James Strang was a recent convert to the church who claimed to be the successor of Joseph after the martyrdom. Strang also claimed to have discovered ancient metal plates, What do we know about this man and his claims?
This is the twenty-sixth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. This week we feature Daniel C. Peterson, President of the Interpreter Foundation and Executive Producer of Witnesses. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 26: James Strang’s Witnesses
David Whitmer: I heard the voice of the angel just as stated in said book, and the engravings on the plates were shown to us, and we were commanded to bear record of them.
Jacob Whitmer’s son: My father, Jacob Whitmer, was always faithful and true to his testimony to the Book of Mormon, and confirmed it on his death bed.
Jacob Whitmer: I now say I handled those plates. There was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them, and they were shown unto me by a supernatural power.
Camry Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camry Bagley Fox, and we are joined today by Daniel Peterson, president of the Interpreter Foundation and executive producer of the Witnesses project. Thanks for being here.
Daniel Peterson: It’s good to be here.
CBF: So, talk to me about James Jesse Strang. He had witnesses of his plates, so why don’t we credit those the same way that we credit Joseph Smith’s witnesses?
DP: James Jesse Strang claimed to be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith. He was a relatively recent convert, but he had a letter, purportedly from Joseph, appointing him his successor. And I think, in order to establish his credentials in a way—I state up front I don’t believe him; I don’t believe the letter was authentic—but in order to establish his credentials, I think he felt that he needed to find plates, duplicate the story of Joseph Smith, so he does. He has witnesses to his plates.
This is really interesting. Some people have said to me, ‘Well, if you credit the Book of Mormon witnesses, why not his?’ Well, there are several reasons why I see them as very, very different. First of all, the witnesses say, ‘We saw him dig up the plates.’ I have no doubt that they did. I think he really had plates. But one of the differences is that you later have testimony from at least one of these witnesses who says, ‘I helped him MAKE those plates,’ and he describes a little bit how he did. And there’s nothing miraculous in the story.
DP cont’d: I mean Joseph Smith—this is one of the reasons why I think the different kinds of witnesses of the Book of Mormon are so important. With the eight witnesses, OK, you can dismiss that as saying, ‘Well, Joseph somehow got this object, metal plates, showed it to a bunch of yokels and, you know, and they fell for it.’ But you CAN’T make that work for the three witnesses because they have a totally different experience. It’s spectacular—it’s George Lucas Industrial Light and Magic kind of stuff.
The voice of God, light, the angel, all these different artifacts that are displayed around them. A table appears in front of them, out of nowhere, seemingly—that’s pretty spectacular stuff.
James Strang can’t do that. He’s trying to duplicate the experience of the witnesses, but Joseph Smith couldn’t have done that. I mean, try doing that in the early 19th century in the woods, not in a studio in the 21st century. Those kinds of visual effects just aren’t available. You can’t explain it away that way. James Jesse Strang’s, I think you can. You could say, ‘Well yeah, he had some plates,’ and by the way, there aren’t very many of them, and they’re really small, and they’re very simple. So, not at all the same kind of ambitious production that the Book of Mormon plates are, it seems to me.
CBF: So, James was claiming that God had sent him the plates? Or just that he had found plates?
DP: That he’d been directed to them, I think. And that he went out and dug them up. But, you know, he knows where they are. He goes out and brings a crowd of witnesses with him to watch him dig up the plates. Nobody says they heard the voice of God, nobody says there was an angel present. He dug up the plates, they saw the plates.
DP cont’d: They certify that he had the plates. That’s it.
I’m willing to credit all of that, without seeing it commit me to believing the prophetic claims of James Jesse Strang. So, it seems to me they’re quite different things. Yes, he had witnesses because I think he was modeling himself on the Joseph Smith experience and the Joseph Smith witnesses. But it does not constitute the kind of evidence that the three and the eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon do, or let alone the informal or unofficial witnesses who, collectively, are just a very different kind of thing.
CBF: Thank you.