“God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons by Vickie Cleverley Speek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Early on in my reading of Vickie Cleverly Speek’s book about Strangite Mormonism, I found myself dismayed to the point of almost tossing the book out. Given its highlights and summary structuring, the book initially came off to me as a tawdry sequel to Nauvoo Mormonism. All the rumor, scandal, esoteric rituals, and political machinating virtually designed to end in assassination—all combined to make me groan at how quickly history repeats itself.
Make no mistake, Ms. Speek’s writing led me to this disenchanting early impression. In “God Has Made Us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons, Speek treats the Strangite movement as the protagonist. The movement’s head, James Strang, while central is not the book’s focus. We see the entire movement born, grow, and then fall apart.
When James Strang is mortally wounded by assassins later in the book, it felt matter-of-fact to me. As if, of course that was going to happen. Nothing especially insightful, just a rehearsal of the same story we saw with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo in the early 1840s. As I said, it read like a tawdry sequel.
Fortunately for me, I kept reading. In the chapters following Strang’s death, as his kingdom on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan quickly falls apart, Speek does something very compelling. She spends several chapters detailing the fate of each of Strang’s polygamous widows. The book takes on an increasingly personal feel, with a clear picture of individual human cost. Yet at the same time, through these women’s eyes, and through the perspective of Strang’s children, this splinter sect of Mormonism comes into focus.
Speek presents us with a movement made up of zealots, opportunists, and a great many sincere followers who do all the heavy lifting for the first two groups. She also makes a strong case for polygamy being at best a secondary reason for Strang’s downfall and his movement’s failure. The communal approach, known to the devout as consecration, may have been the fatal civic ingredient. The grievances and atrocities perpetrated against Strangite Mormons receive due attention as well.
For Mormon history enthusiasts wanting to get inside the mind of James Strang, this book may be the wrong choice. Rather than a biography of the man, this is a study of his kingdom overall. Honestly, I don’t feel I know James Strang much better than before I read the book. The Strangite movement, however, has become a moving human affair for me, rather than a footnote to the Brighamite Mormonism I was raised in. Likely the book’s greatest contribution, that is a good reason for reading to the last page.
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