Strangite Mormonism gets Due Attention

“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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The Owl and the Judas

Wheat & Tares

1. Scape-Owl
Today, I saw an owl fly… well, flung
in the midst of heaven,
shock-eyed, wings wrenched back.
Fleeing or expelled from its branch,
wisdom’s icon burst into view,
glaring, tumbling, glaring, tumbling,
till it shuddered, crumpling on
the short grass.
Looking back up the owl’s descent
path, I beheld a vengeful god,
backed by her mother god agape.
I grinned.

judas-nbc-rock-opera2. Rock Opera Judas
Decades prior, in a similar way,
those who didn’t love a show
banned it. Said my mother,
“The brethren said, ‘This
musical is not of God.
Do not watch it.’”
The first time we watched it,
I grinned.
My chubby thighs apostatized,
moshing between the arm rests
of my chair. Onstage,
Judas lashed the heavens
with his rock falsetto,
singing, dancing my dubiety—
religion as a disco ball.
Yet audibly piercing
his thundering metal aria,
my mother sigh-laughed softly.

3. The Fidgety Elect
Sometimes…

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Crashing Eucharistic Adoration

Wheat & Tares

I feel like I’m eavesdropping in Gethsemane,
when I tiptoe into the parish chapel
after dark. A lone Catholic kneels
directly before the monstrance,
before the Eucharist within,
before Christ.
I sit off to the side,
because it feels appropriately subordinate—
safely apart
like an overflow room.

My thoughts wander.
I think a lot about waste.
Wasted opportunities.
Wasted summers.
My wasting.

The chapel walls hold violence.
Everywhere I turn here, there’s a cross—
many of them occupied.
Wasted messiahs?
Wasted bread?
Oops.
I tracked some of my day’s anger
into the chapel. But only
I, and maybe He, can see it.

I spy no side glance from the Catholic,
when I abstain from kneeling
or crossing myself. Still,
I try to match his holiness.
I read scripture.
I bow my head; I close my eyes.
I feel like I’m posing.

I open my eyes.
I read:
Why am I…

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Two Kirtland Temple Sonnets

Though not about space exploration in the conventional sense, the two sonnets in the below post utilize light, wonder, and a desire to understand sacred spaces. My thanks to Wheat & Tares, a fantastically eclectic Mormon-themed blog, for giving these poems a home online.

Wheat & Tares

Today’s guest post is from Jake C. who has written two evocative poems about the Kirtland temple. Enjoy!
The Visitor
None others joined us, but perhaps some ghosts;
though I suspect they skipped your charming tour.
The temple men once raised, no longer pure
nor set apart, had lost both Lord and hosts.
Just you and I attended pillars, posts,
and renovated pews. Could such allure?
The paint was fresh but the spirit stale. Be sure,
your dress and earrings offered richer boasts.
Nevertheless, with solemn silent care,
you led my dry eyes to a well of light
to drink from brazen poolsdistilling sun glints.
And from my mind this Pentecostal glare
cleansed an old treasure-seeking question: might
our traipsing God have left some gold-leafed footprints?
The Tour Guide
Image result for kirtland templeTo me the prophet fanboys seem burlesque,
but I admit them all. I hold the keys
and…

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Exploring Self with ‘The Black Penguin’

The Black PenguinThe Black Penguin by Andrew Evans

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vaguely annoyed. That’s how I felt after months of following Andrew Evans on Twitter. When was this guy’s paid vacation going to end? Did he really think he could infect me with his exuberance for world travel? Who was funding him? Annoying! The only reason I followed Andrew was Twitter told me to. That and it seemed a little fun, keeping tabs on a literal globe trotter. Plus, his tweets often displayed a celebratory quality about our world.

Okay, so my early annoyance turned out to be jealousy. Years later, @WheresAndrew remains a Twitter account I recommend following. Even so, buying a copy of his new book The Black Penguin was not an immediate priority, but for one fact that eluded me until last week. I’d never realized Andrew Evans was raised Mormon.

Andrew and I have two critical things in common. We both served LDS Church missions, and we both eventually walked away from the Church. Being both a Twitter fan and a fellow “returned missionary” makes it near impossible for me to write a fully objective review of The Black Penguin. I was rooting for Andrew before I finished reading the preface. Still, this is not a book solely, or even mostly, about his journey out of Mormonism.

The Black Penguin recounts Andrew’s bus trip from Washington D.C. to Antarctica (including a short plane ride and a necessary transfer to a boat near the end). The book exhibits a binary structure. While Andrew proceeds southward by bus in the narrative present, his book flashes back to school years spent in Ohio and Utah, and his time in the Ukraine as a Mormon missionary. Yet, even with this time hopping, The Black Penguin displays a unifying sense of rising action and purpose.

Andrew’s epic bus trip eventually became an article for National Geographic Traveler, supplemented by blog posts and tweets from the road. Along the way the book detours further into his past to reveal an origin story fraught with bullying, religious judgement, and family crisis. All these ordeals were reactions to Andrew’s same-sex orientation. For Andrew, the science of geography became the art of escape.

By running past and present storylines in tandem, The Black Penguin offers engrossing parallels. For instance, the chapter about Andrew being found out at Brigham Young University connects to chapters about dangerous travel through Mexico and Central America. Both episodes exhibit the same sense of peril, fueled by powerful, sometimes unseen, forces that may decide his fate at any moment.

Yet, like his tweets, Andrew’s book also provides humor, beauty, and excitement. The personable, empathic prose creates a sensation of being in the seat next to him, staring out the bus window while passing near cliffs, through jungles, and along coastlines. And while the book is ultimately about Andrew’s quest, it teams with lively stories about people he meets along the way—quite like an issue of National Geographic.

Page after page, I experienced a keen sense of us all being on a globe, feeling the pace of its spin, gaining greater awareness of our relationship to each other and Earth. I highly recommend The Black Penguin. It’s a trip we all should experience.

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