When the Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith was killed by a mob at Carthage Jail, the saints he left behind weren’t sure who would become the new leader of the Church. And to make matters worse, Joseph himself made as many as 8 different references to who should succeed him. Subsequently, after his death, several people came forward claiming to be Joseph’s successor. In past episodes, we’ve already talked about the claims of Sidney Rigdon and the later claims of Joseph Smith III. In this episode, we’re going to talk about an interesting fellow by the name of James Strang.
Joseph Smith baptized James Strang into the Church in February 1844, only about 4 months before Joseph was killed. But despite him being a very new convert, after Joseph’s death, James claimed he had a letter from Joseph naming him as his successor. Now, this letter is problematic for multiple reasons. First, nobody really knows who wrote it. It’s not the handwriting of Joseph Smith or any of his known scribes. Strang claimed that Emma Smith,
“…recollects well of her husband receiving a letter from Mr. Strang, and holding a council on the subject, and names Hyrum Smith, Willard Richards, and John P. Green as present at that council; and also that a letter was sent to Mr. Strang in answer, but of the import of the answer she was not informed.”
But the letter doesn’t match the handwriting of any of those people either. I searched through the handwriting of Joseph’s contemporaries for hours, but couldn’t find anything that was even close to a match. Some scholars think the letter was simply a forgery, and some don’t. So I take the letter with a grain of salt.
But even if the letter is real, the language in it is ambiguous. Much of the subject-matter had to do with Strang’s call to establish a stake of the church in Wisconsin. Some people, including Strang’s own son, Charles, believed the letter was nothing more than an appointment to lead the saints in Wisconsin.
In addition to the letter, Strang claimed that in the hour Joseph was killed, he was ordained as the next prophet by an angel. In fact, he believed that every successor of the Church would have to be ordained by an angelic messenger. Strang said, “And as Joseph was called by revelation, and ordained by angels so must his successor be.”
Joseph was ordained with priesthood keys by angels because it was the opening of a new dispensation—there were no mortal priesthood-holders available. We don’t believe that an angel must restore those keys every time a prophet dies.
But anyway, Strang drew away a good amount of followers, including but not limited to Joseph’s brother, William Smith, Martin Harris, and apostle John E. Page—though in time, all of those people left Strang’s church.
Strang established a community with his followers at Beaver Island, Michigan. He had himself crowned as King over his church. I’m going to do one or two other episodes about James Strang. He claimed to discover and translate an ancient record from metal plates similar to how Joseph had done, except with a lot of super important differences. So we’ll talk about some of that stuff later. But to make a long story short, Strang was shot three times by a couple of disgruntled former followers on June 16, 1856. He died instantly … the next month. (And yes, that was a Hot Rod reference).
Though Strang had time to name a successor, he refused to. He said God hadn’t called one. He left the Church in the hands of the remaining leaders. But without a prophet-successor, most of Strang’s followers left his church and joined other groups.
So. Was James Strang Joseph Smith’s true successor? Well, Joseph Smith taught:
“…no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”
Some sources report that James Strang initially led as many as 12-or-13-thousand followers. Today, all that remains are a few different splinter groups. As far as I can tell, the main surviving group is based in Wisconsin with about 130 active members. Of course, truth isn’t dependent on how many followers you have. But James Strang’s church certainly doesn’t seem to reflect the progress Joseph Smith described. But, as always, you’re free to come to your own conclusions about that. I’ve never met a Strangite in person but I’m sure they’re fabulous people.
If you’ve got questions, check out the resources in the description, and have a great day!
- A Strangite denomination website: http://strangite.org/Welcome.htm
Fun fact: You’ll notice that our faith’s name, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” always has a lower-case ‘d’ in ‘day.’ This is because by capitalizing the ‘d’ you’re technically referring to a different church altogether. I believe the link above takes you to that church’s website, “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”
- Another Strangite denomination website: https://bit.ly/2NP3B2G
- A blog of some Strangite beliefs: https://bit.ly/2Q3dtsL
- The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844, by Michael Quinn: https://bit.ly/2WOY8x3
- Podcast from our church on this subject: https://bit.ly/2Ckt8eU
- From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/2qpV8Lw