The Polygamist King” was to tell a good story that satisfies history buffs, rather than to produce a work of original scholarship. So instead of footnotes, I included a “sources and acknowledgments” section at the end that allows me to tip my hat to the writers and researchers who preceded me as well as to mention the key primary documents, which I also read. My hope is that for readers who want to learn more about Strang, this section will point the way.
As for Walker Moore, he takes up a single sentence of the ebook. It’s really just an aside and I almost didn’t include it. I did, however, find it interesting that Strang chose to ordain a black man. So I thought it was worth noting. Readers can make of it what they will, though I’m not sure there’s much to say beyond that fact that it happened. Race and Mormonism is a fair subject, of course, but also a much-abused avenue of attack by people whose only agenda is to paint the LDS as backward.
Meg: I had the chance to meet Alex Beam and enjoyed reading American Crucifixion, his treatment of Joseph Smith. 5 However I understand Alex has now moved on and doesn’t plan to write anything more about Mormonism. Is Polygamist King likely to be your last exploration of Mormonism and how it relates to modern American matters?
John Miller: I enjoyed reading “American Crucifixion” as I prepared to write “The Polygamist King.” It’s in the “sources and acknowledgments” section! I have several ideas for my next major writing project—by “major,” I mean bigger than my next magazine or newspaper deadline—and a few involve questions of faith and public life.
Meg: Thank you for taking the time to discuss “The Polygamist King.” I look forward to reading more of your writing and would be thrilled if you were to return to “Mormon” subjects in the future.
- John J. Miller writes for National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called him “one of the best literary journalists in the country.” ↩
- Clearly Strang was dead when the Mountain Meadows Massacre occurred. It’s just that students of that horrific event claim it almost didn’t happen. Thus I wondered what might have happened if the metaphorical bale of straw named James Strang hadn’t been added to the camel’s back that was the Mountain Meadows Massacre. ↩
- The website for the Strangites or “the Original Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” is www.strangite.org. ↩
- I’m pretty sure the Walker Moore matter happened when Black converts were still embraced with full privileges by many Mormons, including Brigham Young. ↩
- Of interest are my review of American Crucifixion and a subsequent Pause for Questions that included information from meeting Alex Beam. ↩