Strangite/LDS Theological Differences

by: Mormon Heretic

July 7, 2014
William Shepard

William Shepard

Back in May, I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with William Shepard at the Kirtland Sunstone Conference.  Shepard is both an impressive historian in his own right, but also a member of the Strangite Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  (Yes the name of his church is more than just a slight variation of the LDS Church.)  If you haven’t heard of Strangites, here is a very brief history.

James Strang was baptized by Joseph Smith in February 1844, just 4 months prior to the death of the prophet.  Strang came from Winsconsin, and Joseph asked him to return and organize the church there.  Strang has used the letter to claim that Joseph intended Strang to lead the church, and Strang also claims that on the night of Joseph’s death, an angel came to him and ordained him prophet.  He was very convincing.  Members of Joseph’s family (such as William Smith) joined Strang’s church, as well as other prominent members such as Martin Harris.  The church rivaled Brigham Young’s organization in size.  Strang initially was against polygamy, but received revelation a few years later and had four wives.  He was killed in Michigan under the hands of the U.S. Navy.  He didn’t appoint a successor, believing that only an angel could call a prophet.

I asked Shepard what was the biggest differences between Strangite theology and LDS theology.  While I was aware that Strang had translated the Brass Plates (mentioned in the Book of Mormon) into “The Book of the Law of the Lord” as well as the Voree Plates, I was quite shocked to learn the Strangites have a very different belief about Jesus.  Shepard pulled out his scriptures and pointed to a set of verses in which Strangites believe that Jesus was completely mortal.  They believe that Joseph was the literal father of Jesus, not God.  Jesus became the Son of God through his commune with God, but Jesus was 100% mortal.  I was pretty shocked to hear this.

Because Ordain Women was pretty hot in the news, I asked Shepard if Strangites ordained women.  He said that women are often ordained to the office of Teacher when they have a specific calling as a teacher in church services.  I think it makes a lot of sense.  In the LDS Church, the calling of Teacher pretty much never involves teaching, though the LDS manuals do make a reference that Teachers can participate in home teaching.  I think it would make a lot of sense to ordain a Sunday School teacher to be a Teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood.

What do you think of these two differences in Strangite theology?

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14 Responses to Strangite/LDS Theological Differences

  1. Hedgehog on July 7, 2014 at 1:11 AM

    I agree we seem to define Teacher very oddly.

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  2. Mormon Heretic on July 7, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    I think that the idea that Jesus is not divine is one of the most controversial points of doctrine in all of Christianity–though I suspect it would appeal to some intellectual types. I also think it is pretty amazing that they ordain women to the Aaronic priesthood, but not Melchizedek priesthood.

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  3. Jenonator on July 7, 2014 at 10:31 AM

    Now I want to research this-thanks! Fascinating.

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  4. Douglas on July 7, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    Jesus not a member of the Godhead…if what you’re saying about Strangite doctrine, he was “as mortal as we are…” (ode to a Ren&Stimpy episdoe where Ren goes postal…waitaminnit…that’s fairly much all of em…). Not unlike the JWs reject the notion of Jesus as a member of the Godhead (they’re notabily anti-trinitarian) but rather as a “divine” person, a bit above an angel.
    Me, I’ll stick with reveleation, both ancient and modern, and they all point to what is enscapsulated in John 1:1 : “…and the Word WAS God”.

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  5. New Iconoclast on July 7, 2014 at 2:14 PM

    I think that our oddities in the definitions of the office of Teacher tend to date from the juvenilization of the Aaronic Priesthood in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Prior to that, from what I’ve been able to glean (MH, you could maybe refer me to a more rigorous study) there were adults who held the AP for a good part of their adult lives and functioned just fine, with no one ever worrying about whether they were “progressing” in the priesthood or putting them on a “Prospective Elders” list like the one I just reviewed with my quorum yesterday.

    At any rate, I was fairly aware of the history and theology of the Strangites. Not only are they fellow Midwesterners, but I have a friend, a professional historian, who was raised near Beaver Island and knew something of them. The thing that has always amazed me is that anyone at all ever took Strang seriously. The only thing I can think is that his followers were mostly Wisconsin woodcutting mission Saints who had been under his charisma for awhile and out of touch with the main church body. (William Smith, quite simply, was nuts.) They’ve since fractured into two subgroups over issues of succession, and many of the Strangites were cherry-picked by the Reorganites over the years after Strang’s death, like so many others of the early schisms.

    IIRC, they’re also polygamists, believe in (and practiced, during the Strang years and for some time afterwards) animal sacrifice, and they’re seventh-day Sabbatarians as well.

    John Hajicek, collector of Mormoniana, at one time considered himself a Strangite, although I don’t think he does anymore. He did a beautiful reprint set of the Nauvoo-era scriptures once that I was lucky enough to get a copy of.

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  6. Casey on July 7, 2014 at 11:25 PM

    That brand of christology is pretty much straight up adoptionist, right? If so it’s an idea that goes way, way back in Christianity.

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  7. Hedgehog on July 8, 2014 at 12:53 AM

    MH #2, the idea that there are Christians who don’t believe in the divinity of Christ isn’t especially new to me, though it kicked up quite a furor in Britain back in 1984. (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/profile-the-one-true-bishop-of-durham-dr-david-jenkins-retiring-scourge-of-sacred-cows-1392030.html)

    On the ordination to office of teacher, in your comment you referred to ordaining women to the Aaronic Priesthood, but wasn’t what the post said. So my question is, do the Strangites have the Aaronic/Melchizedek division that we have? Also, I don’t find it especially surprising to ordaining teachers as Teachers – but I do question whether they have a ‘setting apart’ to callings that we have, and I gather in the early church that ordination could also have meant setting apart as we choose to understand it now. I don’t know that lines weren’t more blurry then maybe…

    It seems strange to me now that Teacher *is* a Priesthood office at all, and that it has so little to do with actual teaching.

    I think it is more pertinent to note, or at least I take from the post, that women aren’t ordained to anything that would involve performance of ordinances.

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  8. markag on July 8, 2014 at 3:12 AM

    Growing up in the RLDS, I was taught that the Priesthood office of Teacher was very special which is why there were so few as compared to other offices. Indeed, when you read their job description, it seems a tall order, especially for a 14-year-old boy, though not impossible.

    Was the current membership of the Strangite Church mentioned?

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  9. New Iconoclast on July 8, 2014 at 6:37 AM

    In addition, I tend to think that one of the best arguments against Strang’s claims to having been named by Joseph as his prophetic successor, in addition to the questionable provenance of the letter and the fact that it doesn’t actually name Strang as his successor, is the simple fact that Strang was a newcomer and an outsider, at a time when Joseph was surrounded by trusted and proven friends who had been with him for years. Joseph certainly had been known to take a shine to someone on short notice, but he had also recently learned a bitter lesson with John C. Bennett, and he was considerably more mature and considered in his actions in 1844 than he had been, say, ten years earlier.

    No, I think that the most likely explanation is that Strang was asked to lead a local stake in the Upper Midwest, and it also seems unlikely that he really expected that the majority of the Church would follow him. He simply saw an opportunity to build his own little kingdom and he did so.

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  10. New Iconoclast on July 8, 2014 at 6:43 AM

    Hedge, #6, the Strangites do ordain women to the AP as priests and teachers. The functions of women in the office of Priest are limited (they can’t perform animal sacrifice). Strangite priesthood functions are sufficiently different from ours that it’s tough to draw exact parallels. :) They also cannot be elders or high priests; what we’d think of as MP offices.

    In other words, then, they are not just set apart as teachers; they are ordained to the priesthood. The Strangites also never had a ban against Africans.

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  11. Hedgehog on July 8, 2014 at 7:02 AM

    Thanks for that additional information NI.

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  12. Mormon Heretic on July 8, 2014 at 2:32 PM

    Casey and Hedgehog, I’m sure that disbelief that the father of Jesus is old, but I am pretty sure that such claims would be rather heretical in nearly all of Christendom. I suspect Strang’s position would appeal to intellectual Christians, but not so much with mainstream Christians, and would be a quite minority view throughout history. And to have it canonized in scripture from God seems especially unique, unlike the Bishop whose beliefs are his own, not of scripture.

    Hedgehog, I’ll have to ask William more about Strangite concepts of priesthood. I suspect there is a division, but hearkens back to more orignal 19th century views of priesthood than 21st century view. Remember that adults were called to the Aaronic priesthood, not youth. I doubt that they view Aaronic as a stepping stone to Melchizedek as we do, but I should ask for more clarity.

    Markag, you asked “Was the current membership of the Strangite Church mentioned?” but I don’t understand your question. William is a current member. I believe worldwide membership is about 3000 current members, but they even have divisions among them. I believe the largest concentrations are in Wisconsin and Michigan, and there are some branches in the midwest.

    New Iconoclast, after reviewing the letter myself, it does seem that the letter is rather vague, and I wouldn’t have interpreted it the way that Strang did. His more compelling case for leadership is the angelic visit. It is interesting to me that Strangites place more emphasis on the visit than the letter, which is more of an afterthought about his call as prophet. He translated scripture as Joseph did, so he modeled Joseph quite a bit.

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  13. Syphax on July 8, 2014 at 7:34 PM

    Casey, yes, it would be adoptionism, and it has a long and dramatic history in the early Christological debates. Not an “out of the blue” idea at all.

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  14. Mormon Heretic on July 8, 2014 at 10:20 PM

    Syphax, are you aware of any modern Christian groups that believe in adoptionist christology? (Because I’m not aware.)

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