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. Read More


New Article: “Joseph Smith’s Kingdom of God: The Council of Fifty and the Mormon Challenge to Democratic Politics”

JS and 12In 2016, the LDS Church released, for the first time, the minutes kept in the Council of Fifty. Known as the “kingdom,” the council was created by Joseph Smith in his last few months as a new political order that would return God’s rule to earth. Though the council has been long-known, its minutes have always been deemed confidential and sequestered from researchers. Their publication, then, allowed scholars to reconstruct one of the most audacious moments in Mormon history.

I was fortunate enough to get an early copy of the published volume, which allowed me to write an essay for Religion and Politics that was timed with the book’s release. But then I also got to work on two new scholarly projects. The big project was a book manuscript on Nauvoo’s political history, which should be released early next year by W. W. Norton/Liveright, and directed at a general audience. (More details soon!) The other was an scholarly article that contextualized the council for the academic community.

I’m thrilled to share that the article was just appeared Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, a premier journal in religious history that is published by Oxford University Press and affiliated with the American Society of Church History. Here is the synopsis for the article:

This article contextualizes the origins and development of Joseph Smith’s secretive Council of Fifty, a clandestine assembly whose minutes were sequestered from public access since their creation in 1844 and were only made available in September 2016. Organized by Smith, the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only months before his death at the hands of a mob in June 1844, the council was destined to introduce a new form of world governance. Colloquially named the “Council of Fifty,” it blended democratic principles with theocratic rule. More than a significant moment in the development of America’s largest home-grown religion, however, Joseph Smith’s controversial organization and the ideals it represented hint at broader anxieties over the nation’s cultural disunity and democratic excesses in the wake of disestablishment. While many embraced the democratization of religious authority, the Mormons and some of their contemporaries countered that it only introduced cultural and political chaos. Examining how groups such as the Mormons grappled with these implications—through orchestrated electoral participation, appeals to higher laws, and revisions to democratized authoritative structures—sheds light on this dynamic challenge of political self-rule during America’s antebellum period.

Put simply, this article was a way for me to make the dense academic arguments that my larger book mostly sets aside.

If you have institutional access, you can download the article at this link.

Constructing the Mormon Williamsburg

esplinNauvoo is constantly on my mind. Has been for a while, actually. Before starting The Kingdom of Nauvoo: A Story of Mormon Politics, Plural Marriage, and Power in Nineteenth-Century America—which I’m pleased to share is moving along in the line-editing stage right now, with an early-2020 release date—I was a BYU student participating in their “Semester at Nauvoo” program. For four months I got to live fifty yards from the Nauvoo Temple, where I could learn about the city’s history while walking its streets, touring its homes, and enjoying its gorgeous sunsets. From then on, Nauvoo has always claimed a piece of my soul, which is partly why I jumped at the opportunity to write about it. Read More

The Nauvoo Origins of the Book of Abraham

JSP AbrahamYesterday, the Joseph Smith Papers Project released their newest volume: Revelations and Translations, Volume Four: The Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Brian Hauglid and Robin Jensen. The book is another hallmark for the project, as its deep research and exhaustive contextualization will add much to an already popular topic. There is material for scholars interested in all sorts of questions: what did Joseph Smith mean by “translation”? How were the Egyptian documents related to the Book of Abraham project? What do these texts tell us about modern definitions of “scripture” in America? And for those most dedicated to either proving or dismissing Mormonism’s truth claims, there will always be questions concerning historicity. Read More

Fighting in Congress, Then and Now

FreemanThe confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh have reaffirmed something that has become standard today: America’s congressional system, included the senate, is a very partisan space. While the vote is expected to follow strict party lines, both sides have lobbied insults and accusations at one another, party leaders have used shady mechanisms to get their way, and opponents have declared the moral depravity of the other. But at least they haven’t started to throw swings at one another.

(Yet, anyway; if they ever do, then perhaps this is the realm where Jeff Flake’s training might actually come in handy.)  Read More

Black Voices and Black Rights in Black Baltimore

BirthrightAmong the many casualties in the recent push to remove confederate monuments was Roger Taney. Taney was the Supreme Court justice who authored one of the most nefarious rulings in American history, the 1857 majority opinion in Dred Scott vs. Sanford that declared African Americans as non-citizens devoid of any rights. Despite his national reputation, Taney was a beloved (by some) son of Baltimore, and his statue sat prominently in Mount Vernon Place since 1887. In the midst of the fervid discussion concerning how America commemorates its racial past, city officials had the statue removed and placed in storage in August, 2017. Taney played a significant role in Baltimore, but it was not one that had to be commemorated.

Taney plays a crucial, if indirect, role in Martha S. Jones’s new book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Focusing on Baltimore between the 1820s and the Civil War, Jones argues that “black Americans can serve as our guides through a history of race and rights” (9). That is, rather than just focusing on race and rights as a touchstone topic—which historians have increasingly done—we must also incorporate black voices into this analysis. Birthright Citizens is a model for how to incorporate more characters into our historical narratives. Read More

Approaching a Decolonized Zion

Decolonizing MormonismThere are many books that influenced my development as a young Mormon academic, but few were as significant as Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. A collection of essays spanning several decades, the volume was Nibley at his finest: cultural gadfly, materialist critic, and armchair historian. Even as I might have grown a bit disillusioned with his historical chops—it turns out Brigham Young wasn’t the intellectual and individualistic iconoclast Nibley promised!—several fundamental lessons from the book still shape me today: an abhorrence toward the gross accumulation of wealth, a love for intellectual inquiries, and, most importantly, a belief that one could still be a Mormon while simultaneously critiquing the faith’s mainstream culture.

Also, the book made me a Democrat, so there’s that. Read More