Vickie Speek continues our conversation about James Strang, an early rival to Brigham Young. Strang was successful in gaining some influential converts like Martin Harris & William Smith. Who else joined? Vickie will share that, as well as information on Strangite temple practices and other scriptures produced by James Strang called the Book of the Law of the Lord. Check out our conversation….
GT 00:45 I know Cheryl Bruno has that that new book on masonry. Have you had a chance to read it yet by chance?
Vickie 00:52 No, I’ve started it.
GT 00:53 Because it seems like she said there was something to do, (because I haven’t read it either.) It seems like she had said there was something to do with this Strangite Temple as well in there. But you’re not familiar with that either?
Vickie 01:04 Yes, I am.
GT 01:05 Oh, you are? Can you touch on that? Can you share?
Vickie 01:07 That’s called the Order of the Illuminati.
GT 01:09 Okay.
Vickie 01:10 And that was John Bennett’s thing. He wanted everybody to become Illuminatis, part of the secret organization. It is very much like the Freemasons. When people were anointed to be an Illuminati and the secret group of people. They were in Voree first, and then they transferred over to Beaver Island. And they took a covenant. And some people said they signed it with their own blood, to support James Strang as the leader, as their prophet, king, and priest, and over anybody else in the nation, or the world. He was king of the kingdom, the kingdom of God on earth.
GT 01:10 And that has nothing to do with masonry?
Vickie 02:10 It has the same symbols and the same wording, as some of the Freemasonry signs and tokens.
GT 02:20 Was it just a different order of masonry? Because I’ve heard of the Scottish Rite. I can’t remember the other kinds.
Vickie 02:30 Royal Arch.
GT 02:31 Yeah, the Royal Arch masonry. So, it was the order of Illuminati just a different flavor of masonry?
Vickie 02:39 I’m not really sure what they were supposed to do, except that they were given royal titles. It’s supposed to be royalty. You’re going to have James Strang as the primate. And you’ve got lords and earls and different royal titles like that. And I’m not really sure what they were going to do with it. But John C. Bennett wanted certificates done. Everybody could have their own certificate, and they would say their name and their height, and description of what they look like and the whole bit. He was really into certificates like that.
GT 03:24 So do you think John C. Bennett had anything to do with [polygamy]? I know you said, James started polygamy before. But was there encouragement from John and/or William Smith? It seems like those are the two big polygamy guys in Strangism.
Vickie 03:40 I think that they probably talked about it. And they may have encouraged James Strang.
GT 03:47 And said, Joseph Smith practiced it.
Vickie 03:50 And told him. Then apparently there were some incidents in Voree where John C. Bennett apparently had tried to talk women into illicit intercourse with him, and so that it was fine. And the same thing with William Smith.
Fleeing Voree & Starting Polygamy
Vickie 07:12 Well, what happened is that the settlement on Voree was no longer sustainable for Strangites. The property values had become inflated. And there were so many poor people moving in there that could not afford the land, and there’s just so much division from the pseudos. Those people that had been Strangites that had left the church, but they didn’t leave the community. They left the church but they still live there. Like I said, they would meet people outside on the roads that were intending on going to see James Strang.
GT 07:54 Same types of problems as Missouri.
Vickie 07:56 Yes. So James Strang found an island. He was led to it by a vision, a wonderful island in Lake Michigan that he was led to. He started to take his people there. And they set up homes and fishing. It was very sparsely settled. There were some Indian traders there. There were some fishermen, a handful of white people, but mostly Indians. And that’s where James Strang said the kingdom of God was going to be. So he moved everybody from Voree to Beaver Island. And then he announced that he was going to be the king. And he had a coronation. And that’s where his followers were. They signed a covenant that they would honor him above anybody else, including the rulers of the United States. Because he was the king. And then they had a lot of controversy with the Gentiles who didn’t really care for these people coming in there with their own king.
GT 08:13 Kings and democracies don’t work very well, do they? At least that’s what the British found out.
Vickie 09:26 Exactly. There was a 32-year-old “old maid” in the community, Betsy McNutt. And apparently she wasn’t really much to look at, but she was a really good cook. And she really took good care of the home. And she said that there was only one man that she would ever even consider marrying. And that was James Strang, which put him in the hot seat because he had announced that polygamy was okay. Well,
GT 09:58 So that was public.
Vickie 10:00 He went publicly.
GT 10:01 So this is before the official announcement, which I think was 1853 where Orson Pratt announced it for the LDS Church. So Strang beat him to the punch?
Vickie 10:11 Yes, he did. He publicly announced that polygamy would be practiced on Beaver Island. And now he has an old maid woman who says that the only man should ever marry was the prophet himself. And in the Law of the Lord, it says that the woman should have the choice in choosing a righteous man as a husband. So he took plural wife number two. So, Elvira was in charge of his letters. She was his secretary, and his soulmate. And Betsy took care of the house and the babies. And then later on, he met two young women that were 18 and 19 years old, that he also took as wives. And all four of those women were pregnant at the time when James Strang was murdered. The first wife left the island.
How Strang Broke Vickie’s Testimony
Vickie 00:31 Now in the beginning, we talked about the plates of Voree that were buried in the ground. And I said, that was a faith problem with me. Well, when I initially started the Strang story, one of my intents was, and I’m embarrassed to say this, but I thought, as an active LDS woman, that I would get all the names of the people that followed James Strang, and have the youth in the stake do baptisms for the dead. What a wonderful plan. They wanted to belong to the correct Church, which was obviously the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
GT 01:21 Lower case d.
Vickie 01:22 That’s right with hyphen, little d. So we’ll just have a big mass, baptisms of the dead for all these people that went up to Beaver Island, and Voree, and all the people that followed Strang. And then I realized that the people that followed Strang didn’t want to belong to the Utah church, because they didn’t believe in polygamy, and they didn’t believe in Brigham Young. So that’s why they went with Strang. So the more I learned about the church, the Strangites, the more I learned the differences between the people that went west, and the people that went to Voree, Wisconsin.
Vickie 02:09 I went to see Bill Shepard. I went into their church, and then as you go into the church, right in front of you is a picture of Joseph Smith. And off to the side of him is a picture of James Strang. And I thought, “Holy cow. This is real. These people really believe in James Strang.” And up until that point, it had just basically been named a story to me. And all of a sudden, it became real. And I saw the Hill of Promise. I saw the houses. I saw the cemeteries. Those people really existed. And they went through terrible trials of their faith and of their lives. They were kicked off of Beaver Island and sent out, scattered across the Midwest. But yet, there’s still people that remain devoted to James Strang.
Vickie 03:17 And we went to the Hill of Promise, and I saw the tree, or the area anyway, that’s supposed to be where the plates were dug up under that tree. And I could not for the life of me figure out how Strang could have possibly put those plates in the ground. And I thought, “Well, if Joseph Smith had found buried plates, and he translated them, and I believe in that, then why don’t I believe in James Strang and the records that he translated? If I believe in Joseph Smith, then I have to believe in James Strang.”
Vickie 04:05 And then I found out that James Strang had taken an auger and drilled into the side of the hill into all that clay. It took him like three or four weeks before that they were found or anything. He drilled into the side of the hill. He took the clay box and inserted it underneath the tree because it was on a hillside. And all of a sudden, my faith in Joseph Smith was gone.
GT 04:38 Oh, really?
Vickie 04:41 Because I had decided that they were the same. I had to believe in one because I believed in the other/ All of a sudden, all that doubt was there. So I still have a lot of respect for the LDS Church. They’re my people and my culture. I’m a cultural Mormon, although I’ve had my name removed from the records, because of the November 2015 declaration that was made about the children of gay parents, not being able to be baptized.
GT 05:22 So, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Vickie 05:28 But it’s not [been easy.] It’s been a very personal, a very hard journey for me. And I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody. If you’re happy where you are, stay where you are. If it works for you, great. And I’m really happy for anybody that can keep that faith. But it all goes back to those records underneath that tree. Isn’t that funny?
GT 05:54 So how did you find out about this auger? I haven’t heard about that before.
Vickie 05:58 I came across a document. I came across a document. There were two things. It said, “Uncle Ben used to have an old brass kettle and they cut up Uncle Ben’s old kettle to make those little plates. And they used an auger to put it in the hill.”
GT 06:18 Oh, so it would look like it had been there the whole time.
Vickie 06:23 And it was just a document I stumbled across.
Vickie 13:29 There were a lot of boats that would come into the harbor on Beaver Island. And they would start selling alcohol to people from Beaver Island that got a little tired of James Strang. Those people would go out onto the boats and drink alcohol. And when Strang found out about it, then he says, “Well, you guys are going to stop it or those boats are not going to come in the harbor. I don’t care how much profit we get off of them.”
Vickie 13:58 Those people got very angry and decided to do away with James Strang. It was his own followers. They plotted his assassination. And one day the United States warship Michigan, came into the harbor. They asked Jim Strang to come on board and two of his followers came up from behind and shot Strang in the head and in the back. He lived for another couple of weeks. He was taken back to Voree where he died and the mob of people that hated the Strangite Mormons, descended on Beaver Island and exiled all the people. And that was the end of the Strangites on Beaver Island. They had neighbors scattered all over the Great Lakes.
GT 14:52 Yeah, I heard that the USS Michigan just stopped every once in a while, and dropped them off. They had no luggage or anything. And we’re just really destitute.
Vickie 15:02 The mob forced them on the boats with nothing. But it wasn’t everybody that went off without nothing, because some of them were able to get off the island with their stuff. But it was the ones that were later on that had no leader and the mob came with guns and said, “Get your stuff down to the port by tomorrow, or we’re going to burn your house down. And we’re going to kill your family.” And once they got their stuff down to the port, they expected it to be loaded on the ships. And the Gentile vigilantes kept it and sent the Strangites off on boats penniless with nothing.
GT 15:48 Yeah, I remember John Hamer talking about that one time. And he’s like, there hasn’t been a more persecuted people than those people.
Vickie 15:56 Absolutely not.
GT 15:58 You know, in the LDS church, we talk about the Martin and Willie handcart companies. And it was terrible because it was in the cold winter. But this was probably [worse.] Would you say is just as bad or worse?
Vickie 16:12 This was very bad.
GT 16:14 I mean I guess the weather was better.
Vickie 16:14 They didn’t even know where they were going.
GT 16:16 Right.
Vickie 16:17 They were loaded on these ship. They didn’t know where the ship was going, whether it’s going to Detroit, or Chicago, or Cleveland, Milwaukee, Green Bay. And their families might be on another ship. So they didn’t know where they were going. And they were landed onto the pier. Sometimes they weren’t allowed to be landed on the piers. So the ships would drop them off in little communities, in little clumps along the shore. And they would walk to the nearest town. And they didn’t even know what town it was. So it was very, very bad.
Were you familiar with the large persecution of Strang’s followers? What do you make of James Strang?
So glad you finally got Vickie on. Really enjoyed this interview. I read Vickie’s book a couple years ago and thought it was great. In this podcast, I was especially struck at her ability and commitment to humanizing James Strang. And her assessment of his duplicating Joseph Smith’s approach and prophetic style rings true to me. Beaver Island feels like Nauvoo on fast-forward.