Michigan Bookmark is a series that features Michigan authors reviewing Michigan books.
On July 8, 1850, with a crimson robe and a paper crown, James Jesse Strang was crowned King of Beaver Island.
His coronation completed his youthful ambition to enter into royalty, but it would also result in his assassination.
In Don Faber’s well-researched book, James Jesse Strang: The Rise and Fall of Michigan’s Mormon King, the author declared that he wanted to present “the historical Strang, stripped of myth, demonization, and popular fancy.”
Michigan history aficionados, and folks who love Beaver Island, will appreciate how Faber reveals Strang as a complex character whom some view as a prophet and others as a charlatan.
One of the biography’s greatest strengths is that Faber explains the cultural background of the early 1800’s and how it influenced Strang. During this period of political and social change, Strang experienced the energy of Protestant camp meetings, and read about the Utopian communities such as New Harmony, Indiana, and the Shaker villages dotting the East Coast. Eventually, the young lawyer from New York embraced the Mormon faith that “had a beguiling simplicity."
Throughout the narrative, Faber continues to refer back to the character of the time period as he develops Strang’s story.
For those readers who are not familiar with basic Mormon history, Faber included information about Joseph Smith and the early struggles of the Mormon Church. He explains how Strang’s penchant for glory propelled him to attempt to trump Smith’s achievements.
Like Smith, Strang said that he had discovered brass plates that only he could translate. From the plates, he wrote The Book of the Law of the Lord, hoping that his volume would usurp the exalted position of The Book of Mormon. After a divine revelation, Strang also embraced polygamy, adding four plural wives to his household. And yet today, Joseph Smith remains a revered Mormon Prophet, while Strang’s name is mostly remembered in Michigan.
In another outstanding chapter, Faber shows Strang’s power in the state Legislature.
When Strang arrived in the state capital, the other representatives thought he would be a religious fanatic who preached about his cult.
Instead, the King of Beaver Island proved to have a sense of vision. He wrote a proposal for a system of locks at Sault Saint Marie, and he encouraged the State to link the two peninsulas with a bridge. But the cunning Strang also introduced legislation that gerrymandered northern Michigan in a way that allowed the Mormons to gain elected positions and more power.
His political maneuvering enraged the gentiles with whom Strang had battled for years, especially the residents of Mackinac Island. Eventually, in 1851, the State of Michigan would try Strang for treason and acquit him.
By showing the anger simmering on Mackinac Island, Faber foreshadows the demise of the king.
Even for those who have read other books about the Mormon king, they will want to read this book’s chapter devoted to Strang’s diary, where Faber finds answers to the questions:
- What characteristics and desires created such a dictator?
- What about the man attracted his followers?
Strang penned his diary between the ages of eighteen and twenty-three, and sections were written in code so that his thoughts could not be used against him. By dissecting the diary and drawing from the analysis of other historians, Faber explains the inner workings of Strang’s mind.
Not only did Strang lust for power, but in Faber’s words: “Fame was the end to which he shaped his life. It is the means by which he achieved his fame that makes his story compelling.”
Joan Donaldson writes from her organic blueberry farm near Saugatuck. Her novel, On Viney's Mountain won the 2010 Friends of American Writers Award and represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival.