Sponsored by BYU Studies—Quincy Newell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College and the author of Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon (Oxford, 2019).
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about your academic background and introduce Your Sister in the Gospel: The Life of Jane Manning James, a Nineteenth-Century Black Mormon?
Thank you so much for having me! I was an American Studies major in college and then went to grad school in Religious Studies, focusing on religion in the American West. I’ve always been really interested in the experiences of religious and racial/ethnic minorities, and the West is a great place to examine the how encounters between different religious and racial groups worked. That’s how I came to the study of Mormonism.
Your Sister in the Gospel is the biography of Jane Elizabeth Manning James, an African American woman who grew up in Connecticut in the early 19th century and converted to Mormonism in the early 1840s. She and her family moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the church was then based, and Jane worked for the founder Joseph Smith as a servant. After he was killed in 1844, she went to work for Brigham Young, who became the next leader of the church.
Jane married another black convert, Isaac James, and they moved to the Salt Lake Valley with the church. They were in one of the first companies to arrive in the Valley in 1847.
Jane remained a faithful Latter-day Saint for the rest of her life, and died in 1908. In addition to telling the story of Jane’s life, I also reproduce five key texts in an appendix to the book: her two patriarchal blessings and three versions of her life story.
I tried really hard in the book to write in a way that spoke to a broad audience, not just other specialists in Mormon Studies. Some of the stuff I write is aimed at my colleagues in the academy; this, I wrote for my first-year students at the University of Wyoming, for my family members, for my friends, for the moms of my LDS colleagues.
My hope is that it will find a wide readership outside academic circles, because I think Jane’s story is just so fascinating.
Your book opens with a captivating sentence: “Jane Elizabeth Manning James has haunted me for more than a decade.” What do you mean?
I started working on a project about nineteenth-century African American and Native American Mormons in 2005, and one of the first sources that captured my attention was Jane James’s short autobiography, which she dictated sometime between 1902 and her death in 1908.
But the more I worked on that project, the more I felt like I kept getting drawn back to Jane’s story—she seemed to just keep popping up.
And she was fascinating—each detail was tantalizing, tempting me to look for more.
The project I was working on couldn’t focus on her, but my file of evidence about her seemed to grow larger every time I sat down to work, so finally I decided to write the biography.
I joke that I made a deal with Jane: I would write her biography if she would then leave me alone. We’ll see if she holds up her end of the bargain!
Why do you refer to Jane by her first name throughout the book?
I thought about this decision a lot, because the politics of naming are so fraught—especially when we’re talking about African Americans and women, who have not always had much power to name themselves.
Jane James used at least three surnames during the course of her life: her birth name, Manning; her first married name, James; her second married name, Perkins; and then she returned to using “James” after her second marriage dissolved.
From a strictly logistical point of view, that makes it really difficult to refer to her by last name with both clarity and accuracy, especially because many of the sources I used were produced when she was using one surname but concerned a time in her life when she used another surname.
For African American people, surnames were often a symbol of “self-ownership,” but it’s also important to recognize that all of the surnames Jane used—or at least, all of the surnames we know she used—came from the men in her life, and were in some ways a mark of their claim on her.
The only name she used consistently throughout her life was Jane, so ultimately, that’s the name I decided to use throughout the book as well.
Educated speculation plays a significant role in your narrative. How did you decide upon this style for the book and to what degree was it made necessary by limited source material?
I came at this project from a background in writing about Native American and African American history, looking at time periods for which the sources are mostly written by white Europeans or Americans. I tend to write books that I’ve come to call “needle in a haystack” projects—books for which the evidence is one sentence here, a couple words there, an intriguing image someplace else.
Historian Jon Sensbach once referred to this as “documentary shrapnel,” which feels about right to me. So the challenge in projects like these is always figuring out how the different pieces fit together, where the gaps are, and how to use what we know to fill in those gaps.
Educated speculation, in one form or another, is usually the gap-filling material.
I try to be very clear about what claims I can make based on actual evidence pertaining to Jane’s life and what I can suggest based on what we know about the lives and experiences of other people at the time who shared some salient characteristic with Jane—whether that’s African Americans, women, Mormons, domestic servants, or some other group.
This is a political and ethical choice, at heart: some people have argued that if we don’t have the evidence, we cannot or should not tell the story—it’s irresponsible to try to fill in those gaps using speculation, or imagination. I disagree, though I take the caution in that position to heart: I think we must tell those stories, because that’s how we acknowledge the full humanity of the people who lived them. If we don’t, then we allow the colonial project to succeed in fully erasing those stories and, ultimately, that humanity.
How was Jane received in Nauvoo? Did it differ from the way she was treated in the last decades of her life in Salt Lake City?
Jane said in her autobiography that when she and her family got to Nauvoo, they “went through all kinds of hardship, trial, and rebuff,” at least until they got to the Smiths’ home.
It’s hard to know what she meant by this—were the residents of Nauvoo unwelcoming, or worse?
It might have been because they were black, at least in part—but it might also have been because they looked poor, and with hundreds of immigrants arriving in Nauvoo every day, already—established residents might not have been thrilled about the idea of having to take in even more people who might not have the resources to provide for themselves.
Once Jane and her family got to Joseph Smith’s house, she said, things changed—it’s clear that she felt deeply and fully welcomed by Emma and Joseph Smith. I think that’s why she spent so much time on Nauvoo in her autobiography. She was over eighty years old by the time she dictated it, but almost half of her account concerned her time in the Smiths’ household, which lasted about eight months.
In Salt Lake City, near the end of her life, Jane was an integral part of the community. I’m not sure she was treated any more or less as an equal than she was in Nauvoo, but she was definitely well-known to other Latter-day Saints, including those in power. She made a living by doing laundry, but she also made time to attend worship services and women’s meetings—she shows up in the LDS periodical the Woman’s Exponent in the minutes of both Relief Society and Retrenchment Society meetings. (Both organizations were religiously-based women’s groups.)
She was respected because she was one of the last remaining people who had known Joseph Smith personally, and she emphasized that aspect of her biography.
In print—meeting minutes, newspaper profiles, etc.—she’s frequently referred to as “Sister Jane James” or sometimes “Aunt Jane James.” These titles reflect her status in the community—she’s one of us, they seem to be saying—but at the same time, I think referring to her as “Aunt” (or “Auntie,” as one journalist did) echoes the use of this title for black “mammies” and has the effect of holding her at arm’s length.
What was the last thing Joseph Smith ever said to Jane?
According to Jane, Joseph Smith’s last words to her were in the context of a conversation about whether she and her sister Angeline should go to Burlington, Iowa, to look for work. Burlington was just across the Mississippi River and a little bit north of Nauvoo.
Jane recalled in her autobiography that Smith “said yes go and be good girls, and remember your profession of faith in the Everlasting Gospel, and the Lord will bless you.”
Smith was killed while Jane and Angeline were in Burlington, or at least that’s how Jane remembered it.
This memory seems to have been particularly poignant for Jane. I’ve suggested that she might have interpreted Smith’s words as a revelation especially for her. It was not uncommon for Smith’s followers to ask him for personal guidance in the form of revelations or “commandments.” Some of these revelations were later canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants, but not all of them were.
Tell us the story of when Jane handled one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones.
I’ll step aside and let Jane tell that story. Here’s what she said in her autobiography:
I had to pass through Mother Smith’s [Lucy Mack Smith’s] room to get to mine, she would often stop me and talk to me, she told me all Brother Joseph’s troubles, and what he had suffered in publishing the Book of Mormon.
One morning I met Brother Joseph coming out of his Mother’s room he said good morning and shook hands with me. I went in to his Mother’s room she said good morning, bring me that bundle from my bureau and sit down here.
I did as she told me, she placed the bundle in my hands and said, handle this and then put in the top drawer of my … bureau and lock it up.
After I had done it she said sit down.
Do you remember that I told you about the Urim and Thummim when I told you about the Book of Mormon?
I answered, yes Ma’am, she then told me I had just handled it. You are not permitted to see it, but you have been permitted to handle it. You will live long after I am dead and gone. And you can tell the Latter-day Saints, that you was permitted to handle the Urim and Thummim.
In 1899, Elvira Stevens Barney published an account of a conversation that she had with Jane in which Jane provided some additional details about the object she had handled.
Jane said Lucy Mack Smith explained “that it was the instrument, called the Urim and Thummim, that Joseph [Smith] talked through….The instrument was as near as I can describe it, which I handled, was made of some kind of metal, because it was so very heavy. It was firmly attached, one piece upon another. One piece seemed to be about the size of my wrist,” which Barney described in an aside as “good size and not perfectly round.” (I wonder how she would describe my wrists!) Jane went on, “The other piece was not so large. These were set upright in a circular base.”
I point out in the book that Joseph Smith himself said he had returned the Urim and Thummim to a divine messenger after finishing the Book of Mormon, so although Jane’s description of the object she handled sounds a lot like the instrument Smith said he used for the translation project, what she probably held was one of Smith’s more “ordinary” seer stones.
That she and others referred to it as the Urim and Thummim is not surprising—Smith and his associates apparently generalized the term “Urim and Thummim” to refer to seer stones more broadly.
Explain what you mean when you write of Jane’s patriarchal blessing, “Jane was trapped: she could not get a blessing without receiving a curse.”
Jane received a patriarchal blessing from Hyrum Smith in 1844. (She also received a patriarchal blessing from Patriarch John Smith in 1889. I’m grateful to Jane’s descendant Louis Duffy for sharing both blessings with me and giving his permission to publish them in the book’s appendix.)
In that 1844 blessing, Hyrum Smith identified Jane’s lineage as that “of Canaan, the Son of Ham.” Most Latter-day Saints’ patriarchal blessings identified them as descendants of the tribe of Ephraim, so placing Jane in the lineage of Canaan is unusual but not hugely surprising: plenty of white American and European folklore at the time identified black people as the descendants of Cain and Canaan and therefore inheriting the curses placed on those two biblical figures as well.
A few sentences after identifying Jane as a descendant of Canaan, Hyrum Smith told her that “he that changeth times and seasons and placed a mark upon your forehead can take it off and stamp upon you his own Image.” So, within a couple breaths, Smith invoked the key Bible stories white Christians used to justify white supremacy. Max Perry Mueller has pointed out that in its conclusion, this blessing also quoted God’s warning to Cain in LDS scripture, warning Jane that “if thou doest not well sin lieth at the door.”
So even in her patriarchal blessing, Jane was explicitly reminded that she inherited the curses of Cain and Canaan.
What kinds of efforts did Jane make to receive her temple blessings and what were the final results?
Wow—what kinds of efforts did she not make? Jane performed baptisms for the dead on at least three occasions, in the Endowment House, the Logan Temple, and the Salt Lake City Temple. But toward the end of her life, Jane was deeply concerned with getting permission to receive her endowment and be sealed in the temple, rituals that Latter-day Saints believed were crucial to reaching the highest degrees of glory after death. (That belief has not changed in any substantial way.)
Jane wanted to be sealed to Joseph Smith as a child; she asked also to be sealed to a husband in marriage. (That husband’s identity varied a bit. Sometimes it was Isaac James; on at least one occasion, she requested a marital sealing to Q. Walker Lewis, one of the few African American men who we know held the LDS priesthood.)
Jane sent letters to church leaders; she also asked powerful women like Zina Young to write letters on her behalf. She went to talk with church leaders about these requests in person, as well.
I think she also cultivated her reputation as an upstanding Latter-day Saint who deserved temple ceremonies, regardless of her racial identity. She was a faithful Latter-day Saint, a mother, someone who fulfilled all the requirements of LDS women. She shaped her public image as someone who had known Joseph Smith, someone who Joseph Smith treated like his own child.
In some ways, I think she used her autobiography to tell church leaders, “Joseph Smith would have let me into the temple. Who are you to keep me out?”
During her lifetime, Jane didn’t get what she was after. Instead, the result of her persistent efforts was that the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles decided to create a ceremony just for her, that sealed her to Joseph Smith as a servant. The ceremony was performed in the Salt Lake Temple, with Zina Young standing as proxy for Jane (even though Jane was alive and well, and living only a few blocks away).
This ceremony is both horrifying and a remarkable instance of religious creativity. Church leaders couldn’t (I think) wrap their heads around the idea of giving Joseph Smith a black daughter in eternity, although they were fine sealing scores of white Latter-day Saints to him as children. So instead, they drew on the resources they had—in this case, my guess is that they looked at D&C 132, the line about “ministering servants,” and used that to create a new way to seal people to one another.
In any case, neither Jane nor the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were satisfied with this compromise. The Q12 discussed this ceremony in the same terms they applied to other sealing ceremonies, but they used the verb attach rather than seal, as would have been standard in other kinds of sealing ceremonies. Jane applied again later for sealings, indicating that this ritual did not meet her needs; and the ceremony was never (so far as we know) performed again, indicating that the Q12 didn’t find it a satisfying way of constructing eternal relationships.
I think it’s important to sit for a minute with this ritual innovation that was invented to protect a racist system.
But, before your readers rush out to submit Jane’s name for proxy sealing and endowment ceremonies, I’ll also note that Linda King Newell performed these rituals for Jane shortly after the 1978 revelation extending the priesthood to men of African descent (and, by corollary, opening the endowment and sealing rituals to women and men of African descent).
What are some common misconceptions about Jane? How did your understanding of Jane change in the course of writing this book?
Jane is pretty well known among a certain cadre of Latter-day Saints, and perhaps better known now in the wake of the 40th anniversary of the 1978 revelation canonized in the LDS Doctrine and Covenants as Declaration 2.
I think the version of her story that is most widely known, though, is a pretty simplified and often a fairly faith-promoting one. I doubt most folks know about the more complicated parts of her history, like the fact that she was an unmarried mother when she went to Nauvoo or that her husband divorced her and she had a brief second marriage late in life.
There’s also less awareness of how much she practiced spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and healing. That was an aspect of her religious experience that I wasn’t expecting either.
At women’s meetings in Salt Lake, Jane regularly spoke in tongues—not in a recognizable language spoken by another population somewhere on the planet, but in what Latter-day Saints at the time understood to be the “language of Adam” or sometimes the “language of God.” Sometimes another woman at the meeting would interpret the message, using the gift of interpretation; sometimes not.
I came to understand the Mormonism that Jane practiced around the turn of the twentieth century as something of a throwback, more like the Mormonism the church members practiced when she joined up in the 1840s.
The other aspect of her life that surprised me a bit was that she actually did pretty well for herself economically. When she died, she left an estate of over one thousand dollars, a tidy sum. That was a surprise to see in the probate records and made me re-think the assumptions I made about her economic life.
If you could go back in time and observe any moment in Jane’s life, what would you most want to witness?
There are so many! I think the biggest questions for me revolve around Joseph Smith’s offer to adopt Jane as a child.
Jane says at several points that Emma Smith conveyed to her Joseph Smith’s offer to adopt her as a child and that she declined.
That story undergirds her requests for sealings decades later in Utah—but we have no other evidence with which to corroborate Jane’s account. I think she’s telling the truth as she remembers it, but I wish I could see it happen to understand more deeply what was going on in that moment.
Selections from this interview were used in a Deseret News article featuring Newell’s biography of Jane Manning James.
This interview is sponsored by BYU Studies.