Part 50: CES Letter Witnesses Questions [Section F]
by Sarah Allen
We’re continuing the saga of James Strang today, addressing Jeremy’s various concerns and comments. If you read the prior post, you know that this is a crazy story and Strang was a rather colorful character. Jeremy Runnells, of course, does not go into any of that history or the clear signs of deception, and only focuses on the few similarities between Strang and Joseph Smith—namely, that he claimed to translate some plates by the power of God and that he had some witnesses for those plates. We’ll go through those similarities and the differences in more detail as we go through Jeremy’s questions/comments.
James Strang and his claims are fascinating. He was basically Joseph Smith 2.0 – but with a twist.
I do actually partially agree with Jeremy on this: James Strang’s story is somewhat fascinating to me. It’s full of bizarre twists and turns, conspiracies, and one unexpected event after another. I’m not gonna lie, I read that biography rather quickly. It was all so absurd, I couldn’t put it down. I do not, however, agree that he is much at all like Joseph Smith, and he certainly isn’t Version 2.0. His “twist” is that he was pretty clearly (to me, at least) a fraud.
Like Joseph, Strang did the following:
- Claimed that he was visited by an angel who reserved plates for him to translate into the word of God. “The record which was sealed from my servant Joseph. Unto thee it is reserved.”
- Received the “Urim and Thummim”.
- Produced 11 witnesses who testified that they too had seen and inspected ancient metal plates.
- Introduced new scripture. After unearthing the plates (the same plates as Laban from whom Nephi took the brass plates in Jerusalem), Strang translated it into scripture called the “Book of the Law of the Lord”
- Established a new Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite). Its headquarters is still today in Voree, Wisconsin.
Going through these briefly, there are some little red flags right in these events. Strang did claim to receive a visit from an angel and did claim to receive plates to translate with the “Urim and Thummim.” His description of the Interpreters matched exactly with Joseph’s description of the Nephite Interpreters, though nobody else ever claimed to see them. He had no witnesses to them, unlike Joseph.
There is also no record of anyone other than Strang receiving angelic messengers, while Joseph had multiple shared visions. Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Frederick G. Williams, etc., all received visions alongside Joseph at various times. Others received their own divine messengers and visions, including many of Joseph’s wives, Heber C. Kimball, and others.
It’s also interesting that the supposed Plates of Laban were described as being “sealed from” Joseph. The sealed plates that Joseph wasn’t allowed to translate aren’t the brass plates, they’re the record of the Brother of Jared’s vision of the history of the world. The brass plates, the plates that Nephi took from Laban, were not included in the Book of Mormon. They’re still buried in the repository at Cumorah, wherever that is, if they still exist at all. Who knows where that hill is or whether it’s even still standing. To me, this just sounds like someone trying to expound on Joseph’s claims without actually knowing enough about the subject matter to form a cohesive story.
We’ll post them in full in a minute, but none of Strang’s 11 witnesses to his translation claims ever testified of anything religious or supernatural in nature. Their testimonies were all akin to the practical, legalistic one of the eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon. None of them is similar at all to the testimony of the three witnesses.
While Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon took about 75 days to complete, The Book of the Law of the Lord took at least seven years to be completed. It’s also considerably shorter than the Book of Mormon (even after a substantial update) and without a cohesive narrative or internal consistency. As Dan Peterson says, those contrasts speak in favor of the Book of Mormon over the work put out by James Strang.
As for forming a new church, Strang never made that claim. Instead, he claimed to take over leading Christ’s existing church after Joseph. That the Strangite branch ended up being so very different from the church Joseph helped restore speaks volumes, in my opinion. And, though it does still exist today and is still headquartered in Voree, Wisconsin, there are only around 300 members worldwide. Many of us have more people than that in our wards.
Popularity does not equal truth, but Joseph Smith famously prophesied in the Wentworth Letter that, “The Standard of Truth has been erected; 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.”
Three hundred members is, unfortunately, not going forth boldly, nobly, and independent. It’s not penetrating every continent, visiting every clime, sweeping every country, or sounding in every ear. It’s pretty much the opposite of that. And when you’re talking about Christ’s true church and its ability to spread its message throughout the world, this prophecy does matter. Strang’s church is not fulfilling it.
Like the Book of Mormon, the Book of the Law of the Lord has the testimony of its Witnesses in its preface:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, to whom this Book of the Law of the Lord shall come, that James J. Strang has the plates of the ancient Book of the Law of the Lord given to Moses, from which he translated this law, and has shown them to us. We examined them with our eyes, and handled them with our hands. The engravings are beautiful antique workmanship, bearing a striking resemblance to the ancient oriental languages; and those from which the laws in this book were translated are eighteen in number, about seven inches and three-eights wide, by nine inches long, occasionally embellished with beautiful pictures.
And we testify unto you all that the everlasting kingdom of God is established, in which this law shall be kept, till it brings in rest and everlasting righteousness to all the faithful.
SAMUEL P. BACON,
ALBERT N. HOSMER,
If you read through that testimony, a few things immediately become clear. First, this is not describing a religious experience. They’re talking about how Strang showed them 18 plates and let them look through them. They saw them and touched them, and there are no descriptions of angels, revelations, or other sacred relics.
Second, it’s very similar to the testimony given by the eight witnesses of the Book of Mormon.
Hilariously, it’s a little too similar to their testimony:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.
It opens exactly the same, they copied the exact same “we did handle them with our hands” line, they both describe the engravings as being ancient/antique work, they both talk about seeing and touching the plates, etc. They clearly took the testimony of the eight witnesses and changed it up just enough that it wouldn’t be immediately obvious unless you were directly comparing the two.
In addition to the above 7 witnesses, there were 4 witnesses who went with Strang as they unearthed the Voree Plates:
TESTIMONY OF WITNESSES TO THE VOREE PLATES
On the thirteenth day of September, 1845, we, Aaron Smith, Jirah B. Wheelan, James M. Van Nostrand, and Edward Whitcomb, assembled at the call of James J. Strang, who is by us and many others approved as a Prophet and Seer of God. He proceeded to inform us that it had been revealed to him in a vision that an account of an ancient people was buried in a hill south of White River bridge, near the east line of Walworth County; and leading us to an oak tree about one foot in diameter, told us that we would find it enclosed in a case of rude earthen ware under that tree at the depth of about three feet; requested us to dig it up, and charged us to so examine the ground that we should know we were not imposed upon, and that it had not been buried there since the tree grew. The tree was surrounded by a sward of deeply rooted grass, such as is usually found in the openings, and upon the most critical examination we could not discover any indication that it had ever been cut through or disturbed.
We then dug up the tree, and continued to dig to the depth of about three feet, where we found a case of slightly baked clay containing three plates of brass. On one side of one is a landscape view of the south end of Gardner’s prairie and the range of hills where they were dug. On another is a man with a crown on his head and a scepter in his hand, above is an eye before an upright line, below the sun and moon surrounded with twelve stars, at the bottom are twelve large stars from three of which pillars arise, and closely interspersed with them are seventy very small stars. The other four sides are very closely covered with what appear to be alphabetic characters, but in a language of which we have no knowledge.
The case was found imbedded in indurated clay so closely fitting it that it broke in taking out, and the earth below the soil was so hard as to be dug with difficulty even with a pickax. Over the case was found a flat stone about one foot wide each way and three inches thick, which appeared to have undergone the action of fire, and fell in pieces after a few minutes exposure to the air. The digging extended in the clay about eighteen inches, there being two kinds of earth of different color and appearance above it.
We examined as we dug all the way with the utmost care, and we say, with utmost confidence, that no part of the earth through which we dug exhibited any sign or indication that it had been moved or disturbed at any time previous. The roots of the tree stuck down on every side very closely, extending below the case, and closely interwoven with roots from other trees. None of them had been broken or cut away. No clay is found in the country like that of which the case is made.
In fine, we found an alphabetic and pictorial record, carefully cased up, buried deep in the earth, covered with a flat stone, with an oak tree one foot in diameter growing over it, with every evidence that the sense can give that it has lain there as long as that tree has been growing. Strang took no part in the digging, but kept entirely away from before the first blow was struck till after the plates were taken out of the case; and the sole inducement to our digging was our faith in his statement as a Prophet of the Lord that a record would thus and there be found.
JIRAH B. WHEELAN,
- M. VAN NOSTRAND,
There are some interesting things about this testimony. First, it opens with the witnesses describing how Strang told them he had a vision of an angel. Again, none of these witnesses saw the angel. None of them ever describe getting a spiritual confirmation that what he was saying was true. None of them ever report anything like the very well-documented transfiguration of Brigham Young (and for those who claim this is a myth that wasn’t recorded until decades later, here’s a breakdown of just how early mentions of it were being made). All they report is that they saw and touched metallic plates with writing on them. While that’s an important testimony, it’s only one part of the multi-layered testimonies that the Book of Mormon witnesses gave.
Additionally, you’ll note how they say that Strang was “by us and many others approved as the Prophet and Seer of God.” Again, they don’t report receiving that confirmation from God. He’s approved by them. There’s no mention at all of them believing that Strang is approved by God to be the prophet.
The one thing they stress repeatedly was that was that the ground wasn’t disturbed so they didn’t think Strang could have buried them himself. They mention that the roots of the tree weren’t disturbed until they dug them up, implying that nobody else had been digging in that spot. They had to assume that the clay box holding the little Voree plates must have been there for centuries, since before the tree existed.
So, if—like me—you believe the plates were a hoax, how did Strang manage to bury them without leaving a trace? One possible answer comes from Isaac Scott, a former follower of Strang’s who wrote an exposé on him in the Saints’ Herald, the RLDS/Community of Christ newspaper on December 29, 1888 (this was not the only article about Strang from that paper that we’ll be quoting):
[Caleb Barnes] said they made the “plates” out of Ben Pierce’s old kettle and engraved them with an old saw file and made the characters similar to those on the plates found near Kinderhook, Pike Co., Illinois, but mixed up the engravings so they could not be easily detected; that when completed they put acid on them to corrode them and give them an ancient appearance; and that to deposit them under the tree, where they were found, they took a large auger, used for rafting purposes, which Ben Pierce owned, put a fork handle on the auger and with it bored a long, slanting hole under a tree on “The Hill of Promise,” as they called it, laying the earth in a trail on a cloth as taken out, then put the “plates” in, tamping in all the earth again, leaving no trace of their work visible. Soon after the “plates” were deposited Strang got a revelation as to where they were, and then he got Aaron Smith, J.B. Wheeland and James Vanostrand for witnesses and to exhume them and they found them just as revealed (!) to Strang.
Strang having now got the “plates,” they must be translated. Barnes said, “We tried to have him go slow, but he would rush matters too fast, and so out came the translation, and you got it and proved it false by finding that passage in the Book of Mormon where it says ‘all plates containing Holy writ shall retain their brightness and shall never be dimmed by time,’ and this laid out our bogus plates and Strang’s translation of them, for we did not know there was such a passage in the Book of Mormon….”
With that second paragraph, he’s talking about Alma 37:3-5:
3 And these plates of brass, which contain these engravings, which have the records of the holy scriptures upon them, which have the genealogy of our forefathers, even from the beginning—
4 Behold, it has been prophesied by our fathers, that they should be kept and handed down from one generation to another, and be kept and preserved by the hand of the Lord until they should go forth unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, that they shall know of the mysteries contained thereon.
5 And now behold, if they are kept they must retain their brightness; yea, and they will retain their brightness; yea, and also shall all the plates which do contain that which is holy writ.
Strang wasn’t very familiar with the contents of the Book of Mormon, so he didn’t realize that, if his plates were genuine, they wouldn’t be corroded or look old. They’d look shiny and new because they contained the Word of God and He would preserve them.
Now, to be fair, this is a secondhand account from 1888, 32 years after Strang’s death and 43 years after the Voree plates were dug up, and given by someone hostile to Strang. It’s the exact same type of shaky source that I suggested taking with a grain of salt when they were being used against Martin Harris and David Whitmer. I’m doing that again here—be wary of any historical account given decades later by a secondhand source, especially when they say exactly what you want them to say.
I think this account is highly entertaining, and it’s detailed enough that I suspect some of it is likely true, but I am not stating it as settled fact. This is one person’s account, and we can’t verify its contents. He could be lying about every single thing he’s saying. History is messy, as I often say. There’s a lot we can’t prove, and this is one of them.
I’m quoting from this source and the other one I’ll cite mainly because they highlight Jeremy’s insincerity. One of his arguments is incredibly hypocritical, considering all the time he spent showcasing the same secondhand accounts from as many different sources as he could find. Before we get there, though, he has one more thing to say:
Like Joseph, Strang had a scribe (Samuel Graham) who wrote as Strang translated. Along with several of the witnesses, Graham was later excommunicated from Strang’s Church.
Yes, he did use a scribe. It’s interesting that he did, too, as he was highly educated and a former newspaper editor and lawyer. Joseph hated writing according to his own words, and according to Emma, couldn’t even dictate a coherent letter at the time at the time of the Book of Mormon translation. He needed a scribe if he was going to get the translation finished. Strang didn’t need one. He used one because Joseph used one.
Strang often imitated things that Joseph had done: Joseph saw an angel, so Strang did too. Joseph received ancient plates to translate; so did Strang. Joseph had witnesses to the Book of Mormon, so Strang also had witnesses for his plates. Joseph used the Interpreters, which many of the early Saints also called the Urim and Thummim, so Strang also claimed he was using the Urim and Thummim, which exactly matched the description given of Joseph’s Interpreters. Joseph instituted a policy of polygamy; so did Strang. Etc.
And speaking of that scribe, a Mr. Chauncy Loomis wrote a letter for the Saints’ Herald on November 10, 1888, discussing his knowledge of Strang and his scribe, Samuel Graham:
Bro. Samuel Graham, I think, president of the Twelve, declared that he and Strang made those plates that Strang claimed to translate the Book of The Law from. But they in the first place prepared the plates and coated them with beeswax and then formed the letters and cut them in with a pen knife and then exhibited them to the rest of the Twelve. … Bro. Samuel Bacon says that in repairing Strang’s house he found hid behind the ceiling the fragments of those plates which Strang made the Book of the Law from….”
Earlier in that same account, he refers to a conversation he had with George Adams, the man who crowned Strang king:
He said to me, “Brother Loomis, I always thought you to be an honest man, but you are like poor dog Tray; you have been caught in bad company, and now my advice to you is to leave the island, for I tell you Strang is not a prophet of God. I consider him to be a self-confessed impostor. Strang wanted me to get a couple of bottles of phosphorus and dress myself in a long white robe and appear on the highest summit on the island, called Mount Pisgah, break the bottles, make an illumination and blow a trumpet and disappear so that he might make it appear that an angel had made them a visit; that it might beget the faith in the Saints.”
Again, we have a secondhand source from approximately 30 years later from someone purposely trying to cast doubt on Strang’s claims. So, again, treat this source with some skepticism. There’s no way to verify any of these claims, and that’s important to acknowledge.
But I find it curious that in both of these accounts, supposed details of how the hoax was perpetrated are laid out. You never see that in stories about the Book of Mormon witnesses. Nobody has ever come forward with details of how Joseph made the plates, or how he was able to cobble together the Book of Mormon from a vast library that rivals that of any university without detection. Nobody ever explained how he built the stone box the plates were found in, which David Whitmer later saw on the hill in New York before it washed away in a storm. Nobody ever claimed that Joseph had them dress up in a robe with phosphorus to appear like a glowing angel. None of the witnesses ever claims a role in any of it…and neither does anyone else.
And now, we reach the hypocrisy I was talking about above:
There is no direct evidence that any of the above 11 Strang witnesses ever denied their testimony of James Strang, the Voree Plates, Strang’s church, or Strang’s divine calling.
Did you catch that? No “direct” evidence? Funny how Jeremy didn’t care that there was no “direct” evidence that Martin Harris believed a candle was a sign of the Devil, or that he met up with a talking deer he believed was Jesus Christ, or that he talked about seeing cities through mountains. There was no “direct” evidence that David Whitmer described the angel in his revelation as an amorphous blob without “appearance or shape,” or that Oliver Cowdery used his divining rod to hunt for buried treasure, or that Joseph Smith grew up hearing stories about Captain Kidd’s exploits on Comoros and stole the names Moroni and Cumorah from them. Half this Letter is full of accusations without any “direct” evidence. That sure didn’t stop Jeremy from expounding on them all at length as though they were definitive proof, and yet, here he waves away similar sources as if they’re nothing.
You have to be consistent with this kind of thing. Either they’re all potentially sketchy sources and should be treated with skepticism, or they’re all trustworthy and should be taken at face value. They have to be weighed the same. You can’t just accept the sources you like as being honest and reject all others as being shady because you don’t like what they say. It’s so intellectually dishonest.
And here’s the thing about Strang’s witnesses: while they’re similar to the Book of Mormon witnesses in that they all eventually left Strang’s church behind, there are some major differences. To start with, they all abruptly stopped testifying of Strang’s plates after they left his church. The Book of Mormon witnesses all continued testifying of their experiences with the gold plates and the angel for the rest of their lives, with many of them confirming that testimony on their deathbeds. Not only that, but none of Strang’s witnesses ever tried correcting the record when they’d been misquoted or said to have denied their testimonies. The Book of Mormon witnesses all did that for as long as they lived. They didn’t just sign their names to the testimony and walk away. They continued bearing that testimony for the rest of their lives, often to anyone who would listen without derision. You do not see that from Strang’s witnesses.
Every single living Book of Mormon witness besides Oliver Cowdery accepted Strang’s prophetic claim of being Joseph’s true successor and joined him and his church. Additionally, every single member of Joseph Smith’s family except for Hyrum’s widow also endorsed, joined, and sustained James Strang as “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.”
These sentences are not very accurate. Brian Hales gives a great rebuttal to these claims, complete with an informative chart to help you keep it all straight. The evidence of the Whitmers joining Strang’s church is minimal at best, and David Whitmer in particular was listed by Strang as an antagonist toward his claims. John Whitmer did write about Strang in his journal, but later crossed it out. The other information we have on the Whitmer/Page families comes from Strang himself, claiming they were his followers. None of them ever left Missouri to join him in either Wisconsin or Michigan. Martin Harris is really the only witness we know for certain was a follower of Strang, and even that was short-lived.
As far as the Smith family goes, only William, Joseph’s brother, is known for certain to have believed in Strang, and was even temporarily an apostle in his church. However, he was excommunicated in 1847, only a year after joining.
The evidence regarding the rest of the family’s involvement is uncertain. William and his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, supposedly wrote letters that were printed in Strang’s newspaper, the Voree Herald, in June of 1846 under the title “Opinions of the Smith Family.” William’s letter reads, in part:
…The Twelve are not the appointed of God, to lead the church. James J. Strang has the appointment, and we have evidence of it. The whole Smith family excepting Hyrum’s widow uphold Strang, and say this wilderness move is not of God. Do set the saints in order in England. My love to all the faithful. The family join in these sentiments.
And the other letter, written by Lucy, was co-signed by her daughters Katharine and Lucy Millikin and by their husbands. It reads, in part:
The Twelve (Brighamites) have abused my son William, and trampled upon my children; they have also treated me with contempt. The Lord’s hand is in this to save the church; now mark it; these men are not right. God has not sent them to lead this kingdom; I am satisfied that Joseph appointed J.J. Strang. It is verily so….
However, the claims that the Twelve treated Lucy and her children with contempt is not true, though the relationship did sour somewhat due to William Smith. They gave the Smith family quite a lot of financial and friendly support over the years, and Katharine, at least, wrote multiple letters expressing her gratitude and desire to be reunited with her family and friends who had gone West with the rest of the Saints.
I feel to write a few lines by way of explanation. In January I received a letter…asking for an explanation concerning my name being signed to a document or certificate in support of J.J. Strang being leader of the church: such certificate being found in the Strangite pamphlet, a thing I never heard of in my life until I received the letter from Elder Lewis.
I now in truth declare that I never signed my name to such certificate or document; neither did I give my consent for anyone to sign it. I never knew anything about Strang or his work, nor heard of him for several years after I left Nauvoo.
I do not believe that my mother, Lucy Smith, or my sisters, Lucy Millikin and Sophronia McClerrie, signed any such certificate.
As for my husband, I know he looked forward to Joseph Smith [III] taking his father’s place. We based our strong reasons on my mother’s teaching, as she was known to her Grandson’s calling. We all waited patiently for him to take his place.
It is preposterous to think that Emma Smith, wife of my brother Joseph, would sign such certificate, when she knew of her son’s blessing in Liberty Jail, and knew beyond a doubt that he would fill his father’s place in God’s own due time. Such was her testimony all the way through.
So I say the whole thing was a forgery. Whoever the perpetrator was, his acts will surely be revealed sometime, as justice will prevail. I expect to meet this testimony before the judgment bar of God…
There is another statement given by her making a similar denial, and backed by her daughter Josephine, that can be read here.
When you look at all of the evidence, if any of them believed in Strang’s claims, it was not for long. None of them were particularly enthusiastic followers of his, aside from perhaps Martin Harris and William Smith, and even they weren’t his followers for more than a year at most. There’s no evidence that any of the others took more than a glancing interest in anything Strang had to say.
What does this say about the credibility of the Book of Mormon witnesses if they were so easily duped by James Strang and his claims of being a prophet called of God to bring forth new scripture from ancient plates only to later turn out to be a fraud?
I haven’t seen any evidence that any of the witnesses were duped by James Strang other than Martin, and as shown, that was only for a few months and Martin apparently denied being affiliated with Strang in the midst of it. Jeremy didn’t provide any other evidence to support his claims—likely because there isn’t much that exists beyond Strang’s own insistence that they were his followers.
What it tells me about the Book of Mormon witnesses is that they all experienced something genuine with Joseph and the plates, and they knew the Book of Mormon was the word of God. They spent the rest of their lives chasing down any experience that would live up to the ones they shared with Joseph, and they all testified until their deaths of the truthfulness of their claims. You don’t get anything even remotely similar from any of Strang’s witnesses.
So, as we’ve seen over and over and over again throughout this series, it’s important to check and evaluate your sources. It’s important to weigh them using consistent metrics. It’s important to put in the work and do your own research, rather than just taking anyone else’s word for it, including mine.
The Lord loves effort, and He will reward you when you put in the work to get answers to your questions. He did it for me in this very post. I’d found a source over the weekend regarding Katharine Salisbury’s denials of supporting Strang, but lost the reference and couldn’t find it again after repeated searching. When I prayed and asked for help in finding it again, the very next phrase I searched for turned up an even better source than the one I’d originally found.
Lean on Him and let Him help you in your studies. He’s ready and willing if you just put your trust in Him.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.