Letter of appointment
The "letter of appointment" is a controversial three-page document used by James J. Strang and his adherents in their efforts to prove that he was the designated successor to Joseph Smith as the prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Sent from Nauvoo, Illinois, on June 19, 1844, to Strang in Burlington, Wisconsin, this letter served as the cornerstone of Strang's claims, which were ultimately rejected by the majority of Latter Day Saints. Following Strang's murder in 1856, the letter passed through various hands until acquired by Yale University, where it currently forms a part of its Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.[note a]
James J. Strang
James J. Strang was a lawyer and newspaper editor from New York who converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1844. Shortly after his baptism, Joseph Smith, founder of the church, was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob. Upon Smith's death, a number of individuals came forward claiming a divine mandate to lead his church, including Strang. As a recent convert, Strang did not yet possess the name recognition among rank-and-file Mormons[note b] that was enjoyed by Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon, two of the other contenders for leadership. Hence, Strang faced an uphill battle in his quest to be recognized as the heir to Smith's prophetic mantle.
To advance his cause, Strang asserted that unlike Rigdon and Young, he had physical proof of his prophetic calling. Strang produced a document, purportedly authored by Smith and mailed one week before his murder, prophesying his impending demise and naming Strang as his successor. The wording of the letter is somewhat ambiguous; while some interpreted it as appointing Strang solely to the presidency of the newly created Voree Stake, Strangites insist that it appoints him to Smith's prophetic office.
In his tract "The Diamond", Strang relates this version of events:
"This letter was received at Burlington by regular course of mail, coming through the distributing office at Chicago, and bears the Nauvoo postmark of June 19, the day following its date. It arrived at Burlington July 9, and was immediately taken from the office by C. P. Barnes, Esq., a distinguished lawyer at that place, who, in consequence of the rumors of persecution and civil war against the Mormons, and a general anxiety to hear the latest news, immediately carried it to Mr. Strang, with the request to be informed of any news of public interest which it might contain. It therefore became public the same evening."
Strang offered the following alleged witnesses in Nauvoo to corroborate his story:
"Mrs. Emma Smith recollects well of her husband receiving a letter from Mr. Strang, and holding a council on the subject, and names Hyrum Smith, Willard Richards and John P. Greene as present at that council, and also that a letter was sent to Mr. Strang in answer, but of the import of the answer she was not informed."
Next, Strang accused the members of the Quorum of the Twelve of conspiring together to suppress evidence of his appointment to the prophetic office–and even the possibility of murder:
“Immediately after the martyrdom of Joseph, John Taylor, Willard Richards and William W. Phelps took a kind of temporary direction of the affairs of the church, instructing the saints to wait patiently the hand of the Lord; assuring them that he had not left them without a shepherd, and that all things would be made known in due season. To every question of the saints, Who is the prophet? replies were made, in substance, that the saints would know in due season, but that nothing could be done until the Twelve got home, because the appointment of a prophet and the directions for salvation of the church from the perils they were in, was contained in sealed packages directed to them. Orson Hyde and others of the Twelve, who were then in the east, stated in public congregations in New York, Philadelphia and other cities, that Willard Richards had written to them that the appointment of a prophet was left with him, under seal, to be opened on the return of the Twelve. This assertion was so often made that the whole church were daily expecting to hear a new prophet proclaimed. On the 8th day of August, 1844, when Sidney Rigdon endeavored to obtain authority to lead the church, John P. Green, marshal of the city of Nauvoo, told them, 'They need not trouble themselves about it, for Joseph had appointed one James J. Strang, who lived up north, to stand in his stead.' The sudden death of John P. Green immediately after this declaration (under very extraordinary circumstances) left Willard Richards and John Taylor sole repositors of all documents on this subject, except this letter." After the return of the Twelve, the alleged promise of the "sealed packages" naming Smith's successor appears to have been dropped.
Alleged corroboration in postal records
When Strang's supporters attempted to use local postal records to prove that Smith had mailed the letter, they found that portion of the files could not be found. However, the records remained intact in the Chicago and Burlington post offices, showing that the letter was indeed mailed from Smith to Strang. Although Brigham Young quickly denounced Strang's missive as a "wicked forgery," this did not stop two of his associates in the Quorum of Twelve from defecting to Strang,[note c] together with William Marks (Nauvoo Stake president), members of Smith's family (including his sisters, mother and widow). Later, most of these would renounce Strang and join the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, led by Smith's son, Joseph Smith III.
Strang also claimed to have received an angelic appointment at a time coincident with Smith's death, and, like Smith, claimed the ability to translate ancient documents on metal plates into modern English. This helped Strang continue to gain converts until his assassination at the hands of disgruntled followers twelve years later.
Questions of authenticity
Experts agree that the postmark on the letter is genuine.[note d] Strang's opponents challenged this during his lifetime by pointing to a tiny dot on the postmark, just before the "J" in "June"–one that they claimed should never have been there. Strang, however, produced several letters mailed from Nauvoo on June 19, all of which had this same dot. Here, said Strang, was proof that the postmark on his letter was indeed authentic.
Other critics, however, have denounced the letter as fraudulent, largely because the two sheets of paper used in creating it (making three pages for writing, and one page for the address and postmark) are from different stocks; analysis indicates that the handwriting on all three pages is the same. References to Strang's alleged appointment appear throughout the letter. One page one: "The faith which thou hast in the Shepherd, the stone of Israel [Joseph Smith], hath been repaid to thee a thousandfold, and thou shalt be like unto him; but the flock shall find rest with thee, and God shall reveal to thee his will concerning them". Page two continues: "[H]e [Strang] had faith in thee [Smith], the Shepherd and Stone of Israel, and to him shall the gathering of the people be". Page three: "Thy duty is made plain .... [I]f evil befall me, thou shalt lead the flock to pleasant pastures."
Some modern analysts have asserted that Smith's signature on the letter's third page is a forgery. One former Strangite insisted that Strang's law partner–the same "C. P. Barnes, Esq." mentioned by Strang in "The Diamond"–helped Strang fabricate this letter and the Voree plates, though no proof of this was ever produced.
One theory is that Strang did indeed receive a letter of some sort from Smith, in which a blank sheet of paper was used for the envelope. According to this theory, Strang discarded the contents of that letter and proceeded to author his "letter of appointment" using the blank outer sheet for the final page of its text. Such a maneuver would have assured Strang of an authentic postmark for his letter.
The "letter of appointment" is still accepted and defended by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite).
- Note a: ^ The James Jesse Strang Collection in the Beinecke Library is coded WA MSS 447. A complete description of this collection may be viewed at Strang Collection.
- Note b: ^ "Mormon," as used in this article, refers to adherents of the Latter Day Saint movement as a whole, and not just to its largest branch, the LDS Church. Its use here is only for convenience, not in any derogatory sense.
- Note c: ^ William Smith and John E. Page, two members of the Quorum of Twelve under Smith, joined Strang briefly but both had left his movement by 1847.
- Note d: ^ The postmark appears on the back side of one of the pages, where Strang's name and address were written. The completed letter was folded and mailed to Strang without using an envelope.
- Strang's own son, Charles Strang, took this position. See Smith, Heman, History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, vol. 3, chapter 2, pp. 52–53.
- Strang, James J. (1848): "The Diamond: Being the Law of Prophetic Succession", Voree, Wisconsin, pp. 3-4. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- Strang (1848), pg. 4.
- Strang, James (1854): The Prophetic Controversy: A Letter from James J. Strang to Mrs. Corey. St. James, Beaver Island, pp. 29–31. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- Letter of Brigham Young, 24 January 1846. Original at Beinecke Library, Yale University. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- Strang (1848), pp. 5–6.
- Jensen, Robin Scott (2005). Gleaning the Harvest: Strangite Missionary Work 1846–50. Provo, Utah, BYU Press, pg. 6, note 17. Retrieved on 2007-10-30.
- Strang, James J. (1854), Delivery%20of%20the%20Letter%20of%20Appointment. The Prophetic Controversy: A Letter from James Strang to Mrs. Corey, St. James, pp. 32–34.
- *Quinn, D. Michael (1994). The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, pg. 210. See also Eberstadt, Charles, “A Letter That Founded a Kingdom,” Autograph Collectors’ Journal (October, 1950): 3–8.
- Jensen, pg. 6, note 17.
- Nelson-Seawright, J. (27 October 2006). "The Prophet Jesse James". ByCommonConsent.com. Retrieved on 2007-10-28.