An American King

The Kingdom of St. James. By Milo M. Qualfe. (Yale University Press, New York City, $4).

AS STUDENTS of American history are aware, during the 20’s and 30’s of the nineteenth century a great wave of religious excitement swept over Western New York and the Ohio Valley. Under the influence of the endemic mania then prevailing, men and women in large numbers and over a wide area were eager to believe anything sufficiently preposterous to feed their craving for the miraculous, and it would seem that enough “prophets” and “messiahs” popped up within a generation to supply the human race during the rest of its sojourn on the planet. A work dealing exhaustively with the many “revelations” of the era might be valuable, but it would be saddening. Those who are not familiar with the characteristic doings of the period, and want to know, may read Howell’s “The Leatherwood God,” multiply the impression gained therefrom by a thousand, and let it go at that. Only one great and successful religion has grown out of the pitiful mess, and that one seems definitely to have shed its scandals and become respectable.

In certain respects no episode growing out of the popular psychosis of that time and country is at once no ridiculous and pathetic as that for which one James J. Strang was responsible. The story has often been told in one way or another, generally with a sensational emphasis; but not until now has it received comprehensive and schoolarly treatment. Milo M. Qualfe is no sensationalist and it is clear that he has spent much time and spared no pains in getting at the original sources.

James J. Strang was born in Cayuga County, N. Y., in 1813. In the early days of Mormonism he became a convert, and at the time of Joseph Smith’s assassination was one of the prophet’s right-hand men. According to his own contention, Smith expressed the wish that Strang should succeed him as a leader of the Mormons, and Mr. Qualfe quotes a letter alleged by Strang to have been written by Smith shortly before his death in which this wish was expressed. However, the Brighamites triumphed at Nauvoo, and there was nothing for Strang to do but to set up in the revelation business for himself. Under the alleged direction of Jehovah, Strang founded a colony called Voree near Burlington, Wis. There the Lord’s anointed, not to be outdone as a prophet even by Joseph, “discovered” some more plates which the Lord had written thousands of years ago and buried under an oak tree. But it soon developed that Jehovah had been mistaken in his geography; and indeed do we not all make mistakes? Save for the “discover” of the plates, which Strang alone could read, the Voree colony was, in profane parlance, a complete flop. Thereupon Strang was directed by revelation to found another colony on the Beaver Islands in Lake Michigan. He did so; and so successful was the undertaking for several years, that Strang decided he was divinely appointed to be King of the World. Surrounded by the recently created “nobility” of his realm and wearing a scarlet robe, he was anointed and crowned, while some 400 of the “common people” of his realm gaped in awe. He was assassinated by gentiles, and his following was forcibly deported by the unregenerate of that region. Lacking a prophet to lead them, the Strangites disbanded. Some few, it is said, are faithful even unto this day.

Mr. Qualfe’s study of Strang and his “kingdom” is a very desirable item for students and collectors of Americana — and for serious students of human nature.

AFRICA VIEW. By Julian Huxley. (Harper & Bros., New York City, $5.)

This volume is the result of 16 weeks of travel in the four East African territories now under British rule, and so, perhaps, is to be classified as a travel book; but it differs very greatly in purpose, mood and manner from the usual thing in books of travel. In 1929 Julian Huxley was commissioned by the Colonial Office Advisory Committee on National Education to make a survey of the schools in Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, with a view to advising the committee on certain aspects of native education. Here he reports the results of his survey; but being both a scientist and a philosopher, his report is of necessity concerned with far more than the native schools, for he takes into consideration the many influences that bear upon educational problems in that vast territory, with the result that the interest of the study ranges from geology to biology, social anthropology, economics, social and political theory. But the author employs his erudition neither for display nor in such a manner as to appeal only to experts; he uses it only as a means of appreciating and understanding the human problems involved, and he presents it with masterly simplicity and clarity. Often in reading travel books one feels that the author must have missed a great deal that would be of vital interest to the reader. Far from feeling so in reading Huxley’s “Africa View,” one constantly wonders that any man could have been understandingly aware of so much in so long a journey made in so brief a time. It is a most unassuming books, written in the easy, off-hand manner of a master of his subject, who is interested only in what he is saying and not at all eager to impress his readers. Not only in the wealth of knowledge that it presents, but in its unobtrusive wisdom “Africa View” is truly an extraordinary book.