The King of Confidence
A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch
By Miles Harvey
The King of Confidence is a biography of James J. Strang, who claimed to be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. My first introduction to James Strang was when I was a graduate student at Northwestern University with my BA from Brigham Young University. I had always been a faithful Latter-day Saint with almost perfect attendance in seminary and BYU religion classes. And yet I had never heard of this man who vied with Brigham Young (and others) for the leadership of the Church after the Prophet Joseph was killed. I only found out about Strang when I accidentally found a biography of him in the university library where I was studying. I don’t remember the author or title of that biography (it was over 60 years ago!). My immediate reaction was, this man is very much like Joseph Smith! There were several biographies of him in print at that time. And there have been dozens since.
The King of Confidence must rank among the most readable and educational of Strang’s biographies. It is a masterpiece of biographical writing. In spite of all the available biographies, Strang is still largely unknown to the average member of the Utah LDS Church and to non-Mormon Americans. This is unfortunate because, as author Miles Harvey points out, during his life Strang was frequently a prominent figure in national headlines.
King shows the prominent position Strang occupied in the American view of Mormonism during his lifetime. It shows that the term “Mormon” during the mid-19th century in news reports just as often meant Strang’s Mormons as it did the Utah Mormons. It vividly portrays the many cultural changes taking place in America during that time and shows how they affected Strang and his followers, and – surprisingly – how Strang’s Mormons affected American culture of the time.
Harvey explains Strang’s success, short lived as it was, as a typical product of the social and political upheavals taking place in the antebellum decade and a half when Strang flourished. He connects Strang to the changes in women’s dress, abolitionism, vocabulary, and other social changes.
King reads like a novel and even has one characteristic of some novels of previous centuries: each chapter has a tantalizing heading, hinting at the amazing events that await the reader in what follows. And every chapter fulfills that promise.
Strang and Smith were similar in many ways, which may have contributed to Strang’s success in gathering so many followers in the confusion after Smith’s murder. Both were called to lead by angelic visitors; both unearthed ancient records engraved on metal plates; both produced witnesses to their plates (Strang’s witnesses even testified to having seen the plates being retrieved from their burial place, which, they said, had not been recently disturbed); both initially opposed polygamy and both initially practiced it secretly; both had themselves crowned as “king”, both had to deal with rebellion in their ranks; both were murdered by enemies (Strang’s murderers were disaffected Strangites). Both promoted among their followers the idea that the property of “Gentiles” (non-Mormons) could be “consecrated” (stolen). Both men and their followers were involved in counterfeiting, which was a common practice at the time. There were differences, of course. Strang’s background was much broader than Smith’s: he had experience as a postmaster, a lawyer, and after settling at Beaver Island, he served as a Michigan state legislator, where he was highly respected by fellow legislators.
A few minor quibbles: Harvey generally fails to mention most of the prominent Nauvoo Saints who followed Strang to Wisconsin and to Beaver Island, Michigan. He notes how John C. Bennett worked his way into prominence with Strang, just as he had done with Joseph Smith, and how both ultimately rejected him. But other prominent Nauvoo Mormons are neglected. These include Martin Harris, one of the Book of Mormon witnesses, who followed Strang, and even went as a Strangite missionary to England; William Smith, Joseph’s brother, who was both Church patriarch and apostle, also followed Strang for a while and served as a Strang apostle and patriarch. Two more of Joseph’s apostles followed Strang: William McLellin and John E. Page, as well as William E. Marks, president of the Nauvoo Stake, who became a member of Strang’s First Presidency. Lucy Mack Smith followed her son William to go with Strang. Harvey mentions none of these people who would be of particular interest to Mormon readers.
Harvey’s choice of title is also puzzling. The title alone does nothing to attract general readers or Mormon readers to its specialized subject matter. The illustrations are well-chosen, but some lack captions, leaving the reader wondering occasionally what the purpose is. King has voluminous endnotes that cite the thousands of sources of information in the text, but the text itself has no indication when there is an appropriate note.
In all, this book is a delightful tour through a time in America that was in turmoil (much like the America of today) and it fills a real gap in the story of Mormonism in the mid-19th century. Miles Harvey’s The King of Confidence belongs in any library dealing with Mormonism’s history.
This review was first published here: Association for Mormon Letters