Beyond his letter of appointment and divine revelations, Strang played up the security of Voree, Wisconsin, and its proximity to Nauvoo, Illinois. The predictability of Wisconsin countryside contrasted sharply with the rugged trip Young was leading to Salt Lake in the winter of 1846 to establish a Mormon community insulated from persecution. Moreover, Strang opposed polygamy—at least for the time being—and thus appealed to many Mormons upset by Young’s plural marriages. All of the above combined to win Strang his biggest coup—the support of Joseph Smith’s brother William. Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy, and his widow and civil wife, Emma, also may have backed him, at least tacitly for a brief period. By 1846 Strang’s popularity reached its zenith. A thousand or so believers joined him at Voree and a number of Mormon churches in the Midwest and East hailed him as Joseph Smith’s successor.
But Strang’s victories were soon stained. It wasn’t long before Voree was plagued with infighting, scandals and fraud charges—one was that the glow from oil Strang used for anointing was from phosphorous, not the Holy Spirit. One by one Strang excommunicated some of his closest supporters. When William Smith, Joseph’s brother, was ousted for speaking against him, Strang’s important liaison with the Smith family ended.
Meanwhile, Young led thousands to Salt Lake and by 1847 the desert community that Strang had declared a folly was becoming an unparalleled success. Although Strang was far from giving up his claim to the church, paranoia had set in. Like Brigham Young, Strang also needed to find a place to insulate his followers from criticism. He needed an island.
“I beheld a land amidst wide waters, and covered with large timber, with a deep broad bay on one side of it,” so went Strang’s revelation of the place where God told him to lead his followers. Whether or not the vision came from God, Strang had seen a place that fit its description on a trip east by ship in the summer of 1846. It was Beaver Island. The following summer, Strang, his wife Mary, and other Mormon families began settling the island where they survived by farming, fishing and cutting cordwood to sell to steamers. Over the next nine years, the population climbed to about 900 people.
Secreted away on his Lake Michigan isle, Strang freely led his flock into new and even more creative theological territory. First was the presentation of a new set of plates (origin unexplained) that Strang deciphered and compiled into a Book of the Law of the Lord that governed island life. The plates also included the revelation that Strang should be crowned king of his people—a prophetic directive that echoed Joseph Smith’s decision to make himself king of a secret Kingdom of God on earth shortly before his death.
Strang also may have copied Smith when he made another momentous decision—to pursue polygamy. Or he may simply have fallen in love with an attractive young woman. Whatever his motives, on July 13, 1849, Strang secretly married the first of his four polygamous wives, 19-year-old Elvira Field. As Strang was still denouncing polygamy publicly, Field dressed in men’s clothing and assumed the name Charlie Douglass to accompany him on a trip to the East. Later, back on Beaver Island, Strang gradually introduced Field as a woman, freely appearing publicly with her. But it wasn’t until the birth of his first child by Field that Strang formally sanctioned polygamy.
Strang went on to marry Betsy McNutt, and cousins Sarah and Phoebe Wright. Meanwhile, his civil wife Mary Strang took their three children and moved back to Wisconsin in 1851. Strang’s polygamous wives bore him nine more children—four of them posthumously. (The four newest Mrs. Strangs were pregnant when they fled the island after their husband’s assassination.)