John Miller, director of the journalism program at Hillsdale College and a national correspondent for the National Review, has longtime roots in Northern Michigan and a long-simmering curiosity about King James Jesse Strang, the 19th-century Mormon renegade who led his followers to establish a colony on Beaver Island.
Miller recently acted upon that curiosity by researching and writing a Kindle single (longer than a magazine article, shorter than a book) about Strang’s tumultuous reign that ended badly—some of his followers killed him. We ask Miller about his lively new Beaver Island history work, The Polygamist King.
I suppose anybody who has heard even a small rumor about King James Jesse Strang is curious about him, but you were compelled to move ahead and write 17,000 words about the man. What so captivated you?
I just love this story about James Strang. I’ve been interested in it for a long time. I love Northern Michigan and I’m a history buff, and this is a blockbuster history story for Northern Michigan. I just wanted to know more about it. Also I wanted to tell this history in a narrative that is fast paced, that gives the readers what they want, and this format really allows for that.
When did the story first catch your attention?
I’ve known about the story for some time and have done some casual reading about James Strang over the years. But when I started the project I obviously became much more deliberate about that. I did a lot of reading on Mormonism when school was still in session last year, and then when graduation day came in May, I hit it really hard, doing intensive research from all the major sources. There’s an incredible amount of information online now, including primary documents.
Is there anything from the primary documents that really stays in your mind, really says something about Strang?
Well, yes. It was in a letter that Strang was writing to his brother. Here, let me get the quote.
“I am fully persuaded that my future fame depends upon the calling which God has put upon me, and not upon any office which men can bestow. I have made my mark upon the times in which I live, which the wear and tear of time in the newborn ages shall not be able to obliterate. Like Moses of old my name will be revered, and men scarcely restrained from worshipping me as a God.”
Okay, yes, the king really puts it out there in that statement.
It was a memorable find too because I was working at home and my family was there helping me decipher Strang’s handwriting. There was one word in there, I think it was “wear” that we just could not figure out, and then my son figured it out. It was fun.
What about thematically, what held your fascination there?
It’s a complicated story about religious tolerance, one that has parallels in our own time. And there are no easy lessons in Strang’s story. This is not a morality play about how to live now. It highlights challenges we are facing and shows how an earlier generation faced similar challenges and didn’t always handle it well.
He doesn’t seem like he was probably an easy man to like.
No. You could see him as a David Koresh, a lunatic cult leader. But on the other hand, what’s wrong with starting a religious colony and being left alone. And we are fighting this now every day. That is something in itself, a moment when we can look at the past and try to learn from the hard lessons they learned.
And of course, good old ancient human passion was involved as well. Is it true he was romancing the wife of one of his murderers?
One of the murderers had a wife that might have been courted by Strang. He had five wives at his death—four of whom were pregnant—and some documentation suggests he might have had more and possibly some concubines as well. So you can see where some men on the island might have been threatened by him as the alpha male.
Download The Polygamist King for $2.99 at Amazon.com.
The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America
By John J. Miller
An Island Murder
The first shots came from behind. A bullet struck James J. Strang on the back of his head, next to his ear, and ricocheted away. Another pierced his left kidney. As he turned to face his assassins, they fired again. This time, a bullet buried itself in his right cheekbone, below the eye. Then the gunmen closed in. One clubbed him so hard with the butt of his big pistol that it broke. When they were done, they climbed aboard a US Navy warship that was docked at Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Its commander had watched the assault from his deck. Now he offered sanctuary to the attackers. Within days, they would be free of all charges and celebrated for what they had done.
Bloody and battered but somehow still alive, Strang lay on a wharf that reached into a body of water called Paradise Bay. It was June 16, 1856, almost six years since his followers had lowered a makeshift crown upon his head and swore their allegiance to him in a bizarre coronation ceremony. The “King of Beaver Island” would cling to life for three weeks. When he died from his wounds on July 9, at the age of forty-three, so did his dream of a religious utopia on the edge of American civilization.
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.
Instead of admitting defeat, however, Strang founded a dissident sect and tried to establish a personal theocracy within the borders of the United States. Like mainstream Mormons, he studied the Bible and avoided alcohol and coffee. Unlike Young, he crusaded against polygamy, winning admirers among those who opposed their church’s growing acceptance of the practice. Then he changed his mind. At the time of his death, he had five wives, four of them pregnant.
Strang was in many ways a logical if extreme product of his own culture — and from the fringes of society, he posed flamboyant challenges to American national unity and its commitment to religious pluralism. For both saints and gentiles — as Mormons commonly referred to themselves and non-Mormons, respectively — he became a figure of curiosity, sympathy, and murderous hatred.
Who was this baffling man?
The best surviving image of Strang is a photographic portrait from the 1850s. In the black-and-white picture, his head tilts downward but his dark eyes stare out. (Contemporary accounts describe his eyes as brown or black, though one of his wives claimed they were blue.) Strang is pure intensity, demanding attention and ready to implore. As a newspaper reporter had described him a few years earlier: “He appears like a man trying with all his might to convince others that he had something very important to tell them, and that it was absolutely necessary they should believe it.”
A few years before Strang sat for the photo, he visited the phrenological firm of Fowler & Wells in New York City for an examination of his skull, a pseudoscientific procedure that was supposed to reveal character traits and mental prowess. Strang was so proud of the report he received that he printed it in the Northern Islander, the newspaper he started on Beaver Island. “You are quite radical in your notions,” wrote Samuel R. Wells, who might have determined as much by skipping the cranial measurements and having an honest conversation with his subject, if that was possible. “Should you undertake to play the hypocrite,” continued Wells, “you would very soon expose yourself in some way, for you have not tact and cunning enough to enable you to carry it out into any great speculation or enterprise.”
This assessment was prescient. Strang would go far with his great speculations and enterprises, but also would suffer devastating exposure. The tale of his remarkable life involves those age-old ingredients of gothic drama and high tragedy: sex, violence, pride, fanaticism, and conspiracy. More than a century and a half later, Strang’s story echoes some of the most pressing debates of our own time on the nature of faith and freedom, the shifting definitions of marriage, the power of religious leaders, the rule of law, and the limits of tolerance. It teaches no easy lessons, though it may remind us that Americans have wrestled with these controversies for generations.
John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He is also national correspondent for National Review. He spends a portion of every summer Up North, near Lewiston, Michigan. His new ebook, The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America, is now available for $2.99.
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