Jane Manning James, and the Narratives of Mormon/Religious/American History

JMJAmong the small number of African Americans who converted to the Mormon faith during the nineteenth century, Jane Manning James is perhaps the best known. Born free to a woman who had been born enslaved, Jane’s life exhibited many of the complexities associated with racial discrimination during the era. She joined the LDS church in Connecticut, migrated–mostly by foot–to Nauvoo, lived in Joseph Smith’s home as a housekeeper, and was part of the vanguard company that entered Utah in 1847. She did not die until 1908, which granted her enough time to leave several reminiscences of her unlikely life. By all accounts, her story is a hallmark of dogged faith and preservation.

Starting a couple decades ago, she began cropping up in many popular places, like the 2005 movie about Joseph Smith that played in LDS visitors centers, often in service of highlighting the founding prophet’s “progressive” racial views, given her insistance that she was treated like family in Nauvoo. And unlike Elijah Able, another early black convert, the fact she was a woman allowed story-tellers to subtly leave out the implications of the priesthood restriction, though her poignant appeals for temple blessings also became a common feature of her contemporary image. In short, Jane Manning James has become part of the modern Mormon psyche, even if she is typically found on the peripheries of traditional narratives, rarely challenging their typical themes and lessons.

But what if we reorient the Mormon story so that it revolves around Jane, rather than she around it? That is one of the primary purposes of Quincy Newell’s new biography, Your Sister in the Gospel: the Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon, just published by Oxford University Press. Compact, elegantly written, and persuasively argued, Newell’s telling, more than merely narrating Jane’s life, doesn’t shy away from asking broader questions. Why, Newell asks, doesn’t Jane appear in accounts of religion and race in the American past? How, she implores, do we draw from fragmentary and rare sources to reconstruct the lives of the marginalized and oppressed, and in so doing reframe broader movements? What, in the end, does Jane’s story tell us about Mormonism, religion, and the historical craft?

Let me highlight one example, using a common narrative found within Mormon historiography. Starting in 1877, with the completion of the St. George Temple, and continuing through the 1884 completion of the Logan Temple, the 1887 completion of the Manti Temple, and the 1893 completion of the Salt Lake City Temple, historians have highlighted these structures as the grand accomplishments of pioneer Utah, the culmination of their wilderness wandering and establishment of their permanent presence. The saints were in Utah to stay, and their sacrifice had resulted in immense spiritual blessings. But what if we view these decades from Jane’s perspective? The completion of these temples, rather than providing her eternal rewards to compensate for her labor, instead solidified her subservient status: it was determined that she could not enter them beyond doing vicarious baptisms, and her continued pleadings to receive salvific ordinances forced church leaders to formalize their racial policies. The climax of this struggle came when church leaders, in what Newell calls “an unsatisfactory compromise” for both sides, allowed Jane to be “attached”–not “sealed”–as a “servitor” to Joseph Smith. Rather than positive milestones, the majestic temples represented new roadblocks to inclusion.

There are other episodes that highlight this reorientation. Jane’s trek from Connecticut to Nauvoo, for instance, took two months rather than the two weeks experienced by the white converts in her group. Why? Because she, due to her race, did not have access to the same forms of transportation, nor could she travel as easily due to states like Ohio requiring freedom papers. And once she arrived in Nauvoo, finding work proved more difficult than other immigrants, again because of the legal requirement to provide documentation proving her status. Or, decades later in Utah, when most Mormons remained “neutral” regarding the Civil War–given they saw the conflict as a just reward for a wicked nation–Jane likely held different opinions, given the war’s attempt to eradicate slavery. Her race followed her everywhere she went, and framed how she viewed the world around her.

JMJ photoAnd that path was littered with historical blind spots, so much so that to call Jane’s textual record “fragmentary” would be an insult to fragments. A sporadic document here or there, a glancing reference in a diary, a spare note in the Relief Society minutes–these are the pieces from which Newell was forced to construct a puzzle. She admits to this, repeatedly, often emphasizing the limits to knowing any concrete facts about her subject. As a demonstration of her caution, Newell even calls into question a photograph commonly identified as Jane, saying we can only assume it is her due to contextual evidence.[1] In many ways, Newell is creating a photograph herself, only from a negative: building the environment that surrounded Jane so that we might catch a glimpse of Jane’s own figure, perhaps only in outline form. For instance, while we don’t have any insight into the birth of Jane’s first child, Newell draws from the life of Harriet Jacobs, who did leave an account of a similar situation that required calculated maneuvering and sophisticated social politics. As a result of this and other examples, readers of Mormon history will be exposed to a number of lessons concerning the historical craft.

As a professor, I was immediately drawn to another strength of the book: it is slim, fast-paced, and filled with broader contextual lessons. In other words, it is perfect for the classroom. I strongly believe students in my American Religious History course would love to be introduced to Jane Manning James through this very readable text.

But students are only one of the possible groups of audience. Scholars of American religion, practitioners of African American history, and readers of all-things-Mormon will find lots of stimulating answers and provocative questions in this volume. Jane deserves nothing less.

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Also make sure to check out the roundtable on the book currently taking place at Juvenile Instructor, which currently includes contributions from Joey Stuart and Janiece Johnson. And you can find a Q&A I did with Quincy Newell for Dialogue here.

[1] Given my forthcoming book identifies this photograph as Jane Manning James without any qualifiers, I’d like to personally thank Newell FOR MAKING ME NOW FEEL LIKE A LAZY HISTORIAN.

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