“God Has Made Us a Kingdom”


“God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons

The fascinating story of the Community of Christ, and their enigmatic leader, James Strang, considered by his followers to be the true prophetic successor to Joseph Smith.

Best First Book Award, Mormon History Association

June, 2006

SKU: 1-56085-192-9 Categories: , Tags: , , , Author: Vickie Cleverley SpeekProduct ID: 1361


Was polygamy the downfall of the Strangite kingdom or was it something far more ominous and wide-reaching? Vickie Cleverley Speek examines the charismatic figure of James J. Strang and provides a detailed first look at his wives, children, and the Strangite families left behind at his martyrdom. She makes an especially close examination of the practice of “consecration of gentile property” in the Strangite colonies on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. Were the Strangites guilty of piracy and other crimes, and if so, to what extent?

Strang was considered the prophetic successor to Joseph Smith for the Mormons of the Midwest who later formed the nucleus for the membership of what is now the Community of Christ. Today, 150 years after Strang’s death, about 100 faithful followers in the United States still await the emergence of another prophet to succeed Strang. In the prophetic tradition of Joseph Smith, Strang similarly excavated ancient metallic plates and translated them into the Book of the Law of the Lord and the Rajah Manchou of Vorito. Like Joseph Smith, Strang instigated polygamy, secret ceremonies, baptism for the dead, and communal living. He also introduced a bloomer-like fashion for women, as well as other innovations. Like Joseph Smith, he had himself crowned king of the world.

Where previous treatments of Strang have relied either on inside or outside sources to show either a prophet or charlatan, Speek utilizes all sources, updates the record, corrects previous errors, and shows diverse perspectives. She recounts the turbulent and dramatic events of the 1840s-50s, including the plot to murder Strang and the heartbreaking exile of the Saints from Beaver Island. She traces the dispersion of this once formidable colony of Mormons to the forests of northwest Wisconsin, the far-flung outposts of southwest New Mexico, the hills of Lamoni, Iowa, and to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Vickie Cleverley Speek is a former newspaper and radio reporter, feature writer, and columnist in Illinois and Michigan, recipient of four first-place awards from the Illinois Press Association, the 2002 Illinois State Red Ribbon Media Award, and recognition as a columnist from the Associated Press. In 2001 she received the Award of Excellence from the Illinois Historical Society for her historical research and writing on a Civil War theme. She has been a speaker at professional and community gatherings, including two presentations about James Strang during Museum Week on Beaver Island, Michigan. She is a past director of the LDS Family History Center in Morris, Illinois. She and her family live in Minooka, Illinois.


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8 reviews for “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”

  1. Roger Terry, BYU Studies

    Surprised to find evidence of Mormons in Wisconsin, she took Mormon Road that day. It led to the community of Voree and to the beginning of a fifteen-year odyssey that would result in yet another book about James Jesse Strang, self-proclaimed successor to Joseph Smith.Award-winning journalist Vickie Cleverley Speek was not looking for the Mormons during the summer of 1991. She was looking for basket-making materials, and the nearest shop was in Burlington, Wisconsin, at the corner of Highway 36 and Mormon Road.

    Several biographies about Strang were already in print in 1991, including Milo M. Quaife’s seminal history The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930); O. W. Riegel’s Crown of Glory: The Life of James J. Strang, Moses of the Mormons (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935); Doyle C. Fitzpatrick’s partisan The King Strang Story: A Vindication of James J. Strang, the Beaver Island Mormon King (Lansing, Mich.: National Heritage, 1970); and Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

    The existence of such works raises the valid question, why does the world need yet another biography of the enigmatic Strang? Speek offers several reasons for writing her book. First, she relied extensively on primary sources, some of which were unavailable to earlier biographers. “New facts and resources are still being discovered,” and “old records are ready for re-examination and reinterpretation” (x). Second, Speek claims her book is not a biography but “an attempt to tell the fuller story of the Strangites—their trials and tribulations and efforts to maintain the Strangite Church during their founder’s ministry and after his death” (xi). Third, the story of the Strangites is “a compelling and intriguing one. Many writers, including Strang’s own descendants, have struggled with the logistics of how to relate the tale without sensationalizing it, and,” Speek confesses, “so have I” (xi). The difficulty in writing about Strang is similar tot he complex task of writing about Joseph Smith. As Van Noord pointed out in his book’s preface, bias and misinformation abound. The original sources, in particular, are often inclined for or against Strang. many of them come from Strang himself—his autobiography, diary, letters, and publications—or from his followers. Others come from his enemies. Sorting out fact from misrepresentation is no easy task. In spite of these difficulties, Speek’s book is an engaging, insightful, and well-researched exploration of a complicated man, his family and his followers.

  2. Robin Scott Jensen, Journal of Mormon History

    In 1930, Milo M. Quaife, editor of both James K. Polk’s and Meriwether Lewis’s diaries, as well as the history of Illinois by Thomas Ford, published his ten-year work on James J. Strang.1 Quaife undertook the first scholarly approach to the many questions concerning Strang’s life, and his work brought forth new insights as well as new questions; it should still be consulted as part of any serious study of Strang. Since 1930, more scholars have addressed Strang’s life and his influence over those who followed him.

    Vickie Speek has now contributed to that body of knowledge with her new work on Strang, his followers, and his church—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangites). Speek, an acclaimed journalist, has been studying Strangism for fifteen years. Her study is refreshingly different in several ways, but one crucial element stands out: Speek emphasizes the story of Strang’s believers instead of focusing solely on Strang himself. As controversial as Strang’s methods of establishing and running his church may be and as important as it is to understand his modus operandi, Speek recognizes the significance of telling the untold story of those who held fervent beliefs in the prophetic king. Yet like Quaife in 1930, Speek also raises additional questions about Strang and his church.

    No one interested in the history of Strang or his church can overlook God Has Made Us a Kingdom. There are still unanswered questions, unmentioned parallels, and missing context in the current Strangite historiography, but Speek’s work will help scholars identify some of those topics and will ignite their interest in Strang and the fascinating people who followed him.

  3. W. Michael Ashcraft, Journal of American History

    James Jesse Strang (1813-1856) was the leader of a dissident Mormon group that coalesced in the years following the death of the Mormon Church founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, in 1844. Strang had only been a convert to Mormonism for four months when Smith was killed, yet Strang stepped forward to claim the mantle of the prophet. Eventually, he produced his own golden plates and a translation of them, the Book of the Law of the Lord (1851). Strang’s followers, or Strangites, first settled in Voree, Wisconsin, then on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. In the latter location, Strang ruled as a king and practiced polygamy, even though earlier he had denounced plural marriage. He married five women: Mary Abigail Perce Strang, Elvira Field Strang Baker, Elizabeth “Betsy” McNutt Strang, Sarah Wright Strang Wing, and Phoebe Wright Strang Jesse. The Strangites were tightly knit and suspicious of those outside their group. Their homes and possessions were destroyed and their families threatened by locals on several occasions during their six-year tenure on Beaver Island, but the Strangite men gave as good as they got. When Strang died, his kingdom dissolved. His wives went their separate ways, three of them remarrying. Some Strangites journeyed westward to join the Mormons in Utah. Others remained in the Midwest and became part of the Reorganized Church. Seventy or more Strangites survive today, most of them not descended from the nineteenth-century Strangites.

    The author of “God Has Made Us a Kingdom,” Vickie Cleverley Speek, is an award-winning journalist whose family has been Mormon for six generations. She knew nothing about the Strangites until she happened on references to them while writing a story about Beaver Island. Her curiosity grew, and eventually she amassed enough information to produce the present volume. Speek’s work is carefully documented and rich in historical detail. She covers every aspect of Strang’s story from start to finish. In particular, Speek is to be commended for providing detailed chapters on Strang’s wives. They have been either overlooked or their importance underrated in previous work on the Strangites. Unfortunately, her narrative lacks historical contextualization. No cues are provided to locate Strang’s kingdom in nineteenth-century history. No assessments are made of the value of Strang’s movement for Mormon historical studies. Speek simply describes a sequence of events: this happened, then this, then this, and so on. Therefore, those unfamiliar with Mormon history should read introductory material about Strang, polygamy, and the history of Mormonism from the 1830s through the 1850s before opening Speek’s book. Only then can they appreciate her first-rate historical investigation.

  4. Bill Shepard, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought

    Vickie Speek is a fifth-generation Mormon whose progenitors were pioneers in Idaho. An award-winning journalist, she received the Award of Excellence from the Illinois Historical Society in 2001 for her research on the Civil War. Demonstrating her skills again in “God Has Made Us a Kingdom,” she has written objectively in a narrative style that captivates the reader.

    The book had its genesis when Speek journeyed from Illinois to Burlington, Wisconsin, in 1992 to purchase craft supplies from a store bordering on Highway 36 and Mormon Road. When she saw the sign designated “Mormon Road,” she was puzzled because she knew of no Mormon settlement in the area. Her subsequent investigations changed her life as she began a twelve-year study of James J. Strang, his church, and his wives.

    “God Has Made Us a Kingdom” will appeal not only to descendants of the Strangites but also to others interested in Mormon history. Providing new insight into the legacy of James J. Strang and his wives, it is well researched and deeply documented. A great strength of this book is its clear, easy-to-read style.

  5. John Quist, John Whitmer Historical Journal

    Speek clearly provides the most complete account of Strangism after the Beaver Island expulsion—a saga previously limited to a few journal articles focusing on the Beaver Island generation—and carries her narrative, in outline form, to the twenty-first century (as of 2003, some 100 individuals, scattered throughout several states, remained active in the church). Whereas previous biographers’ focus on Strang overshadowed their coverage of the prophet’s wives and children, Speek breathes life into these fascinating individuals. She also demonstrates how new information can be gleaned from a careful re-examination of old sources. For example, Speek advances a strong case for Strang’s having concubines, in addition to his five recognized wives, and sensitively discusses Strang’s legal marriage to Mary Perce, describing the marriage’s disintegration and illustrating how Strang neglected Mary during her bouts with depression. Among Speek’s most noteworthy findings is an explanation for Mary’s 1851 expulsion from Beaver Island, which resulted from Mary’s attempted murder of Charles J. Strang, Strang’s first-born child from a polygamous union.

    Speek also unveils and intriguing connection between Elvira Field and Phoebe Johnson. Elvira posed as Strang’s male secretary, Charles J. Douglass, during an 1849-1850 tour of Strang’s churches in the eastern states. During this tour, Phoebe, a young Strangite living in New York, fell in love with Charles, and Charles reportedly expressed affection for Phoebe. Only after Phoebe relocated to Beaver Island did she discover her beau to be a woman. Phoebe eventually married Alexander Wentworth, who became one of Strang’s assassins, while her father, Franklin Johnson, emerged as a leader among Strang’s disaffected island disciples. We cannot know the effect that the Charles J. Douglass charade had upon Phoebe, her husband, and her father, but these connections make for some intriguing speculation regarding the grievances that led to Strang’s assassination. Speek also persuasively argues that charges of Strangite “consecration”—the church’s enemies called it thievery—were far from baseless, although she maintains that “Strangites did not steal anything more than the Gentiles stole from them” (330).

    These insights result from Speek’s diligent sleuthing and from her careful reading of the primary sources. While Quaife, Van Noord, and Speek all used the Strang Papers now at Yale (indisputably the most important manuscript collection on the topic), Van Noord and Speek both relied on important manuscript collections assembled since 1930 at the Detroit Public Library and Central Michigan University. Van Noord’s emphasis on Strang’s public career led to his greater reliance upon the Detroit Public Library collection, which he called the “second most important source of manuscript materials” after Yale’s Strang collection.1 With her focus on Strang’s family and church, Speek made more extensive use of the Central Michigan University collections. Yet Speek, who wisely researched these and other Strang manuscript collections (including those at the Community of Christ archives) surprisingly did not utilize important Strang materials at the Mormon Church archives in Salt Lake City (including the Stephen Post Papers), Brigham Young University (especially the Warren Post Diaries), or Southern Methodist University’s DeGolyer Library (particularly the theological treatises from the School of the Prophets and the papers of Strang’s daughter, Eugenia J. Phillips).

  6. Joe Geisner, Mormon-Library

    I finished reading Vickie Speek’s “God Has Made Us a Kingdom” and have now started Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island. Not that the two books should be compared but to help with my own ignorance of the subject. Matter of fact, the two books are totally different, and if you have read Van Noord’s book you need to do yourself a service and read Vickie’s immediately. If you are interested in Mormon history or American religious history, Vickie’s book will give you a better understanding and help you learn about an all but forgotten religious group.

    This has been my introduction to James Strang and the Strangite Church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Growing up a Utah Mormon in California, I knew nothing about the Strangites. My teaching was confined to the knowledge that Joseph Smith had only one successor, Brigham Young. Not until going off to BYU did I learn there was a Reorganized LDS Church, currently called the Community of Christ. Vickie’s book, along with a new book about the Wightites, is a bonanza for students of LDS history and experience. These well-written books help us see ourselves because these other groups are not “us,” so we can be detached, yet they are “us” because they believed like us, lived like us, were persecuted like us, and made mistakes like us.

    Vickie writes clearly and concisely. She presents the story in the first two chapters with Strang’s early life, his conversion into Mormonism, and his call to replace Joseph Smith as prophet of the Mormon Church. After this introduction, she combines the story chronologically and topically until the death of Strang. In the second part of the book, Speek has a chapter for each of Strang’s wives, a chapter that deals with the accusations against the Mormons by the gentiles, and finally a chapter about the church after Strang’s death.

    Strang is a fascinating individual and I find the similarities with Joseph Smith to be startling. Their revelations, translations, and visions clearly were attractive to their followers. In turn, they both were attracted to people like John C. Bennett, George J. Adams, George Miller, and William Smith, Joseph’s brother. They both tested their close associates’ faith to the breaking point, and yet these same people dedicated their lives to their leader even after their prophet’s death. Speek’s book details the life of Lorenzo Dow Hickey, who compares favorably to Brigham Young as a disciple of Joseph Smith.

    Some of the highlights of the early chapters include how the plates of Rajah Manchou of Vorito were found, the communal living in Voree, the details about the Order of the Illuminati, the coronation of Strang as sovereign of the kingdom of God, the settling of Beaver Island, and most interestingly Strang’s first plural wife, Elvira Field, posing as a man to keep her relationship secret to both members and non-members.

    The second part of the book is probably stronger in detail and flow. Vickie brings to life the wives of Strang, each of whom dealt with Strang’s death and the institutional church differently. His first wife was exiled from Strang years before his death, so she and her children thereafter had nothing to do with the church. The other wives and their children each had different feelings for and experiences with the fragmented Strangite movement. Some followed new leaders to different parts of the Midwest, saving their father’s papers—preserving for us the rich history surrounding Strang—while one became a convicted felon over a self-serving interpretation of the law of consecration and one family came to Utah and joined the so-called Brighamites. What is interesting is that none followed in their father’s foot steps like Joseph Smith III did. One chapter details a fairly large group who settled the Black River Falls area in Wisconsin. This is interesting because this is where the Lyman Wight group was sent by Joseph Smith to build a mill and make lumber for the Nauvoo Temple.

    I became interested in George Miller from reading Vickie’s book. He is someone who needs to be written about. He played central roles in the Mormonism of Joseph Smith, the Mormonism of Brigham Young before the pioneers reached Utah, and in both the Strangite and Wightite communities. While a member of the Strangite community, he became sheriff of Emmitt County, which gave the Strangites legal control over Beaver Island. Miller was a polygamist and his presence helped make sure this peculiar practice touched all the groups. Miller’s presence also caused member cross-over and correspondence among the diverse groups. The correspondence was sometimes civil and occasionally antagonistic. The Northern Islander, the Strang newspaper, is a wonderful source of communication among these groups.

    Vickie does an excellent job in her chapter on the accusations made against the Mormons by the gentiles. She shows her deep respect and sympathy for the Mormons of Beaver Island in pointing out that not all of the criminal acts they were accused of can be supported by the evidence. She also brings evidence to the fore showing that they cannot be defended as innocents either. Too many Mormons themselves admitted to stealing and acts of violence. There are a couple of areas I would like to have seen more information provided, such as regarding voting irregularities by the Mormons. There seems to be enough extant evidence to deal with this accusation. One piece of evidence from another recent book could have been mined for such details, where Melvin Johnson, in his Polygamy on the Pedernales (162), quotes George Miller’s letter to Lyman Wight asking for the names of heads of households so he can inflate the census numbers and voting tallies. I would have liked to see Vickie deal with the accusations of counterfeiting—”bogus money,” as it was called. From the little I know, it seems that the evidence for this is slim, but in a book about the Strangites it needs to be addressed.

    I also wondered about the connections between Strang and the Whitmers and Cowderys—Oliver Cowdery and his father. I find the Utah Church’s claim that Oliver united with them to be somewhat flawed, so it interests me to know if Oliver supported Strang in any way. I doubt he or the Whitmers supported Strang any more than they did Brigham Young since they saw David Whitmer as the successor to Joseph Smith. Technically Oliver was also a designated successor; but I remain perplexed as to why Strang was attracted to Bennett and Adams, knowing their reputations before they ever came to Voree. I also wonder, considering how Strang’s provocative statements and actions engendered hostility, which endangered himself and his people, if he did not harbor a secret death wish. Vickie approaches this but not comprehensively—never really resolving the question of such a self-destructive character trait/flaw. Van Noord cites Strang’s diary to show a grandiose view Strang had of himself. Strang believed he was destined to mingle with princes. There is further evidence in Strang’s boyhood diaries of atheism and of attraction to sexually experienced women. I wonder what Vickie’s historical perspective would be on the significance of these early diary entries?

    I would also like to know if there is new information and/or new analysis concerning the letter of appointment and the plates of Vorito. I know the Strangites continue to believe they were both authentic. Is there evidence supporting or contradicting their stance?

    In any case, Vickie has given us an important historical analysis and good narrative story of the Strangite movement. Her book is fair to everyone she writes about. She is able to write about distant figures from a little-understood religious movement with such sympathy because she is herself a Utah Mormon, where there is a similar history or perception of having been a persecuted people, just as the Strangites see themselves. Yet Vickie is able to keep enough distance because she is not a Strangite; she can see the gentile perspective and give them historical credit as well. Thank you, Vickie, for a very good book.

  7. Richard E. Bennett, John Whitmer Journal

    There are many positives to this work. First of all, Speek is a beautiful writer, a fine and gifted journalist, and a literary craftsman. Whether one agrees or disagrees with her findings, the reader will fall in love with her style of writing. An absolute pleasure to read, she knows how to coin phrases, what to quote and how much of it, and how to end and lead off chapters. Too many historians excel in argument but fail as writers. Would that more histories were as well-written as this one.

  8. Thomas G. Alexander, Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries

    Superseding Milo Quaife’s The Kingdom of Saint James: A Narrative of the Mormons (1930) and Roger Van Noord’s King of Beaver Island: The Life and Assassination of James Jesse Strang (1988), this is a new history of Strangite Mormonism. Following the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, Strang claimed to have received a letter calling him as Smith’s successor. Although most Mormons went west with Brigham Young, Strang attracted prominent Mormon leaders, various apostates, and future leaders of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Strang instituted polygamy, a United Order, and baptism for the dead. He had himself crowned king, sent out missionaries, and had members settle on Beaver Island on Lake Michigan, as well as in Voree, Wisconsin. The book’s major strength is that in addition to telling the Strang story, a substantial portion tells of the lives of the women and men who belonged to the movement, the movement’s expulsion from Beaver Island, and its history after Strang’s assassination in 1856. Most fascinating are the stories of the lives of Strang’s wives. Summing up: highly recommended, all levels/libraries.

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